Comments About Historians: Archives January to June 2003

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Eric Hobsbawm: No Apologies (posted 8-24-03)

Sarah Lyall, writing in the NYT (August 23, 2003):

Born in 1917, the year of the October Revolution, the historian Eric Hobsbawm has lived through much of "the most extraordinary and terrible century in human history," as he describes it, from the rise of Communism and fascism to World War II, the cold war and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Recent events, he says, "fit in with the gloomy picture" he has had of world affairs for the last three-quarters of a century.

But for an unapologetic pessimist, Mr. Hobsbawm is remarkably robust, bordering on cheerful.

As he describes in "Interesting Times: A 20th-Century Life" (Pantheon), his new memoir, Mr. Hobsbawm has overcome considerable odds, including a fractured childhood in Weimar Germany, to become one of the great British historians of his age, an unapologetic Communist and a polymath whose erudite, elegantly written histories are still widely read in schools here and abroad.

He turns his analytical historian's eye on himself, examining with wry, rich detail the history of the century "through the itinerary of one human being whose life could not possibly have occurred in any other," he writes. The title's twin meanings — interesting times, according to the old Chinese curse, inevitably carry tragedy and upheaval, too — neatly capture the tensions between his personal history and his life as a historian.

"Do you remember what Brecht said — `Unlucky the country that needs heroes'?" Mr. Hobsbawm asked. "From the point of view of ordinary people, uninteresting times, where things aren't happening, are the best. But from the point of view of a historian, obviously, it's completely different."

Mr. Hobsbawm, a gangly 86-year-old with thick horn-rimmed glasses and an engagingly lopsided smile, spoke in his living room in Hampstead, long the neighborhood of choice for London's leftist intellectuals, in between sips of coffee. The room was lined with books; the front hall was full of the toddler paraphernalia that comes when one's home is a destination of choice for grandchildren (he has three). The telephone rang constantly as various family members and friends called to discuss plans that Mr. Hobsbawm invariably said would require further consultation with his wife, Marlene, who was out for the morning.

Mr. Hobsbawm is that unlikeliest of creatures, a committed Communist who never really left the party (he let his membership lapse just before the collapse of the Soviet Union) but still managed to climb to the upper echelons of English respectability by virtue of his intellectual rigor, engaging curiosity and catholic breadth of interests. He is an emeritus professor at the University of London and holds countless honorary degrees around the world, from Chile to Sweden.

Yet he will always be dogged by questions about how he can square his long and faithful membership in the Communist Party with the reality of Communism, particularly as it played out under Stalin. In "Interesting Times," he denounces Stalin and Stalinism but also praises aspects of Communist Russia and argues that in some countries, notably the former U.S.S.R., life is worse now than it was under the Socialist system.

Some people will never forgive Mr. Hobsbawm for his beliefs. In an angry review of his new book in The New Criterion, David Pryce-Jones said that Mr. Hobsbawm was "someone who has steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda" and that his Communism had "destroyed him as an interpreter of events."

"Interesting Times" has gathered mostly glowing reviews across Britain. But the book again raises the problem that even Mr. Hobsbawm's admirers find dismaying.

In The Times Literary Supplement, the historian Richard Vinen said that "Interesting Times" does not give a satisfactory explanation of its author's motivations. "The closer that he comes to such questions, the more confusing he becomes," Mr. Vinen wrote.

Mr. Hobsbawm does address the issue in a section explaining why he did not abandon Communism in 1956 when Nikita S. Khrushchev's electrifying denunciation of Stalin sent waves of revulsion at Stalin's crimes through the worldwide movement. But while many of his colleagues resigned from the party in horrified protest, Mr. Hobsbawm did not.

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Eric Hobsbawm: Lying to the Credulous (posted 8-24-03)

David Pryce-Jones, writing in the New Criterion (January 2003):

Eric Hobsbawm is no doubt intelligent and industrious, and he might well have made a notable contribution as a historian. Unfortunately, lifelong devotion to Communism destroyed him as a thinker or interpreter of events. Such original work as he did concerned bandits and outlaws. But even here there is bias, for he rescued them from obscurity not for their own sake but as precursors of Communist revolution. His longer and later books are constructed around the abstractions of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and the supposedly pre-ordained class struggle between them, capital and capitalism, empire and imperialism—in short the Marxist organizing principles which reduce human beings and their varied lives to concepts handy to serve a thesis worked up in advance and in the library. This material, needless to say, was derived from secondary sources.

The purpose of all Hobsbawm’s writing, indeed of his life, has been to certify the inevitable triumph of Communism. In the face of whatever might actually have been happening in the Soviet Union and its satellites, he devised reasons to justify or excuse the Communist Party right to its end—long after Russians themselves had realized that Communism had ruined morally and materially everybody and everything within its reach. He loves to describe himself as a professional historian, but someone who has steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda, and scorns the concept of objective truth, is nothing of the kind, neither a historian nor professional.

It becomes quite a good joke that Communism collapsed under him, proving in the living world that the beliefs and ideas in his head were empty illusions, and all the Marxist and Soviet rhetoric just claptrap. This Hobsbawn cannot understand, never mind accept. His best-known book, Age of Extremes, published as recently as 1994, still attempts to whitewash Communism as “a formidable innovation” in social engineering, glossing with fundamental dishonesty over such integral features as enforced famine through collectivization and the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and omitting all mention of the massacre at Katyn, the terrifying secret police apparatus of Beria, and the Gulag. At the same time, Hobsbawm depicts the United States “unfortunately” as a greater danger than the Soviet Union. Presenting him with a prestigious prize for this farrago, the left-wing historian Sir Keith Thomas said, “For pure intelligence applied to history, Eric Hobsbawm has no equal.” Another left-winger, the journalist Neal Ascherson, held that “No historian now writing in English can match his overwhelming command of fact and source.” So much for Robert Conquest, Sir Kenneth Dover, Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Bernard Lewis, and other genuine scholars.

A mystery peculiar to the twentieth century is that intellectuals were eager to endorse the terror and mass-murder which characterized Soviet rule, at one and the same time abdicating humane feelings and all sense of responsibility towards others, and of course perverting the pursuit of truth. The man who sets dogs on concentration camp victims or fires his revolver into the back of their necks is evidently a brute; the intellectual who devises justifications for the brutality is harder to deal with, and far more sinister in the long run. Apologizing for the Soviet Union, such intellectuals licensed and ratified unprecedented crime and tyranny, to degrade and confuse all standards of humanity and morality. Hobsbawm is an outstand- ing example of the type. The overriding question is: how was someone with his capacity able to deceive himself so completely about reality and take his stand alongside the commissar signing death warrants?

Not long ago, on a popular television show, Hobsbawm explained that the fact of Soviet mass-murdering made no difference to his Communist commitment. In astonishment, his interviewer asked, “What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” Without hesitation Hobsbawm replied, “Yes.” His autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life,[1] conveys the same point, only rather more deviously. On the very last page, it is true, he is “prepared to concede, with regret, that Lenin’s Comintern was not such a good idea,” though for no very obvious reason (except as a cheap shot) he concludes the sentence by cramming in the comment that Herzl’s Zionism was also not a good idea. Note that slippery use of “Comintern” as a substitute for Communism itself. The concession, such as it is, is anyhow vitiated by an earlier passage when he attacks America and its allies, bizarrely spelled out as India, Israel, and Italy, and referred to as rich and the heirs of fascism. In this passage he predicts, “The world may regret that, faced with Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative of socialism and barbarism, it decided against socialism.” (Which leaves Americans as barbarians.) By my count, these are the only two expressions of regret in this long book. In contrast, the October revolution remains “the central point of reference in the political universe,” and “the dream of the October revolution” is still vivid inside him. He cannot bring himself to refer to Leningrad as St. Petersburg. Learning nothing, he has forgotten nothing.

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Eric Hobsbawm's Romance with Communism (posted 8-24-03)

Christopher Hitchens, writing in the NYT (August 24, 2003):

In March 1950 there was a public debate in New York City, moderated by the eminent radical sociologist C. Wright Mills. The motion before the meeting was: Is Russia a socialist community? Proposing for the ayes was Earl Browder, a loyal Stalinist who had nonetheless been removed by Moscow (for some minor deviations) from the leadership of the American Communist Party. Opposing him was the mercurial genius Max Shachtman, later to become a salient cold warrior but then the leader of the Trotskyist (or Trotsky-ish) Workers Party. Reaching his peroration against Browder, Shachtman recited the names of the European Communist leaders who, for their own minor deviations, had been liquidated by Stalin. Turning to his antagonist, he pointed and said: ''There, but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse!'' Eyewitnesses still relish the way in which Browder turned abruptly pallid and shrunken.

Eric Hobsbawm has been a believing Communist and a skeptical Euro-Communist and is now a faintly curmudgeonly post-Communist, and there are many ways in which, accidents of geography to one side, he could have been a corpse. Born in 1917 into a diaspora Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt, he spent his early-orphaned boyhood in central Europe, in the years between the implosion of Austria-Hungary and the collapse of the Weimar Republic. This time and place were unpropitious enough on their own: had Hobsbawm not moved to England after the Nazis came to power in 1933, he might have become a statistic. He went on to survive the blitz in London and Liverpool and, by a stroke of chance, to miss the dispatch to Singapore of the British unit he had joined. At least a third of those men did not survive Japanese captivity, and it's difficult to imagine Hobsbawm himself being one of the lucky ones.

For the most active part of his life as an intellectual and a historian, Hobsbawm identified himself with the Soviet Union, which came into being in the same year he did. The failure and disgrace of this system are beyond argument today, and he doesn't any longer try to argue for it. In ''Interesting Times,'' he explains his allegiance in a pragmatic-loyalist manner, to the effect that many people were saved by Communism from becoming corpses, and that one was obliged to choose a side. This is utilitarianism, not Marxism, and he seems to recognize the fact by being appropriately laconic about it. It seemed to make sense at the time; he lost the historical wager and so did the party; history, he says, does not cry over spilled milk. Willing as I was to be repelled by such reasoning (blood is not to be rated like milk, after all), I found that I was instead rather impressed by its minimalism. If you wanted to teach a bright young student how Communism actually felt to an intelligent believer, you would have to put this book -- despite its rather stale title -- on the reading list.

To have marched in the last legal Communist demonstration in Berlin in 1933 may have been an experience as delicious as protracted sexual intercourse (Hobsbawm's metaphor, not mine), but the experience of defending the indefensible and -- more insulting -- of being asked to believe the unbelievable was far less delightful and, equally to the point, very much more protracted. Again, Hobsbawm's vices mutate into his virtues (and vice, as it were, versa). He is determined to show that he was not a dupe, but went into it all with eyes open, while he is no less concerned to argue that he did not want to become one of those ''God That Failed'' ex-Communists. Is this idealism or cynicism? He was one of a group of solid and brilliant English Marxist historians, including Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson and John Saville, none of whom could stomach the Communist Party after 1956. Yet he soldiered on as a member until the end of the Soviet Union itself, while admitting that he hardly ever visited the place and that when he did, he didn't much care for it.

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Thomas Reeves: Howard Zinn Is Not Courageous (posted 6-16-03)

Thomas Reeves, writing for the National Association of Scholars (June 16, 2003):

In the May 23, 2003 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, James Green, a professor of history and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, published a lengthy hymn of praise to radical leftist historian Howard Zinn. The occasion was the celebration of the sale of one million copies of Zinn's textbook A People's History of the United States. "First published in 1980, the book, updated by the author, continues to be assigned in countless college and high-school courses, but its commercial sales have remained strong as well. It is probably the only book by a radical historian that you can buy in an airport."

Green is obviously of one mind with Zinn. Both endorse the usual litany of leftist assumptions, including the innocence and goodness of minorities, the evil of nearly all war, the wickedness of capitalism, and the corruption inherent in virtually every American institution. Christopher Columbus and Ronald Reagan are villains; socialists and pacifists are heroes. You get the picture. It's a tidy, always predictable, little world liberals and leftist radicals inhabit. American history is largely a story of oppression and exploitation. We should be ashamed to wave the flag.....

Should this passionate mission and stunning achievement be portrayed as courageous? That's Green's spin on the Zinn story. Well, one must give Zinn his due for being an active civil rights backer in the 1960s. But on a larger scale, Zinn's record reveals more expediency than bravery. For decades, he has been engaged in the creation and dissemination of propaganda, profiting handsomely in every way by telling the Left what it wants to hear and helping to foist these views on ignorant youth.

True courage would have been a devotion to objectivity, as elusive as that sometimes is, to present the story of American history in all of its complexities and shades of gray. True courage would have been to step outside the boundaries of politically correct conformity to explore the true richness of the human experience, striving for balance, fairness, and detachment. If Zinn had taken this approach, his book sales might have been lower and his speaking engagements fewer in number. He might be ignored rather than lionized on American campuses. But millions of Americans would be better informed, and the national culture would be wiser and healthier.

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Stephen Howarth: Claims that He Was a Victim of Plagiarism (posted 6-13-03)

Alex Beam, writing in the Boston Globe (June 3, 2003):

More than a year ago, Newburyport historian James Charles Roy, while researching the life of Admiral Horatio Nelson, noticed what he calls "similarities in material" in two well-known books. One was Booker Prize-winning author Barry Unsworth's 1999 novel "Losing Nelson," about a man obsessed with the reputation of the hero of Trafalgar. The other was a popular 1988 biography, "Nelson: The Immortal Memory," written by Stephen Howarth and his late father, David.

Roy wrote to Howarth, pointing out two passages, each about 150 words in length, that Unsworth seems to have lifted from the biography. Howarth quickly compiled his own list of 20 alleged "modes of expression or original use of language first created by either my father or myself and subsequently used by Mr. Unsworth without permission or acknowledgement."

About half of Howarth's examples of supposed copying seem exaggerated. But I have little doubt that Unsworth wrote portions of his novel with the Howarth book open next to his keyboard.

Howarth wrote Unsworth a brief letter, with examples of the books' overlaps, in February of last year. Unsworth acknowledged his debt to the Howarths: "The biography you wrote with your father was a very valuable help to me." He also pointed out that he had consulted a "mass of material" while researching "Losing Nelson" and noted that "it is not easy, when one is seeking to absorb a great quantity of factual information and reproduce it in another form . . . to avoid echoes of the language in which it is originally cast."

Unsworth then characterized his book as "a totally original work of the imagination, derivative from nothing and no one." In conclusion, he wrote, "I very much hope that there are no hard feelings on your part - to have exerted an influence on another writer must after all be a source of gratification."

But there were hard feelings on the part of Howarth, who found the reply "annoying." He consulted a lawyer in England, who advised him that too much time had elapsed since the publication of "Losing Nelson" to pursue legal action, and "that in terms of a percentage of [Unsworth's] text, the copyright infringement was too small for further action without considerable further expense." Howarth did allow Roy to contact the press, which is how I became involved.

I first tried to reach Unsworth, who lives in Italy, several weeks ago. The 73-year-old novelist has not been in good health, and his wife advised me in an e-mail that he had nothing to add to the comments he made in his letter to Howarth, quoted above.

Unsworth's American publisher, Nan Talese of Doubleday, is of course a big fan of his. "The fact that some of the phrases of the Howarth book found their way from Barry's research notes into his novel is indeed unfortunate, but hardly a matter of gravity," Talese e-mailed me. "Knowing Unsworth as a most modest writer of unassailable integrity, I am sure he regrets it, and has no wish to glory in others' work."

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Anthony Glees: His New Book About the East German Stasi Is Causing Waves (posted 6-11-03)

David Leigh, writing in the Guardian (June 11, 2003):

The historian Anthony Glees, in what will prove either to be a reputation-making or a reputation-busting book released this week, is accusing a senior Liberal Democrat politician and fellow-academic, John Roper, of having been an "agent of influence" for the East German communist secret police, the Stasi.

Lord Roper rejects the charge indignantly. The 68-year-old former Labour and SDP MP says he was engaged in building bridges with East Germany in the 1980s as part of a Foreign Office-approved policy of thawing relations.

He was deceived, he says, about the background of an undercover Stasi officer he employed as a research fellow when he was director of studies at Chatham House. Friends of Lord Roper describe Professor Glees as having "a chip on his shoulder" and looking for a succès de scandale .

Lord Roper says Prof Glees appears to be promoting the philosophy of the Iraq arch-hawk, Richard Perle, now an influential figure in George Bush's Washington circle, but then a dedicated cold warrior who argued that contacts with Soviet bloc regimes only served to give sustenance to the enemy.

Friends of Prof Glees, on the other hand, privately describe Lord Roper as "a pompous buffoon who was totally out of his depth" in his contacts with the communists. At the heart of the row is a rumbling controversy about the identity of the so-called "Chatham House spy".

The Royal Institute of International Affairs, as Chatham House is officially known, has long been the bastion of foreign policy thinking, with close links to the defence and political establishment. It famously gave its name to the Chatham House rules: off-the-record in journalistic parlance.

Prof Glees, a German speaker, has successfully used his knowledge of the surviving fragmentary Stasi files, some of which have only recently been decoded, to expose a succession of minor British figures as having - wittingly or unwittingly - helped the secret police in the days of the cold war.

He alleges that the Stasi successfully penetrated Chatham House, where Lord Roper was director of studies in the 1980s and filed a series of secret intelligence reports on defence and political topics which might have been gleaned from those around Roper.


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Paul Berman: Does He Know What He's Talking About? (posted 5-27-03)

Stephen Schwartz, writing in frontpagemag.com (May 27, 2003):

Berman is considered by many to be the successor to the American socialist writer Irving Howe, but although Howe had many faults, an addiction to padding and hot air was not among them. In addition, Howe's writing on the radical left was historically sound, even when wrong in its interpretation. By contrast, fact checking is foreign to Berman, who is so busy tossing off clever remarks that he has left major holes in his arguments. He cannot even get the assassination in Sarajevo in 1914, which set off the First World War, right: The victim was Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, not, pace Berman, "the Grand Duke of Serbia."

Berman recalls the names of obscure French radical magazines accurately, but mangles historical events known to every literate person. He is at his worst when argument sweeps away fact altogether. Near the beginning of this book, he declares, with his habitual insouciance, that in Somalia in 1993, the U.S. intervention "which was intended to feed the Muslim masses, was also intended to crush the Muslim few who stood in the way."

Such allegations are not only heartless, they are slanderous. They also draw on faulty research; toward the book's end, he places Mogadishu in Sudan, rather than Somalia. But they sound clever.

Berman's devotion to superficially convincing rhetoric persists. He reproduces Camus's tired clichés about rebellion and extremism as if they were novelties, equating all forms of protest, throughout modern history, with terrorism. For all his reading, he apparently knows nothing of a fundamental, if deeply flawed work in this area, The Sociology and Psychology of Communism, by Jules Monnerot, which offers an explicit comparison of communism with Islam.

While it is certainly true that the Wahhabi and neo-Wahhabi varieties of Islamic extremism, as well as the ideology of the Ba'ath party, have a totalitarian nature in common with the ideologies of the 20th-century dictators, Berman fudges any understanding that, no matter how much we should hate Bolsheviks and Nazis, they may not, as he claims, be reduced to "tentacles of a single, larger monster." A valuable recent study of the Soviet regime, Stalin's Last Crime, by Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, points out an issue widely overlooked by political theorists: Stalin, like Mao after him, did not protect the Marxist state, but systematically attacked and undermined it by massive bloodlettings among its cadres. Thus, Stalin did not, as Berman would have it, "whimsically" liquidate Communists. There was an undeniable gap between the humanist claims of the Communist regimes and the reality of their rule; Stalin and Mao subverted the former to reinforce the latter. By contrast, the brutalities of Hitler an Mussolini were clearly intended to guard their state apparatus, founded on an open ideology of brutalization.

But for Berman to have noted that aspect of modern totalitarianism would require, in general, greater care in the fashioning of his polemic. Early on, for instance, he alleges that "Germany, the sworn foe of the French Revolution," was viewed by "enlightened and progressive thinkers" in the 19th and early 20th centuries as the "principal danger to modern civilization." Such a view was not shared by a number of leading figures in the history of socialism: Marx and Engels in reality viewed Germany, and even German imperialism in Eastern Europe, as a liberating force in opposition to Russian reaction. Having made his anti-Germanic declaration, Berman seemingly reverses it by describing Marxism as a
"cult of German philosophy."

On topic after topic, Berman betrays his affinity for the glib parallel. Close to the end of this book, he judges the faint-heartedness of 1930s French leftists and contemporary liberals regarding military action against dictatorships as a consequence of their "refusal to accept that, from time to time, political movements do get drunk on the idea of slaughter."

Before that, he describes, and then derides, the left reflex against war that embodied the traumatic effects of societies so drunk in the First World War. He has confected a false account of French socialism in the interwar period, and seems to have joined the company of those ex-leftists, few as they are, who now see the massacres of 1914-1918 (and, one might add, the insanities of Saigon) as unambiguous liberation struggles. But the righteous battles against Franco and Hitler, the defence of Korea and the Balkan Muslims and Kosovars, and the removal of Saddam Hussein cannot retrospectively legitimize the errors and horrors of Verdun and Vietnam.Berman lashes the Europeans who failed to prevent the Balkan massacres of the 1990s, failing to grasp that his own polemics against Islam echo much of the propaganda used to justify the Serb assaults on Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo. He has gained high praise for his commentary on Sayyid Qutb, a leading modern Islamist theorist, which was published in the New York Times in advance of this book's appearance. But his simplistic analysis of totalitarianism is aggravated by his projection of an Islam completely without nuance.

While Qutb, an Egyptian lumpen intellectual, has had immense influence on young jihadists, he is not considered a serious religious commentator by the majority of traditional ulema, or established scholars within the faith. Forming an opinion about contemporary Islam after reading Qutb alone is rather like judging the whole history of the radical left by the writings of Noam Chomsky.

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Ilan Pappe: His Conference at Haifa Closed by School Authorities (posted 5-27-03)

Haim Watzman, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education(May 27, 2003):

The University of Haifa blocked a controversial academic conference last week, leading some researchers to charge that the institution is violating academic freedom.

The daylong conference, scheduled for last Thursday, was on the subject of the historiography of the 1948 war between Israel and the Palestinians. Israelis call this conflict the War of Independence and Palestinians call it al-Naqba, meaning "the catastrophe."

The meeting was organized by a group of scholars who are often termed "post-Zionists," central among them the historian Ilan Pappe, of the university's international-relations department. According to Mr. Pappe, when the participants arrived at the hall where the conference was scheduled to take place, the room was locked and security men were stationed outside.

In an e-mail account of the incident that Mr. Pappe sent to his colleagues at the university, he said that he had been instructed by the university's dean of social sciences, Aryeh Ratner, to cancel the conference. According to Mr. Pappe, Mr. Ratner said that the conference could not be held at the university because one of the scheduled speakers was Udi Adiv. Mr. Adiv served a jail term in the 1970s and 1980s after being convicted of spying for Syria.

Another speaker was to be Teddy Katz, who claims that Israeli forces committed a massacre in 1948 in the Arab village of Tantura. Mr. Katz's master's thesis on this incident was approved, and then the approval was rescinded, in another controversy at the university (The Chronicle, November 9, 2001).

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Robert Dallek: Surprised by the Fuss About Mimi (posted 5-23-03)

Joanna Weiss, writing in the Boston Globe (May 20, 2003):

It was only 38 words, two lines in an 800-page biography, Robert Dallek mused. That's all the mention his book, "An Unfinished Life," made of the now-notorious "Mimi," the 19-year-old intern who had a tryst with President John F. Kennedy.

And the bespectacled Boston University professor, best-known for his tomes on Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and foreign policy, said he never imagined how much - even in this post-Watergate, post-Clinton era - the twin notions of "sex" and "intern" would attract public fascination.

"It's been sort of a firestorm," Dallek said of the tabloid covers and talk show rants, after a lecture last night at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. "What's amazing to me is how much interest there is in this."

Apart from the shock of this new attention, the fear of being labeled a scandal-monger, the fact that his photograph appeared next to Monica Lewinsky's in the New York Daily News - Dallek admitted he hasn't been entirely depressed at the turn of events.

"I haven't resisted, you know," he said, eyebrows raised. "Because obviously, it's a talking point in selling the book."...

The book came out just days after he discussed the affair in a May 11 broadcast interview with Dateline NBC. Soon afterward, he got a call from a reporter at the New York Daily News, who wanted to talk about the intern.

"I naively said to him, 'You're going to run a story about this?' " Dallek recalled.

The reply: "Man, we're going to run it on the front page."

The rest, one might say, is history. Yet how long the excitement will last is unclear; "I think it will subside," Dallek said.

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Simon Schama: How He Found His Voice (posted 5-23-03)

Andrew Billen, writing in the London Times (May 20, 2003):

"Many people in, as they say, 'the broadcasting community' expected us to bomb, and how! History was the single least popular subject in schools. The presenter-led genre of documentary was considered passe. And here I was, a white male, not dead, but quite unfashionable enough.

"But we got off to such a headwind that we were allowed to get a bit more essay-like and demanding of the audience as it went on. The viewing did fall off, actually, partly because the last series went out in the summer and the World Cup was on, but there's no doubt that some of the last programmes were among the best, in my view."

I say I was surprised by the demotic voice he chose in the early episodes.

Actually I winced at its cliches: Anglo-Saxon Britain lived in "the long shadow of Rome"; "a truckload of trouble" accompanied the Norman invasion; propaganda worked "like a dream"; the Normans owned Britain "lock, stock and barrel".

I tell him I thought the programmes grew more fluent as they went on; he thanks me, ignoring my implied criticism of his earlier style.

"Yeah, no one was telling me to do that. I wanted to have a slightly more street-ish voice without being pretentiously blokeish. I loved what Kenneth Clark did, but I thought some sort of alternative voice would do for history."

Once he got to the tough, yet elegiac, final episodes, the death of Empire, women under Victoria, Churchill and Orwell, his voice grew to match its subject.

"I think the coda was lyrical because I felt that way," he says. "It just came straight out."

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Daniel Pipes: Caught in the Crossfire of the Musim Civil War (posted 5-22-03)

Hussain Haqqani, writing in the Wall Street Journal:

Although the Washington Post, among others, has editorialized against his appointment, the controversy should be seen in the context of the civil war of ideas in the Muslim world -- between those who wish to reconcile adherence to their faith with modernity and those seeking the restoration of a mythical glorious past. The Pipes nomination has become a test of strength for those Islamists who wish to paint the war against terrorism as a war against Islam. If they can rally American Muslims to their cause, they would be able to limit the scope of debate about Islamic issues within parameters set by them. That objective doesn't serve the interests of the U.S. or of Muslims....


Islam's external enemies, and their real and perceived conspiracies, are the focus of most discourse in the Muslim world. Colonial rule and, since then, injustices meted out to Muslims under non-Muslim occupation in several countries are real issues that need to be addressed. But the failure of Muslim societies -- in particular the leaders -- to embrace education, expand economies or to innovate cannot be attributed solely to outside factors. The root causes also lie in the fear of some Muslims to embrace reasoned debate and intellectual exchange, lest this openness somehow dilute the purity of their beliefs.

The campaign against Mr. Pipes is an example of this tendency to scuttle discussion. Muslims who disagree with his views should respond to him with arguments of their own. Slandering him might help polarize secular and Islamist Muslims, but it won't raise the level of discourse about Islamic issues. It's time for Muslim leaders in the U.S. to break the pattern of agitation that has characterized Muslim responses to the West.


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Robert Caro: Kisses and Makes Up with the LBJ Library (posted 5-22-03)

David Barboza, writing in the NYT (May 22, 2003):

For 26 years Robert A. Caro has painstakingly chronicled the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson. He has interviewed more than a thousand of Johnson's former aides and colleagues. He has pored over countless records in the Johnson presidential archives. And to critical acclaim he has published three volumes of his projected four-volume biography of Johnson. His latest volume, "Master of the Senate," received the Pulitzer Prize for biography this year.

But because of a long-running feud over his portrayal of the 36th president, Mr. Caro and his work were unwelcome at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum here. His best-selling Johnson books were conspicuously absent from the museum's bookstore. He says he thinks that important records in the Johnson archives were kept from him.

"They would go out of their way to insult me," Mr. Caro said in an interview in the L. B. J. Library reading room, where he was continuing his research.

And the library did not invite him to speak. "I think I was the only Johnson biographer who had never been asked to speak there," Mr. Caro said by telephone from New York City, where he lives.

But that changed on May 13 when the library, under new leadership, embraced him. He spoke to a crowded gathering there. He autographed copies of "Master of the Senate." He was even honored at a dinner in the private suite that Johnson kept at the library after he left the White House in 1969, a suite that Mr. Caro had never seen in his 26 years of work here, even though it was just down the hall from where he conducted much of his research.

"It was time for us to have him here," said Betty Sue Flowers, a former English professor who recently took over as director of the library and museum. "I think it's good to have a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Johnson speak here, and I have no problem with Caro."


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David McCullough: His Uninspiring Lecture (posted 5-22-03)

Philip Kennicott, writing in the Washington Post (May 16, 2003):

Last night at the Ronald Reagan Building, McCullough gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture, the highest humanities honor the federal government can bestow. The setting was festive,

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