Posts Tagged ‘History Faculty’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I love 21st century political satire. In our 24 hour news cycle world, I feel like John Oliver, Colbert, John Stewart, Larry Wilmore and the satirical news-org The Onion are sometimes the only outlets of political sanity.  Today’s satire onion_fb_placeholdercan capture reality much better than ‘real’ news.

And so, I just about died laughing the other day when The Onion ran a faux-commentary by Donald Trump titled, ‘Admit It: You People Want to See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?’ It was the laughter of recognition.  But, after a couple guffaws, I got to thinking.  As so often happens, The Onion glimpsed an enduring truth in the Trump-capade. Donald Trump is trying to become our first ‘Reality-Show President’.

As a child of the 1980’s, Donald Trump will always be a symbol of Reagan-era decadence to me. He epitomized the ‘Lifestyles of trumpnewsweekthe Rich and Famous’ world of yachts and private jets.  Of course, by the late 2000’s Trump renewed his fame with his reality TV hit, The Apprentice.  He was the perfect candidate for reality TV.  Larger than life, flamboyant and just a bit dangerous.  You never can tell what Trump will say, or who he will destroy. Heck, perhaps he may destroy himself while we all watch. Reality television has always been about this danger, even if it is quasi-scripted. It is like pro-wrestling.  A little real, a little fake, but for so many, addicitively entertaining.

Now Trump the political candidate is using Trump the reality TV star methods on the campaign trail. These methods constantly keep him in the news.  First, he stated that Mexico is sending drug-dealers and ‘rapists’ over the border on purpose. Then he snarked on John McCain’s military record. Most recently, he gave out Lindsey Graham’s cell phone number at a rally, and called Rick Perry and Scott Walker dumb.

After such well publicized, and well criticized gaffes, political candidates usually back down.  They apologize, and hope to move on from a slip of the tongue that caused uproar.  But, not Trump. That is not the way of reality of TV!  Trump has doubled down on all his controversial stances and statements. He will not apologize. Instead, he argues that he is simply telling the truth, and the media is attacking him for doing so.

150616161704-donald-trump-june-16-2015-exlarge-169The media doesn’t know how to respond to this. They point out Trump’s clownishness, and assume he will quickly fall from grace.  But, Trump is proving that he is no clown when it comes to understanding the American public. He understands he is a reality TV star, and reality TV is what people want. They want to see what Trump will do next; who will he insult?  Who will he attack? What ridiculous claim will he make?  Perhaps, he will self-destruct on live TV.  Grab the popcorn.

I don’t think Trump can win the national election with these methods…..at least not yet.  I think there are enough serious Americans out there who think politics must be more than an episode of Survivor.  Then again, more Americans have been known to vote for American Idol than for president. So, you never know.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The British Romantic poet John Keats wasn’t pleased with science.  In his 1819 poem ‘Lamia’, Keats complained:

Do not all charms flyJohn_Keats_by_William_Hilton
At the mere touch of cold philosophy? (Science)
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line…

Yeah, I know.  Science has the bad habit of making the magical seem natural; the sublime seem mundane.  But, let’s not be reactionaries. Keats died 200 years ago. He made a definitive statement about science far too soon. If he had the scientific tools for looking at the natural world that we do today, he might have changed his tune.

Simply looking at the night-sky can be a magical experience.  But, when science let’s you know what is really out there, and how vast it actually is, your eyes can be put to shame.  Just have a look at this incredible 3 minute video. It shows that the heavens are even more sublime than your puny senses let on. (Warning: Even if you are not spiritual, you may feel a spark of the divine watching this.)

All those stars!  Planets around each star!  Those countless worlds!  And, are you ready for the the mind-blowing kicker. That video focuses upon one small segment of one galaxy. It is estimated that our universe holds 100 billion galaxies.

Sorry Keats.  Your words pale in comparison.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Well, my 21 day challenge is in the books. I am happy to report I did survive, and I was successful.  I am pleased that I did it and I think I have emerged from the experience wiser concerning how to eat.

One thing I noticed during my three weeks is that the sugar cravings never subsided.  I expected to hit a point around Day 8 or 9 when I would stop obsessing over the thought of bread, treats and snacks. That didn’t happen. Up until day 21, the image cd36d89c9b208b75c1d09f17ef38940f of cinnamon rolls and cupcakes danced through my head on an hourly basis. So not surprisingly, one of the first things I did when I completed the challenge was head for The Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor in Forest Park (the best of the best). I ordered a couple big scoops of pralines and cream.  Honestly though, it wasn’t all I thought it would be. Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious. But I couldn’t help but notice it was just too sweet.  The sugar was so intense.

This is the biggest thing to take from my challenge.  Sweets still taste good, but I now  tire of them quickly. I no longer crave a hundred cookies, or a big ice cream cone.  It is just too much. One month ago, I wouldn’t have ever written such a thing; so I guess the 21 day challenge did help.

20% This

20% This

But, that will be last challenge/fast/cleanse for a long time.  As my wife points out, there is a much better way to eat. It is the 80/20 method.  80% good, and 20% bad. 80% lean meats, greens, complex carbs, whole grains; 20% sugary treats, baked goods, and simple snacks.

10487579_10204605779486921_8138230371061594046_n

80% This

100% percent bad is obviously not the way to go.  I like having my teeth, and being able to fit into my jeans.  But, 100% good is not realistic either. For me personally, and my wife as well, eating 100% good creates food obsessions.  We constantly think about decadent eats.  Though physically healthy, 100% good is not psychologically healthy.

And so I am shouting from the rooftops: 80/20 from now on!  I am sure some days will be closer to 60/40. Some days 95/5. An even keel over the long haul is the goal, and I think the waters look pretty smooth from here on out.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Last week, I mentioned to my wife that I was contemplating giving up sugar for a bit.  If you know my wife, you know she grew excited with this passing comment. She pounced!  ‘Yes’! ‘Let’s do it!’.  She wanted to do the same thing, and she was correct to note that she would be more likely to accomplish this difficult goal if we did it together.  I knew the same thing could be said for me.  Backsliding is easy when you make difficult goals, and having a partner both pushing you, and watching over you helps a lot.

So, the goal was set: 21 days with no processed sugars!

Now, let me put this to you straight. This did not mean NO SUGARS at all.  Carbs and sugars are a necessary part of any diet, especially when you want to keep up the energy needed to go to the gym 5 times a week…or, like my wife, 5 hours a day, 7 days a week. So fruit is fine for us and whole grains are a necessity. What is off limits are treats, white bread, crackers, and a litany of other foods that are always cheap and plentiful in our 21st century society.

Oh, how I miss you homemade pretzels!

Oh, how I miss you homemade pretzels!

To be fair, our eating habits were already pretty far along towards our goal. Unlike so many Americans, we never drink soda, rarely drink alcohol, and avoid fast-food like the plague.  But, like so many of our national brethren, we love our pizza with white crust, the occasional ice cream indulgence, and the far too common homemade cookie.  If you remember from a previous post, I like to bake bread. My bakery is temporarily closed. No muffins, cakes, cookies.

But, this has not been the hardest thing. Recently, a different processed food packed with sugar has become a proto-addiction for

Evil. Pure Evil.

Evil. Pure Evil.

Jen and I: Cereal….  ‘Damn you Trader Joe’s and your delicious cereals (I shout shaking my fist)’.  Prior to our pledge, we had been burning through 4-6 boxes a week!  Holy smokes that is a lot of sugar. This weakness was the thing that pushed us to set a goal.

So how are we doing? Well, as I  type we are on day 7 of 21. Here a couple of quick thoughts:

1. Eating sugar has false promise. I want it, but I know it never fulfills my hopes. But, it is obviously addictive. The first couple days were extremely hard to not simply pop a sugary snack in my mouth. Even when I wasn’t hungry, I still had to consciously stop my hand from grabbing some crackers.

2. Processed foods, and the sugars within them, are ubiquitous.  It is amazing how many things have sugar added that you never notice. For instance, last night,

Said Chicken Fajitas

Said Chicken Fajitas

we made chicken fajitas (with stone-ground corn tortillas), and my wife and I both wanted to add hot sauces to our food. But, each of them had sugar added! Errrgghhh!

3. It is satisfying how quickly you can feel physical and mental changes without sugar!  Quite honestly, my mind feels more clear, and a little of the excess fat on the body is shedding.  All those useless, extra calories really do make a difference.

All in all, I am pretty well pleased with our challenge.  So, why write a blog about it?  Well, I am not bragging, and I am not trying to shame you into any new diet.  No, I figure putting this out there for people to read will keep me honest.

Otherwise, I might crack and grab some of that damn TJ’s cereal.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

All in all, I loved my college years.  I wouldn’t say they were the best days of my life because I am pretty happy with where I am at right now. Still, they were pretty great.

For five years (yeah, that’s right, five years! So what?) during the mid to late 90’s, I attended Michigan State University.  Most non-Michiganders know MSU for their recent big-time sports success, but I wasn’t a student during the last two decades of our football and basketball highpoints.  I really didn’t care though. Just MSU Spartans defeat Boise State University 17-13 on Aug. 18, 2012.attending the games, no matter the weather, was great fun.  Tailgating with friends, and going crazy with 75,000 strangers with a common passion is always a rush.

Did I say ‘go crazy’? Well, not really. I wasn’t a huge partier. Don’t get me wrong, I did have fun when I wanted to have fun. But I was more conservative than many of my classmates. The parties were okay. But, what I really loved was the notion that I had the opportunity to party. And not just party. I had the opportunity to do what I wanted with my life.  It was this freedom that I loved. This crazy, wonderful, beautiful freedom. From my first day at MSU, to my last, I cherished it. One of my fondest memories of my college years actually took place during my first week at MSU. Why? Nothing shocking.  A couple good friends of mine from my hometown stayed out all-night.  There was no reason to do this. We weren’t drinking. I think we ordered a pizza at 2 college-photo_15926.AM, simply because we could order a pizza at 2 AM! Most vividly and warmly, I remember sitting out in an open field near my dorm at 4 in the morning discussing….well….all the quasi-philosophic stuff 18 year old college freshmen discuss during their first week away from home. It was great.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one who had this freedom, and many of my co-Spartans took advantage in much more, shall we say, boisterous ways.  As I got older, I became more serious. I decided I really wanted to dedicate myself to my studies. I wanted to go to graduate school, and I realized grades would be important. So, I truly began to love school; not just the freedom and the fun. I found I preferred the library over parties. I enjoyed the classroom more than the dorm-room.  I wanted to read books, not just beer labels. Yeah, I was a pretentious little ass, but I really don’t feel much embarrassment about it.  Being 21 is the time to be a pretentious little ass.

Over those five years of my life, I look back with satisfaction and fulfillment….but, there is one thing….just one thing I wish I had done. No, I don’t wish I had pledged to a frat; or had tried more drugs; or had taken part in more riots (don’t ask; I will save this for another blog). My one regret is I wish I had studied abroad. I wish I had taken classes in Europe, seminars in Asia, colloquiums in the Middle East.

Study abroad would have been wonderful.  Everyone I have ever known who took part in study-abroad have raved about their experiences.  After working at a University for 13 years, I have seen students go overseas and come StudyAbroad-things-to-considerback new, more intriguing people.  Why did I not do this? It is the same old story of all regrets. I thought I would have all the time in the world, and now I realize I was a foolish, pretentious 21 year old for thinking so.  Now, I have two kids, lots of bills to pay, and seemingly little free time.  Alas, I missed my chance….

But wait! I’m not going to feel sorry for myself.  As the lads from Monty Python said, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.  I’m not going to let this regret eat away at me. I need to recapture some of that college freedom! I need to step up and do this! If I regret not going 20 years ago, imagine how I will feel in another 20 years?

The big 4-0 is right around the corner.  Time to make that decade the best years of my life!  The era of Stelzer Jocks/Jocks Stelzer travels are about to begin! Let’s do this!

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Americans cherish freedom.  When I ask my students what they think of, or what they think others think of, when they hear the word ‘America’,  ‘Freedom’ is almost invariably the first answer given.  From a young age, we are taught that freedom is the life-blood of America, and hence, of American history. Our founding stories are the beginning, and heart of this narrative.

National foundations have the habit to intertwine history and mythology; the American tale is no different.  From our Republic’s earliest days, the hagiography of the founders was central.  Some of this was self-created by theweems founders themselves, such as Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Autobiography'; some was conjured by the second generation of Americans who just missed the romance of the Revolution. As the Revolutionary generation began to die off, the younger men and women of post-Revolutionary America lionized the lives and accomplishments of their forebears.  Most famously, in the decade after the death of Washington in 1799, the little known Parson Weems produced a heroic biography of our first President that depicted the man as moral exemplar and ethical sage. Weems’ book became an American ‘bestseller’.

Today, Americans are generally less naive about the founders.  Washington did not ever say ‘I cannot tell a lie,’ and he most definitely is not a moral model for the 21st century. Most realize that Washington, and many other founders, were slave-owners. This paradox encapsulates American history. As the founders crafted our Constitution, their worldview was crafted by their slave society.  Jefferson, Madison, Monroe: denizens of freedom; owners of human beings.  Conversely, John Adams did not own any slaves.  But, American slave society did not draw distinctions between slave-drivers imagesand those who simply lived along side.  When Adams was in Philadelphia in 1776, calling for revolutionary independence, his wife Abigail wrote him to ‘remind him’ about the possibility of women’s rights.  Sounding like a 21st century woman, Abigail wrote ” I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.”

But, Abigail was living in the 18th century, and her husband was an 18th century man.  He wrote back in response that her concern for women’s rights made him ‘laugh’. He said he had been warned that the American,

‘Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient — that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent — that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. — This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.’

Here Adams was stating the Revolution was really only for a few.  Women, Indians, children and, of course, Negroes need not apply.

But, Adams was blind.  Even as his revolution was rocking the world, his world was being rocked by those ‘insolent negroes.’ They were making their own freedom.


How can we understand what most African-Americans thought about the American Revolution and the new American government?  Since most African-Americans were in bondage in 1776, their thoughts and words have been lost to the ages. However, their actions were recorded and these actions proved these people were revolutionaries in their own right. Thousands of men, women and children rebelled by grabbing freedom with their own hands. For these African-American revolutionaries, the British did not mean oppression; the British were a tool for liberty.  In his 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, the historian Alan Taylor pointed out that African-Americans repeatedly fled for freedom in the early Republic. In 1812, when the United States declared war on Great Britain for a second time, slaves from the south fled to British ships, and British lines, yet again.  In other words, the slaves were not helpless victims. Like the patriots who fought for freedom against the British in 1776, these enslaved Americans were fighting a revolution for their own freedom.

The War of 1812 ended in 1815, and with it, British presence in America. Slaves now had few options for freedom. They could rise up with violence; or they could run away to a gradually emancipating north. Neither of these options held great promise. Northern states were by no means the land of freedom for African-Americans. Whereas in the South, the unjust system of American slavery was becoming more entrenched, and more caustic as the years went by. After Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, the world of the slave was obsessively monitored by white society.  Freedom was curtailed more and more as the Civil War drew nearer. What was needed in these dark days was a clarion call for freedom that illustrated American hypocrisy. The little remembered David Walker was the man who took the necessary stand. He would be one our nation’s most important moral voices. In 1829, he published his ‘Appeal’ and that work would inspire later radical abolitionists such as Garrison, the Grimke sisters and Frederick Douglass.  In walkers-appealincredibly upfront language for 1829, Walker’s ‘Appeal’ accused white Americans of the greatest, most horrific hypocrisy.  He wrote,

‘See your Declaration Americans! ! ! Do you understand your own language? Hear your languages, proclaimed to the world, July 4th, 1776 — “We hold these truths to be self evident — that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL! ! that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! !” Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us — men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation’

Because of such truthtelling, Walker became public enemy number 1 in the south. He was not much liked in the north either.  In 1830, as Walker’s ‘Appeal’ was being burned in effigy, Walker was found dead in Boston of Tuberculous. It was a tragic end of an under appreciated American freedom fighter. But, Walker had opened eyes. He helped those who followed him see that slavery would not go quietly.  In April 1861, all of America came to the same realization.

The Civil War has largely been understood through the actions and memorializations of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln has been portrayed as an American martyr for freedom; the wiseman that America needed to save the union and end slavery.  For most Americans, he is the Great Emancipator.  Steven Spielberg’s saccrahine biopic of ol’ Abe does nothing to dispel this notion. Ken Burns famous Civil War documentaries lionized the railsplitter as a stirring genius. But, the story of the Civil War, Lincoln, slavery and emancipation is more complicated than people like Spielberg or Burns lead us to believe.

As most serious historians now agree, African-Americans, and slaves specifically, were constantly forcing Abe’s 5.6.contraband-in-williamsport-camp-of-13th-MA-from-Mollushand, pushing him in a more radical direction than he hoped, or planned, on going. As soon as the war started, and as soon as Union troops invaded the south, slaves fled to Union lines. These enslaved American men, women and children wanted freedom, and just like the English army and navy in 1776 and 1812, the Union military provided an obvious opportunity.  For some racist Union leaders, these runaways were simply annoyances that should have been returned to their ‘rightful owners.’ But, for the savvier officers, the slaves were crucial to defeating the Confederacy. Not only would the runaways help the Union war effort as laborers, they simultaneously crippled the rebels fighting ability. African Americans had created the south; they produced the wealth, the food and the identity of Dixie.  Without them, the rebels would find that the war would be much harder to win on the battlefield and the homefront. Lincoln was not on board initially, and was troubled regarding these people who were taking freedom for themselves.  In 1861, he said, ‘I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists…I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”  However, as the trickle of African Americans taking their freedom became a flood, and as it became clear that these men and women would not be turned away, Lincoln finally took pragmatic action.  By 1863, he was ready to proclaim that the war was being fought for a ‘new birth of freedom.’ African-Americans understood this long before he did.

In 1776, 1812, 1829, 1831, 1861, and many other years in-between and after, African-Americans changed the way America understood freedom. Thousands of forgotten, and quite literally nameless men and women took revolutionary action for ideals Americans hold sacred. The freedom they fought for, and died for, should be bigger than one day in July, or one month each winter. Their actions should be celebrated all year long.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Way back in September, perhaps on the 17th or the 21st of that month, I proclaimed that my family had entered “The Autumn of Bread”.  Sounds regal, right?  Well, it is.  For the last 2 and 1/2 months I have been trying to bake a new type of bread each week.  Some weeks I do more than one loaf, and some weeks I just repeat a previous hit.  ‘The Autumn of Bread’ has been wonderful. If

Pretzels!

Pretzels!

you don’t believe me, ask my wife.

Let me give you a little background on why I am doing this.

First off, I need to explain the name.

A couple years ago, my brother and sister-in-law went to Ireland. When they returned, they declared it was going to be the ‘year of the sausage’.  They had eaten so much processed, salted meat on

Focaccia with pear, bleu cheese and caramelized onions.

Focaccia with pear, bleu cheese and caramelized onions.

the Emerald Isle, that they decided to bring the practice home with them.  That sodium-filled year was inspiring. Ever since, whenever my wife and I become a bit obsessed with a foodstuff we jokingly name the season after said foodstuff: ‘The year of the Latte'; ‘The Winter of the Brussel Sprout'; ‘The Season of the Waffle'; Etc.

But, ‘The Autumn of Bread’ has beaten all previous comers. For all you bread-bakers, you understand why.

If you have never baked bread, what are you waiting for?

Here are a couple reasons everyone should bake bread, at least at some point in their lives:

  1. Fresh baked bread straight out of the oven may be the best, most satisfying food a human being can eat. No joke.
  2. Baking bread calls for creativity. The methods, the flours, the flavors, the herbs, the designs, the tastes.  Once you have the basic skills down, you can really play around and try new things.
  3. Baking homemade, leavened bread is an amazing science experiment.  If you have kids, you can show them how them the physico-chemical right in your own kitchen.    Actually, why don’t science teachers use bread-making as a teaching tool?  It is microbiology and chemistry lesson in one. Two great tastes that taste great together.
  4. Scientific? Sure, but also mystical. Bread grows seemingly on its own, gaining airiness because of the ancient tiny lifeforms that are working their microscopic butts off. We help them, they help us. So symbiotic.
  5. For me as a historian, I feel tied to the past when I make bread.  It is so central to so many cultures and rituals that bread has some magical humanistic quality that is hard to pin down.
  6. Last, it is a gamble, Thus, when you win, the payoff is so rewarding. Unlike whipping up many foods, bread has the capibility to be a huge disaster and waste of time. This may sound like a negative, but it means that once you have the skill down, you really feel accomplished once you complete it.

As the solstice quickly approaches, and with it, the dregs of winter, I wonder if the Autumn of Bread should become the Winter of Yeast?  Let me ask my wife and kids. I think I know the answer.

 

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Thesis: Ignorance is bliss.

Antithesis: Knowledge is power.

Disturbing Synthesis: A little knowledge and a lot of ignorance is damn frightening.

The first two statements are cliches..  But, as with all cliches, there is a great deal of truth to them. What I am finding is that the third statement, though not as pithy or memorable, is no less true.  It seems like everywhere in America today, this disturbing synthesis is prevalent. The latest example is popular, and popularly misguided reactions to the ebola outbreak.

Those who are completely ignorant of ebola are not necessarily problematic. Approach them on the street and ask about the disease, and you may get blank stares and a shrug of the shoulders.  They have no worries; no concerns; no 291933-ebola-virusknowledge.  Honestly, the vast majority of Americans will never be affected by ebola, and so is it really surprising that our notoriously narcissistic selves may simply say, ‘who cares’?  Many of the ignorant may be callous, a great deal may be apathetic, but they are not dangerous.

The antithesis of this state is knowledge. An understanding of how the disease transmits, what it does to those affected, and how likely it is to spread is necessary. A realization that help should be sent to Africa is nobly knowledgeable.  Those with knowledge appreciate that there are much greater worries in this world than the highly unlikely chance of catching ebola. Knowledge, and its offspring perspective, allows an American to realize the food we put in our mouths poses a much greater threat to our health than any hemorrhagic fever.  Nonetheless, the informed American appreciates the power, and horror of disease, and the necessity of containment.  In our globalized age, a disease affecting Africa may not reach us personally, but the social revolutions, economic catastrophes, and military strife that may come as a result of the disease very well could.  Being an isolationist is not an option when it comes to fighting microbes.  Paradoxically, being self-centered should lead to a concern for the other.

It is the last, the synthesis, that should keep us up at night; it is the synthesis that must be fought against.  The happy medium between knowledge and ignorance is not all that happy, but it is disturbingly easy to come by.  Google, 24 hours news, and social media are the pushers of spin, sensationalism, conspiracies and half-truths.  The American people are the addicts.

Ebola-is-realIn a perfect world, Google allows us to find ‘truth’ in a simple easily structured search format. If you ‘google’ ebola, you will get articles from the WHO, the CDC, and the BBC.  But, accidently put an ‘h’ after ebola, and the logarithm used by the website offers you the opportunity to search ‘Ebola Hoax’.  Search that, and you start to fall down the rabbit hole.

I got a glimpse of this the other day. Riding home on the train, four adults, seemingly sane, began to discuss ebola.  There were the typical concerns and questions.  Some of the claims made were incorrect; the disease has not killed 30,000 in Africa, even though this train rider stated it was fact.  But soon things got out of hand.  One of the men shouted that ebola was actually created by the government; he stated that it was categorically true that ebola has been patented and that the government is controlling the disease.  How did he propose to prove this shocking revelation? He said to his friend, ‘give me your phone, and let me ‘Google’ it. I’ll show you!’

The tools for finding information are there for us to use.  They have the capability to provide anyone and everyone with the power of knowledge. Absolute ignorance is now, more often than not, a choice.  The problem seems to be that most people choose to collect only snippets of knowledge.  A ’30 second’ blurb here; a meme there.  Throw in a facebook status posted by a friend with some strange conspiratorial theories, and the synthesis of ignorance and knowledge is off to the races.  Though sprinting away from ignorance, we’re too often stopping far short of knowledge.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Ah, yes….Fall is in the air.  Though the weather doesn’t really say so (I HATE 90 degrees in September!), the television screams Autumn.  This past weekend marked the beginning of our yearly national obsession: Football season.  College football kicked off a week ago, and the NFL gets going tonight. Like millions of other Americans, my wife and I can’t wait. 

But, I try not to be simply an unthinking fanatic; I cannot ignore the sport’s troubling aspects.  As it is so popular, and influential, football as a cultural phenomenon must be closely read.  During the season though, it is easy to lose yourself in the action. The spectacle takes over, and analysis of said spectacle falls by the wayside.  These games are intended to be Heinz Fielddistractions. We inevitably pay attention to what happens on the field, and not off. 

The physicality of the game enraptures the viewer, providing us with the ‘circuses’ that makes him/her forget about real world issues. But this distraction has another layer, since most spectators of the game may be thousands of miles away from the action. The majority of fans sit at home, or at a bar, and watch the game on television. In this, we depend upon the commentators and play-by-play color men to describe, and explicate what occurs on the gridiron.   The Keith Jacksons, Al Michaels, Gus Johnsons and Mike Tiricos give meaning to the events on the field. Their voices are as much a part of the game, as the play itsefl. These men and women ‘talk the NBCs-Sunday-Night-Football-team-of-Cris-Collinsworth-Al-Michaels-and-Michele-Tafoya-not-pictured-picked-up-their-sixth-straight-Emmy-Award.game'; they make language central to our viewing experience.

Football, perhaps more than any other sport, is marked by language. Repeated metaphors, analogies and euphemisms are utilized by football announcers to make the game and players more human; more understandable.  But, language manipulates, as well as explicates. Metaphors, analogies and euphemisms have the ability to deceive, as well as simplify. There is a dark side to the football lexicon, though it can be hard to catch.

Here is a necessary, and necessarily quick, primer for the upcoming football season.

  • Racial codes:

 Racial profiling and stereotypes are commonly coded into commentator speech. Perhaps the most obvious example occurs when announcers compare one player to another, either of the same era, or a previous one.  Very rarely, if ever, do white players get compared to black players, or vice versa.  This is especially the case when discussing players at positions that have been traditionally composed of a different racial group  So, for instance, Russell Wilson is compared, not to Tom Brady, but to Michael Vick. Wes Welker is not compared to possession receivers such as Marvin Harrison, but guys like Steve Largent. The list goes on.

Such comparisons may be natural.  We inherently look for similarities between groups and people. But, commentators’ racialized understanding of the game goes beyond player comparisons. Coded racial language is also commonly utilized to describe players and their abilities. The obvious example of this is the term ‘athletic’ being constantly used as a descriptor for black players.  Similar and related terms, such as ‘explosive’, ‘physical specimen’ and ‘natural ability’, are simply different versions of ‘athletic’  Rarely will you hear white football players being described in this way.  Instead, white players will often be labelled as ‘hard-workers’, ‘intelligent’, and ‘dedicated to the game’.  If white players ever get the ‘athletic’ moniker, it usually comes with a disclaimer: the white player in question is ‘surprisingly’, or ‘sneakily’ athletic. On the other hand, if black players ever get the ‘intelligent’ moniker, it too comes with disclaimers: the black player has ‘football intelligence’.

  • Euphemisms for criminal activity

Arguably, the most common code word used during football broadcasts is ‘off the field issues’.  Watch any football game this year, and you will be sure to hear that common refrain.  Of course, this is not the same as the racial code words; those are terms that have been utilized for years, based upon very old racial stereotypes. Racial codes play upon the audiences’ subconscious racial absolutism.  ‘Off the field issues’, on the other hand, is simply a euphemism.  It is used to make the viewer forget many of the horrible things the players have done. Such euphemisms ensure that the ‘real world’ is pushed further afield for the viewer. The ‘off the field issues’ (ie. what is happening in real life) seems to occur in a foreign dimension.  During the game, the viewer is meant to forget about what is happening ‘off the field’.  The term itself is extremely broad ranging.  It can, and has been used when discussing a player’s divorce, or sick child. Most commonly though, it is a euphemism reserved for a player’s criminal, or immoral conduct. 

For example, the other night I watched the Florida State/Oklahoma State game.  FSU is led by Heisman Trophy winner Florida State v PittsburghQuarterback Jameis Winston.  The announcers mentioned that Winston ‘looked excited’ to be playing football again; being in the huddle would allow him to forget about his ‘off the field issues’.  What are these issues? Did he fail a class?  Did he get a little too drunk at a Tallahassee party?  No, his ‘issues’ that he wanted to forget about (and that we should forget about too) were petty theft, and more disturbingly, being accused of rape.  ‘Off the field issues’? Yes, I would say so. 

The NFL is by no means free of ‘off the field issues.’ This euphemism will undoubtedly rear its’ ugly head starting tonight, when the Seahawks take on the Packers.  If not tonight, then on Sunday, when the Baltimore Ravens play their opening game.  If you watch that contest, I will bet that ‘off the field issues’ will be mentioned in the same breath as Baltimore Running Back Ray Rice. Rice’s ‘off the field issue’ that made the news recently happened when he punched his girlfriend (soon to be wife) in the face, and dragged her unconscious into their apartment. Unfortunately, Rice is not the only player with this ‘off the field issue’.

  • The Language of Injury

 Football’s most controversial topic over the last decade has been the prevalence of concussions during the games, and footballwhat this may do to players’ long term neurological health.  With this in mind, I heard a disturbing euphemism during a college game last week that is extremely prevalent.  After a player got knocked out the game, and was on the sideline being checked for concussion type symptoms, the sideline sports reporter relayed the ‘good’ news that the player would be coming back in the game soon.  Evidently, the 20 year old was fine, and simply got ‘his bell rung’.  What a dangerous term!  I have never had a concussion, but I assume the term ‘bell rung’ means that you are confused, and perhaps, literally, ‘hearing a ringing sound’, as though you were inside a bell.  Using such terminology does two things. First, it covers up with folk language what could be a serious medical injury. Second, by using the ‘bell rung’ term as euphemism, it allows us to judge the player.  If he ‘only’ got his ‘bell rung’, then why is he not back out on the field?  He needs to keep going, as getting your ‘bell rung’ is simply a common part of the game.  If a player sits out for too long after getting his ‘bell rung’, the announcers and the audience often start to question the player’s toughness.   Is he a true football player?

Unfortunately, that is what we really want to know. Everything else is secondary.

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

When I can’t read books, I enjoy listening to them.   I am teaching this quarter at three different campuses, and hence, I am forced to be in the car quite a bit, driving the wonderful expressways of Chicago-land, and/or sitting in the seemingly endless, ubiquitous metro road work. Books on CD are my savior; they are my sanity. Instead of just sitting there swearing at other drivers, I can listen to a good book. 

During the last seven weeks of the second summer quarter, I have gone through a number of books on CD. I started the quarter listening to Dan Ariely’s Upside of Irrationality.  I must admit, I only got about half-way through when I just couldn’t take the recounting of behavioral experiments any longer.  I then moved on to Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on themedium Alimentary Canal.  Roach’s popular science book is filled with fascinating, sometimes disturbing, sometimes hilarious anecdotes about saliva, mastication, the stomach, digestion and much more.  I didn’t finish this one either, since there is only so much heavy description I could take. I then moved on to Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.  Greenblatt is one of the world’s preeminent Shakespeare scholars, and this book illustrated why.  It is a biographical and social historical literary critique of the bard and his times. Strangely, I attempted to read this book a couple years ago, but just couldn’t get into it.  Listening to it was much more enjoyable.

The quarter is now winding down. For my last 4 weeks of travel, I decided to go for something a bit different.  Browsing RMU library’s selection of audiobooks, I came upon Markus Zusak’s 2006 best-selling novel The Book Thief, a fictional account of a young German girl struggling to survive during the Nazi dictatorship. I picked it up, and checked it out.

I was not ignorant of this novel. In fact, I actually own a paperback copy of the work, and I have thought many times about reading it. But, I have never gotten around to picking the book up. Honestly, I figured listening to the book may be the best thing to do, since there is no guarantee I would ever actually read the book. You see, novels are usually not at the top of my reading list. I’m a non-fiction reader first and foremost.  I would say for every 20 books I read, 1 is a work of fiction.  I read a hand-full of novels a year. Would Zusak’s work ever make the list? There were a couple reasons to be dubious.

71h2sjik5al-_sl1380_First, Zusak’s novel is not located with my other books. Most of my books are around me at all times.  They are in my living room, in my dining room and at my desk at work. I am constantly looking them over. Often I will base my reading decision upon what book catches my eye.  The Book Thief has never caught my eye. It is not in my living room; or my kitchen; or at my desk. It is in my 7 year old daughter’s room.

If you did not know already, The Book Thief is considered, and labelled, as a ‘Children’s book.’  It is ‘adolescent literature.’  And this is the second reason I probably would not be reading the book any time soon. I am not a kid (surprise!).  I honestly don’t really want to read a ‘children’s book’ on my free-time, as I read kid’s books all the time with my daughters.  I need something more serious; more grown up; more….adult.

 However, I had always heard that The Book Thief was wonderful. I had read reviews that it was a powerful, serious novel. The back cover of the book described a plot that did not sound very childish. So, I figured, if I am not ever going to read it, I might as well give it a listen.

A  reminder: Don’t judge a book by it’s cover….or it’s genre.

The verdict? 4 CDs through, 9 more to go (please no spoilers) and I am hooked.  It is a wonderful novel. Extremely well-written and psychologically complex. The book rings true, both historically and emotionally. I highly recommend it.

But, I am left with one question: Why is this considered a ‘children’s book’? 

The book is not light or pleasant.  Zusak doesn’t whitewash disturbing facts; he does a wonderful job portraying human behavior during the darkest of times.  It is readable, but the prose is by no means childish or simplistic. Why is this ‘for kids’?

 Is it simply because the main character is a 9 year old girl, and that we, as readers, are expected to enter her mental world? Do publishers believe that adults don’t remember what it is like to be a child, with all the fun and terror that goes along with it? Do publishers assume that children will only want to read about children, and adults only want to read about adults?  

Since I am not a publisher of books, I can’t say.  But, as a reader of books, I can say that The Book Thief should be on your, or your children’s, bookshelf.