Monday, December 12, 2011

What is your Columbian Orator?

Two years ago, historian Howard Zinn 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 most of us are 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 passage 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. Zinn had 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?

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Perilous-er and Perilous-er

This morning two American Studies students (I almost said "former" students, but these two are clearly still students of American Studies!) wrote to voice their opposition to the National Defense Authorization Act. This Act, which passed the Senate 93-7, grants extraordinary power to the government, allowing the military to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely.

Sources as disparate as the ACLU and Forbes are outraged, but as we head into an important election year, it's hard to find legislators who will vote against defense -- even if it means stripping U.S. citizens of their Constitutional rights. Forbes goes so far as to call the Act "the greatest threat to civil liberties Americans face." In fact, legislators who drafted the Act say that the "battlefield [in the war on terror] right outside your window." Do you agree?


If so, what, if anything, can we do?  I have written and called my representatives to voice my outrage. If you agree, you might contact your Senators (both of our IL senators voted for it): Senator Kirk and Senator Durbin.

How effective is such an action? What else might we do?

Friday, November 25, 2011

What is the Truth about Thanksgiving?

As we recover from copious amounts of turkey, cranberries, and mashed potatoes, it may be instructive to consider what we really know about the origins of our Thanksgiving holiday celebration.


According to James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, the Pilgrims did not start the Thanksgiving tradition; instead, east coast Indians had celebrated autumnal harvests for hundreds of years. In fact, our modern celebration only dates back to President Lincoln's 1863 proclamation of a national Thanksgiving holiday (during the perilous times of the Civil War), when the Union badly needed a boost of patriotism. The Pilgrims of New England were not even incorporated into the tradition for another 30 years.

There are literally only two brief primary sources that deal with what happened in the Fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The most familiar might be Edward Winslow's Mourt's Relation (modernized spelling below) in which he stated:

our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

What from the traditional holiday celebration is mentioned and what is left out? Furthermore. the above-mentioned event lacks historical context. For example, why exactly were the Indians so willing to sit down with these "invaders"? Toward answering that question, some historians have argued that our yearly celebrations whitewash the permanent colonization of America that might have been impossible without the devastating (but unintentional) plagues that preceded the Pilgrim arrival. This (understated) onslaught of disease might have been the most important single occurrence in the history of America.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pete Seeger and Free Speech

Seeger at 86 on the cover of Sing Out! (Summer...Image via Wikipedia In light of our recent discussions about civil liberties and free speech, it might be a good time to consider the tens of thousands of people who have assembled in the Occupy Wall Street protests. The protests have recently spread to many other cities including Chicago as people increasingly become aware of the enormous disparity between the rich and the working poor in the United States.  One percent of Americans are millionaires, for example, but 50% of Congress consists of millionaires. Is it any wonder then that laws routinely favor the rich? Is it any wonder there is so much outrage? 

As part of the protests, I was thrilled to see one of my great heroes: Pete Seeger. One reason why this comes as a surprise is that Seeger is 92.  Pete has spent his long, rich life pursuing the values that he most cares about -- social justice, racial equality, environmental protection, and world music. Seeger's not just a folk music hero to me; he's worshiped by many important singers who've followed him -- Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Earle just to name a few. (See the "iPod" on the side of this blog to hear Earle's recent song called "Steve's Hammer for Pete").

Seeger is a man of tremendous principle -- and his life embodies much of the opposition to civil liberties' abuses we are studying. He married a Japanese woman in the 1940's when our country was throwing many Japanese-Americans in prison camps. He fought for civil rights, singing with Mahalia Jackson and Paul Robeson when it nearly cost him his life. He inspired many famous civil rights leaders, including Julian Bond, who credits Seeger for opposing Jim Crow laws before the Civil Rights Movement really got underway. Pete even wrote some of the lyrics to "We Shall Overcome". He fought for unions and common working men (and women since he also advocated equality among the sexes). He traveled the world and recorded world music like no one had ever done before.

For all this he was branded a Communist (read: witch hunt) and was blacklisted from appearing on TV for 17 years at the height of his popularity. When the ban was finally lifted he shocked everyone by defiantly singing an anti-Vietnam War song called "The Big Muddy." Since then has sung to end apartheid in South Africa and almost single-handedly cleaned up the environmental disaster of the Hudson River. He's 92 now and he gets my vote for "the American who best exemplifies the values I hold most dear." Who are your heroes? 

Sunday, October 02, 2011

A Lesson After Dying?

"I am innocent. May God have mercy on your souls." These were the last words of Troy Davis before the state of Georgia killed him by administering a lethal injection.


Davis had been convicted of killing a police man, Mark McPhail in 1989. For the past 22 years, Davis has sat on death row, appealing his conviction and the death sentence he received. While there was some limited physical evidence at the crime scene, prosecutors admitted that the most compelling evidence to the jury was the testimony of nine witnesses who testified that Davis was the shooter.

Since Davis's conviction, however, 7 of those 9 "eyewitnesses" have since recanted, swearing that their previous testimony was coerced by police eager for a conviction. Yet no court ever heard their revised testimony. Despite petitions signed by over one million people and pleas from former president Jimmy Carter, Rep. John Lewis (a civil rights pioneer who worked closely with Dr. King), former FBI director William Sessions, and even the Pope, Davis was executed without a new trial. 

96% of the nations of the world have abolished the death penalty, but it remains a form of "justice" in the United States. The United States, along with China, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and North Korea — countries we regularly condemn for heinous human rights violations — remain the countries that execute most frequently. Why do we equate murder with justice? 

On the same day that Davis was killed, Lawrence Brewer a white supremacist whose body was covered in KKK symbols, was also killed. Brewer was a racist thug who tied a black man, James Byrd, to the back of a truck in 1998 and dragged him to his death. Brewer's final words, in contrast to Davis's, were, "I'd do it all over again."

According to Ross Douthat, writing in The New York Times, nearly two thirds of Americans favor the death penalty because people "want to believe our criminal justice system is just and not merely a mechanism for quarantining the dangerous in order to keep the law-abiding safe."

Is this sort of justice merely a story we tell ourselves to feel good about our society? Illinois, for example, has enacted a moratorium on executions ever since 13 men on death row were proven to be innocent.

For some, like former President Jimmy Carter, "the injustice of murdering an innocent man is too grave" to allow capital punishment to continue. To others, like the eloquent Sister Helen Prejean, the question is not whether these men should be put to death but whether we have the right to kill.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Did He Get What He Deserved?

While watching Werner Herzog's documentary, Grizzly Man, I noted the words of one man interviewed who claimed that Timothy Treadwell, someone who studied and lived with grizzly bears, "got what he deserved".

What do you think of this statement?

In Roger Ebert's review of the film, he quotes the director, Herzog, as saying, "I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder."

Ebert goes on to reveal his own opinion of Timothy Treadwell:
I have a certain admiration for his courage, recklessness, idealism, whatever you want to call it, but here is a man who managed to get himself and his girlfriend eaten, and you know what? He deserves Werner Herzog.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Just Another Labor Day?


United States or Soviet?Image by Jo Peattie via Flickr
Although for most of us it's just another day off or an extended weekend, Labor Day is an excellent time to reflect on those men and women (and children!) who came before us, helped build this country, and whose lives continue to reverberate in this new century.

Think about it in today's context. Even though today's economy is said to be in recovery, according to CBS News, "the president will be in Detroit this Labor Day. Unemployment there is about 14% - that's five points above the national average." Furthermore, "[u]nemployment for African Americans is the highest it has been in 27 years."

Perhaps now, more than ever, it would be instructive to closely examine the nature of work in the USA. Toward that end, curators at The National Archives have designed some wonderful virtual exhibitions that pay tribute to American laborers and many others. From their website:
Imagine working in a coal mine.
Or in a steel mill.
Or at a telephone switchboard.
Work and workplaces have gone through enormous transformations between the mid 19th and late 20th centuries. You can view these changes through photographs held by the National Archives and Records Administration.

My own contribution was to download a video from their site, and make it into something new and (hopefully) more compelling. Although the video was completely silent, I changed the work by simply adding a soundtrack. This video now features a soundtrack by Thievery Corporation, who remixed a song from the Doors, a band popular many years ago. See the parallels?


Hopefully you'll understand this "secret" message: don't be afraid to respond to media that usually is intended to be one-way. The internet and computer technology has made it possible for anyone to become a creator and to "talk back" to media. "Work" such as this can be very fulfilling and meaningful. Hopefully, this small "labor of love" will encourage you to think about today as more than "Just Another Labor Day".

Lastly, since we are starting our course with a "Stories and Histories" theme, what narrative do you see being weaved through this video?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Into the Wild (short essay prompt)

Cover of "Into the Wild"Cover of Into the Wild
In the book we read over summer, Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer admits that Chris McCandless was rash, but insists "he wasn't a nutcase, he wasn't a sociopath, he wasn't an outcast. McCandless was something else — although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps" (85).

Your question:

What precisely was McCandless? Use one of Krakauer's terms or invent your own term. Choose your term carefully, and note passages as you read. Your answer to the question is your central claim. Support this claim with evidence from the text and explain how the language of the quote — the connotations of individual words in the quotes you cite — prove your claim to be valid.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

How to Read the Kindle

I just watched a horrifying commercial from Amazon. Here is the commercial and then a short reading of that commercial:



As the narrative opens, a young man stands holding his Kindle. An attractive woman walks out into the tablua rasa white space of the advertising world (and is it possible to read that as anything other than the intellectual vaccuum in which they both live?), and asks, "Hey where are you going?" When she invites him to the bookstore to get a book that "just came out," he declines. (Apparently the book's not the only thing that's just come out). He is ordering a "new book" on his Kindle "in less than 60 seconds." "Oh my god," she responds, "That's the book I was going to get." Wow. What a coincidence! The commercial ends with her reading his Kindle, while shushing him with a warning finger. Here are some secret messages the commercial contains: 

  1. Speed is good. Would downloading the book be worth the wait of, say, 3 minutes? 
  2. Novelty is also good. The book both people want is brand-spanking new. That it's a best seller is implied by the new-ness and the fact that they both want it.  (Fun fact: "best sellers" are determined by books pre-ordered, not books sold. Their label is a self-fulfilling prophecy).
  3. The world and the people within it are things to be avoided. There is literally no world in the commercial. The actors provide the only clue we are viewing a 3-D space (though, ironically, the actors themselves are decidedly 2-D). Bookstores are things to be avoided. So, too, are people apparently since the the two actors are looking at the screen and not each other as the commercial ends.
  4. Words are bad. The commercial script segues into a non-verbal cue from the woman telling the man to shut up, followed by airy and mindless la-la-la music without actual words.

The book that both actors want desperately to pick up (and not necessarily to read) is Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken.  The book came out last year — 18, 489, 600 seconds ago — and was, you guessed it: a New York Times best seller and a "make book" from Amazon. It was their "book of the month" and a book they have tried in other ways to "make" you buy. An odd and dated choice to display for a TV ad you wonder? I think the ad people are trying to market this device to non-readers, a demographic they are not only appealing to but also helping to create. 

I'm not anti-technology. (In fact, I am typing these words on a computer). I've just never seen Amazon so nakedly attack bookstores, community, personal contact, and words themselves. Bookstores are vanishing rapidly and funding for libraries is always under threat. Outside of schools, what public spaces will allow people to gather, to read, to talk, and to think?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Suburban Castles

Very recently, my family and I made a big move to be much closer to where we work. For various reasons, I can't tell you exactly where we live now, but suffice it to say that it's a "leafy suburban paradise" I discovered North of a charming babbling Brook. And it's increasingly populated by what can only be described as modern-day castles, resplendent with turrets, and which seem to mushroom overnight.

The purpose behind this disclosure is to welcome you to a new place and give you a sense of what your own blogging could look like this year in American Studies. If you look at the post below (written in the Spring), notice that Mr. O'Connor, my eloquent partner, utilized his intelligent cellular telephone to snap a photograph and upload it to the Inter-Webs. We are living in the Future, truly.

Importantly, Mr. O'Connor's post demonstrates that we can find subject matter for our blogs just by looking at the world around us and recognizing distinctly American themes. In contrast to other cultures around the world, Americans are often characterized by their strident individualism. In Finland, for example, before eating lunch in a large group, the Finns will dutifully line up to wash hands. No exceptions, and no one questions this behavior. Yet in the States, note how washing one's hands is considered to be a personal choice, not so much an obligation toward society, even though we are all aware of the public health issues.

As I walked through the streets of my new town, I was struck by the examples of both conformity and individualism in the way people constructed their homes. And I don't mean "constructed" in the typical fashion evidenced by North Shore tear-downs. Instead, in our course, we often talk about constructions in the way Americans might tailor their surroundings to send a particular message, or in the way media companies, novelists, or even historians work to create a compelling narrative.

Click here to look at the images I took with my portable talking machine (all of the houses are located on the same street), and draw some conclusions of your own with regard to the two themes mentioned above. Or, if you see other uniquely American details in these photos, please add those to the comments section of this post. Welcome, and please join the conversation.

Monday, May 02, 2011

White Trash

This image does not come from a post-Katrina Gulf-scape. No, it is instead a shot from the annual "spring cleaning" event on the Northshore.

Residents clean house and put their unwanted goods — especially large items that the garbage men might not take — on the street. Then huge numbers of people, driving ancient cars and flat bed trucks that you would never see at any other time of year in these parts troll the streets for goods.  (In Fitzgerald's terms, think of them as "Ash-gray men...stir[ring] up an impenetrable cloud, which [usually] screens their obscure operations from your sight"). One man's trash is another man's treasure, the saying goes, and the interlopers are either treasure seekers or garbage pickers, depending on who you talk to.

Some of my neighbors love this event. One told me that it was "the best kind of recycling" since the goods people leave out at the curbside are often used by other people. Then "why not donate those goods to a children's hospital or the Purple Hearts veterans?" another neighbor countered. "Those groups are always looking for donations."

Part of what's on display in this spectacle is the enormous disparity between the roaming trucks and the everyday residents. It's not just their cars that look different. Every other marker of social class we've discussed in class is also on display here:  clothing, noise, mannerisms, wealth, and race. 

The class disparity seems heightened to me this year given the contentious debate over affordable housing in Winnetka. Winnetka appears to open its doors — or its curbs! — to outsiders for one week each year.  Do you see a connection between the "spring cleaning"/trash removal and the housing issue?  Are the issues contradictory?  How do you reconcile them?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Social Class Stereotypes

Using only the honest (and anonymous) responses to this opinion survey on social class, our students first placed themselves in the social hierarchy, and then proceeded to enumerate the characteristics of the three class divisions in American society.


I fed the responses into a Wordle, or "word cloud" which generated an image of the most commonly used words (50 max). Colors and fonts are irrelevant here. Certainly each image, corresponding to a single social class, could not be said to be a perfect measurement tool, but it does seem to suggest something. What do you make of these images?



Sunday, March 13, 2011

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

On Saturday (before the scintillating finals of the Louder than a Bomb Slam Poetry!), my family and I went to Madison to protest the actions of Governor Scott Walker, who pulled a fast one last week, ending collective bargaining in a swift act of legislative sleight-of-hand that required no legislative discussion.


His actions are sure to be challenged by the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. That body currently leans pro-Walker by a slim 4-3 margin, but an election of the critical swing jurist will be decided on April 5th, so many are hoping the balance of power will shift early next month. The Court could rule that the new law—particularly the way it was passed—is unconstitutional, according to the state constitution.


I have a few observations from our trip:
  1. It feels good to remember we are part of history. Let's reject "the great dates fallacy" which suggests that a few dates (the attacks on 9/11/2001; or the strikes on Pearl Harbor 12/7/41) are the only ones that matter. History is Now—and we are historical actors. Remember our discussion in class on this question: What would you do if you felt an injustice was being done? In this case I felt I had to act. My wife and I also felt it was important to show our children how democracy works—and we felt enormous pride that we were 4 of the estimated up to 100,000 people on hand.
  2. That number brings me to a second point. The estimate above comes from the Madison Police Department. But it was disputed by some conservative pundits—as major rallies always are. Here is a fascinating piece from our friends at On the Media on this topic:

    To me the exact number doesn't much matter.  (Almost everyone agrees it was a bigger gathering than any rally at Madison during the Vietnam War—and Madison was a campus hot spot of protest). In much of the coverage the dispute of the number muddies the importance of the rally—peaceful demonstrations in support of workers' rights.  
  3. Coverage of the events has been spotty at best. Usually the result is "broken news" if I may steal a phrase coined by James Fallows in his dissection of contemporary journalism. In that book Fallows laments the way most media polarize issues rather than seek truth. (All you junior themers, take heed!). 
  4. Here is one quick example: a story from the AP picked up by NPR and the Huffington Post. Examine the first two paragraphs carefully:
Clogging the Wisconsin Capitol grounds and screaming angry chants, tens of thousands of undaunted pro-labor protesters descended on Madison again Saturday and vowed to focus on future elections now that contentious cuts to public worker union rights have become law.


Protests have rocked the Capitol almost every day since Gov. Scott Walker proposed taking nearly all collective bargaining rights away from public workers, but the largest came a day after the governor signed the measure into law. Madison Police estimated the crowd at 85,000 to 100,000 people—along with 50 tractors and one donkey—by late afternoon. No one was arrested.  (Bold, mine).


"Clogging"? I felt the march was incredibly orderly and protestors followed a path created by police. (Truly, the 'P' Stairwell during passing period is a much more menacing scene). It was a Saturday, remember, so no legislative business was delayed and business was robust. Rather than angry screams, I heard pleas for change: "Hey, Ho, Scott Walker Has Got to Go" was the angriest chant I heard.  Note the numbers in the final paragraph as opposed to the misleading "tens of thousands" in the opening sentence. To say nothing of the "No one was arrested." Why would anyone be arrested? This is Wisconsin. The only arrest you might reasonably expect would be the arrest of a Milwaukee Brewer on charges of impersonating a major league baseball player. 


As a critical consumer of media, I saw that the article was written with the help of Dinesh Ramde, a stringer and UWM grad whose only previous work experience was in business.  His previous articles for the AP also leaned toward the sensational., so I shouldn't have been surprised, but my personal experience refuted much of his article.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Watching Wisconsin

On Friday I decided to take a personal day to visit the protests in Madison, WI, a state-wide movement which may be shut down by the time you read this, if the authorities carry through with their promise to clear out the Capitol building. Some of my colleagues arrived on Saturday, the 12th day of demonstrations, where crowds were estimated to have swelled to 70,000 people.


The reason for this journey was to document an event that many in the media and at home (including myself) do not fully understand, though this Q & A-formatted article from USA Today is a decent, if not flawed, start. The controversy is said to be about a "budget repair bill" that Governor Scott Walker wants to pass in order to help balance the state budget. I wanted to cut through the rhetoric of politicians and pundits and talk to (and interview) as many people as possible who were circling the city center in the cold.

I started with a simple question: why are you here?

Early in the morning, I spoke to Jane and Erin, two elementary education teachers (and mothers) who were off work that day and who had their energetic kids in tow. As I made my way to the Capitol building, I saw some other parents point to a statue of Governor Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette and explain to their children how LaFollete's progressive "Wisconsin idea" (of the early 1900s) is somehow still relevant today. I interviewed elevator construction workers and rubbed shoulders with ginormous plumbers and pipefitters as they politely marched passed me. Finally, after the camera batteries depleted, I used my phone to record a conversation with two passionate college students from Milwaukee (who had slept there for two nights) in a dark corner of the nearly deafening Capitol interior.

I never saw any counter-protesters, unfortunately. But over and over, the people I spoke to answered my question the same way: we are here because of collective bargaining. Nothing about wages or pensions or layoffs. What makes this such an important issue both nationally and historically that would inspire this kind of response? What do you understand about the protests? What's at stake? How does this fit into a larger story of what has been happening in our country?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The State of the Union: A Word Cloud

Using an online tool called "Wordle", I copied and pasted the transcript of President Obama's 2nd State of the Union Address and the website automatically generated a "word cloud" of the text. The more frequently a word is utilized, the larger it appears in the "cloud" (colors are irrelevant). Keep in mind, though, that the user has the ability to specify the maximum amount of words to be rendered. For this speech, I chose 50 as the maximum in this construction. Click on the Wordle for a larger image.
Keeping in mind how carefully constructed a Presidential address is, what, if anything do these oft-repeated words reveal about the message (or perhaps the story) the President was trying to communicate to the American people?

P.S. For a completely different look at the words used by Presidents, check out this version featured on the New York Times website: