Archive for August, 2016

““It’s a shoestring budget,” says Charlie, who runs the center. “It’s not 10,000 agents and a big sophisticated place. It’s a bunch of friggin’ boxes. All half-ass records. We have about 50 ATF employees. And all the rest are basically the ladies. The ladies that live in West Virginia—and they got a job. There’s a huge amount of labor being put into looking through microfilm.”

I want to ask about the microfilm—microfilm?—but it’s hard to get a word in. He’s already gone three rounds on the whiteboard, scribbling, erasing, illustrating some of the finer points of gun tracing, of which there are many, in large part due to the limitations imposed upon this place. For example, no computer. The National Tracing Center is not allowed to have centralized computer data.

“That’s the big no-no,” says Charlie.

That’s been a federal law, thanks to the NRA, since 1986: No searchable database of America’s gun owners. So people here have to use paper, sort through enormous stacks of forms and record books that gun stores are required to keep and to eventually turn over to the feds when requested. It’s kind of like a library in the old days—but without the card catalog. They can use pictures of paper, like microfilm (they recently got the go-ahead to convert the microfilm to PDFs), as long as the pictures of paper are not searchable. You have to flip through and read. No searching by gun owner. No searching by name.

“Okay?” Charlie’s tapping a box of Winston Reds. His smile is impish, like he’s daring you to say what needs to be said: This is a fucking nightmare.

“You want to see the loading dock?” We head down a corridor lined with boxes. Every corridor in the whole place is lined with boxes, boxes up to the eyeballs. In the loading dock, there’s a forklift beeping, bringing in more boxes. “You go, ‘Whoa!’ ” he says. “Okay? Yeah, but a million a month?” Almost 2 million new gun records every month he has to figure out what to do with. Almost 2 million slips of paper that record the sale of a gun—who bought it and where—like a glorified receipt. If you take pictures of the gun records, you can save space. “Two million images! You know, it’s 2 million photo shots. I’ve got to have at least seven machines running 16 hours a day, or otherwise, right? I fall behind. And to fall behind means that instead of 5,000 boxes in process, there’s maybe 5,500 tomorrow, you know?

“These were Hurricane Katrina,” he says, leaning against a stack. “They were all submerged. They came in wet. And then we dried them in the parking lot. When they got dry enough, the ladies ran them into the imager.

“Do you want to see the imagers? I’ll show you. Imaging is like running a copy machine. So, like, if there’s staples? So what these ladies along here do, from this wall to this wall, from six in the morning until midnight…staples.”
It’s hard to tell if he’s complaining, or bragging.

“All this, everywhere, all these hallways, the boxes,” he says. “We’ve been as high as 15,000 boxes backlogged. When we go over 10,000, the General Services Administration dudes are walking around going, ‘We’ll collapse the floor.’

“And then Denise says—did you meet Denise? Denise says, ‘Let’s get some shipping containers! They’re like 70 bucks a month to rent.’ So we put shipping containers out in the parking lot here.” He pushes open a heavy metal door and there they are, three red, one orange, and one blue, pinged with rust, sitting on the hot asphalt with weeds popping through. “See, now we fill these up. Um…” He yanks the latch on the orange one, bends his knees as he heaves open the door. Inside it’s the same as the corridors: boxes. “Maybe 50 times a day a trace will come in for gun records in those boxes. Right? So, 50 times today somebody will be out here hand-searching boxes because we don’t have them imaged yet.

“You want to go see the microfilm archive?”

– Jeanne Marie Laskas, “Inside the Federal Bureau Of Way Too Many Guns.” GQ, August 31, 2016.

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Slavery and Progress: A Self-Reflexive Perspective

“Medieval historiography has inherited a powerful legacy from the abolitionist era that closely associates the societies of Britain with Christian civilisation and anti-slavery sentiments. At the beginning of the twentieth century W.E.H. Lecky argued that England’s crusade against slavery “…may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of the nations.” Similarly, Sir John Harris remarked during the 1930’s that Britain’s struggle against slavery,“…deserves the admiration and thanks of the civilised world.” However, it is extremely important that we do not forget the major role that Britain played in the African slave trade. Indeed, just a few decades before abolition Great Britain had been the world’s greatest slaving nation. British merchants were largely responsible for establishing the
New World slave trade and they greatly profited from it. The irony of
Britain’s subsequent zeal for abolition was not lost upon the African
rulers with whom the British slave traders had previously dealt. The
Asante chief Osei Bonsu is said to have remarked that 

The white men…do not understand my country, or they would not say
that the slave trade was bad. But if they think it bad now, why did they
think it good before?

More recent historical scholarship has highlighted the powerful and
disturbing role that anti-slavery ideology played in the construction
of sentiments regarding the superior character and virtue of British
civilisation. In the decades following abolition the British became
imbued with a proselytising zeal to impose their ‘civilised’ values upon
those whom they now deemed to be ‘savages’ because of their continuing involvement in slaving activity.  This abolitionist zeal provided
the moral ideology that facilitated the nineteenth-century imperial
expansion into Africa. Nineteenth-century British historians played a
significant role in the construction of this superior image. Indeed, the
attitudes of some historians reveal how closely anti-slavery ideology may
be associated with such racist beliefs. In his book Wales, Past and Present
(1870) Charles Wilkins expressed his horror concerning the existence
of the “hideous” condition of slavery, yet, he goes on to remark that 

The African had grown up but a degree above the animal, his lot if
he fell into any hands could not be much worse, and if he became the
property of a kind master, it was even improved in some respects. But
our poor Welshman! With the love of liberty, that was part of their very
being…for these (medieval Welshmen) the transition (into slavery) was
torture most execrable.

E.A. Freeman expressed similar views in his History of the Norman Conquest. Freeman was undoubtedly opposed to slavery. He regarded Bishop
Wulfstan of Worcester to be “an unflinching assertor of the eternal
principles of right” whose efforts had ended the “evil practice” of
slavery in Anglo-Saxon England. Yet, later in the same volume Freeman qualified his arguments concerning Anglo-Saxon slavery under a
sub-heading entitled, “The difference between white and black slavery.”
Within this sub-section he commented that

…there was one great difference between slavery in earlier and in later
times…The great difficulties which have arisen from emancipation of
slaves who are unlike their masters in every respect in which a man can
be unlike a man, is a difficulty with which Wulfstan and William were
not called upon to grapple. 

The prevalence of imperialistic attitudes such as this has undoubtedly
affected the historiography of Britain in general. The nineteenth-century
Irish historian M.F Cusack made no mention at all of the slave holding
nature of medieval Irish society in his Illustrated History of Ireland from
the Earliest Period
. Yet, this omission must be placed within the context
of Cusack’s own social and political milieu and his undoubted outrage
at the impoverished state of his contemporary countrymen. This is
revealed at the beginning of his book when he remarked:

I shall state very briefly the position of the Irish tenant at this present
day…the position of the Irish tenant is simply this: he is rather worse
off than a slave.

The residual influence of nineteenth-century attitudes such as Freeman’s
have ensured the continuing sensitivity of historical analysis concerning slavery. In the 1980’s Elizabeth Curtis drew strong comparisons between
the English involvement in the African slave trade and the indentured
servitude imposed upon the Irish during the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries in her study Nothing but the same old Story; The Roots of Anti-Irish
. Yet, like her predecessor Cusack, Curtis failed to acknowl-
edge the slave owning nature of pre-Norman Irish society, which she
regarded to be “relatively egalitarian.” This is an example that has
been followed by other Irish historians who have sought to distance
their medieval forebears from such unsavoury practices. Indeed, Ó
Croínín has more recently asserted that “The institution of slavery, and
its concomitant, a slave economy, remained alien to the Irish way.” Such attitudes are understandable given the disparaging and condemnatory nature of pre-twentieth-century English historiography toward
medieval Irish society. Furthermore, whilst post-abolitionist sentiments
that associate slavery with only backward, barbarous and intensely
conservative societies persist, such misleading views will continue to
be perpetuated.

Despite the very genuine motivations of many abolitionist activists,
when anti-slavery was taken up by the British government the full
potential of this powerful civilising ideology became a justification for
pragmatic political expansionism. More subtly it became a subconscious
psychological aid endorsing world-wide British hegemony. In short,
slavery helped to provide the cash for the technological advances which
made Britain great. Conversely, anti-slavery provided an ideology,
which facilitated the continuing British cultural and political dominance of global affairs during the nineteenth century. This ideology
was extremely powerful and it has deeply affected historiographical
views concerning medieval slavery. Slavery has continued to be almost
as emotive an historical subject in Britain as it is in the United States.

This may be because it lies at the root of British industrial power.
Furthermore, whilst abolitionism constituted one of the first expressions of popular democracy and lies at the very heart of our civilised
self-image of compromise, decency and fair play, it also justified the
colonial expansionism into Africa and the epoch of the British Empire.
The civilising veneer of British anti-slavery is actually very thin yet
very few nationalist historians have been willing to scratch too deeply
beneath it.

Historians must be extremely self-reflexive if they are to transcend
the, still powerful nineteenth-century abolitionist ideology. No historian
would want to condone slavery yet, it is important that we understand
the reasons for our antipathy towards the institution before we begin to
study it. Indeed, historians have frequently failed to recognise the factors
that act upon their perceptions of this medieval institution and this has
resulted in anachronistic and inaccurate interpretations. Such interpretations have allowed slavery to be compartmentalised in order to reinforce
modern ideologies and sensibilities. Modern economic rationales, which
seek to uphold capitalist values or emphasise the progressive civilisation
of the West, have permeated the historical discourse on slavery. As a
result historians have, all too often, focussed their efforts upon explaining the disappearance of this medieval institution rather than seeking
to understand it. Moreover, when historians attempt to explain away
slavery in this manner they fail to realise the vital importance of the
institution for the societies of medieval Britain.”

– David Wyatt, Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800 -1200 (The Northern World). Brill: Leiden & Boston, 2009. pp. 54-58.

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Philippine “Betty” Amann.  

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Lilian Gish. 

Photo by Bain News Service, New York. c. 1922. Library of Congress,


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August 27, 2016: a new episode of The Anatomy Lesson at 11pm EST on CFRC 101.9 FM (cfrcradio). Perpetually confused. Music by Distel, Alan Pellay, These Hidden Hands & Lucrecia Dalt, Computer Magic, Nikita Villeneuve, Ada Vale, King Pong Dub System, and, of course, Psychic Pollution ( eatglassrecords) and locals Deep Sixed (ft. klsealegs!), playing a CD Release Party next Thursday. Check out the whole setlist in the comments below, tune in at 101.9 on your FM dial, stream at http://audio.cfrc.ca:8000/listen.pls or download the finished show at cfrc.ca.

Transfigure – “Days Go By” Transfigure (2014)
Computer Magic – “When You See Me” Davos (2015)
King Pong Dub System – “Never Stop” Islington West
New Order – “Confusion” Confusion 12" (1983)
Alan Pellay – “Parasitic Machine” In Dub Haze comp. (1981)
Ron Berry – “Sea of Tranquility” Where Dark Forces Meet (1982)
Ada Vale – “When This Heat Runs Out” & Motion
Deep Sixed – “Defensive Architecture” Deep Six
Nikita Villeneuve – “A1” Тоска (2015)
These Hidden Hands & Lucrecia Dalt – “Variants” These Moments Dismantled
Distel – “Hale” Puur (2015)
Psychic Pollution – “Quatrefoil” Deconstructed Architecture (2012)

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Rebel Yell, “Take Away,” Mother of Millions. Rice Is Nice, 2016.

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“I finished last time by telling you about Henry Ashby Turner, his own early research into Weimar Big Business, his gradually greater and greater hatred of anything which even resembled a Communist, and his attacks on [David] Abraham’s book, which included a scathing review, an “open letter” challenging Abraham to intellectual duel, talking to everyone in that field of history he could get to at conventions, and even letters with detailed attacks on the substance of Abraham’s book. Photocopies of these letters were passed from hand to hand in the Profession —including eventually into my hands, and boy do I wish I had made photocopies of my own before returning the ones I was lent!

Turner was attacking from a strong position. Despite some unease with how extreme some of his political views had become, no fair judge could call Turner less than extremely knowledgeable in the field, personally a gentleman, and with a track record not only of meticulous scholarship, but of writing in a clear style, without elaborate theoretical frameworks or jargon. David Abraham, on the other hand, was not only hard to read (and bear in mind that the articles I have recommended to you in the syllabus are the simple versions), he was fairly easy to dislike. One of my old professors was a grad student at Princeton when Abraham was still bathing in the warmth of rave reviews. Abraham gave a talk, he got asked a tough question, and his answer boiled down to “Graduate students do not question Professors!” —which is about as wrong as you can get.

These things were very much on my mind when, as a graduate student myself, I took some copies of Turner’s letters to the Scott library to compare them, closely, with Abraham’s book. I had all but signed my enlistment papers for Turner’s side in this little war. My heart was there, but my mind reminded me of two of the points we insisted on with undergraduate essays: One is: “Don’t tell me, show me!”. The other is: “Make comparisons that really compare.” If I did less it was going to get a little hard to look myself in the bathroom mirror every day.

That May week-end in Scott, an odd thing happened. As I compared Turner’s letters with Abraham’s book, the picture Turner gave, of Abraham doing everything from deliberately misquoting his sources to actually making sources up, started to blur and fade. What is, for example, the point so vital that Abraham would make up a non-existent book and risk his career to support it? (p. 157 note 114 of Abraham’s first edition, as cited by Turner’s letter of 28 May, 1983). It turned out to underpin the point that on trade policy various individuals had different interests, and that many economic organisations sought the help of political parties or of President Hindenburg. You or I wouldn’t even bother to use a reference for a truth that obvious. It seemed odd that anyone would falsify a reference to prove something like that. Certifying a book as absolutely non-existent takes forever, so I forged on to another point.

Turner (p.2, same letter) wrote that two of the documents Abraham quotes (notional correspondence between Martin Blank (an industry lobbyist in Berlin), and Paul Reusch on 29 Dec., 1930 and 2 January, 1931) did not exist. He argued that their non-existence shoots down much of Abraham’s book because Abraham uses them to prove that Reusch —who was both a big industrialist in his own right, and an important members of various industry pressure groups— was saying “Bring on Hugenberg (the leader of the German Conservative party [DNVP]) and the Nazis, the sooner the better!”

That sort of accusation is tremendously hard to deal with. I, Donald G. Wileman, cannot afford to go to archives in Germany whenever I like and check on the existence or non-existence of documents. Even if you can afford the time and money, that sort of process is not easy. Anyone who’s ever handled a real document collection will tell you how disorganised even a carefully curated, organised one can get, and how items somehow seem to move from folder to folder and from box to box. Turner did not go to Germany before he made his charges. He relied on a letter from the Archivist in charge of the collection that the letters supposedly came from, saying that they were not in the folder Abraham said they came from. So even the Archivist’s letter does not testify that the documents do not exist —just that they were not in one particular place, at one particular time. Worse, as it later turned out,  Turner in at least one case asked the Archivist to look for a “letter” instead of a “report”, and archivists are nothing if not literal-minded. Ask for a letter with a particular date and that is exactly what they’ll look for —not for anything else that might have been the item you wanted, But that was all the confirmation Turner sought for his own memory, aside from asking a few colleagues if they remembered seeing those letters.

If I cannot go to Germany whenever I want to check on the status of a document, I, or you, or anyone can read the relevant section of the Abraham book (pp. 164-65 and 316). And that material simply does not say what Turner claimed it does. What it does do is quote one of Reusch’s agents getting all enthused about the Nazis, and Reusch replying with a much softer, more careful position. And if the document was indeed created out of thin air, doing such a risky thing, just to falsely “prove” Abraham’s argument that a coalition government of all the bourgeois parties was no longer a do-able thing by 1931 —makes no sense. Once again, it hardly needs proof since it’s widely agreed on —including by Turner. Abraham’s larger argument on the pages that Turner cites, is that the idea of supporting Hitler, which was very controversial and had very little support among Big Business as late as early 1930, was being looked at seriously by more and more industrialists by 1931 —and that contention Abraham backs with a great deal of evidence which no one disputes —including a speech made at a General Electric banquet in New York City by none other than Carl Siemens (as in Siemens microphones) —evidence which Turner did not challenge.

The more points I looked up, the more I had this sort of experience. The point slowly changed from being whether Abraham had played merry hell with the sources, to being how a scholar as careful and precise about detail as Turner, could have misread Abraham so many times, and how he could so often overplay the importance of this point or that, to the structure of Abraham’s argument, which emerged from my comparison exercise pretty much undamaged in its essentials, even if you threw out every bit that Turner attacked. I started to get the uneasy feeling that I had come this close to signing up with the Confederate army.”

– from Donald G. Wileman’s great personal history of the Turner-Abraham controversy, “On With Abraham,” undated webpage. 

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