Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

All (Hu)m(a)n(s) Are Created Equal?

I find it strangely fitting that this 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's delivery of the Gettysburg Address is also World Toilet Day.  (Stay with me here.)  Lincoln spoke eloquently of a nation founded upon the premise that all men are created equal.  I love, love, love that he did this, because Lincoln's words stack a new layer upon our nation's founding documents, multiplying the effect of what I often tell my students when they reach that point of the term when they're totally depressed by all the bad things that have happened in American history: the most exciting thing about these United States is that men enlightened by the standards of their times issued universal declarations in language far, far more sweeping in its application than anything they could have envisioned in their time and place... and Americans have been able to use those promises to drag society (kicking and screaming, sometimes) toward a world of greater opportunity for all.  That--THAT--is awesome.  As in "awe-some," not as in surfer talk.

Lincoln was a great man; he was also a man of his times.  As many will point out today, his thinking on slavery and his conception of what the Civil War was about evolved over the years of his life and of the conflict.  That doesn't taint the deeper, broader truth of his words.  Perhaps he was prophetic, in the sense of speaking truths even he did not fully comprehend.  

We in the United States still fail to put into practice this truth that all (humans) are created equal.  Others will spend the day pointing out a litany of ills that continue to plague society, and they're right--but the promise endures, and that gives me hope.

On World Toilet Day, however, I'd suggest we take this promise one step farther.  Lincoln states that the United States was founded upon the premise that all people are created equal.  That statement is necessarily universal.  He didn't say all men in the United States are created equal.  Rather, all men--everywhere--are created equal.  There are 2.5 billion people in this world who do not have access to basic sanitation.  That's billion with a "b."  Lincoln's words apply to these folks, too.  Let's take this premise global.  We have an awesome inheritance--if we use it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Herschels

It's funny how interest and/or personal connection heightens awareness.  Our pastor owns a light blue Prius... despite the fact that there are roughly 2.3 million light blue Priuses (Priusi?) in the Portland metro area, I still look every time to see if it's him.  Same goes for red Focus wagons, charcoal Corollas and a zillion other cars.  Shoot, I still notice 13-year-old blue Honda Accords, and it's been two years since the other half drove one of those.

As with cars, so it goes with historical research subjects.  I'm sure you wondered how I planned to segue after that introduction.

I've been noodling around several potential profile subjects for a children's magazine at which I do a lot of freelancing.  One of them is a woman named Caroline Herschel, who was sister to William Herschel, a groundbreaking, self-taught astronomer who discovered Uranus, among other things.  Caroline overcame numerous childhood challenges to become a tremendously skilled astronomer in her own right, with a talent for discovering comets.  I've been sitting here checking my email and tending to my slightly under-the-weather offspring, and having finished other tasks I decided (as one does, if one's a history nerd) to Google this date in history.

Guess whose birthday it is?

Meet William Herschel!

Here's his sister, too, for the sake of equality.  Turns out that despite his amazing innovations in crafting new telescopes, his dogged commitment to research excellence and his aptitude for discerning the deeper truths underlying his discoveries (the notion of "deep space," for example, was something he made great strides in understanding), our man William couldn't have accomplished all this without his sister's assistance.  Caroline and William formed a team; she spent years' worth of nights carefully recording his observations, assisting with his groundbreaking telescope manufacturing, and conducting research in her own right.

The story of William and Caroline Herschel is a useful reminder of the limitations of the "great man" theory of history.  Some people are, indeed, uniquely endowed with talents and gifted with the capacity to use them.  William was one of these people.  Even these folks, though, rely on the support, the ingenuity, and the gifts of other people.  I hope my profile of Caroline Herschel will contribute in some small way to correcting such misapprehensions.

Wonder where else the Herschels will turn up?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

World Wide Web is 23!

Happy birthday to the World Wide Web!  Twenty-three years old today.  Here's a link to another blog I was reading this morning including a Writer's Almanac story on the development of the WWW.  It's hard now to imagine a world without the Internet in its modern and (mostly?) user-friendly form -- yet those halcyon days of my senior year in high school, when some friends and I spent part of the fall researching politics online for the very first time, came only 5 years after the Web's creation.  (This explains why it took 10 minutes for a crazy-basic site with a few shreds of information to load, even using the school's theoretically advanced server...)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Franklin and the Hydrogen Balloon

Benjamin Franklin, having observed the first manned hydrogen balloon flight: "Someone asked me--what's the use of a balloon?  I replied--what's the use of a newborn baby?"*

Franklin's foresight is astounding.  Successful innovations take two things: an original, compelling and and effective breakthrough, and an environment populated by a sufficient number of people who realize that something is a breakthrough (or, at minimum, by a few people of sufficient stature to convince the public).  Successful innovations are also much easier to see in hindsight.  Franklin was able to see and discern the significance of something as superficially frivolous as a hot-air balloon.  I wonder what innovations--and which insightful observers--will characterize the technological history of our age?

* quoted in Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (NY: Pantheon, 2008), p. 132.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Boston Strong: Music to Fans' Ears

On baseball, music, and the persistence of civil society in the midst of so much incivility, with a nice dose of Kennedy (well, Fitzgerald) heritage mixed in:

Boston Strong: Music to Fans' Ears:
New Englanders awoke this Halloween to the realization that they weren’t just dreaming Wednesday night: The Boston Red Sox really did win their third World Series in the last 10 years.
Much w...

Friday, October 25, 2013

Shared article: "Race Relations in Black and White"

I recently came across this fascinating article on the way film (still and motion) implicitly embodied a hierarchy of race.  This History News Network article in turn links to another interesting piece published by the Washington Post.  An excellent example of the way cultural norms carry within them an embedded code of meaning.

Pieces such as this are a useful reminder of the limitations of "colorblindness" as a doctrine.  True "colorblindness" results from a very real and active awareness of how deeply and subconsciously our perceptions are influenced by race.  Only engagement will give us the tools to surmount racism.  Turning a "blind" eye and refusing to grapple with our embedded hierarchies?  That's just ignorance.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Moral campers | The Christian Century

I am sorry I've been so quiet on this blog.  (It's been so long I'm probably apologizing to blank space rather than actual readers...)  I would like to get back to more thoughtful historical contemplation, but life has been getting in the way.  It is among my goals, so hopefully, more to come.  Meanwhile, I found this really interesting.  This "Then and Now" column of the Christian Century is quite fascinating most weeks... I enjoy seeing what thoughtful scholars have to say about connections between history and religion.

Moral campers | The Christian Century

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Learning from the anti-dueling movement [link]

I came across this post this morning -- Episcopal priest and Dartmouth professor Randall Balmer on how the anti-dueling movement of the antebellum era might inform a more comprehensive approach toward combating gun violence:

Learning from the anti-dueling movement | The Christian Century

Monday, March 18, 2013


I was intrigued to note that on this day in 1940, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini met at Brenner Pass in the Alps and agreed to form an alliance against France and the UK.  As Americans we hear about the various meetings undertaken by different combinations of the Allied powers to develop war aims and forge strategic agreements.  The Atlantic Conference in 1941; Casablanca in 1943; Yalta in 1945--common names, all.  But Brenner Pass?  I'd always wondered how it was that the Axis powers became the Axis powers.  I knew the story of Germany and Italy's Tripartite Pact with Japan later in 1940, but how was it that Hitler and Mussolini decided to work together?  Now I guess I know.  I wonder how widely this history is taught in German and Italian schools, as I know that in the case of Germany, at least, an almost institutionalized practice of apology for the nation's Nazi past has been central to the country's post-war healing process.

Fun fact to know and tell: Benito Mussolini was named after mid-19th century Mexican president Benito Juarez!  Why, I am not sure, but he was.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Mrs. Packard

The theatre department at the university where I teach recently ended a production run of Emily Mann's play Mrs. Packard.  This play tells the story of a woman named Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, who was wrongly committed to an insane asylum in the 1860s simply for disagreeing with her husband.  Husbands during this era had the legal right to commit their wives if they felt they were insane.  Theophilus Packard, a minister, concluded that insanity was the only explanation for his wife's failure to agree with his stridently "Old School" Calvinist views.  She wound up spending three years in an Illinois insane asylum.

Mrs. Packard's story is profoundly disturbing, not only because of the circumstances of her life, the truths it reveals about the severely circumscribed lives women led until very recently, and the tragedy of what this series of events did to her family, but also because her story is so little known.  I hold a Ph.D. in American history, and until my theatre-professor friend began telling us about his latest production I had no idea Mrs. Packard had existed.  I knew the basic outline of what life was like for women in this era, but the details of Mrs. Packard's story bring the dimensions of this era into alarming and essential detail.

Stories without people fail to arouse the sense of identity necessary to fully understand the past.  Mann's play is an important corrective.  A woman named Barbara Sapinsley has written a biography of Mrs. Packard and I hope to read it.  Meanwhile, see this Web site for the theater that debuted Mann's production for a wonderfully detailed overview of the play, Mrs. Packard's story and the broader historical context.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The long (and not-so-long) arc of history

On this day in 1994, Byron de la Beckwith was convicted -- 31 years after the fact -- of killing civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi.  Evers was slain in his driveway; his wife, Myrlie, and three children were inside the house.  Last month, Myrlie Evers-Williams delivered the invocation at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama.  Nineteen years after her first husband's killer was finally convicted.  Fifty years after Medgar was slain, at a time when the lives of African Americans living in Mississippi (and many other parts of the nation) were severely circumscribed by prejudice and outright brutality.  Much remains to be done, but even so I'm struck sometimes by the power of numbers as they chronicle years.  Sometimes they become so large as to obscure the relevancy of history, but deeply considered they begin to place context around historical events and make them tangible.  It took just two years less time than I've been alive to prosecute someone for an atrocious crime.  My college freshmen were born and have lived since then.  But in just fifty of those years -- my life, plus theirs, less a couple years (anyone have a toddler to toss into the equation?) -- we've moved from desperate conditions of segregation to the point where a woman whose husband was slain as a rabble-rouser is not just present, but praying at the inauguration of the most powerful person in the world.  Who happens to be black.

Wonder how long it will take before the children of the inner city in the capital where the inauguration took place have an equal chance at life?  How will that math play out?  Time will tell.  I hope they are calculations of the years of the young and not of the very old.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Giving thanks for the fine folks of Timbuktu

People are more important than things, so the crisis in Mali is a tragedy on a level more significant than manuscripts -- but that said, as a historian I was profoundly alarmed to learn that retreating Islamic militants had set fire to the library at Timbuktu.  Updated reports indicate that in fact, most of the priceless manuscripts were saved by the efforts of local residents who came to hide them away once they realized the documents were in danger.  What a tremendous blessing, and what a testimony to Islamic values.  Islamic philosophers and scientists have been some of the most intellectually curious and inventive people the world has ever known.  Circulation of the blood?  Sussed it.  Algebra?  Invented it.  Ancient wisdom of the Greeks and Romans?  Preserved it, during a time when most Europeans were too barbaric to recognize its significance.  Islam need not be about ignorance or the burning of priceless manuscripts any more than Christianity or Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism.  I applaud the citizens of Timbuktu for realizing this and acting upon their deeply felt commitment to centuries of Malian intellectualism.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Happy hundredth!

Today would be former President Richard Nixon's 100th birthday.

That calls for a celebration!

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Personal and the Printable

I just finished reading Laura Kalman's Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980 (W. W. Norton, 2010).  On the whole I found it quite informative, but I was struck once again by an observation I have made of many scholars who came of age during the 1970s: for her, the Nixon/Ford/Carter years were personal, and she has no qualms letting the reader know this is so.  Nor does she have the slightest shred of concern about identifying her position on the political spectrum.  I cite, for example, from the epilogue:

"Experts today disagree about the extent to which Reagan's victory represented a repudiation of Carter or a triumph of conservatism.  As a historian and a liberal I give greater weight to the former than the latter." (363)

I do not mean to imply that Kalman's analysis is wildly partisan.  On the contrary, she asserts in the last paragraph of the volume that "[r]easonable people disagree about the directions in which [Reagan] took the country" (366) while awarding the Californian kudos for leading in the first place -- her signal critique of both Ford and Carter being that neither was an effective leader and that these failures at the top both broadened and deepened the real structural problems of the 1970s.  I enjoyed many things about Kalman's book, her dexterity in making use of amusing chestnuts not least among them.  (I was intrigued to note, for example, that Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign symbol was a "fourteen-foot-high, 450-point 'monster peanut' built of hoops, chicken wire, tinfoil, and foam" [155].)

That said, Kalman's book confronts me once again with two questions I have grappled with previously (and reintroduce partly because due to a recent cross-posting on GFU's Facebook page some of you reading this may be of college age).  First, what, if any, is the proper role of personal commentary in published historical analysis?  Second, how do we cope with separating personal/lived experience from our scholarly analysis of recent history?

I've been told by numerous people that they have not been able to deduce my political orientation from the content of my first book.  I take that as a compliment.  I want my published work to reflect an informed and -- to the extent this is possible for any human -- objective interpretation of historical data.  True objectivity may be impossible to attain, but at the very least I aim for fairness.  I want to be fair to my subjects, even when I disagree with them personally.  At some point a line must be drawn; fair historical analysis of Japanese internment during World War II would not, in my opinion, preclude concluding that it was unwarranted and anathema to the declared principles upon which American society rests.  Should I self-identify my political persuasion in a historical monograph?  I'd argue no, but others differ.  I'd be curious to hear your thoughts and reflections.  Informal writing -- this blog, for example -- offers greater latitude for expression of personal perspective, and readers of past entries will be aware I do engage my own story much more extensively here than I would in an article submitted to a journal or a book chapter destined for publication.

Scholars of my generation -- people with no memory of the 1970s -- are just now coming to an age of academic majority.  I am and will continue to be intrigued to watch and see how our dominant perceptions of the 1960s and 1970s change and develop over time.  I have no memories of Vietnam or of the counterculture; I can study the Nixon era but I will never have the visceral reaction to Watergate that someone who lived through that era might have experienced.  I operate at a remove.  At the same time, as the content of the second half of the U.S. survey marches on into the 21st century I am aware of how my own impressions of Clinton and the Bushes, the 1990s and 9/11 may well operate upon my historical interpretation as those of Lyndon Johnson or Watergate did upon my elders.  How do we make wise use of personal experience without allowing the personal to overshadow or disfigure the analytical?  I am not sure there is one answer, but these are important questions to ponder deeply.