Posts Tagged ‘Michael Stelzer Jocks’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Many people undoubtedly have found it strange how much history has been in the news lately. Whether it is the Confederate monuments being taken down in New Orleans or the fact that Frederick Douglass and Andrew Jackson were trending on Twitter recently, historical topics are hot right now. But truthfully, Americans have always been contentious about our history, since our history is…well…contentious. Topics like the Civil War or Jackson’s role in ‘The Trail of Tears’ will spark lively, sometimes angry, disagreement.

However, there are certain historical events that mainstream Americans generally agree upon. One such non-contentious event is the Holocaust. The American public, pop-culture and politicians for the last 40 years have universally depicted the Holocaust as THE horrific event of modern times. Case closed.  No discussion needed.  For 20th century Americans, Nazi Germany has been the quintessential ‘bad guy’ of  history. We have taken this so far that the era of the Holocaust and the event itself is in danger of being portrayed in simplistic political bromides. It is easy, if no less true and unthinking, to state that Nazi Germany and Hitler were irredeemably evil. The murder of Europe’s Jews was Nazi Germany’s most horrendous crime. Who would argue with that?

This is why the last four months have been so disturbing.  Since taking power in January, the Trump Administration has had not one…but TWO ‘Holocaust’ controversies.  First, there was the strange, and evidently intentional, Holocaust Remembrance Day statement issued by President Trump which did not specify Nazi Germany’s specific war on European Jewry. Then, in April, Press Secretary Sean Spicer stuck his foot in his mouth by claiming that Hitler ‘didn’t even gas his own people’, unlike Syrian President al-Assad. After immediately being called on this outrageously false statement, Spicer sounded even more like an idiot when he referred (I assume) to extermination camps as ‘Holocaust centers’.

What is going on?  Some, like Holocaust historian and famous scholar of Holocaust denial Debra Lipstadt felt that the Trump White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement was a classic case of ‘soft denialism’.  On the other hand, most commentators believed that Spicer’s slip-ups simply pointed to incredible historical ignorance. However, such ignorance and ‘soft denialism’ are not mutually exclusive.  Whether or not Lipstadt is correct in her assessment of Trump’s statement, such ‘denialism’ does exist in certain corners, and it will become easier to peddle to the general public as their inevitable ignorance of the past created by passing time increases.

‘Never forget’ can easily become an unthinking slogan, but that makes it no less true. So, with these notions in mind, I feel it is important to provide a quick reading list of books all Americans should read about the Holocaust. These are 15 works that any one with a passing interest in the topic can pick and read today.

  1. Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1 and The Years of Persecution and Volume 2, The Years of Extermination. Friedländer’s highly readable classic account. A great place to start for a thorough overview.515XRWk2Q6L._AC_UL320_SR214,320_
  2. Peter Hayes, Why: Explaining the Holocaust. A book that was just published a couple months ago. Deals with the big ‘why’ questions people always ask regarding the Holocaust. Does so with clear, jargon-free language. Read this after Friedländer’s workhayes
  3. Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris and Hitler: 1936-1945, Nemesis. Kershaw’s massive two part biography is still generally considered to be the definitive explanation of Hitler’s life and worldview.kershaw
  4. Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.  Though 30 years old at this point, still a groundbreaking take on why people commit ‘evil’ acts.browning
  5. Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience.  Sereny was a journalist who had the opportunity to interview Franz Stangl, the Commandant of Treblinka.  Her book investigating the man is fascinatingly horrible.sereny
  6. Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. A recent book that sheds light on a topic ignored by many previous historians: Women’s role in genocide.lower
  7. Primo Levi, Survival at Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved.  An Italian Jew, Levi survived the war and produced some of the most important writings of the 20th century.the-complete-works-of-primo-levi-book-cover
  8. Viktor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness, 2 Volumes.  Klemperer was a German Jew who chronicled life in Nazi Germany from the beginning of 1933 until the end of the war.  The amazing story of his survival will make you forget the 1000 pages.klemperer
  9. Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus. I wrote a blog about this work a couple years ago. It is a graphic novel, and though that may seem like a strange genre for a Holocaust memoir, I believe it is required reading.maus
  10. Nikolaus Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps.  If you are looking to find out about the horror, structure and ubiquity of the Nazi camps, this is the new definitive text.images
  11. Deborah Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial. Though Hannah Arendt’s classic Eichmann in Jerusalem is still important on a philosophical level, Lipstadt deals with the true history of the trial. She also illustrates a historically accepted truth that Arendt missed. Eichmann was not really banal, but he was evil.lipstadt
  12. Daniel Mendolsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. Mendolsohn is a famous literary critic. In The Lost, he provides a touching, beautiful memoir of discovering his family’s Holocaust past.TheLost_4.30
  13. Rich Cohen, The Avengers: A Jewish War Story. The story of Jewish resistance to Nazi crimes is still one not often told.  Cohen’s narrative tells the story of his grandmother who fought alongside Abba Kovner, the most famous Jewish partisan during the war.cohen
  14. Claude Lanzmann, Shoah. Technically, this is not a book. But, it is a text. Shoah is Lanzmann’s 8 hour film masterpiece.  Filmed in the early 1980s, Lanzmann interviewed victims, perpetrators and collaborators.  Most of the interviews are emotionally wrenching. It may take you a couple days to get through.Editors-Pick-Shoah
  15. Thomas Kühne, Genocide and Belonging: Hitler’s Community, 1918-1945. This is the one specifically scholarly monograph I am adding to this list.  After reading and watching all of the above, tackle this one.kuhne

 

These books are accessible. They are readable. But they are not going to be ‘fun’. They can hit you in the gut, and leave you staggered.  That is what makes them all the more necessary.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The Spring of 1998.  Good times.  I was a fourth year college student at Michigan State. I was 21 years old. I was dating my future wife. My biggest concern was where I should go to graduate school.  Oh, and I had a cushy job in what was known as the MSU Microbiology Store.  For about 9 bucks an hour, I and a couple co-workers made sure

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Giltner Hall – Where the Microbiology Store was located

the Microbiology labs had enough supplies for…well, whatever Microbiology labs did.  It was quite easy, and I had a great deal of free time to study and keep up a nice solid GPA.

One day in late April, I came into the ‘office’ as my two coworkers were looking at The State News.  The student newspaper had a small story buried deep inside that had some bad news for a great number of students and alums.  The Board and President of the University had decided to disallow alcohol consumption on Munn Field, specifically during football tailgating.  I just shrugged off this story.  But, for my co-worker Adam this news was troubling.  You see, Adam (I can’t even remember his last name) wanted to be a politician. He was soon to graduate and was headed to DC to start graduate studies in Political Science.  Adam read this news as a 22 year old defender of democracy. He felt that the powers that be had passed this measure at the end of the school year specifically to avoid student input regarding the decision.  Adam believed this was unjust, and authoritarian.  He felt something needed to be done.

He decided to call for a protest rally.

Let me just stop for an aside. This was 1998. How do you get the word out about a SNlogoprotest to the community? There was only one week before finals started.  You couldn’t get that story to the student paper in time. The 50,000 students attending MSU would be home for the summer by the time The State News picked it up. Picket lines?  Flyers on campus?  None of these methods were going to have much effect.

Adam decided he was going to spread the word to a small group of students via email.  At that time, MSU had it’s own closed email server only for the campus population.  Adam, and my other co-worker Deborah, sent out their carefully crafted message ringing the tocsin. The initial message went out from two student email accounts to twenty friends in total.  One week from that day (a Friday) there would be a small protest on Munn Field.

The following Tuesday I headed to my political philosophy course. The course had roughly 90-100 students. As with most classes at MSU, I did not know a single person in the class.  As I sat down about 10 minutes before the class started, I heard a couple sorority girls next to me having a heated discussion. These girls said, ‘So, are you going to the protest at Munn Field Friday? My whole house (sorority) is going’!

Oh…my…God! Strangers were discussing the protest. How did they find out? That day, I went into work after class and told Adam. He had heard other people discussing it al well. The word was getting around, and Adam had lost control of the information. Friday’s planned protest  went from being a small hand-chosen meeting to being….well, we didn’t know what.

drinkingguidejpg-5fcad23e6601a3abThe Friday of the protest was cold and rainy.  As 7pm grew nearer, I was getting more and more nervous.  A couple friends and I decided we needed to trek over to Munn Field to see what was going to happen.  A couple days earlier, the Administration learned of the protest. The University wanted to put a stop to it.  The campus police took out an ad in The State News that warned about consequences for students ‘trespassing’ on Munn Field. Things were getting serious.  Walking over that Friday, I quickly realized thousands of others were heading out to do the same thing as me and my friends. The protest was no more. Now, it was just a gathering.

When I got to the field, a large crowd of students had already formed.  The police had fenced off the field with ‘No Trepassing’ signs. On the other side of the field, local police were lined up in their cars.  It wasn’t just a couple cops; police were out in force.  Of course, many students had already been drinking and it only took one student to climb the fence. A shirtless guy made the leap, ran out onto Munn Field and started to dive in the mud. Others followed. A couple guys started to throw a football around.  The police weren’t sure what to do.  As they started to move on the field, the students who had ‘trespassed’ jumped back into the big crowd of students outside the fence and disappeared.  It seemed the crowd might disperse.  Then, someone yelled that the crowd should march on the President’s house.  Sure, why not? Hundreds of students started to march.

At this point, I was done.  This was going nowhere. It was quickly turning into a waste of time. It was more of a roving party than a protest. I went back to my dorm room to get ready for finals on Monday. But, as I sat in my room, I could see police lights outside. Students were running down the halls of my dorm shouting.  Something big was happening out in the streets. Friends started to call me to give me updates. I heard the words ‘fires in the street’, ‘riot gear’ and ‘tear gas’.  No, no, no. This couldn’t be happening.  Finally, at midnight, I had to go outside and see for myself.  It was madness. A major bonfire had been lit in the middle of Grand River Avenue.   Police were in riot gear. Tear gas was in the air. My eyes starting watering and my throat was closing up.  There was nothing I could do, and I wasn’t going to get involved. I marched back inside my dorm and went to bed.

The events of the previous evening filled the newspapers the next day.  Amazingly, it wasn’t just the local media.  National organizations started to pick up the story. MSU students had ‘rioted’ for the freedom to drink beer!  A bunch of drunk idiots were shown burning couches and breaking windows. It was an embarrassment.

Adam hoped to change the University’s political methods. He wanted to give students a stronger voice. He hoped for a powerful display of direct democracy. Unfortunately, his protest turned into a farce.


This story flooded back to me recently for an interesting reason. I have been reading a good deal about social media lately as I begin preparations for a new ‘History of Social Media’ course at RMU.  The other day, I was speaking to a colleague at RMU who has a couple kids in college. We were discussing drinking and the college life, when I began to retell the above story.  But, as I told it I had a revelation.  Those of us who lived through that night at MSU, and the news media that covered the story,  missed the most revolutionary angle of the event. Nineteen years removed, this story is not about drinking, beer or riots; this story is about the viral nature of social media!

When Adam and Deborah wrote to their 20 friends on email, they had no idea what they were doing.  They believed they were inviting a handful of well versed, intelligent and serious students to make a show of structured resistance. In fact, they provided the university with a first taste of the Internet’s power.  Within a week, that email message did what viral information does; it spread exponentially.  It was a glimpse of our future. Twenty years on, and I realize that Adam’s protest did change the world.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Maybe I should have seen it coming. Every now and again I would have a student mention the Illuminati.  Once in awhile, a young man might argue that ‘9-11 was an inside job.’  Heck, one time a student even whispered to me in confidence that the Ebola virus was a creation of the American government.  When I asked that student what the purpose of such an invention would be, he told me very calmly that the government was trying to wipe out half of humanity.

How could I not scoff at such irrationality? Most people didn’t believe this stuff….right?  RIGHT? Such ideas would always be the territory of a small minority of Americans….right? RIGHT?

Well, maybe not.  Conspiracy theorists are boldly emerging out of their dark caverns. No longer found just on obscure chat-rooms, they now get the seat marked ‘expert’ on cable news’ shows. During the last decade or so, conspiracies have become disturbingly mainstream.

How did this happen?  Why did it happen now?  These are difficult questions to answer, and I will get to them eventually.  But first, I think some differences need to be identified. We need to categorize the types of theories sweeping our culture today.

Arguably, there are three main conspiracy theory categories.  Each share certain characteristics. None are to be encouraged, but only one has proven to be historically dangerous.  Unfortunately, the dangerous type has gained the most influence in recent years.  Here is a quick description, from most innocent, to most troubling:

  1. ‘Top Secrets’ Theories: These are the most commonly held conspiracy theories.  They center upon the notion that governments have secret, revolutionary information that they will not share with average citizens.  Of course, this is based upon a larger truth. ac992ee4bf0b19154f9c30554512c9adAll modern nation-states have ‘top secrets’ for acceptable eyes only. But, the ‘Top Secret’ conspiracy theorist takes this truth to unlikely, or fantastic proportions. Hence, to him/her, the US government is not just hiding a new military aircraft at the local Air Force base; they are also hiding alien life-forms and/or space ships!   Or, the government weather satellites don’t truly STUDY the weather; instead, the satellites CONTROL the weather! It’s is okay to laugh. The conspiracy theorist might laugh with you.
  2. ‘Secret Power’ Theories: These conspiracy theories are not as common, but they are gaining a larger and larger foothold amongst American citizens. These theories are usually based upon arcane notions of power and influence. Conspiracy theorists who hold these beliefs will argue that there is a secret group within a national eye_reasonably_small_400x400government (or multi-national organizations) that has undue, authoritarian power. This conspiracy may be connected to notions that there are world-wide government entities that control policy and have nefarious plans for either a utopian, or a dystopian future. The two most common groups associated with such conspiracy theories are the illuminati and/or freemasons. Both of these secret organizations have been connected to conspiracies for centuries.  For the conspiracy theorist, this historical tradition further proves the supposed conspiracy.  Though darker than the ‘Top Secret’ conspiracy, there is still a heavy element of absurdity in the ‘Secret Power’ conspiracy.  Beyonce, the CIA and the Pope inexplicably work together to rule the world. Hmmm.
  3. ‘Apocalyptic Power’ Theories: These are the most dangerous conspiracy theories.  The conspiracy theorists who hold these beliefs argue that a group of people, either large or small, is attempting to destroy the cultural, social and/or political world of the conspiracy theorist. The conspiracy theorist argues that he/she is not only ignorant of secrets, or out of the loop of secret power, he/she is actually a threatened victim of the conspirators. Usually, these conspiracies focus upon governments, but they also can tie into the ‘Secret Power’ conspiracies in the belief of a small cadre having control over levers of power. These conspiracies are the most dangerous because of their absolutist, zero-sum focus.  For the believers in these conspiracies, there is no middle ground. You either fight, or you die.  You gain your freedom, or become a slave. Every event that is read into the conspiracy is another sign of the endgame; the theorist’s world is believed to be crumbling down, and hence, it is only natural that violence may be necessary. Those who do not hold to these conspiracies then are more than ignorant sheep to be looked down upon. The person not accepting the conspiracy becomes part of the conspiracy.  This type of conspiracy theory promotes a Manichean notion of reality. The conspiracy theorist is not laughing. It is deadly serious to him/her.

In the next blog post, I will illustrate how some of these Apocalyptic conspiracies have caused historical tragedies, large and small. Then, I will investigate how and why these types of conspiracies are gaining such a foothold in our modern culture. To those who don’t believe, conspiracies can be funny, absurd or deluded. However, we should not underestimate the power of true believers.  History proves as much.

To be continued…..

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The announcement first came in German, then English: Next stop Dachau.

It was a beautiful sunny day in September. It was unseasonably warm; 80 degrees or so.

I stepped off the train and looked for the bus to take me to the KZ Dachau. I was in a hurry. I had to catch a night train to Rome that evening, and I wanted to get back to Munich to ‘flaneur’ around.  Luckily, there was a bus waiting. It was slowly filling with tourists. I was one of them. We had come to see the first Nazi Concentration Camp.  I hopped on the bus, and sat down.  As the bus pulled out, I  was struck with a sense of discordance. Dachua is not just a camp. It is a surburban enclave. It is….quaint. It is beautiful.

My imagination had not prepared me for what lay outside the bus window. Here was a supermarket, there was a small restaurant. People were walking dogs, enjoying the sun on 14330127_10207732700498004_3000411190714615599_npatios and drinking coffee at the local Starbucks.  The sun and blue sky made the suburb feel alive.  The colorful houses and buildings of green, red, blue seemed incongruous with the black and white photos of the camp stuck indelibly in my mind from countless history books.

As the bus made turn after turn, I wondered how far outside this little German suburb filled with gemütlichkeit we would travel.  Surely, the camp must be far removed in distance from the pleasant scenes I just passed.  There must be woods to cross through; perhaps some empty fields?  But no.  Here a park, there an electronics’ store, and the next stop was the ‘KZ’ (Konzentrationslager).

14322704_10207732700778011_9022260041487163341_nI stepped off the bus, back into the sunny warmth.  There are tourists everywhere, slowly walking through a twisting wooded pass. Before entering there was a sign of notices=.  No dogs, no Neo-Nazi clothing….be serious. This is hallowed ground.  Respect the over 30,000 dead of Dachau. Remember that they faced murder, torture, malnutrition, illness.  Forget about all that world you passed through to get here.  Throw your Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte away.

The camp is large.  People walk around in a daze. Student groups mill around teachers.  Religious pilgrims go to Catholic, Protestant and Jewish memorial chapels. I really don’t 14344681_10207732703258073_5736731126016002469_nwant to take pictures, but I can’t not.  ‘Click’…the barbwire fence.  ‘Click’…. the crematorium.  Glance at the ovens. Walk inside the gas chamber. Don’t worry though, it was never used.  Look, over there!  ‘Click’….a meandering path into the shady woods. Escape 14332926_10207732704018092_5335833254930929323_nthe sun. But  there is no escape from this place. The woods hold a plaque informing the visitor that the dilapidated wall to the left was the pistol execution range. The human nightmare scars nature.  The remnants of a ‘blood-ditch’ used to easily clean up the aftermath of the executions makes that clear.  14292522_10207732704658108_8986492502300581023_n

Need to get out of these woods. Back into that sun.  It is beating down. The sky is perfect. I am sure a couple hundred yards away, some teenagers are sitting in that park enjoying the last chance for a summer tan.

As I walk out, I get a distasteful moment of shock.  A young woman wearing heels and sunglasses asks her father or older boyfriend to take a photo of her leaning against the front gate that says ‘Arbeit Macht Frei‘.  She poses.  It looks as though she is concerned about her best side. All I can do is raise an eyebrow. 14358707_10207732701458028_4311876331519568457_n

I walk back to the bus stop.  I need to get to Munich.  The bus is crowded for the ride back to the bahnhof.  I look out the window again, and life is going on as if all is normal.  I wonder how these people out for walks to enjoy the sun can live in a place like this?  How do you say you live in Dachau? ‘I grew up in Dachau’, ‘I go to school in Dachau’, ‘I work in Dachau’.  The identity of these people is connected to a name that means cruelty and death.  The KZ is central to their town.  When it was built in 1933 it was an economic opportunity.  Hundreds of jobs for the local populace; you need KZ guards after-all.  And who is going to feed all those prisoners and guards?  Bakeries, restaurants, markets saw the opportunity.

No longer do prisoners and guards need nourishment. Now it is I and my fellow tourists. Stop for a bite at a local cafe after seeing the barracks. Grab a coffee, and try to erase your memories.  If you need to, reserve a room at a local inn and find some local Bavarian fare.  A little beer never hurts.

The people of Dachau must just get acclimatized.  They are desensitized to the horror that is right next door. Or, maybe they just turn away and ignore it.  If the Nazi period taught us anything, it is that people are really good at doing that.

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

As a student of history, I am usually pretty dubious about claims to novelty.  When someone says ‘There has never been a time/event/thought/argument like this before!!’, my first thought is usually ‘You sure about that?’ But, there are times when professions of originality are justified. No matter what the cliches claim, history doesn’t simply repeat itself ad infinitum.

This political season has had a number of ‘never-befores’.  Just because it is a ‘never before’ though, doesn’t mean that it will be a ‘never again’. The most revolutionary aspect of this election cycle, and the one that will be with us for the foreseeable future is the role social media is playing in our political culture.  This blog post will be the first in a number that will explore the sometimes exciting, sometimes troubling innovations in the quickly developing realm of social media politics.


To label social media politics as revolutionary is not hyperbole, nor is it surprising. Social media has revolutionized so many parts of our lives, why not mainstream electoral politics?  However, what is shocking is the transformative figure at the forefront twitter-social-network-icon-vector_652139of this revolution. It is not some youthful radical Congressional candidate from Berkeley or Brooklyn. No, this revolutionary figure is a 70 year-old angry dude who, prior to last year was best known for a reality television series and a combover.  Of course, I refer to Donald Trump.

Since he entered the race for the Republican nomination last June, Trump has continually been underestimated.  Over and over, political prognosticators have made two incorrect, though related projections.  One group of media fortune-tellers simply believed Trump would inevitably lose because of his ‘lack dailynewstrumpof a filter’.  According to this mainstream assumption, Trump would say too many offensive and/or ridiculous things, and the inherently moderate American voter would surely turn away in disgust.  That did not happen in the Republican primary, and these prognosticators were forced to reassess their beliefs….but only slightly. The Nostradamus crowd predicted that once Trump had to deal with the larger American general electorate, he would either veer to the center. The assumption was that Trump would batten down the hatches, go middle of the road, or inevitably face defeat. If the latest polls are any indication, these ‘expert’ opinions may be proven wrong as well.  What the nation’s political commentators never grasped was one of the  reasons Trumpists love Trump: The man never does what most rational observers would expect.

Nothing has displayed Trumpian ‘irrationality’ more than the candidate’s Twitter account. Like all social media, Twitter allows the user to instantaneously respond to external events, or share individual thoughts and personal desires. Trump tweets have allowed America to see the ‘realDonaldTrump’.  But Trump’s Twitter has become much more than simply a tool for his personal attacks, or a display of his psyche. Trump has  transformed the social media tool into a personal permanent propaganda platform. In this, he seems to eerily understand our media saturated environment better than any major political figure in recent memory. Here is how it all works:

  1. In 140 characters, Trump shoots off 3 or 4 controversial messages a week, knowing full well the media echo-chamber will spread his message to the masses.
  2. His twitter followers see his tweet, and adopt his political lexicon.
  3. However, many of these ‘followers’ are not Trumpians. Some are social media watchdogs who wait for the candidate to write something outrage.
  4. These people then retweet the original tweet with criticism attached, sending it to a whole new audience.
  5. Eventually, social media news platforms of both political stripes pick up the tweet, share it, and pass it on to an even more diverse audience.
  6. Lastly, once these platforms are all writing similar articles, the largest outlets get involved.  When Trump’s tweets get enough traction, it gets splayed in the MSM (Main Stream Media) of major Newspapers, TV and radio. And just like that….billions upon billions of humans can’t stop analyzing Trump’s latest statement.

This methodology of political propaganda is obviously cunning.  But, there is a very strange paradox wrapped into this method as well. Trump’s social media campaign speaks to his voters and, perhaps even more importantly, he speaks in the voice of his voters. Trump provides quick-hitters in black trump-twitterand white absolutes. After all, there can truly only be absolutes in the Twitter-verse; in 140 characters nuance is all but impossible. For a very large portion of humanity living in a confusing time of change, this absolutism is obviously reassuring. However, for many of the people Trump is speaking to and for, the original medium he is using for his message is one of the most troubling symbols of our rapidly changing world. For a great number of Americans who wish to ‘make America Great Again,’ social media is an enemy. It is understood by wide swathes of Americans as THE vehicle feeding our nation’s already intense narcissistic tendencies. Even more mysterious is that one of Trump’s most important demographics has no experience with using social media at all. Last year, when Trump was still fighting for the Republican nomination, almost 40% of his supporters were over 65 years old.  These same 65 year-olds are generally the ones who, at the very least, don’t have a strong connection to social media.  According to Pew Research, only 9% of Twitter users are over 60 years old. 91% of Twitter users are ‘kids these days.’

So, what is happening?  That is a much more difficult question to answer.

I think part of the answer can be found in the duel nature of social media in our political culture. It is both a source of enlightenment, and also a source of paranoia.  Perhaps investigating this duality in my next blog will shed light on this paradox.

 

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

When Paul Gaszak and I started this blog 4 years ago, we did so with the goal of avoiding ‘controversial’ and ‘political’ topics. Of course, this has not always been possible.  Completely ignoring the aforementioned two topical realms pretty much closes off most blog possibilities.  Our blog’s discussions of race, education, food, history, science and pop culture can’t help but be political. These topics themselves are politicized in our culture.  Plus, would you really want to read this blog if those topics were never discussed? Our subjective viewpoints make this blog interesting; without them, our little venture would be pretty lifeless. All in all though, I think we have fulfilled our initial promises. We have kept out of many of the ugliest political controversies that seem to rock our world on an ever more common basis.

But, times change and so do politics. As anyone can see, this election year is unique.  I capitalhave been dying to write about it, but we have that whole ‘no controversy’ goal. What to do, what to do?

I’ve decided to start anew….kinda.  With this post, I am creating a new subsection of the Turtle titled ‘Politics 2016’.  ‘Politics 2016’ will be devoted to analyses of the coming November elections, and the state of American politics generally.  Of course, I will be voting and I have an interest in who wins the upcoming election. I fall on one side of the political divide, and I’m sure many readers fall on the other. Hopefully though, the posts that appear on our blog will not identify any Map_of_the_District_of_Columbia,_1835sort of partisan alliance. There will be no hyping of one candidate or the other. There will be no soap-box stances taken on any particular ‘contentious’ issues. This subsection will simply deal with the changing face of American politics, and our larger political culture.

This will be a challenge.  Can this challenge be faced without generating nasty political rancor?  I don’t know. But, I feel it is necessary to try, both for our few readers and for my own mental stability during this crazy election cycle.

So, join us, won’t you?  And, if you have something to add, please do!

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

There is a specter haunting the world of academia, and college professors are wailing with fear and frustration. Every few months, the opinion pages of such diverse publications as The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoan this specter.  50 year old college professors fill the pages of these prestigious productions with 6a6151155fbde50cec7b9616661c1448d3374fa7op-eds categorically stating that today’s ‘college students can’t write.’  If you don’t believe me, the weblink attached takes you to 78 million screeds lamenting the lost art of the sentence, the paragraph and the essay. Peruse your pick, and fear for the future.

Personally, I find such concerns to be generally overstated and misplaced. I read thousands of student journals and papers every year, and I have seen very little decline in the standard and quality of student work.(In fact, it has generally been the opposite) Some students are good writers, some are not so good writers. Some are good because they try hard at it, edit furiously and understand how to analyze ideas. For those who are not so good, I find it often comes down to simple laziness.  A proofreading here and there never hurt anyone, but there are some students who can’t take the time.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t good writers. It just means they have no problem turning in mediocre work. That is their prerogative.

Most concerns about the lost art of writing feel there is more to this issue than just laziness. However, these concerns are often based upon misguided notions. For one thing, there seems to be a belief that college students in the past wrote Dickensian prose and essays that would put Virginia Woolf to shame. This is ludicrous.  The conservative linguist John McWhorter illustrated this in his intriguing 2013 TED talk ‘Txting is Killing Language. JK!!’ About halfway through his 13 minute lecture, McWhorter illustrated that our concern about the lost art of writing is by no means novel.  In 6 quick examples, McWhorter quotes professors and educators from the past 2000 years that sound incredibly like the Cassandras of today. See the queued up clip below:

So it seems that  professors have  always complained about their younger charges’ writing skills. As McWhorter displays, this has much to do with the simple fact that language and linguistics change over time.  But, I think there is something more to it. It’s difficult for humans to believe that what they know now, they have not always known. Ask a professor or teacher about their undergrad writing skills. I guarantee most believe their writing ability at 19 compares favorably to their abilities today. After all, if you are a good writer at 40, you must have been a good writer at 19….right?

Just recently, I was reminded of the much messier reality. When I think back on my undergrad writings it is with rose-tinted glasses.  I mean, I got a bunch of A’s on my college papers after-all!  So, imagine how flummoxed I was the other day when I stumbled upon on old box of 20 year old papers I had written as a junior in college.  Woah!  Pretty ugly!  The work was not terrible by any means, but it was not quite as magical as I recalled. In fact, most of the writing looks pretty similar to what my own students produce today.  To be honest, many of the papers I grade are much better than what I did 20 years ago.  There is no shame in this.  As a 20 year old college student,  I was a different person than my present day self. In college I was just starting to develop many skills in life. Writing was just one of those skills.  The college students that I see today are in the same boat.  They’re 20 years old, and still learning.  It is ridiculously inane to profess an absolutist belief about their abilities at this point in their life.  To say they ‘can’t write’ is at best a misplaced prejudice. At worst it is a sign of outrageous egotism.  Unfortunately, those 78 million Google hits fall under both categories.

My suggestion to the writers and readers of that litany of op-eds?  Before getting too concerned about the end of writing as we know it, look back at your own work from college. You may be in for a surprise.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

(This post is a response to “Superhero Movies are Rarely Super” by Michael Stelzer Jocks.)

Yesterday, my dear colleague Michael Stelzer Jocks wrote about how superhero movies are rarely super, and I feel compelled to respond. I am a lover of superhero films (the only thing I want for my birthday on May 5 is to see Captain America: Civil War that night), and I am familiar with the genre both as a fan and as a writer/teacher of Science Fiction (SF) & Fantasy. However, I am not an apologist for the genre. So, allow me to respond to some of the points made by MSJ.

“There seems to be no end in sight to our nation’s endless desire for…the spate of ‘superhero’ movies that just keep racking up box office records.” – MSJ

First, the desire for SF & Fantasy films (of which superhero films are a subgenre) is not restricted to the United States. Of the top ten films with the highest worldwide grosses of all-time, eight are SF/Fantasy films. The highest grossing superhero movie is Marvel’s The Avengers, which earned $1.5 billion dollars. Of that total, 41% was domestic, which means it grossed nearly $900 million outside of the United States.

Avengers Poster

Also, while we are in a golden age of superhero films, cinematic adaptations of comics are certainly not new. Just to name a few, there is the classic Adam West Batman TV series of the 60s, Richard Donner’s Superman film in the 70s, and Tim Burton’s Batman film in the 80s.

The success of superhero films, like all films, has been dictated by the quality of the film’s writing, direction, and acting. Countless comic book adaptations have been financial and/or critical disasters, such as last year’s Fantastic Four, Halle Berry’s Catwoman, Ben Affleck’s Daredevil, and the infamous Joel Schumacher Batman films of the 90s. So, you are correct: not all superhero movies are super.

However, what has driven this golden age of superhero films is not a blind interest in comic book stories, but rather studios finally treating these stories with care.

A great example is Deadpool, 2016’s surprise hit. The Deadpool character was, prior to the film, virtually unknown to the general population. Even to comic book fans, Deadpool would classify as a C or D-level character in the Marvel universe. For iconic characters that all people know, like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, audiences will flock just based on the name value of the character. Deadpool’s success was not due to a craving for comics; it has a sharp, hilarious script that is well-paced and well-acted. Positive word of mouth drove that film’s success, not opening weekend name value (like Batman v. Superman).

Deadpool

The same can be said of Marvel’s Iron Man. Now, in 2016, Iron Man is well-known to all moviegoers, but when the first Iron Man film was released in 2008, Iron Man was a character known largely only to comic fans. There was plenty of skepticism even among comic fans about how a “lesser” character could carry a film; yet, director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr. made a wonderful movie that caught fire and led to the current Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“Putting [Batman and Superman] in the same film would be like plopping Indiana Jones down in a James Bond movie. What is the point? It reminds me of when Scooby Doo would inexplicably team up with Sonny & Cher or the Harlem Globetrotters. Come on! Why are these people hanging out with meddling kids and helping solve mysteries? I say again, ‘ridiculously asinine’.” – MSJ

Superman and Batman sharing a film is not at all like Indiana Jones and James Bond appearing in the same film. The general movie-going audience has become accustomed to superheroes being segregated into their own films, but that is a product of film studios and business, not the source material.

Superheroes have always shared the same “universe” and regularly interact in all mediums (comics, cartoons, video games) except films, where dollar signs and film rights had kept characters separate until Marvel Studios started their cinematic universe in 2008 with Iron Man, which paved the path to The Avengers in 2012. The first time “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” combined in the comics was 1963, nearly 50 years before it finally happened on screen.

Batman and Superman appeared together for the first time in a comic book in 1952, a whole 64 years before the Batman v. Superman film.

Sup and Bat

Indiana Jones and James Bond were written by different authors for different mediums and never had a connection. They were never meant to share a story or screen, unlike comic book characters.

A better analogy would be to take the process in the opposite direction. Imagine if George Lucas had written Star Wars initially as a book, but Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to Luke Skywalker and 20th Century Fox had purchased Han Solo. Then, for 50 years, the studios made films independent of one another in which Luke and Han could never share the screen, because it would result in endless legal battles. After 50 years, casual moviegoers who weren’t familiar with the source material would find it perfectly normal that Luke and Han aren’t sharing the screen; they’d be their own, independent SF/Fantasy space opera franchises. Meanwhile, fans of the source material would be left daydreaming about seeing Luke and Han together in the Millennium Falcon up on the big screen just as was always intended.

Han luke

“Why are Batman and Superman fighting?” -MSJ

Let me make something clear: Batman v. Superman is a terrible film. I saw it twice in the theater, and was not biased against it. I love the Batman character and wanted the film to work. However, the writing, direction, and editing are all terrible. The acting has some horrible failings, as well. In total, the film failed miserably to properly represent why Batman and Superman would ever come to blows.

However, let’s look to other superhero films that have tackled this concept successfully.

Whether in superhero films, other storytelling genres, or just real life, it is very possible for “good guys” to have ideological differences that put them in different camps, if not outright conflict. This has been well-depicted in a number of superhero films, particularly both Avengers films and Captain America: Winter Soldier. Throughout these films, the heroes all mean well, but they do not see eye-to-eye at all times about what is right. The growing tensions of what’s right and wrong are what precipitate the conflicts in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War.

Civil War

Thus, heroes being in conflict is not absurd – it’s good storytelling. It is actually a sign that the characters are well-rounded, that they have personalities and beliefs that make them much deeper than just their SF/Fantasy superpowers.

“But my real problem with most superhero movies…is the fact that they center around boring, lifeless characters. Action movies must be more than just action. Adventure movies must have interesting, complex protagonists that face and overcome challenges. In other words, human beings need to run the show. Superman? The Hulk? Thor? An all powerful alien, a freakish monster, and a god? There is no complexity here. There are no challenges these beings can’t easily overcome.” – MSJ

Oh, Michael. Your limited viewing of superhero films is really showing on this statement. One of the most important reasons that we are in a golden age of superhero films is because of precisely the opposite of what you claim here. As you stated, “Give me a ‘superhero’ movie in which the hero is more human than super!”

They’re all around you. You cited two wonderful examples in Netflix’s Daredevil and Nolan’s Batman series, but those just scratch the surface.

In any SF/Fantasy story, the key is to speak to the human element. As readers or moviegoers, we marvel at and enjoy the lightsabers and high-tech suits of armor, but those aren’t the elements of the story we, as humans, connect with. It’s the emotions, relationships, and themes we grab hold of. Likewise, in superhero movies, there is always the “supervillain” but the best superhero movies have much deeper, human conflicts. Here are some examples of the human emotions and conflicts:

  • Peter Parker is dealing with his love life and regrets over how he failed his family. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is a love story about Peter struggling with how his life and responsibilities always seem to prevent him from being with the woman he loves.
  • Tony Stark is tormented by his consciousness after the death and destruction that resulted from his actions (which is somewhat Dostoyevskian, Michael, which you should appreciate). Tony even deals with PTSD in Iron Man 3. A famous story-arc in the comics, Demon in the Bottle, deals with Tony struggling with alcoholism.
  • Scott Lang in Ant-Man is an ex-con trying to regain the life he lost due to his troubled past, and all of his “heroic” actions are prompted by wanting to be a good father to his daughter, who lives with his ex-wife and stepfather.
  • Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy struggles to hold onto the memory of his mother who died of cancer when he was a child.
  • Bruce Banner in The Hulk is struggling with his own isolation from others.
  • In the popular TV series The Walking Dead, which is also a comic book property, fans understand that the the real danger is not the zombies; the zombies are sort of peripheral, especially since they’re slow-moving and easily dispatched. The real danger is other humans, and how some people and societies can fall to pieces when pushed into a corner.
  • Captain America is a kind-hearted, scrawny guy who feels powerless to help others when that’s all he wants to do. Michael, as a History Professor, you should love a tale about a guy who wants nothing more than to serve his country in WW2 as he watches everyone, including his best friend, get shipped off to war.

I even like to use Captain America as an example of leadership in my classes. In The Avengers, there is genius Tony Stark, Norse god Thor, the monster Hulk; yet, it is Steve Rogers, the guy who was born scrawny but with a big heart, who is the leader. Even with his superpowers, Cap isn’t the smartest, fastest, or strongest of the group. He is sort of the Average Joe of the team, but he is the one who commands the respect of the group, because he does what any real person can: be a good person, have conviction, and fight for what you believe in.

Avengers Cap

Moviegoers will never have real superpowers, but we understand these human moments, and the better comic book films/TV shows are packed full of them. Superhero movies are no longer just mindless action set pieces with empty scripts and ample explosions…they’ll let Michael Bay corner that market.

“See, I like some superhero movies/shows; I just don’t care much for most superheroes” – MSJ

I am biased in favor of superhero movies only in that that I will often give films in the genre a chance before casting judgement, but then I judge them on their own merit. This year, Deadpool was outstanding; Batman v. Superman was terrible. I am thrilled for Captain America: Civial War; I am extremely skeptical about X-Men: Age of Apocalypse. The best superhero films are funny, heartfelt, emotional, resonant, and exciting. They are no longer just “good” genre films; they’re great films, period.

Give some of the better properties a chance, Michael. If you need a viewing list for homework, let me know.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The other day our illustrious Editor-in-Chief of RMU’s student newspaper, Kevin Morales, asked me if I would like to write a quick word regarding why I don’t particularly enjoy superhero movies.  I thought, ‘sure, I’ll play the contrarian’. And evidently, not liking superhero movies is a pretty rare stance these days.  Marvel and DC Comics have taken over Hollywood, and there seems to be no end in sight to our nation’s endless desire for new tales taken from comic books.

marvel

So, what is my problem?

Before I get into why I generally ignore most of these movies, I feel I must make one thing clear.  I am not necessarily a movie snob. I like a good number of movies that have been critically panned. Every movie I see doesn’t need to be an art-house flick. Also, I am not one who despises or mocks ‘nerd culture’. Sure, I really can do without Lord of the Rings, but I like Harry Potter.  I don’t go for Star Trek, but I love Star Wars.  Avatar? Oh goodness no! The Matrix?  Oh, heck yeah!  So, you see, I don’t reject sci-fi and fantasy out of hand. I like some, I loathe some.

Which brings us back to the spate of ‘superhero’ movies that just keep racking up box office records.  I think Kevin assumes I hate all within the genre, but that is not true.  In fact, I love some superhero stories.  Hey, I saw Tim Burton’s Batman on opening night in 1989! I even bought and proudly wore a Batman t-shirt after seeing that seminal film. But, that love doesn’t automatically extend to all Batman stories. I most definitely do not have any desire to see this new Batman v. Superman flick.  I’m avoiding that one like the plague.  There are a couple reasons why.

First, it just looks like a ridiculously asinine concept.  Why are Batman and Superman bat superfighting?  Scratch that; I really don’t care. Any explication of the plot will be absurd. Putting these two characters in the same film would be like plopping Indiana Jones down in a James Bond movie.  What is the point?  It reminds me of when Scooby Doo would inexplicably team up with Sonny & Cher or the Harlem Globetrotters. Come on!  Why are these people hanging out with meddling kids and helping solve mysteries?  I say again, ‘ridiculously asinine’.

But my real problem with most superhero movies, and this includes Zack Snyder’s new Man of Steel vehicles, is the fact that they center around boring, lifeless characters.  Action movies must be more than just action. Adventure movies must have interesting, complex protagonists that face and overcome challenges. In other words, human beings need to run the show.  Superman? The Hulk? Thor?  An all powerful alien, a freakish monster, and a god?  There is no complexity here. There are no challenges these beings can’t easily overcome.  They are superhuman, and hence, you get a snowball effect of absurdity. Since humans would be squashed like a bug by these characters, you are forced to provide them with superhuman enemies.  Evil geniuses, other aliens, or, yes, fellow deities. One Norse god fighting another; one alien fighting another.  Why should I care again?

Give me a ‘superhero’ movie in which the hero is more human than super!  No films have Batman-the-jokeraccomplished this better than Christopher Nolan’s adaption of Frank Miller’s ‘Dark Knight’ series.  The Batman/Bruce Wayne in Nolan’s films is emotionally and mentally fragile. He is complex.  Sure, you know Batman will win in the end. But Nolan creates realistically troubling adversity for his hero. He wants you, the viewer, to ask questions. Are you sure Batman’s vigilantism is a positive thing?  Is he obsessed with justice so much that it will destroy him and all he loves? And, what about Batman’s relationship with his arch-nemesis, The Joker?  Perhaps Batman should have killed The Joker?  The Joker, like Batman, is mortal. He is not some demigod or alien.  These films then illustrate the struggle of man v. man, not monster v. monster.  For goodness sakes, by the third installment of the series, Bruce Wayne needs to get a knee brace if he wants to keep fighting villains! Can’t get much more human than that.

In this same vein, Netflix’s Daredevil series is similarly successful.  Of course, Daredevil has some ‘superpowers’; a never quite defined sixth sense that allows him to predict landscape_xlargemovements and foresee actions.  But, the show illustrates the challenges of these ‘powers’. The character must train himself to use this power, and prepare himself physically to fight the evil all around him. He does not have super-strength, super-speed or the ability to shoot lasers out of any orifices. Since he is just a man with some unlikely mental abilities, Daredevil doesn’t automatically win all his fights. Out on the streets of NYC, he usually gives worse than he takes, but he takes quite a bit.   He comes home with scratches, bruises, sprains and breaks. Daredevil could lose. The tension is real.

See, I like some superhero movies/shows; I just don’t care much for most superheroes.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I zoomed through Arthur Koestler’s classic prison memoir, Dialogue With Death.  Koestler was an important 1930s journalist/novelist/intellectual.  As with many of 9780226449616his generation, he was a leftist who flirted with Communism before becoming disenchanted by Stalin, Stalinism and the horrendous crimes perpetuated by the regime during that era.

But, Koestler was more than just a pie-in-the-sky intellectual with his head buried in dusty books.  He got his hands dirty experiencing the unstable political world of 1930s Europe. He witnessed first-hand many of the continent’s revolutions, putsches and civil wars.  Dialogue With Death is his 200 page account of Spanish Civil War battles, his coverage of Republican forces in that war, and his eventual capture by General Francisco Franco’s fascist troops.  After being captured, Koestler was thrown in jail, where he was kept in

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Koestler on his way to the North Pole, 1931

 

solitary confinement for the weeks leading up to his expected execution. In the hands of Franco’s fascists, death was the common punishment for ‘Reds’.  However, after a couple weeks his solitary slowly became less solitary. He began to clandestinely speak to other prisoners outside his cell; eventually, he was even given the opportunity to pick a book out of the prison ‘library’.

His description of getting his hands on his first book in over a month is a wonderfully evocative ode to the joys of reading:

‘I sat down on the bed, lit the cigarette and began to read….I read devoutly and fervently – and very slowly….I learned to read anew, with a long since forgotten concentration on every sentence, every adjective; I felt like someone who has been bed-ridden and who in learning to walk anew is acutely conscious of the play of his muscles. I fancy the Romans must have read in this fashion when books were written by hand on long parchment rolls; devoutly, sentence by sentence, only a few inches of the roll a day, so as to keep the rest for the morrow. When writers were obliged to use parchment rolls they knew how carefully people read them, and had confidence in their readers. Nowadays readers may have confidence in the writer, but writers have no confidence in the reader.’

Koestler was a bibliophile.  But, Koestler’s statement illustrates more than simply his love of books. Koestler’s words illustrate his discovery of the lost art of ‘intensive reading’.  Before his nightmarish prison experience, Koestler was most likely a typical modern reader; he read ‘extensively’. He read whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.  But in prison, the world he understood was destroyed.  Books became an impossible luxury. When he was finally able to settle into a book again, Koestler could not help but intensively read. By reading in this way, he made himself a pre-modern.   Literary scholar Geoffrey Turnovsky has pointed out that intensive reading was a skill practiced prior to the 15th-18th century printing boom. At that time, reading

‘was shaped by scarcity rather than abundance, and by the sway of powerful institutions – the Church, universities- that oriented reading in a conservative, stabilizing manner. To read intensively was to focus on a small set of works, rereading each one over and over, not….new information, or surprising amusements, but as part of a ritualistic re-affirmation of faith, understanding, or inclusion in a recognized community.

Though troubling in many ways (ie, not informational or original), intensive reading meant that the reader was supremely focused upon what he/she was studying.Friedrich_Herlin,_Reading_Saint_Peter_(1466)

In comparison, the modern world is marked by extensiveness.  We are more likely to be inundated under an avalanche of reading materials than to be facing a scarcity. Thus, reading as a skill is most valued by speed and efficiency. Just think of the millions spent by those who take speed-reading courses in hopes of plowing through a 500 page novel in 2 hours. In our education system, efficiency is as important as speed. When some of my fellow students in grad school complained about the reading load for one professor’s class, he informed us that we needed to learn what to read, and what to ignore in the books he assigned. A strange request, for a strange culture.

Of course, extensive reading and ubiquitous texts have led to a great many goods. The average human today has knowledge that the pre-printing intensive readers could only dream of.  I mean, who really wants to return to a world of medieval monks chanting and repeating memorized liturgies? Needless to say I am also not romanticizing solitary confinement in a right-wing secret prison with only a handful of books. Personally though, I sometimes think I don’t enjoy what I read enough; I find that I have the habit of thinking about my next book during the reading of my current book.  This is extensive reading absurdity.

In our world of extensive readings, Koestler’s rediscovery of books in a dark fascist prison cell is always good to keep in mind.