Book Blurbs

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up The Bodies

Incredibly, I just got around to reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, the second installment in what will be a trilogy in April. Mantel tells the story of Harry the 8 and his break with Rome to marry Anne Boleyn. Spoiler: Anne B. dies not too long after Katherine of Aragon. Book 1 is the story of Thomas Cromwell’s ascendancy delivering what Cardinal Wolsey could not, a pretext to break with Katherine (and Rome) to marry Anne. Book 2 is the fall of Anne, again told from the perspective of Cromwell. Mantel’s sparse but lengthy writing is inspired, mostly because of the thin line she presents between Cromwell’s imagined deft thinking and expressed vocabulary. Cromwell emerges as the true modernist in the bunch, whether or not that can be supported with historic inquiry. In her postscript, however, Mantel does acknowledge that the historical scholarship on Cromwell is thin and out of date. I do like very much how he is portrayed by Mark Rylance in the BBC adaptation, which is remarkably faithful to the writing. Certainly her books are the premiere novelistic words on the subject. Book 3 lands in April 2020. Yum.

Comment on Richard Powers, The Overstory

In the middle of reading, The Overstory by Richard Powers, a beautiful, necessary, frustrating, devastating story about trees. I opened google maps and put my finger in the middle of the Central Cascade mountains. I needed to see trees. This forest in Western Washington is so precious and necessary. The program told me it would only take a bit over an hour to get to the center of the trees. I drove there, took a short hike, and made and posted a photograph.The photograph is an accurate representation of a breathtakingly beautiful place. But it’s a lie. In the foreground of that photograph is stump. There are far too many stumps in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. And there are entirely too few old trees.The entire loop that I drove, including a forest road 3000 feet up into the depth of the green, was all second growth. The area that took me three hours to drive—sometimes at 80 mph; sometimes at 30—every last mountainside, valley, and hill, no matter how steep or remote, had been clear cut. I saw no more than three trees that were over 100 years old. And, the ground away from the road on all sides was torn up and pitted from profound disturbance. I am beginning to wonder just how much old growth forest is left in this country. The book roughly follows my own environmental activism. I was stunned to see how little we were able to protect.A friend commented on an earlier version of this post that climate change is as much about the killing of trees as it is about the pumping of carbon. She is correct. Powers’ book won the Pulitzer Prize. I think everyone should read it.

Image may contain: tree, sky, plant, outdoor, nature and water

Somewhere in the North Cascades. Photo by author © 2019


Esi Edugyan, Washington Black

I really enjoyed reading Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. As far as historical fiction goes, the author presented a well-researched book of Caribbean slavery while touching in important issues of white guilt and salvation, pointing out in an eminently readable volume that much of abolitionist fervor was fired by fears of damnation of white souls rather than violence inflicted upon black bodies. Washington Black of the title has an extraordinary mind, and the novel leaves open the question of the exquisite misery of intelligence being lost to brute labor. What happens to all those extraordinary minds and those extraordinary people who are treated worse than beasts of burden? How does a thinker trapped in such misery process injustice and boredom? Although the book is very much framed by the experience of English slavery, the plight of smart women in any stratum of society is also in focus, albeit not so sharply. I had trouble putting it down.

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“Germ Theory” and Intellectual Laziness

David M. Oshinsky,  Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital (2016)

Germ Theory

Sometimes I really feel let down by the internet as a device that seems to conserve error, working to level knowledge from the exact to the expedient.

I’m reading David M. Oshinsky’s book Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital (2016) about the eponymous hospital. Oshinsky is, IMHO, one of the best authors of popular history. His books are generally carefully enough researched that historians may rely on them and written so well that everyone can read them. But, Bellevue exposes one problem with popular history: popular isn’t necessarily accurate.

I’m at the point in the story where American doctors chafe under English theories that microbes carry infection. Oshinsky has named this chapter “Germ Theory.” A decade ago, “germ theory” meant August Weissmann’s 1892 anti-Lamarckism: acquired traits could not be transferred from the soma—the body—to the germ plasm, the cells that would become either sperm or egg. If a monkey has an accident and loses its tail, the acquired trait of taillessness wouldn’t break the germ plasm barrier and be passed onto offspring. I’m fairly certain “germ theory” still means that scientific circles.

The internet, however, passes on the much less intellectually demanding, and I’m guessing anti-intellectual, definition of “germ theory” meaning the medical advance caused by the idea (not really a proper theory in the scientific sense of complex workings of nature, to wit the theory of evolution or quantum theory) conjured by Pasteur and Lister that Leeuwenhoek’s “wee beasties” could be reeking havoc and spreading infection on the unwashed hands of doctors in 19th-century hospitals. A Google search of “germ theory” doesn’t bring back any results for germ plasm theory, only references to infection, which I would point out in a history of science is a dead wrong use of the term.

I’m guessing both Oshinsky and Ellen Jovin would tell me that the error has taken hold in English (like saying decimate to mean destroy totally when it historically meant 10 percent—“decimation” was massively destructive because it inflicted collective punishment on random innocents. Every tenth soldier was executed without regard for culpability), and I should let it go. I agree that language, especially English, is fluid, and usage is of paramount importance, but I would argue that accuracy is also important. I wouldn’t be so irritated if I didn’t see such intellectual laziness as problematic in more than just language. I keep hearing in my head that line from JFK’s “Moon” speech, “We choose to go to the moon and the other things in this decade not because they are easy but because they are hard.” I guess most Americans don’t choose the hard path of intellectual rigor. I find it a cultural failing.

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Not About The Melody

Read about the Battle of Kursk at The Daily Beast


I wrote this as a piece of journalism in 2010. The sources I used for it are no longer available on the Internet. This is why I am not well pleased with AP style.

I am planning listen to an intriguing piece of music this weekend, the rarely visited Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber by German composer Paul Hindemith. Hindemith composed it in 1943 in the U.S. Having adapted to his new home, he was displeased when the title was translated into German. Understanding why is key to enjoying this subversive and intelligent piece of music.

Rather than the familiar symphonic trope of variation on theme, this piece of pure modernism is indeed a metamorphosis. Hindemith never disrupts Weber’s melodies—rather he lifts them as whole passages—but he sabotages their orderliness in ways that are mocking, nightmarish, whispering, subversive, and finally brashly triumphant.

The secret of Hindemith’s appropriation and mocking of von Weber lies in the fact that the Nazis denounced Hindemith as a “degenerate” artist. Josef Goebbels called him an “atonal noise-maker” and his compositions “the foulest perversion of modern music.” The composer fled Nazi Germany for Switzerland and then the U.S. The Metamorphosis was his first American composition.

The Metamorphosis is a four-movement symphony that mirrors the stages of oppression, expatriation, and ultimately hope. In the first movement, Hindemith selects a straightforward Romantic dance composed by von Weber but adds, in a technique maintained throughout, a truly modernistic harmonic structure. Whereas music from periods both rational and popular is built on a three note chord structure, Hindemith adds a fourth note harmonic, fundamentally changing the character of the recreated melody into something at once hollow and fat, sinister and mocking, grounded and top heavy, dark and intellectually nimble. He even nods to his new American home and references jazz themes. His composition moves from the bankrupt Nazi emphasis on all things ordered to a gloriously free and fluttering alternative celebration of German creativity.

The second movement is again lifted from von Weber, but this melody will be familiar to fans of opera as it is also the basis for Puccini’s Turandot, the melodie Chinoise referenced by Enlightenment rationalist Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 17th century. The theme never finds denouement but is rather tested and restated using all compositional tools. Increasingly frenetic repetition and contentious inversion become a metaphor for a frightened idea (German art?) trapped and shrieking for escape. This butterfly (or more like a nighttime moth) exhausts itself against the bars of its brass cage. The pure frantic adrenaline and traded phrases leads one to believe that Hindemith visited the jazz clubs of Harlem, listening to proto-bebop’s reassertion of non-linear musical thinking. Will to power thus succumbed to coded dissent.

The slow third movement stands out for its relative calm, until one reflects that subversion is best served quietly. Mirroring von Weber’s own English-language opera Oberon, written for the King of England about the king of the fairies, Hindemith becomes Oberon’s Puck. He carries out von Weber’s vision but with a mischievous wit that ultimately subverts the will of the leader (Der Fuhrer?). Hindemith’s reworking of von Weber here is at its most subtle, perhaps walking the same perilous line as Hindemith did before he finally fled the Nazi scourge, having to whisper around corners when he found his expression barred and his life in danger in 1938 Berlin. Rather than frantically flying at the bars of his intellectual cage he quietly exited stage left to neutral ground.

The finale of the Metamorphosis (a march) playfully resurrects a historical double entendre and reflects a jazz influence. Its opening bears a striking resemblance to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 (“The Tragic”). Some critics argue that Mahler also took elements from the music of von Weber. And, Mahler had been forced to flee from the Nazis in 1933 because he was Jewish, and his music was similarly denounced as “degenerate.” This tragedy is a dirge, yet the symphony concludes with a rousing, nearly martial triumph. The march is not of saints into heaven, however. Whereas Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 captures Napoleonic imperialism, Hindemith represents the Wehrmacht as it goose-stepped over Poland.

The tide of World War II turned in 1943. The North Africa campaign ended in a Nazi defeat, Allied forces invaded Europe through Italy, and the Battle of Kursk halted the German army outside Moscow and began its retreat to Berlin. With the ebullience and solidarity of a fight song, but undercut by a feverish snare drum reminiscent of machine-gun bursts, the Metamorphosis ends with triumph brought by military victory, the defeat of evil, and winged victory escaping the foolish consistency demanded by small minds.

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Industrial Scales


Artwork at the Grenze, the former E/W Germany border, near Meiningen

I gave a short lecture to my History 147 class at Tacoma Community College on Thursday. The subject was an overview of what the U.S. was like in and around 1800. I would have liked to assign Crèvecouer (or at least selections) as the first reading for a history class centered on the 19th century, but alas, I cannot assign a whole book (or even a chunk of one) per week. The reading just wouldn’t get done. Also, half my class had taken me for History 146, the 17th and 18th centuries, so I needed to give context to everyone without going over familiar territory (to my great satisfaction, information had successfully moved from short term to long term memory in most of the familiar faces). Fundamentally, the line drawn along the edge of the 19th century—the Early American Republic—by many historians is between pre-industrial America and industrial America.


Cottage Industry in the late 18th century



Industrial spinning in the 19th century


Industrial spinning in the early 20th century. Photo by Lewis Hine.


Textile mill in the 21st century. Most of the work is still done by women. The scale is not radically larger than in the early 20th century.

The Second Industrial Revolution began in the end of the 18th century and continued until the end of the 20th. Worldwide, however, no period of time is more marked by Industrialization as the 19th century. The one patent, the one invention in America that so changed everything was of course the Cotton Gin, invented by Eli Whitney in 1793. The Gin made cotton into the worldwide staple that it still is today, and it fundamentally altered work and labor as it had been understood for centuries. Even worse, the machine gave slavery a fresh breath of air, tearing the U.S. apart within 70 years of its invention. The Cotton Gin was an industrial invention, which changed the scale on which labor was performed in the United States.


Before the Gin, labor (including slave labor) in the U.S. preceded at the pace of agriculture and on the scale of a cottage industry. Machines speeded up and rendered efficient motions that had been performed on the scale of communities and at the speed of one human’s hands. Formerly organic work became divisible into repetitive tasks. Machines set the pace, and the machines could always be speeded up. To use Marxist language, the result was labor being alienated from the worker. The product became the focal point of economic consideration, not the man or woman who did the labor. Suddenly, skills were less important than mere numbers. Industrialization was the birth of the unskilled worker, the cog who could be replaced when worn out, just like any other gear in the machine. “Labor saving” machines only seem to create savings on paying for labor. Ergonomics were rarely taken into consideration, and work became more and divided until all the six needed was pulling a lever.

Scale, however, is what I am trying to convey to my students. Oxford defines industrial scale as “very large.” Yes, but the venerable dictionary also allows the definition of “a lot” for the scale of decimation, literally “removal of a tenth.” Decimation is historically connected the Roman army and the penalty for cowardice. Decimations penalized the entire army in a “democratic” fashion, by executing every tenth man. 10 percent is not “a lot,” so the terror of decimation was not its scale but rather the wanton and indiscriminate way in which it chose its victims. Culpability never entered into the equation. Culpability is a concept coeval with individualism. Rounding up the usual suspects has far more historical precedent than worrying about guilt or innocence. Consider it caste control. The last time it was used was supposedly in the Soviet Army, at the siege of Leningrad.

Decimation only denotes a catastrophe of numbers if one inverts its arithmetic to mean 90 percent, but my guess is that 100 percent of the people who use “decimate” to mean crush in near entirety have no idea that the words they truly seek are destroy, devastate, obliterate, demolish, overwhelm, and other synonyms. Similarly, an event that takes place on a “industrial scale” has a specific historical connection, and again, its scary arithmetic lies not in numbers but rather in its literal inhumanity. Machines do not feel. treating humans like machines, and then raising that to a social ideal, is the basis of fascism.

People who live in big cities like New York or LA or Chicago might be disappointed if they ever encountered anything on an industrial scale. To the masses in Times Square, a 19th-century factory (even a 20th-century floor) would seem puny. We measure things on a post-industrial scale, a global scale. Good, old fashioned industrialization would disappoint anyone who has interacted with the Internet and traveled on bullet trains. Brutalist architecture, including Albert Speer’s unimaginative Nazi monoliths, is industrial scale. The HMS Titanic was industrial scale, and most modern cruise ships would dwarf it. Compared to the human form, these examples are huge, but they only stun when compared to what had come before. Today, industrial is rather diminutive.


RMS Olympic had the same props as the Titanic

Industrial scale is frightening, however. The Civil War was war on an industrial scale. The same can be said for World War I. The bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed far more people per weapon than anything else before or since. Nuclear war is post-industrial war. The Holocaust was industrial killing. There was process, order, dispassion, clockwork: efficiency. Industry requires human interaction to make a product, those interchangeable cogs that keep the machinery running. When there were no more people to murder, Chelmno, Belzec, and Sobibor closed. There was no more need for their product. Post-industrial is also, uncoincidentally, post-human.

Two centuries of industrialization have been disastrous because human life in an industrial regime became normalized. Rather than huge, industrial means disproportionate to human life, disproportionate to human needs. Industrial is inherently devastating to natural processes, be that of sleep cycles, environmental systems, or the long health of joints and lungs and hearts and minds. Repetition is useful, but bodies are not machines, neither is the environment. Natural systems are efficient, but efficiency is amoral. Anything on the industrial scale is inherently amoral; the farther the core measure or any human-designed system is removed from its conscionable locus—the human being—the more immoral it becomes. Using the industrial ideal as a basis for social interactions is, at its base, fascist.



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Final American history 2016


Siege of Constantinople: The capture of Constantinople “blocked” the Silk Road.


The 95 Theses: The Reformation set off religious wars.


The Three Sisters: Europeans wanted Native American land


I had the dubious distinction of teaching American history, Pre-Columbus to 1800 in the fall quarter (the Pacific Northwest is on the quarter system; courses are 5 credits per, and 3 courses is a full load for 10 weeks). In my syllabus, the election fell on the week we were discussing the Federalist papers and the formation of the Constitution. Lucky me, to have to explain the Electoral College on election night. This quarter, this year, this century thus far: all hot messes. I find it more and more difficult to teach the history of the US when I feel as though we are in very real danger of witnessing the end of the Republic.

Perhaps the most chilling aspects of this election cycle were the triumph of propaganda on television news and on the Internet and the vehemence of the propagandists’ steadfast followers. From my perspective, this unfortunate mix of ignorance and manipulation will only get worse when the children affected by the “No Child Left Behind” testing frenzy and other politicization of education reach voting age (very soon). My students who are directly out of high school (or still in high school and attending community college through Washington State’s “Running Start” program), show an alarming inability to think independently or critically. They have been tested into obedience. Since kindergarten, this generation has been told that there are correct and quantifiable answers for everything.

The liberal arts are an antidote to that kind of rigid thinking. Since I am a Kool-Aid swilling member of the cult of liberal arts and critical thinking, I could not let my students leave my class with the same level of zombiedom they entered with. (If I left the class for a moment to go to the loo or deal with an interruption, they were perfectly quiet when I returned. It is spooky and unnatural.) So, I wrote the final exam for my course with this liberal arts sensitivity in mind. I will receive the same answers as I would have if I had phrased the questions in the usual history speak, but I made it much harder by requiring independent judgment and freedom of thought. Also, to complete the exam, the students need to employ more than just critical thinking, narrative history method, and study habits. The formula requires thinking more suited to the physical sciences (and law) than the liberal arts. In essence, they have to recognize a faulty equation, fix it, and solve for two variables. Yes, My history exam is algebraic. Math is a liberal art. (So there, troll who laughed at my liberal arts education and told me to pick up a science book—the physical sciences ARE the liberal arts, ye wee numpty.)

I welcome feedback in the form of constructive criticism, reasoned and civil discourse, honest and helpful suggestions, and penetrating questions. To head off the first criticism, I fully prepared the students for this from day one and held two review sessions in which I gave them the answers. We also had mini listening and reading workshops during the quarter. My course is designed as Atlantic history integrating social, political, intellectual, environmental, and cultural history. I “race” and “gender” the master narrative and count Native American tribes as sovereign nations in commerce with Europeans.


The Fall Line dictated the size of any agricultural labor force.


Racial construction created an easily identifiable caste of unfree agricultural workers.



Final Exam

History 146: North America Pre-Columbus to 1800

Tacoma Community College

December 2016

Rather than give you a traditional final exam, I want you find the habit of questioning all assertions for logical consistency, historical accuracy, and intentional manipulation. This is now your civic duty. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

As we have gone over in class and in the review on Dec. 1 in the final class of the quarter, please follow the instructions carefully, and then upload your answers to this page in one document file.


Much of the news coverage this autumn surrounding the election of 2016 was more akin to emotional assertion and opinion than factual reportage. The situation was so bad that the Oxford English Dictionary, the record of the English language, added the hyphenated word “post-truth” to the official lexicon. Transparency and effective journalism are necessary in order maintain an informed electorate. When opinionated emotion and supposition rule over fact-based reporting and reasoned discourse, democracy itself is in danger.

Too often, a non-expert on television seeks to end discourse with a classic logical fallacy, the appeal to authority. Especially for college students studying history, critical examinations of assertions of authority are necessary. The most common attempt to justify a position has been, “America was founded on the principle of _____________!” Fill in the blank, and this statement seems to carry a great deal of weight. But, as we have discussed many times in class, this statement is far from complete, is oversimplified, and is, in essence, incorrect, no matter how one fills in the blank. Which America? Which founding? Is there a principle or just an expedient method? The word “the” is most obviously problematic because there are certainly more than one “founding” principles.

Your assignment is to complete the statement, to fill in the blank, explain your choice, and connect it to the United States c. 1804. However, you must first change the statement so that it is accurate. “America” is a hemisphere, and, in the time period covered by History 146, parts of “America” were claimed by at least five European powers and thousands of Native American tribes. To fill in the blank, you will have to specify which America you mean. British North America? The Early American Republic? The Revolutionary Era? New England, the Middle Colonies, Tidewater, or the South? Jefferson’s America? Hamilton’s? You will also have to verify that “founded” is the correct verb. Is “coalesced” a more appropriate term? Also, was there actually a principle involved, or can you argue that a system of labor procurement was in play?

Similarly, if you answer using the ideas of the any of the Enlightenment “Founders,” please make sure you articulate the fact that the ideas swirling around both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were contradictory. If you answer the question for Jefferson, you need to acknowledge the Federalists and vice versa. If you answer with any freedom mentioned in these documents, be prepared to explain the history of that idea on this continent and/or in Europe or from Native Americans. One very large and flexible answer is “commerce”; one especially difficult answer is “hypocrisy.” Remember, Virginia and Massachusetts were two very different societies from the beginning, as were the Caribbean and Louisiana.

I expect you to construct the statement in two different ways and write at least four pages, double-spaced, 12-point Times or Times New Roman for each statement, about 1000 words per answer.

What I want is for you to pull on a thread in the history we have studied this quarter and explain how that subject contributed to the identity of the nation in 1800. In addition, you should be prepared to discuss certain aspects of correlation or opposition to the topic you pick. For example, many have suggested the answer with slavery. I think that is a good answer. You must give a short narrative history of slavery, explain why it answers the “founding” part of the question, and include a discussion of race formation. Without discussing race formation, you cannot give an accurate answer to the answer of how slavery was foundational. True, it was an economic system, but the social and political realities of race were solidly integrated into the national character by 1800 as much as the South relied on the economic benefits of a captive workforce. As we have discussed, there are many, many ways to complete the statement. Pick two, describe how each evolved, and explain why they are so important to the concept “America” as to be considered foundational.

An “A” answer would include:

  • An accurate reformulation of the statement “America was founded on the principle of ______________”;
  • A historically accurate answer (for example, “capitalism” is not historically accurate);
  • An accurate timeline (in terms of cause and effect, not an absolute date timeline) of the principle/institution/concept/activity you choose to explain;
  • A cogent explanation of how and why your answer was manifest in the politics, culture, social structure, or even geography of the United States, c. 1804;
  • A successful demonstration that you use a dictionary to look up words you do not know;
  • Evidence of hard work and engagement with the substance of the course;
  • A demonstration of critical and lateral thinking. Outside the box is good too. Just tie it all together in a killer conclusion.

You are NOT required (or permitted) to do any of the following:

  • Completely answer the question. That would be impossible as an undergraduate or in 4 pages.
  • Use any materials extraneous to the class. Use ONLY lecture/discussion notes, PowerPoints (up on Canvas), your textbook, and additional readings either handed out in class or posted on Canvas.
  • Use footnotes or citations. If you quote the Declaration of Independence or the Sermon on the Arabella, simply identify the document and the speaker. For example, “John Winthrop called the new society ‘a cittie upon a hill’ in his sermon on the Arabella.” No notes required.
  • Use the thinking of someone else. I want you to work your way through the answer yourself.
  • Panic. This is doable because you are smart and able.
  • Plagiarize. This is doable because you are fierce and competent.


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Filed under 2016 election, American history, Environment, Higher Education, Ideas, Intellectual History, Pedagogy, Resistance, teaching, Thinking, US Constitution

Thanksgiving is dissent

Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday in 1863 in an attempt to point out the cultural unity of the nation. It’s date was fixed as the third Thursday in November in 1941 by FDR. The holiday fit neatly into the idea of the Four Freedoms campaign against the forces of fascism. The horrific news coming from South Dakota’s oil spill sobers us on the national day of unity, but remember the spirit of the holiday was officially memorialized in the wake of the Gettysburg address, which promised that government of, by, and for the people “shall not perish from the Earth,” and in the wake of FDR’s promise that the spirit of American freedom, no matter how un-inclusive it was in 1941, eternally meant an oasis from fear and want and freedom of speech and religion.

The origins of the holiday are relevant because irony is strong and our country is in the hands of the enemies of the likes of Lincoln and FDR, but let us try to remember who we can be this Thanksgiving.

In 2017, Thanksgiving is a holiday of dissent from fascism, slavery, and the police state. Lincoln declared in the Gettysburg Address that all American freedoms were one, and the 14th Amendment attempted to bring that into being. FDR waved it in the faces of the Nazis. Try to remember THAT Thanksgiving message.

Native Americans saved the lives of the first European settlers in New England. Euro-Americans should return the favor this holiday. Donate:–dakota-access-pipeline-donation-fund/

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Letter To the Electoral College

Here is my email to 122 electors. Feel free to copy and share. 

Dear Elector,

My name is Dr. Kate Sampsell-Willmann. I am from Baltimore, but I currently live in a town in Washington State that is suffering from extreme poverty. 

I am a professional historian and teacher. The US, the first democracy after the fall of Rome, is the only democracy in the world with an Electoral College. Its purpose, as stated by Alexander Hamilton, is to protect the Republic from a demagogue who would tear this nation apart, someone who is unschooled in the requirements of the task and who would act to benefit only one sector of this diverse union. 

There are many divisive factions in America, a state of affairs also feared by those who wrote the Constitution. There always will be. Today, we call these lines of difference “culture wars.” Different issues divided us in 1787, but the disagreement was equally harsh. The three branches of government were designed to check and balance one another. With openly political, and worse, patronage, appointments to the Supreme Court, this balance of power may not operate as a check any longer. Viewed in context with the Senate’s refusal, on partisan grounds, to confirm a Justice whom they had previously deemed competent, the checks on power seem poised to fall. If one principle of the Constitution falls, what will guard rest? Need there ever be elections again?

The Electoral College is the last defense to keep the basic design of the US government in tact. This is not a partisan plea; this is a historian’s lament. No one person or group is meant to have complete power in the US. Please, go back and read the Federalist Papers (esp. 68); go back and look at Judge Garner’s approval by this same Senate; ask yourself whether it is plausible that the African American vote was suppressed in swing states, in any state. If any of these gives you pause, then please fulfill your Constitutional role and act as a brake on the forces of prejudice and hatred. In this case, the winner of the popular vote is the best choice for stable and competent government. 

While many protest, their action is tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Your decision to attend to the popular vote and your original mandate under the Constitution is our last and only hope to avoid the iceberg. 
Thank you for your time and consideration, I appreciate and respect the role you serve in our electoral process.


Kate Sampsell-Willmann, JD, PhD

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Filed under 2016 election, Intellectual History, teaching, US Constitution

Word Salad for Berniestan

Bernie sent me an email asking for my opinions on the Democratic platform. 


Please, make room for support of the arts. Expand grants to individuals, make an Americorps but for gifted art students. Help Americans make art, write, dance, sing. Issue in a new Federal One, Great Society. Hire artists to work in every community to help everyone, from the young to the old, make art.

Deregulate schools. Let teachers teach. Get rid of standardized testing. Put art, recess, music, science, beauty, and wonder back into schools.

Let doctors make medical decisions, not insurance companies or legislatures. Decriminalize all drugs. Legalize marijuana. Be Portugal on this. End the war on drugs completely. End the war on terrorism. You can’t wage war against a tactic. Didn’t Vietnam teach us anything?

*****Pass legislation that requires any institution of higher education that receives federal funds to maintain 75% full time faculty and at maximum 1:10 administrator:faculty ratio. We need to take back our institutions of higher ed. Fund programs to increase literacy and creative thinking. Fund history departments.******

Reduce the size of the military. Cut wasteful programs and stupid, expensive airplanes. Extend citizenship to military translators and anyone who puts him or herself in harm’s way for our nation. Accept a million Syrian refugees. Repopulate the rust belt with refugees. Help them build a better, fairer, more diverse America.

Address longstanding neglect of and malice to Native American populations. For the love of all that’s sacred. This is past due.

Nationalize the Internet. Provide free high speed, fiber optic Internet to every person on the planet.

Stop measuring economic growth in terms of new housing starts. Stop building new housing. Invest in mass transit and encourage movement of people into cities rather than sprawling across the countryside.

I would like to live in a world where it is illegal to cut down trees, where mold injection factories replace sawmills to produce building materials. Replace logging jobs with solar power or sustainable building materials jobs. Take plastic waste and repurpose it to inject into molds to make internal structures for houses ad other buildings. Put no more land to plow; cut down no more trees.

Stop the navy from conducting sonar experiments in waters frequented by marine mammals. Expand wild spaces. If the US rents land to ranchers, charge 21st century prices.

I support all of the choices on your ballot above but have only checked the most important, giving leeway to negotiate.
1. Money out of politics
2. Climate change

Eliminate corporate welfare, raise taxes dramatically on those with gross incomes over $500,000. Tax the crap out of the rich and redistribute income.

On November 9, I hope you form a new party, call it labor or green or progressive. I would like to see two Amendments to the Constitution:

1: ERA including a woman’s right to choose
2. Clarify the second amendment to allow the federal government to regulate the purchase of weapons and ban categories altogether.

If you wanted to introduce a new separation of powers idea, that would be great. In this case the separation of powers would be between finance and politics, providing for federally financed elections. You can get rid of the electoral college too. It should go the way of the appointed Senate.

This country should do everything and anything to promote democracy. End gerrymandering, pass a voting rights act, allow anyone who pays taxes to vote. Get the wizards of silicon valley to figure out a way to count votes. How can I convince young people to vote when the parties don’t even bother counting the votes?!? Expand the civil service and make election monitoring a non-partisan issue, observed by the UN if need be.

If a person dies in state custody of any kind, open a federal investigation.


Make postal banks. Build mass transit. Fix infrastructure. JAIL BANKERS. Release from jail all those convicted on drug offenses. Put them in charge of dispensaries. Tax the hell out of it. Find expertise in more general places. Reduce the corporatization of everyday life. Celebrate individuality not individualism.

Demand an IQ test and screening for psychopathology for all candidates for national office. Apply earmarks nationally. If one state gets a grant, make sure all the States get grants. Build good, union jobs for all Americans.

*****Insert into the oath of office a line about preserving the separation of church and state. If a member of Congress or a judge or any official in any jurisdiction cannot legislate or lead or perform the duties of office without openly advocating one religion over another, he or she should be removed from office.****

Extend Civil Rights protections based on gender, sexual orientation, and national origin. Craft a great ERA.

Create cabinet level positions on climate change/science/population.

Create national societies (like the Royal Societies) for historians, for artists, for creative types and critical thinkers. Identify the best minds in the country and nourish them, protect them, EMPLOY THEM! Be a patron for the smart people. Give us jobs. Let us help.

Keep doing this, asking for ideas. Beyond voting, this also feels like a participatory democracy. There are a lot of smart people in the nation. Why do only the small minds get the airtime?

Find some place for Wolf Blitzer to spend his retirement away from the TV. Hire Jon Stewart to do something very important.


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Time to Rally

Yes, I have a friend who is a Republican. I was party to a conversation on his Facebook feed about what Republicans shall do should HRC get the Democratic nomination. He loathes Trump, and according to his circle, HRC does not share the same principles, so no votes would be going her way either. Everyone is talking about writing a name in. To do so when faced with potentially the biggest threat to our Republic is selfish at best. I won’t say what it is at worst.

No, many of use cannot have it exactly the way we want it. I wonder how many of my fellow Democrats really, really wanted John Kerry (or Michael Dukakis) for president. We on the left have had to face many disappointments over these years, yet, for the most part, we go on trying to govern civilly even in the face of brutal racism and near-treasonous obstructionism from the Teabags. We soldier on. I told those Republicans (who happen to be soldiers) that in the face of the threat to our nation, complaining about not getting what one WANTS is childish and cowardly.

Well people, there are 2 threats to our Republic. We in this nation, whether we accept it or not, have an opportunity to change the path our nation takes. If for no other reason, Bernie Sanders’s remarkable success should show each person how every single citizen has power. We need to take these threats seriously, or the consequences will be dire. We can’t ask soldiers to fight this battle. We all have a part to play. We must stop Trump, and we must kick the Tea Party out of Congress.

Our divided nation is unique in one very important way; in the election of 1800 power transferred, for the first time in the West in 2000 years, from the party in office to the opposition without violent upheaval. In much of the world, such smooth functioning of government is rare. As Thomas Jefferson said upon his ascension to the presidency in 1801, “We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans.” Well, we are all Democrats; we are all Republicans. We cannot ask our  fellow citizens in the GOP to vote for someone they do not like without doing it ourselves.

I’ve been guilty of a bit of public complaining, OK whining, about how things have shaken out. It’s out of my system. Although I am genuinely sorry that a serious left-wing did not emerge victorious in the here and now, a movement has been born. This was never to be a revolution. Revolutions are bloody and swift. History has shown us that substantial and permanent political change takes more than one election cycle.

So let us make sure that sustained and progressive political change is what we will have. Commit to having a wider attention span than a primary election cycle. Identify and support every single Progressive candidate running for Congress and donate, phone bank, or knock on doors. Support the long shots; put all that passion to work to vote OUT every obstructionist who will hold our nation hostage to the tantrums of a few. Fill the Congress with responsible legislators.

Of equal importance is the need to defeat Donald Trump. His threat to America is real. Commit to swallow your need to get what you want; commit to skip the symbolism this time around; commit to be selfless and brave and unswerving. Commit to vote for whomever is the Democratic nominee for president on July 25. The enemy we face is far more serious than any single personal preference. W was bad enough; what Trump will do to this country, to our economy, to our foreign policy, to our culture is unthinkable. Don’t vote for someone this time; vote against Trump.

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An American Reading Arendt in Kyrgyzstan

I taught in the former Soviet Union for exactly three years. The first time that I, a baby boomer, sat foot in the Soviet Union proper was the day I arrived to teach, June 4, 2011. Sure, after 1990, the former Warsaw bloc opened. As curious backpackers or enthusiastic researchers, it became possible to visit wonders hidden by die Mauer. Some even made Russia itself a regular visit. But, I was teaching in the Kyrgyz Republic, most commonly known as Kyrgyzstan.

Nestled amongst neighbors as diverse and dangerous as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China, Kyrgyzstan is also comfortably close to Mongolia, Afghanistan (which explained the Manas Transit Center at the international airport), and, of course, Mother Russia. Kyrgyzstan is a tiny democracy, hopelessly corrupt, and teetering on the edges of full-on ethnic conflict (with its Uzbek neighbors) and a full-on charge to breakdown in infrastructure. The nation also happens to one of the most beautiful and wild places left on this planet. All in all, a heartbreaking place with which it is easy to fall in love. Teaching there, at the American University of Central Asia, was itself a unique experience because of the historical borderland that is the Silk Road.

Since graduating from Georgetown in 2002 with a Ph.D. in U.S. history, I have held positions in the U.S., Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, and now Kyrgyzstan. As a large part of my position at AUCA, I am a teacher trainer who conducts faculty workshops in methods of student-centered teaching and strategies to teach specific subject matter. I work with local faculty to encourage them to inspire students to think critically rather than memorizing the material and regurgitating a “correct” answer (as has been the technique in every country where I’ve taught). Instead, teachers are expected to help student understand the themes in any given piece of writing and propose questions for students to answer (in college-level English). Especially with those educated in the Soviet Union (anyone over 45), this is an especially difficult challenge. The other challenge is to help foreign faculty to adjust, not downgrade, their expectations for our students. Our students are an interesting mix of children from staunchly Soviet parents and of traditional families living in villages with basic amenities. In a sense, every student has special needs, depending on the provenance of his or her teacher. That I have been teaching overseas since 2002 and have faced a multitude of challenges, all of which has made me more flexible and a better teacher/colleague, has given me the perspective to stand astride this cultural confluence and help each help the other.

All of my international posts have had two things in common: a dominating patriarchy and at least a nominal Islamic majority. Neither of those circumstances have manifested too obviously in my teaching—after all, I take the position that I am teaching U.S. history; if a student wants to find a parallel in his or her own culture, well that’s not on me. In some of these places, one must be careful about criticizing the government or religion or give the hint of proselytizing (it is hard to teach Colonial America without teaching Puritanism). I’ve walked that line carefully and well. Kyrgyzstan is unique in one way, and it has to do with the influence of the U.S.

In addition to history, I was teaching and co-directing the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking sponsored First Year Seminar Program. Luckily, in 2014 I had the opportunity to teach Hannah Arendt’s “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship.” All of my students from the CIS countries (we also have student cohorts from South Korea and Afghanistan) have a clear history of the Great Patriotic War etched into their conscious minds, one even might call it an institutional memory. Many times overseas I must check to make sure university students have a basic familiarity with the ideas on display. For example, my students in the former Soviet Union know almost nothing about World War II in the Pacific. I say almost, because the atomic bomb is the only element of American or British participation in the war they are taught in high schools. So, when discussing Arendt, I did not have to explain who Adolph Eichmann was and what he represented, but I did have confront angry accusations of American atomic warfare on an innocent Japan. This is what we call a teaching moment.

Instead of focusing on the war itself, I focused on Arendt’s basic message: in times of moral reversal, failure to think, to conduct and internal dialogue with oneself, breeds personal responsibility. Interestingly, a later reading, the excerpt “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, claims that failing to think—experiencing great events as a member of a herd—exorcizes responsibility. Yet Arendt was correct; events such as the Holocaust require review of “automatic” morality. When all of life inverts, when that which was moral is then immoral, the illegal made legal, failing to think creates responsibility and therefore culpability. Her example is the moral upheaval that was National Socialism. Yet, another moment of moral reversal clung to edge of my consciousness, and I was almost afraid to bring it up, mostly because academic freedom is a fairy story we tell to graduate students to keep them from fearing the future. The very students had experienced a profound moral reversal, and they had failed to think the consequences through.

In 1991, Kyrgyzstan became an independent nation. At no time in history prior to 1991 was the territory now called Kyrgyzstan ever a nation state. The Soviets carved the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic from the rest of Central Asia out of subtle linguistic differences among other Turkic languages, such as Kazakh and Uzbek, and primarily Mongolian features that the Kyrgyz share with Kazakhs and Yakuts in Siberia. The nation that was never a nation is now finding itself with a rising and fervent nationalism, which is not the only lasting feature of a post-Soviet world. Kyrgyzstan is unique amongst its neighbors in that it attempts to be a democracy, and despite two revolutions in twenty years, the last president, Rosa Otembayava, did leave her position on schedule. That makes one peaceful change of power, something no other CIS nation can boast.

Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan is multiethnic. In addition to the sizable Uzbek minority in the south of the nation, the environs around Bishkek, the capital, were Stalin’s dumping grounds in the late 1930s: Tatars from the Crimea, Volga Germans, Jews, and Chechens (including the Dzharnaev family whose sons moved to Boston) were all relocated to the country so far from anywhere else. Perhaps this is why the U.S. decided to focus its aid and military cooperation on Kyrgyzstan, or perhaps it is the long Chinese border, but in any case, Kyrgyzstan’s blatantly corrupt economy is propped up by payment from the United States. The only other single industry in the nation is a gold mine operated by a Canadian firm that is under constant threat of nationalization by the government and attack on horseback by the local villagers. Kyrgyzstan is afloat because of American money. And, with American aid comes American ideology, and since World War II, American diplomacy demands adherence to the political idea of the free market economy. And there is where the moral reversal lies.

Ingrained in American foreign policy is the sanctity of the open market, the inviolability of contracts. In the spirit of Arendt, the “automatic” go-to philosophy taught in America is the so-called free market, the greatest mythological expression of which is the self-employed success. Only with careful thought that feel as though borders on the treasonous does the adult come to realize that this philosophy confused with mother’s milk is itself morally questionable. To counter, the “automatic” philosophy of citizens of the Soviet Union was the violence that was the free market and the superiority of communism. Adults also questioned (inwardly) the hegemony of the Comintern, but a freer market certainly did no mean the vacuum of social support that is the American ideal (and thankfully, not the entire American reality). In the CIS, one day communism was the rule; seemingly the next day, capitalism came hand-in-hand with American aid. Included in this ideological shift was a profound moral reversal.

America’s assumed inviolability of contracts is morally compromised in idea, and perhaps completely immoral in application. At the base of contract law lies the fiction that parties who are contracting are similarly situated enough to be considered equals. The contract provides for obligations for both parties as spelled out in the document. A contract is a legal promise. The problem with this fiction is rarely, if ever, are parties contracting truly equal. When the powerful contract with the weak, there is very rarely the change to bargain honestly, and if the stronger party doesn’t keep up its end, who will make them? Certainly not the weaker party. A contract is an opportunity for abuse.

In the Soviet Union, the situation was reversed. The State existed to protect the weaker party, banning “the freedom” of contract. While not perfect, the ruling idea was not to take advantage of the weak however one can. The ruling idea was to protect the weak, “Each according to his abilities.” The old had pensions, the ill had treatment, the artists had jobs, and the swindlers had jail. After 1991, the old, the ill, and the artists had the street and the swindlers ran the country and the black markets.The strong man, like Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, became the hero, and public utilities around the region crumbled.

The western democracies had so successfully branded communism as evil that its opposite must be good, so when what had been billed as the opposite arrived, the capitalists painted themselves as liberators. Unfortunately, some of America’s freedoms are freedom to starve, to freeze, to be discarded. In times of moral reversal (especially when the change is so dramatic), failure to think breeds personal responsibility. In Kyrgyzstan, at least, a new generation has accepted without question that communism was bad and capitalism is good just because America said it was. Moral reversal came to the CIS, and no one questioned it at all. Perhaps this helps to explain the popularity of Vladimir Putin. He questioned America, and in so doing became a dictator. The U.S. needs to divorce the free market from its foreign policy. Let people have their social welfare states; perhaps the world will end up with fewer dictators.

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Filed under #bishkek, Autobiography, Cultural differences, Foreign Policy, Former Soviet Union, Hannah Arendt, Higher Education, Ideas, Kyrgyzstan, Thinking