Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Crossover Post

Catching up with podcasts this week -- On the Media's Dec. 24 edition has Bob Garfield speaking with Lawrence Weschler on "the fiction of non-fiction". More accurately, about the blurring lines between fictional story telling and reportage. This was like listening to a pair of theoretical physicists parse quarks and other sub-atomic anti-matter. By the end, you aren't really clear what real is, yet somehow, it's OK.

I call this a crossover post because it meets the way I've presented my history class and in turn, one of the key principals of the We're History series. Weschler invokes Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinean literary legend, and his view that there are two universes: the universe of material reality and the universe of words. To get from A to B requires a narrative, and that story-telling ability is the heart of good journalism.

One of my prime philosophies I impart to students is there are three versions of the past: what happened, or simply, the past; the little "h" of history that got recorded and the big capital "H" History that someone composed. The universe of material reality and the past are one and the same. I add the extra step of recording, because living the past you saw that material reality but did you take the time to capture it and convert it into some analog of what occurred. The big-H History is pretty self-explanatory as I make the point to the students that just because somebody said it happened doesn't always mean that it actually did in the way it was described.

I'll probably add the twist of the conversion to words to my presentation, in part because of where Weschler took it next. He was poking at the difference between truth and Truth, and that everyone who reports ends up making changes and rearrangements of what was said, even if it is taken down word for word. Weschler finds nothing wrong with slight altering and cleaning up to reflect the perceived reality. Bob Garfield struggled mightily during the interview with this.

The quotation as a warrant for the journalist becomes the point. The gist of what was said and the voice in which it was expressed are part of the story, and simply quoting people verbatim does not provide an accurate sense of what it was like to be with that person and what they said really means. Sometimes a closer representation of what was said comes from the finding of the key thoughts within a five-minute passage rather than a transcript of the five-minute interview.

Weschler's money quote -- which I will warrant here:

"Quotes don't float in midair. Quotes result from scenes."

In history, we'd say what was missing was the context, or the zeitgeist. Weschler wants more depth, more voice from the individual writer, and he's not ashamed one bit to call good journalism good story telling.

Presidential rankings

This was a great example of when Kyle turns an OK topic into something really entertaining and informative. There had been a run in the national media of ranking of U.S. Presidents, and it got me thinking about the validity of them in the here and now. A little research found that over the short period of time we've decided as historians to "rank" the value of presidents and their administrations, some things have change but the time frame is historically pretty short.

This was about the time the Bowl Championship Series rankings were starting to warm up for the fall, and Kyle gave story it's twist: we are a ranking obsessed society.

Barak Obama -- the greatest or worst president ever -- of course, depends on who you ask.

Enjoy Presidental Rankings from back on Oct. 5, 2010.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Blast from the past

Less script and more commentary screed, I found the original We're History from Nov. 25, 2005. No audio for this, but here's what was written:

Edward Pessen, Jacksonian America – “Scandal mongering journalism, course public manners, the frenzied pursuit of things, the indifference to learning and unconcern with quality were only some of the characteristics of American civilization that bore the stamp of the common man”

“Perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help us win the war” Robert Dalleck, quoting FDR

Samuel Elliot Morrison wrote that US public opinion in 1940 forced FDR “to do good by stealth”

A nation without a past is a nation without a soul. No history, no traditions; no traditions, no absolutes; no absolutes, no morality, no responsibility. We rapidly devolve into classic nihilism.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “As an individual deprived of memory becomes disoriented and lost, not know where he has been or where he is going, so a nation denied a conception of its past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.”

History may not necessarily repeat itself exactly in the mode of the old Santayana saying, but it often has the feeling of Marx who said that history first happens as tragedy then repeats itself as farce.

Others will argue that history is not what you thought; it is what you can remember. All other history defeats itself.

This is the home of the unprecedented – the most overused phrase in our public discourse. Was it unprecedented when a group of conspirators led by Ramzi Yousef bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. No an anarchist packed horse drawn carriage with dynamite in the 1920s and set it off on Wall Street.

There is nothing new in the world, just differences of scale. Growth follows in progressive directions, mostly expansive. Consider that power went from human muscle to animal muscle to mechanical to chemical to nuclear. One notable opposite is calculation devices which have progressively shrunk from the size of a room to the size of a thumbnail with a progressive ability to execute.

There are absolute changes – women can vote – but the vast majority of what we acknowledge are relative changes.

History isn’t unique, people are. The belief that these times are so unique, so unprecedented feeds into something George Will deemed generational vanity.

It’s a self-absorbed, self-congratulatory generational uniqueness. Never before have we faced such challenges or overcome such hurdles.

This is one of those small bits of logic that destroy the argument – to acknowledge that the present has precedent is to acknowledge that there are constraints, recruiting trends. These are the immutable circumstances of the human condition: good and evil, right and wrong. There also contrasts: rich and poor, powerful and weak, ascendant and declining.

Society may remove some of the physical attributes of a problem – we can relieve starvation, and perhaps poverty – but can we ever remove the concept of poor, those that in comparison to others have less. For all the positive talk to the contrary, the predilection of society is to find differences, not similarities. Society will define new paradigms of poverty to suit the era. It strives for hierarchy, which becomes another constant.

The party slogan of 1984: He who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Congressional troubles

Back in November 2010, we sat down to discuss Charlie Rangle. While the media was not going to the good old unprecedented card, it did provide a chance to remind folks that virtually every presidential administration and congress of the 20th century has had some member of the executive or legislative branch brought up on charges and either disciplined by the body or the courts.

The irony of this taping was just a few days later, the verdict finally came back on former speaker of the house Tom Delay's Texas case. We debated re-cutting the episode -- it literally aired the day his verdict came in -- but we figured, you know, that's just going to give us another chance to revisit fates of speakers of the house.

Here's the direct link to Congressional Troubles from Nov. 24, 2010.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Catching up the archives

Merry Christmas from the guys at We're History.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going back in time to link up some of our fall 2010 audio with brief outlines.

The goal is to try and locate as many of the old audio files as possible, then do a numbering resort. The series dates back to November of 2005, and became a semi-regular part of the weekly Ozarks At Large in 2006. It was an outgrowth from the commentary I had done for the station since the late 1990s, because so many of the mini-rants were fitting into the same mode. (Well, for long-time followers, with the exception of my one-man crusade regarding postage stamps.)

What we can't locate in audio -- many were lost in a hard-drive incident -- we'll recreate with the old scripts, most of which I still have. Once I get into the studio with Kyle, we don't always follow the scripts exactly -- in fact, the days when Kyle takes me off the track are often some of the best.

Hope you enjoy catching up with our back catalog, and enjoy the new segments coming in 2011.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Direct links on recent audio

Thanks to Ty Denison, the director of social media at KUAF, we now have easier links for you to follow for some of the recent episodes.

For the Wikipedia story, jump here.

For the original over the air version of WikiLeaks, go here. And the web extra on that was here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

What's the photo?

Call it need to justify if you must, but I walked into the National Archives for three summer trips past the big statues on the north side of the original complex. I was quite inspired by the simple statement at the base -- STUDY THE PAST. When I finished my dissertation, I called back to National Archives and got a photo from -- well, duh, their archives -- that has been on my office wall ever since. It's a great symbol for the series.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

WikiLeaks extra

If you heard the WikiLeaks episode on KUAF on Dec. 8, 2010, there's more in the on-line extras here. If you want to hear the original aired version, use the Ozarks At Large page and search for Dec. 8, 2010, episode.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Wikipedia episode is on-line

If you want to understand even more about the premise of our series, check out the Dec. 20 episode of We're History: Wikipedia. Kyle and I go over how on-line sources aren't always as inclusive as you think, and how to avoid pitfalls.

Jump to KUAF's Ozarks At Large, and put in the Dec. 20, 2010, episode to search for the audio link.

Show notes to come later tonight.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Original Idea

Several years ago, after one too many superlative media stories (unprecedented something, historical high/low, unlike anything), Bill Smith decided it was time to put his history background to work pointing out that no matter how hard the current culture tried to fulfill the ancient Chinese proverb of living in extraordinary times, there was almost always a historical precedent.

Rampant "presentism" in the media stems from two sources, and neither one good for an educated electorate in a democracy: lack of knowledge of history and a desire to create sensational headlines.

Before media folks get too angry, take our quick We're History modern America quiz:

Name the deadliest killing spree in U.S. history: ______________

Was your answer Columbine, Colo.? You're wrong. Even the much maligned Wikipedia would save a headline writer from this error as that belongs to the Bath School Disaster in Michigan back in 1927 (for the gruesome details, jump here)

Trick question? OK, how about True/False: The Twin Tower attack on Sept. 11, 2001, was the first assault on the U.S. financial area in Manhattan.

Easy enough, false, as of course, the Towers themselves were hit in the 1995 truck bombing of Tower One in 1993. But was that the only answer? No. On Sept. 16, 1920, an anarchist loaded up a mule trailer with explosives and barrels of nails and metal shards, setting it off at noon on Wall Street, killing 38 and injuring hundreds.

The Unabomber is a unique product of the late 20th century, with his manifesto against the modern American world, yes? How about no -- because of course we had the Weathermen in the 1960s. Keep going -- try the 1919 series of mail bombs inspired by Luigi Galleani, almost two dozen, then the coordinated eight bombs -- once again, including NYC, on June 2, 1919.

Fox News got you down as sensational and product driven? Try the newspapers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, literally inventing sensationalism in the late 1800s.

Thus the heart of the series -- discovering the forgotten events of our past, sometimes, not so distant -- to provide a little perspective.

A U.S. Senator may have recently stood up in the State of the Union Address and called the sitting President of the United States a liar, but that's nothing compared to the caning performed on the floor of the U.S. capital. We could go on and on, but instead, how about just posting some of the past show outlines, MP3 and provide a place for background on the series.

Yeah, That Was a Long Time

After some fits and starts, the companion blog and Facebook page for the We're History segment of Ozarks At Large begins in earnest for 2011. Call it our New Year's Resolution.