Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I sometimes caution my senior students, thinking about grad school, that the jump-on-the-sofa passion they feel for history may not survive the first few weeks of their MA year. If their prior experience is like those months of fun and flirtation at the beginning of a relationship, grad school is like moving in together, and discovering that the object of your affection puts ketchup on eggs and breaks wind in her sleep. The love may persist, but you have to put up with a lot.

Take academic conferences. Please. My own dissertation advisor once opined that conferences, like wisdom teeth, were best suffered through only once and preferably in a stupor; renewing the former metaphor, they also illustrate how one's own infatuation is often the source of bafflement and tedium to others. Recall Walt Whitman's description of his own encounter with a scholarly lecture in this famous poem from Leaves of Grass:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Look around the room sometime at an academic conference, fellow scholars. What do you notice? Most people aren't paying attention. In fact, it's probably the case that, much of the time, you aren't either. Oh, there are good papers and there are bad, but, admit it: after lunch in particular it's hard to stay focused on someone reading a sheath of pages excerpted from their latest book or article. I try to take notes when other conference presenters are talking, but I confess that these often degenerate into "to do" lists, especially in those too-frequent cases when the speakers seem to have learned nothing about the art of public speaking in their long careers. During a conference I attended recently, I saw academics nodding off, chit-chatting, reading the program, sorting their wallets, and, in the case of some younger ones, texting, while papers were being presented. I looked up during the middle of my own to notice that most of the audience looked, as Whitman put it, tired and sick. I felt a certain empathy - it was a data-heavy paper and I was slightly tongue-tied and uncharacteristically nervous. Quite reflexively, however, I slipped into professor mode and said, "So…everyone with me? Everyone good? Any questions up this point? Okay, I'll go on then." There were visible looks of annoyance. It was a very professorial thing to do, but, then, this audience of professors was doing the very things they chastise their students for doing in class.

In the question period that followed, I received not one useful question or piece of commentary, but I departed that day with an extra line on my CV and, more importantly, a hefty honorarium and a cheque to cover my flight, meals, and accommodation. In academe, we call this expanding the frontiers of knowledge. Others can be forgiven for seeing it as their tax dollars at work.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Last week, I spent the afternoon with a book called 8 To Be Great: The 8-Traits that Lead to Great Success, by Richard St. John. It's a two-hour read and I don't regret buying it, but you can probably guess what's in it from the title alone. The author interviewed or read about several hundred successful people (call me typically academic, but he never actually defines "success") and concludes that they have eight things in common. These include passion for what they do, a strong work ethic, good ideas, perseverance, and so forth. No real surprises.

Like many self-help books, it's written in that cloying, indifferently punctuated, stream-of-consciousness style that Strunk and White call "breezy" (example: "A cabin in the woods! Hey, maybe that's what I need. I mean there are so many distractions here in the city I'm having real troubling concentrating long enough to finish this section on concentration.") It's amiable enough, I suppose, but there's no particular reason to read it. There's a three-minute video on TED and a six-minute video on the author's website that sums up everything you need to know. The rest of the book consists mainly of supporting quotations from well-known people, followed by a brief and breezy annotation by the author.

Is this sort of advice actually helpful? It's hard to say. Most self-help books suffer from selection bias, and this is no exception. The author has interviewed the rich and famous and sorted their qualities into categories. But to be meaningful, an equivalent study would have to be conducted of unsuccessful people: bankrupt businesspeople, failed inventors, forgotten athletes, unpublished writers, penniless actors and artists, hated teachers, anonymous academics, and the like. We might very well find (in fact, I'd be surprised if we didn't) that many of them possessed the same passion, work ethic, focus, and perseverance as those who succeeded, but failed to succeed all the same, and for a very simple reason: because the universe doesn't care about us. In fact, if the universe does have some sort of guiding intelligence, there's every reason to believe that it hates us and wants us dead, after a suitable interval of tormenting us with a host of disgusting bodily infirmities and albums from the runner-ups on American Idol. What kind of god would give us both irritable bowel syndrome and Clay Aiken?

The fundamental problem with self-help books is that they convey the impression that life is fair and that we are in control of our own destinies. But this is a conclusion that no one with an acquaintance with history could possibly reach. Of course, we must take responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of our own actions, and I am grinding my teeth down to nubs from dealing with students who feel that they are entitled to academic accolades without working for them. But history is jammed to the rafters with people who did everything right but who were forced into bankruptcy by economic circumstances totally beyond their control; who were resented, hated, feared, and consequently held back because of their talents; who were victims of monolithic forms of racial, religious, or sexual prejudice; and who were making their way in the world just fine until suddenly they were buried by landslides, drowned by tidal waves, stricken with cancer, or killed by Nazis.

So much for the hideous pseudo-therapeutic daytime talk show piffle that "no one can make you a victim without your consent." Tell it to these people. Is their problem that they don't know The Secret? Do they not have enough perseverance? Perhaps they need to learn about neuro-linguistic programming. Oprah, after all, overcame her troubles with weight gain - several times, in fact. If she can do it, why can't they look on the bright side of famine and genocide?

I think you get the point. Before you go accusing me of making a strawman attack, you really should read my friend Alison Hunter's review of The Secret, a book that actually does say that if you're victim of, well, anything, it's because you've got a bad attitude. Let me, instead, leave you with much a better consideration of the human condition from the most famous and widely-read self-help book of them all:

(Ecclesiastes 9.11) I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


" War is Not the Answer" states a small poster on a bulletin board where I work. Well, it depends upon the question, doesn't it? The failure of the 1930s was not a failure to settle Europe's troubles through peaceful negotiations, it was that peaceful negotiations were attempted for far too long. Negotiation is not possible when confronted with an ideology that regards peace only as an interval during which one prepares for war, and war as a natural state for imposing "racial purity" on a vast scale. Nazism could not be appeased, contained, or co-existed with. It could only be destroyed, and its destruction was, as the late Stephen Ambrose once observed, "the supreme accomplishment of the first half of the 20th century." Today, adolescents can re-create that cure in hyper-realistic, graphically-intense video games, digitally reliving for their amusement the horrors that a former generation actually experienced. Some games even allow them to play the other side, as if the two sides were or ever could be morally equivalent.

As an historian, I meet all sorts of history buffs whose interest is confined to years 1939-1945. A quick look at the history section in any bookstore or at the History Channel's lineup of programming will confirm that the public seems to have an insatiable interest in the Second World War, despite the annual scolding we receive from that cadre of fusty antediluvians at the Dominion Institute. However, as an historian one will, from time to time, meet history buffs who will tell you , often in a slightly conspiratorial tone of voice: "You know, Hitler had a lot of good ideas. He just went too far." My former response to this sort of thing was to take a sharp step in the opposite direction. Now I prefer a policy of engagement. "And what," I usually ask, "do you consider 'too far'? You were with them at the book burning phase, but drew the line at beating Jews? Or perhaps they had you at beating Jews but you jumped ship when involuntary euthanasia began?" The fact is, of course, that the regime was a lunatic asylum from the outset, and my advice is to avoid people who are willing to flirt with the idea that a racist, totalitarian, single-party state, organized for endless war, may have something going for it.

Sixty-five years ago today, a combined Anglo-Canadian-American force fought its way, inch by bloody inch, up the beaches of Normandy in what was probably the single most complex military operation in history. Over the next six weeks, they would utterly destroy two German armies in the Battle of Normandy, decisively proving that the Nazis (and their subsequent admirers) were utterly wrong to believe that totalitarian societies are better at war than democracies. Sufficiently aroused, the power of free people and capitalist economies to wage war proved to be far beyond that of the dictatorships. While fighting the Battle of Normandy, the Allies simultaneously conducted vast campaigns on land, sea, and air on many fronts across two major theatres of war, while all the while supplying — crucially, as we now know — logistical support to the Red Army through the auspices of the Lend-Lease program. As the civilians of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were to learn, the fury of democratic societies, aroused to what was for them the very unnatural state of war, was both awesome and terrible to behold. Allied bombers had reduced nearly every major Germany city to rubble and ash before the Red Army — carried, incidentally, on American trucks — set foot on Germany soil, while the Japanese were to suffer the immolation of dozens of their towns and cities, acts of vengeance culminating in the atomic incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

War is a dreadful thing. But it is not, as some on left the say, to be avoided at all costs, nor is it true that there are no winners in war. Pacifism is morally defensible only when it is a choice you make for yourself. The pacifist who allows himself to be beaten has made one kind of moral decision; if he allows someone else to be beaten, he has made another one entirely. Sometimes we must fight. The destruction of National Socialism and of Japanese militarism was necessary for the safety and survival of free societies throughout the world. For all their faults and foibles — and these are, as we all know, numerous — the liberal democracies do not murder or enslave their own citizens. We are, as I have said, the healthiest, wealthiest, safest, and most culturally prosperous people in the history of the world, and in large measure because our grandparents had thrust upon them the dreadful duty to fight those who would have enslaved us all.