Friday, January 27, 2012

Muse of the Week: Technology

Sixty-one years ago today, the United States began testing atomic bombs in the Nevada desert. Currently, government officials are negotiating compensation for those whose health was adversely affected by these tests.

I'm entering the period in my United States history course when Americans increasingly believed science and technology offered the keys to the kingdom of endless abundance and an increasing standard of living. Standardization and efficiency would create the largest consumer-goods juggernaut the world had ever known. Science could offer unparalleled medical benefits ensuring longer, healthier lives for people from all strata of American society. But... there is always a but. The very standardization and efficiency the early twentieth century so prized often failed to accommodate worker's rights or appreciate the unique contributions that immigrants' cultures might have made. The science that could result in so many medical and technical advances also spurred practices ranging from eugenics to the aforementioned atomic bomb. And, of course, so many of these advances also created the unintended or unrecognized consequences of waste, resource exploitation and the diseases of overindulgence--and even the good things have not always made it to the rest of the world.

In the contemporary world, we struggle with competing visions, even within our own minds (if mine is any indication). Technology must be carefully weighed and measured if we are to make wise decisions about our future. Prior assumptions that technology represents an unmitigated good no longer hold water. How will we negotiate this complex path?

I hope the Nevada testing grounds prove a useful example. Past outcomes cannot predict the future, but they can help us see patterns and tendencies. We would be foolish not to absorb these lessons.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Webfoot Wednesday: rain

An apropos note from "This Day in Oregon," given our recent rains and flooding problems: evidently if this were 1935, tomorrow the southern Oregon town of Jacksonville would begin to see what happens when heavy rains combine with old mine timbers... that had been holding open mine shafts built beneath the town's streets. Oops.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Muse of the Week: Legibility

I started research in the papers of former Oregon Governor Tom McCall yesterday afternoon, and I'm having a delightful time... three (thick) folders in, and I've already been able to cite phrases including "pious buzzards," "Hell with that" and "like lecturing inside a dishwasher." This man would have gotten along famously with reporters even if he hadn't been a newsman himself.

One minor quibble: the man's handwriting--and there's a lot of it, as one might expect (the above phrases definitely do not connote organized speech preparation by committee)--is positively atrocious. Word to the wise: if you expect to accomplish things worthy of an archival collection, cultivate legible penmanship. It will endear you to generations of historians.

My painstaking journey through enthusiastically crossed "t"s and scribbled "if"s (or is that an "of"? an "off"? uff...) is a walk in the park compared to historians of the pre-typewriter era. I must contend with postscripts and alterations, but their entire manuscript collections may be written in archaic or simply unreadably sloppy script. A good friend of mine waded through the microfilm equivalent to reams of probate records from the late colonial era through the early years of the Republic. Ouch. Others must wander through foreign languages using extinct letter-forms and antiquated terminology.

Even in this digital age, we tend to associate the written word with permanence. "Get it in writing." "Sign a contract." "Dot the 'i's and cross the 't's." Historians' fascinating journeys through archival collections demonstrate the historicity even of the seemly permanent. What did this term mean? What does a looping script like this indicate? How one earth does one decipher this penmanship? Expression is an ever-changing process, and the means of expression are fodder for historical scholarship just as much as the thoughts and ideas the expression represents.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Webfoot Wednesday: Scrappo

I found the first of these two images in David Peterson del Mar's Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis: OSU Press, 2003) and I found it highly amusing. Both images are available on the Oregon Historic Photograph Collections Web site.

The statue appeared in the Marion County Courthouse Square on August 1, 1942, and featured a mechanical jaw that could be manipulated using a rope to make Scrappo "talk." The base of the statue included a tractor donated by Chemawa Indian School and a 1,400-pound tire donated by Associated Oil. It remained standing until late March 1943 as a 30-foot-high reminder of the importance of contributing scrap metal and cooking fats to the war effort.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Muse of the Week: Kumbaya

This post on NPR about the song "Kumbaya" and the cynicism it now inspires speaks directly to my anomie about the state of political affairs in our country. I highly recommend reading it. And yes, when did it become a problem to advocate for peace, for outreach, for understanding? This is precisely what is wrong with American politics today.

Partisan diatribes are nothing new. See, for example, the below-posted political cartoon from an 1868 Harper's Bazaar equating the Democratic candidates in the 1868 presidential election with the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan, which I used with my students on Wednesday (though sadly, depending upon context this accusation may not always have been very far off base):

So, we've always had a difficult time getting along. Does that mean, however, we should not only throw up our hands, but begin to actively ridicule the idea that we could ever come together and work for positive change? That we should be trying to reach out to each other and forge alliances for a better future? We deserve better--for ourselves, for our children, and for the rest of the world.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Webfoot Wednesday: Boundaries

It's the first week of classes, which means some extra administrative responsibilities and other things that eat up time. I was highly amused, however, by today's entry from my trusty "This Day in Oregon" book (James Cloutier, This Day in Oregon [Eugene, Ore.: Image West Press, 1982]). Seems a county sheriff would have had quite the job in mid-nineteenth century Wasco County (today, The Dalles and surrounding environs):

"Wasco County was created on Jan. 11, 1854 and comprised all the area of the Oregon Territory between the Cascade Range and the crest of the Rocky Mountains with Nebraska forming the eastern boundary line. The name "Wasco" was taken from the Indian word 'Wacq-o' meaning cup or small bowl. [Small? Really?] The county's area was later reduced to its present 2,392 square miles."

Friday, January 6, 2012

Muse of the Week: Vampires and Zombies

I recently came across a fascinating (and amusing) column posted to the New York Times Web site by University of Massachusetts economist Nancy Folbre. Folbre analyzes current class dynamics in the United States, perceptively observing the myriad characterizations of the wealthy (among liberals) as "vampires" and of the poor (among conservatives) as "zombies." (Or, if you're Ron Paul, evidently a "zombie" constitutes anyone who pays income tax.) Folbre suggests that our proclivities toward such characterizations depend upon whether we most fear the dominance or the dependence of others.

Citizens' reactions to class arguments depend upon myriad factors, from how we define "middle class" to the terms we use to define those above or below this elusive category. Both "vampires" and "zombies," however, testify to the state of class anxiety in which we find ourselves.

I find these categories interesting, not only because Folbre sets forth one possible explanation for why these mythical creatures are suddenly so prevalent in popular culture, but because history suggests that the bulk of the citizenry we would identify as "middle class" has been simultaneously vampire and zombie -- dominant and dependent -- throughout the American past. The very fabric of American identity before the Civil War was predicated upon a dependent class. "American" meant white, a "dominant" construction only possible where "dependent" African American slaves, freedmen and Native Americans existed. This construction faded only slowly, of course, following the war, although developments like the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments made it possible for the dependent to assert their rights to citizenship against the dominant. On the other hand, the long struggle of the American labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries asserted the rights of the "dependent" working classes (groups that by the mid-twentieth century would self-identify as middle class) against "dominant" captains of industry and their allies in government.

The ease with which I can paint middle class Americans as dominant or dependent, vampire or zombie (and I could carry on these examples for quite some time) does not mean that dominance and dependence are equal. I would argue that elimination of dependence is possible only through mitigation of dominance -- by providing adequate funding, for example, for an educational system that will provide all citizens with the equality of opportunity (not outcome -- that's dependence -- but opportunity) that allows for true independence. Others do come to different conclusions. Still, the hybrid identity of the American middle class indicates that solutions will come only when we move past the habit of demonizing one mythical creature at the expense of the other. After all, vampires and zombies alike will always be most likely to attack when they feel threatened...

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Webfoot Wednesday: OR-7

Oregonians -- and animal enthusiasts across the United States and even the world -- have been enjoying the rambling journey of OR-7, a radio-collared gray wolf who has made a 730-mile journey from the Wallowas in northeastern Oregon to become the first wolf in 60 years to set up residence in the southwestern part of the state. Recently, the wolf has even crossed into Siskiyou County, California, becoming the first wolf to penetrate the state since the 1920s. This famously elusive animal defied photography until recently, when a hunter appears to have captured him using a trail camera: see wolf here.

Wolves and humans lived in tension from the earliest days of Oregon settlement. Bounties were offered to eliminate these threats to ranchers' livelihoods into the 1940s, and the last native wolves disappeared from the state no later than the 1970s. Declared an endangered species in 1976, wolves were able to reestablish population numbers that pushed them back into eastern Oregon in 2007. The official count for wolves in Oregon currently stands at 24.

Wolves' return to Oregon, and especially to the more densely settled western half of the state, illuminates the long memory and complex calculus that governs human-wildlife interactions. Richard Cockle of the Oregonian reports, for example, that the concerns of the outgoing president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, Bill Hoyt of Cottage Grove, extend beyond the purely academic: Hoyt's great-great-grandfather was chased by wolves sometime after he founded the family ranch in 1852.

Does the threat to livestock (and perhaps, in some cases, humans) outweigh the benefit of a diverse ecosystem? Does saving a space for these impressive creatures merit the inherent dangers to cattle? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in between. Eradication is not the answer, among other reasons because it presumes that untrammeled human control over the landscape and everything in it is both justifiable and enlightened -- a "truth" proven demonstrably false on innumerable occasions. On the other hand, it is important to remember that wolf kills damage livelihoods, ranching and farming remain an important component of the state economy outside the Portland metro area, and that suspicions are often founded, as in Hoyt's case, upon historical foundations. Historically informed decision-making necessitates answers in shades of gray--not unlike the furry coat of one of Siskiyou County's newest residents.

For more on OR-7, recently named "Journey" in a contest organized by the conservation group Oregon Wild, see Richard Cockle's December 11 story here and other Oregonian coverage.