Sunday, April 25, 2010

Oh, Auntie Em!

An outbreak of 54 (maybe more) tornadoes hit the South and Midwest over the weekend. I had a personal stake in whether or not severe weather would hit this area as I was camping with my family. As the father of two young babies, I made the decision early in the morning on Saturday not to take any chances and get out of that campsite. Having been on top of the Peachtree Plaza eating dinner at the Sun Dial when the tornado hit downtown Atlanta on March 14, 2008, I can tell you that there is no more of a helpless than when you find yourself in the position of having nowhere to go when such a disaster strikes.

Tornadoes can strike anywhere, even crowded downtown business districts with skyscrapers. Despite this, people still refer to the Downtown Atlanta Tornado of 2008 as a “freak tornado.” It is simply a matter of chance as to why we mostly see tornadoes strike rural areas. Tornadoes are just as likely to hit major cities and they do. Still, people tend to think that severe weather only hits poor, white people. One of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You Might Be a Redneck” observations posited that, “If you’ve ever been on the evening news describing what the tornado sounded like… you might be a redneck.”

I was never fond of severe weather before that March night two years ago, but that incident aggravated my anxieties. Tornadoes don’t care about your affluence or your race. They are not attracted to trailer parks or other less than sturdy dwellings. They form tens of thousands of feet in the air – well above the tallest skyscraper in the world. Pay attention to your local meteorologist this time of year. If severe weather is forecasted, an evaluation of your activities needs to be conducted. “Is it that important that I go to Target tonight?” The answer is probably no.

If your plans include buildings that don’t have basements, it is probably better to stay home. The chances are remote that a tornado will strike your home, business, or hangout, but you can reduce the risk of bodily harm by staying in a safe place during these kinds of events. You can also help fight class and racial stereotypes by realizing that you, too, could be in the path of a deadly twister one day.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The First Amendment Area

For our on-campus writing assignment, I led my group-mates over by the Campus Green. As we strolled up, I felt like we wouldn't be the only ones to write about the green, so I pointed out the First Amendment Area as a potentially intriguing point of interest. I was astonished to find out the other gents in my group were not aware of this little spot. Later, I was even more astonished to find out that our professor had not heard of it either. Perhaps astonished is too strong of a word. After all, the First Amendment Area (FAA) is a little piece of land between the Campus Green and the Burruss Building. It is a squared off by railroad ties and is covered in gravel. The space is probably about 100 square feet. The only thing that marks it as the First Amendment Area is a little sign on a tiny post. The sign sits about 6’’ off the ground. Legally, the FAA is a place, but it clearly aims to be a non-place. The only way you would know about the First Amendment Area is by being really, really observant.

I have seen protests of one thing or another taking place outside of this little sand box. Clearly with this specially designated area, KSU is reserving the right to shut any protest down if it becomes too disruptive. Since not many people seem to know about the FAA, it is likely that most protests are going to occur outside of it. Combined with the fact that the FAA does not allow room for many people, KSU is virtually guaranteed to be within its legal rights to squelch almost any demonstration that reaches a level of participation as to be described as massive. (One other factor that makes KSU’s campus particularly peaceful: the complacency of the mostly middle class student body).

Protesting on a college campus is as American as baseball and apple pie. Without disruptive demonstrations and spontaneous expressions of anger and discontentment, African Americans and women would still be second-class citizens. There would be virtually no laws or safeguards protecting laborers. The consciousness of the public would almost never be alerted to injustice. Cynics scoff and snicker at those who exercise their First Amendment rights calling them “dirty hippies” and other epithets.

The FAA is a reminder of what we think about the First Amendment in the U.S. in 2010. When it comes down to it, it is a nuisance – barely worth recognizing or protecting. I don’t know how other college campuses choose to address the issue. I suspect that there are numerous other FAA’s across America. If KSU is symptomatic of other college campuses, then what we have is the systemic suppression of expression by the various administrations of their respective student bodies. Of course, in 2010 the student bodies (including people like me) more than oblige their administrators by ignoring issues of war and social justice and instead busy themselves with sports, celebrity gossip, binge drinking, and the frivolity of being young and beautiful (like me).

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Thoughts on "Place"

  • Ÿ I have worked in a few different places, lived in several different places, and hung out in many different places. In all of them, I developed an emotional and psychological attachment to them. I understood at the intellectual level that I did not own these places. I knew that after leaving a particular place of business, I wouldn't be able to just stroll into the back office or break room whenever I wanted. There is an understanding at this higher level that any place that I have in such a place is only temporary. Still, at the same time, I did feel like these places were mine. There seems to always be a part of me that doesn't differentiate between home and a hang-out or home and work. It seems like if you go to any place enough then a bond is forged between you and that place. If you hang out at a bar enough, that bar is a part of you and you can always go there when you want to. Of course, this isn't true, but it certainly feels that way for a while. Then your old workplace goes out of business or the house you used to live in gets torn down to build a highway. You realize that no spot on this earth really belongs to you. Even a deed is temporary, geologically speaking.
  • I was struck by a comment in the text. On page 11, Creswell refers to one possible Western conception of Baghdad as city that we blithely think of as “a place to drop bombs.” He follows this assessment with this statement, “At other times… the lens of place leads to reactionary and exclusionary xenophobia, racism, and bigotry.” I am confused by these statements being back-to-back like this. If we view Baghdad as a place that needs to be bombed every now and then (and I think we do) then how could “the lens of place” possibly distort this even further. How can such a concept as thinking of a city populated by fellow human beings (the overwhelming majority of whom are not part of the Iraqi government or military) as one that is a default location for American bombs to be dropped be even further corrupted? Seeing that Creswell is from the UK, perhaps I should say, “Coalition bombs.” But, the fact is that there is something disturbing in the way this little aside is presented. It screams White Man’s Burden. If that wasn’t his point and he just didn’t articulate himself very well, why didn’t the publisher try to iron this out? It comes off as very cold, callous, and, yes, even racist.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

How can you prove that yours is the "biggest" Easter egg hunt in the world?

We hosted our first Easter egg hunt at the Watson household this weekend and I can report that it was a most satisfying experience… for the adults. Children do not seem to enjoy this ritual as much as the adults do. I can remember as a kid getting very upset because my parents would help my little sister. For the adults the hard part is not hiding the eggs. It is convincing kids to act like grown-ups which is difficult when considering what is taking place and what is at stake: competition and candy (maybe a little money, too). Feelings get hurt and kids stomp around and pout for a couple of hours. Where does this tradition come from? Are there elements that we have added to it in the U.S. that make the Easter egg hunt uniquely American? What does the Easter egg hunt say about us? As usual, I have not had time to research this topic, so I cannot answer these questions. I can say that when looked at through the prism of contemporary political and economic thinking, the Easter egg hunt can mean completely different things to different people.

At first glance, the Easter egg hunt might seem like a capitalist endeavor. Adam Smith or Milton Friedman might feel vindicated by one. Concepts like competition bringing out the best in the participants; the reward of hard work and self-reliance; and the satisfaction of coming away with a bigger bounty than everybody else are some of the potential lessons for kids who take part in an Easter egg hunt. If they were all like this, it might be called a conservative undertaking. But, given other realities, there are elements at work that would be applauded by John Maynard Keynes or Franklin Roosevelt. Children are benefited by the assistance of their parents. They are provided with the necessary tools (the basket) and training (pointing out where the eggs are). There is the possibility of learning about cooperation, kindness, and the importance of community.

The kids (or their parents) who come away with the most eggs in an Easter egg hunt would probably more inclined to draw lessons from the Smith/Friedman model of Easter egg hunting. The ones who come up short, the have-nots, would want their pleas for equality and fairness to be heard and their humanity to be recognized. Perhaps even some kind of restructuring of the social order would be called for. Of course, if kids were this analytical about an Easter egg hunt, there would be no joy in the world at all.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Intersection of Race and Scandal

The Masters golf tournament begins in Augusta next week and Tiger Woods will make his much-anticipated return to the golf course for competitive play for the first time since revelations of marital infidelity surfaced in November of last year. Since then, at least a dozen women have come forward to say they had had some kind of sexual relationship with Woods. The scandal has set off a media firestorm with many denouncing Woods as a fallen idol. The four-time Masters champion has also lost endorsement deals with various image-sensitive corporations. Woods, himself, went into hiding surfacing only last week to give interviews to ESPN and The Golf Channel.

In those interviews, Woods was contrite, but guarded. He said he understood that he had let people down, but he remained tight-lipped about details of the incident that broke this scandal open - a Thanksgiving night car crash outside of his Florida home. Woods certainly has the right to reveal only the information he wants the public to hear. In fact, upon examining other celebrity sex scandals of the past couple of decades, one might think that Woods is being subjected to unfair treatment by the media and the public.

Babe Ruth, the icon of baseball, was shielded by the press in terms of his sexual escapades. A famous though perhaps apocryphal story has Ruth being chased naked through a chain by a jealous lover in view of a group of reporters. As the narrative of Ruth and his time go, those reporters felt it would be too damaging to the country to air such personal matters. Members of the press are purported to have known about John F. Kennedy and his affair with Marilyn Monroe in the White House. Again, the good of the nation was supposedly cited for not making these matters public.

But, times change and in a super-competitive media environment, the sexual lives of celebrities attract attention and make money. However, the degree of scrutiny to which Tiger Woods has been subjected still seems disproportional to other scandals.

Wade Boggs, former Red Sox star, admitted to sexual addiction sometime in the early '90s and underwent treatment, but he was not compelled to apologize to anyone. Warren Beatty was well-known for having relationships with many, many women through the 1960s, ‘70s, & ‘80s, but is still a revered actor and was even courted by the Democratic Party for a potential White House run. Bill Clinton survived the impeachment and removal process of 1998-99 thanks to his gift of charisma and a robust economy. Today, people acknowledge that he is (or was) a philanderer, but not with quite the disdain that is reserved for Mr. Woods.

It is interesting that figures like Tiger Woods and Magic Johnson are made to endure scorn for engaging in similar behavior (although Magic Johnson received a great deal of support as well). Is the color of their skin what makes their cases so special? Why does Tiger Woods lose endorsement deals (he is still the best golfer in the world) while Warren Beatty gets a wink, a nod, and a high five?

Monday, March 22, 2010

A leftover thought from the Oscars

Personal update: Ava Catherine Watson was born last Tuesday at 8:22 in the evening at Kennestone. She is very healthy and Mommy is doing very well. Big sister Caroline loves her little sister. With baby's arrival, I have had little time for keeping up with current events (although I did watch last night's "historic" House vote on healthcare) or our assigned readings for class. So, I thought I would write the other thing about the Academy Awards from two weeks ago that piqued my interest.

Sandra Bullock won Best Actress for her role as a southern woman with a heavy southern drawl who adopts an adolescent black child. She sees something in this young man that no one else does and she pushes him to become a star on the football field. I have not seen this film, but I feel like I can be pretty sure that this movie and the hype that has surrounded it exemplify the surviving strands of American exceptionalism.

American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States of America, its people, and its leaders have been endowed with a special purpose: to bring freedom and democracy to everyone in the world. The idea generally relates to the actions of the U.S. military abroad, but in this case, I think it fits here as well. Bullock’s character stands up for what she thinks is right even when everyone around her thinks she is crazy (including her own husband). She is sassy and isn’t afraid to tell people what she thinks (including “scary inner-city black people”). She embodies the American ideals of kindness, toughness when necessary, and color-blindness. If only everyone was like her, surely this would be a better world.

How insulting can a movie be? Millions of people adopt children. Sometimes, those kids are not infants or toddlers. Increasingly, people are adopting children from different ethnic backgrounds than their own. How is this woman that Bullock portrays exceptional?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Babies in America: A Special Report

My wife is scheduled to be induced into labor on Tuesday the 16th. It will be our second child and we are very excited to welcome our second bundle of joy into the world. But, my aim is not to use this space to waste everyone's time with my personal life. Instead, this upcoming event got me thinking about how we view childbirth, babies, and motherhood and how those views may or may not have changed through American history. This particular post is about questions more than answers.

How did the dangers of childbirth color the experience of delivery before modern medicine? How much did consumerism change the experience of welcoming a new child into the world? How many fathers were detached from this experience before feminism?

I’m sure there are books on this subject. This post is written in haste and ignorance, but I think it would be an interesting area to study. New parents are inundated with all kinds of information and products. There must have been some kind of progression that led us to where we are today. Quick Frozen Foods and the coalition of companies that made TV dinners informed the public on how to use their products and created advertising that convinced consumers that their products were beneficial for their families.

Therefore, a trail-blazing entrepreneur in concert with a league of similarly-interested corporations would have had to work to create an environment where their products were viable. Was there a publication similar to Quick Frozen Foods in the baby industry? Did television play the same role in educating consumers about the role their products would play in their lives? Were the inherent issues of conflict and inequality present in race, class, and gender in the marketing of baby food, formula, toys, car seats, cribs, books (for babies and their parents), television shows, and so on??

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"The Hurt Locker" and war in American films or The Superfluous Blog

The Academy Awards from Sunday night got me thinking about how films can be a snapshot of prevailing moods and attitudes of the era in which they are made (not merely of which they are made - an important difference). I think there are three different American films centering on war and the military from different periods that are highly illustrative of their respective times: White Christmas, Apocalypse Now, and The Hurt Locker. Each of these films says something different about its filmmaker and the audience that received it.

White Christmas was released in 1954 and starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney. The film follows two army buddies after World War II who decide to throw a gala event for their old Major. Though most of the action in the film takes place in the U.S. during peacetime, war and the military have an undeniable presence in the story. Featuring Kaye’s signature slapstick antics and Crosby’s crooning, the film could almost be described as a love letter to “the Good War.” Danny Kaye’s character suffers an injury during an artillery battle in which his arm is affected for the rest of his life. This injury is used as a comic device throughout the remainder of the film (completely unthinkable in the current political environment). I would be willing to bet that the main reason the film is remembered at all today is because of its theme song heard ad infinitum every Christmas season. Otherwise, this is pretty challenging fare for those who grew up during more cynical times and is exactly the kind of movie that the Baby-Boom generation rebelled against. Simple, soft, and unquestioningly patriotic, White Christmas is indicative of the prevailing American mood of the post-war period. It is the complete opposite of the storytelling that Francis Ford Coppola would attempt 25 years later.

Apocalypse Now is undeniably an anti-war movie. The psychological trauma that Martin Sheen’s character, Benjamin Willard, suffers, the callousness of Robert Duvall’s now-infamous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning… It smells like, I dunno, victory,” and the insanity of Marlon Brando’s Walter Kurtz all confront the audience to re-evaluate its thinking about war and its effects not only on the perceived enemy but also on ourselves. The film’s soundtrack, which features such eclectic pieces as “Ride of the Walkyrie” and “The End” by The Doors, creates a portrait that reflects the mood of America in 1979. A nation crippled by guilt over the loss of morality and sanity asked, “How can we keep history from repeating itself?” Such a film would probably not even be made today, but for different reasons than White Christmas. Soldiers are not treated as saints. Military objectives are not viewed as just and necessary. War is not glorified. It is condemned.

While there are those who condemn the War on Terror, many more people have chosen to remain neutral on the subject for fear of being labeled unpatriotic or in league with terrorists. It is this mood of neutrality that colors the film The Hurt Locker. No stance is taken on the U.S. intervention in Iraq. These characters are not depicted as the kind of care-free grunts seen in White Christmas nor are they depicted as insane, bloodthirsty megalomaniacs like the ones in Apocalypse Now. I wish not to present a false dilemma in this space nor would I insinuate that members of the military are anything less than human. What I do insinuate is that the interests that are primarily served by the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan hide behind the troops to escape impunity of their motives. Kathryn Bigelow cannot criticize the War on Terror, the U.S. government, or any of the corporate contractors that have benefited from the Overseas Contingency Operations because she would be smeared in a media onslaught by every outlet from The New York Times to FOX News to those in the government from both parties as someone possessing the aforementioned undesirable traits. The Hurt Locker is a good film and I do not dispute its winning of Best Picture at the Academy Awards (worse films have received that honor). Still, the film left me feeling cold because of its neutrality. However, upon examining the period in which it was made, it only makes sense that The Hurt Locker would be what it is.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Beneatha and "Good Hair"

The issue of African American women and hair is explored in the documentary “Good Hair.” The film stars and is produced by Chris Rock. The comedian travels the country talking to people of various backgrounds, status levels, and experiences. The main idea is not a new one to anyone who has taken a Sociology class: African Americans go to great lengths and spend vast amounts of money and time to make their hair look more European, which is to say straight. It isn’t only African American women that do this, but clearly the vast majority of consumers of hair straightening products are black women. The main ingredient is sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and it is found in most of these “relaxers.” As comedian Paul Mooney proclaims (beneath an Afro wig), “If your hair is relaxed [white people] are relaxed. If it’s nappy, they ain’t happy.”

The moment that Beneatha decides to let her natural hair show is both touching and powerful in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Such a decision draws criticism and ire from her own family illustrating the pressure from even within the black community to conform to European ideals of beauty and vanity. Most of Beneatha’s character is an affront to this family who simply want to be seen and accepted as American. She rejects the accommodationism of Booker T. Washington. Even Asagai, who encourages her to embrace her African-ism, sees her as too uncompromising – an idealist with a strident attitude.

It is difficult to imagine a time when the kind of decision that Beneatha made would be an easy one. But, it would seem to be especially hard during the post-war period during which the play is set. The Civil Rights movement had not picked up steam yet. Blacks were still segregated in places like the military and had just broken the color line in the nation’s most popular sport - baseball. Although she is a fictional character, Beneatha makes a stand that pre-dates Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton. Even 50 to 60 years later, African Americans still find themselves under enormous pressure to conform to norms exerted on them by an indifferent and sometimes hostile culture.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Taking the Other Woodstock

I grew up in Woodstock, GA in the 1980s and 1990s. My dad moved our family there in 1982. Since then Woodstock, like so many other places, has mushroomed in population and all kinds of development. I don't know anything about the politics, personalities, or backroom deals that made Woodstock what it is today (though it is probably safe to say that Cherokee County was run conservative Democrats until the ‘60s and by Republicans ever since). However, I do know about the narrative of Woodstock in the late 20th century. It is the story that I tell people all the time and it is probably very similar to any other Sitcom Suburb that sprang up during the same period.

The story begins with a sleepy little town far away from the big city. Slowly, but surely, the little town sees more and more development. The people welcome the convenience of having their consumer needs met closer to home, but they lament the traffic and other headaches that that development brings. Eventually, unencumbered development is accepted as “the way things are” and the little town is rendered unrecognizable in the span of about 20 years.

When we moved to Woodstock in 1982, there was practically nothing there in terms of commercial development. I remember one or two grocery stores. The intersection of Bells Ferry Road and Highway 92 was a four-way stop. If you wanted to eat out, you had to drive all the way to Marietta.

Little by little, that began to change. We started getting “bigger and better” grocery stores. Interstate 575 was completed and made the big city even more accessible and long trips easier. McDonald’s came into town. You cannot underestimate the importance of McDonald’s to a kid and I suppose that for many towns like Woodstock, having one lends it at least a modicum of legitimacy. Through the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s, the growth just kept going and going. The Towne Lake development was built in what was once called the “Thousand Acres” forest which brought even more need for development with it.

The sense of progress and improvement are ingrained when telling the story of Woodstock. Much like “Second Creation,” the sense was that outsiders like my family were taking Woodstock and fulfilling its intended use – a bedroom community in metro-Atlanta. The triple dream of “Building Suburbia” is there and it delivers on home and nature for a while. Community is always questionable as like so many other people who grow up in the suburbs, we hardly knew our next door neighbors.

There is room for the counter-narrative in Woodstock, too, as I am sure that many long-time residents resented the “Yankees” and greedy developers coming into their community and “ruining” it for short-term profits. Their concerns were overlooked or ignored and for good or ill, Woodstock today looks and feels like Acworth, Norcross, Conyers, Dallas, and just about any other suburb anywhere in the Western world.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Trying to Make Sense, Academically, of the "Tonight Show" Fiasco

The bizarre corner of American pop culture known as "The Late Night Wars" reached a fever pitch during the month of January 2010. Some found the matter to be so pressing that they actually took to the streets to protest what they saw as injustice. “Team Coco,” as they called themselves, rallied to support Conan O’Brien whom they felt was being unjustly fired from his job as the host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” the same program hosted by the legendary Johnny Carson and O’Brien’s predecessor and successor Jay Leno. Those that found themselves siding with “Team Leno” were not quite as moved to make their voices heard in the public square (or, in this case, in front NBC headquarters in Los Angeles). It could be said that Jay Leno’s fans did not feel the need to protest because, after all, their guy won. But, there are also sociological factors to consider. “Team Coco” tended to be made up of young people – people with the energy and time to protest such a matter as a television show. “Team Leno” tended to be older and from the “heartland” of America – not the kind of people you normally find in street protests. Conan O’Brien was too weird, too Ivy League for middle-America. Jay Leno’s appeal to heartland American values is what makes him more attractive to advertisers and it is why he’ll be taking his old job back in March. From an American Studies standpoint, this is an interesting issue because it is illustrative of what is truly important to a substantial number of Americans in 2010. With two wars, a crumbling economy, a potential breakthrough in healthcare reform, and a government in gridlock, the debate over who deserves to host “The Tonight Show” might seem trivial to anyone with a firm grasp of the day’s important issues. This latest round of the Late Night Wars was just another scandal in a long line of celebrity scandals that have captivated the American attention span at the expense of those other, more pressing issues. O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, Brangelina, Jon and Kate, the various Michael Jackson scandals, and many others have served as snapshots of their respective times of what matters to Americans at those times, or at least what the media says is important. That is another matter for another discussion.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

What could be added to "Second Creation"?

A question was asked this week as to what we would add to “America as Second Creation.” I thought for a while on this and suddenly it became so obvious I was almost ashamed for not thinking of it right away. No other invention played a more vital role in shaping early 19th century politics and facilitating the definitive event of American history – the Civil War – than did this one. The cotton gin would make for a very interesting chapter. Perhaps it is because the cotton crop was so confined to the South that it could be argued that it does not fit into the narrative of Westward expansion. I would argue that it played an integral part in making the South economically and politically viable. Therefore, it added to the credibility and potency of the United States as a whole. The cotton gin would certainly have presented its owners with possibilities previously unthinkable – mainly the work of many done by one, thereby exponentially increasing profits. The South’s dominance by an aristocracy was probably underway by the time of cotton gin’s invention, but this new technology guaranteed that it would be formidable and long-lasting. The counter-narrative to this is that it prolonged the enslavement of African Americans and made it so that only the Civil War could free them from bondage. This delay in emancipation could also serve as an explanation for the status of second-class citizenship (which is to say no citizenship at all) that African Americans suffered and fought to erase for the next 100 years. The cotton gin also seems to fit in nicely with Nye’s position that Americans of the 19th century assumed that natural resources were abundant and created necessarily to be exploited by man. Indeed, it is a very interesting topic of discussion to consider what the U.S. would have looked like without the cotton gin.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Clarification on RIP Howard Zinn

Looking at last week's post, anyone in my small audience who has read "A People's History..." might get the impression that I missed the point of Howard Zinn's seminal work. In my post, I only talked about the "dark side" of certain U.S. presidents. While Zinn goes into such territory, his focus is really on the struggles of the poor and working class groups and individuals. The girls of Lowell, the striking miners in Ludlow: these are the kinds of stories with which he wishes to acquaint his readers. I still like what I wrote because it was honest and fit in quite well with a new discpline that I am trying to acquant myself with. But, Howard Zinn was not simply trying to air the dirty laundry of the executive branch of the federal government. As I said in my earlier post, American history is too expansive for such a narrow evaluation.

Now that this is out of the way, I look forward to expounding on topics with which I have less of an emotional connection. I'll be back some time before the Super Bowl starts to submit my newest entry in time for Monday's deadline.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

RIP Howard Zinn

I first read A People's History of the United States in late 2001. If ever there was an odd time to read this book it was the unsettling period of post 9/11. Reading this book had a profound effect on me. It re-awakened a passion for American history in me that had been dormant for some time. It taught me that history is open to interpretation and re-evaluation. Finally, it opened my eyes to the many blemishes of social injustice (not just slavery and Jim Crow) that have shaped the United States of America. If it had not been for Howard Zinn and “A People’s History…,” I surely would not be pursuing what I know now to be my calling in life (an historian). If it had not been for Dr. Zinn, I wonder if I might have gotten caught up in the vengeful bloodlust and mindless, racist nationalism that characterized the post 9/11 period. Certainly I did not support the aims of the Taliban or Al Qaeda (to quote former comedy writer and media critic Dennis Perrin, “We were attacked by a group just as venal and superstitious as ourselves.”), but I did take care to analyze information coming to me from the major media outlets and they all fit into a narrative. My aim here is not to get into what that narrative was or whether I agreed with it. The point I am trying to make is that right at that weird and horrifying moment on September 11, 2001, I was being introduced to the concept of the counter-narrative. Some people are the subjects of history and others are the objects. Students of American history must know about Thomas Jefferson and should be interested in his eloquence during the founding of the Republic. But, they should also be interested in learning about his slaves and his true feelings about the peculiar institution. The accomplishments of the Woodrow Wilson administration in carrying the U.S. through World War I are fairly well-known, but it is definitely less well-known that the Democratic President hosted a private screening of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in the White House and praised the film for its “historical accuracy”. The United States was built by people of every level of economic means, social prestige, and educational achievement. Sadly, most people with as much as a passing interest in U.S. history are only familiar with the business and accomplishments of the Chief Executive. Howard Zinn reminded us that in a nation of hundreds of millions from every corner of the globe that version of history is too narrow. My thoughts and sympathies are with his family, friends, and students today. May he rest in peace.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Thoreau Goes "Walking"

The thing I found so intriguing about the Thoreau piece is the challenge to conventional wisdom. Like any great thinker, Thoreau encourages his reader to discard orthodoxy. When everyone else in the world is saying, “Look at this modern world! Look at how much better your life is because of all of these wonderful inventions and innovations!” Thoreau is saying, “But, look at how much needless complication now exists. Human beings can live much simpler lives and find just as much, if not more, contentment.” As a person who respects science and the scientific method, I tend to find myself marveling at the great discoveries and advancements of the Scientific Age. Cures for lethal diseases have saved the lives of millions, but so, too, has the philosophy of healthy living. The internet has been a phenomenal communications tool that has brought the world closer together, but it has also been corrosive and destructive. In Thoreau’s time, the mill and the canal and railroad were the advancements that turned the world upside-down. It was exactly because the world was turned upside-down that worried Thoreau. He had no need for well-built roads (those were for the horse and buggy). He had no need for the railroad and canal (those were for the frivolous tourist).He had no need for the mill (that was for the robber-baron). Thoreau wanted the world to challenge conventional thought. He wanted everyone to see that the hum and buzz of industry was a sacrilege to the beauty of the natural world. While readers may not find any Marxist leanings in his writing, it is probably not a great leap to imagine that Thoreau saw that the new technologies of his day served to benefit a very small and privileged few. Mainly his focus is on the natural world and man’s compulsion to “improve” it. Thoreau does not believe it can be improved. Perhaps we can take steps to prolong our lives and marginally improve our comfort and health, but the planet cannot be bettered. Thoreau invites his reader to take a long stroll, “a saunter,” and find this out for him- or herself.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Jan. 18, 2010

The thing that really stuck out for me in the reading and in the class discussion was the idea of generalized myths being cemented in people's minds as concrete realities. The idea of the rugged individual setting off into the wilderness with only his axe and his wits to live self-sufficiently off of the land is one that I never thought critically about before reading this book. I see a parallel to the myths of the 1960s where women were purportedly burning their bras or Vietnam War protestors were supposedly spitting on returning soldiers. The stories seem plausible. Perhaps there were isolated instances of such incidents occurring. What is important to keep in mind, though, is that these narratives have political functions. With the bra-burning and troop-spitting stories, a counter-culture gone berserk is illustrated. The public is admonished for ever having lent credibility to extremist elements and elevating them to the point that they at one time threatened to turn the country upside-down. In the narrative of the pioneer and his axe, a rugged, adventurous individual who has grown tired of the crowded cities sets out into the vast wilderness of North America with only an axe and a few other provisions (like a rifle). The political interest served here is the one that posits that it is unnecessary for governments or communities to provide relief or assistance for people in need. What is illustrated here is the notion that the United States after the Revolutionary War was built on the enterprising spirit of risk-taking individuals who shunned handouts and set out instead for the gratification of the rewards of hard work and determination. Again, it possible that there were examples that lent this narrative some credibility. But, as Nye points out, it was practically impossible for anyone to live out on the frontier without some connection to a larger community. In many cases, acres of forest were cleared not by individuals but by corporations. In almost all of these cases, American Indians were being dispossessed of their land which produced their counter-narrative. The counter-counter-narrative seems to be that the Indians attacked the pioneers first. The practical and cumulative effect of all of this is that what is cemented in the minds of people (particularly at an early and impressionable age) is the idea that these stories are the objective reflections of the best country God ever gave man.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What up with this?

This is a student journal. It is intended to facilitate discussion amongst my classmates and professor in American Studies at Kennesaw State University. This will be a garden where random thoughts germinate into coherent ideas (hopefully). If this blog serves any other purpose beyond that, well, that will just be a bonus.