Corruption and accountability

The assigned readings this week left us with many options, but the Iran Contra scandal seemed the obvious choice to me personally. For those of you who do not know already the Iran contra affair, was the culmination of a plot, in the 1980’s, to support CIA backed rebels in Nicaragua by using funds from the sale of arms to Iran. This attempt to do an end run around congress which at that time had ended the funding for the Contras, was blatantly illegal, and when it came to light came very close to ending the political career of not only president Reagan, but many of his staff as well. What seems like a simple scandal on the surface turns into a convoluted morass of middlemen and backroom deals, when you start to browse through the documents.

So whats the big deal ? No one remembers the event now, in fact if you ask most UT students, you will not find many that are familiar with the incident at all. After all american has a track record of allowing things like this to happen with few if any repercussions for the participants. While the author of the article has his focus firmly set on the Reagan and Bush administrations, we can simply walk backwards through similar incidents. Bill Clinton has a plethora of them, sex scandals aside the Clinton white house was caught funneling money from the Chinese government into his campaign coffers, possibly in exchange for technology considerations. George H Bush was involved in the Iran Contra scandal. In fact if you go back you will be hard pressed to find a president who did not have a major issue and walked away from it unscathed. Nixon being the obvious exception. Most Americans seemed resigned to the fact that our elected officials will get away with pretty much anything.

Each time an event like this occurs, the bar is lowered a little further, and our laws seem to matter a little less. Political corruption is nothing new, nor is a presidential overreach. Whether it is a group of cold warriors sitting in a back room, working out questionable ways to slow communism, White house staff members routing questionable funds into campaign war chests, or men in power illigaly using that power to keep tabs on thier “enemies”, elected officals should be held accountable to the system they serve, and if they are not, then we must rely on history to tell us about thier mistakes.

Location, location, location.

The articles for group one this week mainly deal with ideal of space in history The first selection that I read was Kathryn Oberdeck’s,  Class, Place, and Gender: Contested industrial and domestic space in Kohler Wisconsin, U.S.A. 1920-60. This is a study of how the structure and layout of Kohler’s “company town” helped to re-enforce gender roles for women through limiting women’s access to the business sections of town, and regulating them to a domestic role by defining their place in the structure of the town. Kohler’s aggressive advertising campaign spread these gender roles even further than the confines of the town itself. By promoting their products and way of life as the eventual goal of every American family, this definition of a womans place rapidly became a standard part of the culture.

The second reading for this week was by Marc Baer, The Great Fire of 1660 and the islamicization of Christian and Jewish space in Istanbul. Here again we see the effects of space on the direction of history. In the period prior to 1660, the Ottoman Empire was facing a series of internal and external crises, that led to the ruling classes to move toward a more fundamental interpretation of Islamic law, particularly in regards to the Christian and Jewish communities that resided within their borders. Some in the Empire government felt that leniency towards other religious beliefs was the cause of many of their issues, but Islamic law forbade the destruction of already existing houses of worship. However, the sudden and devastating tragedy of the Great Fire in 1660 provided an opportunity to make changes within the city of Istanbul that would allow city planners to reorganize the religious nature of the capital city. By refusing to allow the rebuilding of churches and synagogues, and the strategic placement of new and imposing mosques, entire communities were forced to relocate which consolidated Islamic control by regulating religious minorities to the fringes of the city.

What these article have in common is quite obvious, Space. Even though these incidents are separated by two hundred and sixty odd years, they both reveal the results of city planning and structure on communities. The layout of the Kohler company town, by its very nature regulated women to a set of expectation and standards of behavior. While Istanbul was not originally organized to the goal of regulating religious minorities to the edges of Ottoman society, the restructuring of the city in the wake of the fire achieved that very result.

This begins to shed some light on the importance of historical studies of space. From community planning, to the simple relationships between neighbors within a small community, much can be learned by narrowing your focus to the locations people reside, or do not reside as the case may be.

People and the price of wheat

E.P. Thompson’s article “The Moral economy of the English Crowd in the eighteenth century“, warns against what he refers to as a “spasmodic view of  popular history.”  Quick reactions to cursory lines of questioning can create simplistic views of history that might look logical at first, may cause the acceptance of simple truisms, like, ‘when people are hungry they riot.’ I for one have never agreed with this practice, because it removes the aspect of rational choice from the participants in the event. Riots like any other event are not simple things. As Thompson goes on to show with a more complete line of inquiry, the food riots in England during the eighteenth century, were not just a matter of people inevitably turning to violence from hunger.

Thompson’s research sets the stage for complex negotiations between the growers, the millers, the bakers, and the consuming public. Easily demonstrating the fallacy of relying on simple blanket explanations. For example, assuming that the uprising in eighteenth century England were as simple as the supply and demand economy braking down, leaving people with no food, and so they began to riot, has great logical appeal, but it does not hold up to any close scrutiny. Thompson does acknowledge that there may be truth to these ideas, but nothing is ever so simple, and he takes past historians to task for having such a narrow focus. They ignored the class hostilities that brought the crowds together, and the long-standing traditions by which the mob rallied themselves to action. Some of these lingering issues can be solved with his notion of legitimation. As Thompson explains it, “By the notion of legitimation I mean that the men and women in the crowd were informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights or customs; and in general that they were supported by the wider consensus in the community.” Something his detailed research into the pamphlets and essays of the time seem to bear out.

Here is the main lesson a historian can learn from this essay. Do not simply look on the surface for answers, if you do, the conclusions you draw will most often be, at best incomplete, and at worst totally wrong. E.P Thompson, by digging deeply into not only the surface economic theory, but into the writings of the public at large, created a whole new outlook on the history of eighteenth century England, and its people.

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