• James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

    This is the best single-volume history of the Civil War — and the run-up to it — that I’ve read. It’s gracefully written, meticulous without being overburdened with minutiae, and scholarly.

    I’ve written before about the deep difficulty I have building a historical imagination to understand why Bostonians destroyed large chunks of their city in the 1950s and 1960s; despite having read a lot about it, I still can’t put myself in the heads of people who thought this was a good idea.

    This is all the more true for slavery, having now read through 900 pages of McPherson’s wonderful book. For instance, Southern ideology taught that slavery was preferable to the northern system of ‘wage slavery’; Northern factory workers lived degraded lives, they said, and at least the South had its agricultural gentility. This is all correct only if you place zero value on the lives of your slaves, because certainly the slaves weren’t living lives of genteel refinement. Like Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, the Southern system produced lives of sublime splendor for 2/3 of the population, in exchange for the utter destruction of the remaining third. It seems like you have to literally consider your slaves non-human to even make sense of this sentiment. We get a glimpse into the justification for slavery elsewhere in McPherson, as when Southerners assert that it is the natural state for black people; they need their wise white overseers to protect them. I can write this down as an abstract idea, but I just cannot put myself in the place of someone who believes it. And I don’t know where that belief came from. Did the institution of slavery cause people to believe this, as a sort of retroactive justification for what they were doing (à la Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”) ? Or did they believe it even before they enslaved other humans?

    Lincoln seems to have been honest about his reasons for prosecuting the war: the goal was first to keep the Union together, and he’d allow slavery to remain in the Southern states to achieve that goal. He really did oppose slavery, but he only went public with that opposition strategically. He could have chosen early in the war to have emancipated the slaves, but to keep border states in the Union he chose not to. Eventually he saw that he could use emancipation as a tool against the South. Depriving them of their slaves meant removing a large part of the Southern economy. And those ex-slaves could become soldiers in the North.

    (Incidentally, this sort of strategic thinking about an issue of such profound moral import — the single most morally significant issue in the history of the United States — got me thinking a lot about the Clinton-Sanders race. Clinton is routinely mocked for only uttering sentences that have been run through a focus-group homogenizer, but who’s to say that’s the wrong approach? And who’s to say that Clinton and Obama were wrong when they came around to supporting gay marriage rather late in the game? Maybe adopting centrist attitudes on some positions is necessary to advance others. Or maybe adopting centrist positions on many issues advances her entire portfolio of positions more than adopting a leftist attitude on any of them would. All of which is just to say that we can’t, perhaps, understand any part of a politician’s belief system without understanding its entirety. Clinton could be Lincoln, and Sanders could be the Abolitionists. In retrospect the Abolitionists were on the right side of history, but it took Lincoln to prosecute the war.)

    This recognition of slaves’ value in the war is part of a larger thread in McPherson, whereby Lincoln comes to see the Civil War as a total war of unlimited aims rather than a limited war whose goal is merely to secure territory. Early in the war, Lincoln has placed warmaking mostly in the hands of General George McClellan, who fights an earlier style of war — a rather more genteel and clean style of war. Later the war transitions to generals Grant and Sherman, who understand that it’s a war against the entirely of Southern civilization; the way to remove the South from the battlefield is to make the war intolerable to Southerners. Hence we have Sherman’s March to the Sea and the rather less famous march through the Carolinas. Once the war has made this transition, the North starts to frame it as a war to destroy and reconstruct the entire Southern way of life. To quote McPherson quoting Sherman:

    > Like Lincoln, he believed in a hard war and a soft peace. “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it,” Sherman had told Atlanta’s mayor after ordering the civilian population expelled from the occupied city. But “when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker.” Until then, though, “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”

    At many points, the war could have turned out differently and the South could have won. Yes, the North brought to bear its industrial might, but this wasn’t just a war of guns against guns. It was a war fought in the newspapers as well, and the North lost enough bloody battles with enough senseless deaths that Northern voters very nearly threw Lincoln out of office. It’s easy to imagine an alternate reality in which the North and the South remain two separate countries. All the South had to do was fend off its invaders until it wore them down (think Vietnam); the North had to actively conquer the South. And until Grant and Sherman understood how to live off the land when deep within the South, they had to maintain supply lines hundreds of miles long through hostile territory. It’s very easy to imagine the war turning out differently than it did, easy to imagine Lincoln being perceived as a one-term loser who “lost us the South”, Robert E. Lee being venerated as the liberator, and slavery remaining in place for at least a while longer. Historical contingency couldn’t be more prominent than it is here.

    There’s a wonderful annotated bibliography at the end of McPherson’s book, but even the bibliography is too overwhelming to consume as a novice Civil War scholar. The multivolume Nevins work about the Civil War seems like a canonical overview, as is Rhodes’s. I think I’d like to minimize purely military histories; I’m more interested in how the military aspect resulted from the civilian. (Lincoln, by the way, comes across as an excellent student of military strategy. His simultaneous comprehension of civilian politics and of military matters is impressive, and suggests that he really may have been the only man for the job. And once again I’m reminded of a point that I believe David Halberstam makes The Fifties in the context of Douglas MacArthur: generals may be very good at understanding the immediate battlefield, but civilian leadership often has a better view of the global picture.)

    McPherson mentions an irony in the civilian-meets-military department: the North experienced a tactical loss during the Seven Days, but it probably became a strategic victory; the Seven Days were when the Civil War switched from a limited territorial war to a total war of unlimited ends. Had the North won, perhaps the South would have folded with its existing institutions intact.

    A couple other books have come out since McPherson’s that are likely good followups to his: Race and Reunion and The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. And there’s a genre of scholarship that studies how historical figures have been perceived over time, of which (to me) The Jefferson Image in the American Mind is the archetype; there’s such a work about Robert E. Lee, which McPherson cites and which Joan Waugh pointed me to after I read her portrait of U.S. Grant’s image. Finally, it seems worth my while to read the transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

    Oh, and one last note: McPherson makes the fascinating observation that the structure of political parties may have helped the North win. Both the South and the North had a Democratic party, but the Republican party was really concentrated in the North. When Northerners wanted to rally the populace to support continuing the war, they had a Republican party infrastructure to do that. So when Northern Democrats supporting peace with the South (“copperheads“) tried to make the argument for ending the war, they had a full party — a full institution, with platforms and organization — to argue against. The South didn’t have parties, and if anything Southern ideology argued against parties; what the South had was a large number of politicians arguing for their own positions. The South thus had less organizational capacity to rouse the populace to keep the war going.

  • Richard Thaler, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

    This is a fun read, because Thaler is a fun writer. If you’ve already read a lot of behavioral economics, the main reason to read this book is not because it will give you further education on the subject; like every other behavioral-economics book ever, this book covers the endowment effect by way of an experiment where students are given mugs. By now they ought to be called “the fucking mugs”, and it ought to be called “the fucking mug experiment.” I am tired of the fucking mugs.

    That said, behavioral economics — even including the fucking mugs — is really interesting, and Thaler is entertaining as always. As I will never tire of telling people, you should do yourself a favor and read his slim collection of essays called The Winner’s Curse. If you can’t find the time to read that book, I’d recommend his highly readable piece from the Journal of Economic Perspectives on the law of one price. (If you have time to really dig deep on the theory, I’d recommend Choices, Values, and Frames.)

    What Misbehaving adds to that work is a fun, chatty, gossipy attitude — as when Thaler snarks that “At this workshop, [John More Guns, Less Crime] Lott was present and looking annoyed, so I hoped he was not packing a gun,” or when Thaler quotes Bob Solow on Richard Posner: “Posner evidently writes the way other men breathe.” And there are plenty of bits of theory in Misbehaving to make it worthwhile on that basis alone — e.g., this succinct explanation of why stock prices are supposed to reflect the net present value of all future dividend streams:

Suppose a foundation decides to buy a share of stock today and hold it forever. In other words, they are never going to sell the stock—so the only money they will ever get back are the dividends they receive over time. The value of the stock should be equal to the “present value” of all the dividends the foundation will collect going forward for forever, meaning the amount of money that the flow would be worth, after appropriately adjusting for the fact that money tomorrow is worth less than money today. But because we don’t exactly know how much a given stock will pay in dividends over time, the stock price is really just a forecast—the market’s expectation of the present value of all future dividend payments.

(The ‘assume they never sell it’ aspect is the real clarifying assumption. If you assume that they will sell it eventually, then you’re still forced to ask what price they expect to sell it for, which is asking what price the buyer will pay. And then you’re back where you started: well, why is the buyer going to pay that much? To avoid an infinite regress, it seems necessary to include something like the dividend assumption.)

  • John Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B

    This is a fascinating little gem about the decryption of some tablets found at Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. It’s partly a story of decryption, in the obvious sense that you’re trying to figure out a decoding scheme on the basis of not much text. (The reason Linear A remains undecoded is, I gather, because there just aren’t enough tablets to yield an unambiguous translation.) It’s also partly a sociological study of archaeology. The archaeologist Arthur Evans argued strongly that whatever language Linear B encoded, it wasn’t Greek. It took Michael Ventris to prove, to everyone’s satisfaction, that Linear B in fact encodes Greek. Reminds me of Feynman:

We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.

I read the process of decrypting these tablets as something akin to solving a Sudoku puzzle, only much, much, much harder. Sudoku is a game of holding constraints in your head: “This cell can be a 3, or a 4, or a 9; but if it’s a 3, then this one over here can’t be a 3; and since this one over here could only be a 3 or a 7, this other one must be a 7 if the first one is a 3; whereas if the first one is a 4, then ….” (Or take Ken Shan’s advice and just write a program to generate a SQL query corresponding to that Sudoku board, then run that query.) As I understand Chadwick, deciphering Linear B involved Ventris’s holding many such constraints in his head, then slowly solving the puzzle. And of course it involved endless patience. The patience alone is more than most of us could provide, let alone all the other requirements — among them, familiarity with any of the other languages that Linear B could have been encoding.

  • John McPhee, The Control of Nature

    This is a book about men who are way more masculine than I am. In the Southern United States we meet the men who run the Old River Control Structure (how awesome is that name, by the way) that keeps the Mississippi River in line and keeps most of Louisiana dry. In Iceland we meet the men who sprayed seawater on an advancing flood of lava to keep the island from becoming Pompeii. And we read horrifying story after horrifying story about mudslides in Los Angeles that upend trees, carry cars down the street, and nearly drown people in their own homes when mud pours through the windows.

    In all cases we meet people fighting valiantly to hold back nature. The work may ultimately be futile, but it’s also unavoidable. We could, if we wanted, stop holding back the Mississippi, but then we’d have to abandon most of Louisiana. And even once we’ve decided to control the Mississippi, it turns out there are political problems that our control creates: now that we can control the amount of water flowing downstream, some people want more water and some want less. (Crawfish fishermen are among those on one side and there are others on the other, but I’ve forgotten that detail at the moment.) Negotiating the different constituencies here is a hard challenge on its own.

    The Old River one especially was fascinating. It makes me perceive riverbanks as fluid land; on the scale of hundreds of years, rivers deepen or silt up; the walls channeling rivers need to raised; and fundamentally, all that water needs to go somewhere. The problem of river control isn’t solved just once; it’s an ongoing engineering challenge. I’d been perceiving ‘the river’ as a static object with a static engineering solution.

    Finally, being a McPhee book, it’s fundamentally just as much about people as it is about things. McPhee spends countless hours with his interview subjects, so I continue to maintain that he must be the world’s most amiable man; otherwise he would have long since been drowned in the Mississippi, silently segmented and hidden across multiple UPS packages, fired into the sun, buried quietly beneath an orange tree somewhere in Florida, or taken somewhere remote by New Jersey trash haulers.

  • Amy Bentley, Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet

    Not really worth reading, if you already have a potted history of American food in your head: in the middle of the 20th century, people believed that industrial, scientifically prepared food would likely be cleaner and healthier than whatever we could make at home, whereas today we’re in some sort of back-to-nature mode that’s partly driven by an anti-corporate mentality. That anti-corporate mentality, in turn, may have sprung from the Vietnam-era turn against large bureaucracies.

    Yes, there’s obviously more than that in a 250-page book, but not enough to hold my interest.

  • Jonathan Kozol, Death at an Early Age

    This is a devastating look at how Boston schools in the 1960s destroyed the minds and lives of the school system’s African-American students. Soon after it was written we had the busing crisis, documented so heartbreakingly in J. Anthony Lukas’s book. At the time Kozol wrote, Boston schools were dilapidated and served their African-American population terribly, and a series of court decisions — culminating in Arthur Garrity’s — forced the city to act. White flight came shortly thereafter, with many rich white parents fleeing to the suburbs or sending their kids to private schools. In the mid-70s, the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation is allowed if it’s not officially enforced, and the war against unequal schools ended.

    I read Kozol’s book as a snapshot of one terrible moment in Boston’s history. The thing to do now is to compare the world he documented then to the one we’re in now. Have Boston’s schools, especially those in Roxbury and Dorchester, improved at all? Or have they just been emptied out and bulldozed (as, indeed, the school where Kozol worked eventually was)? Death at an Early Age gave me a reading list, including Kozol’s own Illiterate America and some Boston Globe pieces written by Robert Levey in December 1965 about the city’s school system.

    Kozol’s book is also, finally, about the destruction of the teachers’ minds. Kozol’s fellow-teachers, whom he portrays unsparingly, are victims of the intellectual abandonment of their students almost to the same degree that the students are. They ultimately fire Kozol for teaching his students Langston Hughes’s “Ballad of the Landlord”, on the grounds that it’s not teaching students uplifting messages that the curriculum — filled as it is with empty sloganeering and whitewashed history — is designed to teach. The teachers don’t care that Hughes’s poem engaged the students for the first time in their lives; the teachers alternate between resignation over the “hopeless” students they’ve been forced to teach, and putting on a fake therapy smile to grind out another empty day at work. I have to hope that Boston has rescued everyone involved — students and teachers — from this desperate emptiness in the decades since Death at an Early Age was published.

  • David M. Potter, People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character

    Whatever the “American character” might be, much of it has been influenced by our history of economic plenty. The early settlers faced a unlimited free land, and only lacked (white) people, so much of the 19th century was spent trying to encourage (white) people to fill the plains. First we gave (white) people lots of free land. At some point we realized that it was no use giving people land to grow their crops if they had no way to get those crops to market, so we built railroads into the hinterlands. We did all we could to make (white) Americans prosperous, because we had all the resources we needed (it was thought) to make prosperity available to everyone.

    From this there developed an ideology that success was within everyone’s grasp: if you failed to succeed, when this plenty was available to you, then that failure was yours and yours alone. From this developed a similar ideology, according to which every generation should do better than the one that came before it.

    This extends to the American labor movement, as compared to the European one. European ideologies perceive reality as a fight over a fixed pie, whereas the American ideology perceives an ever-expanding pie. Class warfare has an easier time gaining a foothold in the European attitude than it does in the American one.

    This ideology of abundance is so deeply baked into the American experience that we often are not aware of it. When we sell democracy abroad — as we’ve been trying to do at least since the First World War — it often hasn’t taken, and David Potter suggests the reason is that we’ve really been selling prosperity abroad. Much of what Americans take to have resulted from our democratic institutions may instead have resulted from our wealth.

    Potter spends a lot of time — as American historians always have to, it seems — engaging with Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. The idea there is that the ‘American character’ — restlessness, impatience, etc. — have come out of the pioneer spirit. The trouble with this sort of hypothesis is: how, exactly, does it work? My grandparents came here from Canada during the Great Depression; did they carry with them the frontier spirit? Or did they just pick it up as it radiated from their neighbors?

    It’s not unreasonable to believe that Americans have certain attitudes which other countries do not, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that those attitudes would persist over time. But humans living in the United States have other attributes that come from places other than their Americanness. I inherit certain attitudes from the community of software developers around whom I spend so much time. I inherit other attitudes from living in New England; indeed, isn’t it fair to argue that the people around me descend from those early Americans who didn’t migrate to the frontier? Which attitudes dominate: the frontier-American attitude, the French-Canadian attitude, the software-developer attitude, or the New England attitude? If, as seems sensible, the answer is “all of them,” then why focus exclusively on the frontier part?

    Potter runs through this sort of analysis, carefully and methodically, at the start of People of Plenty; the first third of the book, perhaps, is a study in historical method. It seems excessive at first, but it lays the groundwork for the remainder of the book: before we talk about “American character,” let’s lay out what it means and how widely it applies. American character may be a real thing, but it needs to be understood in a broader context.

    Potter uses this context to adjudicate other twentieth-century intellectual disputes. He picks up a thread with C. Wright Mills, for instance, where Mills asks why Freudians place such emphasis on our relations with our parents. Biology is important, but so is sociology. Even if it’s the case that we resent our fathers and wish to have sex with our mothers, isn’t it just as important to how we form as people that we live in a democracy rather than in a totalitarian state? That is, aren’t the institutions around us just as important as the home we grow up in? Isn’t it important that, for instance, we don’t fear being arbitrarily arrested and thrown in prison? Why focus on just the biological aspects, then?

    So Potter’s book is important, I think, from two angles. First, it really is important to understand that our American ideology may have emerged, in part, from our wealth — and, consequently, it’s worth asking what happens when that wealth stops growing. And second, People of Plenty is very interesting theoretically, trying to situate historical, sociological, and psychological teachings in a broad framework.