Posts Tagged ‘History’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

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

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

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Voltaire

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

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

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

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

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

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Moving Voltaire to the Pantheon

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

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

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

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Last week, the New York Times ran an amazing story.  Evidently, a team of researchers have been spending the last few years developing a ‘genetic atlas’ of the world.  What is a ‘genetic atlas’ you might ask?  Put simply, the researchers have been collecting, and comparing the genomes of people living in many parts of the world, all the while finding similarities and shared genetic markers between seemingly disparate communities. Our DNA tells the story of human history, and surprise, surprise, it is pretty messy (the history, not the DNA).  Shared genome sequences point to, in scientific lingo, ‘mixing events’, and

Some of the hundred or so major mixing events they describe have
plausible historical explanations, while many others remain to be
accounted for. For instance, many populations of the southern
Mediterranean and Middle East have segments of African origin in their
genomes that were inserted at times between A.D. 650 and 1900,
according to the geneticists’ calculations. This could reflect the activity of
the Arab slave trade, which originated in the seventh century, and the
absorption of slaves into their host populations

genetic_atlasTwo things stick out to me most with this amazing, exciting research.  First, the findings of this study, and many others of the same ilk, are continually clouding our ideas about race. This is especially so for Americans, who historically have portrayed race as absolute, and physically evident.  Historians realize that notions such as ‘white’ and ‘black’ have culturally metamorphosed over the years, and that race as a definitive genetic category is socially constructed.  But to the average American born within the twentieth century, racial categories are non-negotiable.  You are either ‘white’ or ‘black’ or ‘Asian’, or something else.  Hence, when last quarter one of my students who was raised in Bulgaria mentioned to the class that she does not consider herself to be ‘white’, though she fits the ‘Caucasian’ physical bill, many of my students were dumbfounded.  Since they were born in America, they believe her whiteness to be not a choice; it is a mark of her biological essence.

Studies such as the ‘genetic atlas’ throw such ideas for a loop.  As the quote above illustrates, a white-skinned Italian-American student may have a genome made up of Middle Eastern, African and European portions.  Though twenty-first century Americans would consider him/her white, how do we base such a notion?  Do we simply go upon highest percentage of DNA for racial grouping?  Well, American history has generally said no to this solution.  Race, specifically ‘blackness’, but necessarily then ‘whiteness’ as well, is not based upon majority genome markers.  As Professor F. James Davis explains:

To be considered black in the United States not even half of one’s ancestry must be African black. But will one-fourth do, or one-eighth, or less? The nation’s answer to the question ‘Who is black?” has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry. This definition reflects the long experience with slavery and later with Jim Crow segregation. In the South it became known as the “one-drop rule,” meaning that a single drop of “black blood” makes a person a black. It is also known as the “one black ancestor rule,” some courts have called it the “traceable amount rule,” and anthropologists call it the “hypo-descent rule,” meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group. This definition emerged from the American South to become the nation’s definition, generally accepted by whites and blacks. Blacks had no other choice….

As Davis points out, the ‘one drop rule’ became central to identifying power and status in the dark days of slavery and Jim Crow.  Ironically enough, such a definition of ‘hypo-descent’ was necessary for American slave-v1m2012_art10_im5_growners since they  themselves were consistently ‘mixing’ with their African-American chattel.  Though the ‘Virginian Luxuries’ sign was meant to critique the practice, it illustrates the well-known fact that slave-owners (male only) were allowed, and sometimes encouraged, to take a slave mistress.  Though never truly consensual, these interracial couplings produced thousands of ‘mulatto’ children. It was all-important to identify who was, and who was not, a slave.

Thus, I come to the second striking aspect of the ‘genetic atlas’ study.  Notice from the initial quote above what historical events caused the genetic mixing? It was usually the worst aspects of human history.  Slavery, wars, and the growth of empires caused human genomes to splice in all different directions. The history of American genetic ‘mixing’ events in the Colonial, and early Republican periods was nothing new to the human experience.  American slavery was similar to Roman wars of conquest; or Mongolian empire building; or the Arab slave trade. Each was based upon unequal power dynamics  with one people being the exploiter, and the other the exploited. Exploitation of labor, and exploitation of sex.  Our genomes display the continually violent, often horrendous tale of human historical misery.

But, let’s look for a more positive side of this research, shall we?

Maybe, just maybe, we are witnessing the birth of a new, more peaceful ‘genetic atlas.’ The twenty-first century may be the first time that human-kind is mixing ‘racial’ genetic traits voluntarily and equally.  Just look at America today. What was once a taboo ‘mixing event’ is becoming something common and accepted.   Just in the last decade, there has been a 28% growth in interracial/ethnic marriages in the US.  At this point, around 10% of married couples are interracial. The number is even higher for non-married couples (18%).  As these couples have children, and their children grow up, and meet partners themselves, interracial numbers will only grow. The vast majority of Americans have no problem with this development. Is America specifically breaking racial ground? Is the genetic atlas of the 21st century going to be consensually complex?

You may say I am being naive, and maybe I am.  You may say that America is still a racialized society, and you would be right.  You may say that American racism is alive and well, and I would sadly agree with you. Racism is thriving in America.  But, perhaps race is slowly perishing.

It’s a start.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Martin Luther King, a rabble-rousing civil disobedient, is now an American national hero.  This statement is obvious.  It is fact.  But, the lionization of MLK in America today elevates him beyond simply the level of hero. For the vast majority of the country, he is part of a even more exclusive pantheon of great Americans.   Paradoxically, we can see this by the use, and misuse, of MLK’s name and memory.

Watch the news.  Listen to the political talk-show hacks.  Use C-Span to spy on Congress as they argue over some arcane issue.  If Martin Luther King’s name comes up in any of these arenas, it is usually because someone12583152-standard is calling upon his memory to harden their argument into a moral imperative.  Or, alternatively, MLK’s memory and beliefs will be used to differentiate a political enemy’s ideals from those of the great Civil Rights leader. In other words, a sanitized, sanctified version of Martin Luther King has become a political weapon.  ‘What Would MLK say/think about this?” constantly gets thrown out into the public realm, leading to such ridiculously unanswerable questions as “what would MLK think about assault weapon bans?,’ or, ‘what would MLK believe about the Chick-Fil-A boycott’!  The best question, but the one that is never asked is, ‘What would Martin Luther King think about all these ‘What Would MLK think’ queries?”

Though sometimes absurd, or even distasteful, this usage of MLK’s message and life places him into exclusive company.  Only a handful of American historical figures are appropriated by the political left and right in this way. In fact, only the nation’s ‘founders’ are called upon as often as King and his legacy.

FoundersWhen the moniker ‘the founders’ gets thrown around in today’s political culture, it usually refers to a small sampling of men who signed the Declaration of Independence, fought the Revolution, and created the Constitution. Though usually not stated outright, it is safe to assume Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin are the big six.  Though historians will tell you that these men disagreed constantly and vociferously about the the meaning of America, twenty-first century Americans gloss over such complexities.  When ‘the founders’ are spoken of as a homogeneous bunch, it is usually to justify our political proclivities, or attack political enemies.  “What would the founders say about Obamacare?” “What would the founders think about waterboarding?” Picking and choosing the quotes of Jefferson, or Franklin that suit their needs, media personalities and political figures utilize ‘the founders’ to fight today’s political battles.

MLK is now part of this national pantheon. But, in one way at least, MLK is an even more evocative symbol than Jefferson, Adams or Washington. King’s image and visage resonates so brightly not just because of his life, but also his death.  Unlike ‘the founders’, MLK is a national martyr.  He died for what we understand today as being the best of American ideals.  Though ‘the founders’ fought to create the nation, and their lives were often in danger, none of them made the greatest sacrifice for the new republic.  (Of course, Hamilton is the exception. He died a martin-luther-king-jr-in-front-of-lincoln-memorialrelatively young man in a violent manner, killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. But, to our twenty-first century eyes, this death, though romantic, was not for the nation, but only for Hamilton’s individual pride and honor.) Most of the first generation of American heroes passed away quietly in their beds. They had cleared their own, and the nation’s hurdles, while alive.  They lived to see their dreams made real. MLK died before he reached his ‘promised land.’

But, martyrs die so that others may live.  Martyrology means that King’s death caused our collective rebirth. This places MLK in an even more exclusive club.  It could be argued there is only one other member: Abraham Lincoln.  Both King and Lincoln fit the definition of martyrs as they both died so that others could thrive and survive.  Both American heroes foresaw the future far before their contemporaries, and died for this prescience.

As our nation is at fault for the death of these two men, the least we can do is celebrate their births. 

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

With Armistice Day but a few weeks past, and the commemoration of President Kennedy’s life and short tenure as president only several days away, I nevertheless can’t help noticing how completely the immediate concerns of the present grab our attention whether it’s keeping us absorbed in preparations for a big Thanksgiving Day meal, or watching the drama of a malicious tornado swooping down on an innocent small Illinois town, or shaken by yet another story about a suicide bomber in Iraq killing fourteen people while walking on their way home. This absorption in the present is certainly understandable, yet it also entails a drawback for it inexorably leads us to forget our debts to past generations whose heroics made possible our comings and goings of the day.

Perhaps William Faulkner’s famous statement about the past–the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past– helps a little in nudging us from the pressures of the present so we can better appreciate important past events. When Faulkner thought about the past, he was probably thinking mostly about the tortured events which played such a destructive role in the history of the south both before and after the civil war. Maybe Faulkner hung on to this past longer than he should have if he wanted to lead a happy life.

I believe our problem today is the exact opposite of Faulkner’s; it’s not that we hold on to the past too long, but that we don’t hold on to it long enough with the result that we lose the benefits that a tie to tradition brings anyone who wishes to cultivate it. What are some of these benefits? A sense of security from being part of a larger world rooted in a worthwhile past and a sense of hope that connects us to a future which will preserve the things we do today that we find so important.

One of my favorite ways of keeping alive a connection to the past is by recalling the remarkable life of Mr. Winston Churchill, one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century and a man who represents the unique tradition that comprises what he called the history of the English speaking peoples. At first blush, trying to establish a connection to Winston Churchill seems absurd for he was born and lived in circumstances very different from my own, and led a life which couldn’t be more different than the one I lead, or think I lead.

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

Churchill was born into an aristocratic family which enjoyed an extraordinary reputation for patriotism and public service. Moreover, Churchill was a renaissance man interested in adventure, military exploits and innovations, and spending lots of time painting his beloved landscapes. He also cultivated a distinguished career writing for English newspapers while also becoming an extraordinarily successful political figure. Already in his early 20s, he fought for England in the Boer War at the same time he negotiated a contract to write newspaper columns back home as a war correspondent.

Finally connecting with Churchill seems like a formidable undertaking given that he’s such a complex difficult man who, while invariably successful at most tasks he undertook, also managed to attract lots of critics who enjoyed attacking him for a variety of shortcomings which most charitably could be lumped under a heading called impulsiveness.

Churchill enjoyed upsetting the apple cart. Of one distinguished member of parliament he remarked that the gentleman had no idea what he was going to say before giving a speech, no idea what he was saying while he gave the speech, and no idea what he had said after he ended his speech.

Still despite his shortcomings and some major disappointments which resulted from them, he also possessed remarkable abilities including a terrific sense of humor and a magisterial writing style inspired in part by Edward Gibbon, author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. More importantly he was a courageous and extraordinary leader who spoke his mind, wasn’t afraid to voice unpopular positions, and to the toughest jobs, assuming full responsibility for their outcomes without blaming others for his own mistakes.

Churchill’s greatest legacy probably stems from the leadership he provided Great Britain and the United States especially during the darkest days of WWII following Hitler’s lightening fast military victories in 1940 conquering both Western and Eastern Europe in less than two years time. Immediately following these victories, Hitler wanted to launch a full scale invasion of England and England’s defeat seemed only a few weeks away. Hitler’s invasion plan was to start with a devastating series of attacks by the German Air Force whose planes outnumbered those of the Royal Air Force 3-1. Miraculously, the RAF successfully withstood the German air attack; as a result, Hitler decided to scuttle his invasion plan and instead turn his attention again to the East where he would soon begin an attack on Russia.

"In 1940, children of an eastern suburb of London, who have been made homeless by the random bombs of the Nazi night raiders, wait outside the wreckage of what was their home."

“In 1940, children of an eastern suburb of London, who have been made homeless by the random bombs of the Nazi night raiders, wait outside the wreckage of what was their home.”

After Hitler ended his efforts to conquer Britain, Churchill broadcast his famous praise of the RAF and its pilots. “Never in the course of history have so many owed so much to so few.” If one person were to be singled out for their role in saving England and defeating Hitler in 1940, surely Churchill would be that individual. And to give Churchill’s line a little extra “mo” possibly we could include ourselves in Churchill’s reference to “the many” owing so much to the brave RAF pilots whose sacrifices helped create a society which in the history of the world has never been more prosperous, more egalitarian, or more free.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Every national community has its dates of remembrance.  In the secular religion that is nationalism, these are the high-holy days of each year.  They may be days of celebration, or they may be days of mourning. They are always to be days of reflection. The American calendar is marked with a number of such dates. July 4th is a date of great joy, whereas December 7th is a date that has, most assuredly, lived in infamy.  The only thing that can overshadow a day of tragedy is a more recent example of national pain.  Thus, for most Americans today, December 7th has slowly given up its power to September 11th.

Do notice that these dates need no year to jog our collective national memory.  July 4th goes hand in hand with 1776.  That infamous December 7th took place in 1941.  September 11th will always, in some way, be a Tuesday morning in 2001.

Of course, I write this on a day that is an American holiday. November 11th is Veteran’s Day, but, I think it is safe to assume that the particular date rings few, if any, national memory bells.  Though few Americans realize it, however, November 11th was not chosen at random to recognize our veterans.  As many Europeans will relate, the 11th day of November should always be equated with one particular year; 1918.  On that day, the armistice ending the “Great War” came into effect.

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But, here is a question to ponder.  What if one day marked numerous events in one people’s history, both positive and negative, that were markers of national significance?  Which year would a nation equate with the particular date? You may need to ask a German to discover an answer.  You see, November 9th is a recurring date of significance for the German nation. This date marked turning points in German, and, quite honestly, world history, in the years 1918, 1923, 1938, and 1989.

On November 9th, 1918, after four years of war, Kaiser Wilhelm, the emperor of Germany, abdicated his throne.  For many Germans, this political transformation was a surprising revelation that the war was all but lost.  09112012_Schicksalstag_grFor the Social Democrats, the abdication was an opportunity to create radical liberal reforms, in the hopes of making a new Germany.  For those on the left, November 9th was the symbolic first day of the Weimar Republic. To those on the radical right, this date would also mark the first instance of leftist (read oftentimes Jewish) betrayal against the nation’s war effort.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-00344A,_München,_nach_Hitler-Ludendorff_ProzessOn November 9th, 1923, a racist, militaristic political party known as the NSDAP, or Nazis, attempted to forcefully overthrow the Weimar government.  The so-called ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ was largely conceived and directed by Adolf Hitler, the young leader of the Nazis. Of course, the putsch was not successful. Hitler was sentenced to jail for a couple years. But, while in prison, the ex-corporal would restructure the Nazi party, hoping for another national crisis that would lead to electoral victories for his organization.

On November 9th, 1938, the now ‘Fuhrer’ Adolf Hitler, with his Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, orchestrated a massive state sanctioned pogrom against the German Jewish community.  During the evening of November 9th, and into November 10th, hundreds of synagogues were burned to the ground, roughly 100 German Jews were murdered or committed suicide, thousands of Jewish businesses and homes were ransacked and destroyed, and about 6000 German Jews were sent to concentration camps.  In the weeks afterwards, the German Jewish community was ordered to pay a 1 billion dollar fine to repair the damages.  Kristallnacht was a symbol of the ever increasing radicalism of Nazi anti-Jewish measures that would eventually culminate in the Holocaust.

kristallnacht2

On November 9th, 1989, it seemed that the German people had enough of the tragedies associated with this day.  24 years ago, thousands of West and East Berliners took to the streets, meeting at the Berlin Wall and started to dismantle the concrete symbol of Communist repression.  The world was amazed as young and old alike took sledge hammers to the physical border between east and west. If you so chose, November 9th could now be a date that would represent friendship and freedom.

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German historian Michael Sturmer has labeled the 20th century, ‘the German century’.  If this is the case,  no date on the calender formed and transformed our previous century of tragedy and triumph like November 9th.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Texting-on-a-Date

In my ‘Comparative Worldviews’ class, I enjoy asking my students if they think the story of humanity is one of progression, or decline.  A simple, but incredibly broad question to be sure.  Usually students will reply with some excellent nuanced answers, pointing out that such a simple dualistic question glosses over the complexities of our modern world.  Most point out that humanity has progressed, and continues to progress in areas such as medicine, science and technology.  Though surrounded by it their whole lives, my students appreciate how quickly technology is advancing. However, some rightly point out that progression in one area of life, can lead to decline in another.  It may be surprising to those who don’t interact with ‘millennials’ on a daily basis, but I find that most students feel that the progression of information and communication technology they have lived through has had radically negative social repercussions.

The above staged photo encapsulates the problem my students have with information technology.  I have heard the majority of young adults I teach argue that, though modern, handheld computers provide us a deluge of instantaneous information, they are ‘also killing human interaction’.  In this belief, they are by no means alone.  It is almost becoming a cliche to state that cell-phones, texting, social media and constant internet access drives a wedge between humans, causing all sorts of existential threats. Texting causes a loss of spelling and grammar rules! Cellphones destroy interpersonal communication! Social media increases the opportunities for lying and narcissism! Cell phones destroy human empathy!   Humanity is evidently doomed if we keep going down the road we are travelling.

And yet….let’s look at a couple more pictures.

ReadingCouple

Two elderly couples reading newspapers

Now, what do you think of when you look at these two photographs?  I am going to make an assumption about your conclusions.  These pictures provide generally positive emotions, correct?  The photo of the young couple enjoying a leisurely read outdoors  seems relaxing, and romantic.  The picture on the right, with the two elderly couples, has a timelessly quaint aura.   Perhaps these husbands and wives have had this ritual of sitting on a park bench, reading the daily newspaper for years, if not decades.  What could be more traditional; what could be more human?

These two photos are the antithesis of the top photo, right?

Not at all. These three pictures are more similar than different. Two people sitting at a table on their separate smartphones is wholly similar to the old couples sitting on a the bench reading their respective papers. All of these people are socially isolated with an individually hand-held communication tool. What difference is there if the loving pair in the grass have a couple novels, or a couple iPhones?  The quality of their reading material may be the only thing; and even then, with e-readers, this may not even be the case.  Both are lost in another world, one digital, the other paper-based.

And, yet, we do see a difference; on an emotional, visceral level, it just seems different.  But, why? Why is the first photo seen as dangerous and distasteful for the future health of all humanity, while the second is sweet, charming and heartwarming?  When I asked my students this question, one young woman stated that texting requires technology, and hence, the top picture is different.

But, wait!  Books are a technology as well.   The written word itself, is a technology.  Neither are natural; they are both human cultural inventions. Mass produced, hand- held books are only 500 or so years old.  The written word is about 10 times older. Over the centuries, these technologies have changed, but usually quite slowly; this change has seemed organic, and glacial to someone living in our times of radical technological advancements.   But, go back to any year before Gutenberg’s press, and you will discover a world of communication that is almost unrecognizable. After the radical invention made books a mass-produced commodity, you will find ‘Chicken Littles’ predicting doom as a result.  Such warnings were even applied to the written word. Plato tells us that Socrates, who never wrote anything down, warned that the written word was dangerous since it,

will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

I assume that in 50 years, if cellphones are still with us, pictures such as the one found at the top of this post will be seen as quaint and charming. There will undoubtedly be a new communication technology invented that will be blamed for the inevitable fall of all human interaction, or Western Civilization….or something. I kind of can’t wait to see wait to see that new technology.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I was having a conversation with the inimitable Dr. Peter Stern.  I don’t really remember what we were talking about, but I made a claim that, the more I thought about it, seemed more and more true.   Simply as an aside, I said that from the years 1890-1945 Europe produced an inordinate amount of human brilliance.  As Peter and I pondered, we both felt that this statement was undeniable. Just take a look at the vast array of influential figures who were living, working and thinking during that first half century of the twentieth century.

Novelists/Writers: Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Leo Tolstoy, Robert Musil, Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Knut Hamsun, D.H. Lawrence, Andre Gide, James Joyce, Hermann Hesse, Italo Svevo, Vladimir Nabakov, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Roth, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Bertolt Brecht, etc, etc.

Philosophers: Hannah Arendt, A.J. Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, Henri Bergson, Benedetto Croce, Martin Heidegger, etc, etc.

Niels_Bohr_Albert_Einstein_by_Ehrenfest

Bohr and Einstein

Social Scientists/Psychologists/Economists: Freud, Jung, Adler, John Maynerd Keynes, Freidrich Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, William James, Peter Kropotkin, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, etc, etc.

Physical Scientists: Albert Einstein, Neil Bohrs, Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, Nikola Tesla, Max Planck, Ivan Pavlov. Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schroedinger, etc, etc.

Musicians/Dancers: Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Mahler, Shostakovitch, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, etc, etc.

Painters/Artists: Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, Matisse, Cezanne, Munch, Kandinsky, Klimt, Marc, Paul Klee, Egon Schiele, Beckmann, Dix, Kathe Kollewitz, etc, etc.

This is a small list that I came up with on the quick, and it is by no means complete.  The point is, for the population of Europe at this time (about 300-400 million), the number of brilliantly influential figures is inordinate; perhaps even incredible.

Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, this era also gave birth to the modern world’s most horrifically violent ruptures: The World Wars.  And so, this list has an air of tragedy about it as well.  How much brilliance was annihilated in the years 1914-1918, and 1939-1945?

salinger-docu

Salinger in the military

During the First World War, roughly ten million young people lost their lives, almost all of them men. Many were already promising cultural figures; the vast majority, however, never had the opportunity to effect the world. A generation later, this ‘War to end all Wars’ would be overshadowed, and dwarfed by the Second World War.  In Europe, roughly 40 million people were killed from 1939-1945.  Unlike the First World War, the majority of the dead were civilians.  Males and females, both old and children,  were killed in the Nazi Holocaust, 300px-matisse-open-windowSoviet reprisals and repression, American and British bombings of Axis cities, and old ethnic conflicts rekindled by the war.

These wars annihilated millions of unheard voices that may have been the next Picasso, or Wittgenstein, the next Proust or Einstein.  I recently learned that the famously private American author, J.D. Salinger landed in France on D-Day carrying numerous chapters of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in his rucksack. How many soldiers lost their future cultural glory to an anonymous shell fragment?  How many children died in the gas chambers of Birkenau with color schemes in their mind’s eyes that would have put Matisse to shame?

It was truly an era of brilliance. It was truly an era of tragedy.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The other evening, I drove past our local movie theater and noticed an intriguing movie poster under the ‘coming soon’ sign.  With just a glance as I passed by, I saw “Monument’s Men”, and the names George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray.  I did a quick double take, and made a mental note to look up the movie when I got home, hoping to find a preview.

I was afraid ‘Monument’s Men” might be a second-rate superhero flick, instead of a reference to a little known story of WWII.  In 1944-46, a small group of American soldiers traveled the liberated areas of Hitler’s Europe looking for the great works of art that Hitler, Goering, and their underlings had looted from both the museums of Europe, and the personal holdings of ‘racial and political undesirables.’  These soldiers nee art historians, archeologists, historians, and artists were known as the Monument’s Men. Their stories have been told in several books, including Lynn Nicholas’ The Rape of Europa, and more recently, Robert Edsal’s Monument’s Men.   I was relieved that the preview of the upcoming movie dealt not with space aliens wearing capes, but with real heroes, in real life situations.  Have a look:

I must say, I am bit conflicted by this preview.   This movie has some promise, with good actors in Clooney, Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and John Goodman.  Also, Clooney is a highly praised director.  But, I am always a bit concerned when a serious subject gets the silly humor treatment from Hollywood.  This preview makes it seem that this movie may be littered with such moments.  Also, when Clooney and Damon are sitting in the bar, having their o so charming conversation, it seems like a scene from Ocean’s Eleven.  Regardless, I am sure I will see the film both for entertainment, and possible educational purposes.

The story this film will tell is incredibly important, and yet, largely forgotten.  Most educated Americans realize Hitler had dreams of being an artist, but few appreciate the centrality art always had for Hitler’s worldview, and how he and his Nazi pals both wanted to ‘cleanse’ the ‘degenerate modernist art’ of the day, and loot all great works of Western Civilization for the people of Germany.  Hopefully this film deals with that aspect of the story in a serious, entertaining fashion. What surprised me most as I watched the preview is how long Hollywood ignored this story.  It is really a romantic adventure tale that is made for celluloid.  The Monuments Men were solving mysteries that would make Indiana Jones jealous.

This makes me frustrated.  I want to call the movie studios and yell, ‘darn it Hollywood, stop neglecting history! You are ignoring obviously incredible tales in order to produce Star Trek 50, Iron Man 24 and the Hangover 4.”

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How Hollywood has depicted Napoleon

To help alleviate this issue, I shall present for the imaginary film producers reading this post a short list of ideas for future projects:

  • Napoleon – There has been a strange paucity of films dealing with the life, accomplishments and crimes of General/Emperor Bonaparte. Now, I do realize there was an influential 1927 silent film done by Abel Gance dealing the life of Napoleon, but not much has come afterwards.  For a guy who so central to the shape of our modern history, Napoleon has been a neglected figure in Hollywood….Bill and Ted not withstanding.
  • The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand – Some historians have argued that the killing of Franz Ferdinand by Serbian terrorists in July of 1914 is the most important event of the 20th century.  The murder of Franz was the spark that ignited the First World War. The First World War was central to the rise of Fascism, Nazism and Bolshevism. And, WWII.  Then the Atomic bomb. Cold War. And on and on. Make a movie about this day.  The story of how it happened could make for an incredible thriller.

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    Artist’s rendition of the assassination

  • Female soldiers in the Civil War – Many women slipped into the ranks, and fought side by side with men during the American Civil War.  Many lived to tell the tale, and others died on the battlefield, giving their comrades an shock.  Such stories would be made for our age, as women become more common on American battlefields.

Just a couple of ideas. If any big time movers and shakers read this, then let’s do lunch.

  By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty.

 I feel I must report what at the time felt like and what now, looking back in retrospect, in all candor, still feels like a very memorable experience.  The memorable part started when I heard someone say “this isn’t hooky.”   Though I remember the phrase, I’m troubled that I’m not sure who said it.  It might have been Michael, it may have been Gerry, then again I might have been the one to say it.  I simply can’t be sure though it wasn’t very long ago that this incident took place–in fact, I believe it may have been yesterday or, at the latest, the day before yesterday which would have been Tuesday .   

The full context for the “this isn’t hooky” statement was not uninteresting.   Michael Stelzer Jocks and I were discussing the Imagepossibility of going to some Hyde Park bookstores on Friday.  Then the question arose whether Gerry Dedera might also wish to prowl about the myriad dusty shelves of Powells et.al.  Whereupon Ms. Paula Diaz, our intrepid Dean, inspired leader, and savant of most things worth knowing, just happened to be walking by as our Powells’ discussion was getting into full gear and, overhearing our conversation, reminded Michael that he was supposed to be at school on Friday, and hence the sense that implementing such a plan would clearly constitute an act of hooky.  Q.E.D.—meaning, hooky proved.  Case closed.

Oh contraire.  Not so fast.  Amateur sleuths beware.  First of all, what if we were planning to go to Powell’s after fulfilling school responsibilities Friday?  Then no hooky, wouldn’t you agree?  Thus the hooky charge is rendered moot, nay less than moot.  Second, and here’s where my own signature fruit cake spin starts to play a vital role in this story, and why the occasion remains memorable for me.  An altogether different consideration almost immediately arose in my brain which was this:  Is it really possible in the year 2013, in the month of September a full week after the anniversary of 9/11, for any individual or group of individuals to engage in an act of hooky at any time anywhere at all on this great green globe we call home?

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Peter Stern?

The reason I ask this question is that I’m more or less convinced that hooky is an old fashioned, hugely archaic word so tied to an earlier time and place that it no longer has any genuine relevance or meaning to life lived today.  I would say the same thing about a buggy whip or about using a mimeograph machine to duplicate piles of papers for a high or low level meeting even if the low level meeting was peopled by higher ups.  Ditto taking a covered wagon with friends to go through the Cumberland Gap, or to head out from let’s say Akron Ohio with the wife and kids to settle down in Colorado or Idaho or Wyoming.  Instead of the covered wagon, I’d recommend you fly or get a U Haul or take a bus.  And don’t worry about getting caught playing hooky for hooky don’t exist.  Not anymore.

Such is the nature of historical time.  It doesn’t simply pass;  it does much more than this.  It renders old ways of doing things meaningless.  The unique feel, smell, touch, taste, and special meaning of an experience or way of life not only of individuals but of whole communities even of countries simply vanishes.  Artifacts remain.   Historians and anthropologists and archeologists find buried buildings, furniture,  jewelry of all kinds, even diaries and records of business transactions but the feel–the inner spirit of the time–and how exactly people experienced the world is lost forever.

 Thus for hooky to be possible the world would have to take absolutely seriously–as if no other possible mode of behavior made any sense–that attending school and showing up at work every day was mandated by God himself such that not doing those things was a terrible violation of an ancient and sacred order.   Of course this doesn’t mean that every living soul viewed the world this way.  But it does mean that that was the default position for the society overall.  And then playing hooky really meant something.  Hooky was freedom.  Hooky meant escape.  Hooky was a thrilling adventure and you were living dangerously indeed.  And woe to you if you got caught. 

 And today?  Today you simply call in sick or tell your supervisor that your kids are sick.  Better still:  You turn on the tube and hear on the 7:00 a.m. news that the schools are closed due to exceptionally heavy rains and I-94 is flooded so you’re better off staying home and keeping off the highways.  Don’t you think most people would agree it’s awful hard playing hooky in this sort of world?

Still, in closing, to avoid sounding too shrill or foolish or just plain stupid, I should admit to some hyperbole when I state so emphatically that time renders the past utterly meaningless to future generations, for the historians and archeologists I mentioned earlier, especially the extraordinarily gifted members of those professions, do bring to life or try to bring to life the authentic spirit of the age they’re exploring.  Moreover, the law of averages suggests that they must actually succeed from time to time.  And so thanks to generations of historians we do get some sense of what it must have been like riding across the plains of Iowa and Nebraska in an un–air conditioned covered wagon during weeks on end of a dry summer 100 degree heat wave.  And, going back in time, Caesar crossing the Rubicon must have been an extraordinary sight and a mind boggling experience. 

 Yet some small voice keeps telling me that something of these events must get lost in translation.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

A couple weeks ago, I covered the First World War in my American History, and Western Civilization courses.  The First World War has always been an event that has obsessed me, and I really love to teach it since Americans generally know very little about it.  Since these are introductory courses, I usually portray the war as a definitive cataclysmic event that left enduring scars on the twentieth century. This standard narrative of the conflict draws a line between the Victorian, 19th century world, and the modern, 20th century world.  The old world died in 1914.  A new world was born in 1918.

Though this narrative of the war has been challenged by many over the years, there is no denying that the world of 1914 seems distantly foreign from the rest of the twentieth century.  Though, again, it generalizes the complexities of this era too much, it is easy to see the world before the war as a time of innocence, perhaps even naivety. A famous example of such cultural innocence is what happened in many European capitals once war was declared in the late summer of 1914. During the first week of August, thousands of Europeans of all ages, and all classes, flooded into the streets in evident war euphoria, cheering the outbreak of a continent wide conflagration.  I showed my students the photos below of those early August, 1914 days of excitement:

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Crowds in Paris

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Berlin

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Students off to Enlist

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London

Historians now realize that this evident war euphoria didn’t infect everyone.  Many Europeans were nervous, anxious, dreadful or apathetic about the outbreak of war.  However, there is no denying that the thousands of people in these photos are revved up for what they believed would be their nation’s inevitable victory (each national community felt they would win victory quickly, and cleanly.) These photos make the informed student crack an ironic smile, since he/she knows that the next four years of war would be anything but quick and clean.  The young men were cheering their generation’s death sentence. The First World War killed 9 million soldiers, made empires fall, and still is the epitomizing symbol of the absurdity and destructiveness of modern conflict.

For 21st century Americans, even those knowledgeable of WWI, the fact that people would be cheering for the outbreak of war is absurd.  War in our world is not something to cheer; it may be unavoidable, but any self-respecting American will solemnly swear that ‘war is hell,’ and it should be avoided at all costs. We are more likely to see people in the street, shouting for the end of wars, than cheering for the outbreak of war.

So, why were these people in 1914 so excited?  Why would they want war?   When I asked these questions a couple weeks ago, I got a familiar answer from my classes. Like some in previous classes, one student shouted out that people want war because it is “good for the economy.”  In response, I politely pointed out that these people were not cheering for an economic windfall. After a couple minutes of thinking, and some hints from me, my students gave responses closer to the truth.  They realized that these men had lofty expectations for the war. War was thought to provide glory. War could produce honor. War created adventure, and the opportunity for true manliness.  Many cheered for war simply following their friends, trying not to be left out.  Some believed fighting the war was their duty. Most felt the war was necessary to protect their families from enemies.

So, why does it take my students some time to come up with these answers?  Why is ‘the economy’ often the first response I get? Simply put, my students are 21st century Americans, and many have the typical worldview that goes along with that identity.  Since their youth, they have been inundated with a simplistic materialist ideology that points to the national economy as the most important social issue. How could they not think that economics make the world go round, since media, pop culture and schools have constantly reinforced this belief.  As a result, they often misinterpret human motivations as misinformed psychologists, thinking that people make all their decisions as if they were homo economicus.  It is my job to try to dispel such beliefs, because the notion that human beings live and die for the strength of an economy has dire consequences for our understanding of the past and present. The human story is not always based upon the direction of the Dow Jones Industrial.