Friday, May 23, 2014

Coates on "The Case for Reparations"

Every now and then I come across an article that I wish I could assign as required reading for everyone in the United States.  This Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Case for Reparations," is one of them:

Well-argued, well-documented, and profoundly insightful.  And disturbing.  We need to know these things.  We need to understand.  The head-in-sand mentality that denies the full breadth and depth of racism in America hobbles us as a nation and will continue to do so until we deal with our past -- and our present.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Link and comment: Fancy degree? Most Americans say it's not required to be president

Interesting results from the Pew Research Center regarding Americans' perceptions of candidates with elite university credentials.  I was heartened to note that "There’s no group in which more would have a negative than positive reaction to a candidate with an elite education, including Republicans and leaners who agree with the Tea Party." (Among Tea Party members, arguably the most vociferous anti-elitists in the contemporary political sphere, 10 percent would be more likely to support a candidate with a prestigious university degree while another 10 percent were less likely.)  We should want to elect educated people.  Critical thinking is found across all sectors of society, and a university education is no guarantor of analytical skills.  Even so, higher education, done well, plays a vital role in developing public servants with the capacity to reason carefully and govern responsibly.  

That said: what do we mean by "elite" or "prestigious," and who has access to these institutions?  Questions of race and class surge to the fore, but I'd posit a third factor, as well: geography.  As the article points out, since 1988 every president has had an undergraduate or graduate degree (or both) from an Ivy League institution.  While Americans enjoy remarkable geographic mobility, there's no getting away from the fact that New England is a long, long way from the states beyond the Continental Divide.  Equating "prestigious" with "East Coast" sacrifices the interests, abilities, and unique regional attributes of large swathes of the country.  The American West is more than cowboys and recalcitrant ranchers, Hollywood and Portlandia.  Education is important -- even, perhaps, paramount.  But I'd suggest that an education from Oregon State or Pacific Lutheran, UC Davis or the University of Seattle, might develop critical thinking and regional identity in ways that will benefit the nation as a whole.  Perhaps the most important question we could ask is not "where did you go to school?" but "what did you learn while you were there?"

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Nostalgia and Continuity

"Nostalgia is a selective sentiment.  It is Williamsburg in the 1750s without the mud, the outhouses, and the flies.  It is Laramie in the 1880s without the heat, the cold, the vomit, and the bedbugs.  It is the New England colonial town without the censoriousness and the intolerance.

And yet the gentle glow of nostalgia does shed light on institutions and values that are worth preserving or adapting if we can.  It reminds us that continuity is a satisfaction if not a duty.  The very selectivity, moreover, which nostalgia brings to the past encourages rejection of the shoddy and meretricious in the present.  And if it is true that we cannot have it both ways, we can at least make more intelligent compromises between the compulsions of change and the attractions of continuity if the tug of the latter is strong."

-- Elliot Richardson, The Creative Balance (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), p. 271

Saturday, March 29, 2014


The other day I finished a novel called Longbourn, by Jo Baker, that follows the lives of the servants in the Bennet household -- the central characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  I didn't receive a complimentary copy or anything, but I did want to give a shout out to the author for addressing one of those glaring inaccuracies that characterizes so much historical fiction, whether in books or on film.  Longbourn opens on a washday, and the central theme of this opening scene is upon hands -- working hands, scalded hands, chilblain-afflicted hands, and the goose grease the maids of Longbourn rubbed into their cracked, bleeding hands at the end of the day to restore range of movement, if not comfort.  This theme continues throughout the book, whether contrasted with the soft, pale, even flaccid hands of the gentlefolk for whom the servants work or in passing comments that remind us these same cracked, blistered digits also touched (and tried to avoid bleeding upon) dainty gowns and fine veils.

Physical comfort on such a prosaic level is one of those things we tend to elide from our perusal of the past.  We might attend to the vital themes of hunger, oppression, violence, or lack of shelter, but seldom do we consider such basic and ubiquitous privations.  Take a look at the hands of the servants on Downton Abbey.  Historical accuracy might extend as far as Daisy's worn dresses, but I suspect cracked and blistered hands would take accuracy a bit too far for contemporary viewers.  Seldom have I found a written story that addresses this reality, either.

For lotion and mild soap, modern household appliances and cleaning products, give thanks.  And remember, those refinements of the upper classes came not just at the expense of servants' labor, but of their very skins.  What of modern labor?  An interesting question to ponder.  Working conditions mattered then -- a lot.  They still do.  Chemicals and practices, rules and regulations, matter.  The environment includes humans, and industry continues to involve skin, whether directly through the workplace or indirectly through the ways in which the products of industry are diffused.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Great articles on civil rights... and beards

Penn State University doctoral candidate Sean Trainor published a fascinating piece January 20 in The Atlantic titled "The Racially Fraught History of the American Beard."  Take a look here.

Historian Michael Kazin reflected January 20 upon the potential drawbacks to Hollywood's recent focus on interpreting the history of slavery.  Read it here.  I'm inclined to agree with Kazin's reasoning.  Telling the history of slavery is tremendously important, but we do run the risk of eliding the struggles African Americans have faced since emancipation if we cut off our history at 1865.  This is part of a larger struggle I face when viewing popular interpretations of civil rights history.  My 7-year-old brought home a "Weekly Reader" folio the other day about Martin Luther King, Jr.  While I realize historical interpretation for second grade readers is necessarily going to require some elimination of nuance, I was troubled by the main article's statement that because of King's work, people of all races now get along and live/work together.  Then = bad; King = the hinge upon which societal transformation swung; now = good.

Hmm.  Much as I wish this were the case, the story just isn't that simple.  The frustrating, difficult truth is that King was assassinated as a result of his work -- a work made even more dangerous when he started to challenge deeply ingrained "de facto" discrimination throughout the United States and not just the "de jure" segregation of the American South.  The frustrating, difficult truth is that the myriad problems of race continue to bedevil our society, despite the unarguable progress the brave activists of the 1950s and 1960s -- and before and after those decades -- have made.  We need to remember these truths.  We need to educate the next generation to realize how far we have come.  If we fail, however, to acknowledge the distance left to travel (and the many struggles and reverses along the way) we run a serious risk of encouraging a smug complacency that dismisses the real structural problems of American society as somebody else's personal problem -- or, in the case of those caught up in the midst of structural inequities, the enervating despair of hopelessness.

I want my child to celebrate the justice of emancipation.  I want her to value the brave, difficult work undertaken by King and others.  I want her to recognize the important distance American society has traveled.  Too, though, I want her to recognize that she needs to take up the baton; the race is far from over.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013