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.