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.