In honor of Howard Zinn, whose death is in the news, I’d like to publish a review of a book he could never have written. The book is The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson, a conservative ideologue with a charming prose style. I reviewed the book for LibraryThing by contrasting it with Howard Zinn’s best-known work.
Let me contrast Paul Johnson with another popular historian, Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States ). Both are good, entertaining writers, but Zinn is honest about his radical bias, while Johnson assumes a “god’s-eye” view of history that presumes to report “what really happened” without the biases that mere mortals are prone to. Of course, the bias is there anyway. Zinn is radically democratic and suspicious of all elites, whereas Johnson writes of a world well managed by a few superb individuals; the rest of the people are an abstraction he calls the “demos.” Johnson deserves credit for writing well and engagingly about a remarkable range of topics, from politics and war to art and popular culture. But he deserves censure especially for his apologetics for European imperialism. Throughout this thick book, every European or American military adventure in Asia, Africa, or the Americas is reported with modifiers like “had to,” “like it or not,” and “reluctantly.” Thus we read that Britain went to war in China “for altruistic as well as commercial reasons,” as if China was in need of a foreign power to peddle opium to its people and lob shells at its port cities. There is no doubt that most European officers really believed in the “civilizing mission” of imperialism, but it seems ridiculous for a latter-day historian to agree with them in this sly way. I recommend taking this book with a grain of salt — remembering that the slaves who manufactured table salt during this period had a history as well.
Since I wrote that, Johnson has churned out a lot more Tory literature, been humiliated by a sex scandal, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush.
Paul Johnson, the sanctimonious rakehell, is not to be confused with Paul E. Johnson, a superb American historian.
[I wrote more about Zinn here, but the WordPress app for the iPhone gobbled it all up. Apparently some genius programmed the app so the Save button sometimes mean Cancel. I'll revisit this if time permits. And I will not try to write any more posts on a phone.]
One of Birmingham’s best writers, Kyle Whitmire, is leaving the Birmingham Weekly where for several years he’s provided the most astute and most readable commentary on city and county affairs. (Hat tip to Wade Kwon.)
Rosalind Fournier’s profile of Whitmire at b-metro reveals how Kyle’s column got its name, which is “War on Dumb.” Seems that one day he spotted a bumper sticker:
“It said, ‘Let’s win the War on Hunger.’ I thought to myself, how exactly do you win a war on hunger? Do you bomb hunger’s cities? Do you burn its villages to the ground, and kill its women and children? Or, you could just feed people, because that’s what we’re really talking about.
“Not only that,” he continues, with what appears to be his natural state of contained agitation, “but don’t we lose every so-called ‘war’ we declare … on poverty, drugs, crime, terrorism?”
So he renamed the column [“War on Dumb”] with more than a trace of irony. “The name had two prongs,” he explains. “I got to make fun of the infusion of violence into our language, and I admitted to anyone paying attention … that if I declared a war on dumb, I was going to lose.”
Best of luck to Kyle in his next endeavor, and I’m glad that he’s planning to stay in Birmingham.
P.S. If I may be allowed to kvetch, the editorial folk at b-metro need to get their act together. The Whitmire profile was well put together, but the gremlins in the copy were distracting. For starters, take that bold subhed about Whitmire being “the only guy in town will to tell the truth about local politics.” Will to wha-?
Comrade Kevin mentioned (here) that the name Sylacauga (a city in Alabama) is often translated as “Buzzard Roost.” That reminded me of a historical tradition in Atlanta that the city occupies the site of “Indian towns” called Buzzard Roost and Standing Peachtree.
For now I’ll ignore Standing Peachtree and concentrate on Buzzard Roost.1
A historical marker near Atlanta spells the Muskogee (Creek Indian) name for Buzzard Roost as Sulacauga. That suggests a close tie between Atlanta’s Buzzard Roost and Alabama’s Sylacauga (pronounced “sil-la-caw-ga”).
And sure enough, a Creek-English dictionary derives the place name Sylacauga from the Creek sule-kake (sounds like “so-lée-gáh-kee”), “two buzzards sitting.” Continue reading →
As a boy I camped out a time or two at Lake Tobesofkee Recreation Area, a nice spot beside a reservoir near Macon, Georgia. The four-syllable name [to-bə-SAF-ki] is a corrupt form of something in the Muskogee (Creek Indian) language. Recently I’ve done some reading on what the original Muskogee name might have been.
(The Muskogee name applied to a creek, not to the lake. Lake Tobesofkee is one of a series of reservoirs created by damming Tobesofkee Creek in the 1960s.)
I’ve been thinking lately about the petty crimes we Americans have performed on place names that come from Indian languages. There are a ton of them, from Massachusetts to Seattle, and from Alabama to Wyoming.
Confronted with these mysterious names (which we white folks made even more mysterious by corrupt pronunciation), some historians and other writers have indulged in making up stories about where the names came from. Continue reading →
This is one of those Facebook memes: a list of 15 books that matter to me, written down in the order I thought of them, without reflection or editing. I scribbled it down last year, felt satisfied, and forgot to post it. So here it is for whatever it may be worth. Continue reading →
I’ve deliberately stayed away from blogging for more than a month now. I figured there was more than enough text being generated by others, and my own tiny cracks and witticisms were not really needed, not even by me.
It is easy to get angry and to rail. I have not been able to avoid doing so in conversations with friends, or in reaction to some sound bite or other. Then I feel a rich frustration with some of the things my friends and neighbors choose to get exercised about. We are so disappointed in Obama! We went to all that trouble of electing him, and we projected all our hopes onto him, and now there he sits, failing to fulfill all the fondest desires of our hearts. Oh, how dare he!
Well, I have now and then fallen into the trap of letting my spleen run away with me online. I’m determined not to let it happen again. That’s what the Delete key is for, after all. I’ve been thinking critical thoughts of one previous blog post in particular, and have been tempted to delete it. My statements there were too categorical and judgmental. Calling this a “casual” medium does not justify irresponsible writing, and I think mine has been irresponsible at moments.
So I’ve taken a holiday, and have deliberately kept silence about all the tempting political developments here in Birmingham, the U.S., and the world. Some of my views went into letters to politicians. None of them were blogged.
This week a neighbor helped me remember that there is no point in nursing anger. There are many beneficial ways to direct anger, but it’s flat wrong to culture it, like a mold or a germ weapon. Much less to stoke fear and anxiety at the same time.
So I’m refraining from hurling barbs at either of the candidates in today’s special mayoral election. I have nothing to say about health care, Afghanistan policy, control of the U.S. Senate, or whatever happens to be topping Google News at the moment. Hope that’s OK with everyone.