Orchid Show

I took a break yesterday and visited the New York Botanical Garden, where the annual orchid exhibition just opened. Instead of writing, I thought I would just post some images.

What a lovely facility.













Finally, we wandered outside of the Haupt Conservatory and discovered this collection of sculpture, each representing the four seasons. Frankly, I think Spring looks a lot like the late Peter O’Toole.





What the Trouble with healthcare.gov Really Tells Us

The recent implementation of the healthcare.gov website garnered considerable media coverage, as poor functionality and reliability provided fodder for politicians, partisans, and pundits. One of the more common causes cited for the disappointing launch was programming incompetence, but some discussion of a broken procurement system lent a bit of variety to the discussion. Right-wing ideologues took advantage of the situation to demonize the public sector and renew their call for further privatization (see the so-called “Yellow Pages” letter) although much of the development work was actually carried out by private contractors. I think much of this misses the heart of the matter: the implementation of healthcare.gov highlights weaknesses in the core IT competence of the United States government (public sector) at a time when technology should be a central component of our strategy for global competitiveness.

Office WorkersEssentially, I am making the argument that bureaucracy offers important benefits that Washington, D.C. should embrace. Despite its negative connotation, a certain level of bureaucracy is essential to any organization wishing to grow and codify its position, whether that organization is a powerful nation-state or a multinational corporation. As large organizations create rules and processes to operate efficiently and effectively, cultural knowledge develops. This cultural knowledge — vetted and evangelized throughout the organization — represents intelligence that provides competitive advantage, branding, and a language for customer interaction. It is organizational knowledge that is passed between generations, which promotes stability and, like many forms of knowledge, confers competitive advantage. Despite being described as anti-democratic and despotic, bureaucracy learns how to serve its customer (e.g., the current administration) more effectively than an entity from outside of the organization that does not have the same customer relationship.

One current political assertion rarely debated is that outsourcing enables effectiveness by lowering costs through competitiveness. The practice allows public sector departments to shrink their staff while selecting specialists to work on specific projects. Dogma states that the private sector must be more efficient as its workers are highly motivated to excel and attain valued skills. That is possibly supportable when limiting the analysis to balance sheet performance, but the argument certainly collapses when intangibles like strategic advantage are considered. Balance sheets are important, but many truly innovative organizations grant themselves adequate leeway to explore strategic directions that fall well beyond the definition of efficiency, and we laud their behavior. The public sector must innovate, learn, and consolidate just like the private sector, and this can only happen with a distinct and healthy bureaucratic organization. In my experience as a business process analyst, I observed that outsourced partners could not leverage customer knowledge as well as internal teams. When this leverage does not exist, Information Technology is not considered integral to the organization’s mission. Thus, it cannot be strategic, and its benefits are not optimized.

As the century progresses, the level of IT mastery found in our public sector and its incorporation into strategic planning will relate to the level of success experienced in areas such as finance, security, and logistics. Eschewing IT bureaucracy will insure a sub-optimal understanding of customer requirements and exclude this critical asset from strategic planning. Already we see how countries like Taiwan employ technology to drive their health care costs below 7% of GDP, about one-third of the U.S. level. Recent efforts to disrupt the education sector with technology demands that greater care be taken when considering our public education strategy vis-à-vis the industrialized world.

The debacle of healthcare.gov is not a failure of a single development team as much as it is an inadequate response by a depleted system. Cultural knowledge that could have informed the design, construction, and assimilation of new technology has been systematically dismantled over the past three decades. Most important is to remember that bureaucracy is not about political ideology, it is about understanding the framework in which policy is executed. That is cultural intelligence. Because this form of intelligence is not nurtured and passed from generation to generation, our expectations of success must be necessarily lower. The use of outsourced resources to fulfill work orders like healthcare.gov will sacrifice customer awareness and collaboration for characteristics like staffing flexibility. That appears attractive as a tactic, but is useless as a core competence. Policy makers need to consider whether the United States can maintain its hegemony in a technological environment without a robust IT bureaucracy.

Neoliberalism and the God Emperor

I had the television on the other day while talking heads preached the gospel of low taxes and small government inducing economic growth and innovation, and I was overcome by the image of the God Emperor of Dune, Leto Atreides II. What would prompt such an association, short of powerful hallucinogens or a vacuum of social interaction? It is the quandary that we share with Leto II (or he will share with us, since his time is still several aeons in the future.)

Leto, the son of the prophet Muad’Dib, undergoes a physical and mental transformation from man to sandworm. For 1500 years, Leto crafts a new narrative of the human place in the Universe. He squelches independent thought and provides the tyranny that comforts so many in their banal lives. The God Emperor becomes the repository of ambition, risk, and power.

At the time of the story, Leto falls in love with Hwi Noree, the Ixian ambassador who speaks to his lost humanity. He faces two pathways: the most likely and necessary is his death and consequent reorganization of the Universe; but for a time he contemplates a life with Hwi as a human. The important point is that Leto can reverse his metamorphosis, yet he realizes that it will take another 1500 years. And here we come back to the talking heads on television…

For decades we have been sold a narrative that not only prescribes an optimal economic model, but defines our relationship to the community. Despite the fact that considerable evidence demonstrates the deficiencies of this economic model, we continue to build our identity around it and accept the bondage that it imposes. Much as humanity watched the transformation of the God Emperor and accepted his tyranny and order, we fling ourselves down the road of neoliberalism, without questioning its consequences or even our eventual destination.

This may sound trivial, but there are serious implications for the New Left, or whatever is out there in opposition to the American Right. Policy change is difficult and circumscribed without first changing identity through messaging. At present, a unified message does not exist, whether you are watching a Democratic spokesman like Chris Van Hollen on television or following the various fractured factions of the Occupy movement on social media. Until a coherent, alternative identity exists to challenge neoliberalism, catastrophes like the 2008 financial collapse will be inadequate to drive change, and leaders like President Barack Obama will operate within existing political confines. Even failures of the Right will be softened by the framework they have already built.

Too many people see themselves in a rising boat, even if it’s a dinghy. Much of the population matured in an era where no other message was communicated. The reality is that thought leaders are seeking a permanently impoverished working class to provide cheap labor for capital. Until I hear the opposition articulate that far and wide, I will remain skeptical that change is on the horizon.

Summer Reading

Finally, I’m back to reading what I want. It should be a good summer.

Adams, Brooks. The law of civilization and decay; an essay on history. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1897.

Adams wrote one of the first and certainly one of the most influential essays justifying American imperialism (TR cited him.) He and Turner set the tone for American expansionist thought.

Banks, Iain M. Consider Phlebas. New York: Orbit Books, 2008.

I have already started this one, picking it up after hearing about Banks’ cancer. Sadly, he died this week.

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1996.

I need to nurture my creative side a bit.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. Edited by Michel Senellart. Translated by Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

For my Great Famine paper. This may require copious amounts of vodka.

Martin, George R. R. Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice: Book One. New York: Random House Digital, 2003.

I’m hooked on the series. It’s time to try the books.

Nally, David P. Human Encumberances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.

Nally is a geographer and Reader at Cambridge. He wrote a compelling, if sometimes problematic, article on biopolitics and the Great Famine. I’m excited to see what he does with this monograph.

Vance, Jack. Tales of the Dying Earth. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 1998.

Jack Vance was described as the greatest science fiction author you never knew. This is a volume of four novels. You can find me at the lake wall…

Williams, William Appleman. The Contours of American History. New York: Verso, 2011.

Williams was a brilliant and outspoken diplomatic historian. Contours and The Tragedy of American Diplomacy have both been reissued for their 50th anniversaries, with new introductions by Greg Grandin and Andrew Bacevich, respectively (both writing for The American Empire Project.)

Is Redemption Only for the Powerful?

Three news stories collided in today’s expression of serendipity. As they rolled across my desk over the course of several hours, I had to ponder the nature of redemption in the United States.

Jonathan Turley reported about the case of Kaitlyn Hunt, a high school senior in Florida who was dating a younger girl. Unfortunately, Kaitlyn is eighteen, and when the girlfriend’s parents found out about the relationship they filed charges. Kaitlyn is now facing felony charges and the almost certainty of a lifetime on a sex offender registry. The prosecuting attorney is refusing to consider any lesser charges.

In Senate debate today David Vitter introduced an amendment to the Farm Bill that bar certain felons from receiving SNAP (Food Stamp benefits) for life. Someone who gets in trouble as a youth and does his time would be excluded from basic sustenance if they fall on legitimate hard times in the future. Consequently, their children and grandchildren might also suffer. Democrats did not contest the amendment.

And last, and least, Anthony Weiner launched his campaign for mayor of New York City in the dead of night, apparently hoping to miss the morning tabloid cycle. ‘Nuff said.

We are really bad in the United States about accepting the idea of redemption. We used to punish people for their crime, accepting that crime was a part of life. The idea of rehabilitation is fairly new, younger than the age of our country. Today incarceration has mutated into some grotesque beast: nothing is too harsh and the sentence itself cannot provide deterrence for possible future malicious behavior. At least, in certain cases…

Kaitlyn is a good student who has been active in her school. Because she had consensual sex with someone else in her school, the State of Florida is seeking to deprive her of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I use those phrases because, no matter how you might define the pursuit of happiness, being placed on a sex offender registry for the rest of her life will prevent her from collecting property and wealth. It will damage her ability to earn income. It will create six decades of hardship, because as a high school girl she had consensual sex with another high school girl.

The Farm Bill is also a rich example because the amendment to deny SNAP was submitted by David Vitter, the Senator who cheated on his wife with a prostitute while wearing a baby diaper. What David Vitter asked for and received from his constituents (and possibly his wife) is something he wishes to deny people who don’t have power. People who might have made a mistake, but have paid their debt. People who might have been treated harshly because of their economic status or race.

Anthony Weiner wants another chance. It is unknown if the voters of New York City will oblige him, but he has already been forgiven enough to use his past position to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars consulting for large corporations doing business in Washington, D.C. So in nearly every sense, Weiner received his redemption.

I sit at my desk tonight and wonder if this is the kind of society we are all comfortable with. Because it really disturbs me.

The Legacy of Vincent de Paul

On June 16th I will graduate with an M.A. in History from DePaul University. It has been a good experience, but it was with consternation that I read an email from Rev. Holtschneider, the President of the university, pitching a plan for a new basketball stadium at McCormick Place in Chicago. The plan is an irresponsible allocation of public resources, and enables city leaders to “Christmas shop” while ignoring serious fiscal issues in the city.

The numbers seem to vary depending upon who you read, but the total cost is being estimated between $210 million and $300 million. It would include the 12,000 seat stadium, hotels, and street-level improvements for restaurants and shopping. DePaul would contribute $70 million in order to build a “first-rate college [basketball] program.”

DePaul makes this investment for several reasons. College basketball presents high-impact opportunities to promote our reputation. Alumni find the broadened name recognition a help when competing for jobs nationally. This first-class facility and its more central location will help us build on the momentum our basketball program has enjoyed in recent years from hiring first-rate coaches and staff.

Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.

This is extraordinarily confusing for a number of reasons. First, DePaul’s basketball program has languished since its glory days of Ray Meyer in the 1980s. Last year, the team was 11-21, and they are barely better over the past five years. Departmental budgets have been cut to the point where professors have limited ability to print and photocopy classroom materials. Academic conference budgets are non-existent.

The city of Chicago is a clusterfuck. Police, fire, public health clinics, and sanitation are all under strain. Schools are closing and Mayor Emanuel is pressing for school privatization. Property and sales taxes are very high and corporations are cutting deals to stay in the city in exchange for huge tax breaks. The neoliberal experiment is embraced with abandon but failing miserably.

The only people who think this is a good idea are those pushing it. Rev. Holtschneider “expects this project to produce 3,000 to 5,000 permanent jobs, along with 5,000 construction jobs during the building phase.” I cannot begin to imagine how that might happen, and neither can other urban planning consultants interview by the Chicago Sun-Times (the story is behind a paywall.) City leaders are faced with the law of diminishing returns: Chicago is already a vibrant tourist and convention destination, and DePaul is already selling tickets at its current arena in Rosemont. Adding more capacity in the city is nothing more than a shell game that will add little to the overall economy (the mayor of Rosemont is already in Springfield lobbying for concessions.)

While I appreciate the many conflicts that exist in the administration of a large organization like a university, I am disappointed that DePaul University is contributing to a development plan that will draw financial resources away from other necessities and make taxpayers responsible for more municipal debt. Ideally, Rev. Holtschneider should oppose the plan entirely and speak to the crisis of our public school system. At the very least, he should not contribute $70 million to a project that — like so many others in cities around the country — promises to be an under-utilized public asset for decades.

Although I am not Catholic (or even religious, for that matter) I have enjoyed learning about the life of Vincent de Paul, a seventeenth-century priest who founded a charitable order, counseled kings and queens, and seemingly lived the life of Jesus Christ through humility and good works. As a practical man, Vincent might have stood by while such a project was constructed, but he also would have counseled against depriving the population in order to achieve it.

The Future of the Footnote

I have considered the function of the footnote and the opportunities afforded by digital technology since entering graduate school. Recently, a brief exchange on Twitter with @Jason_M_Kelly and @lostinhistory prompted me to commit some ideas to “paper.” This is just a beginning, as I am sure there will be much more to add.

The footnote has evolved since the days of Edward Gibbon, when it achieved the status of high art. Today, it is certainly treated with less deference, although many authors are skilled at adding tremendous depth to their work with the footnote. Its most primary role is to cite source material. Linking the wider community to sources provides not only accountability but also information that leads to an exchange of ideas. Footnotes provide space for a counter-narrative. This may be less understood outside of the academy, but authors will typically use the footnote to address arguments that fall outside of their thesis. In this manner the footnote advances debate and illustrates historiography. Finally, at least for our purposes today, the footnote acts as a social network. Before the days of inexpensive global travel and international conferences in desirable destinations like Tallahassee, Florida, footnotes provided a way to answer the concerns of colleagues. This is a critical, albeit logistically outdated, function. New technologies provide an incredible opportunity to rethink the way we approach scholarship.

Coming from an Information Technology and business consulting background, I view the progress of global networks, cheap storage, cloud computing, hardware, and bandwidth as adequate precursors for rethinking the footnote. A new paradigm can maintain academic rigor while advancing the dissemination of information throughout the community. All of this can take place in an open source environment, flattening the current publication and distribution hierarchy by placing new toolsets and communication channels in the hands of content creators.

Let us take a glimpse at how the three roles of the traditional footnote might change.

Since citation is so important, new ways of identifying source material should be envisioned. While the URL is a beginning, and electronic analogues of paper documents (like the PDF file) include them, current technology makes it possible to embed source material into the note. If my thesis rests upon the interpretation of an eighteenth-century document, then presenting a digital rendering of the actual document is far superior than referencing its archive location or published transcript. Original text, three-dimensional renderings of material culture, comparisons of multiple editions, and audio/video/still photography can all be reproduced with higher quality and less expense in a digital format than on paper. This means that archives and libraries are going to have to step up their game at digitizing sources, and new forms of licensing like Creative Commons will have to be codified. However, none of this will happen if the academy does not take a firm position and champion the effort.

Although technology is a laggard in my field of History, there are initiatives to create online communities.[1] H-Net is a good social media platform, but it is still a listserv, which is 1990s technology. The digital footnote is begging to be a platform for scholars to engage each other in an ongoing, dynamic conversation. Why should the notes from a first edition remain static? If scholarly conversation occurs after publication, as it most surely will, there is no technological impediment to reflecting that dialog in the notes. The inclusion of book reviews, antitheses, or new research provides a more robust intellectual environment to engage the audience and continue the important function of illustrating historiography.

Imagine the value of a work like The Federalist, annotated throughout the life of our nation by scholars who applied their worldview and theoretical framework, sitting on your tablet device as a data-driven archive.

I am not suggesting a mere comment thread, although that could be a separate environment in which an author moderates an ongoing conversation with students and the public. Such a casual space allows the book to become its own social history. Even if this is not desirable, the important thing to remember is that it is possible. Authors can tailor their work to extend as far beyond their academic field as they wish (for survey classes or a non-academic audience.)

The footnote’s role in providing a counter-narrative also has great potential in the digital age, providing the ability for an author to draw an entire state-of-the-field into a single location. The presentation of such a dialog is no more limited than what we have already explored, and I am quite certain that others will exceed my imaginings.

To return to Jason’s point, the eBook needs to become more than an analogue of the printed book, and the footnote must also evolve. I see a web of scholarship connected through the footnote, controlled through an app and refreshed from the Cloud. The “book” itself is merely an entry point into a larger corpus of knowledge. A colleague told me that “footnotes are magical. There is nothing not to love about footnotes.” It is time to liberate the footnote from the bottom of the page and place it in a space that incorporates the historical event as well as the ongoing conversation about history.

I may stand in need of some apology for having used, without scruple, the authority of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, in all that relates to the wars and negotiations of the Chersonites. I am aware that he was a Greek of the tenth century, and that his accounts of ancient history are frequently confused and fabulous. But on this occasion his narrative is, for the most part, consistent and probable; nor is there much difficulty in conceiving that an emperor might have access to some secret archives which had escaped the diligence of meaner historians.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


[1] My comment does not consider the tremendous amount of work done in the digital humanities, which I don’t consider germane to this conversation. In this context I am only referring to social networking. No hate mail, please!

Identity Through Fundraising

I was stopped on the sidewalk the other day by a young person soliciting memberships for Save the Children. This is really common in Chicago, and the solicitors are trained to employ techniques of humor and flirtation that is creepy. Needless to say, getting accosted raises my hackles.

This day I had a question to ask: if Save the Children wanted my money, could someone tell me what concrete goals were being achieved? The young woman was bright and friendly, but concrete was not an adjective that described her answer. I bid her good day and moved on.

Later another solicitor stated, “Good afternoon, sir. We’re shutting down violent hate groups.” Wow. How do you say no to that?

The day ended with a message from Senator Sherrod Brown in my inbox. He is not my senator, but I get solicitations from him all the time. This one asked for money not for his campaign, but so he could give it to other Senate candidates around the country. They wouldn’t be my senator, either.

All of these examples raise questions about the purpose of giving. What is it that people seek when they donate to a cause? Surely people want to improve the world, but more prominent in this activity is the formation of civic identity. The formation of identity through giving provides fundraisers with a powerful marketing force: in a society that is targeted based on Facebook Likes, loyalty card activity, and web browsing activity, group association can easily displace a process that once required commitment and involvement.

This got me thinking about how our political parties have embraced bifurcated ideologies in order to create indelible identities in their constituents, and insure loyalty and support.

Political parties have always sought to provide identities for their members, but we are returning to the Manichaean worldview found in the antebellum era. This offers a sub-optimal choice. We can no longer even vote for the “lesser evil”, because the adversary of our candidate promises an existential threat. If you identify with one party, then the only way to preserve your lifestyle is to oppose everything the other party represents.

Mark Sanford encapsulated this attitude recently, when he published this tweet on his Twitter timeline:

He is telling his audience to send money, because the liberals identified with ActBlue are threatening the independence and representation of South Carolinians (you can get more context by following the link to Sanford’s blog.) I absolutely agree with him, although his argument is surely disingenuous, himself being the recipient of PAC money.

Recently, political activists Lawrence Lessig (from Rootstrikers) and Mark Meckler (founder of Tea Party Patriots) spoke at a forum in Seattle. I encourage you to watch the video. Both men have come together to avoid the binary ideology of national politics and find common objectives. Meckler actually makes the point that the parties want us to remain separated.

We were warned about this nearly two hundred and twenty-five years ago, when James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10:

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

George Washington refined the point further in his Farewell Address by noting, “One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts.” Parties thrive by instilling fear that other factions are fundamentally different. The assertion that there is no common ground between groups, and those who identify with them, is vital for the perpetuation of the faction.

I don’t want to get too far afield, but instead come back to why we want to identify with factions. In a complex and hectic world, group identity is being made easy by those who promote it. You can donate $10 via SMS, sign an online petition, or Like a Facebook page. It is important to understand that these activities are controlled by people guiding your behavior and controlling the civic narrative. The first step in avoiding this trap is finding more individualized methods of projecting identity.

The term “slacktivism” is used to describe someone who supports causes in ways that are ineffective but promote a good feeling. Not everyone will carry signs in the street, but there is more to civic engagement than group identity. Until we all understand how our attitudes are being shaped and why, we will fail to find common values with our neighbors.

State of the Field Bibliography

Okay friends, #twitterstorians, and Early Americanists, I am writing a state of the field paper for my M.A. History capstone at DePaul and could use your suggestions for works to include in my bibliography. The focus is on the structural design and early development of the United States as a nation.

Below is my preliminary list; I will add to it over the next week based upon my reading and your ideas. I need to make sure the political science material is relevant (i.e., in the center of the conversation) or remove it.

I really appreciate your time and thoughts. Many thanks.

Gabrielson, Teena. “James Madison’s Psychology of Public Opinion.” Political Research Quarterly 62 (Sep 2009): 431-444.

Gould, Eliga H., and Peter S. Onuf, eds. Empire and Nation: The American Revolution in the Atlantic World. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Higginbotham, Don. “Some Reflections on the South in the American Revolution.” Journal of Southern History LXXIII (August 2007): 659-670.

Kersh, Rogan. “The Rhetorical Genesis of American Political Union.” Polity 33 (Winter 2000): 229-257.

Matthews, Richard K. “James Madison’s Political Theory: Hostage to Democratic Fortune.” Review of Politics 67 (Winter 2005): 49-67.

Murphy, Gretchen. Hemispheric Imaginings: the Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Onuf, Peter S. “The Revolution of 1803.” Wilson Quarterly 27 (Winter 2003): 22-29.

Pasley, Jeffrey L., Andrew W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher, eds. Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Rauser, Amelia. “Death or Liberty: British Political Prints and the Struggle for Symbols in the American Revolution.” Oxford Art Journal 21 (1998): 153-171.

Robertson, David Brian. “Madison’s Opponents and Constitutional Design.” American Political Science Review 99 (May 2005): 225-243.

Schwarz, Michael. “The Great Divergence Reconsidered: Hamilton, Madison, and U.S.-British Relations, 1783-89.” Journal of the Early Republic 27 (Fall 2007): 407-436.

Sexton, Jay. The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.

Sheehan, Colleen A. “Madison v. Hamilton: The Battle over Republicanism and the Role of Public Opinion.” American Political Science Review 98 (Aug 2004): 405-424.

Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

Winik, Jay. Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800. New York: HarperCollins, 2007

Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: a History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.