Timothy Burke grew up in Southern California. He was an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, graduating in 1986, and after a year working as a cook, began doctoral work at Johns Hopkins University in the history of Africa, the Atlantic world and the Caribbean, world history, and the history of the family and domesticity. He began teaching at Swarthmore College in the fall of 1994, where he has been ever since. His first book, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe, a study of material culture and consumerism and the transformation of everyday life, was published by Duke University Press in 1996. In 1999, he co-authored a cultural history of children's television, Saturday Morning Fever, with his brother Kevin Burke. He is presently working to complete a book about individual experience, agency, chiefship and the nature of colonial rule in Zimbabwe. Timothy blogs at Easily Distracted.
Why do you blog? > First, because I want a place to publish material that I think is interesting and even scholarly but which doesn't conform to any existing academic norms or have any other possible outlet. Second, because I'm an opinionated big mouth and this is better than wearing down everyone in my physical presence with my thoughts on life, the universe and everything. Third, because I got a bit tired of writing in online environments that were based around asynchronous conversation: I wrote everything in little chunks, based on something that someone said previously and anticipating something that people were going to say next. I wanted to cut loose from that and write what I liked, as much or as little as I liked, and with very little concern for anticipated replies.
What has been your best blogging experience? > It is always pleasing to be linked to by people I admire and respect. A few of the things I've written about my father have been a good combination for me of persuasion and therapy.
What has been your worst blogging experience? > Before I turned my pages into a weblog, I had some static content up, early in my time here. I got some creepy and abusive emails about the content from a local person that were very personal. That was discomforting.
What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger? > Don't feel constrained - write what you like, in whatever form seems suitable. Especially pay no attention to the people who make distinctions between blogs, live journals and so on and try to enforce those distinctions. Invent your own norms.
What are your favourite blogs? > Crooked Timber; Invisible Adjunct (I guess that's an emeritus favourite); and John and Belle Have a Blog. I think John Holbo and Belle Waring are the most talented bloggers out there right now.
Who are your intellectual heroes? > Albert Camus, Nelson Mandela, George Orwell, Anthony Giddens, Jurgen Habermas, Amitav Ghosh, Anthony Appiah, Nicholas Thomas, Richard White, John Stuart Mill.
What are you reading at the moment? > I tend to read 5-8 books at a time - small bits from each, switching channels: Richard Morgan, Altered Carbon; Owen Sheers, The Dust Diaries; Hermann Gilomee, The Afrikaners; Lynn Thomas, Politics of the Womb; Neal Stephenson, The Confusion; Gene Wolfe, The Knight.
What is the best novel you've ever read? > Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children.
What is your favourite movie? > The Maltese Falcon.
Can you name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you've ever changed your mind? > 1) African nationalism. I used to regard it as something that was important to defend, and as a general contribution to liberation. Now I see it as a very strong contributor to political misery in postcolonial Africa. 2) Marxism. I used to regard myself as a Marxist, at least analytically. Now I don't, though I still find some things in the Marxist toolkit useful here and there. 3) Jesse Jackson. I voted for him - and now I wonder what on earth I was thinking. 4) Mass culture, especially television. I used to be as much of a snob as any other leftish intellectual about it, and now I'm the complete opposite.
What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to disseminate? > I agree with Thomas de Zengotita that we have to renew our appreciation of the ways in which we remain productively indebted to the core precepts of the Enlightenment and of 19th century liberalism.
What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to combat? > The futilitarian epistemology found in some - not all - postcolonial theory that says that all social and historical knowledge about non-Western societies inevitably reproduces the terms of colonial domination, and that the only thing we can legitimately seek to know is how knowledge was used as an instrument of domination.
If you could effect one major policy change in the governing of your country, what would it be? > Replacing the current President.
If you could choose anyone, from any walk of life, to be President, who would you choose? > John McCain or Eddie Izzard.
What would you do with the UN? > Replace it with two 'houses': one a body of national representatives chosen by popular global election (said elections administered by an international body with full legal authority to conduct elections freely and fairly in every member state) and one an executive security body mimicking NATO, designed to conduct emergency humanitarian operations ranging from search and rescue to peace enforcement in civil conflicts, controlled by direct input from member states. I'd radically pare down the current bureaucracy to WHO, the UNDP and a few similar services and assign this remainder to the representative house as its responsibility.
What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world? > Evenly split between the current government of the United States and small authoritarian regimes in the developing world, most particularly North Korea.
Do you think the world (human civilization) has already passed its best point, or is that yet to come? > The best is yet to come, but it is not inevitably so.
What would be your most important piece of advice about life? > Be fair. Be honest. Be sceptical. Never mind the bollocks.
Do you think you could ever be married to, or in a long-term relationship with, someone with radically different political views from your own? > Sure.
What do you consider the most important personal quality? > Integrity.
What personal fault do you most dislike? > Narcissism.
In what circumstances would you be willing to lie? > To avoid hurting someone's feelings. To protect a confidence from a vulnerable person.
Do you have any prejudices you're willing to acknowledge? > 'Furries' (e.g., people who get a sexual kick out of dressing up in big animal costumes or playing virtual characters who are human-animal hybrids) squick me out. Also, people who play identity games in online environments (e.g., have multiple identities, who have 'sock puppets', etc.) bug me. And I'm deeply uncomfortable with New Age spirituality or anything similar.
If you were to relive your life to this point, is there anything you'd do differently? > I'd think more than twice about whether African history ought to be my primary field of expertise.
Where would you most like to live (other than where you do)? > Northern California. Montana. Edinburgh. Banff.
What would your ideal holiday be? > Hiking and fishing in high mountains like the Sierra Nevada.
What do you like doing in your spare time? > Playing computer games, reading, surfing the Web.
What talent would you most like to have? > Either being able to sing or being able to learn other languages easily.
What would be your ideal choice of alternative profession or job? > Journalist. Novelist. Biologist. Historian of technology.
Which baseball team do you support? > I still have a soft spot for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
What animal would you most like to be? > A fox.
[The normblog profile is a weekly Friday morning feature. A list of previous profiles, and the links to them, can be found here.]