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 a 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 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 ethnoracial category.