Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ads of yore #6


This one comes to us from 1955. Eisenhower's in the White House... Lucy's on the television... Tennessee Ernie Williams is singing "Sixteen Tons" on the radio... and this "jewel-like beauty sparkles like a gem in any bath."

From; this blogger provides a cite for the original link.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ads of yore #5

I have noticed this on various blogs and will post the link I actually used below. Love it. Well, don't love it at all insofar as a certain local Mr. Gifford values his life more than to ever attempt giving one of these for Christmas, but it's an interesting little side trip down memory lane in the history of American gender stereotypes...

Ah, 1960. A very good year for Massachusetts senators, anyway.

Image from:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ads of yore #4

For everyone who remembers flapping those instant photographs to "help" the image emerge...

This image comes to us from the polyester-tinged days of 1978 and is part of a great collection posted by a blogger at:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Ads of yore #3

I love Christmas lights, and it turns out people (rich people, at least) have been loving electric lights longer than one might have suspected... here's a nice little number from General Electric, vintage 1904:

I include this under the rubric of ads we would not see today given our contemporary concerns about safety. I'm thinking I would not let my four-year-old anywhere near a string of wiring manufactured in 1904, even if it was brand-new at the time. A "festoon" of eight sockets and ten "lamps" cost $5.00. For the sake of reference, the average weekly wage in the United States at this time for a worker in the building trades was $17.87 (assuming a full work week averaging 48.3 hours). The average teacher earned $6.30, and the average worker in medical and health services earned $4.92. [1]

You can see this image, other advertising brochures and even the text of these early ads on the following page of an excellent Web site called "Old Christmas Tree Lights": Enjoy!

[1] Facts and Figures, Income and Prices 1900-1999, US Diplomatic Mission to Germany:

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ads of yore #2

Because nothing says good health and smooth voice tone over the long haul like a Pall Mall... the fine print on the copyright date is too small to read. I would guess '40s vintage?

This comes from a funny Web site with some other great holiday gems:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ads of yore #1

In honor of the festive season, I thought it would be fun to share a few advertisements that we would never see today...

First up: "Dorothy's Wedding," "Robert's Anniversary Dinner" or my favorite, "Susan convalescing from her operation!" All wonderful occasions, it seems, for a new Parker Vacumatic Pen... from the days when that hole and/or divot on high school desks wasn't just an ornamental feature:

Photo: Reminisce Online,, accessed 17 December 2010.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Cinnamon Bear

Today marks 26 days before Christmas. This is significant because there are precisely 26 episodes of "The Cinnamon Bear," a wondrous 1937 radio serial about the adventures of Judy, Jimmy and a diminutive bear by the name of Paddy O'Cinnamon... and with a 4.5-year-old in the household, I am sure we will enjoy every one of them.

Radio can be a difficult concept for contemporary kids to grasp. The local model doesn't quite get why she can't watch Click and Clack on "Car Talk" as well as hearing them (although I am beyond delighted that she likes listening to them in the first place). A program like "The Cinnamon Bear" is an accessible way to explore not only a delightful holiday story, but the way kids lived in the 1930s and 1940s.

Here are a few links to more information on "The Cinnamon Bear." Free recordings are available here and there; it is also available on iTunes.

A personal finance blogger with fond memories of listening on Portland's KEX radio, plus audio links

In case you wanted to know who voices what...

A free coloring book

Friday, November 19, 2010

In the zone

Interesting article in the NYT the other day about how concentration correlates to happiness (click here).

Especially notable quote from William F. Buckley, Jr.: “Industry is the enemy of melancholy.”

Words to live by, even if I tend to be extremely bad at doing so.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Money money money

The question of how the national financial system should be organized has plagued the United States from its inception. Alexander Hamilton established the first National Bank as part of a program to create a firm, centralized footing for collecting tax receipts, control the monetary supply, tie the fortunes of elites to the nation's economic future and create a ready source for government loans. His Democratic Republican opponents, however, strenuously opposed the system, arguing it carried federal power far beyond what had been granted in the Constitution. Consequently, once the Federalist Party left the executive, the charter of the first National Bank was allowed to lapse.

The events of the War of 1812, when, among other things, the country nearly went bankrupt, led even the Democratic Republicans to believe a National Bank was necessary to ensure true economic independence from Britain. Accordingly, President James Madison signed a second National Bank bill into law in 1816. Once again, however, centralized banking fell out of favor, as the new Democratic Party gained increasing power, opposition to economic elitism became the rallying cry of the masses and Andrew Jackson was elected to the presidency. Jackson, once again, let the National Bank lapse. Several decades of decentralized banking practice followed.

By the early 1900s, tired of up-and-down swings in the national economy, the federal government under President Woodrow Wilson established the Federal Reserve System, which formally opened on this day in 1914. A uniform federal monetary policy was deemed the best way to administer the economy. Alterations in monetary supply and interest rates could smooth out the bumps and dips in the American economy.

Ultimately, of course, we have continued to have bumps and dips... most notably, that little episode called the "Great Depression" that transpired less than twenty years after the Fed was established, although it is worth noting that many historians have described how different decisions on the part of the Fed might have lessened the Depression's impact. In other words, it was not the institution so much as it was the practice. Today, however, in the midst of another recession, there is growing sentiment in some areas of the country against federal involvement in monetary policy. The November edition of The Atlantic featured a profile on Ron Paul, the Texas Republican (Libertarian, more accurately) who advocates a return to the gold standard and routinely excoriates the actions of the Fed. We live in interesting times. Will we see another transition?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Church and State

The following was published today in the print and online editions of The Oregonian:

The history behind the separation of church and state

By Laura Jane Gifford

The recent denial by Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell of a constitutionally enshrined separation between church and state is fundamentally flawed. A quick glance at the First Amendment is sufficient to demonstrate that while the specific words "separation of church and state" can't be found in sequence, the concept behind them is unquestionably present.

O'Donnell's selection of this particular issue, however, is especially ironic, given the religious demographics of many in the tea party movement and the history behind the First Amendment's clause preventing establishment of an "official" church.

Early evangelicals were some of the most strident opponents of an established church. In most American colonies, one established church stood at the center of religious and community life, controlled the tempo of religious expression and even levied taxes for its maintenance. In New England, for example, it was the Puritan church; in many Southern states, it was the Church of England. The taxes these churches levied were a mandatory part of life for all citizens living within a colony's boundaries. Even after the American Revolution, established churches remained part of life in several states, dissolving gradually over a series of decades.

In the 1730s, however, a wave of religious fervor struck England and the colonies. The Great Awakening was characterized by fervent preaching, emphasis on the conversion experience of being "born again" and extension of the right to preach and share religious revelation to a broader cross-section of society. Among other things, the Great Awakening dramatically diversified the denominational affiliations of American colonists, as new sects ranging from Baptists to Methodists to Presbyterians added their distinctive forms of expression to the American religious spectrum.

These newly invigorated, fervently devout evangelicals balked at paying taxes to established churches that did not share their theological positions. Indeed, in some parts of the colonies, sects such as the Baptists went so far as to refuse paying church taxes, drawing the disapprobation of colonial elites and sometimes even jail sentences.

Citizens from throughout the American colonies used the language of "freedom" and "liberty" that characterized the Revolutionary movement to anchor their own causes. Some campaigns were more successful than others, and in many cases connections were forged among disparate groups with similar aims. In the case of religious freedom, early evangelicals and Deist elites like Thomas Jefferson could find common ground. Jefferson believed God ceased to be active in the world following creation, but he did not want to see an established church hobbling the rationality of his republican experiment; evangelicals did not want to owe fealty to a national religious establishment that could compromise their deeply held beliefs. The result, of course, was the First Amendment.

Since the nation's founding, myriad religious groups have been able to call upon the First Amendment to legitimate their freedom of expression in the face of considerable oppression. This has been true of Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Hindus -- but also of denominations like the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, of which tea party guru Glenn Beck is a faithful member. Given the long and often violent history of attempts to repress the Mormon faith, it's safe to say that without the First Amendment, Beck would not be safe to express his Mormon beliefs today.

O'Donnell and the rest of the tea party movement would do well to study their history before they make unfounded statements based on false premises about America's religious past.

Laura Jane Gifford is an adjunct instructor at George Fox University and author of "The Center Cannot Hold: The 1960 Presidential Election and the Rise of Modern Conservatism."

Link to the column as it appears in The Oregonian here:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Life has been busy...

... so meanwhile, here's a nice little diversion. Made me smile; merited inclusion on the first slide of my PowerPoint slides for lecture the other day.

Get Fuzzy

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Here comes the sun

The Obamas are planning to install solar panels on the roof of the White House to serve some of the mansion's electrical needs. Great. This means we've finally returned to the level of common sense we last experienced over thirty years ago, right?

On some levels, yes. Ronald Reagan memorably removed a set of solar panels installed by Jimmy Carter back in 1986, one of many symbolic gestures marking the end of an age of limits for the United States. It was morning in America, folks, and all that sun needed to do was warm our happy American faces as we rolled off down the highway in our petroleum-based vehicles.

However, here's an interesting link -- turns out George W. Bush installed electricity-generating solar panels on the White House grounds, too. As the article points out, Republicans' failure to trumpet this fact may pertain to the propaganda value of associating Obama with the disaster-prone Carter era. It's a sad commentary on our society, however, that solar panels on the White House could be seen as anything but good. What happened to the virtues of independence and self-sufficiency that have been so integral (however ill-practiced in reality) to the history of the United States? The very same virtues that conservative politicians trumpet?

We need a comprehensive return to independence and self-sufficiency in the realm of energy policy, not because we have to "go it alone" in this world -- friends are a good thing, and we would do well to cultivate them more assiduously -- but because it is the morally responsible legacy to leave to our children. American history is littered with the darker implications of seemingly positive attributes. "Independence" and "self-sufficiency" nearly destroyed the Native peoples of North America, to give just one example, but if we can learn from such tragedies, we needn't let them color the meaning such terms could have for the future.

It would do politicians on both ends of the spectrum good to acknowledge the contributions -- and the shortcomings -- of their forebears. Fighting past battles does nothing but poison the possibilities for the future.

Independence and self-sufficiency must be reclaimed, and this time, without the hypocrisy that has colored so much of our past. If a few solar panels on the roof of a certain big white building start us on our way, good. If we can summon the maturity to build upon the legacies of both Bush II and Obama in this regard, so much the better.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ah, the memories

I saw this article in the NYT today and had to share for the benefit of my Pacific Lutheran University friends. The University of Wisconsin-Madison was faced the other day with the question of whether they wanted President Obama to visit the campus. The article goes on to detail how (although they were thrilled, and ultimately accepted), the university struggled with the moral rectitude of offering the stage to someone who was clearly making a partisan political address.

In spring 2000, I was the editor-in-chief of the PLU Mooring Mast... and Senator John McCain, then running for president, decided he wanted to come speak in Olson Auditorium. The university gladly accepted. The problem with this was that PLU policy forbade political speeches on campus. Oops. I wrote an editorial that argued a) the policy should be changed, because it really was cool to see Sen. McCain but b) PLU broke the rules; it shouldn't have accepted the offer, on principle. This led to a note in my mailbox from the university president. Seems he wanted to see me. ASAP.

Evidently it was the first time in his several years of service that he had ever hauled the editor in for a talking-to. Ironic that it was me, the queen of non-confrontation. As it turns out, even when irked, he was an extremely nice guy -- we had a pleasant conversation and ended up talking about my future plans. (And I did it, Dr. Anderson! Ph.D. Now, for that full-time tenure-track position...)

Anyway: fun memories of the day I became a rebel against the system. Pleasantly, it didn't stop us from receiving a really nice place setting of dishware as a wedding gift from the Andersons a few months later...

Lutherans, y'know. We're all about the grace.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reclaiming the American spirit

I thought this was an interesting column by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. He argues that the United States is falling behind other countries, not because there is anything wrong with our system of government, but because we spend too much time fussing at each other rather than addressing society's problems.

The man has a very good point.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A plane ride to a stranded pilgrim

This afternoon I came across the following excerpt. It describes actions taken by the U.S. government in response to a need for propaganda victories in the Middle East in 1952:

"When a local airline overbooked and left 3,800 Muslim pilgrims stranded in Beirut, the U.S. embassy arranged for the U.S. Air Force to airlift the pilgrims to Mecca in 'Operation Magic Carpet.' When the airline reimbursed the U.S. government for the face value of the tickets, the government donated the money to charity. Such a story turned on American compassion and respect for Islam. A shared respect for God in the face of godless communism became the default message of U.S. Cold War propaganda in the Middle East."
--Nicholas J. Cull, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989 (Cambridge, 2008), 74.

Yes, this was an action related to propaganda efforts. Yes, the U.S. government did many far less savory things in the Middle East in the name of Cold War tactics.

Still: compassion and respect for Islam.

A colleague of mine in the field of conservatism studies, Dan Williams, posted a Facebook link to a speech President Dwight Eisenhower made at the opening of an American Islamic center in 1957. It's well worth reading. He speaks of Islam's cultural and scientific contributions to the world, and he defends the right of Muslims to worship. Especially poignant are some of Eisenhower's closing words: "Faithful to the demands of justice and of brotherhood, each working according to the lights of his own conscience, our world must advance along the paths of peace."

Yes, Americans have been mightily tested by those within Islam who do not operate according to their own religion's fundamentally peaceful dictates. That is no excuse for us to abandon our commitment to freedom of expression--or our own charge to advance along the paths of peace.

We need to foster the better angels among us who decided--even with the carrot of a Cold War propaganda victory--to bring a bunch of pilgrims home. We can be the people who help and support. If we do it in the spirit of help and support, there's nothing wrong with reaping the positive benefits of that. And I truly believe that if we do, we will.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Quote of the day

Quote of the day, spoken by ex-Senator Bob Packwood and attributed to his father (but originating elsewhere, I'd imagine): "Beware of the zealots--they have no sense of humor."

Packwood had his (serious) personal problems, as those around in 1995 and beforehand will attest. That acknowledged, I mourn the loss of politicians on both sides of the aisle who could decry extremism and work toward solutions to our nation's problems. Even my man Barry Goldwater, Mr. "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" himself, was generally congenial toward those with differing opinions.

On this day when we commemorate the terribly tragic effects of extremism upon our own nation nine years ago--and deal with the ugly manifestations of home-grown variations in Florida and lower Manhattan in the present--we would do well to heed Packwood's words.

Belief is not the problem. Belief can be undertaken with sincerity and commitment, and still operate within a realm of fellow-feeling, compassion and understanding. But when we lose those latter qualities, we are entering into a world predestined for fracture, hurt and sadly preventable tragedy.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Same Quran

I noticed a revealing (and distressing) quote today in the midst of all the coverage regarding the proposed Islamic cultural center site a couple blocks from the New York World Trade Center properties. "All Muslims read the same Quran," this 45-year-old New York resident stated. According to the Oregonian reporter who interviewed her for today's Sunday edition, the woman cannot believe that while some Muslims interpreted the words of their chief religious text in ways that led them to plow passenger jets into the World Trade Center, others might read the Quran and receive a message of peace.

All Muslims read the same Quran.

All Christians read the same Bible. Have done since it was first consolidated into a (mostly) uniform religious text in the first centuries after the time of Jesus.

How would this lady respond to:

* the violence of the Crusades?

* killings of Protestants and Catholics--by each other--in the decades following the start of the Protestant Reformation?

* religiously sanctioned defenses of chattel slavery?

The people who committed these atrocities read the same Bible as the founders of the pacifist Quakers, the abolitionists who decried slavery... and a young Lutheran man, Matt Sky, who has been carrying out a lone vigil for the past 10 days outside the proposed Islamic center site, holding a sign that proclaims "Support Freedom of Religion."

Humans are flawed, and all books, religious or otherwise, are filtered through human brains. One can hope that through careful attention to spiritual guidance, a religious person might gain the most accurate insight possible into his or her religion's text. But there is no escaping the fact that throughout the centuries, people have read the same exact words and come up with wildly, drastically different interpretations--sometimes with tragic results.

This isn't an Islamic problem. This is a human problem. To suggest otherwise is simply, painfully, ludicrous -- and it demonstrates a lack of historical understanding that cripples our ability to move forward as a nation.

Quotations taken from "Vigil brings a message of tolerance of mosque," The Sunday Oregonian (September 5, 2010), page A9.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tea in the tidal basin

I noticed a fascinating article in the paper the other day that discussed the intensive efforts Tea Party activists have been making to organize grassroots volunteers. Meanwhile, at least 300,000 (according to NBC News) and perhaps as many as 500,000 (the organizers' estimate) citizens have gathered in Washington, D.C. this weekend to listen to a series of speeches by Tea Party-affiliated luminaries ranging from Sarah Palin to headliner Glenn Beck.

The mainstream continues to characterize the Tea Party-related groups as a fringe movement.

I'm not so sure.

My own political beliefs are not aligned with the Tea Partiers. As outlined in previous posts, I deplore the current tendency in our political society toward demonization of the other, and I find much of the rhetoric coming out of this movement to be rife with the emotionally charged, factually-selective discourse that poisons American political life. (That does not mean the Tea Party alone is responsible for this... far from it.) I have a particular problem with the perception that, as one attendee interviewed at the Beck-led Washington rally put it, Jesus would not have agreed with welfare, bank bailouts and the economic stimulus package. She can hold her religious beliefs and I can hold mine (and isn't that the beauty of the United States?), but it strikes me as presumptuous to argue that the man the Gospels clearly portray as concerned with the least of these wouldn't entertain the idea of welfare programs, even if He might perhaps prefer something rather less bureaucratic. (The bank bailouts? Well, He didn't care much for money changers... but it is worth mentioning that this all began BEFORE a certain demonized chief executive took office. That happened during the regime of a previously demonized chief executive... sigh. Can't we all get along?)

However: regardless of one's position on the Tea Partiers, they are doing one thing very well. Politics work differently than they did in 1960, but they don't work that differently. Effective political organization depends upon motivating and mobilizing citizens to follow your lead. That requires footwork. It might not happen quickly, but it will happen over time with sufficient organization, grassroots effort, patience, and willingness to continue trying new things. My 2009 book (shameless Amazon link) outlines the ways in which as early as 1960, conservatives were working to establish efficient, effective grassroots efforts. These efforts paid off big-time over the course of the next couple decades.

Is it happening again? Too soon to tell. Also, conservatives in 1960 were working to counter an entrenched liberal establishment. I would argue that current conditions are far different, with no one political persuasion exercising such overweening control. However, politicos of all stripes would do well to note what is going on, and exercise their own political will accordingly. Long-term influence cannot be won in the pages of the New York Times, especially in our world of information explosion. Influence comes through relationships. People need fellowship, and they're going to gravitate toward places where they can find it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I'm dreaming of a civil society...

There was an interesting column in The Oregonian this morning about the decline in civility in the U.S. Senate. Former Oregon senator Bob Packwood, who clearly had his own extracurricular problems but was, nonetheless, a longtime Senate stalwart -- and a Republican -- traced the origins of this decline to 1992, when then-Representative Newt Gingrich began a take-no-prisoners campaign for GOP control of Congress. Oregon's current junior senator, Democrat Jeff Merkley, related that his experiences as an intern for former Senator Mark Hatfield -- a Republican! -- in the 1970s included a conviviality sadly lacking in today's U.S. Senate.

A lack of civility is not a necessarily partisan quality. As syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts aptly described the other day, it is a condition that has infected a growing percentage of American society. Speaking of politics specifically, it's equally possible to be a Republican jerk or a Democratic jerk. The problem lies in the fact that it appears to have become acceptable to be a jerk of any political stripe.

We are a country that is at war. We are a country experiencing a significant economic recession. We are a country with essential choices to make about the way we handle weighty matters ranging from immigration to education, foreign policy to caring for the most needy among us. And our elected national leaders cannot even have a civilized discussion on the Senate floor?

Something is seriously wrong here. As voters we have a responsibility to move beyond our own petty grievances and elect national leaders who appeal to what is best in us, not what is worst in us.

All Republicans are spineless obstructionists? Um, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham voted to approve Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court.

All Democrats are godless heathens? Well, Jeff Merkley happened to be in Yamhill County on a Sunday morning the fall before last when he was running for the Senate. He's Lutheran. He attended the morning service at my own church, Joyful Servant Lutheran -- a small church with a statistically insignificant number of voters in a fairly conservative town. Not, in short, a politically motivated meet-and-greet.

So: let's get over it. Political opinions are fine, and working on behalf of political ideals is not a problem. Incivility, lack of dialogue, and disregard for the essential humanity of the other side? That really, really is.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Irish spoken here

Among the many interesting experiences we had in Ireland was a visit to Inisheer (Inis Oírr in Irish... that will become important in a minute). This was interesting in part because it involved a short voyage on a ferry (read: little boat) that nearly did myself, my child and my parents in -- as my father commented, "the Ritchies are not seafaring folk" -- and in part because it demonstrated what a dedicated population can do with a bunch of rocks and several thousand years. See photo in previous post. Another fascinating aspect of life on Inisheer, however, is that it is not, primarily, carried out in English.

The Aran Islands, you see, are an Irish-speaking region... and they don't mean Irish for cutesy purposes. The people actually speak it. We heard many locals having conversations in Irish, from the horse-and-wagon-tourist coach drivers waiting for customers to a group of young boys who appeared to be discussing the coming Premier League season. ("Irish words-Irish words-'Blackpool'-Irish words," etc.)

Experiencing an actual "An Ghaeltacht," as Irish-speaking regions are termed, brought into stronger relief just why the Irish are so concerned with preserving their language. From Irish-language schools to a network channel devoted entirely to Irish-language programming (if not content... the kid watched "Dora the Explorer" in Irish one day), preservation of spoken and written Irish is a significant preoccupation of the Irish state.

The Aran Islands are remote, rocky outcroppings off the Galway coast. One could make an argument that given the peripheral nature of these and other Irish-speaking regions, preservation of the Irish language is a misuse of scarce government funds. Rather than peripheral outposts, however, perhaps it would be more instructive to think of the Aran Islands as the last, vital center.

Ever heard the term "beyond the Pale?" This doesn't refer to pasty skin; rather, it is a historical reference to Ireland outside the centers of English colonial influence, largely in the southeast, from about the 1500s. The "Pale" was civilization; to be "beyond the Pale" was to be Irish in culture and in language -- and by extension, a lower class of being, treated in a manner that we would later see afflicting the Native Americans once England made contact with them.

English is the primary spoken language in Ireland, yes; it is also a colonial language. A flawed heritage does not necessarily render the thing itself unsavory, or most of us could hardly look ourselves in the mirror. However, the Irish preoccupation with an Irish language is a commitment to remembering that Ireland's heritage is something unique. Preserving and encouraging Irish preserves and encourages independent identity. For a country less than 100 years removed from colonialism, that is an important thing.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A temporary distraction

It's been way too long... wonderful travel experiences and heart-rending tragedies. Big Questions to ponder and relations to tend. Sounds like a movie, but alas, that's just life. Back to the historical observations soon, but meanwhile, perhaps I can provide a nice distraction... hence, here are a few photos from Ireland! Enjoy...

Offspring in front of one of three ancient high crosses at Kilkieran. Cross in question is over a thousand years old. (Child = far younger.)

Detail of the high tower, Rock of Cashel. Dates from approximately 900 AD, if I recall correctly.

Pigeon. Holes in side of cathedral structure originally supported beams used as scaffolding for construction. Sometimes these were filled in later; sometimes not. And sometimes, over 500 years, stones simply fall out.

Inisheer, Aran Islands, with Inishmaan in the distance. They have rocks and they know how to use them...

Offspring eating Pringles on Inisheer.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Leaving on a Jet Plane

This isn't proving to be an overwhelmingly prolific summer in the blog-posting department... a lack of preschool and a 4-year-old who feels naps (indeed, sleep in general) are a waste of valuable drawing time do not make for wonderful contemplative opportunities. Fall should bring more opportunities for insightful commentary.

In several hours, I depart again, this time for one of those experiences that could rightly be termed a "trip of a lifetime" -- two weeks in Ireland with my husband, the pint-sized artist and my parents. I am sure I will have thoughts upon my return. Hopefully they will be worth reading!

Meanwhile: a few interesting bits and pieces. The Irish potato famine of 1845-51 precipitated the first great wave of non-British immigration to the United States (some Germans and others came earlier, of course, and Ireland was under the dominion of Britain at the time). The famine was so immense, death so rampant and the migration abroad so extensive that even today, Ireland's population is smaller than it was in the early 1840s. Ireland is and always has been such a verdant land that even ascetic monks had a hard time maintaining their asceticism... it was simply too easy to grow food. So why did such a tragedy occur? The key lies in colonialism. The Irish were growing plenty of food throughout the famine... for export to Britain. They did not have access to that which could have saved them; meanwhile, the only food they did have reliable access to -- potatoes -- was overtaken by rampant fungal infection.

Once they got to the United States? Irish immigrants were among the first to discover that in nineteenth century America, "white" was a considerably more restrictive term than that which we use today, and most Americans had no qualms about discrimination. Signs excluding dogs and Irish, or equating Irish with African Americans (who were still enslaved in the South) were commonplace.

We tend to think about colonialism and conquest as deeds perpetrated upon the rest of the world by Europe (and perhaps the United States). There are good reasons for doing this, given the continuing scars that run across so much of the world as a result of this extra-European colonialism. Ireland, however, is a good reminder that the full story is more complicated.

Well, onward and upward (to cruising altitude)! The kid has expressed that what she most wants to see in Ireland are sheep. I am sure we will be able to accommodate her...

Monday, July 5, 2010

Notes from Lummi

Returned Friday evening from that youth trip to the Lummi reservation just outside Bellingham. It was a good week -- good for the kids, and good, I hope, for the people whose yards were weeded and fireworks stands were painted.

We had a chance to experience the Lummi canoe culture firsthand. As mentioned previously, the Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest relied heavily upon the inland waters that trace through the landscape of the region for their livelihoods, transportation and communication (they even ventured out onto the open sea). While the overwhelming force of mainstream American society has curtailed these traditional patterns, tribes like the Lummi have taken significant steps in recent years to renew and hold onto this vital part of their cultural heritage.

Accordingly, the Lummi and many other tribes participate annually in an event called "Tribal Journeys," during which groups of canoe paddlers from various tribes travel from reservation to reservation, sharing songs and stories and regaining the lived experience of a long canoe voyage. The Lummi were preparing to head out toward the middle of this week for this year's Tribal Journey.

Last Wednesday, several of the song leaders and canoe paddlers came to sing their songs for us. These are the songs that help power their journeys. They tell of tribal lore and traditional themes, but they are also a living, evolving history of the tribe. New songs address the struggles of life on a reservation in the twenty-first century and the triumphs of helping modern Native Americans negotiate the shoals of "outside" and regain their heritage. Some young Lummi even danced for my kids, who were their peers in age -- brave kids! I was struck by the power of their dances; it is easy to see how Europeans would have been alarmed by the strength and physicality of young warriors when they first encountered Native tribes centuries ago:

The Lummi have a wonderful saying: once you share a meal with us, you are family. They demonstrated this the next day, when they invited the kids into their canoes for a trip around the bay. They shared a prayer with the kids on the water that had them talking long afterward about the way the Lummi see the spiritual qualities of all creation. They enjoyed the silence on the water, the seabirds and small crabs. I am sure it is an experience they will never forget.

And when they got back to shore? Well, there's one more set of Lummi traditions. First, demonstrate your respect for the canoe after your first journey. And second? Never call it a boat...

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bellingham Bound

Tomorrow I am taking a bunch of high schoolers on a trip up to the Lummi reservation outside Bellingham, Washington for a week of service and learning about tribal culture. This means no blog posts for a week (it would be rude to sit there typing after I have forbidden them from using their own electronic devices during community time). It will likely, however, provide some rich fodder for contemplation once I return.

The Lummi are a people with a deep connection to the sea. They had a historically vibrant canoe culture that they have taken remarkable strides to reclaim in recent years. They have many of the same problems that characterize reservation communities across the nation, but their residence in the far north of Washington state has introduced for them some additional issues of imposed national boundaries and disrupted networks of affiliation (other borderland tribes have dealt with similar issues). Too often their stories are not told; their experiences are not understood; their existence is invisible to "mainstream" society. Here's hoping it is a week of illumination for 9 great kids (and 2 brave [crazy?] chaperones).

So: more later.

Monday, June 21, 2010

NOT the kind of hit parade we want...

I felt this was an interesting article on the relative "merits" (if you want to call them that) of various environmental disasters in U.S. history. President Obama and others have referred to the calamitous oil spill fouling the Gulf of Mexico as the worst environmental disaster ever to hit the United States; as the article points out, one could make the case that several others top it. Not an auspicious distinction, but it provides some good reminders of past catastrophes.

As a historian, I'm all for widespread dissemination of information about past catastrophes, not in any effort to mitigate the present -- BP and all others associated with this spill were a bunch of [insert impolite term of your choice here] eejits, as the Irish would say, and my heart sinks further with every new story that appears about the Gulf. However, I cling to the hope, praying it isn't entirely misguided, that the more we know about our past mistakes, missteps and downright miscreant activities, the wiser we will be in the future. Ignorance of the past hurts us so often in this world. Thanks be for anything that reminds us.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

World Cup!

This isn't, purely speaking, American history, but since the US is involved in the World Cup (and has been both colony and [de facto] colonizer), it's worth a link. Click here for a fun discussion on the World Cup as a post-colonial opportunity for former colonies to meet their old ruling powers -- and, sometimes, beat them!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A big desk means it's everyone's business

Interesting NY Times story on the rationale behind President Obama's first Oval Office speech. In sum, a speech from behind the presidential desk conveys a sense of national importance and universal application -- this is not a speech meant for a specific group of people in a specific geographic location, but instead is directed toward all of us.

Using the nature of presidential communications as symbolism is an artifact of the twentieth century's technological revolution. Presidents in eras past might well have chosen a specific venue with an eye toward symbolism, or chosen to address a specific group of people. President Lincoln's powerful Gettysburg Address is a paramount example. Radio and television have made it possible, however, for the president to convey messages instantaneously, and the manner in which they do so helps to frame the way citizens receive their words.

President Franklin Roosevelt was the earliest master of this technique. His "fireside chats" were meant to convey a sense of security, of familiarity and even friendship, of intimate involvement on the part of the federal government and the president personally in this national (and even international) crisis -- and overall, they worked.

A few decades later, President Kennedy's speech at the Berlin Wall, while remembered for his self-identification with a popular local pastry, was a powerful symbol of Western resolve (even as historians have found that in reality, the administration was not altogether displeased with Wall's construction).

Symbol and sentiment, words and meanings. The ways in which we communicate with each other are rich and multifaceted. We would do well to carefully consider the ways in which we interpret and understand each other.

Friday, June 11, 2010

King George?

Well over two hundred years into the history of the United States under the current Constitution, we have become accustomed to the way our system of government works--even if we aren't always very happy with it. Yes, there have been very significant changes in the party system, the way Congress functions, the relationships among the various branches and even the number of Supreme Court justices on the bench. I've just started reading Gordon S. Wood's Empire of Liberty (Oxford, 2009), and I am finding myself consistently impressed--and often amused--by the origins of Constitutional government (as in our Constitution, and not just the little-c practice, generally speaking).

One especially interesting example:

Many members of Congress and the new administration, including Vice President/President of the Senate John Adams, were considerably exercised by what to call the new president. It was a strain in and of itself to conceive of how an executive would fit into a republican form of government. Some early leaders felt the presidency should be a quasi (or even actual) monarchical position. These were very serious debates and decisions, and the question of nomenclature was by no means inconsequential. After all, the way we label things as societies indicates the importance with which we view them, as well as the ways which we construe our own relative positions.

So, what were we to call the man formerly known as General Washington? Even state governors were known at the time as "His Excellency." "His Highness?" "His Most Benign Highness?" "Elective Highness?" Surely the title of "President" was not enough. As John Adams pointed out, the world was littered with piffling little "Presidents" of fire companies and cricket clubs. Even the diplomatic corps enjoyed more elevated titles. Adams again: "What will the Common People of Foreign Countries, what will the Sailors and Soldiers say [about] George Washington, President of the United States? They will despise him to all eternity."

In the end, James Madison was able to restore order and what we would from our, twenty-first century perspective, consider a sense of reason to the debate, pointing out that such high-flying presidential titles would instigate a slippery path toward "a crown and hereditary succession." He was able to sway most of his fellow congressmen to go along, Adams' predictions of eternal doom aside, with the good republican title of "President of the United States."

Madison had succeeded in establishing a precedent that mitigated against monarchical tendencies. The debate over the powers and tendencies of the executive would continue--and really, it continues to this day. Americans have continued to pose questions about relative authority and the rights and responsibilities of Congress, the Supreme Court and the President. As recently as Franklin Roosevelt's time in office, the Executive Department was a tiny institution; today, it is enormous. By the 1960s and 1970s, we faced a national debate over the rise of what some called an "Imperial Presidency," characterized by barriers to presidential access, presidential usurpation of the Senate's role in foreign policy and more than a few extremely dirty tricks. As society evolves and the problems facing government evolve with it, these debates are sure to continue.

In the meantime, I leave you with Washington's own preferred title. Oh, how many chuckles we all could have gleaned. No more "Mr. President." Rather, we would have in our midst, Barack Obama, "His High Mightiness."

All quotations and specific pieces of information pertaining to the presidential-title debate taken from Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty (Oxford, 2009), pp. 83-85. Evidently there was some precedent for the "High Mightiness" title; the leaders of the States-General of the United Dutch Provinces were known by this term.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Humanity and the humanities

David Brooks on the continuing importance of the humanities: here.

I do not always agree with Brooks, but I enjoy reading and hearing his analysis, and on this subject, I believe he is spot on. (I think I might have named that unnameable insight that he so eloquently describes something other than "The Big Shaggy" -- but that said, I'm not sure I would replace it with. Once one moves beyond images of old carpeting, it does conjure the muddled complexity he is trying to evoke.)

Human society defies easy systematization. We can make best guesses and try to establish some frameworks for civilized life, but if we are to make anything approaching a success of it here on Earth, we must be comfortable with complexity, and we must know the past that brought us to our present. I'm glad someone nationally syndicated took his column inches to defend these important principles.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I Say Potato, You Say Pomme de Terre

Interesting brief on the NY Times Web site about procedural wrangling in the Quebec provincial legislature over restrictions on English-language instruction in Quebec schools. The major parties agree on limiting access, but the separatist Parti Québécois wants more restrictions.

Canada is intriguing because it is a country with strong (and conflicting) perceptions of nationality based upon factors like language and heritage... but it is also a quintessential New World state, which is to say that absolutely none of the people presently in charge have aboriginal origins in the first place. (Well, except in Nunavut, but that's a comparatively minor example.)

While 21st century Canada is a multiethnic state, it also represents a story of two heritages to a much larger degree than has ever been the case in the United States. Bouncing between British and French dominion, and eventually developing a unique, hybrid and not altogether successful dual heritage, Canada is a prime example of what you get when you try to start imposing a specific laundry list of heritage-based characteristics upon a contested, post-colonial landscape.

The United States has not been immune to similar attempts. From colonial times well through the nineteenth century (and among some benighted people, into the twentieth), quotations about an Anglo empire coursing its way West abound. To our likely good fortune, however, despite attempts to impose a universal heritage, from the start the lands that would become the United States have been too diversely populated to make this truly stick. As a result, we do not have an official language. Neither do we have an official religion. And we definitely cannot refer to the United States as English, or French, or anything else specific in its heritage.

We would do well to remember this as we face the complicated questions of the present regarding immigration, multiculturalism, and the other continuing growing pains that characterize our national dialogue. These are the growing pains that have plagued us since the start--and, in the end, have given us some of our very greatest gifts. Many along the way would have preferred otherwise. The sad stories of nativist immigration restriction and racism are ample proof that darker tendencies have sometimes gained ascendancy. However: in the end, we are a nation that has come to terms with a multinational heritage.

The thing about a multinational heritage in a New World country, characterized from the beginning by immigration, is that the nature of this multinationalism will necessarily change and develop over time. It is a legacy worth remembering, and building upon, as we move forward into the future.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Black Gold. Texas Tea...

Lucas Gusher at Spindletop, near Beaumont, East Texas, in 1901:

Oil blew 150 feet into the air at a rate of 100,000 gallons a day for nine days, until the oil was controlled. And this stuff was not collecting in a catch basin.

Oil has created wealth. John D. Rockefeller might have been a miserly old dude with monopolistic tendencies, but his oil empire also developed the wealth that has powered the Rockefeller Foundation and its manifold good deeds over the years. To take one example, the biomedical research facility founded by John D., Jr. that would become Rockefeller University has developed a cure for meningitis, made tremendous advances in public health, discovered ways to preserve whole blood and pioneered cell biology, among many other important achievements.

Oil has brought with it important technological developments. Mechanization through means other than steam or water power has been a ticket to prosperity in far-flung regions and allowed us to transport goods over wide distances. (It also brought us suburbs, but that's another story.)

Still: what a dirty, dirty way to run the world. Here's hoping we can find something better. Soon.

Photo: Wikipedia.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Politics of Appearance

An interesting article here on The Atlantic Web site about beauty standards for women, Elena Kagan, Sarah Palin, etc. Worth a read. I was especially struck, however, by a comment made by a reader who asked when we have last elected someone who looked like William Howard Taft:

A very interesting point. Many scholars (including, in some respects, myself) have argued that Kennedy was the first president to successfully run on a politics of image. This is not to suggest that image and physical features did not color politics before the television age; James Madison was mercilessly heckled for his diminutive stature, and there is a reason why we have the term "Napoleon complex." Still, there were significant advantages to an era when truly meaningful attributes could trump the irrelevant importance of physical attractiveness.

Individuals who listened to radio broadcasts of the first presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960 believed Nixon won, hands-down. Those who watched it on television preferred the well-coifed Democrat over the recently ill, underweight Nixon by a large margin. Leaving Nixon's future escapades aside, and regardless of one's opinion of Kennedy's actions as president, this seems an early indication of something going horribly wrong.

As humans, we are always going to make imperfect judgments, and our opinions will change over time. It bears repeating, however, that the physical attributes we laud now will change dramatically over the centuries:

Woman With a Mirror, c. 1640, Peter Paul Rubens

Seems a lot more sensible to do our thinking through our ears, so to speak, and judge based upon the content of candidates' arguments.

Taft image from Wikipedia Commons. Rubens image from

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

We still haven't made it to "the content of our character"

Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts published a moving column yesterday describing how race continues to color our perceptions of ourselves and each other. It is well worth a read. We still have so far to go...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Paul, King and Civil Rights

Rand Paul has had some controversial things to say about the Civil Rights Act of 1964... as this link from The Atlantic to an interview with Rachel Maddow indicates. He appears to be casting himself in the pattern of the late Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, who famously opposed the clause of the Act dealing with private businesses on constitutional grounds even though he avowed himself opposed to segregation (and, indeed, did work in Arizona to break down racial barriers in a number of discrete instances).

Paul does not come off very good here overall (neither does Maddow when she refers to sit-ins at "Walgreens lunch counters," but that's another story). Sure, you can make a philosophical argument about private property rights, but the historical reality of Jim Crow America was, in a word, depraved. It was also systematized. These were not individual decisions, made by individual citizens. (Most of whom, for the sake of reference, were Democrats; the long and terrible history of race in America is by now a blot on both parties.)

One statement that particularly troubled me, however, was Paul's reference to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as being concerned exclusively with laws and changing the legal framework of the South. Yes, King was very concerned--even centrally concerned, in many phases of his work--with eliminating de jure, or legal, segregation. But at no point did he ever lose sight of the overwhelming significance of hearts and minds in the battle for equality of opportunity in the United States. He spoke of love; peace; justice (not just legalism, but justice). He was a Christian, speaking of the radical redemptive power of faith and the topsy-turvy reordering of society that Jesus told his followers to undertake. Toward the end of his life he moved increasingly into a realm of concern over issues of poverty and the ways race and class intersected outside the land of Jim Crow--de facto segregation, which was no less real and often more difficult to eliminate, residing as it did in custom and practice, rather than in books of law.

King was no legalist. And when it comes to human rights, neither should any of us be.

Amber Waves of Grain

Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on this day in 1862. This legislation enabled free citizens and immigrants intending to become citizens--male and female--to lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed, unsettled territory in the public domain and earn their way to land ownership for the price of 5 years' labor, "improvement" to the property and a $10 filing fee.

Prior to this date, land acquisition had been based upon the Land Ordinance Act of 1785, which opened the western public domain to settlers for a per-acre price with minimum purchase requirements. Citizens complained that this policy favored speculators who drove up land prices, and over the course of the first half of the 1800s, minimum acreage requirements and per-acre costs were lowered by Congress a number of times. "Squatting"--laying claim to open, unsurveyed land, improving it and then claiming ownership by virtue of the "improvements" that had been made -- was legalized via the Log Cabin Bill of 1841, which granted rights of "preemption" whereby squatters could buy their land at a minimum price once such lands were surveyed and opened to settlement.

Why 1862? The Homestead Bill (before it was passed) was a topic of much contention between North and South. Northeastern industrialists attempted to win the support of westerners by supporting homestead legislation. The economic interests of North and South were often at odds, as the industrializing Northeast benefited from high tariffs while the South wanted minimal barriers to the transatlantic trade that sustained its cotton economy. The Republican Party grew to see small, independent landholders as a bulwark against the expansion of slavery. When the South was away from the Union, the North could play, politically speaking.

"Free land" had enormous rhetorical import, and between 1862 and 1935, when the homestead era officially ended, over 400,000 families received farms through the Act. Given that the surveying process continued to rely upon original, eighteenth century provisions, the western landscape was carved into 6-by-6 mile squares to be subdivided into smaller acreage -- regardless of natural features that might stand in the way. This is a major reason why flights over the middle of the United States reveal a patchwork quilt of squares where farm and settlement boundaries continue to follow these lines.

The impact of the Homestead Act on Native Americans was devastating, ultimately culminating in the Dawes Allotment Act of 1888. This act, an outstanding example of government paternalism and thinly veiled greed, eliminated remaining reservations and allocated individual parcels of acreage to certified tribal members. Remaining land was turned over to the public domain for white settlement, and Native traditions of joint custodianship of the land were ignored.

In reality, many western settlers continued to take up claims under the Log Cabin Act rather than the Homestead Act because they opted not to wait for land to be officially surveyed. Large parcels of land along railroad lines were kept out of the public domain, often going to the railroad companies themselves and spurring a new source of grievance among western settlers. Some unsavory characters manipulated the law, erecting pitiful tarpaper shacks as "improvements" and snapping up considerable swaths of land. Finally, much of the western landscape was simply not sufficiently hospitable to support agriculture intensive enough to make a 160-acre farm practical. (Later in the century, minimum land allotments were enlarged in some more arid regions of the west.) Forty-nine percent of registrants failed to "prove up" their claims.

Onward the course of history makes its march. Far western settlement was already happening, long before the Homestead Act became law. As I sit here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon I am sitting in country first prized for its agricultural bounty in the 1830s. California, too, saw early settlement both for its fertility and for its mineral wealth. Between us and the East, however, are thousands upon thousands of square miles of territory that owe their landscape, their political, economic and social history and even many of their contemporary problems to the Homestead Act, the Log Cabin Act and related legislation.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


I noticed in the paper this morning that Arizona's governor signed into law a new piece of legislation... banning ethnic studies classes in schools.

I have expressed my frustration with the principle of "history months" previously; I feel we should be working toward a more inclusive history that does not consign our recognition of the diversity in our society to specific days or weeks or months. However, I also acknowledged at the time that until we can truly accomplish this, "months" and other attempts to rectify our failure to acknowledge the roles all citizens have played in the story of the United States remain very necessary.

It is a bitter irony that the very lack of historical perspective that has helped lead to decisions like the recent immigration statute (see my April 28 post) has now been codified in Arizona law.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Budget Idol

House Republicans have launched a new project called "You Cut" that lets citizens rank which federal programs they feel should be trimmed in an effort to cut federal spending. Each week, the members of the House Economic Recovery Working Group will post five spending targets, then collect votes online or by cell phone (because imitating "American Idol" is clearly the best approach for fomenting enlightened democracy). They will then attempt to force Congress to eliminate the target that received the most votes the following week.

Problems I see with this:

1) Who chooses the programs? (Corollary: guess whose pet programs will never make it onto that list of five?)

2) There is no way this would ever reveal the reviews of a representative selection of the electorate.

3) I'm not an expert on public policy. How many of those voting will be?


This is, no doubt, largely an election-year gimmick. It draws upon some interesting questions, though, from a historical perspective. Small-government conservatives tend to draw upon a legacy of fealty to the Founding Fathers and their putative Constitutional intentions. The Founding Fathers were extremely preoccupied with the concept of enlightened representation. They did NOT trust in the ability of the common people to make decision in the best interests of the nation as a whole. That is why they originally instated property requirements for voting. That is why the House of Representatives was the only directly-elected national institution. The Senate was chosen by state legislatures, providing a layer of insulation from the craven impulses of the rabble. The Electoral College performed a similar service.

Since then, we have determined that even the "enlightened" are not always that enlightened, and in the early twentieth century Progressive movement citizens mobilized to change, for example, the way the Senate is elected, removing the undue influence of what turned out to be some pretty corrupt state legislatures. Accountability to the people was the catch phrase of the day. Oregon was a particular leader in this movement, as adept political organizing by reformers like William Simon U'Ren and the spectacularly corrupt example of politicians like Senator John Mitchell (see old posts for more information on him) resulted in the development of the "Oregon System," a set of political institutions that includes, among other things, the referendum. Which was meant to forestall corruption by giving everyday people a voice in their government. Unfortunately, U'Ren, et. al. did not foresee the development of special interest organizations who could in turn corrupt their reforms. Oops.

In short, the Founding Fathers to whom these House Republicans no doubt appeal on a regular basis would be absolutely mortified by "You Cut." Second, the reforming efforts that have led Americans to appeal to everyday citizens have themselves proven less than ideal. This does not mean ordinary citizens cannot play a thoughtful and important role in government; it does mean, however, that citizen involvement is NOT in itself a path to better government.

There is a reason why people study policy questions for years. We may not always agree with their policy prescriptions, but doesn't it make a lot more sense to work toward a better enlightened discussion than to abandon all claims to informed debate? An up-or-down vote on a (no doubt not truly random) list of five programs is nothing more than the governmental equivalent of a Facebook quiz. Our representatives owe us more than that. The Founders were wrong about the capacity of citizens from all walks of life to play a role in the governmental process, but they were absolutely right to fear uninformed decision-making by the government.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Brown? Cameron? Clegg?

My good buddy from college, Eric Ruthford, reminded me the other day of the good old days at Pacific Lutheran University when we sat around the Mooring Mast (student newspaper) office and discussed things like international politics and the virtues of different systems of representation. Yes, we were history and politics geeks. No, I am not at all repentant. And yes, the smell of melting wax for pasting up pages -- we were old school -- will always make me feel nostalgic.

Anyway... owing in part to the fact that PLU had a fabulous Welsh political science professor, British politics were a particular interest of mine. This makes the results of the UK's recent parliamentary election all the more interesting. The election has resulted in a "hung Parliament," when neither of the two big kahuna political parties, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, has won a majority. This result has placed a minority party, the Liberal Democratic Party, into a position where it could swing the rule of government to either party.

Such an outcome is especially important in a country like Britain, where control of Parliament means remarkably complete control over the nation's agenda. While the country does have an independent judiciary, there is no constitutional check-and-balance between an executive branch and the legislature. While theoretically speaking the Queen is in control of the executive, over the legislature, the likelihood of her actually vetoing Parliament's political program is about as likely as the bottom team in the Zamaretto Division One South & West making it into the Champions League (a little 'football' humor there to be regionally appropriate). This power that Parliament wields is one reason why we in the United States have a political system involving so many checks and balances.

One of the byproducts of this hung Parliament is that longtime calls for electoral reform are becoming more prominent. Minority parties, most notably the Liberal Democrats, want to see Britain alter its traditional "first past the post" system of representation to incorporate proportional representation. At present, each (not very large) constituency votes by selecting its MP (Member of Parliament) of preference. If you like Labour, you check the box of the Labour Party candidate. Votes are then tallied, and the winner from each constituency wins that seat. Those winners make up Parliament.

This system irritates parties like the Liberal Democrats, because it means that even if, say, 40 percent of each constituency votes for their candidates, they still might win very little in the way of representation. Forty percent of the country could vote Liberal Democrat, but if Liberal Democratic candidates were second choice in each constituency, none of them would actually be elected. Forty percent of the nation's opinion, then, would be disregarded.

The problem? Alternative solutions can get remarkably complicated. The BBC has put together a very concise series of explanations of the different systems possible, many of which are already in use in different regional governments or elsewhere in the Commonwealth. I won't attempt to explain here what will inevitably be done much better there.

The political system of the United States is an interesting hybrid of "first past the post" and more proportional forms of representation. In the House of Representatives, we follow a system fairly akin to that of Britain. For Senate seats, our voting is proportional on a state-by-state basis, although it still does not wind up truly proportional on a national level. And our votes for President? Proportional by elector--a very important distinction. We vote for electors, and in most cases these are all-or-nothing by state. As a result, the popular vote can differ substantially from the electoral vote. The resulting framework, however, does give us a series of checks and balances that differs from the British system.

It will be interesting to observe the system Britain's political leaders devise for turning this "hung Parliament" into a workable system. One possible result, of course, is a completely unworkable outcome that necessitates a new election. (One more fun fact: British elections happen when British politicians think they should, not on a systematic schedule as in the United States.) Here in the United States, we are much more used to a system where politicians from different parties need to come to some sort of agreement to move legislation forward. Our recent, polarized political climate could be considered an aberration from the past (more on that later, perhaps). The UK might find itself needing to move toward a system where single parties no longer hold sway over the legislative agenda of the country. The results of this could be mixed. Would a system of compromise make individual parties less likely to take ownership of a legislative agenda? Could it become easier to displace credit for actions and decisions? Or will the need to compromise lead to greater cooperation? Important questions to consider.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A bit more on the quirky twists and turns of monarchy:

I was just scanning though one of those lists of historical events that happened "on this day" and noted that among other notable events (The Mamas and The Papas' "Monday, Monday" hit #1 [1966]; Kraft Television Theater premiered on NBC [1947]), this is an important day for Greece. Greece became an independent country on this day in 1832, crowning a new king... Otto of Bavaria.

Yes, Bavaria. After all, nothing says "Greek" like lederhosen and perky polka music.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


I am guessing most Americans have absolutely no idea why they are celebrating Cinco de Mayo today. I am not being judgmental; there is no good reason why they should, given that it isn't something we have traditionally covered in school. Obviously, any excuse to eat guacamole is a good one, but in honor of the actual observance (hint: it has nothing to do with Corona), here is some historical background on a very interesting episode in Mexican history.

In the mid-1800s, France (yes, France... I'll get to the New World in a minute) was ruled by the monarch Napoleon III, who was the nephew of the original Napoleon. France wanted to expand its influence in Latin America, going so far as to actually coin the term "Latin America" in an effort to make it seem more natural that France (a Latin country) should be involved in the region. Meanwhile, Mexico itself was in its fourth decade of independence from Spain and embroiled in a civil war between liberal reformers and conservatives. In 1858, the liberals retook control of the capital, but meanwhile all this fighting had bankrupted the Mexican government. Liberal leader Benito Juárez suspended Mexico's foreign debt payments, and in retaliation France, Spain and Britain collectively occupied the vital port city of Veracruz. (Note this is the rare episode since the 1840s when the United States was not actually involved; refreshing. There was, however, a significant reason; more on that soon.)

Mexican conservatives were searching desperately for a way to overcome the liberals, and they turned to the idea of a monarch. This desire neatly dovetailed with Napoleon III's interest in imperial expansion, and he generously offered them a potential candidate: Maximilian, a member of the Hapsburg dynasty with the best of intentions for Mexico. Conservatives convinced him that yes, Mexicans really did want an Austrian emperor. France duly invaded Mexico in 1862.

The French faced significant opposition, and one of the most notable episodes is the event that gives us Cinco de Mayo. France was utterly convinced that it could walk all over the Mexican army with few obstacles. In a wonderfully misguided demonstration of the racial consciousness that characterized European thought in the 19th century, the French commander wrote to his minister of war on April 25: "We are so superior to the Mexicans in race, organization, morality, and devoted sentiments that I beg your excellency to inform the Emperor that as the head of 6,000 soldiers I am already master of Mexico." Meanwhile, the Mexicans had dug in at the city of Puebla, and on May 5, 1862, battle commenced -- resulting in a thorough defeat of the French army, which hightailed it back to Veracruz in shambles.

Unfortunately for the Mexicans, a glorious triumph in one battle did not end the war. In 1864, France succeeded in installing Maximilian on the Mexican throne (not that it exactly had one, given that it was originally established as a constitutional republic). Maximilian attempted to draw upon Mexican nationalist symbols, with very little success (duh). Meanwhile -- you knew we couldn't stay uninvolved for long -- the United States allied with Benito Juárez. France had clearly violated the Monroe Doctrine (hands off the Americas). We were a little busy in the early 1860s with our own Civil War, but when the war ended in 1865 our attention turned southward. Napoleon III decided to withdraw his own military forces from what had become a costly quagmire, and while Maximilian stayed in Mexico, he was quickly rounded up and executed. Loyal to his adopted country to the end, the poor guy is said to have uttered "Viva Mexico!" as he faced the firing squad.

References: John Charles Chasteen, Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America (Norton, 2006); Michael C. Meyer and William H. Beezley, ed., The Oxford History of Mexico (Oxford, 2000) [quote is taken from the latter, p. 381].

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Human Quantification and its Discontents

The New York Times posted a profile yesterday of a woman who was fired by her employers, allegedly because of her genetic history. She learned that she had a genetic marker for breast cancer. Given her family history, she decided to have a preventive double mastectomy. She informed her employer of her intentions, believing she enjoyed a good relationship with her supervisor. Following her surgery, she found her duties lessened and eventually she was terminated from her position as director of public relations for an energy company. Her performance on the job had previously been considered exemplary.

These are allegations; the case has not yet proceeded to trial. The woman in question formally filed her complaint this week with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As the Times points out, however, it does raise serious questions about how we as a society will use genetic information. Will cases such as this lead people to forgo genetic testing in fear their employers will find out? Will genetic information eventually become an accepted part of the stable of data we use to quantify ourselves and our worth in society?

The scientific progress geneticists have made ensures that this is a different debate from those of the past. We have more and better information; more and better science. Even so, the controversial public policy questions that arise from the advance of genetic technology should be tempered with a strong understanding of the history behind evaluations of humanity in the United States (and, indeed, in the West as a whole).

American history is littered with false assumptions about human biological capacity based upon inaccurate information, blatant racial prejudice and errant application of principles from one branch of science to another. We have categorized "races" baced upon the shape of human skulls and placed them into a hierarchy of human capacity. We have argued that people from different parts of the world, and even different parts of Europe, have different innate characteristics that inexorably lead to different destinies. This is the "logic" that underlay the immigration debate of the early 1900s and highly restrictive legislation passed in 1921 and 1924 that established quotas on immigration from various countries. Immigration from southern and eastern Europe, for example, was choked off almost entirely because it was argued that individuals from these parts of the world were inherently less ambitious and less talented, more inclined toward dissipation and destined to remain in urban slums for generations. In some circles, we enthusiastically applied Darwin's evolutionary principle to human society, arguing for "survival of the fittest" as a tidy excuse to dismiss those with fewer opportunities and resources as inherently less fit to succeed.

Not pretty.

So... we had better be extremely careful how we use this new trove of genetic information. It is very important data; while arguments can be made about the propriety of too much preventive surgery, the woman above may well have saved her life through her procedure. (Part of the irony of the case is that she was actually less likely to experience medical problems following the surgery, yet she was still--again, allegedly--fired.) The genetic advances we have made will, I pray, lead us toward new treatments that will eradicate disease and help us lead healthier lives. A lot of human grief and trauma may be prevented by the knowledge this genetic data brings, and that will be a wonderful thing.

When it comes to human capacity, however, it is important to remember two things. First, science brings new understanding with every generation, and the assumptions we make now may be regarded as grossly inept and even prejudiced a few decades down the line. Caution should govern our every move, mindful of the mistakes we have made in the past.

Second: some of the most highly regarded individuals in our history have suffered from serious medical problems. Franklin Roosevelt was a polio survivor, paralyzed from the waist down -- and regardless of one's personal opinion of his policies, it can hardly be denied that he occupied an incredibly strenuous and stressful position for twelve years. John F. Kennedy was in serious medical pain through most of his presidency, yet he kept us from nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Stephen Hawking, one of the most publicly prominent scientists of our time, suffers from ALS so severe he speaks through a computer synthesizer.

In short, genetic perfection is NOT a prerequisite for greatness. We would do well to remember the complexity of human life and the human spirit.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Land and Citizenship

National borders; aren't they fun? I dearly love the British Isles. The countryside is gorgeous, the centuries of history are awe-inspiring and the television is fabulous. That said, I have some grave reservations about the legacy left to the United States by British (and European) notions of land ownership and citizenship.

First, the more generally European problem: when Europeans arrived in the New World (also known as "home" to millions of Native peoples), they encountered societies that generally had no notion of land ownership. The idea that a human could personally own land was ludicrous. After all, nature and everything in it was a gift from the Creator. How could a person be so presumptuous as to lay personal claim to such a gift? Tribes might deem certain areas their territory of influence, but Mr. Powhatan Guy from Massachusetts Bay could no more own land than I could claim to own my own square foot of atmosphere.

Unfortunately, Europeans operated under a very different set of assumptions. For them, land could be owned, personally and privately, and in fact that was the primary point of most European powers and principalities. Conquer territory; claim it in the name of the monarch; extract all the resources--animal, vegetable and mineral--that could be found. Given these two fundamentally irreconcilable notions, Native peoples and Europeans could not make each other readily understand their intentions. Europeans believed Native peoples were "wasting" the land by failing to take ownership and mold it to their needs (although we now know that through methods like seasonal burning of the Great Plains and many other practices, Native peoples manipulated the landscape for their own needs in a communal fashion). If they managed to circumvent language barriers sufficient to ask Mr. Powhatan Guy who owned the land, of course Mr. Powhatan Guy would reply "nobody," probably in a tone of voice indicating European Dude had the mental capacity of a limpet. Unfortunately, European Dude's reply was, inevitably, "Great! I claim this in the name of King Whoever. Martha, let's set up shop!" And so the course of settlement progressed, helped along for the Europeans by their possession of guns and some very nasty virus strains.

The above was a tragedy founded upon fundamental differences between Native and European notions. The British, or those colonists that would become British following union of England and Scotland in 1707, brought an additional set of understandings to the New World that would forge colonies different from those developed by Spain and France. Spain and France were empires composed of diverse peoples. They were comfortable as societies with the idea that citizens could come from different geographic locations, with different regional traits. In short, the Spanish and French colonies were "cultures of inclusion." Citizenship was founded upon loyalty to the monarch. Therefore, a loyal resident of New Spain who was descended of Native blood could be just as much a citizen as a resident of Seville. This did not erase racial distinctions, but it did allow for fluidity of racial distinctions, intermarriage, and empires that could expand and absorb diverse peoples under a single king. This also meant that the Spanish and French did not deem it necessary to create densely settled populations--the local inhabitants could become citizens, under the administration of a small core of colonial administrators overseeing resource extraction and maintaining the peace.

Britain, on the other hand, was founded upon notions of citizenship that depended upon a strong core state. While Spain in particular had developed as a diverse collection of peoples from different places, Britain was an island. Invasions in the distant past had indeed introduced new blood--but the island had not been conquered since 1066. As well, English and then British citizens had laid claim to rights and representation over centuries, dating from the Magna Carta in 1215. Citizenship meant loyalty to the monarch, but it also encompassed an entire range of conceptions about the rights of the citizenry--and a presupposition of a certain ethnicity. As a result, British colonies were "cultures of exclusion." Outsiders were not allowed the rights of citizens, even if they were the original inhabitants of a given New World territory. As well, the British were in the New World to settle and establish colonies modeled upon the British model of a strong core society. They would not be content with far-flung, sparsely settled colonies geared toward resource extraction; they were establishing a New Britain for the New World.

The significance of all this talk about land, borders and citizenship is that it leads us to the situation in which we find ourselves today. Because European notions of land ownership "won," we talk about personal and national claims to territory. Because British notions of citizenship triumphed over those of the Spanish and French, we have a great deal of trouble conceptualizing a diverse state with diverse peoples. We tend toward imposing uniformity upon regions and different ethnic groups. We want to hold those borders firmly and hold our conceptions of citizenship in similarly firm fashion.

The problem? The American Southwest was a Spanish territory. For 250 years, the Spanish and then the independent (but Spanish influenced) country of Mexico laid claim to the part of the country that now comprises Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and parts of Colorado and other southwestern states. The Spanish imposed their European notions of land ownership, but they did not create dense settlements or substantially restrict their notions of citizenship. Since 1848, the United States has attempted to impose its own, British-influenced notions of land and citizenship, with substantial success. The deeper history of the region, however, continues to underlay these efforts.

Now, the passage of Arizona's SB 1070 exposes the continuing tensions in the American Southwest over the diverse populations that call the larger, transnational region home. Clearly illegal immigration is a serious problem, because a movement in the shadows and outside the law becomes an avenue for exploitation, smuggling and other illegal activities. We cannot erase the past century and a half of history that has brought us to this point. An enlightened understanding of the traditions that come into play, however, could help to inform the debate. We need a solution that will avoid casting aspersions upon an entire ethnic population; as well, we need a solution that will acknowledge the history of diverse settlement and porous borders that characterized this region historically. We also need to address the problems that drive Mexicans out of their own country and into the United States in search of opportunity. The United States bears no small degree of responsibility for some of Mexico's most persistent problems--but that is a topic for another day.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

_ _ _ _ _ . _ . . . . .

Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, was born on this day in 1791. The father of long-distance communication networks sent his first electric currents through a wire across New York Harbor in 1842, meaning that less than 90 years before near-instant communication sent banks across the country into the panics of the late 1920s and early 1930s, humans remained unable to communicate across long distances without days or even weeks of hard traveling.

The first public message (from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan) was sent across the Transatlantic Cable on August 16, 1858. (See the American Experience Web site for more information about the construction of the Transatlantic Cable.) This first cable went dead not long after, and a reliable cable was not actually completed until 1866, by which time the advantages of such communication were very apparent. Confusion over the transport of two Confederate diplomats by a British steamer, for example, nearly brought the United States and Britain to war--a misunderstanding which Secretary of State William Seward claimed could easily have been remedied by a few messages over an operational cable. As well, advocates could point to historical events such as the Battle of New Orleans, the United States' greatest triumph during the War of 1812... and a completely irrelevant conflict, having taken place after the peace treaty between the U.S. and Britain was signed (but before ships arrived to tell anyone).

Today, we face a 24-hour news cycle, instant communication through tools the size of our palms and resultant information overload. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? How do we prevent panic from overtaking reason when crisis strikes? How do we absorb and analyze the data continuously entering our streams of consciousness and articulate reasonable solutions?

Morse opened wonderful new doors; he also planted seeds that have expanded into some serious questions. (Also, his code provided the foundations of the theme song for "Inspector Morse"... no small triumph.) The manner in which we address these questions will impact the future of American (and, indeed, world) society.