Posts Tagged ‘History Faculty’

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.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

When we hear about violence between the Israelis and Palestinians marring the Middle East, it is common to view the situation as ahistorical, or even timeless.  The news media sometimes plays this game by painting the troubles of the Holy Land as having ancient roots, as though this fight has been going on for 3000 years.  Though this may seem to be the case to outside observers, Umujyi-wa-Gaza-uri-kuraswa-nindege-za-Israel1this is most definitely a false belief.  The seemingly unending disputes in the region stem from the very recent past (relative to the history of the land where the fighting is taking place.)  To understand the crisis, we need to cover a century’s time; a drop in the chronological bucket for the ancient world of Palestine.

To grasp the complex situation, we could investigate many formative years of the crisis: 1936-1939, 1948, 1967, 1973, etc.  But, to get to the heart of the matter, we must look at the year 1917, and the war that was changing the world at that time.

In 1917, the First World War was entering it’s 4th year.  Millions had already died on battlefronts all over the globe, and the carnage did not seem to be abating.  In February of that year, Revolution struck Russia, the Czar fell, and a provisional reform government gained power, vowing to continue the fight against Germany.  France still had German troops on her soil, and fr-trenchwas facing mutiny from disaffected frontline troops who had been sent into the meat-grinder one too many times.  Britain was feeling the strain of the Kaiser’s U-Boat attacks, and was concerned that their new ally America would not get troops over to Europe quick enough to help in the war effort. 

Nonetheless, these struggles did not stop British and French policymakers from planning a new postwar order. In 1916, the two nations agreed upon dividing Mideast Ottoman holdings between themselves, with, of course, the assumption that the war was to be won.  Such plans would be moot if Germany won the war.

Victory was precarious, but oh so colonially valuable; the beginning of 1917 was the ‘now or never’ moment for the Brits. As the French were slowly crumbling, the little Island nation needed to assure themselves of allies. 

Ironically, it would be an anti-Semitic stereotype that would influence British policymakers in their quest for war assistance. Many within the halls of power in London held old, quite often offensive, and generally apocryphal notions that the Jewish communities of Russia and the United States had disproportionate power and influence. Hence, London was looking for a way to please these mythical Jews in the hope that their supposed power would ensure Russian continuation in the war, and absolute American military and financial involvement. 

Thus, with their plan of controlling Palestine after the war, the British government decided to make a promise to the Jewish people, and the Zionist movement in particular.  If Britain won the war, and gained Palestine as a holding, the Jews would be given a home land in the Holy Land.  This was the so-called ‘Balfour Declaration’, named after Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary. The declaration, which was in the form of a letter, read:

November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,
Arthur James Balfour

Of course, for the Zionist movement, this letter embodied opportunity and hope.  The letter seemed to grant 220px-Balfour_Declaration_in_the_Times_9_November_1917the future promise of a national state. However, for the Arabs already living in Palestine, who the British understood as being a backward, controllable people, this letter would quickly be interpreted as a imperialistic tragedy.

According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, the Balfour Declaration, and future statements of the British government in the years immediately following WWI illustrated that Palestinians ‘were seen as insignificant “natives” and usurpers, whereas the incoming Jews were viewed both as Europeans and as the rightful owners of Palestine.”

‘The rightful owners of Palestine':  Can any words be more loaded? 

One hundred years on, the decisions made for the sake of ending the “War to End All Wars”  continues to spark bloody conflicts.

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. June 28th.  A prominent date in the history of the world. To be more precise, June 28th, 1914.  100 years ago almost to the day. If you don’t recognize this date, and if it doesn’t ring bells like December 7th, July 4th, or September 11th, let me explain. On June 28th, 1914, a young Serbian terrorist by the name of Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the

Artist's drawing of the assassination.

Artist’s drawing of the assassination.

Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  This assassination set into motion the foreign policy decisions of Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France and England that led to the outbreak of the Great War during the summer of 1914. The Great War was in no way a ‘good war’.  Greatness signified scale, not quality.  The horror of the war made people hope that it would be the ‘war to end all war.’  In fact, the opposite was the case. The Great War would in actuality be overshadowed 20 years later by an even more extreme conflict in the Second World War.   But to understand the Second, we must investigate the First, because without it, the Second would not have taken place. With the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the The First World War approaching, I think it only right to put together a series of blogs devoted to this catastrophe of  human folly.


There are only handful of people living today who were alive during the First World War, and most were tiny children at the time. All those who fought in the war, and lived to tell the tale, have long since passed on.  For the vast majority of us today, the war lives on only in written memory and cultural imagination.  Ironically though, the war can seem completely unimaginable.   The sheer scale of the war for anyone under 80 years old (who can remember the even more massive Second World War) is beyond  reckoning.  Since 1960, the Western way of war has become localized and specialized; like much else, war has become professionalized, mechanized, and corporatized. For my generation of Americans who have not been a part of the military (the vast majority of us), war can seem remotely distant; both geographically, and emotionally. Statistics can paint the picture. Numbers will provide us perspective.

fallujah-203

American soldiers fighting in Fallujah

In the Second Iraq War, the ‘Second Battle of Fallujah” was the largest battle fought.  In this battle American, British and Iraqi forces attacked insurgents in the Iraqi city of Fallajuh. The coalition forces fought with 13,000 men. They outnumbered the 5,000 insurgents within the city.  The battle lasted a little over a month. It was deadlier than most engagements.  Coalition forces lost over a hundred killed in action, and 600 wounded, and the insurgents lost about 1500 dead. These numbers should not be belittled. But, when put into relation to the First World War, Fallujah illustrates the extreme horror of 1914-1918. Let’s compare Fallujah to the worst of The First World War; The Battle of Verdun.  The Battle of Verdun took place from February 1916, until December 1916.  The

French soldiers at Verdun

French soldiers at Verdun

battle began when German forces attacked French positions east of the ancient fortress city of Verdun.  On the morning of February 21st, the Germans inundated the French lines with over 150,000 men.  In the lead up to the attack, the Germans rained down 2.5 million shells on the French forces.  For 10 months, the two armies slugged it out over terrain that slowly became more and more nightmarishly pock-mocked.  With the dead everywhere, constantly being violently disinterred by artillery, Verdun was often described as a giant charnel house. Being sent into the battle’s front line was understood to be close to a death sentence.  Here is how two different French soldiers described the experience:

You eat beside the dead; you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself beside the dead and you sleep beside the dead. People will read that the front line was Hell. How can people begin to know what that one word – Hell – means.

After almost a year of incessant fighting, both the French and Germans lost roughly 350,000 men each.  In this one battle alone, 700,000 men died.  To put that into perspective,

Aerial photo of Verdun fort before and after battle.

Aerial photo of Verdun fort before and after battle.

that is about the number of Americans killed in The American Revolution, The War of 1812, The Mexican-American War, The First World War, The Second World War, The Korean War, The Vietnam War and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan….COMBINED. One battle, Ten months, 700,000 dead.  The First World War would have a thousand more battles, and would rage for over 40 months more.  Those men who died at Verdun would be joined by 9 MILLION others. It is difficult to wrap your mind around such suffering. This war’s blood-letting would form our world. In the coming weeks, we will see how.