no donuts, though

29 December 2009

I wonder how many Americans experience their ethnicity most clearly through food. Ok, I’m not sure what it means to say that one is experiencing ethnicity, or what it means for that experience to be clearer, but in a social world where most people’s daily rituals are quite similar to others’, food is one of the few major areas open for wide variation. Clothing is another, I suppose, but I tend to associate it more with religion than with ethnicity, at least within the United States (which is why I wrote “Americans” instead of “people” above.

My family celebrates Christmas in a mostly secular American fashion; for Christmas dinner we usually eat sukiyaki. I can’t remember how we started doing this. Sukiyaki has always been one of our traditional family meals, along with jiaozi and a chicken soup my Swiss grandmother made (I’d find a wikipedia entry for that one too, but I don’t know how to spell the German name my grandmother used; at least the recipe has been passed down) and some others, but I can’t remember what occasions went with it until it became a Christmas tradition. It may have been a day after Christmas thing first, and then we moved it up.

I do remember once, during Thanksgiving, we wondered why we were having turkey if we didn’t really want to have turkey, and after that sukiyaki became a Thanksgiving meal too. But that was only if it was just immediate family; when representatives of the rest of the world are around, we still eat turkey.

let us all, or maybe each, cultivate our own legislations

29 December 2009

I was a bit surprised to see this somewhat panglossian take on how bills get passed in Mark Schmitt’s recent piece on the Senate health care bill:

The bill is flawed, but only by comparison to some hypothetical piece of legislation that could never have passed. The same could be said of any successful legislation, from the first progressive income tax to Social Security and Medicare to the Clean Air Act. And conservatives would say the same about their own legislative achievements. This is How A Bill Becomes A Law.

It’s one thing to point out that the legislative process always involves compromises and leaves most people partly (or more-ly) unsatisfied with the resulting bill; it’s quite another to suggest that these compromises have led to the best (according to some implicitly progressive standard) of all possible bills. I suppose it’s true in the sense that it’s the best bill that was passed, but it’s too bad we can’t know these things beforehand or it might have saved people from writing, just ten days before the bill was passed, about the encouraging possibility of the bill including a Medicare buy-in in place of a public option. (I’m probably being unfair, and this was simply a slight overstatement for rhetorical effect.)

Anyway, what initially struck me about the piece I quoted above was the initial line:

“The most troublesome task of a reform president,” Henry Adams wrote in his autobiography, is “to bring the Senate back to decency.”

Because over a year ago, during the Democratic primaries, Schmitt wrote a piece about the Senate that opened:

“The most troublesome task of a reform President,” wrote Henry Adams, is “bringing the Senate back to decency.”

I don’t think this is an accidental repetition: there’s a lot of continuity between the pieces, with Obama being first the potential, and now the actual, reform president. But it makes me think of the Simpsons line, said by an automated DJ machine: “Looks like those clowns in Congress have done it again. What a bunch of clowns.”

the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in storage

23 December 2009

If you read this post and were wondering what I was writing about the Declaration of Independence, you can now read it here at the Edge of the American West.

points of origins

18 December 2009

You know those stories about immigrants having their names changed, not by their own choice, upon arrival at Ellis Island or other points of entry? I hadn’t given them much thought, but it turns out that most of the stories, at least in simplest form, are very unlikely to be true. As the U.S. National Archives blog points out, most of the arrival records for immigrants – passenger manifests and the like – were produced before departure; these records may have contained errors that were reproduced in the U.S., but they were not created by Ellis Island officials.

This is not to say that immigrants didn’t have their names changed, just that – as this article linked in the comments to the archives’ post explains in more detail – the stories behind those changes are more complicated.

merely synthetic

18 December 2009

Years ago, ex-blogger (and current twitterer) Caleb McDaniel wrote a post about academic plagiarism called “Good Fear and Bad.” The good fear was the fear of committing plagiarism that keeps academics vigilant, guarding against carelessness and error in their own research and writing: “It’s one of the internal controls that helps prevent the outright cases of intellectual theft from happening.”

Of course, no one really needs to be afraid of committing conscious plagiarism: being by definition a conscious act, they should focus more on not doing it at all. But that’s not really what Caleb was talking about. Instead, he was raising the specter of truly accidental or coincidental cases: cases where one paraphrases from notes without realizing that the paraphrase brings them back more closely to the text the notes are based on, or cases where one arrives independently at an image or metaphor only to find someone else already arrived at the same place. Cases that might look like plagiarism – that might even draw accusations – but aren’t.

I was reminded of this recently because I’m currently trying to work part of a course paper into a blog post (or two). It’s my own paper but it’s not original – that is, I did the research and did the writing and everything else involved in producing the paper, but it’s based entirely on secondary sources. It’s about the history of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights as documents: mostly, it’s about how they’ve been preserved over the years. My principal sources for the pre-1950 history of the Declaration and the Constitution were the 1949 annual report of the librarian of Congress and an article by Verner Clapp in the journal Special Libraries; among my post-1950 sources were some articles in the New York Times (I can post the full bibliography with links if anyone’s interested). I did not, because I was looking at material history rather than cultural or intellectual history, look at any of the many histories of the documents as expressions of ideas. But I kept them in mind for future reading.

A few days ago, I picked up Pauline Maier’s history of the Declaration of Independence, American Scripture, and was quite surprised to find much of what I covered in my paper written into its first few pages: Maier’s introduction starts with a reflection upon the Declaration as a material object and its history. There’s no question as to primacy here: I wrote the paper a couple of months ago for a readership in the ones; Maier wrote years ago for a readership in the thousands. So I did what any former almost-historian would do: I turned to the footnotes. And sure enough I found that same Librarian of Congress annual report, the Verner Clapp article, and one of the New York Times articles I used.

Before knowing that we worked from the same sources, I found the resemblance striking, even worrying – there’s at least one quotation we both used (it’s a good quotation!); after looking at the footnotes, it seemed almost unremarkable. After all, how many different ways can you say that for a few decades the Declaration hung on a wall in the United States Patent Office Building opposite a window where it was exposed to natural light, and that many suspect this prolonged exposure of causing much of the fading visible in the document? (I have not looked that up to make sure I’m not inadvertently quoting someone. Apologies to that someone if I am.)

But what about the sources themselves? There have been cases where scholars have been accused of hiding their unoriginality by quoting and citing sources they found through others’ work without acknowledging where they found those sources. Generally, the problem is with using only the bits of sources that another scholar used without crediting that scholar (e.g. by not writing “quoted in [citation]”), not with finding the sources and then using them directly. Since I worked directly from the sources I cited and in any case I found them elsewhere, that doesn’t really apply here.

Interestingly, we followed similar routes to our identical sources: in her footnotes, Maier thanks a conservator at the Library of Congress for the references to the Clapp article and the 1949 annual report. I found those same references through an article in a 1997 issue of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin, which for full circularity also refers to Maier’s introduction to her book. Appropriately enough, parts of that 1997 article also seem to be based on the references it recommends. I assume we both turned to the New York Times for more recent coverage because it’s a prominent paper with a certain amount of credibility and it has carried some fairly detailed articles on the documents’ preservation.

In the end, I don’t really think accidental plagiarism, or the appearance thereof, was ever much of an issue here. I wrote about the Constitution and Bill of Rights along with the Declaration – although the Declaration has the best documented history and consequently got the most attention in the paper – and I tried to include a bit more technical detail about preservation when I could. I also cited my sources and did not claim to be uncovering original information, just to be putting together in one place information already available.

I am still glad, however, that although I picked up a copy of American Scripture some time ago I did not open it until after finishing the paper: I think I might have been so paralyzed with fear of re-summarizing Maier’s summary that I would have had a hard time writing anything at all.

off file

6 December 2009

I saw this last year over on Crooked Timber, but I was reminded of it recently and it’s still good, so I’m posting it here. This was one of four short films made using archival content from Getty Images’ Hulton Archive. It’s probably my favorite, but “Perrington Stud” is pretty well done too as a bit of storytelling.

You can see all four of the shorts here; the other two are technically well-done, but didn’t really catch my attention like these two.