Louis “Studs” Terkel, 1912-2008

A great Chicagoan is no more.

My one story about Studs Terkel involves the blues and Romila Thapar – as she told us, about being hosted by Studs in the mid 60s in Chicago and being introduced to blues and jazz at the Checkerboard Lounge. So, here is Studs:

Despite all the above misadventures, I love the U of C Law School and treasure those three years of attendance. Allow me to explain.Never having drive an automobile, I was a street car student, traveling from the near North Side to Hyde Park. It involved three trolleys. One point of transfer was in the black belt, known as Bronzeville. It was there while waiting that I heard recorded music – blues songs – blaring out of the gallimaufry stores; everything second-hand was for sale. Even used phonograph records. I fell deeply in love and bought them by the score; a nickel or a dime each. It may explain why I was so often late for class.

So it was that I came to listen and learn from some of my most memorable mentors; Big Dill Broonzy [sic]; Memphis Slim; Tampa Red; Memphis Minnie; Roosevelt Sykes; the Honey Dripper; and even from Peatie Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-In-Law.

update: Ebert remembers

update 2: Studs on Studs and the University of Chicago

Rachid Khaleeede

Actual Professors in Hyde Park
Actual Professors in Hyde Park
Last night, from Sarah Palin, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow (♥!) and Jon Stewart, I heard about “yet another radical professor from the neighborhood who spent a lot of time with Barack Obama going back several years”, “Rashid Khalidi”. It is a startling realization; one that has caused me to reassess my impression, and my feelings for Hyde Park. Some of you may not know that Hyde Park has lots of “professors and such”. And now, with this bombshell, people are going to look at these innocent workers with suspicion. It cannot be. Let me be the first to defend the Hyde Park Professors as god-fearing, church-going, freedom-loving true-blood Americans who live in the Real America ©. These are not the people we need to fear.

Now, this Khaleeede guy. I have, I am forced to admit, taken classes with him. He led me to believe that he was just some generous-hearted, razor-sharp intelligent, thoughtful, New Yorker who cared deeply about his scholarship as well as his students. I even held him to be a “role-model”; someone to emulate. I was obviously brain-washed.

I will, certainly, undergo the hundreds of hours of “Re-education” that is needed. And I will do it with a smile.

Others, like Juan Cole, can spin a masterful defense of the “idiotic wind” that went through my neighborhood. I will just focus on cleaning up the name of these fair grounds.

PS: You can also see Scott Horton and Barney Rubin‘s defense of Hyde Park.

PPS: By default, anything Daniel Pipes says is bullshit, but, um, here: Khalidi and the PLO, if you must.

Update: Sadly, the Obama campaign can only manage a how pro-Israel we is defense, instead of pointing out the racism of McCain’s attack.

Savage Mules

Dennis Perrin, whether he knows it or not, is in contention with Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi in a contest of nuclear indignance–which of the two will assume the mantle of America’s clear-thinking, hyper-independent conscience, left unshouldered since Hunter S. Thompson’s slide into obscurity, and lamentable demise?

Taibbi has the lead. He occupies a chair close to Thompson’s vacant National Affairs Desk, is a fantastic writer, and seems to get off on speaking truth to, and about, whatever power has the misfortune of catching his gaze. His recent fencing match with Erica Jong will suffice as Exhibit A. Jong meant to teach the young malcontent a lesson about what can, and cannot, be said; in response, Tiabbi handed her a piece of her own considerable ass. Consider, also, Taibbi’s furious wood-shedding of The National Review’s Byron York, who, following an exchange on the nature of credit-default swap, would do well to never show his smug face in public, or open his mouth in public discourse, again.

Perrin has numerous disadvantages in his quest for a broader audience and the recognition he deserves. His fans must seek out dennisperrin.blogspot.com. Before dennisperrin.com, he blogged under the title Red State Son. Unlike Taibbi, who sits before the camera on Real Time with Bill Maher, Perrin wrote Maher’s jokes. Perrin seems to be more comfortable, at least in his role as political commentator, behind a computer-monitor. Perrin’s politics, while not explicit–there may not be a good label for them, actually–are a blend of disgust, anarcho-syndicalism, and an absurd comedic sensibility.

One envisions him in a bowler hat, at the turn of the 20th century, gleefully tossing little round, black, crackling-fused bombs at industrialists’ motorcades. He may not be sure what follows the revolution, but he’s willing to give it a chance.

Savage Mules, Perrin’s 2008 catalogue of Democratic party misdeeds, fuck-ups and rank hypocrisy, deserves a broad audience, and when that audience comes to the book, Perrin will win the fans he needs to be competitive with Tiabbi.

Mules is an intensely personal, often jarring history of Perrin’s relationship to the narrative driving the Democratic party. It’s a story Perrin doesn’t buy, even though accident & circumstance often puts him among those who do.

“I’ve witnessed this up-close and point-blank for much of my adult life. To many of them, the Democrats are a flawed but inherently decent party whose humane outlook is forever compromised by Republican slander and personal insecurity. Even critical liberal bloggers and columnists hand the Dems a pass on most issues simply because they believe that the mules will eventually Get It Right, if only they can move past conservative lies and intimidation tactics.”

Carter, Jackson, the Democratic Mascot itself, Roosevelt, Truman, MacArthur, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton, Humphrey, Nader-Haters, and The Yearly Kos all queue for a clubbing as Perrin, one-by-one, example-by-example, deconstructs the myths with which we surround supposedly well-meaning democrats.

Most of Perrin’s complaints have bases in the bloody preservation of American Imperial establishment and expansion, which, by Perrin’s reckoning, can be shown first at home with Jackson’s genocidal Trail of Tears, and continues unabated, abroad. Perrin’s critique echoes Chomsky’s common-sensical approach to realpolitik: the assumption that America should husband the world’s resources for its benefit, and intervene to protect its “interests” when necessary or expedient, offends Perrin’s radically egalitarian ethos. Further, the notion dwells as monstrously and demonstrably in the heads of mules as it does in pachyderms.

It’s an admirable stance, and one that forces the reader to take a choice–wake up and do something about the Orwellian mad-elephant, or continue in slumber while Empire thrives. It will be a shockingly difficult choice for most readers, and one that most are wholly unprepared to consider. The assumption that America is good, and its Democrats are good stewards, and that American use of force is not just necessary, but an unqualified good, are so taken for granted that they might as well be scrimshawed in ivory.

And this is where Perrin distinguishes himself. Perrin does not come from a beat–he is a free agent, a gunslinger, whose loneliness in the wilderness permits him to take his critique a step further than he might, were he wed to a masthead. He does not report on the process, nor does he take its permanence, or its value, as givens that needn’t be proved by argument. Perrin’s exchange with Max Blumenthal’s aunt, at the YearlyKos gives an illustration:

“Do you like Hillary?” She asked.
“No, not really.”
“Why not?”
“It’s probably best not to go into it here.” I didn’t want to start a conversation about how much I dislike the Dems with someone from the Blumenthal clan, especially right before I was due to speak.
“Well, who do you like?”
“Actually, I’d like to see another system.”
“Well, that’s not gonna happen.”
Not with people like you in the way, I thought to myself.

Perrin’s descriptions of his confusion, humility and ambivalence following September 11th come off as particularly endearing, and provide a nice literary counterbalance to the overall tone of the book, which, despite its being earned, can seem unrelenting, like the rare car alarm that has actually been set off by a thief.

The contest between Taibbi and Perrin–of which neither likely has intention nor knowledge–may take years to resolve, if ever. But so long as Perrin continues roasting sacred animals, and literally kicking high-rolling apparatchiks’ asses, he should count himself, and we also should count him, among our treasures. A rare thing in these times, truth. And a rarer thing is one who will tell it, as he sees it, and challenge those who disbelieve to prove him wrong.

Savage Mules is published by Verso Press. 118 pages.

Guha’s Burden

At Madison, Ram Guha gave a thoroughly entertaining talk on contemporary history. It was filled with nice anecdotes, pointed criticisms of “establishment” histories and historians, and a genuinely felt call for new directions in history writing. It was also overly broad, had outdated generalizations, mis-characterized historiographical developments and seemed a bit too caustic. I didn’t take any notes during the talk – eager to simply enjoy the spectacle. So, I didn’t comment on it here. I don’t want to misquote the man.

Thankfully, I learned from Rohit that he had published an article, The Challenge of Contemporary History,” Economic & Political Weekly, June 28, 2008, which seems to contain the full text of his remarks at Madison. It allows me to make the one point that occurred to me during his talk.

He writes (and said)

The overwhelming importance in the academy of that single date, August 15, 1947, has led to a paradox – namely, that while India is the most interesting country in the world, we know very little about its modern history. And what we do know about independent India is chiefly the work of sociologists, economists, political scientists, and journalists – not historians. In fact, the works of history, properly so-called, on any aspect of India since 1947 are so few that they can be counted on the fingers of one hand, or, at most, two.

(Footnote: These works are cited at appropriate places in this essay. I speak here only on books in English – as it happens, scholars writing in Marathi have written important works of contemporary history, that is, on Maharashtrian society and politics since 1947. Notably, these scholars – among them Dhananjay Keer, Kumar Ketkar, and Y D Phadke – have worked for the most part outside the academy.)

He didn’t read that footnote in his talk. “… [O]nly on books in English” rankled me, as it did the peanut gallery in which I sat. It is no small point to ignore the production of history in Urdu, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Bengali etc. etc. Especially, if one’s entire argument is on contemporary history. Pakistan, for example, can be cited as a case-study of doing only contemporary history – for reasons entirely political. There are scores upon scores of Urdu histories – some even by prominent academic historians such as Mubarak Ali, Muhammad Aslam, K. K. Aziz etc. And if we really want to just stick with English, go check out GC University Lahore’s history faculty. Their bi-annual research magazine, Khaldunia seems to have 2 out of 5 essays devoted to post- 1947 history (3, if you count the Hussain’s article). He also bemoans the lack of modern regional histories. Again, if there is one abundance in Urdu/Sindhi/Pushtu, it is of regional histories, be they of Sindh, Punjab, Swat etc. The majority focusing specifically on the modern period. I would venture a guess that the same is true, if we check a bookstore in Mysore.

Next, Guha points out the dearth of biography. But again, only if we (for unknown reasons) stick to English. In his talk he mentions Fatima Jinnah as one individual ignored by historians. He cites that in Ayesha Jalal’s book on Jinnah, there is no entry in the index on Fatima. But, here is the deal, Guha ji. Fatima Jinnah has had numerous, numerous, histories and biographies written in Urdu. One on my desk, right now, is Shakir Husain Shakir’s “محترمه فاطمه جناح :‏ ‏حيات و فكر” (Respected Fatima Jinnah: Life and Thought), published in 2003 and a hefty 250 pages. WorldCat lists another twelve titles – all in Urdu, as early as 1963 and as late as 2007. Let’s just ignore Ayesha Jalal on this one.

It is “academic fashion” which propels the anglophile US-based historian, according to Guha, to write solely on the colonial period. I won’t necessarily quarrel with that. I have said as much regarding the medieval periods. However, one gets the feeling that it is also “academic fashion” which propels Guha’s criticism. The site of the contrarian is a privileged site; especially, if one gets to define the terrain. The reality, however, is that the historiography of South Asia is larger than the Bengal-centric Subaltern Studies collective, and it is larger still than the US-based academics. Guha seems more interested in straw men, sacred cows and paper tigers, than the contours of current scholarship – whether in vernacular or in English.

My one point aside, EPW also carried a pointed critique of Guha’s essay by Nivedita Menon, The Historian and ‘His’ Others: A Response to Ramachandra Guha [pdf]. It is an excellent read and Menon takes Guha to task not only on his treatment of feminist historians and history but also on his engagement with history, itself. Less pointed engagements come from Sasheej Hegde, The Demands of Contemporary History: A Comment [pdf], and Nonica Datta, A ‘Samvad’ with Ramachandra Guha [pdf link]. All worth your time, if you go for such things. Finally, I want to draw your attention to Rohit’s Ramachandra Guha’s peculiar conservatism which deals more broadly with Guha’s intellectual burdens in the recent past.

Rohit’s post made me realize that Guha is, in broad circles, the historian du jour – combatively staking out a space distinct from the US-based academics. One is also reminded of his spat with William Dalrymple – which was particularly snarky. There is a certain air of “outsider-ness” that he projects – in his writings, and then, in his talk – from the “in-crowd”. Rhetorically, he turns the tables and argues that it is the “other” (Dipesh Chakrabarty or William Dalrymple) who are out of the club while he is with the people. For all I know, it might all be true. Guha may indeed know the soil of India better than those others. He may indeed have the goodness of history in his heart. The only thing I ask, as a historian, is that he present a forthright case without making swift generalizations and side snipes. It is a heavy burden to bear – speaking about the general state of history and history-writing for a complex nation-state and people. But he is the one who chose to do so, not me.