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.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Anchors Aweigh

I admit to a degree of preoccupation with the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano that has been spewing its ash all over European airspace, primarily because I'm planning a trip to Ireland this summer. That said, I was struck as I contemplated the alternatives to transatlantic flight--namely, ocean-going liners--by the fact that before the jet age, people took DAYS to cross the Atlantic! Granted, if you were an immigrant traveling in steerage class this would be a dubious honor, but for those lucky ones who were traveling with some degree of comfort and in relatively calm seas, you would be FORCED to enjoy day after day of leisure time! No satellite communications! No Internet access! Only a bit of telegraphy between you and the shores on either side!

Leaving aside the myriad advantages of airline travel (democratization of opportunity, ease of access, speed), the idea of several days' enforced leisure time sounds verrrry nice. Funny how we've spent centuries eagerly accelerating the speed of human life, only to long for the days when we had time to catch our mental, physical and spiritual breath.

In homage to the halcyon days of the ocean liner, a few fun facts about the Queen Mary, launched in 1934 and retired in 1967:
* overall length: 1,019.5 ft.
* passenger capacity: 1,957
* officers and crew: 1,174
* number of portholes: over 2,000
* weight of each anchor (there were 2): 16 tons
* height of each anchor: 18 feet
* weight of anchor chain: 45 tons
* weight of a single 2-foot link (can you tell I'm fascinated?): 224 pounds
* fuel consumption: 13 ft./gal. (!)
* crossing time on maiden voyage: 5 days, 5 hours and 13 minutes
* all-time greatest number of individuals on an ocean-going vessel (a 1943 transatlantic crossing while in wartime military service): 15,740 troops, 943 crew

Sources:;; (photo)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hoover Wuz Here

I'm sitting here in the front window of a coffee shop in Newberg this morning (wave if you pass), contemplating the ways in which our lives--and history--are changed by both the decisions we make and the events that overtake us without much agency on our part. My personal journey to a coffee shop in Newberg has been one marked by the difficult decisions that come in the life of any academic about balancing family, profession, values and the many other variables that can be devilishly hard to bring into alignment. These are the decisions made with agency, even though the seemingly irreconcilable conflicts they bring can feel like they are acting upon a person rather than coming as a result of actions taken.

Newberg's a good place for contemplating events without agency, however, because it is, as boosters endlessly trumpet, Where Herbert Hoover Lived For A While As A Kid! See the Hoover-Minthorn House! View the Hoover Academic Center on George Fox University's campus -- Pacific Academy in the good ol' days when Hoover himself was a secondary school student there. And if there was ever a public figure who's been put through the wringer as a result of actions initially outside his control, it would be everyone's favorite Quaker ex-president (bearing in mind that his competition has been, well, Richard Nixon).

We have endlessly debated the extent to which the actions taken by the Hoover Administration impacted (or not, as the case may be), the course of the Great Depression. Following the crash of the American stock market in October 1929, Hoover was famously slow to recognize the full impact of the nation's growing economic gloom, and statements about firm financial footings and imminent recovery will haunt him on into eternity. We can trace the origins of the Depression far back beyond October 1929 to the farm crisis that plagued much of the nation throughout the 1920s. However, whatever Hoover's culpability, or lack thereof, for events following the nation's 1929 wake-up call, it is safe to say that he did not single-handedly cause a decade-long financial calamity with roots extending far before his election to the presidency in 1928.

As scholars including Alison Greene (who gave a nice talk at the Organization of Annual Historians annual meeting in Washington, D.C. on April 8) have illustrated, many Americans at the time were convinced the dreadful financial calamity and drought conditions of the late 1920s and early 1930s were evidence that the end of the world was nigh. Our current confluence of economic crisis and natural disasters has me pondering the extent to which the patterns of the 1930s might repeat themselves.

The economic problems we face presently can be traced, as with the 1930s, to poor decisions coming from many different sources. The environmental problems of the 1930s can be traced, as well, to the combination of human error -- drastic over-exploitation of fragile Prairie topsoil -- and the inevitable, cyclical nature of annual rainfall patterns in the Midwest. Now, we face a host of natural events with disastrous consequences amplified by human actions. The effects of the tragic earthquake in Haiti, and of others in places like Tibet, have been amplified by poor construction practices brought on by poverty, corruption and all the many and varied problems that result when people try to exercise dominion over others. (Conversely, the Chilean earthquake, while also tragic, came to a far more prepared part of the world -- with far less loss of life as a result.) The effects of the Icelandic volcano that just won't stop erupting already, for crying out loud, are amplified by our creation of a global society with what we are discovering is overwhelming reliance on one form of technology. (Not to say global society is a bad thing; just that we are discovering a new and perplexing complication.)

Just as Hoover was not the cause of the Great Depression, Barack Obama has certainly not been the cause of our current woes. Scholars are increasingly discovering that despite unfortunate public relations skills and significant missteps, Hoover was not the pathetic excuse of an Oval Office seat-warmer that national opinion characterized him as being by 1932. I would also point out that the world did not, in fact, end in the early 1930s. Obama has some very difficult decisions to make between now and 2012. Once again, we are living in a world where the president is dealing with fall-out from events over which he did not have agency. His track record in dealing with these problems thus far has not been perfect (if anyone finds a perfect national leader, please do let me know... it would be a real coup for the shelves at Borders). It might, however, be worth taking a step back and contemplating the complexity of the world in which we live. If our current situation is no one person's fault, the solution will probably not be orchestrated by one person's brilliance. Unless we want years of disaster, we might want to start coming up with some joint efforts.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Notes from the District: #4

Newspapers around the country will have reported this morning on yesterday's Tax Day protests, which, while (mercifully) smaller than Tea Party-related demonstrations last summer, still totaled hundreds of demonstrations across the country. Tax policy is controversial because people disagree about what government should fund. That is legitimate, even if I strongly disagree with many of the priorities and arguments Tax Party activists advocate. However: I was struck, once again, by the blindness that characterizes some of these protesters' understanding of the past, even as they call upon the "Founders" and upon history to bolster their arguments.

Outside the stereotypically lefty-loony Portland metro area, bless 'em, Oregonians tend to have a strong libertarian streak. How strong, I did not fully appreciate until I moved outside the cozy confines of Multnomah County. (Sigh.) Therefore, we do tax protests with panache... and, in the case of one woman interviewed in today's issue of the Oregonian, Confederate-themed sportswear. Her comment came as an aside in the reporter's description of a crowd of about 1,000 protesters in front of the Oregon State Capitol Building in Salem. The assembled throng waved flags, including the "Don't Tread on Me" of revolutionary lore... and one woman "came dressed in a Confederate flag vest." Asked if she didn't consider it a tad offensive, she replied "Oh, I hope not" -- words that seemed to indicate surprise that anyone could possibly have come up with that idea in the first place.

On one level, it is understandable that Confederate symbols would be used in a protest movement. The Confederate States were, after all, the ultimate rebels against federal authority. But, and this is a very big but, they were rebelling to support their institution of slavery. Chattel slavery. The ultimate form of human oppression. Secession had NOTHING to do with tax policy (although they weren't big on the taxes of the day, seeing as how most taxes were tariffs designed to protect northern industries and could hurt raw materials exports). If political conservatives fail to see why they do not attract more African American support, they might start here.

The unthinking adoption of Confederate regalia is just one sign of the historical myopia that characterizes so much of American political protest. These people claim to be fighting for freedom and liberty -- fighting for their rights as citizens. They would do well to remember that the abrogation of rights symbolized in that Confederate flag is something we are still fighting to eliminate 150 years on.

I had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History for a couple hours while I was in Washington, D.C., and viewed one of the newest additions to the museum's collection:

These four stools supported the North Carolina A & T students who decided, one day in the winter of 1960, that they were no longer able to suffer their position as second-class citizens in this "free" country of ours. They sat for weeks at the Woolworth's counter in Greensboro, enduring physical and verbal assaults and a veritable avalanche of condiments. (I must admit that my first thought upon seeing them was "man, someone had to scrub a long time to get those seats clean.") They eventually won their battle -- one of many that have characterized the long history of the civil rights movement before and since. Their protest was nonviolent, it was just, and it brought to national attention the legacy of Jim Crow that sprang from the years following the end of Reconstruction.

The Confederacy was not a "Lost Cause" -- it was the wrong cause. That does not make southerners evil. Some of my own ancestors were secessionists. But it does NOT symbolize a legacy that we should find instructive today, regardless of our political affiliation.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Notes from the District: #3

I am fascinated by the relativity of our relationship to history and historical relevance. Out here in the Far West, we consider a building constructed in the early 1900s to be "historical." We engage in "preservation" efforts to save structures less than one hundred years old. This is a good thing; after all, if we want them to survive to be authentically ancient, we need to keep from mowing them down willy-nilly in the meantime. By way of contrast, however, when touring a castle in Ireland a few years back the docent commented that a hall in which we stood was a "modern restoration." By "modern" she meant 1863.

On a related note, that which I hold in reverence is another person's everyday life, and vice versa. I realize that I can become quite lackadaisical about my regular views of the dramatic, snow-capped peaks of the Cascades. People come clear across the country to see them, and for me, they are and have always been the backdrop of my existence. However, I am quite awed by the opportunity to view the White House. This is, for me, a truly unusual and inspiring sight. For the residents of Washington, D.C., however, I was amused to note that a Pennsylvania Avenue closed to vehicle traffic for security reasons is... a very good opportunity for a game of street hockey.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Notes from the District: #2

Construction of the World War II Memorial at the base of the Mall reflecting pool was a controversial decision. Sentimental fool that I am, however, now that it's built I find it particularly affecting because it is one of the few monuments (the Vietnam Wall being another) where living memory confronts enduring memorial. The stone pillars representing the states and territories still mean something beyond an abstract representation. Iowa, California, Oregon... and suddenly I'm not seeing "memorial." I'm seeing Uncle Cy and Papa, Uncle Erling and Uncle Bernard. And I know that is writ a hundred times over among the assembled tourists -- not as raw, of course, as with the agony memorialized in the Vietnam Wall, but specific and personal all the same.

The American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees the World War II Memorial, has undertaken a project to register all those who served in World War II, both in the military and, in a move I find particularly appealing, on the home front. Register the veteran(s) and war workers in your family:

This, on the other hand, is just an especially well-placed duck:

Monday, April 12, 2010

Notes from the District: #1

I've been in Washington, D.C. the past few days for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. I had the opportunity to explore Washington and take photographs between and after sessions. Now I'm back in the Far West, with access to my computer.

Given the nature of the conference and my own concentration upon twentieth century political history and conservatism, Virginia's "Confederate History Month" and the Commonwealth governor's historically (and, one can only hope, politically) inept comments on the subject were much-discussed topics. I've already shared my views on "months" in general, although I do respect the need to bring sidelined topics and histories to special view in a world that does not always acknowledge them as it should. (I'm not convinced Confederate history is one of these sidelined topics, given Americans' continuing fascination with all things Civil War and our persistently romantic caricature of the "Lost Cause.")

Sure, many factors contributed to the Civil War -- but traced to their roots, most of them came back to the persistent question of slavery. And yes, Abraham Lincoln was not a saint. His racial views, while advanced beyond many of his time, were not nearly as enlightened as I would prefer. That does not erase the magnitude of the process he put into action.

Last Thursday afternoon I stood in the Lincoln Memorial, marveling once again at the power imparted by the president's seated figure and the strength of his hands resting on the arms of his chair. There is a coiled tension in the sculpture that could not be replicated by a standing profile. Amidst of the bustle of Cherry Blossom Festival traffic, two of the cutest little boys I have ever seen, neatly dressed in coordinating plaid shirts, posed at the base of the statue for a photograph. They happened to be African American.

I have no idea of their heritage. They could be descended from free blacks living in the North for centuries. Their grandparents might have migrated to the United States from a Caribbean nation in the past few decades. Or, of course, they could be the descendants of slaves. Whatever their story, these beautiful children are living in a world of possibilities created by people like the man profiled in that immense marble statue. We do not yet live in a world of justice -- but how far we have come, building upon the decisions and actions of imperfect people, working in imperfect circumstances, using imperfect ideas.

Abraham Lincoln grappled with the problems of his time and took actions that led to change. Perhaps it would have been impossible by 1860 to continue to paper over the differences that divided North and South, ignoring reality the way Virginia's governor attempted to do just last week. Regardless, Lincoln chose not to attempt such an action. He faced the looming crisis, and out of turmoil, bloodshed, and 150 years of struggle have come two little boys with radiant smiles and opportunities that extend to the presidency.

For that, Abe, I salute you.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Maybe I like modern life after all

I'm reading Little House on the Prairie with my four-year-old at present, and today's chapter included one of the many instances throughout these books of Laura's mother dialing her in for a manners-related infraction. This time it was singing about a "Dickie-Bird" while eating her breakfast. Tsk, tsk.

Etiquette codes of the past could certainly be far more stringent than our own. If I were to reprimand the kid for every outburst of song over the course of the meal, I would be a very busy woman indeed. However, as Steven Mintz points out in this interesting overview of manners and private life in days of yore, my expectations in other respects are far more advanced than anything mothers required prior to the Victorian era. My favorites are the comments made by Erasmus. Ew.

In a related realm: this particular Little House chapter also dealt with laundry. Caroline (the mother) blithely scrubs and scours the bedding, underthings and dresses and lays them out in the prairie sun, where they are sun-dried and ready for folding by lunchtime. Hmm. Kudos to Mrs. Ingalls for her skills. This page provides a fuller image of what housework was like for a woman (and we would have been the ones doing it all) in 19th century America.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Charlotte's Web of Financial Troubles

This morning, NPR ran a story about the financial woes of Charlotte, NC, the longtime pinnacle of the "New South" ideal... and a city experiencing some pretty serious economic troubles right about now. On a certain level, of course, so are we all, but Charlotte is particularly hard hit because it based so much of its economy upon continued growth in the banking and financial services sectors. One quotation from the county budget director struck me as especially poignant: "We cannot afford the government that we have. We cannot afford the services that we have. The tax base isn't there." The story discussed how social services, schools, libraries, and so on may have to significantly curtail their services--in a city where unemployment has risen from 4.5 to almost 13 percent in the past three years.

The "New South" developed in the decades following World War II as regional boosters attempted to move beyond magnolia-tinged stereotypes and promote the economic development of the entire region. States emphasized their favorable business tax climates and longtime opposition to union power. The pages of magazines like U.S. News and World Report were peppered in the 1950s and 1960s with advertisements touting these attributes and placed by state development commissions. Viable air conditioning technology made the South a more pleasant place to live (and forge economic enterprises) year-round. Enthusiastic natives and a growing population of regional transplants minimized the stresses of the desegregation movement and attempted to forge coalitions that could erase the most blatant legacies of Jim Crow whilst preserving some of segregation's aims in more politically-palatable forms. (Matthew Lassiter's The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South [2006] does a wonderful job of explicating battles over school desegregation and busing in Charlotte itself, where forces for desegregation were actually more successful than in many other localities... for a time, anyway.)

Now, however, the boom times are over, at least for the present. Those years of a favorable business climate were able to stimulate immense growth--but they also created a society dependent upon continued growth to fund local and regional government. A solid foundation was secondary. As another interviewee on the program, an everyday citizen, commented, he thought Charlotte would always continue to grow. What happens when it doesn't? Economies rise and fall; people are not perfect and they do not make perfect decisions. Building a region on the assumption that growth is inexorable is a dangerous proposition. Unfortunately, Charlotte citizens (and many others around the nation) may now be the ones to suffer the consequences.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

No, really, I'm telling the truth...

April Fool's Day has always struck me as a mean enterprise, probably because I've never liked feeling dumb or being tricked. I suspect this is a common academic complaint. That said, in honor of April Fool's Day, here is a list of three episodes of deception in U.S. history. (Goodness knows there are more. Feel free to share, as long as they're true stories.)

1) Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, 1860s: The federal government made the decision, following years of wrangling, to situate the eastern terminus of the railroad in St. Joseph, Missouri. Ever heard of St. Joseph, Missouri? How about Omaha? Well, Mr. Thomas Clark Durant, who was in charge of financing the Union Pacific Railroad's efforts to start on the Plains and build westward, owned extensive property in Omaha. Guess which Nebraska town benefited from a loop-the-loop detour in railroad construction bringing the Union Pacific right through the future home of tasty frozen steaks?

2) "Remember the Maine," 1898: This one is still a bit controversial, but in February 1898 the U.S.S. Maine, stationed in Havana Harbor, exploded, killing 272 American sailors. At the time the nation was embroiled in a campaign to "support" anti-colonial freedom fighters in Cuba. The explosion was most likely the result of a coal fire or other unintentional conflagration, but William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal-American and many other "yellow journalism" papers of the era cast the tragedy as a despicable act of Spanish sabotage. End result? U.S. involvement in the Spanish American War. Anti-colonial support quickly turned to another act of deception at war's end with the passage of the Platt Amendment, proclaiming the United States' right to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever it was deemed necessary. In practice, this tended to be whenever American sugar interests were threatened.

3) "The War of the Worlds," 1938: A radio broadcast was at the root of this unintentional deception. Movie and radio legend Orson Welles aired a--completely fictional--broadcast of an alien invasion based upon H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (1898). However, he did such a fine job that when New Jersey citizens tuned in mid-program, many were convinced that Welles' presentation was an actual news broadcast and the Garden State was under attack. Mayhem ensued. The power of the media at work!