Sunday, December 09, 2012

Sunday Suckers

On Superbowl Sunday (XX) in January of 1986, the Chicago Bears won their last NFL championship, soundly defeating the Patriots in New Orleans. My friends and I were watching the game on a magical snowy day in the Chicago suburbs. Or maybe it wasn't snowing at all. You see, my memory is a little fuzzy: I previously had suffered a mild concussion playing "touch" football, when the back of my head landed solidly on the frozen ground during Thanksgiving Break from college.

According to National Public Radio's On the Media (OTM), "In the past two years, seven former NFL players [most recently Jovan Belcher] have killed themselves, and in each case, many argued that depression and dementia brought on by job-related concussions were to blame." Given that self- and media-based diagnoses of mental conditions are a flawed enterprise, I still think it's significant that the NFL has embarked upon a PR campaign to demonstrate what the organization is doing "to make the game safer", as seen in this staged exchange between Tom Brady and the mother of Ray Lewis.

Ok, I get it: it's supposed to be a humorous, light-hearted response to a serious issue even though I don't have a clue who these players are. Why? To be perfectly honest, that 1986 Bears Superbowl was the last football game I ever watched purposefully. Although I played football (informally) growing up, attended Illinois games with my dormmates, I've never really seen the attraction, apart from the social aspects of the stadium culture or the camaraderie of watching with friends.

I know I am an American anomaly: most Sunday afternoons I actually spend at the grocery store, and I am always wondering where the heck everybody else is. So this post is directed at you NFL fans: tell me why this violent game shouldn't be banned or significantly modified. Is is the money? Is it too sacred for Americans to consider changing?

P.S. Here is the OTM interview just in case you wanted to listen. I could go on about this, too, but purposely held back (hint, hint)...

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

What is your Columbian Orator?

Three 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, November 22, 2012

Myth Making Thanks Giving

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. Feel free to comment on the traditional painting embedded in this post as an another contributor to the Thanksgiving mythology.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Born in the USA on Veterans Day

As my family and I stood up during the halftime program in Memorial Stadium for the Minnesota-Illinois football game yesterday, the P.A. voice boomed with announcements of how American war veterans would be honored in anticipation of the day that bears their name.

In case anyone had forgotten, the announcer reminded us that the stadium we occupied was "built in 1923 as a memorial to Illinois men and women who gave their lives for their country during World War I", which I have learned was a perilous time in our nation's history indeed.

Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois
Although the names of the dead are inscribed (as a tribute) on the 200 columns supporting the enormous structure, I often wonder what America's present-day relationship is to its armed forces. Other writers, such as blogger Zach Peltz, have written recently about a shocking lack of support for the living in his post, "The Homeless Heroes". Consider what "Support Our Troops" means to you and where that phrase might have originated.

But what really struck me yesterday was the use of a Bruce Springsteen's, "Born in the USA". The stadium voice assured the thousands of us that this was a "patriotic song" honoring veterans during the halftime show. I don't think it's any accident that this song, with its seemingly incessant and repetitive chorus was, in the eyes of the marching band, tailor-made for a mass audience. But I would argue that it is also the most misunderstood song in American history since Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land". Since 1984, the year Springsteen released it, he has constantly re-worked his song, perhaps in an effort to emphasize the lyrics beyond the chorus.

Read the lyrics. If possible, listen to the two versions linked above (see the play buttons?). And then comment on what you believe Springsteen meant for us to think about today, on Veterans Day.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Polling Matters

For the past 18 months or so, pundits have issued predictions and proclamations about the presidential election. On Tuesday we should have some answers. Since we want to look critically at all media, though, remember that media outlets are businesses. They crave audience share and need to make sure people stay tuned in. That's one reason why there have been so many stories about recounts, statistical anomalies, and Constitutional tie-breakers -- long before the election has even occurred. Contrary to these narratives, the probability of a winner being declared by Tuesday night is very high. A clear-cut winner might be good for the country, but it is not good for (the media) business

And presidential politics are big business. According to Business Insider, the cost of this year's presidential election is an incredible $6 billion. Let me give you a chance to catch your breath. That's right: billion! The cost is staggering to be sure, but now consider the opportunity costs: what we as a nation might have spent that money on (schools, hospitals, people on the East coast struggling to recover from Hurricane Sandy). 

From Nate Silver's blog, "538"
And these election costs don't even begin to count the amount of money required to cover the election. Think of all that news -- and "news" coverage -- devoted to the presidential race, and the important issues that get ignored in light of the on going narrative.

After all that money -- or perhaps because of all that money -- many media sources have declared that the race is a toss up. Pundit Joe Scarborough is quoted on WNYC's podcast On the Media as saying that "anybody who thinks that this race is anything but a toss up... is a joke."But he makes a living rendering daily opinions on the race. According to the New York Times blogger Nate Silver, this is just a story that newspapers and TV shows like to advance: "People want to pretend that someone wins the day and there are all these ups and downs and momentum and the roller coaster and games change are basically BS." Instead of celebrity posturing, Silver contends, we should put our trust in math. His view is that the statistical models are clear (and that Obama will win). We'll find out on Tuesday.

A different take on all this polling and posturing was offered on NPR's Weekend Edition. There, a University of Michigan economist named Justin Wolfers says "the pollsters are asking the wrong question." Rather than asking people whom they intend to vote for, we should be asking, "Whom do you think will win?" This question, Wolfers' data show, is much more likely to yield the correct answer. Perhaps this is why so much time, money, and effort is spent on presidential campaigns: it's all a battle to control the perceptions of who will win since that may most clearly determine the winner. In that spirit, please vote in the poll on our homepage (on the right) and comment below on any of the issues I raised in this post.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Sunday "Service" in Waukegan, IL

Kind of a beautiful fall day in Waukegan, wasn't it? But there are a lot of people in need in this particular area of Chicagoland. Although this is a photo I took of Academy of Our Lady, my family and I were at Christ Episcopal Church across the street, invited by a friend, to help staff a soup kitchen for about 80 residents of the surrounding town.

Academy of Our Lady Catholic Church in Waukegan, IL

These kinds of social service activities can run every day of the week because there are that many people in need. I saw mostly men, but a few women and children as well. I yearned to know their individual stories, but in my role as Gravy Man behind the serving table, I only had time to ask each person if they wanted the gravy on the mashed potatoes, the meatloaf, or both.

Many expressed gratitude for the carb-heavy meal, but their bodies betrayed the kind of diet they typically consume -- high in fat and low in fruits and vegetables. One woman in particular caught my attention: she insisted that she was going to walk to Canada after the meal was over. "I've had it with America and I'm leaving today!" Perhaps she was an example of the high percentage of homeless who are mentally ill. Perhaps.

Beyond the momentary help we can offer these fellow citizens, I wonder: what can we do as a society to address these larger issues of physical and mental health?
[note: a version of this was cross-posted at the New Trier Social Service Board website]

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Sunday, September 30, 2012

It's a Free Country...isn't it?

Last week a Cook County judge threw out convictions against 92 Occupy protesters in Chicago, saying the arrests were unconstitutional and that the police denied these citizens their First Amendment rights. The Chicago police had used a "curfew" standard as justification for the arrests, but the judge saw this as a smokescreen since the police routinely choose not to enforce curfew at other public gatherings, such as President Obama's 2008 victory celebration. Mayor Emmanuel called this an "apples to oranges" comparison, but where should the line be drawn, and does every person get an equal voice?   

According to Constitutional law expert Gregory Magarian, the government routinely "retains the power to limit the 'time, place, and manner' of expressive activity in public forums" but, "in practice, these limits [swallow] First Amendment rights whole." Where should the lines be drawn? When might the government reasonably restrict access to public property? What would our society lose without public space to air dissenting opinions?   

“The Occupy protests," according to Magarian, should lead us to take a hard look at how our legal system protects — or fails to protect — meaningful opportunities for political dissent.”

A final thought: the 99% figure in the poster above refers to non-millionnaires. While one percent of Americans are millionaires, an incredible 50% of Congress-men and -women are millionaires. Is this disparity worthy of protest? To what extent do the rules created by the rich favor the rich? For the purposes of this post, I want to limit that response to the First Amendment. Are attempts at limiting the Constitutionally protected rights of speech and assembly really a way of silencing the have-nots? Does everyone in our democracy have equal access to voice their opinions?   

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

An American Studies: CHICAGO

Beyond the big moments of our day in the city, what were some of the little things you noticed as we took an entire day to explore a different environment than your "normal" daily experiences? Think about the people we saw and heard, the buildings, the use of space, etc., and keep in mind that your own surroundings are just another type of construction...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Wednesday's Field Trip

Check back here occasionally to see updates to our schedule and locations on the map below. We are leaving New Trier at 8:00 am and will return before 3:30 pm. Please don't forget to purchase your bus pass! And bring a cell phone and/or a camera (if possible).

View An American Journeys in a larger map

To view the full schedule please click above to access the Google interactive map page. Think about the theme of "place". Where do you live? Why do you live there?

  1. Osaka Garden
  2. Jitney at the Court Theatre:
  3. LUNCH (bring your own or ask us for plenty of suggestions)
  4. "Peripheral Views: States of America" at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

We Need Your Info :)

FYI: all of the information collected below will be shared ONLY with your two teachers.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Just Another Labor Day?

United States or Soviet?Image by Jo Peattie via Flickr
Although for most of us it seems like 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, "the unemployment rate rose to 8.3 percent last month, and has been above 8 percent since February 2009, the longest stretch in the post-World War II era", according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

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 original video was completely silent, I changed the work by simply adding a soundtrack. This video now features a soundtrack by Boards of Canada, an electronic duo from Scotland.

Hopefully you'll understand this "secret" message: don't hesitate to respond to media that is usually 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 emphasizing media literacy as a key component of our curriculum, I wonder what messages you believe are being conveyed by the government that produced this video. Your comments are welcome and encouraged below.

Monday, August 27, 2012

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 he 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.

DUE in about a WEEK.

Monday, April 23, 2012

What is your green light?

From The Great Gatsby:
[H]e stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward -- and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock (20-21; emphasis added).
The New York Times recently featured an article entitled, "Gatsby’s Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers". As you think about what it is that you desire most, consider the responses of these urban and immigrant students in a Boston high school.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Social Class Stereotypes

Please do not do any outside research to complete this form -- just be honest and do you best to respond as completely as possible. Full sentences are not necessary. Make sure you continue to scroll down in the form until you see the SUBMIT button.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Stripping/Civil Rights

The Supreme Court took a giant step toward dismantling the 4th Amendment last week when it (predictably) voted 5-4 in Florence v. New Jersey to permit the police to strip search anyone for any offense, regardless of how minor the offense. In the test case before the court, here are the details:  "Mr. Florence was in the passenger seat of his BMW when a state trooper pulled his wife, April, over for speeding. A records search revealed an outstanding warrant for Mr. Florence’s arrest based on an unpaid fine. (The information was wrong; the fine had been paid.) Mr. Florence was held for a week in jails in Burlington and Essex Counties, and he was strip-searched in each" (NYT).

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer wrote that people have been subjected to “the humiliation of a visual strip search” after being arrested for driving with a noisy muffler, failing to use a turn signal and riding a bicycle without an audible bell. A nun was strip-searched, he wrote, after an arrest for trespassing during an antiwar demonstration (NYT).

This is an unprecedented step for the Court to take. While the decision claims to grant police more "flexibility", it also clearly opens the door to extraordinary abuse.

The Court's ruling not only tramples a basic Constitutional right, but it also opens the door for further discrimination in "predatory" race-based police practices. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander cites a study (also from New Jersey) which found that while "only 15% of all drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike were racial minorities...42% of all stops and 73% of all arrests were of black motorists — despite the fact that black and white motorists violated traffic laws at almost exactly the same rate" (133). 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

This American Lie

Last week, NPR's Marketplace broke the news that Mike Daisey lied. Daisey, you may remember, is the monologist who offered "first hand" testimony of abuse at the FoxConn plant in China where Apple products (among others) are fabricated. iPods, however, are not the only things fabricated and assembled in Shenzhen, China. That city is also where Daisey created his moving and largely fictional account of abuse.

Daisey's fictional account had been a hit on stage as a one man play (called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs) for about a year and a half -- even though it purported to be nonfiction. The current problem arose when This American Life (TAL) dedicated an entire hour to the monologue without any basic fact checking. Some of the most poignant and damning details from Daisey's story -- underage workers, a man with a withered hand, exposure to toxic nerve gas, armed guards, etc. -- turn out to exist only in the storyteller's imagination. He grossly exaggerated some details and imported other details from other news stories in order make his story more compelling. Sadly, Daisey's piece now casts a shadow of doubt on the real stories of abuse documented by journalists.

TAL's critical mistake was taking Daisey at his word with no corroboration of his "findings". This is the first time in 15 years of broadcasting that TAL has had to retract a story. And while it is not really a news show, TAL ran a follow-up interview with Daisey as part of an hour long "Retraction" episode. Daisey somehow maintains he did not lie even though he readily admits -- now that contradictory evidence has surfaced! -- that he knowingly exaggerated many of the claims he made about Apple and the treatment of its workers at the FoxConn plant. What's the difference, you might wonder? Daisey -- like an earlier liar, James Frey -- tries to distinguish between theatrical or emotional truth and verifiable, empirical truth. (Remember our Truth vs. truth distinction from first semester?).

While fiction certainly can lay claim to truth (there are, for example, truths about human nature to be found within the fiction world of White Noise), nonfiction announces itself as interested in verifiable truths, to the best ability of the writer. You can't have it both ways.

A fascinating moment in the "Retraction" episode occurs when Daisey says he deliberately tried to avoid corroborative fact-checking because it would "unpack the complexities of how the story gets told." In other words, he cared more about storytelling than truth

Daisey says he was "terrified that if [he] untied these [complexities], that the work that [he] know[s] is really good and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where it would ruin everything." 

Is "making people care" ever justification enough for lying? At what point does "oversimplification" become a lie? What connections can you make between this episode and White Noise? Between this episode and our class this year? 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

White Noise

Like many of you, I've been inundated with news about the Ugandan butcher Joseph Kony over the past week. Given the sudden and spectacular media coverage, it's hard not to hear this all as White Noise. A few of you (notably Ross and Emily and Paddy) have already written thoughtfully on this connection, drawing out DeLillo's line "For most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set" (66). Or, perhaps their computer screens, the author might have said in 2012.
Suddenly a man perpetrating horrendous atrocities in a remote part of the world (remote to us, that is), finds himself turned into a celebrity. A quick quiz: Who is he? A foreigner. (The Other would also get credit here). Where does he live? Elsewhere. (Famously, almost 2/3 of Americans surveyed could not find Iraq on a map -- even after the invasion; about a third could not identify Louisiana -- even after all the coverage of Hurricane Katrina).  

This is not, by a long shot, the first time Ugandan atrocities were covered. But it was never done in such a slick and sexy way before. And it couldn't have been done it without star power. Justin Bieber, Oprah, Kim Kardashian all tweeted (and can you think of a more astute observer of  global politics than Kim? I'm going to use her first name because I see her more than I see most of my friends). Rhiana even went topless on her tweet to lend a... hand(?) to the cause.

GettyIn fact, the big story, as of a few days ago, was whether or not the Kony 2012 video could "go viral" as fast as Susan Boyle. (I mean, people, please: How many innocent people does one genocidal lunatic have to kill to surpass the talents of Susan Boyle?). I'm happy to report, he's done it! Or, not Kony, of course, but the Invisible Children organization that sponsored the video.  

The Kony 2012 video taps into the American self-image of a nation of do-gooders. Why can't the whole world be well-off like the blonde family that opens video? (The video also self-referentially turns the film maker into a star, a hero in his own campaign).

Hearing this latest example of Carnage Elsewhere, is anyone else struck with a case of deja-vu? "What [does] it all mean? Is it possible to have a false perception of an illusion?  Is there a true deja-vu and a false deja-vu?"  (122). 

To the media -- a tired loop of inanity orbiting in the same constellation of movie-stars -- isn't Kony just the another "Hitler-come-lately" -- a boogeyman to whom we can attach all our fears and nightmares?   As the Daily Kos wonders, does anyone think "all Ugandan problems would be solved if we took out Kony"? To simplify the storyline, filmmakers seem to think, there needs to be a single clear villain and an "interactive" audience who can donate money and tweet their outrage in order to thwart him.   

There are so many competing causes, inconceivable levels of poverty and suffering worldwide. Even in our country, the richest nation in the history of the world, 46 million Americans live below the poverty level, according to the most recent census data. To do nothing is unacceptable to most Americans, but what is there to do? 

But the solution is not simple. It's not a tweet and it's not a donation. It's not a wrist band or an action kit. As I am sure the Invisible Children organization recognizes, these gestures may provide means, but hardly ends.  

Samantha Power delivered a riveting TED talk on the topic, discussing some of the complicated politics involved in responding to genocide. But Power's own sweeping examination of American response to genocide, in the book "A Problem from Hell", ends with a series of rhetorical questions. This final one is this: "How can it be that who fight [genocide] are the ones deemed unreasonable?" (516). Isn't it less reasonable to do nothing?

Global problems are massive, though, and must be confronted by the entire international community and not just the United States -- and certainly not through the glossy sheen of star power. Yes, friends, this is a problem Hollywood can't solve. This problem is even bigger than Bieber.

Maybe a reality show in which 10 genocidal maniacs are forced to live on an island. Each week, you the viewer gets to decide....

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Help?

At Sunday night's Oscars ceremony, Octavia Spencer received a standing ovation with her win as Best Supporting Actress in The Help. Ms. Spencer is clearly a gifted actress but, her role — as a white woman's maid — seems part of an all-too familiar history at the Academy Awards.

The first African American to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel, for her 1939 role as Mammy, a white woman's slave in Gone with the Wind. This was followed up by the 1963 movie Lilies of the Field, with Sidney Poitier playing a white woman's laborer, (He builds a church for German nuns), and 1989's Driving Miss Daisy, in which Morgan Freeman (and take a minute to think about his name), plays a white woman's chauffeur.

No wonder Idris Goodwin wrote these lines in "When Black Actors Win Oscars":
"Thank you, Academy. It's been a journey. I started as a mugger/rapist in a Dirty Harry film. Since then, my path has been paved with pimps, jesters, street hustlers, jive-talking con men. Needless to say, when I read Alfred's script, I jumped at the chance [to] drive the legendary Jessica Tandy around Georgia....This is for all the actors before me who suffered through humiliating roles as coons and servants. This Oscar goes to the bojangles, fetchits...I could feel their spirits on set. They lent me the strength to play this long-suffering slave...."

While it is true that other black actors have won Oscars (Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Louis Gossett, Denzel Washington and Mo'Nique) — 11 total out of the 332 acting awards conferred to all actors thus far -- the percentages are not high. Nor does the number of Latino actors (1): Rita Moreno in 1962, or the number of Asian-American actors (1): Haing Ngor in 1984 offer much encouragement to me.

The weighted percentages may stem from the composition of the Academy. According to the LA Times, as of 2012, 94% of Academy members are white. 77% are male.

Are you troubled by these figures? Do you see reason to believe that actors of color are being offered more — and more challenging — roles?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Tale of Two Romneys

After a lively class discussion regarding Wynton Marsalis' "Supercapitalism" and the idea of American society as a construction, I heard a fascinating piece on the radio about current Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney and his father, George, the former governor of Michigan.

While the younger Romney has recently received quite a bit of attention over his current tax rate (13.9%), it's instructive to consider why his rate is what it is, and how our government can often pick winners and losers simply by constructing policies, laws, and regulations that reward some Americans and shortchange others.

For example, although Mitt has publicly released one year of his tax returns, his father, in an effort to be completely transparent, released twelve years of records, giving us an insight on how tax policies change over time. I have to say I was a bit shocked to discover that George Romney paid anywhere from two to three times the tax rate of his son, topping out at 44% (back in 1963).

Why was this the case?

Be patient with me here. One reason is a difference in what is called the "top marginal tax rate". In the 1950s, the tax rate was as high as 91%, while by the Lyndon Johnson 1960s, it had dropped to 70%. By the 1970s, it was 50%, and under Reagan in the 1980s, it was set just under 30%.

Yet another reason has to do with how people earn their income. While most Americans draw their income from a paycheck, far fewer citizens (like Mitt Romney) earn money primarily via investments ("capital gains"). The latter source of income has also seen a major change in how it is taxed by the IRS. At one point in our history, regular income tax rates and capital gains tax rates were equal, but no longer: today, the latter is taxed at just half of the top marginal tax rate (15% vs 30%).

Are you still with me after all of that economic blather? Why does the government construct policies that reward some hard-working Americans over others? Does that seem democratic to you?

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Forgotten King

The title of this post is intentionally ironic. Of course we are away from school today because Dr. Martin Luther King is commemorated by name with a national holiday. And just about everyone alive is familiar with King's "I Have A Dream" speech. However, as we finish the semester, having recently explored the writings of another notable civil rights activist, Frederick Douglass, we invite you to think about what you have previously learned about Dr. King as a younger student, in light of this particular speech. The subject of the talk was the Vietnam War, in an excerpt from a sermon given at Ebenezer Baptist Church, on April 30, 1967. Consider the public response to his words back then:

...after giving the speech...King was dropped from Gallup’s annual list of the most admired Americans and was ridiculed by the New York Times, among too many others. Soon after, he was murdered (Robert Scheer,

Although it is over 20 minutes long, you are encouraged to listen to as much of it as you can (it's audio only). We know what amazing multitaskers you are. Press PLAY and have it on in the background as you IM your friends and surf the net ;) Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Why is this post titled, "The Forgotten King"?
  2. Why was this speech so controversial?
  3. How does it relate to our course themes?
  4. Can you make connections to today?
A full text version of this speech is available HERE.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Meta-Blog Post

After one entire semester of blogging in American Studies, we would like you to write a single post based on the following reflective assignment:

The above assignment was adapted from Mark Sample, in The Chronicle of Higher Education.