Friday, January 29, 2010

What is your Columbian Orator?

In case you missed the news or the staggeringly large banner on this blog, historian Howard Zinn recently died of a heart attack at the age of 87. I was surprised how emotionally affected I was by his passing -- I certainly didn't know him, but saw him speak on several occasions, most notably at Northwestern University, days before the Iraq War.

I believe Zinn's death had such an impact on me because his writings and life were so formative in how I began to finally think for myself. Although we are all familiar with Zinn's seminal A People's History of the United States, the book I always reference is the lesser-known Declarations of Independence, which has been since renamed.

This work always reminds me of a piece from Frederick Douglass' Narrative, in which he had secretly obtained a book, The Columbian Orator, while in the depths of despair about being a slave for life. He wrote: "Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book....[It] gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance"(23-24). That's what Declarations was for me: an affirmation of my deepest-held beliefs, and a model for expressing them openly. He subtitled his book, "Cross-examining American Ideology", and challenged every one of the assumptions listed below.

‘Be realistic; this is the way things are; there’s no point thinking about how things should be.’

‘People who teach or write or report the news should be objective; they should not try to advance their own opinions.’

‘There are unjust wars, but also just wars.’

‘If you work hard enough, you’ll make a good living. If you are poor, you only have yourself to blame.’

‘Freedom of speech is desirable, but not when it threatens national security.’

‘Racial equality is desirable, but we’ve gone far enough in that direction.’

‘Our Constitution is the greatest guarantee of liberty and justice.’

‘The United States must intervene from time to time in various parts of the world with military power...[to] promote democracy.’

‘If you want to get things changed, the only way is to go through the proper channels.’

‘There is much injustice in the world but there is nothing that ordinary people, without wealth or power, can do about it.’

What/Who is your Columbian Orator?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Toying with the Truth?

Read the following post by the brilliant documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who blogs for the New York Times:

Here Morris posits that the exact same photograph of a Mickey Mouse doll on a rubble-strewn street changes if the caption beneath the image changes. What do you think of this experiment? Is he right that the image changes with the new frame? Some have questioned the "fairness" of photographing a child's toy in a piece about the war.

How would you respond to this complaint? Does it depend on the caption, the purpose?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The N-Word

Today in class we discussed a few examples of Huck Finn using the n-word. Many in the class defended Huck by pointing out his youth and by returning to an earlier instance of Jim, a runaway slave, using the same racist language.

To me the word is closely connected to power. Within the context of a racist 19th C. America, Huck a young white boy enjoys more power than Jim, a full-grown man. The use of the n-word by either character is a reminder of the unequal status accorded people of different race.

That the word was, sadly, commonplace does not mitigate the ugliness of the language. Rather than attack or defend Huck, though, we might turn our attention to the author. Mark Twain uses the n-word over 200 times in the novel. (Or should I say, his characters do!). Re-examine instances of racist language in the novel. Can Twain be said to use the word in order to comment on the hypocrisy of the time? On the characters he presents? Is part of the desire to defend Huck rooted in the kind of narrative we hope to find in the book rather than the narrative arc Twain intends?

As you think about these issues, you might also want to check out this interesting piece on The N-word done by Minnesota Public Radio:

Monday, January 25, 2010

Myths of Rules and Incentives

Now that we have viewed and discussed Barry Schwartz's TED Talk, think about how the mythology of rules and incentives applies to your own life. Schwartz mostly related his ideas to the financial crisis, but what about applying these to school rules and incentives?

For example, I was at an educational technology conference in which many of the presenters argued for the integration of cell phones in the classroom. These educators strongly believe that the policy of banning cell phones in school is wrong-headed because it is based upon a "myth". According to proponents of this idea, the myth is that cell phones disrupt the learning process. Instead, they argue that cell phones in the classroom would actually enhance learning. I am undecided on this issue: what do you think?

Here's a link to a Google Doc version of the talk, just in case the transcript below doesn't work for you.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Branding of Obama

Desirée Rogers, President Obama's social secretary, once remarked to the Wall Street Journal: "We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand....Our possibilities are endless."

Perhaps not a surprising comment from an MBA and former marketing executive. Yet Naomi Klein, author of the seminal anti-corporate book, No Logo, wrote recently of the dangers of this type of branding, which was once only reserved for corporate advertising. Such political branding is nothing new; one saw it as well with the Bush administration. The former president "had used his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as a backdrop to perform his best impersonation of the Marlboro man, forever clearing brush, having cookouts and wearing cowboy boots." Corporate privatization plagued the Iraq War (branded The War on Terror), from Halliburton supply contracts to the introduction of Blackwater (now re-branded "Xe Services") mercenaries.

But is Obama even worse?

Klein argues that our current president "[favors] the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time." For example, while he announced the end of the aforementioned Iraq War, he followed that with an escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He stated his support for "green" energy initiatives, yet he continues to endorse so-called "clean coal" technology and refuses to tax factory emissions.

[T]his unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much (the pop-art posters from Che, his cadence from King, his "Yes We Can!" slogan from the migrant farmworkers – si se puede)....Obama, in sharp contrast not just to social movements but to transformative presidents such as FDR, follows the logic of marketing: create an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their deepest desires but stay vague enough not to lose anyone...

What do you believe? Is it too soon to judge? Or is the Obama presidency just a political version of "both Coke [the megabrand] and Honest Tea [the upstart]"?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Kid Stuff?

Even a few chapters into Huck Finn, huge issues like race and class surface. Not exactly the stuff of kid's literature, or is it?

Earlier in the year we looked at a Puritan primer that taught little Bible lessons while teaching the alphabet (A is for Adam). And, as we discussed in class today, I've been thinking about the secret messages I remember in books I read when I was quite young, and books I read to my children before they could read.

Here, for example, is one of my favorite nursery rhymes:

Baby, baby, naughty baby,
Hush, you squalling thing, I say.
Peace this moment, peace, or maybe
Bonaparte will pass this way.

Baby, baby, he's a giant,
Tall and black as Rouen steeple,
And he breakfasts, dines, rely on't,
Every day on naughty people.

Baby, baby, if he hears you,
As he gallops past the house,
Limb from limb at once he'll tear you,
Just as pussy tears a mouse.

And he'll beat you, beat you, beat you,
And he'll beat you all to pap,
And he'll eat you, eat you, eat you,
Every morsel snap, snap, snap.

Not exactly a ditty to sing at the ACLU! The message is not so secret: being good equals being quiet.

The book Mrs. Piggle Wiggle also came to mind. She (and note her title suggests she's married) is a sort of Super parent who is called in to handle recalcitrant children. In "The Never-Want-To-Go-To--Schooler," she takes a boy who pretends to be sick by speaking as though he had a cold and gives him IGNORANCE TONIC (caps, hers). The medicine makes him unable to talk in his regular voice, so the neighborhood kids say things like "Gosh, what a dummy." He learns his lesson and -- within a day -- becomes not only polite but literate. The unmistakable message: Go to school or you'll be ignorant. This is a message we all might agree with, though the methods seems rather out-of-date now.

Many books have been revised of late because the books convey values our society no longer holds. Sometimes these changes are hugely important.

Take The Story of Little Black Sambo, a very popular and very racist picture book from the turn of the 20th century. The word "sambo" is a racial slur and the book and subsequent cartoons depicted the black title character in rather unflattering terms. Recently the book was recast as Sam and the Tigers: A Retelling of "Little Black Sambo", by Julius Lester and Jerry Pinckney, who set out to reinvent (reconstruct?) the story with beautiful and flattering illustrations and the witty change of the title character to Sam, who lives in Sam-Sam-Sa-mara, a land where everyone is named Sam.

Other reinventions of different books have met with more resistance. Some, for example, find wolves in Grimm's Brothers stories too be too violent for our tamer, more domesticated world. Yet, others complain about these revisions. Think of the lines from Andrew Bird's Measuring Cups: "Just another children's story that's been declawed/When the tales of brothers, grim and gory have been outlawed." I recently learned that one of the most banned kids' books in the past 30 years has been In the Night Kitchen by the brilliant Maurice Sendak. Why was it banned? Because in one frame Mickey, a little baby, is naked. Full, frontal, infant nudity. Interestingly, according to Sendak, the United States is the only Western country to object to that scene.

What secret messages can you find in books you read or that were read to you? What else were you learning to read when you were learning to read letters?