Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On Hard Rock and the Military


On Hard Rock and the Military: There's something quite fitting (and somewhat apropos) about mixing hard rock music with military operations. I mean, when you're engaging in war's infamous game of "kill or be killed," there's a certain aggressiveness that needs to infiltrate one's mind in order to function. In the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, U.S. forces, particularly mechanized divisions of tanks and humvees were very fond of blasting songs such as Metallica's "Enter Sandman" over loud speakers as they moved across the Arabian Desert. I cannot even begin to imagine what the local Bedouin nomads must have thought when swarms of American military machines whizzed by their desert huts. But other than perhaps major stimulants like crystal methamphetamine, which many German soldiers were known to use in World War II, hard rock music is a tremendous motivator in wartime environments. In short, it's hard rock's frequent combination of distorted guitars, double-bass drums, and raspy lyrics that makes the genre a "natural" soundtrack for the military.

Monday, December 15, 2014

On Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth"


On Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth": First performed in New Haven, Connecticut, in October 1942, The Skin of Our Teeth quickly moved to Broadway within a month. The play, which focused on the Antrobus Family from "Excelsior," New Jersey, eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1943. As for the play's author, Wilder possessed a brilliant, yet eccentric, literary mind. Born in the Midwest, he was the product of two Ivy League schools (Yale and Princeton), and briefly served in the U.S. military during both World Wars. Being in the military gave him the unique experience of constantly facing the prospect of non-existence. And it was this kind of "existential-extinctive" feeling/theme that recurs throughout The Skin of Our Teeth. Biblical allegories and references aside, (especially to Sodom and Gomorrah), the play places the reader in a fictional twentieth-century Jersey Shore town, which is on the verge of entering another Ice Age. Ironically enough, a devastating war catalyzed the town's ultimate demise. But at the play's end, it becomes abundantly clear that despite the pernicious capacity of mankind to destroy, it's our collective will to rebuild which always triumphs.

Monday, December 1, 2014

On the Origins of Progressive Education

On the Origins of Progressive Education: Perhaps one statement, above all, captures American Progressive education in a nutshell: "If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow." That statement came from pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (pictured above) in 1916. He was a staunch advocate of separating "education" from "schooling," by claiming that education is the process of living and schooling is the process of learning how to make a living. Decades prior, in the 1880s, similar sentiments had been expressed by American sociologist Lester Frank Ward. Ever the egalitarian, he asserted that one of the biggest sources of injustice in society "was the unequal distribution of knowledge." Traditional education, as Ward saw it, had become nothing more than a tool for the upper classes to reinforce social norms (the status quo). He also believed that traditional education's aristocratic roots persisted in a pre-modern form of tracking, which often groomed students for particular careers based on heritage instead of merit. In effect, Ward proposed that all students should have the opportunity to accumulate knowledge for knowledge's sake (and in any subjects they choose).

Saturday, November 15, 2014

On the Early Years of Television


On the Early Years of Television: When the television made its debut at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City (NYC), nobody understood what its ultimate impact on society might be. Such a dilemma had already been playing out with the radio, which came into existence during the 1920s. Would this new communications technology be used for crass commercialism (in the form of advertisements & entertainment) or cultural uplift (in the form of educational information)? This question was central to the early historical development of television. And two shows in particular helped steer television toward a mixture of both entertainment and cultural uplift. First, I Love Lucy, which ran on CBS from 1951-57, followed the trials and tribulations of a rambunctious NYC housewife, Lucy Ricardo, as she tried to break the daily monotony of household activities. Second, The Honeymooners, which ran on CBS from 1955-56, followed the lives of a crude NYC bus driver Ralph Kramden (who later became the inspiration for Fred Flintstone) and his witty wife Alice. Because each show existed mostly before the days of cable, their analog appeal reached nationwide. Ultimately, however, both shows were social commentaries about the basic nature of family and class structures in post-World War II America.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

On Early American Landscape Architecture

On Early American Landscape Architecture: In the 1850s, American architects began to consider the importance of landscape design in urban planning. Cities like Boston and New York were becoming overcrowded due to the influx of European immigrants (mostly Irish). These cities needed more housing (tenements), more infrastructure (sewers), more streets, and more open spaces. Textile, shoe, and steel factories had begun to dominate urban landscapes, and thus, make city life rather uncomfortable. Often deemed the "father" of American landscape architecture, Andrew Jackson Downing was originally drawn to the design and construction of homes. He believed that people's moral dispositions were firmly tied to their living circumstances. But from his work on home design, he started to understand the significance of landscaping. And until his death in 1852 from a steamboat explosion on the Hudson River, he was considered the front-runner for designing New York's Central Park. That duty later fell to Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who in 1858, won a design competition to expand Downing's plans. As a committed egalitarian idealist, Olmsted concluded that every New Yorker should have equal access to the park. Such an idea was quite radical in the 1850s, especially since some urban parks had been reserved for private functions in certain neighborhoods (e.g. - New York's Gramercy Park).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On the 1893 World's Columbian EXPO


On the 1893 World's Columbian EXPO: Four-hundred and one years after Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas (and "discovered" the Americas), the city of Chicago hosted a World's Fair. It was to be bigger and better than any previous World's Fair, as its planners particularly sought to outdo the Paris EXPO of 1889 (where the Eiffel Tower had been unveiled). Despite the onset of a serious financial panic in 1893, the Fair's planners spared no expense to show off Chicago's greatness. Only two decades since the city's Great Fire of 1871, the Fair represented a grand opportunity to exhibit how the rebuilding process had made Chicago ultra-modern, especially in terms of railways, roadways, and skyscrapers. Some of the Fair's highlights included the world's first Ferris Wheel, one of the world's first steam locomotives (the John Bull), and numerous Beaux-Arts/neoclassical buildings which required around 120,000 incandescent lamps to light up at night. Pragmatist philosopher William James remarked that everybody who visited the Fair "grew religious," while socialist politician Eugene V. Debs believed the Fair had a "healthy effect" on American workers at the time. By the time the Fair closed in October, it was drawing more than 150,000 visitors/day. With such high daily attendance figures, the total number of visitors eventually surpassed 25 million.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia

On Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia: As mayor of Philadelphia for most of the 1970s, Francis "Frank" Rizzo left an indelible mark on the city's history. Whether it was his rocky relationship with the local African-American community or the attempted voter recall during his second term, Rizzo certainly proved to be a controversial figure. Yet prior to his mayoral career, he served as Philly's police commissioner in the late 1960s. And it was Rizzo's tenure as police commissioner that offered the clearest hints as to how he would govern as mayor. For example, in a city where one-third of the residents identified as African American, Rizzo increased the number of black police officers to mimic Philly's demographics. Although the department's number of black officers only made it to 2 in 10, it was still above the national average for big city police forces at the time. Regarding police tactics, Rizzo was one of the first commissioners to require his officers to patrol in pairs. And in neighborhoods where ethnoracial tensions ran high, he often paired officers with different ethnoracial backgrounds. Despite these unique initiatives, however, Rizzo's tenure was marred by an August 1970 police raid on the Black Panther's headquarters. Even though he did not directly authorize the raid, Rizzo placed great trust in his officers to employ heavy-handed tactics when detaining suspects and gathering evidence.

Monday, September 15, 2014

On American Romanticism and Washington Irving

On American Romanticism and Washington Irving: As a literary genre that emerged in the early 19th century, American Romanticism consisted of writers who often transposed historical events into fictitious contexts. Two of the genre's earliest pioneers included James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. While both authors' origins can be traced to New York state, it was Irving who based more of his publications in the surrounding geography of his hometown (Tarrytown, NY). In just two years (1819 & 1820), Irving published perhaps two of the most popular short stories in American Romantic literature: "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." For the story of "Rip Van Winkle," Irving adopted the literary technique of flash-forwarding through time. As a Dutch colonial settler in the Hudson Valley, Van Winkle fell asleep after drinking moonshine in the Catskill Mountains. He woke up decades later only to discover that the American Revolution had occurred and that New York had become part of a new, independent nation. And as for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving developed a fantastical tale of ghosts, ghouls, and haunts, in a post-Revolutionary War town along the Hudson River. The most memorable of which was the Headless Horseman, who notoriously terrorized the story's protagonist (Ichabod Crane) in a climatic chase.

Monday, September 1, 2014

On Sociology and Émile Durkheim

On Sociology and Émile Durkheim: It's been stated that sociology is the social science with the most methods and the least results. Originating in the late nineteenth century with help from works by French social theorist Durkheim, sociology focuses on social trends and organizations that affect whole groups or categories of people. Often contrasted with psychology, which attempts to explain the specific behaviors of individuals under certain circumstances, sociological methods seek to identify general pressures acting on social groups (and how those pressures influence group actions). One of Durkheim's common metaphors for sociology involved comparing it to bronze, which as a metal composed of tin, copper, and lead was much stronger than its individual components. Similarly, he believed the features of an entire social group cannot be measured simply by examining the features of individual members. Metaphors aside, however, it was Durkheim's 1897 book Suicide which really helped to solidify sociology as an academic discipline. In it, he studied the suicide rates of European Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups to uncover general trends. One such trend Durkheim found was that suicide rates were highest among single, Protestant, Scandinavian men. Suicide rates increased as well among men who had military experience and no children. Such trends proved appealing to a mass audience, as sociology started to gain legitimacy in academia.

Friday, August 15, 2014

On the "Lost Cause" Mythology


On the "Lost Cause" Mythology: The North may have won the Civil War, but the South won Reconstruction. Ever since that Palm Sunday in April 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army to Ulysses S. Grant at the Old Appomattox Court House in Virginia, the South has been concerned with rewriting history while the North has been concerned with industrial/monetary gain. For many Southerners, the war was over before it even began. Yet the South fought valiantly, regardless. That is essentially the "Lost Cause" mythology in a nutshell. If you examine maps of American railroad lines in the 1860s, they illuminate the North's distinct industrial advantage over the South. The sheer capacity of the North to outproduce the South in terms of guns and ammunition was vastly superior. Nevertheless, Southerners persisted against all odds to preserve their "way of life," which included slavery and "states' rights" at its core. Perhaps one of biggest "Lost Cause" myths that emerged in the postbellum era was the idea of blacks not being suited for self-government (i.e. voting). In fact, an entire school of historiography (Dunning School) centered largely on this single myth. Historians who belonged to the Dunning School, most notably William A. Dunning, believed the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was the worst affront to Southern life than any other Reconstruction effort.

Friday, August 1, 2014

On Empathy, Social Movements, and Universalism

On Empathy, Social Movements, and Universalism: Loaned from German, "empathy" only 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. After first 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 much of the human experience. Jane Addams was one such universalist who saw a common (moral) dignity in each person, 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,..., 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 a punkish sociologist might claim 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? While these are intriguing 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 ever since the days of Hitler and Tojo. But social constructions of race are on the rise, as Americans increasingly seem to entrench themselves in the dueling abysses of "identity politics" and "political correctness." 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 helped codify whiteness in American society, it also gave preference to whiteness over every other race.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

On Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward"


On Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward": Next to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895), Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) is one of 19th-century-America's most influential novels. If Uncle Tom's Cabin helped start the Civil War, and The Red Badge of Courage helped Americans to make sense of the war, then Looking Backward pushed Americans not only to move beyond the war, but also to envision what the future of their society might entail. And with such a lofty goal, Bellamy's novel essentially gave birth to the genre of utopian science fiction. Following the life of Julian West, a man who fell asleep in 1887 and woke up in the year 2000, Bellamy's novel depicts a futuristic Boston, Massachusetts, as a place of true equality. Paper money has disappeared, everybody has the same amount of credit at their disposal, public kitchens feed people for free, and crime is treated solely as a medical problem. But how did the U.S. transition from the highest tide of laissez-faire capitalism to the principles of socialist utopianism? That is precisely the question which Bellamy's novel seeks to answer in just under 500 pages.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

On Thomas Kuhn's "Paradigm Shifts"

On Thomas Kuhn's "Paradigm Shifts": Photographed above is philosopher/physicist Thomas Kuhn, who in 1962, published a controversial book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. His main argument, which emphasized the humanistic and irrational components of the scientific method, challenged traditional understandings of how scientific progress occurred. Rather than analyzing a longstanding collection of data over time, Kuhn contended that revolutionary advances in science only happen in fits and starts. Thus, they are discontinuous and wholly "incommensurate" (not comparable) to previous conceptions of knowledge. The primary resulting features of these revolutionary advances are "paradigm shifts." Classic examples of paradigm shifts identified by Kuhn and other historians of science include heliocentrism replacing geocentrism, the germ theory of disease replacing miasma theory, photography replacing lithography, and telephony replacing telegraphy. Indeed, Kuhn's positions have been criticized as unrealistic at times because scientific advances are ultimately the product of numerous revisions. And "paradigm shifts" do not fully reveal the importance of revisions in the scientific method.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

How Do Europeans Remember the Crimean War?


How Do Europeans Remember the Crimean War?: As the first war in history to be officially photographed, the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856 happened under complex circumstances. Like the War of 1812, status quo ante bellum can be considered the war's outcome, as no major boundary changes occurred. But for the Allies (Britain, France, etc.), the war is remembered as a victory, especially since they thwarted Russia's expansion into the Middle East. The primary issue at stake was the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey, Bulgaria, etc.), which had been dissolving due to rising nationalism amid various ethnic groups, including Turks, Serbs, Jews, and Arabs. In effect, Russia sought to seize upon Ottoman vulnerability by going to war over the rights of Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land. Russians today recall such a venture as legitimate, mostly because Arab-Muslim control of that territory would have complicated matters too much. And France essentially intervened in the Russian-Ottoman conflict on behalf of Catholic Europe. Yet as Russia quickly decimated Ottoman forces around the Black Sea in late 1853, the Crimean War became more about geopolitical acquisitions than religious rights. After the war's popularity had declined precipitously in Britain by 1855, the government commissioned Roger Fenton to document the war in photographs, which would later be sold to newspapers and private collectors. The British government also looked to its poet laureate at the time, Lord Tennyson, to immortalize the war in "The Charge of the Light Brigade," which recalled the ill-fated advance of British cavalry against Russian artillery at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How Do Americans Remember the Civil War?

How Do Americans Remember the Civil War?: Pictured above is the Pennsylvania Monument at the Gettysburg Battlefield. Dedicated at a cost of about $250,000 in 1910, it commemorates the approximately 35,000 Pennsylvania soldiers who fought in the battle. Constructed of iron, concrete, bronze, and granite, it's one of the most elaborate state monuments at Gettysburg. If a monument such as this can be viewed as signifying a kind of collective memory toward the Civil War, then how do individual minds approach the subject? According to historian David Blight, there are three main visions for how people generally remember the war. First, and perhaps the most obvious, is the Reconciliationist vision. Embodied initially by Abraham Lincoln and his Second Inaugural Address, the Reconciliationist vision encourages Americans to recognize that faults existed on both sides (North and South) during the war. Next is the Emancipationist vision, which was popular among anti-slavery activists like Frederick Douglass. With this vision, the rights and privileges of citizenship were to be extended to all Americans, especially freed slaves. And lastly, there's the White Supremacist vision, which trumpets the "Lost Cause" mythology and emphasizes the roles of Confederate heroes such as Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

On the Pennsylvania Railroad


On the Pennsylvania Railroad: A little more than a decade after the first steam locomotive (Tom Thumb) made its debut in the United States, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) received a business charter from Harrisburg in 1846. For most of the 1830s, Pennsylvania spent millions of dollars on canal construction, effectively trying to replicate New York's Erie Canal success. But the state's bankruptcy in 1841 (due to excessive spending on the canals) forced Pennsylvania to embrace railroads as an emerging transportation technology. Although the PRR's initial strategy was to model itself after the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, it quickly became the B&O's biggest competitor for both passenger and freight traffic between the Northeast and Midwest. By the mid-1850s, the PRR had reduced travel times between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh from 3.5 days to just 13 hours. In the 1860s, the PRR was the first American railway to use domestically-produced steel rails and install air brakes on its train cars. These decisions helped the PRR become the world's largest corporation in the 1880s. With approximately 30,000 employees and revenues in the hundreds of millions, the "Pennsy" had outgrown even the federal government. However, its growth became stunted by the simultaneous emergence of air travel and interstate highways in the mid-20th century. The PRR went bankrupt in 1968.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Realism of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The Realism of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: On Memorial Day in 1895, Holmes delivered a famous 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). The two most notable cases where Holmes displayed his legalistic realism 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 the sterilization of the mentally disabled and criminally insane constitutional. 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


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

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

On "Pee-wee's Playhouse" and Postmodernism


On "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 underpin 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 when English words started to become standardized, as the British were bringing "order" to an otherwise chaotic world through their empire building. It was this drive for linguistic standardization in modern history that postmodern philosophy intends 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

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.