What The New Yorker Got Wrong About Lawrence Lessig

In its October 13, 2014 article about Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday PAC, The New Yorker writes:

In 2001, Lessig co-founded Creative Commons, an alternative copyright system that allows people to share their work more freely.

In fact, this isn’t quite right. Creative Commons is not an “alternative copyright system.” It is a licensing regime that uses the existing framework of copyright law to make it easier for copyright holders to release their works under open terms. This is an important distinction in thinking about what Lessig is trying to do with the Mayday PAC, which aims to use the loosening of restrictions on campaign donations that resulted from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to raise millions of dollars specifically in order to elect candidates dedicated to campaign finance reform. The New Yorker titled its piece, “Embrace the Irony,” and the Mayday PAC is indeed an irony. But in the context of Lessig’s earlier work on Creative Commons, it is a familiar one. Both efforts seek to use existing legal frameworks to subvert a status quo those frameworks were intended to support.

Truth (happily) stranger than fiction

I recently finished rereading, for the first time in many years, one of my childhood favorites, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. I was immediately struck that the dates Bradbury imagined for his tale of human colonization of Mars are 1999-2026, setting the main action of the book in what is now today. Writing around 1950, Bradbury imagined a world fifty years hence where interplanetary travel was easy and the threat of nuclear war made Martian colonization a looming necessity. Almost musical in its rhythms, the writing is nearly timeless. But to today’s reader, there are more than a few anachronisms that sadly serve to break the spell Bradbury casts. Not least of these is his emphasis on the threat of total nuclear annihilation, which (though it still most definitely remains today) now seems almost quaint.

Yet an even more striking example is found in the chapter entitled “Way in the Middle of the Air.” In it Bradbury imagines a still segregated American South faced with a voluntary, sudden mass exodus of African Americans to the new colonies on Mars. Bradbury uses the device to examine and uncover the simultaneously hidden and vitally present role of black people and black culture in the social fabric of mid-20th Century South. It’s still a very effective critique, but what stood out most to me is not so much anything Bradbury had to say about race relations, but the fact that a brilliant, educated, committed futurist of the 1940s and 50s could more easily imagine his grandchildren living on Mars than in a desegregated South. This fact hit home even harder in light of the recent election of Barack Obama.

There are many, many joys to be had in The Martian Chronicles. That Bradbury was wrong about the relative possibilities of space travel and race relations is one of the greatest. If Bradbury were alive today [See correction, courtesy of reader Kenz, in comments] I’m sure he’d agree.

(Very Nearly) Fighting Over History in the Ohio Senate

Despite media claims, polling data, and bureaucratic number crunching to the contrary, one of the main contentions of Found History is that people care deeply about history—sometimes to the point of fighting about it. For evidence of this you don’t need to go to Kashmir or Kurdistan or some other far off province where wars fester over real and perceived historical rights and wrongs. Look no further than the Ohio State Senate, where a recent debate over a bill to designate September 22nd “Emancipation Day” caused a real ruckus.

As first reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer, the debate turned heated after Dayton Republican Jeff Jacobson took issue with Columbus Democrat Ray Miller’s characterization of Abraham Lincoln’s ideas on emancipation. Miller shot back with charges of “revisionism” and was asked to desist in his remarks by Senate President Bill Harris (R-Ashland). Miller refused, Jacobson protested, and Harris quickly ordered a recess and abruptly turned off the chamber’s cameras—even as the senators continued their argument. Democrats later criticized this tactic as “baloney.” Harris said he was simply trying to maintain control. The real question is control of what: the Ohio Senate or American history?

Watch the tape and decide for yourself. (The good stuff starts at about 25:00)

Stand-up History

English stand-up comedian Robert Newman builds his act on history. “The History of Oil” is his very funny, very sarcastic, 45-minute-long examination of British and American involvement in the Middle East. From WWI to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Newman tackles nearly a century of history, taking time out along the way to poke fun at British Rail, OPEC, military historians, and many, many more usual and unusual suspects.

Building Histories

I wanted to post this before a new issue came out, but alas I didn’t make it in time. In case you missed it, the May 21st New York Times Magazine featured a series of articles on the question of why contemporary architecture, above all other art forms, inspires popular cultural debates. The editors’ brief introduction suggests a tie to history. “Buildings aren’t always set in stone,” they write, “Over the following pages, four illustrations document places with more than one past.” (The New York Times Magazine, 21 May 2006, p. 67) In other words, according to The Times, arguments over architecture are really arguments over history.

One article in the four-part series makes a particularly good case for the truth of this equation. In his piece Expanding on Jefferson, Washington College professor Adam Goodheart shows how decades-long disagreements over plans to build a new “South Lawn” at the University of Virginia are grounded in deeper debates about the role the past plays or should play in present-day life. He shows how campus architecture has motivated questions about appropriate modes commemoration and homage—in this case for Thomas Jefferson, founder of UVa and architect of the original Lawn. Ultimately, in Goodheart’s analysis, the debate comes down to a historiographical or historiotectural (my term) question: interpretation or imitation?

On one side is the faculty of UVa’s Architecture School, who have consitently argued for interpretation. As Professor Ed Ford says:

It’s like the pantheon, or Amiens cathedral, or the Kimbell museum—it’s not something you can replicate. If you build a copy of it next door, that will diminish the experience of the Lawn, not enhance it. (The New York Times Magazine, 21 May 2006, p. 84)

On the other side are partisans of immitation, including many prominent alumni, with some persuasive arguements of their own:

Whenever we represent the university on a postcard, we show the Lawn. That’s us—and that’s Classical. (Don Pippin, The New York Times Magazine, 21 May 2006, p. 84)

Quotes like this demonstrate how firmly the past is present in UVa’s architectural debates, how deeply it’s bound up with questions of identity. At the same time, Goodheart shows that these aren’t merely local questions. They extend beyond the university and the immediate players both in space and time. On the one hand, Goodheart points a full-page ad placed in the campus newspaper by external supporters of the traditionalist camp (including a representative of Prince Charles’s Foundation for the Built Environment). On the other hand, he points to an old issue of Architectural Forum, which even in 1934 observed:

The shade of Jefferson broods over Charlottesville. Misunderstood, embalmed by little minds in static thought, the revolutionist must turn forever in an angry grave. The grandeur of his University looks down at sycophants who ape his cornices at puny scale, forget his sense of space, and strive forever to repeat the form without the soul. (The New York Times Magazine, 21 May 2006, p. 85)

The built environment, and arguments about it, are thus important places for the popular construction of historical narrative and identity. At UVa and elsewhere, the physical persistence and lasting employment of architecture make the art form a uniquely powerful focus for popular grappling with the past. Of course, this will not come as any great insight to architectural historians or historic preservationists, and nor is it anything really new to me. But being primarily a textual historian and working in this text-based, virtual medium of the blog, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the bricks, mortar, and concrete of buildings. Clearly the public does not make the same oversight in constructing its own historical identities. Found History shouldn’t either.

"The Worst Natural Disaster in American History"

This morning on Fox News Sunday, the President’s new Chief of Staff, Josh Bolton said something in passing that has become conventional wisdom in Washington on both sides of the aisle. Talking about the many reasons for high gas prices, Bolton mentioned Hurricane Katrina and the damage it did to drilling and refining operations in the Gulf of Mexico, calling last August’s storm “the worst natural disaster in American history.” My own quick search turned up several similar comments, many made in the last couple weeks, including statements by House Minority Leader John Boehner, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, and Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Joe Lieberman.

Undoubtedly Katrina was and continues to be a major tragedy, but is it the worst natural disaster in American history? Very good arguments could be made for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1900 Galveston hurricane. But this isn’t an argument we seem to be having. Even the Bay Area media seems to have conceded primacy to Katrina, commonly referring in its 100th anniversary coverage of 1906 to the quake as “the worst natural disaster in American history up to that time.” (Emphasis added.) Thus common knowledge seems to have settled what is really a pretty complex problem of historical analysis, judging Katrina “worst.”

This is a powerful example of popular historical production. My guess is that it will be a long time before professional historians revisit the question of “worst.” In the meantime, right or wrong, the popular judgement will stand as historical truth. Sometimes to historians’ surprise, sometimes to their chagrin, this is often how history is made.

A Million Little Pieces

This is a little (lot) late in coming, but I want to say something about this past winter’s Oprah-James Frey controversy. For those of you who don’t remember, the controversy erupted when Oprah discovered that James Frey had “lied” in writing “A Million Little Pieces,” the memoir of his struggle with drug addition, which Oprah recommended to her viewers as part of “Oprah’s Book Club.” In a memorable episode, Oprah invited Frey to her program to scold him for his disingenuousness and to demand an apology. A clearly frightened Frey aquiesced to Oprah and dutifully took his medicine.

This episode excited an army of pundits, most of whom joined Oprah in condemning Frey. It also elicited widespread commentary on Oprah’s cultural importance, both as an arbiter of ethics and taste and as a king-maker in television, publishing, and other media.

There was also a discussion of how now to shelve Frey’s book, as fiction or non-fiction. Most of this discussion hinged on just how much of Frey’s book was factual and how much was fabricated. Implicit in these discussions was a firm equation of the terms “non-fiction” and “fact.”

This equation, I think, demonstrates a key difference in the way professional historians view history and the way the general public views history. Or at least in the way the two groups view historical sources. That is, I don’t think there are many professional historians who would surprised if they found certain details of any given memoir, whether by Frey or Honest Abe, to have been fabricated, exaggerated, etc. Trained to be critical of sources, historians view even “non-fiction” books (especially memoirs) critically, and they do not trust every “fact” presented to them as such.

At the same time, this does not mean that historians dismiss out-of-hand any book containing factual errors or fabrications as wholly untruthful. We all know that a lot of valuable truth can be gleaned from mis-recollected, or exaggerated, or self-serving personal narratives. I guess you could say that historians have a more subtle notion of the relationship between “facts” on the one hand and “truth” on the other.

I hope nobody thinks I’m defending Frey. The guy is a confessed liar. But sources—especially auto-biographies—are always slippery, and they always stand in complex relationship to historical truth.