Posts Tagged ‘History Faculty’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Most Americans don’t give much thought to the First World War.  Much like the Korean War, WWI may be considered a ‘forgotten’ conflict.  Of course, both of these conflicts have one other thing in common; they have been overshadowed by the Second World War.  WWII is the struggle Americans are most usually obsessed with; from  movies and television shows, to our dubiously titled ‘History Channel’, to national best-seller monographs, WWII gets most of the coverage.  And why not?  The war radically altered the world, and America’s place in it.

But, to understand our wider world, with it’s complexities and it’s many tragedies, we need to look back even further than 1945. After all, to understand the world created by WWII, we must investigate the World War that preceded it.
Ukraine Plane What Happened

We live in a violent, confusing world. The last couple weeks have proven this to any Pollyannas who may have forgotten such a hard ap_israel_hamastruth. For many Americans, the events unfolding in Ukraine, Iraq and Israel/Palestine are difficult to comprehend. As outside observers, we often simply throw our hands up in dumbfounded frustration. I fear such frustration leads many people simply to label the people and politics of these regions as ‘crazy’.

Of course, such an ‘explanation’ explains nothing.

True explanations are difficult. True explanations are complex. True explanations are unsettling.
But, true explanations are desperately needed.  If we are to understand what is happening in Iraq, or grasp why the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is so persistent, or why such bad blood exists between the Ukraine and Russia, we must go to the history books. Specifically, we must investigate the First World War.


Let us begin with Iraq.

As we all know, the American intervention in Iraq beginning in the Spring of 2003 did not go as planned. Though the United States quickly won a technical victory on the field of battle, the ‘rebuilding’, or ‘occupation’ of the nation was marred by, for Americans, seemingly inexplicable violence, sectarian strife, and near civil war.  The reasons for such violence are many and complex. One unarguably important cause was American policymakers’ ignorance regarding the complexity of the Iraqi past. Such ignorance, willful or innocent, is even more shocking when it is understood that the Americans had a predecessor they could have learned from. In 1918, at the end of WWI, the British made many of the same mistakes Americans made in 2003.

The_camel_corps_at_Beersheba2

The Camel Corp, 1915

During the First World War, the British were not just fighting the Germans in the fields of France. They also were at war with the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, the Ottoman Turkish Empire. In this Middle Eastern war, the British looked to rile up the Arab peoples of the area, hoping the Arabs would be interested in throwing off the yoke of their Turkish overlords. The British promised the Arabs of the region national autonomy. According to Scott Anderson however, the British did this without understanding the complexities of the area.’For nearly 400 years prior to World War I, the lands of Iraq existed as three distinct semi-autonomous provinces, or vilayets, within the Ottoman Empire. In each of these vilayets, one of the three religious or ethnic groups that predominated in the region – Shiite, Sunni and Kurd – held sway, with the veneer of Ottoman rule resting atop a complex network of local clan and tribal alliances. ‘

iraq-ethnic-mapThe British did not concern themselves with this ethnoreligious system, seeing instead one, indivisible, homogeneous Arab people.

After defeating the Turks, the British, and the French made two troubling decisions. First, they reneged on their deal with the Arab populations of the Middle East, basically replacing Ottoman rule with European Imperialism. Second, much like in Europe in 1918, the victors of the war redrew maps, and went about ‘state building’. Out of this came the imperial holdings of Palestine, Syria, Trans-Jordan and Iraq.
This situation was not only tragic, it was absurd. Last year, The Daily Show wonderfully captured the absurdity of the situation:

http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/kovgs5/sir-archibald-mapsalot-iii

As John Oliver hilariously illustrates, the mapmakers took no account of the ethnic, tribal and ds_18146_02religious disparities of the region. Iraq was transformed into a simmering land of tension controlled by a crumbling British Empire.  Scott Anderson points out that this was a disaster waiting to happen, and the British did not have long to wait: Iraq’s history of the 1920’s-1950’s ‘would be marked by a series of violent coups and rebellions, with its political domination by the Sunni minority simply deepening its sectarian fault lines. After repeatedly intervening to defend their fragile creation, the British were finally cast out of Iraq in the late 1950s, their local allies murdered by vengeful mobs.’

British decisions from 1918 seem to have never-ending repercussions in Iraq. With this in mind, it seems ISIS is simply another chicken coming home to roost. 

(My next blog post will deal with Israel/Palestine and the First World War. After that, Ukraine and The First World War)

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I have always been intrigued by the First World War.

On second thought, perhaps ‘intrigued’ is not quite the right word. It doesn’t seem strong or descriptive enough.

Captivated? Yes…..

Mesmerized? That seems more like it.

But, why?

Maybe it is because the First World War seems strangely distant and foreign. You may be saying, ‘well sure, we are now a century removed from the war, so it should seem distant.’ But, wars further afield in historical memory seem more familiar, more understandable than WWI. Why is this so? Why does World War One seem so mysteriously exotic?

For me personally, I believe the distant aura of the war must be related to the conflict’s paradoxical uncanniness and absurdity. Though the most modern of industrial slaughters, the war was and is surrounded and shrouded in myths, legends and the supernatural. Myths of the strange and magical were created in the first days of the war, and they endured long after the Armistice was signed. These tales were created by the soldiers who fought, the people on the homefront, the government propagandists and the memory makers in the years following the catastrophe. Everyone seemed to have a hand it producing this aura of unreality.

Painting of the Myth of Langemarck

Painting of the Myth of Langemarck

Some myths were straightforward nationalistic yarns. For example, in the early months of 1914, as battle causalities consistently climbed to unexpected heights, people throughout Europe desperately tried to find a meaning behind the sacrifice of sons, fathers, friends and neighbors. Many people felt the sacrifice needed to be for something larger than individual interests. If such mass death would have any meaning, it would need to be for the protection, or perhaps, perfection of the nation. The Germans in particular told tales that pushed this nationlistic agenda. So, in late 1914, no story held so much power for citizens of the Reich than the idealistic university students marching into the face of industrial battle at Langemarck. Legend had it that twenty-thousand well-educated young Germans not only bravely attacked the enemy at Langemarck, they did so singing rousing nationalistic tunes. This legend of Langemarck became proof for Germans that Teutonic spirit would always, if only eventually, defeat Anglo-French material might. Machine guns could destroy the body, but the German soul would eventually prevail.

However, the Germans were by no means the only ones to look to spirituality to understand this war. The Kaiser’s soldiers may have had song on their side, but the

The Angel of Mons

The Angel of Mons

English were sure they had both history, and heaven, on theirs’. In the early months of 1914, the British public began to whisper to each other that their soldiers were protected from German machine guns not by national spirit, but by national spirits. The Brits relayed fanciful tales that their soldiers on the front were being assisted by the long dead bowman of The Battle of Agincourt. The ghostly bowman came to be known as the Angels of Mons. Obviously, their supposed existence were meant to prove that England could not help by be victorious in this struggle. After all, God was on the English side.

These were national legends that sold better at the homefront than on the frontlines. Individual soldiers often viewed such tales as disgusting propaganda; lies to make the comfy shirkers on the homefront fell better about supporting the war. However, that does not mean the hardened men of the trenches disbelieved in the otherworldly or

Robert Graves

Robert Graves

unexplainable. Over and over, soldiers recorded tales of their run-ins with the supernatural at the front. According to Canadian historian Tim Cook, soldiers’ diaries commonly relay stories of ghostly, uncanny and explainable events. One of the most famous such events was retold by the brother of Wilfred Owen, the great English poet who died
Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

at the front a week before the war ended. Owen’s sibling claimed Wilfred’s spirit appeared to him on a ship at sea the night Wilfred was killed in France. True or not, such stories continued, and often became more powerful, long after the war had ended. In his famous war memoir, Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves told numerous tales of ghosts and phantoms haunting the trenches and homefront.
It seems likely that as the front became more psychologically destructive, such stories became more common.

Now, living one hundred years on, stories of the spooky and supernatural inevitably mark The First World War. It is part of a collective memory of the war. And yet, such legends and myths seem almost unique to the industrial killing of WWI. No other war, in my opinion, has such a feeling of the uncanny or the mythic. In fact, as we drift away from 1914, the wars that scar the world seem less and less mysterious. To look for angels and spirits during World War 2 is laughably strange. To create myths and legends surrounding Vietnam, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq or the Balkans seems disgustingly absurd.

World War One really did make us say ‘Goodbye to all that.’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Summer 1 quarter is my time off from teaching. But, as my esteemed colleague Peter Stern stated in his Turtle profile, “teaching is what life’s all about.  Everyone’s on this great green globe to teach and learn and/or to learn and teach.” Or, perhaps to put it another way: You can take the boy out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the boy.  Sure, I could just sit on the couch and watch TV, but I really would rather be thinking of new methods, new ideas and new courses.  Thus, most of my first four weeks off have found me elbow-deep in a book or two about a topic that has always intrigued me: Race.  I am working on a course tentatively titled ‘Race and the History of Racism’. The structure of the course is slowly developing in my mind; soon I hope to start transferring my thoughts to electronic documents.

I want to share with you, dear readers, an idea I have for the course.  By sharing this, I hope to get some feedback, and hold my feet to the proverbial deadline fire. I would like to implement the below idea by the time I return to RMU in July. Now, let me explain….

When dealing with the topic of race in America, it is often difficult to move beyond the notion of racial absolutism.  The idea that there are 3 or 4, or 5 or 6 ‘races’ that encapsulates all humans. Such racial absolutism is central to American culture and history.  It is, however, a fallacy and to disprove it we must shatter American notions of racial categories. But, how to do this?  There are many readings, essays or monographs that could do the trick.  But as we all know, a picture is worth a thousand words.  I want to SHOW the cliched rainbow of humanity in all its diverse form to my students. Luckily, technology is here to help.

During the last couple years, psychologists have utilized digital photography to ‘composite’ human faces into national average visages.  By so doing, these scientists have muddied up any simplistic notions of racial identity. Of course, this idea of ‘average’ physical image is somewhat flawed.  There can never truly be an ‘average national look’.  Still, the attempts are incredibly suggestive when viewed together at one time since they illuminate how the world’s population physically blend imperceptibly over created state borderlines. Just glance at the 40 images below, and try not to see the shared humanity.  The faces just blend from one to another.  There is no definitive color line.

average_faces_of_men-741954

But, there is a problem here. These photos are ordered alphabetically, not geographically.  The psychologists miss an opportunity by ordering the pictures this way.  Why not put them on a map so that we can really see the faces physically blend?

Why not indeed?  This is my goal!  Edit each picture, and place them onto an interactive world map.  I am thinking of using Google Earth for this, since it is simple to add images  to this  fully immersive global Googe-Earthmap.  Doing this will illuminate for my students the malleability of race; hopefully, this will lead them to question absolutist American racial concepts.

I really think this has some promise. It may take awhile, but I have quite a few weeks off.  I will give you all an update later on.

Now, off to work!

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

A disturbing story out of California grabbed my eye last week.  In the town of Rialto, just outside Los Angeles, a school board caught flack for an 8th grade assignment asking students “to debate in writing whether the Holocaust was ‘merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain’, or an actual historical event.  Facing harsh criticism, the board initially defended the assignment, saying it was a way for students to

The 8th grade assignment in question.

The 8th grade assignment in question.

evaluate evidence, and to use ‘critical thinking’ skills.   The schoolboard finally apologized for it’s poor judgement as news spread that the language used in the assignment had actually been lifted from a ‘revisionist’ website.  In the realm of Holocaust studies, ‘revisionism’ is a euphemism coined by anti-Semites and Neo-Nazis for Holocaust denial.  After such an embarrassing revelation, apologies are now flying, and amends are being made.  On Monday, the LA Times reported that the eighth grade teachers who oversaw the assignments will be going through mandatory sensitivity training, including a trip to the Museum of Tolerance.  Hopefully, the physical evidence of the Nazis’ war on the Jews displayed at the museum will illustrate to the teachers why the assignment was a horribly distasteful mistake.

Case closed?

Not quite. This story is about much more than an 8th grade assignment.  There are troubling implications here.

But first, let’s make one thing clear: I don’t think the schoolboard is run by Holocaust deniers, or Neo-Nazis. As the Anti-Defamation League stated, it seems this case is not a sign of a “larger, insidious agenda.” Instead, this is an instance of a group of people making an incredibly bad, misinformed decision.  No evil here; just banal ignorance. But, the banality of the ignorance points to the disturbance. This assignment was intended to be an attempt to get students to use ‘critical thinking skills.’  Critical thinking is a buzzword in today’s world of education. It has nothing but positive connotations, and rightly so.  But, here we see a danger.  Critical thinking skills can only be developed if we can critically recognize when thought and arguments deserve criticism. Not so simply put, we can’t be critical thinkers when we don’t have critical thoughts to critique. To recognize what stances deserve critical assessment, we need to identify what is worthy of discussion, and what is not. There are simply some opinions that are not worth hearing.  

The Rialto school board was ignorant.  They were ignorant that not all thoughts should be critically assessed, and they were even more ignorant of history. They simply took two seemingly disparate views, and told students to analyze them.  After all, to the school board, the ‘revisionist’ website used the language of a critically thought out position. It ‘seemed’ historically sound, which is exactly what the ‘revisionists’ intend. Holocaust deniers want to take advantage of such ignorance; when they do, they win the battle, and help destroy history.  

The other especially disturbing aspect of this story is the method the board used to get  information.  As mentioned, the assignment was taken almost directly from a Holocaust denial website.  The board’s ignorance is chilling, but it becomes dangerous when combined with the accessibility of extreme lies in cyberspace.  Now, I am not a luddite. The internet has  radically altered communication, and accessibility to information largely for the better. But the internet does not separate the noble from the vile. Extreme hate has found a new home on the web.

Teaching my Holocaust course, I realize this, and point out to my students to be cautious when doing research online.  There is a huge array of radical hatred that could be stumbled upon by them unwittingly as they

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda poster found in search.

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda poster found in search.

search out for the answers to assignments in class.  Let me just give you an example how easy this is: If I Google image search ‘Nazi Jewish Propaganda’, I get over 6 million hits.  Most images come from the holdings of Yad Vashem, or the U.S. Holocaust Museum, or some other reputable memorial institution.  But, the image search also can bring me to other, more troubling sites. The 11th image retrieved in this particular search is of a Nazi anti-Semitic poster produced during the Second World War.  If I click on the image, I see that it comes from a page called ‘Zion Crime Factory.’  The small caption to this image states, “Hitler, like Goebbels, understood the reality of Jewish warmongering against the Reich…‘ What we have here is a modern anti-Semitic, perhaps Neo-Nazi site utilizing Nazi propaganda, not to illuminate Nazi persecution of Jews, but to illustrate that the Nazis were actually correct in their persecution.  If my students were looking for propaganda for one of my assignments, they may accidentally stumble upon this site.  Hopefully they would recognize this site for what it was and avoid it like the plague. But, what about all those who had never studied the Holocaust before, and don’t know what they are looking at?

What about 8th graders researching a critical thinking assignment?

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Over the last couple weeks, my wife and I have been devouring the first season of Game of Thrones.  Yes, yes, we are behind the times.  I know the fourth season is currently on HBO.  Please forgive our pop culture delay, and don’t give any spoilers in your possible comments to this post. Thanks much.

Now, most everyone has heard of Game of Thrones by now, and realize that the series is a melange of fantasy/action/drama/political thriller.  The series is set in an imaginary land and time that is inhabited by 1434624mysterious creatures such as dragons and ‘white-walkers’.  But, the show does not revolve around magical beasts. There are no main character elves or dwarves, like in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or Hutts and droids like in Lucas’ Star Wars.  In Thrones, all the characters are human, and the emotions, the drives, the beliefs are all too recognizable. For a fantasy series, Thrones is strangely, and brutally familiar.  However, this familiarity stems from more than just the characters; the setting, though a make-believe land, feels like earth. The imaginary time period seems like a ‘real’ era of human history.

Game of Thrones takes place in a bizzaro European Middle Ages.

Everything in the show has the feeling of the medieval world; the clothing characters wear; the weapons that they use.  The castles, and/or hovels, characters inhabit.  The social hierarchy that exists, with lords, ladies, priests, warriors and peasants (this is even the terminology.) The political factions that are constantly scheming for power.  All of this, and much more, makes Game of Thrones seem to be a strange fantastical attempt to relive a ‘true’ past. The series is a sort of Renaissance Fair writ large; and writ bloody; and writ sexualized.

Winterfell

A typically medieval scene from Thrones

Game of  Thrones‘  medievalism is not unique. References to the world of the Middle Ages are a common aspect of twentieth century fantasy tales.  The most famous example is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Though mentioned previously that Rings was more fantastical than Game of Thrones, what with hobbits, wizards, orcs, etc, the overriding aura of the two stories are more similar than different.  Like in Thrones, knights, steeds, magic and castles are all a part of Tolkien’s fantasy land of Middle Earth.  Tolkien’s fantasies are not alone. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and George Lucas’ Star Wars, though less obvious than Thrones or Rings, has the Medieval touch as well. Seemingly set in modern Britain, the Potter tales transport readers to the more magical, hidden ancient world of wizards, trolls, castles and ghosts just out of sight of the muggles.  Taking place in a galaxy far, far away on the other hand, the plot of Star Wars revolves around a brave knight (Luke Skywalker) utilizing magic and rare sword skills (only Jedis use the lightsaber) struggling against the forces of pure evil.  To defeat this evil, Skywalker must fulfill seemingly impossible quests. It is an Arthurian legend with a space cruiser. 

Why do these modern fantasy tales so readily depend upon medieval tropes ?  If this question never occurred to you, it is probably because you have always been inundated with these cultural themes.  After a lifetime of fantasy medievalism, we now simply accept the utilization of the historical era’s ideas, language, clothing and notions as a natural part of fantasy tales. It seems so natural in fact, that to plunk down such a tale in a different historical era seems odd, if not absurd.   Imagine if Game of Thrones depended upon Ancient Greece for its influence. Picture in your mind’s eye the Starks, Lannisters, and Baratheons wearing togas. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

The reason this seems absurd has much to do with our understanding (or stereotypes) of the Middle Ages. Whenever covering the period my history courses, I tell my students to think about what terms and ideas they associate with the Middle Ages. They respond as you might suspect.  My students imagine kings, queens, castles, knights, serfs, etc.  But, they don’t stop there. Some students invariably enter the realm of fantasy.  They will tell me that they think of witches, dragons, magic, and wizards when they conjure up an image of the long gone world.  My students understand these things did not exist during the Medieval period, but the ivanhoeideas come to their mind regardless. They just can’t help it.

My students are dredging up more than just the fantasies of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin.  Their associations of fantasy and the Middle Ages are much older than those two twentieth century writers. The early nineteenth century, and the Romantic movement is truly to blame. The romantics’ obsession with the Middle Ages as a time of wonder, magic and heroism must be the starting point to grasping why medievalism entwines so readily with our contemporary fantasies.  Responding to the cult of rationality associated with the Enlightenment, the Romantics created a Middle Ages that was mythical, irrational and magical. These modern Europeans created a legendary memory of the Medieval period that lives on even today. Game of Thrones is just the latest rendition.

 

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Perhaps you have heard the name Cliven Bundy lately? Three weeks ago, the Nevada rancher made news because of a stand-off he was having against Federal Bureau of Land Management agents. The BLM had tried for 20 years to stop Bundy from grazing his cattle on federal land. Bundy repeatedly refused, and when the BLM attempted to enforce the law, Bundy took up arms in defiance and was quickly joined by hundreds of proto-militia

Cliven Bundy

Cliven Bundy

members. Or, perhaps two weeks ago you heard about Bundy when Fox News host Sean Hannity repeatedly, and loudly portrayed the Nevada native as an American hero fighting government oppression.  No? Well, if not, then I bet you heard his name last week.  On Wednesday, Bundy gave a press conference that, strangely, led the rancher to pontificate on ‘the Negro’.  Bundy proclaimed:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro”…. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Not surprisingly, Bundy supporters in Washington and New York fled for the hills.  Senators Rand Paul (R -Kentucky), Dean Heller (R -Nevada) and Hannity went from 29234calling Bundy a patriot two weeks ago, to condemning the rancher’s ‘appalling statements’.  Within a few hours, Bundy transformed from the poster child for rugged small-government American individualism, to a disturbing representation of America’s continuing race issues.

Bundy’s words have led to an avalanche of media analysis.  Much of it is directed towards who Bundy speaks for.  Does he represent a larger portion of America that agrees with his racial ideas, but has too much tact, or duplicity to state them quite so loudly? Such questions are important, no doubt.  But, most such stories are often reticent about Bundy’s actual ideas, and their provenance; their history.

Look at Bundy’s most offensive statement (arguably): African-Americans may be “better off as slaves” than living free in 21st century America.  I assume to many, this portion of Bundy’s little speech is absolutely dumbfounding. The man must be off his rocker.  After all, who in the world would believe that anyone would be ‘better off’ in a state of chattel slavery?

Well, during the last 150 years of American history, a lot of people believed such bunk.  Said bunk was so accepted that it was taught as history to American schoolchildren. Bundy’s words are a reincarnation of a past ideology, and a deplorable myth of the ‘happy slave’ that poisoned post-Civil War race relations.

In the decades after the Civil War (and into the mid-twentieth century), notions about ‘happy slaves’ in the Old South held a great deal of sway.  During these years, American culture popularized the happy slave

Aunt Jemima: The happy mammy.

Aunt Jemima: The happy mammy.

 historical narrative through films, textbooks and even children’s cartoons.  Though invented during the days of slavery, this notion of the goodness of slaveowners, and the happiness of slaves was part of a larger romanticization of the antebellum South that swept the nation during the decades of postwar national reconciliation. This narrative painted the ol’ plantation system of slave and slaveowner as one built upon social contentment and order.  Destroyed by the Civil War, the epoch of Southern slavery was memorialized as a golden age of social harmony.

Historian David Blight has illustrated that popular books  in the immediate after years of the war played a large role in revivifying this idea.  These books published in the 1880s-90s portrayed an:

….idyllic world of the plantation system, where everybody knew their place, and where blacks were essentially loyal retainers and happy darkies.

In fact you could argue that the reconciliation of the Civil War, and even the reconciliation of much of the bitterness of Reconstruction, in the popular imagination, happened as thousands upon thousands, hundreds of thousands of American readers, most of them Northerners, [heard] the voice of loyal happy slaves in their ear, narrating these stories about this idyllic, romantic old South that had now been crushed by this unfortunate if necessary war. Oh, and maybe it’s even good — the stories would say — that slavery was ended. It was good for the nation that slavery was ended. But look what else we lost. We lost this ordered civilization, this hierarchical society, this sense of a nation where everybody knew who they were and where they should be. And after all, what were they living in, by the 1880s and 90s, but an urbanizing country, a modernizing country, a complicated place, now full of all kinds of new immigrants…. new ideologies…., and an expanding economy full of technology that people didn’t grasp and couldn’t understand. And when the world gets confusing, and it changes rapidly, they did what most of us do. They harken back to another time. They find another world to live in.

Let me remind you that Blight wrote these words a decade ago; he was analyzing responses to modernity in post-Civil War America.  The idea of the ‘happy slave’ was useful for those who feared the real world in the 1880’s. 130 years on, Bundy obviously took this old wine, and put it into a new bottle, finding some perverted sense in this ‘happy slave’ narrative.

Is Cliven Bundy the only one who holds to such notions?  Hopefully he is….but, I doubt it.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

One of the biggest entertainment stories of the last week was the announcement that Stephen Colbert will be taking over for David Letterman as the host of Late Night next year.  This news has created some waves, and not just on the entertainment pages. Many fans of Colbert have expressed concern that he will no longer be playing the role of ‘Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report‘, and instead will be simply ‘the real Stephen Colbert’.  The salute‘Report’ watchers want Colbert to retain his egotistical, self-loving, arrogant conservative political commentator persona in his new role. It looks like they are going to be in for a disappointment.

For others though, that fake conservative persona is exactly why they feel Colbert should not be allowed to take over for Letterman.  Colbert is obviously liberal, and most of his satire has been directed towards the more conservative talking-heads in today’s Washington and in the world of cable news.  Hence, Colbert’s humor can make a good many influential figures squirm.  Bill O’Reilly, who Colbert’s character is most obviously based upon, recently called Colbert a ‘deceiver’, and an ‘ideological fanatic’.  Being on CBS will give Colbert a much larger sounding board, and this is frightening to many like oreilly-colbert-618x400‘Papa Bear’.  Thus, after the announcement that Colbert would be succeeding Letterman, Rush Limbaugh vituperatively claimed that Colbert’s hire meant that ‘CBS had declared war on the heartland of America.’  This may have been classic Limbaugh hyperbole; or, perhaps he actually believes all Colbert watchers live exclusively in New York and San Francisco. Either way, he loses here.

Personally, I love Colbert.  If he is ‘The Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report‘, or the ‘real’ Stephen Colbert makes little difference to me; he is funny as hell either way. But, I do have one concern about his move to CBS, and that is this: What is going to happen to Colbert’s guest line-ups? Colbert’s choice of guests over the years on ‘The Report’ have been nothing short of revolutionary. Learning from his big-brother program ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’, Colbert provides a fresh intellectual breath of  air amongst the staid landscape of mindless TV talk shows.  While most talk shows interview celebrities, or cutesy human-interest guests, Colbert (and Stewart) have continually provided their audiences with a wide-range of less famous, but more important guests.  Sure, Will Ferrell will sit down with Stephen one night; but on the next night, Jane Goodall will stop by.  Brad Pitt on Monday; Tuesday and Wednesday, Neil de Grasse Tyson and Steven Pinker.

I am concerned these eclectic, intellectual guest line ups will be lost with Colbert taking over for Letterman. Just take a look at who has been the headlining guest on The Late Show during the last three months:

  • Michael Strahan
  • Julia Roberts
  • Drew Brees
  • Dr. Phil
  • Clooney
  • Jack Hanna
  • Tom Selleck
  • Etc, etc.

Now, here is a short sample of Colbert’s guests during the same period:

  • Scott Stossel (Journalist for The Atlantic/Author of My Age of Anxiety.)
  • Michael Chabon (Author of Adventures of Cavalier and Clay/On to speak about Ernest Hemingway)
  • Patricia Churchland (Neurologist/Philosopher)
  • Drew Brees (Hey, a match!)
  • Paul Krugman (Princeton Economist/NY Times contributor)
  • Brian Greene (Physicist)
  • Alexander Payne (Director of’ Nebraska)
  • Simon Schama (Historian)

If he keeps such guests, Colbert’s move could be a radical change for American late-night.  If he doesn’t, and becomes just another Leno or Letterman, viewers will have lost more than simply his fake conservative persona.

 

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

When it comes to my pop culture proclivities, I’ve always been a bit of an Anglophile.  My late high-school, early college years was when my English-mania reached its climax. Though embarrasing now, I felt it absolutely appropriate to dress like, and style my long-lost hair in the manner of my favorite English maudlin and/or ironic singers.  In high school, it was a pompadour and t-shirt with blazer, a la 1987 Morrissey.  By college, it was a shaggy moptop with stripy sweaters a la Damon Albarn of Blur. At the time I thought I could pull this off.

By the time I graduated from college, I honestly didn’t have the energy any longer to style my hair in a particular fashion. Plus, I had my girlfriend, and eventual wife, who rightly felt the look went from a cute sign of style, to something much closer to pretention. I came to realize that there is a certain point when putting daisies in your back pocket, and carrying around a volume of Oscar Wilde is just sad. Though my fashion changed, my musical

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An inside joke for fans of the Smiths.

tastes still focused upon the English pop music of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  In high school, my cohorts were obsessed with the Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Smashing Pumpkins grunge movement; I enjoyed a more dour line-up of The Cure, Depeche Mode and The Smiths.  By college, people were fighting over West Coast vs. East Coast rap; I was concerning myself with the Oasis vs. Blur quarrel (Blur is MUCH better, by the way.) Some of my university acquantances spent their nights listening to Phish, The Grateful Dead, and Blues Traveller, I…well, I just couldn’t stand that crap. Still can’t.

When we moved to Chicago 15 years ago, my Britpop obsession had cooled considerably.  Now in my mid (okay, late) 30’s, I thought my Anglophilia had finally died.  Then, a couple weeks ago, an import from the Islands rejuvinated my love.  But, it wasn’t music this time.

One evening, I was looking for a good historical documentary to watch on Netflix.  Not much there.  Figured I might as well check out PBS.  Nope, nothing really on.  Finally, I realized, ‘of course! Youtube!’  Sure enough, inputting historical documentary got me quite a list of shows to watch (835,000 hits to be exact).  How to decide?  Well, I quickly realized to look for three letters: BBC.  Youtube was awash in BBC historical programs.  After watching a couple, I was amazed at their quality and seriousness.  For instance, I found a wonderfully intriguing three part documentary written, and hosted by one of my favorite historians, Mary Beard.  Beard is a classicist at Cambridge, and though she doesn’t write about my specialities, she is wonderful at humanizing the people of Ancient world.   Just take a look how she deals with Roman toilets (yes toilets) in this scene from her series ‘Meet The Romans’ (Jump to 24 mins):

Now tell me that is not interesting!  Nothing at all fancy about the production; no special effects; no actors; nothing ‘EXTREME’ or ‘SHOCKING’ or pseudohistorical. Just an expert telling the viewer about a time period and a long gone people she loves. Such shows are stirring my Angliophile nature once again.  But, I must be honest.  This love is mixed with a serious degree of jealousy.  I mean, why can’t we produce works like this in America? Instead, we have  The History Channel.  AAARRRGGGHHH!  How I hate The History Channel.  Let’s just take a look at what the History Channel has on it’s two stations in the next couple days, shall we?  Oh, great, ‘Swamp People’!  Hey, ‘Ancient Aliens”!  How historically challenging! Wait a minute, don’t forget ‘Jurassic Fight Club’!  Sounds like a really enlightening program.

I just can’t figure out why Americans have such a limited understanding of history….Wait, what was that? ‘Pawn Stars’ is on the History Channel at 6:30? Nevermind.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

If there is anything I have learned from studying history the last twenty years (my goodness, I can’t believe it has been that long since I began my undergraduate studies), it is that the past affects every aspect of our lives. This took me awhile to grasp, since as a teenager and twenty-something, I assumed my worldview was a self-created thing; I thought that I had the power to pick and choose what I wanted from the ideas and memories of yesteryear.  Studying history in all its guises has made me see that I was a foolish kid. All our lives are molded by the most idiosyncratic remnants of days long gone.

With this in mind, let me give you a odd historical example illustrating how mentalities don’t die, though humans do.

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Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, died May 30th, 1778.  A playwright, philosopher, novelist, political thinker, and much more, Voltaire was, and still is, understood as being a giant of the 18th century era known as the Enlightenment.  Though not an outspoken political radical, Voltaire was a champion of revolutionary cultural ideals.  Most infamously in his day, he was an often harsh critic of organized religion and, specifically, the Catholic Church.  Here is one of many of his anti-clerical statements:

Every sensible man, every honest man, must hold the Christian sect in horror. ‘But what shall we substitute in its place?’, you say. What? A ferocious animal has sucked the blood of my relatives. I tell you to rid yourselves of this beast, and you ask me what you shall put in its place?

In 18th century Europe, holding such opinions, much less stating them, was a dangerous proposition.  Voltaire played with fire, which made him one of the most admired, most feared, and most despised men of European letters at the time of his death.  It would take 11 years, and the anti-clerical French Revolution to redeem Voltaire’s memory.

The Revolution of 1789 and its adherents waxed and waned in their feelings towards religion.  Some were outright atheists.  Some were deists.  Some were romantic Christians.  As a whole however, the Revolution as a political movement would try to control religion, either by making the church subservient to the nation, or even by transforming the revelatory nature of Christianity into the naturally rational cult of a faceless Supreme Being.  Hence, by 1791, Voltaire was transformed from being a dangerous, though popular rebel, to a nationally recognized prophet of the French nation.

The French Revolution and the French nation had martyrs and saints.  Voltaire would become the latter.  He didn’t die for the cause, but he did face persecution for his beliefs by a ‘tyrannical’ French pre-revolutionary state, and he would need to be recognized as such.  What better way to do so than moving his mortal remains to the Revolutionary state’s temple, the Pantheon? Nothing really new to all this hullabaloo.  Each nation recognizes those early forebears, and seers who foreshadowed the nation.  America is no different. Think Lincoln, Washington, and their respective monuments.  However, this story veers in an unexpected direction.  Friends and enemies of the Revolution began to fight regarding Voltaire’s state of decomposition.

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Moving Voltaire to the Pantheon

As the French historian Antoine de Baecque points out his book, Glory and Terror: Seven Deaths Under the French Revolution, the state of Voltaire’s remains was controversial.  After disinterring the body of the great man, two conflicting sets of rumors began to spread. Amongst the friends of the Revolution, it soon became gospel that Voltaire’s body was perfectly preserved, 13 years after being buried (he had been embalmed, so this makes some sense).  But there was more: The Voltaire lovers relayed seemingly miraculous stories.  Not only was Voltaire’s remains perfectly preserved, but they also smelled….good.  The body was not decomposed, and had a sweet bouquet.  On the other hand, those enemies of the Revolution, and the haters of Voltaire gossiped the opposite.  Voltaire was actually a disgusting, rotted piece of decomposed flesh that was embarrassingly earthly.  The smell of the remains in this story, instead of being sweet, were radically worst than one would expect. It was as if the infidel’s remains had the whiff of hellish brimstone about them.

What in the world was this all about?  Well, to understand this ghoulish argument, we need to realize that this discourse of bodily remains was much older than Voltaire.  The Catholic church, going all the way back to its earliest days, argued for the incorruptibility of their saint’s bodies.  It would be proof of sacredness if a saint’s body was incorruptible; it would be a sign of God’s love if the dead saint smelled not rancid, but delightful. So, when the argument over 60835932Voltaire’s body arose, it was done so in the discourse of Catholicism. What the what?  Superstition’s most famous enemy was now being turned into a saint by those whom he influenced. History does indeed repeat itself.

I love this story for two reasons. First, it is just weird and unforgettable tale, showing the strange beliefs of humans.  Second, and more importantly, it is a perfect example of what effect the past can have on all of us.   Even the French Revolutionaries, those who hoped to create the world anew, and in many ways did so, still could not escape their bygone forerunners.  They were locked into a rut of history. You and I are no different.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

My youngest daughter turned five last October. For her birthday, her aunt and uncle, my sister-in-law and brother, got her a funky pair of pink 578688_10201388189609185_1668997307_nrimmed glasses.  She was extremely excited, and so was her older sister.  The seven year old sis instantly knew what she wanted for her upcoming birthday. ‘I want some glasses just like that!’

When December rolled around, said older daughter got a package in the mail from said aunt and uncle.  Sure enough, inside was a new pair of glasses.  Happy day!

Neither of my girls need glasses to read or to see far away (unlike their parents), and so these glasses are simply fashion accessories. They wear them some days, and not others.  Often, when they want to ‘dress up’ fancy, they will break out their frames.  Wearing them to school, or preschool is all about the image.

I would be remiss to point out how wonderful I find this.   The perception surrounding glasses seems to be evolving from when I was a kid. 715swU1WPgL Back then, there was a stigma to wearing glasses, and that stigma was an American tradition.  It was so common that you can even find the normalization of this stigma in children’s books of my era.   Take for instance Marc Brown’s book Arthur’s Eyes, in which Arthur the Aardvark needs to get glasses.  The first day he shows up at the bus stop with his new eye-wear his friends laugh at him.  His best friend Buster even calls him a  ‘freak’. In 1979, when this book was published, glasses were obviously a symbol of the social outsider that everyone, even children, could recognize. If my daughters’ friends and classmates are any indication, this traditional stigma is dissipating among kids today.

What a revolutionary change  this could be for American culture!  Just look at the twentieth-century outsider terms for those who wore glasses: Nerds, geeks, and eggheads.  These people were outsiders in schools, at parties and within pop-culture because they were intellectuals. Glasses=brainiacs=social outcasts. Perhaps now this stereotype is transforming. Perhaps being smart is becoming, dare I say it, cool?

I hope so, but I want glasses to remain a perceived sign of intelligence, since the psychological process called  ‘enclothed cognition‘ may make this perception into a reality.  Put simply, ‘enclothed cognition’ studies have found wearing certain clothes can have positive or negative effects on cognitive processes.  Wearing a lab coat can make people think more clearly; wearing exercise clothes will make people want to work-out more. As far as I know, studies have never been done regarding the effect of wearing glasses on our cognitive processes. But, it seems only logical that the perception that glasses make you look smarter will make you feel smarter, which, in turn, will actually make you smarter.

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Are glasses going to remain cool, or is this just a fad?  I don’t know. All I know is that I will keep pushing my kids to wear glasses, even if they never need them for medical reasons. They and their friends may or may not think it makes them look smarter; there is no question in my mind it makes them look cute.