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Archive for October, 2010

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

“China has an unhappy relationship with Nobel Prizes”

Liu Xiaobo

Julia Lovell, translator of Zhu Wen’s I Love Dolllars and Other Stories of China, began her op-ed on Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel published in The Independent by writing, “China has an unhappy relationship with Nobel Prizes.”

As Lovell points out no Nobel Prize has been awarded to a Chinese person while they were living in China. It is something the nation has sought since it rejoined the international community in the 1980s. Thus, the fact that the prize went to a dissident is particularly difficult for the Chinese government to accept. Moreover, the Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel gives him far more recognition both internationally and within China itself. Lovell writes,

Responses to Liu (and his prize) have been vigorously censored in China. But the renowned “Great Firewall” of internet control is porous. Minutes after the announcement of Liu’s prize, well-informed Chinese microbloggers were buzzing with jubilation. The Nobel Prize is an award that enjoys unique global prestige: within China, it is often seen as an impartial, international source of recognition. That a dissident of Liu Xiaobo’s stature has been honoured is bound to alarm the Beijing government.

For more on the role of the Internet in Chinese society there is Guobin Yang’s excellent The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. You can also browse I Love Dollars and its compelling portraits of contemporary China via Google Preview.

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

New York City, Questions, Oddities, and History

When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green?Every year the librarians at the New-York Historical Society Library field thousands of questions from patrons. In When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green? 102 of the most compelling questions are collected and answered. These questions illuminate New York’s  history and the various facets of the city from its politics and sports to its oddities and extraordinary residents. Take the quiz below and find out how well you know the history of New York City.

Click here for the answers.

1. What famous statesman founded the New York Post?
a. George Washington
b. Alexander Hamilton
c. Rudolph Giuliani
d. Andrew Carnegie

2. Where did the name “Manhattan” come from?
a. Native Americans
b. Henry Hudson
c. Dutch West India Company
d. Queen Isabella of Spain

3. What was the “Massacre Opera House”?
a. a theater
b. a play
c. a famous opera singer’s residence
d. a haunted house


Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

Award Winner! The African Diaspora, by Patrick Manning

Patrick Manning, African DiasporaCongratulations to Patrick Manning, whose book The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture was recently named the winner of the 2010 Association of Third World Studies Toyin Falola Africa Book Award.

Here’s what the judges of the book had to say about the book:

“The author is adept at tying together what are seemingly separate and unconnected phenomena. Integrating such a complexity (six centuries and several continents) was challenging enough, but it was done with an almost elegant simplicity….”

“Manning challenges three paradigms that have shaped the study of African peoples: (1) their exclusion from studies on modernity, (2) their exclusion from a global integrated study as a group, and (3) their absence of clearly defined thematic structures that encapsulate the experiences of the Africana. Through a new approach to the study of the African Diaspora, Manning shows how African peoples in the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Mediterranean contributed to modernity through Diasporas, networks, mixes, hinterlands, and exchanges on the roads between centers….”

For more on the book read the epilogue, The Future of the African Diaspora .

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Interview with Jonathan Soffer, author of Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City

Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York CityThe following is an interview with Jonathan Soffer, author of  Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City. For more on the book, browse the book via Google Preview.

Q: What makes a great mayor? Does Koch qualify?

Jonathan Soffer:: A great mayor must be a great citizen, whom other citizens see as willing to make sacrifices for the whole. A great mayor must be managerially competent and driven by the desire to improve the life of the city and all its citizens and to stand as a symbol for the city. Koch qualifies on these counts. Being great and being loved are not the same thing, of course. Fiorello LaGuardia was loved by many and is almost universally thought to have been a great mayor. Koch was more divisive in temperament and had a knack for making lifelong enemies, but at the time he still managed to be “America’s Mayor.”

Historians disagree radically about Koch. Some think he is up there with LaGuardia, and others think he is a horror, citing racially divisive actions, the scandals that plagued his third term, or lucrative subsidies to big business while cutting other budgets to the bone. In my view the proof is in the pudding.  Koch restored the credit and morale of a desperately strapped city and then borrowed to rebuild the city’s physical plant and working-class housing. He returned control of the government from a board of the city’s creditors to its democratically elected officials. And in many other areas he created many of the basic government structures and policies that his successors used to run the city in more prosperous times. What he achieved is stunning in its dimensions, especially considering the fiscal and political obstacles he faced.

Q: Your title implies Koch rebuilt the city.  Isn’t that giving him too much credit?

JS:  I don’t think so. It is hard to exaggerate the calamitous decay of the city when Koch became mayor. In the Bronx alone, more than 108,000 dwellings were lost to arson in the 1970s. Every borough had high-crime areas full of burned-out buildings and trash-filled vacant lots. In the South Bronx and parts of Brooklyn, you could go for blocks without passing a single inhabited building. One film crew even used the Bronx as a set for a movie about the firebombing of Dresden. Koch created task forces that stopped most of the fires. Ten years later, the bombed-out city no longer existed, because those neighborhoods had been restored and new communities were thriving there.

Koch managed to pull it all off with local money, despite the antigovernment ideology being pressed by Reagan and conservatives, who dictated that after restoring the city’s credit, Koch should have paid down debt and reduced taxes. Instead Koch courageously decided to use the city’s restored credit to borrow prudently and rebuild the city, spending money on restoring dangerously decrepit infrastructure and building housing for working people in former wastelands through partnerships between City Hall and NGOs. This decision was in the tradition of FDR, and was not one every mayor would have made. None of this could have happened without the feat of restoring the city’s credit. Koch told the press, “Somebody deserves credit, it might as well be me.” Many bridled at his raging ego, but in this case, he was right.


Thursday, October 7th, 2010

A Tale of Two Seminars — A Post by Robert Hanning

Robert HanningIt’s sometimes argued that teaching and research (including, by extension, scholarly writing) make strange pedagogical bedfellows, but having taught both undergraduates and graduate students for forty-five years, all the while doing a fair amount of research and writing, I find this a difficult premise to embrace. For me, there has always been a symbiotic relationship between my activities in the classroom, the library stacks, and the study over which my computer (as earlier my yellow legal pad with its sharpened pencils) resides.

My recently published book, Serious Play: Desire and Authority in the Poetry of Ovid, Chaucer, and Ariosto, based on the thirteenth Leonard Hastings Schoff Lectures at Columbia University, offers a prime example of such symbiosis. This extended appreciation of my three favorite pre-modern comic poets had its immediate origin in an unexpected invitation to give the Schoff Lectures in October 2005. More fundamentally, however, the project was gestated in two extraordinary seminars (one often repeated, the other unique and valedictory) that together constituted the summit of my career as a teacher at Columbia. Yet, deeply satisfying as those seminars were, I could never have fully appreciated what they taught me had I not been given the unforeseen opportunity to wrestle their lessons into connected prose.

Of the three poets I discuss in my book, I came in contact only with Chaucer during my years as a student majoring in medieval literature. I first became aware of Ovid and Ariosto as masterful comic writers when I had to teach them—the former in Columbia’s required Great Books course; the latter in a team-taught colloquium on primarily Italian Renaissance texts at Barnard College—and found myself enthralled by their heightened sense (and appreciation) of the ridiculous as a feature of most human affairs (especially the erotic kind).


Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Leonard Cassuto as Art Curator

Leonard Cassuto
Leonard Cassuto, professor of English at Fordham University and author of Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crimes Stories, is curating an exhibit entitled The Art of Captivity.

Idiom interviewed Cassuto about the exhibit, which includes works that explore captivity narratives, and includes works by artists such as Kara Walker. In the interview Cassuto also discusses frontier ideology, captivity narratives throughout history, and how an English Professor wound up curating a contemporary art show in the first place.

Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Idiom: Do you see the legacy of early captivity narratives at work today?

Leonard Cassuto: Certainly—captivity is all over the place. For example, the structure of the generic serial killer story usually involves a young woman being held by the killer as police and/or detective(s) race to free her. This trunk story is inconceivable without the captivity narrative that undergirds it. In a more literary vein, Stephen King’s most self-reflexive (and to my thinking, his best) book, Misery, is a modern captivity narrative.


Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Video for Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City

The following is a video for Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City. For more on the book, you can browse the book using Google Preview or visit the site jonathansoffer.com

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

James Fleming and Fixing the Sky at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Fixing the Sky, James FlemingFor those in the Washington D.C. area, please come out to see James Fleming discuss his book Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at 10:30 am.

For those that can’t attend the event you can read an interview with Fleming from SciCom or read the Introduction.

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

From Empathy to Denial wins The Washington Institute Book Prize

From Empathy to DenialThe Washington Institute announced that From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust has won the Gold Prize.

The Washington Institute Book Prize, now in its third year, was established to highlight new nonfiction books on the Middle East and is among the world’s most lucrative literary awards.

The following is from the prize jury commendation:

From Empathy to Denial is the definitive exposé of a deeply held prejudice obscured by politics and partisanship. Through painstaking sifting of Arabic sources, the authors carefully measure the psychological barriers that block Arab comprehension of the Holocaust’s significance for Israel, Jewry, and the world. In so doing, Meir Litvak and Esther Webman tell a neglected story behind the persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Silver Prize went to The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle, by Michael Young (Simon & Schuster)

The Bronze Prize was awarded to: Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, by Jeffrey Herf (Yale University Press)

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

New Book Tuesday

When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green? Here are some new books that are hot off the presses and now available:

When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green? And 101 Other Questions About New York City?
The Staff of the New-York Historical Society Library, Nina Nazionale, and Jean Ashton; with a foreword by Ric Burns

Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma
Gabriele Schwab

Parable and Politics in Early Islamic History: The Rashidun Caliphs
Tayeb El-Hibri

For more recent books from Columbia University Press.

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Siddharth Kara on Child Labor in the Commonwealth Games

After much controversy, the Commonwealth Games finally opened in India last night. In addition to charges or corruption and general mismanagement in the preparations for the Games, there were also reported incidents of child and forced labor being used in various construction projects for the events. One of those who uncovered examples was Siddharth Kara, author of Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, who has been traveling South Asia examining the problem of forced labor.

He was recently interviewed by CNN about what he saw in New Delhi as India got ready for the Commonwealth Games. Kara saw 32 cases of children aged 7-10 working to get the construction completed.

Kara commented on the conditions:

“The conditions are sub-human and that’s really the only word I can apply. They live in the dirt, they go to the toilet behind bushes and trees which is why they found human excrement in the athletes village a few days ago. The children, especially the young ones, don’t have a sense of what’s going on. They’re told to do the work and they just do the work. They don’t know that they should be in school or that they should be playing.”

Kara contacted the organizers of the Games to comment but never heard back. Below is a video of Kara’s report for CNN:

Friday, October 1st, 2010

The Historical Appeal of Austerity — A Post by Steven Bryan

Steven BryanThe following is a post by Steven Bryan, author of The Gold Standard at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: Rising Powers, Global Money, and the Age of Empire. Read Bryan’s earlier post, How Unusual Is China’s Currency Policy?

On its surface, one the oddest responses to the current economic crisis has been the reemergence of the argument that austerity is a good idea in a depression. The idea that, in effect, making a downturn worse is the way to recovery is superficially so nonsensical as to be incomprehensible.

But, in the current crisis, as in the interwar depression, calls for austerity have reflected mixed motives. In Germany to date austerity has been more rhetorical than actual and offset by a social safety net, export and manufacturing bases and a currency made to support them all. In Spain and Ireland it has been a response to perceived, if politically questionable, concerns about bond rates and ratings. This does not mean austerity is a smart policy; it just means it is not incomprehensible. In Greece austerity has been the result of IMF and EU demands to protect banks outside of Greece rather than a path freely chosen by Greeks themselves. In the UK, if anything, austerity has been less a response to the current economic crisis than the preference of a new government to re-shape the role of the state for philosophical reasons and to favor its electoral base – in other words, an excuse to do what it would like to do anyway.