Saturday, March 1, 2014
On Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Realism: On Memorial Day in 1895, Holmes delivered a famous commencement address to graduating Harvard students titled "The Soldier's Faith." As a Civil War veteran himself, he warned of the "false faith" which came with war service. A soldier should never "blindly accept" his duty and throw away the joys of living, especially for a cause that "he little understands." Such thinking was in line with Holmes' realism, which he brought to the bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (and later to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1902). Perhaps the two most notable cases where Holmes' legalistic realism was on display were Schenck v. United States (1919) and Buck v. Bell (1927). In Schenck, Holmes outlined what were perhaps the first federal (legal) limitations to "free speech" since John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Also with Schenck, which occurred on the heels of World War I, Holmes declared that speech could be criminalized if it created a "clear and present danger" to Congress' ability to govern in wartime. Another classic Holmesian legalism emerged in the Buck case, where he deemed constitutional the compulsory sterilization of the mentally disabled and criminally insane. In reference to Carrie Buck's family history, the plaintiff who had her Fallopian tubes cut, Holmes infamously decried "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
Saturday, February 15, 2014
On Darwinism and Human Nature: Darwinism was perhaps the most important ideology to emerge from the nineteenth century. Marxism was a close second, but Darwinism gave birth to more controversy for social scientists, natural scientists, religious figures, and political leaders alike. For historian Carl Degler, Darwinism consisted of three basic principles: first, that organisms reproduce, second, that each organism differs slightly from another (even in the same species), and third, that all organisms must compete for survival (or else face extinction). Thus, bare-bones Darwinism was really nothing more than observational ecology. And it would take the development of genetics by Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel in the 1860s to substantiate some of Charles Darwin's core claims about natural and sexual selection. Darwin himself was worried after he published On the Origin of Species in 1859 that many of his scientific observations would not be fully accepted in the budding community of academic biology. Yet aside from Darwinism's effects on fields like biology and ecology, it had a major impact on the developing world of cultural anthropology. Early anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead were convinced that human nature was more a product of culture than biology. Thus, they began to view racism, sexism, and even eugenics, as incompatible with Darwinism's core tenets, and likened them more to social constructs such as "society" and "history."
Saturday, February 1, 2014
On Women in the Civil Rights Movement: When people think of women in the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 to 1968, they generally reference Rosa Parks. Indeed, she was a monumental figure. Her actions in December 1955 essentially sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which Revs. MLK, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy helped organize along with local NAACP leader E. D. Nixon. But the Civil Rights Movement's traditional narrative has largely excluded women. Pictured above are Fannie Lou Hamer (left) and Ella Baker (right). As women of color, they endured what black feminists labeled "double discrimination" (sex and race). Hamer became particularly well-known for her work in Mississippi's "Freedom Summer" Project, which represented a massive attempt at black voter registration in 1964. Also, her political efforts with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) almost derailed Lyndon Johnson's presidential nomination at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Alternatively, Baker played a subtle yet vital role in numerous civil rights organizations (NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC). Her core philosophy centered on "participatory democracy," which not only called for broad-based and direct democratic participation, but also required a strong public sphere to increase governmental transparency. Although Baker purposely avoided the spotlight, her impact on the Civil Rights Movement proved far-reaching.
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
"Pee-wee's Playhouse" and Postmodernism: Can something exist if there's no word for it? Are we not imprisoned by the language(s) we use on a daily basis? These are two fundamental "postmodernistic" questions which emerged in the late-1980s kids show "Pee-wee's Playhouse." Because I'm typing in English at the moment, I'm employing about a 1500-year-old linguistic tradition that has evolved from a particular set of Anglo-Germanic tribes on an island off the coast of Western Europe. It has traversed the pages of works like Beowulf and Hamlet. But the language did not really mature until the era of British colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries. That's precisely when concepts (and the words which defined them) were standardized, because the British were bringing "order" to an otherwise chaotic world. It was this drive for linguistic standardization in modern history that postmodernism wished to subvert. To illustrate this idea, have a look at the above video. The outside of Pee-wee's playhouse appears somewhat orderly with animals at play and the house having been carved from its surrounding environment. But upon entering the playhouse, everything turns into absolute anarchy. In short, the closer one gets to analyzing and dissecting Pee-wee's situation, the more meaningless it becomes.
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
On the Oneida Commune and Complex Marriage: Photographed above is utopian socialist John Humphrey Noyes, who in 1848, founded the Oneida Commune in Upstate New York. Rooted in a series of deep-seated Millennialist ideas, Noyes believed the Oneida Commune could "perfect" what Christ had started some 1800 years earlier. In particular, he wanted to create a community free of sin, inequality, and property, as these were the primary pillars of evil in an emerging industrial world. To get rid of sin, which ultimately stemmed from desire, Noyes instituted the practice of complex or group marriage. In other words, everybody in the commune was married to each other. Possessing another person in terms of traditional marriage was strongly discouraged. People could therefore have sex and reproduce with whomever consented to it. Middle-aged women often introduced teenage boys to intercourse while middle-aged men did the same with teenage girls. Community elders generally determined "appropriate" partnerships in an early attempt at communal eugenics. Noyes himself fathered 13 children, many of whom were with 20-year-old women while he was in his sixties. Upon learning of a statutory rape charge that was heading his way in 1879, Noyes fled to Canada where he eventually died in 1886.