PVW's blog

Ah, what the heck, been feeling nostalgic for the old internet lately, so why not start a web log. And I've been on MOL long enough that it makes sense to host it here, under my MOL identity. Most of my MOL activity has been in the politics thread, and more likely than not this blog will spend a lot of time in the "politics" territory, but whereas most posts in that section are reacting to current news stories, I'd like to be a bit slower and more deliberate here -- putting more of the stress on the "political philosophy" end of things rather than the quicker, shorter-term "political positioning and maneuvering" part of it.

What that will probably look like is commenting on books or articles I'm currently reading or shows I'm watching.


Currently my wife and I are watching the Ken Burns Civil War documentary. It's actually a tradition of ours; we've watched it nearly every year for a number of years now. We usually start it in the spring, which feels appropriate as that is the season it both began and ended. When I was growing up I didn't think much of the civil war -- it seemed to be one of those things that happened back east or that people in the south really cared about. That started to change in the early 2000's for me. I was newly living in NYC, having gotten here in the spring of 2002 (Grand Central was still covered with memorials for the dead, and IIRC there may even have still been some hot spots burning in the rubble downtown). The Atlantic magazine had a stable of bloggers, which I read regularly -- Andrew Sullivan, Matt Ygelsias, Megan McCardle, Ross Douthat, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Of them, Coates probably has had the biggest impression on me. He blogged a lot about the civil war. Also, I was living in various uptown neighborhoods in that era -- Inwood, then a tiny room in a very nice apartment in the UWS, then Harlem. I didn't know what I was supposed to do after college; I came to NYC mostly because it seemed as good an option as anything and I wanted to see what life in a large American city was like. During these years most of my neighbors were people of color, except for the period when I was on the UWS, when the person I was sub-renting from was an old gay New Yorker from back in the day who bought his apartment when the city was falling apart and real estate was cheap. Anyway, being in New York, mostly aimless and without much purpose beyond hustling to pay the rent, and seeing all my neighbors who were very much not like the neighbors I grew up with but also just living their lives and trying to pay the rent, while reading The Atlantic and watching the country hurtle toward war and quagmire... gave me a different understanding of the country than I'd had before.

I think the civil war actually is incredibly important to understanding the country. I'd say it's more central than the Revolutionary war. I always get something interesting and new from watching the Burns documentary, even granting its shortcomings. We skipped a few years during the Trump era -- a bit too on the nose for comfort then.

I'm also currently reading Isabel Wilkerson's "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents" (I've read her earlier book, "The Warmth of Other Suns," which I highly recommend).


This is a blog so I don't feel especially compelled to keep the posts here tidy. This seems a good bit of material for now.

I was interested in the Civil War from a relatively young age. Perhaps it had to do with the Centennial which began when I was in high school.

What books on the Civil War have you read?

Not so many books directly about the war -- for better or worse, I tend to be more of a "breadth" than "depth" person, so I've done a lot more reading around the war than focusing deeply in it. That said, I did have read McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, which I thought very good. I've also ready Grant's and Sherman's memoirs.

At one point in my early NY days I thought grad school was a good idea. One of my professors was really into the 1850s, and a concrete lesson I got out of that was the realization that, in a very real way, pretty much the entirety of American politcs up to 1860 was about finding ways to avoid open conflict over slavery, until it finally happened. The slave states were actively seeking to expand slavery -- westward expansion, and the fight over whether slavery would be allowed in the new territories, was a proximate cause of the war. That itself is different from the story of the war I got growing up, where there was some possible alternative timeline where slavery was contained and died out on its own.

Anyway, we read Uncle Toms Cabin and the diary of Charles Francis Adams and The Garies and Their Friends and a bunch of other stuff I can't recall now.

Another book I read I recommend is What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

I wish The Atlantic would gather Coate's civil war blog posts into a collection. I wonder how hard it would be to go back and find them and collect them myself.

The Burns documentary has been roundly criticized, particularly for its use of Shelby Foote. The chief production team was all white-men. None were historians, and neither was Foote, though he was kind of presented as one.

What is it that you get from repeated watchings? I admit I haven't watched it since its initial airing, so my memory of it is pretty dim.

Here's a good piece on the subject.


here's an excerpt:

The problem of having an all-white, all-male (and non-historian) production team was further compounded by Burns’ choice of interviewees. Eight-and-a-half minutes into the first episode, Shelby Foote, a Mississippi-born writer with an accent as thick and sweet as Tupelo honey, made his unforgettable debut. The descendant of wealthy, slaveholding planters who fought for the Confederacy, Foote, a writer and journalist with no historical background, made the first of many appearances in which he spoke with the authority of a historian, but with none of the scholarly understanding of the war. Yet Foote was so charming and stereotypically “southern” that the Burns brothers used his interviews as the dominant narrative throughout the entirety of the film.

At nine minutes into the first episode, the film’s only historian with a doctorate, Barbara Fields—now recognized as one of the world’s foremost scholars on race and racism—unequivocally stated that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. The bloodiest time in our nation’s history, she argued, was about “humanity, human dignity, human freedom.”

But Foote was given the final word in the scene. Instead of slavery, he claimed, the Civil War occurred because of our “failure to compromise.” Fields would receive approximately eight-and-a-half minutes of airtime throughout the nine episodes, while Foote, whose quotes could best be described as a Confederate apologia, would be featured for an astounding 45 minutes and 56 seconds.

In a 2011 article for Slate, historian James Lundberg also took the film to task, especially for its extraordinary and disproportionate focus on Foote. “For all its appeal, however,” he wrote, “‘The Civil War’ is a deeply misleading and reductive film that often loses historical reality in the mists of Burns’ sentimental vision and the romance of Foote’s anecdotes.”

To be sure, “The Civil War” skews towards propagating the idea of the Lost Cause, often venerating Confederate officers and soldiers if not the Confederacy itself. The first episode alone reveals how deeply this ran: Within the opening few minutes, narrator David McCullough literally attributes the cause of the war to states’ rights. In what would become a refrain among groups ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, his proclamation resonates: “What began as a bitter dispute over union and states’ rights..."

The first mention of slavery is not until six minutes into the film, at which time it is invoked with McCullough erroneously stating that Robert E. Lee “disapproved” of slavery, a fact easily challenged by the fact that Lee fought to inherit enslaved people who his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, wanted to free. Soon after, the first African-American is mentioned: a short vignette about the writer, activist and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, referred to as a “runaway boy” even though Douglass was about 20 years old when he escaped slavery. After a very cursory four-minute discussion (a full minute less than the time devoted to the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack), slavery—and the enslaved themselves—are rarely discussed.

The sins of omission in “The Civil War” unfortunately are not without consequence. Because so many Americans have had their basic understanding of the causes of secession, the realities of racial slavery, and the atrocities of the Confederacy profoundly shaped by this documentary, current day topics, from the Confederate Monument/flag debate to the push for reparations by American Descendants of Slaves, remain bitterly divisive, even though clear historical answers obviously exist.

By focusing on a type of military history wherein all sides can be seen as—in some way—heroic, “The Civil War” allows us, as white Americans, to forget about the reasons why we were fighting in the first place. It allows us to focus only on an antiseptic form of history that makes us feel good, on a narrative that emotionally relieves us of sins that should not be relieved. It allows us to convince ourselves that the dishonorable were in some way honorable; it reassures our sense of selves as inculpable white Americans; it allows us a psychological pass for the sins of our forefathers.

Not disagreeing with any of those criticisms. And if someone were to tell me they didn't know much about the civil war and were interested in learning more, it's certainly not the first resource I'd point them to, if at all. But as a work of art rather than a work of history, I find it moving, particularly in its use of letters from the era. Sullivan Ballou's letter gets me ever time: 


I also find much of the music moving, particularly the Ashokan Farewell.

Also, at this point there's the tradition of having watched it, and reflecting on how the country I'm watching it in has changed in the years I've been watching it. The very criticisms of the documentary, reflecting our evolving understanding of the war and of ourselves, is itself a layer of watching it now.

So I don't claim to generalize out my experience here or recommend others watch it regularly like I do. But for myself, personally, it has been part of my journey to understanding my own country better.

I mean, people in the 19th century could write!

I studied the war in school, but from a military perspective. You’ve convinced me to watch Burns’ doc, admittedly from a point-of-view I hadn’t thought about very much.

As I mentioned above, I'm currently reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Some unorganized thoughts on it:

- I do find it an interesting an helpful framework. In the same way that her previous book applied the framework of migration in an unexpected way and, jarring my mental models and so helping me see things afresh, describing American society in terms of "caste" rather than "race" breaks some habits of thought to make it easier to see things afresh

- The "caste" framework also offers a way past the unproductive "are we a racist country" question. Similar to the term "structural racism", it puts the emphasis on the underlying contours of society rather than it being about an whether an individual person expresses animosity toward another.

- That said, I'm probably grossly underestimating the number of people who harbor deeply racist feelings and act on them. There's plenty of contemporary examples in the book of racism Wilkerson herself has experienced, and we're really not that far removed at all from the time when the racial hierarchy was literally legally mandated -- the beliefs and attitudes that enforced Jim Crow didn't just vanish with the passage of the civil rights acts

- you don't have to work too hard to draw a line to Trumpism here, but that's pretty easy for most of us here I suspect. What I find myself thinking about is how the caste system has adapted itself and manifests itself among progressive white liberals. Trumpism was and is quite plainly an attempt to re-assert the old social order, and fighting against that is important (and ideally trans-partisan, not something only "liberals" are engaged in), but the danger is in then patting ourselves on the back and considering it job done.

I'm off into some fiction now, but before moving on to that in the blog, a few more thoughts triggered by reading Wilkerson's Caste --

I found the framework in that book compelling because accepting it's premise helps make sense of observation that otherwise remain inexplicable, or less well explained. I wont belabor too much the stupidity of the cultural right's obsession with "critical race theory" which, as best I can tell, is a catch all phrase that in their use simply means any discussion or even acknowledgement of the ongoing presence of racism in our society. I believe structural racism is real and a central part of American society for the simple fact that it's a better explanation than others I've seen. If critics of that point of view disagree, then their way forward is simple -- provide a framework with better explanatory power. Simply insisting that we look away and not see the things we can see is not a compelling argument.

One particular phenomenon I've been thinking about is the high levels of mistrust, and accompanying rage, that seems endemic among a large segment of white Americans. I'm thinking of for instance militant anti-vaccination, the violent assaults on planes and in stores against employees trying to enforce masking policies, the Jan. 6th attack on the Capitol and the incandescent rage against any Republican who dares question the lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent, that sort of thing. All things being equal, it's deeply puzzling, because the level of anger just seems completely disproportionate, and the conspiratorial paranoia is just wild.

Lots of Americans have plenty of reason to be angry or distrustful or skeptical or paranoid, but you don't see mobs of black Americans storming state capitols with guns in response to legislators' transparent attempts to disenfranchise them, for instance. It's overwhelming white folks, and they're not just angry, but angry with a deep sense of entitlement -- that something they feel they are owed has been denied them. And you can say "racism", but that's only a beginning of an answer because they follow up question would be "ok but why are they racist in the first place?"

But if you accept Wilkerson's argument -- that the United States has a rigidly structured social order, a caste system -- then this is far more explicable. When the social order gets disturbed and social roles and scripts start changing or becoming ill defined, that's a deep sense of anxiety -- for nearly all people. And if the social order in question is a particularly rigid one, with rigid social roles and scripts, the backlash to challenges to it can be very strong indeed.

And the traditional social order in the US is being challenged and changed. When conservatives cry out that they fear they're losing their country, that's both unreasonably apocalyptic rhetoric and actually true. And one doesn't have to personally be "a racist," in the sense of having personal enmity toward non-white Americans, to be vulnerable to this anxiety. Even people who are members of the non-dominant castes can feel incredibly anxious over the challenging of the social order.

So in short, the claim that race in America is a symptom of a de facto caste system is more convincing to me as it provides a believable explanation of wtf everyone is so damn angry about -- more so than just economic or other explanations I've seen.

July 4:

- hamburgers

- bratwurst, with spicy mustard and sauerkraut

- potato salad

- apple pie

- hazy IPA

- Hamilton

- The Music Man

- Yankee Doodle Dandy

- Viral Baked Feta Pasta

- Stromboli

Thought I'd moved on from the Civil War on this blog for now, but not quite. Taking a long weekend in Pennsylvania, we drove down to Gettysburg and did the audio tour. Did this once before, quite a while ago now -- before 2008 at least.

As I mentioned earlier, I read a lot of Coates when he was at The Atlantic, and he did a lot of writing about the Civil War. Here's a couple of items where he talks about that, and about Gettysburg:



With that context in mind, it is pretty striking what a thoroughly white space the battlefield park is. I think I could count on one hand the number of people of color I saw today.

I'm always curious what people are thinking as they tour historic sites. In general, I don't think Americans take history very seriously -- we like it intense but not too deep (like an action movie, as my wife observed). Certainly that's the sense I got touring the battlefields and listening to the audio tour. You could come up and learn, at great length and detail, about the troop movements and which general or colonel took what position or died or was wounded by which tree or wall, but come away with little or any prompts or invitations to reflect on why, exactly, 175,000 soldiers spent three days killing each other there.

There's lots of statues and monuments, for both the American and Confederate sides. The overall effect is that both sides deserve equal weight and respect. I've never actually toured a WWII battlefield, but I have a hard time imagining that if I were to take an audio tour of Ardennes battle site I'd hear the same kind of talk of the bravery of the German soldiers and commanders, or wistful "what ifs" that imagine how the war might have ended differently if only an extra brigade had been present or an offensive launched earlier in the day.

It's a powerful experience to actually be at a place physically, and I'd like to see some more of these sites. I've only done one other so far -- the Wilderness. But I wonder, what are these historical sites for? It seems a missed opportunity to attract thousands of people to visit and give them nothing but the bare military focus and teach them nothing about their own country. It's like talking about the American Revolution but never discussing democracy or representative government or any other context beyond topics such as technology of flint-lock rifles, how bad the food was, and total number of soldiers at a given site.

The war may have ended in 1865 but I don't think it's been resolved.

Something I've been thinking about for a while is the idea of agency -- the feeling that you can actually make some decisions and are not just a passive clump of atoms being batted around by the universe. Maybe it's an illusion, but even if so, it seems a necessary one. I actually think that question, while philosophically interesting, ultimately doesn't actually matter as it's unanswerable and doesn't change the way we act. Its similar to the question of how do we know we're not living in a giant computer simulation (which is really just the updated version of Descarte's demon, which I would not be surprised it itself an updated version of the same idea asked previously). At the end of the day, the universe as we understand it is real, consciousness is real, free will exists, and we can't do more than act within the bounds of reality as we live it. And given this, the feeling that we can act means we suffer if we feel that we are unable to act.

This is all a bit abstruse, admittedly. Concretely, this matters because I think that today there are a great many people who feel that they do not have agency, and many of the kinds of puzzling, destructive behaviors we often discuss on this board are tied to this. For instance, what's up with people refusing to get vaccinated? Makes no sense, right? We're all sick and tired of this pandemic, and two jabs in the arm a few weeks apart will get us out of it. It's a miracle of modern medicine, bordering on magic, and yet here we are entering yet another surge because not enough people will do this. We can logically lay out the facts and the math -- the risk of severe side effects or death from covid vastly outweigh the risks posed by the approved vaccines -- and yet people won't do it. It's frustrating and baffling.

From the perspective of a need for agency, though, it's perhaps less so. To choose to get vaccinated is an action, but to refuse is also an action. If you look at many of the most stridently opposed to vaccination, often you see a pattern of general anti-establishment attitudes -- poke some more at that and you'll often find a sense that the world as it is has thwarted them, that they feel pushed and pulled and not in control. Loudly pushing back is a way of seeking some agency. Unsurprising that stats, and knowledge in general, aren't persuasive to such people.

And that's the folks with the energy to actually make an effort -- what of those too overwhelmed, who feel not only that they aren't in control, but that there's not much hope in trying to assert any? To neither choose vaccination nor refuse it, but just wait and see what happens, is that so surprising?

Explanation is not an excuse, and clearly, by my previous writings, I think it's important that as many people as possible get vaccinated. But I think the dynamics we see around vaccination are part of this broader issue. Another example -- taxes. Plenty of people who make a big deal about taxes nonetheless do things like pay a tithe to their church -- what is that, if not a tax? (and yes, plenty who are opposed to taxes are also just selfish and stingy, but that's not the category I'm talking about here). Why are they willing to pay a tax by another name? Again, the feeling of agency I think is key here.

Of course, in the U.S. the racial hierarchy is part of this, and when we talk about feelings on taxes we can't avoid the whole dynamic where a big reason people don't like taxes is because they feel it benefits the wrong kinds of people -- Rush Limbaugh ranting about the ACA being "reparations", red state governors decrying "blue state bailouts" but expecting hurricane relief, etc. But even there, behind the question of why we cling so tightly to our racial caste system, and why so many people freak out when it is weakened or challenged, isn't this need to feel that there is some order in the chaos there? So if we want to dismantle these systems of oppression, in addition to the front attack against them we need to point the way to some other way of living, and this alternative needs to make people feel empowered, make them feel they have agency, in order to be compelling.

I generally support the kinds of policies advocated by the political left because I think they do allow for more agency. Universal health care that allows people to work for whoever they want to work for (or take a break from the workforce if that's what they want or need) would be hugely empowering, for instance. Equitably funded schools, childcare, paid sick leave, etc -- these are all the kinds of things I support because they give people greater ability to live their lives on their own terms. But the way we talk about these things I think often falls short. We will often talk in terms of rights, or about justice or fairness or other such terms. And those aren't incorrect! But there's a huge problem with a very large part of our population expressing strong feelings of alienation -- too many people to just write off. I think somehow we need both better policies that clearly make people feel empowered (the monthly child tax credit was a good one -- more things like that!), and better language on talking about this.

I don't like the term "cancel culture." It's one of those phrases that's very vague, meaning whatever the person using it wants it to mean. In some contexts, with some phrases, vagueness is a virtue. I find that generally, when the context is political, vagueness is a vice -- a way of advancing some political end while evading accountability. In politics, vagueness provides a cheap retreat -- "I was joking! I never said that!" -- a wink and nod sort of rhetoric, a  "jury will disregard previous remarks" kind of tactic.

Still, within that very broad term, there are some worthwhile, actual questions. I think we can straight out dismiss as bad-faith any use of the term "cancel culture" that has a partisan edge to it, which is most usages in my observation. But in the broadest sense of it, there is something to the critique that people often act irresponsibly online, and that social media tends to magnify so that targets of online attacks can experience consequences that are either unjustified or disproportionate. I don't want to use the term "mob" because we are living in a time when there are actual, offline mobs doing things like storming the US Capitol, and one of my pet peeves is people insisting that metaphorical usage is the equivalent of non-metaphorical usage. Sorry, but paying taxes is not literal slavery, people being mean on twitter is not a literal mob, and your employer giving you the choice of getting vaccinated or resigning is not the same as a living in a literal authoritarian state.

Overwrought metaphorical rhetoric aside, though, I think it is legitimate to wonder what kinds of jokes, actions, etc are cool and which ones aren't, especially online where our individual actions can easily become one drop in a tsunami.

And I think the answer, as it often is, really comes down to thinking carefully about the power dynamics in a given situation. The short version is -- always make sure you're punching up, not down.

That's not really that different from what I'd say is the general guideline to humor. Going after those with more power is legit, sometimes brave, and an essential part of what makes a free and healthy society. Going after those with less power is cruel and an essential part of what makes a society tyrannical and unjust.

I think Donald Trump was a great example of this. What always struck me the most about him was how he always punched down. You never caught him making fun of people like Putin. But he'd gleefully lay into a reporter with a disability. The corruption of Trumpism was how he would get others to go along with him. He'd sell them on the idea that he was helping you punch up -- sticking it to the coastal elite -- but go along with him and you find yourself at a rally making fun of victims of police violence.

Well that's probably an easy example for most folks on these boards to get, but I do want to point out that the danger of finding yourself punching down isn't a partisan thing. I've found myself having to really challenge myself with this on, for instance, vaccinations. I'm super frustrated at the situation, and it's easy to let that frustration and anger bleed over into disdain for the unvaccinated. Sometimes that's justified -- when well-off libertarians start spouting off about the tyranny of vaccinations, they deserve all the scorn and contempt they have coming to them. But there are plenty of folks who are vaccine skeptical or vaccine hesitant who really are in a place of much less societal power than I have, and making fun of them is not going to get them vaccinated or change anything and is just an indulgence of my own frustration and a way of making myself feel superior. It's punching down.

Power dynamics are tricky, because they're very contextual and always in flux. While you can look at different demographic groups and, in general, note how one often enjoys more or less privilege, it can get pretty situationally-dependent. I think Dave Chappelle is definitely punching down when he goes down the path of making trans-phobic jokes, for instance.

I don't really care much about claims about "challenging orthodoxy" or intellectual freedom. Punching up or punching down? That's the real question. Sometimes straightforward, sometimes blurry, but the one worth asking.

Have you read a book titled America Aflame:  How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield.

I haven't, though it looks interesting, thanks for the rec. I have to admit, though, I'm quite skeptical of the idea that the civil war was avoidable, mostly because I believe the historical record shows that it was the slaveholders who were the aggressors. I suppose that if the war was avoidable, then it would only have been so with the complete defeat of Abolition and the transformation of the entire United States into a slaveocracy -- with the deep violence and carnage of slavery extended over the entire space of the country and forward in time. A different carnage than 1860-65, but certainly not a lesser one (morally or in absolute terms).

I found the argument of the book to be disturbing - "the breakdown of the political system caused by the infusion of evangelical religion".  At times, it was as though he was taking about the present day instead of the 1850's.

I suppose I verge on being a materialist here, but I don't actually think religion drives anything. I think of religion as a similar phenomenon to language -- it's a mode of cultural expression, but it's not an actual force in its own right. For example, I don't think it's the fact that Quebec speaks French and is mostly Catholic that causes tensions with Ottowa -- there were, and are, actual differences in interests driving these tensions. Absent those differences, the differences in language and religion would not matter much.

Similarly, there were real material differences in the interests of New England vs the slave states in the 1850s. Religion provided a means of expressing those differences, but was not the cause of them.

Similarly, today there's a real conflict between the fact that "blue" areas have a very different economy than many "red" areas. Religion can provide a means of expression, but it is not creating these differences.

PVW said:

Similarly, today there's a real conflict between the fact that "blue" areas have a very different economy than many "red" areas. Religion can provide a means of expression, but it is not creating these differences.

Wouldn’t the argument be the opposite? Not that the religion is creating a different economy, but rather that the different economy is causing the red states to cling more to religion?

A lack of control and desire to surrender to a “higher power” to do the steering. 

I think we're saying the same thing.

PVW said:

I haven't, though it looks interesting, thanks for the rec. I have to admit, though, I'm quite skeptical of the idea that the civil war was avoidable, mostly because I believe the historical record shows that it was the slaveholders who were the aggressors. I suppose that if the war was avoidable, then it would only have been so with the complete defeat of Abolition and the transformation of the entire United States into a slaveocracy -- with the deep violence and carnage of slavery extended over the entire space of the country and forward in time. A different carnage than 1860-65, but certainly not a lesser one (morally or in absolute terms).

I don't recall Goldfield arguing that the Civil War was avoidable.  But he does a masterful job of portraying the political climate of the time.  As a side note, if the slaveholders had been pragmatic, they could have negotiated a federal buyout for their slaves while implementing institutional segregation thereby essentially continuing the status quo.

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