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.