Friday, August 1, 2014

On Empathy, Social Movements, and Universalism

On Empathy, Social Movements, and Universalism: Loaned from German, "empathy" became a word in English in 1909. As a sentimental feeling, it taps into the notion of human suffering, particularly by pushing people to become "totally immersed" in another person's perspective. It differs from sympathy in that sympathy merely reflects sorrow for another's loss (while empathy is geared toward "feeling" another's pain). Empathy also became an effective strategy for invoking social change at the turn of the 20th century, as "muckraking" photojournalists like Jacob Riis sought to elicit empathy among the upper classes regarding the wretched conditions in New York City tenements. And after eliciting empathy, a social movement can emerge. In general, social movements are informed by some sense of inequity or injustice in society at large. Key aspects of social movements include leaders that articulate ideas, followers that personally commit to those ideas, and organizations that get built from the "bottom up." Where universalism fits into this social milieu is precisely when thinking about everybody's basic nature. That is, universalists call for people to recognize a set of elemental qualities which define the "whole" of human experience. Jane Addams was one such universalist who saw a common (moral) dignity in each person (immigrant), regardless of race, ethnicity, class, language, gender, age, or religion.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Why Are There No Mozarts from Australia?"


"Why Are There No Mozarts from Australia?": This falsely premised (and largely ethnocentric) question was first posed by Alfred Kroeber in 1910. As a cultural anthropologist, Kroeber had been engaged in a fierce academic debate with evolutionary biologist August Weismann over the role that "culture" played in the development of individual genius/talent. For Weismann, no Mozart had emerged among the Australian aboriginals because there was a distinct lack of the proper "mental faculties" required to produce the classical pianist abilities of someone like Mozart. In other words, the Australian aboriginals had simply not "evolved" far enough to match European standards of culture. To Kroeber, however, evolution had little to do with it, as Australian aboriginals merely lacked certain historical/environmental circumstances that were needed to create the right cultural context for a Mozart to develop. On the surface, this debate was perhaps one of the first "nature vs. nurture" arguments to come out of the early 20th century. For Kroeber, who did a lot of research on Native Americans, the "last wild Indian" to enter Euro-American society happened near Oroville, California, in 1911. Fascinated, Kroeber named him "Ishi," and hired him to work as a research assistant at UC-Berkeley.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What Happened to America's Working Class?

What Happened to America's Working Class?: In the 1930s and 1940s, around 60 million Americans considered themselves "working-class." But in each decade since World War II, the number of Americans identifying as "working-class" has declined dramatically. At present, it's fair to claim that America's working class has been mostly subsumed by the middle class. Yet what precipitated such a major change in American social class structure? Many sociologists point to deindustrialization as the primary catalyst for eviscerating the working class. Although the causes of deindustrialization are multifaceted, enviro-labor economics is one key culprit. For instance, the costs of manufacturing in the U.S. simply became too high in the postwar era. Whether it was the 1947 Labor Management Relations Act or the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, the costs of producing consumer and industrial goods were cheaper abroad (outsourcing). Aside from deindustrialization, there was also a general shift in American society away from issues of "class" and toward problems of "race" and "gender" in the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps the clearest examples of this shift were embodied in the Civil Rights and Women's Liberation movements, which succeeded in obtaining constitutional protections for historically underrepresented social groups in America.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

On American Wilderness and Howard Zahniser


On American Wilderness and Howard Zahniser: Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in September 1964, the Wilderness Act contains one of the pithiest definitions of wilderness. It states, "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Authored largely by American environmental activist Zahniser, the law established a national wilderness preservation system and immediately protected some 9 million acres of land. Although Zahniser died of heart failure in May 1964, his impact on the Wilderness Act was enormous. As executive secretary of the Wilderness Society, he began lobbying Congress since at least the mid-1950s. Strongly influenced by his Free Methodist upbringing, which equated nature with the eternal, Zahniser saw "wilderness areas" as places that could help heal people's "wounded souls." And according to historian Mark Harvey, it was Zahniser's "Christian outlook" which "led him to proclaim an ethic of stewardship toward wild nature" where humans lived in communion with the rest of Earth's living things. Perhaps Zahniser stated it best when testifying before Congress: "It may seem presumptuous for men and women, who live only seventy-odd years, to dare to undertake a program for perpetuity, but that surely is our challenge [and goal]."

Sunday, June 1, 2014

On Historicizing Whiteness in American Society

On Historicizing Whiteness in American Society: Perhaps some punkish sociologist might say to you that races do not exist. That Americans are living in a "raceless" society, primarily because different ethnic groups obtained their racial labels at different times (i.e., the Irish did not become "white" until the 1880s or the Ethiopians did not become "black" until the 1930s). So, how can anybody determine what it means to be white or black (or brown or yellow or red)? While these are interesting (academic) assertions, they fail to account for the historical impact of racial thinking on politics and culture. Indeed, scientific constructions of race have been on the wane since the days of Hitler and Tojo. But social constructions of race are on the rise, as Americans increasingly entrench themselves in the dueling abysses of "identity politics" and "political correctness." Yet enough about politics, let's get back to historicizing. Maybe historian Matthew Jacobson stated it best when he claimed the "history of whiteness and its fluidity are very much a history of power." For the European immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before 1924 (when immigration quotas first went into effect), their whiteness went far beyond the so-called "eye-ball test." It was attributable to religion (Judeo-Christian tradition), ethnicity, language, and most importantly, social class. Thus, the 1924 Immigration Act not only codified whiteness in American society, it also gave preference to whiteness over every other ethnoracial category.