Monday, October 31, 2011

100 years ago today: It's as if it were part of their name

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

While glancing through the inside pages of some newspapers published a year ago today I couldn't help but notice how the "race" of the people in the news was marked. One sees the descriptor "colored" after many a name but seldom reads the descriptor "white." This may have been one of the reasons why it seemed "objectively true" to people that African-Americans were disproportionately likely to be criminals--after all, you might imagine someone explaining, "every time I read about crime or court cases story after story is about a colored man or woman" [NOTE: Unfortunately the word that many a white American would have though in their head was far more offensive than 'colored' but I am not willing, even for the sake of exploring the internal self-justifications of the white American in 1911, to type it here]

Clearly the "default" human being in the mind of the writers (and most of the readers) was white. Certainly the default 'professional,' 'high achieving,' 'socially prominent,' or 'holder of political office' was white. Depending on the context and content of the article that white person was also usually a man. Since African-Americans had restricted opportunities in the American of 1911 and since most "white" newspapers gave limited coverage to the successes of African-Americans the reader reads only of "presumably" white people excelling and carefully marked "not white" people committing crimes.

Look, for example, at page 5 The Times-Dispatch (Richmond, VA: Oct. 31, 1911). The only instance on that page of a person being specifically identified as white was the story of the young woman who was released (and indeed given a ticket to her desired destination) after having been taken into custody when she suffered a memory lapse while riding on public transportation. The detail of her race explains why she was "given her freedom," as the article put it, with such care and consideration. As we look at the rest of that page we read about:
  • Jack Meyers, the young North Carolinian
  • Thomas Williams, a prominent druggist
  • James Easley. colored
  • Mary Shaw, colored
  • Charles Murray, colored, of Caroline county. a student (who was found overcome by gas in his hotel room by a porter)
  • George Robinson, colored, (who was kicked by one of the horses in the engine company)
  • David Johnson, colored (struck under the eye by a stone while working)
  • Daniel Tlmberlake, colored
The writers/editor use 'colored' where they would, for a white man, use a racially neutral descriptor, as in the case of Meyers and Williams. In one particular instance one can see how clearly that use and non-use of the racial descriptor indicates that the default presumption is "white:"
  • The hearing of William Brautigan, charged with pouring gasoline on Marshall Washington, colored
White the default is "white" the reader is not thinking, consciously, as they read each name, "Jack Meyers, white" or, more to the point "William Brautigan, white" and therefore falls easily into the misconception that the criminal class is overwhelming African-American.

How typical is this "marking" of African-Americans in American newspapers of the time? It is not strange to see it in a newspaper aimed at the white, middle-class of the one-time capital of the Confederate States of America but would one see it elsewhere? I turned to The Washington Times (District of Columbia, Oct. 31, 1911) to find the same phenomenon on the front page:
  • John Clark, colored, and his wife, Lilly, were held for action of the grand jury
  • For the assault she committed on her teacher In the National Training School, a colored Institution for missionarles and religious workers, Hannah Crawford, colored, was sentenced to serve six months
There were other stories about crime on that page but in no instance was the person charged with the crime, or suspected of having committed a crime, identified as "white." And, as the quotes above indicate, institutions and places, as well as people, were marked as "colored" as for example, the Plymouth Congregational Church, colored, Seventeenth and P streets northwest, will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. [The Washington Times (District of Columbia, Oct. 31, 1911), page 4.] As was the case in The Times-Dispatch the one area of paper in which the descriptor "white" was used frequently was the "Help Wanted" columns.

Of course, in many ways Washington D. C. was culturally a southern city. Some of the differences in the level and type of racial prejudice in different areas of the country can be seen looking at a number of articles in The Sun (New York) of the same day. Instead of referring to African-Americans as "colored" in The Sun they are described as "negro." In the page 5 story THEATRE BARRED A NEGRO And latter Causes Arrest of Lyric's Treasurer--A Test Case the reader learns that Baldwin, the African-American gentleman in question, had bought orchestra tickets to a performance only to have to be told that he and his guest could not be seated in the orchestra area. Indeed they were told that no New York theatre would seat them in the orchestra area because it would ruin the business. They were offered balcony tickets but Baldwin chose to press charges against the theatre manager.

While that story offers some hope (after all Baldwin was not attacked and was able to press charges) it also casts a bright light on the attitudes of theatre-going New Yorkers. There were enough of them who refused to be seated in an area that also seated African-Americans that theatres routinely practiced de facto, if not de jure, segregation.

Elsewhere in the newspaper stories routinely report that people are negro but never that people are white, for example: a Polish farmer and a Polish farmhand who does not speak English were fatally beaten by two negro [again, page 5.]

From reading the newspapers from the different areas one senses that there was less legal collusion with racial prejudice in some areas than others and that violence was used less often to support racial inequities in some areas than others. One senses that for all the appearance of a "friendlier" form of prejudice in one area than another the violence necessary to support and maintain the existing system was lying close to the surface ready to erupt if every the system was challenged.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

100 years ago today: Meanwhile somewhere in the backwoods of Georgia

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

One hundred years ago the lead story in The Times-Dispatch (Richmond, VA) was the death of Joseph Pulitzer. The story of the newspaper magnate's climb from penniless immigrant to wealth and influence covered much of the front page of that (and many other) newspapers. As I reading about Pulitizer a much smaller headline near the bottom of the front page catch my eye: MOB SEEKS FUGITIVE: Negro Was Captured and Confessed, but Made His Escape. [Note: All headlines in this series retain the original rather idiosyncratic capitalizations.] According to this story, dateline Washington, GA, Walker had been "arrested" for the shooting of C. S. Hollenshead (one of the town merchants), had confessed, had been taken away from the sheriff and his deputy on the public square and had escaped from the crowd that had taken him. The latest word was that he was being hunted in Wilkes county by several hundred men with dogs. If the mob located him, a lynching is certain the reader is told.

As is true in so many of these stories of lynchings, it is clear that the local officers of the law put up at most token resistance to the vigilantes. What was less clear, from the limited details in this article, was how the man managed to escape from the crowd that had seized him. A search of other newspapers yielded slightly more information and details that made the incident even more disturbing. The headline in The Sun (Oct. 20 1911, New York) reads WHISKEY SPOILS A LYNCHING: Members of Mob Too Drunk lo Pull Negro Up After Hope Was Around His Neck and provides more background. No one witnessed the shooting of Hollenshead, suspicion fell on Walker because his wife "had trouble" with the dead man. Walker was brought into town in at 2:30 in the morning after being arrested and there just happened to be a crowd of approximately fifty men in the public square just in the right place to intercept the sheriff, his deputy and Walker on the way to the jail. The confession, if there was one, was obtained from Walker only after he was already in the hands of an angry mob and served the purpose of removing suspicion of another man (also African-American) already in custody.

From the description of what happened next, it seems that the crowd of men had been whiling away their time waiting for the sheriff to bring in Walker drinking for they were so drunk that Walker was able to escape from them--although only after they had put the noose around his neck.

The editors at The Sun seem to have found the whole affair rather amusing while the editors of The Times-Dispatch seem to want to assure their readers that Walker will soon be recaptured.

I sit here, 100 years later, and wonder what happened to Walker. Did he escape? Was his wife okay or did the angry mob go back to his home and take out on her the violence they were unable to visit on her husband? If Walker lived did he dream every night of that moment when the rope went around his neck and did he shiver with remembered fear every time he heard the sound of dogs in the distance?

Decoding social context clues

Sometimes I wonder how much the readers of a hundred years from now will miss when reading things written today. Will most readers of the future find overly subtle the things which we now view as anvils and Chekhov's guns? I know that many of today's readers when reading books written a century ago miss clues and signs that would have been crystal clear to the original intended audience. Take for example this sentence from E. F. Benson's Gavron's Eye (published in 1912):
Also it was said that, although it was a hot afternoon, she wore a big cloak.
It is a wonderfully telling line that informs the character's past and foreshadows the character's future and one that may go right by a reader today if they are not used to Edwardian writing as well as social and class conventions.

People talk much about "genre fiction" and the necessity of being genre-savvy if one is to get everything out of particular types of texts. Similarly, reading books written in earlier times or different cultures requires the reader to be "history/culture context savvy." The unsavvy reader may miss much of the careful characterization of the protagonist if, for example, they don't know about conventions that character is challenging or adhering to. Indeed they may even be aware that the character is acting in a particular way in relationship to a cultural convention because they are unaware of the convention itself.

How does one become context savvy? By doing a lot of reading. It helps if one can find editions with good annotations. Read many books from the same time/culture. Read books written a decade before and a decade after. If you are slightly obsessive compulsive you might consider ordering all the books on your shelves by date they were written so that you are aware that while Edith Wharton was writing this, Agatha Christie was writing that and T. S. Eliot was writing something else.

And if you are forced to share your shelves with someone who prefers the less heuristically useful convention of shelving books alphabetically by author's last name (within or across genres) then you at least have a publication order spreadsheet tucked away somewhere.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

100 years ago today: Remind me again -- who was it who won the Civil War?

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

One hundred years ago the American Civil War was "fifty years ago." Just as the New York Times has been running a series of "100 years ago" articles on the events that led up to, and occurred during, the Civil War, fifty ears ago The Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia) was doing the same.

It isn't surprising to the non-American reader that there would be many bitter and lingering memories of Civil War in Richmond Virginia. Virginia itself was one of the states that seceded and become one of the Confederate States. The northwest portion of the state, in turn, seceded from Virginia. This area was then admitted to the Union on June 20, 1863, as the state of West Virginia. Richmond became the capital of the Confederate State of Virginia. Many of the readers of the Times Dispatch were either veterans of the Confederate Army, were relatives of members of the Confederate Army, had lived through the invasion and occupation of their city or had relatives who had lived through the invasion and occupation.

What is surprising is the degree to which the Confederate cause is treated as dominant, triumphant, honoured and powerful throughout this (as well as earlier and later) issues of the newspaper.

Bear in mind that the demographic of the newspaper's circulation was not the poor and disadvantaged of society. It's readership was not primarily made up of those who had been displaced and overthrown by shifts in power after the conclusion of the Civil War. The Times-Dispatch is full of society news and advertisements for pricey goods. In addition to the section to the society pages there was separate section for business and investments. To the left of the banner on the front page is a box with the text "Children's page of T.D.C.C." and to the right a box with the text "Confederate and Geneology." Page 2 is games and puzzles.
On page 3 of the October 29, 1911 edition the reader will find the regular Sunday Our Confederate Column. To the right of the column is the poem The Veterans' Cross of Honor and it is clear from its words that the veterans in the title are of the Confederate Army since they are said to wear the U.D.C. (United Daughters of the Confederacy) cross and the reader is told The wealth of world cannot purchase this emblem/Unless the buyer wore the gray too. The President of the encounter described in the article on the same page GENERAL PENDLETON AND THE PRESIDENT is Jefferson Davis (the first and only president of the Confederacy.)

Page 4 is set aside for cartoons which largely depend on crude and offensive stereotypes of African-Americans for their "humour." The news in the society pages (and that is how they are titled) is of engagements, marriages and debutantes. The descriptions of the events (and the advertisements that accompany them) indicate that much of the readership is at least socially and financially "comfortable" if not more.

The Times-Dispatch had previously run articles about the final fate the great seal of the Confederate States. In this edition they print an "answer" to the question with a long interview with the man who had been Jefferson Davis' "body servant." SECRET OF THE GREAT SEAL OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES: James H. Jones, Body-Servant to President Jefferson Davis, Tells How He Hid It, and Will Never Divulge Place of Concealment. The next page is largely given over to the article Stonewall Jackson--Protest Against Picture as Drawn in "The Long Roll" By His Wife, Mary Anna Jackson, a piece written, as billed, by Jackson's widow to protest and contradict the verbal picture of him and his behaviour in the recently published "The Long Roll."

One might ask "so what?" These are just a group of relatively privileged people who can live with the myth of the glorious south and pen paeans to the gray clad "heroes" of the "War between the states." There are two answers:

First, the Union may have won the war militarily but they have clearly lost it culturally. The society that had grown up in the south since the war did not see slavery as having been a moral wrong. By mythologizing antebellum society they turned any call for civil rights and equal treatment for African-Americans as an attack on the southern society's mores and heroes. African-American were born, grew up and were educated in a society in which the people who had gone to war to deny them their rights were lionized.

Second, in general (except as "faithful body servants") African-Americans are for the most part absent from these pages. It is not in the "news" section of The Times-Dispatch that you read about lynchings. But if you turn to the "Help Wanted" section at the back of the paper you can see just how segregated life was in Richmond, Virginia was in 1911 and how delimited opportunities were on the basis of one's colour or one's gender.

Help Wanted: Male
  • Wanted, White and colored men to work In nursery and on packing grounds
  • WANTED-COLORED MEN WITH references wishing position as sleeping car or train porters, firemen or brakemen

Help Wanted: Female
  • SETTLED WHITE WOMAN OR GIRL wanted as general helper
  • WANTED, AN EXPERIENCED COLORED nurse for children.
  • WANTED. 50 WHITE AND COLORED women, cooks, maids, nurses

The Civil War may have been over but the battle for Civil Rights still remained to be won.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Blandings' Bathroom Blues: Mr. Blandings and the directed negotiated reading, part three

Spoiler Warning: Discussion of the differences among the three presentations of the Blandings story will necessarily involve implicit and explicit spoilers

Jim and Muriel Blandings have been awoken by the alarm clock, he has received his morning glass of juice from the maid and brought Muriel's morning coffee to the bedroom. One daughter has finished showering and the other was last seen diving into the bathroom.

There is still more morning misery at the Blandings' home for the audience to witness.

Jim Blandings is feeling very put upon. He daughter asks him, very sharply, why every morning he neglects to knock on the bathroom door before opening it. I beg your pardon. Jim says peevishly after his daughter is out of earshot. Once in the bathroom he is clearly annoyed that someone has been squeezing the toothpaste tube from the middle and that items fall out of the medicine cabinet when he opens it. Jim proceeds to take a shower and is still in the bathroom (now shaving) while Muriel showers. When he opens the shower door to give her a washcloth (and then later a towel) the mirror becomes too steamed up to be of use. Jim, again, sighs to himself as only the put upon can sigh. Then Muriel, fresh from her shower, gets in his way as he continues to shave blocking out his view of the mirror. He cuts himself shaving and complains. I cut myself every morning. I kind of look forward to it. She asks, Why don't you use an electric razor?

This scene leaves me with a number of questions:
  1. Why is Jim so annoyed when his daughter asks him to knock before barging into the bathroom?
  2. Why won't Jim put up another shelf/mirror in the bathroom so that the storage space is adequate to the number of people sharing the room?
  3. Why does Muriel need to shower at the same time that Jim is shaving?
  4. What bathroom does Gussie (the maid) use?
One answer to questions 1-3 is, of course, because if they dealt reasonably with their limited space there would be no need for them to move to a very large house in the country. And therefore there would be no movie.

A second answer to questions 1-3 is that if the Blandings arranged they lives more efficiently their "plight" would not evoke as much sympathy from an audience made up of people who took home far less money and often had far less space than the family on the screen.

However the questions do bring some interesting thoughts to mind.

1) Earlier Jim didn't knock before opening his daughters' bedroom door. Jim treats all spaces as his. To knock is to acknowledge that someone else at least shares control over a space.

2) Jim doesn't do things. He is an executive. He is a manager. He tells other people to do things. Even he would, I think, feel slightly silly hiring a handyman to put up a bathroom shelf. If it is something that Jim doesn't know how to do (or cannot see himself doing) and it isn't a task that he can easily and routinely delegate to others then it never enters his conscious mind.

3) I think we can safely assume that Production Code would find it totally acceptable for either Muriel or Jim to use the toilet while the other is in the room however Muriel has to fix herself up so she can look like a nice upper middle housewife at breakfast. In the "real world" she would probably do this by getting up long before Jim so that she could use the bathroom before he got up. Muriel does not have a job. She doesn't need to get ready for work.

4) For those who have never seen the movie it may be important to point out that Gussie is African-American. It would be quite unlikely for the white maid of a white upper class family to use the same bathroom as did they but it would be totally unacceptable for an African-American maid to do so. So I found myself wondering if there were meager toilet facilities "back there" in the space Gussie used. Or perhaps there were facilities out in the hallway that all the "help" in the building used? Whatever the answer some of the square footage of that apartment was out of bounds to the Blandings given the attitudes at the time towards African-Americans.

So far the audience has seen life at the Blandings only through the eyes of Jim. And Jim sees himself as a put upon individual living in the middle of chaos and clutter. Thus members of the audience don't think to themselves that the Blandings have far more room than do they and if only if they used a little bit of elbow grease and common sense most of their problems would disappear.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Escape from New York: Mr. Blandings and the directed negotiated reading, part two

How did the director/screenwriters make the ordinary member of the film going audience feel sympathy for and empathy with the Blandings given that the Blandings were clearly members of a socially, financially and culturally privilege class?

By putting the Blandings into contexts and circumstances that were understandable to that public and which even made members of the audience share their frustrations.

Spoiler Warning: Discussion of the differences among the three presentations of the Blandings story will necessarily involve implicit and explicit spoilers

Let's begin by looking at where the film, book and short story start. The short story (and the book) each begin in medias res. The Blandings have already found the house which will lead to their adventure with home ownership, restoration, destruction and construction.
The sweet old farmhouse burrowed into the upward slope of the land so deeply that you could enter either its bottom or middle floor at ground level.....In front of it, rising and spreading along the whole length of the house, was the largest lilac tree that Mr. and Mrs. Blandings had ever seen. Its gnarled, rusty trunks rose intertwined to branch and taper into splays of this year's light young wood; they, in turn, burst into clouds of blossoms that made the whole vast thing a haze of blues and purples, billowed and wafting. When the house was new, the lilac must have been a shrub in the dooryard--and house and shrub had gone on together, side by side since then. That was a hundred and seventy years ago, last April. [1] 309; [2] 3
Thus we first meet the Blandings without having any sense as to why they are looking for a home.

The movie, on the other hand, delays our first meeting with the Blandings, and indeed the Blandings desire to buy a home, until after carefully providing the audience with the context for why the Blandings were looking for a home. Indeed the very first shot of the film is of New York and the first word spoken is Manhattan. The voice of the narrator is that of Bill Cole (who we soon find out is the Blandings' lawyer and Jim Blandings best friend.) For the first minute and a half of the movie we hear paeans to Manhattan (wide streets, gracious living) while seeing the opposite on the screen (people struck in traffic jams and screaming at each other, people scrambling to get onto overfilled subway cars, people crowded into comfortless diners.) The 'amusing' disconnect between what is said and what is seen signals the audience to "take with a grain of salt" pronouncements made by the characters. The footage of the miseries of life in Manhattan prepare the audience to see the city as something anyone would leave, if only they could.

Bill Cole then tells the audience about the Blandings, the atypical 'typical' New Yorkers that we are to sympathize and empathize with--but doing so only after showing the discomfort and indignities of urban life and by reminding us that Jim and Muriel Blandings are just like thousands of other New Yorkers. While the claim that the Blandings are like thousands of other New Yorkers may be technically true (since in a city of such size there may well be thousands of members of the upper 3% of American society) they are not typical of the average American sitting in the audience in the cinema.

These verbal directions that we should see the Blandings as sharing the same misfortunes as do members of the audience are further buttressed by the audiences first glimpse of Jim and Muriel as we see the couple struggle through the difficulties of getting up, getting dressed and getting breakfast in an apartment which seems overfilled with people, furniture and possessions and undersupplied with closets and storage areas.

We first meet the Blandings as their alarm clock rouses them from sleep. (Since all the Blandings share the same last name from this point on I will refer to each by their first name.) Jim and Muriel (each, as the Production Code preferred, in a separate twin bed) each try sleepily to take control over the alarm clock -- she trying to turn it off as he tries to turn it on. Then he makes his way across a room overcrowded with beds and dresser to the closet where he struggles to find his dressing gown among the clothes jammed in so tightly they seem not to need hangars at all. Having found his dressing gown he makes his way down the hall, knocking at the bathroom door to greet one daughter, going into the girls shared bedroom (we can see the twin beds) to wake the other, picks up the broom left behind in the living room, works his way around the table that almost completely fills the dining room, takes the cover off the bird cage and finally trades the broom he is carrying for the glass of juice that the maid has ready for him.

Insert here the sound of tires screeching. The Blandings have a maid. From all indications a live-in maid. Our supposedly typical New Yorker (Mr. Blandings) not only makes more than 97% of Americans and, unlike the vast majority of his generation, has a college degree, his family also has a maid.

Back to the movie....Once Jim has drunk his juice he trades the empty glass for a cup of coffee he takes back down the hall and gives to his wife who is still sitting, semi-comotose, in bed. Jim searches through the dresser for his underwear and socks. Directed by Muriel to look for his socks in the closet he clumsily moves around boxes only to have a number of them fall on him and the floor. Frustrated he heads to the bathroom. His daughter screams as he opens the door and enjoins him to knock before coming in. I find myself agreeing with her. Since he saw her running down the hall in front of him to get access to the bathroom before him it would seem only reasonable for him to check to see if she had finished using it before barging in.

By this point in the film it is fairly clear that Jim feels more than a little sorry for himself. It is not clear how much members of the audience are supposed to feel empathy or sympathy with him.

The movie has already passed the 10 minute point. We have met the Blandings, been shown how difficult, crowded and frantic life is in New York and are watching the family negotiate a morning in a crowded and badly organized apartment. The discomforts of their lives are being made salient to us and soon we will forget that in education, social and financial status the Blandings are quite unlike most of the audience.

The Blandings may be looking for their dream house. They already have a life that most members of the audience can only dream of.

[1] Hodgins, Eric."Mr. Blandings Builds His Castle" in Adaptations : from short story to big screen : 35 great stories that have inspired great films. New York : Three Rivers Press, ©2005.

[2] Hodgins, Eric. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. New York : Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004, ©1946.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Unintended consequences: Democracy and the waiting room

Canadian health care story/question.

Earlier today I spent some time in a doctor's waiting room. I had arrived rather early (sometimes all the traffic lights do go your way) so I settled down with my ereader to while my time away. Waiting rooms are interesting places which can vary radically in the emotional dynamic from day to day. Sometimes there are anxious young parents (or at least anxious parents with young children) who feel guilty that their child may bothering other people in the room. Sometimes there are people who are clearly worried that the news the doctor is about to give them may be bad. There is usually someone who carries with them the aroma of tobacco smoke and next to whom no non-smoker wishes to sit.

Last time I was in that waiting room an elderly woman came in, clutching a plastic bag full of medications. I could hear her wheezing as she went to the receptionist and then I heard her reply that she was too confused right now to remember her own postal code. The receptionist took what information she could get and the woman sat down next to me. She was clearly disturbed and worried so I smiled and said a few words to her and soon she calmed down enough to tell me why she had come in for an "urgent care" visit. Her regular doctor was on maternity leave and so she had never been to this doctor before (which is why they didn't have all her information on file). Her seasonal asthma had flared up, her inhaler didn't seem to be giving her any relief and she was afraid she wouldn't be able to fly to visit her ailing mother if the problem wasn't brought under control. Soon she was telling us (me and spouse) about her mother and the hospital she was in and how much nursing had changed since she had been in training. And as her panic subsided, her breathing became easier and her respiration quieter. In a few minutes my name was called and I left her talking to spouse. My own visit was short since I was just getting the results of some lab tests and as I came back out they called her name and she smiled at me and waved as she went, in her turn, to see the doctor.

Today someone in the waiting room asked me about my ereader and in the course of the conversation I learned that she was an administrator at a heath care unit in a neighbouring community. The waiting room was unusually quiet for that time of day and she was musing about the problems of predicting patient loads. Then I got called back to see my doctor and when I came out she was no longer there.

As I drove home I began to think about the democracy of waiting rooms. Most of us will find ourselves, at one time or another, waiting anxiously in a room full of other people waiting anxiously. Waiting rooms are, for many of us, one of the few places we spend time with people from very different walks of life. What goes on in those waiting rooms tells us much about the society in which we live.

For example: I was in a doctor's waiting room in the US when a man came in who wanted to see the doctor. They would not schedule an appointment for the man, not because the doctor was not accepting new patients (he was) but because the man had no insurance. What he had, instead, was cash. He was willing to pay upfront to see the doctor. His request was denied. Until he could prove he had insurance he would have to go emergency at the nearest public hospital. He pled "but it isn't an emergency. It will take all day if they see me at all. I just want the doctor to...." I heard no more for the receptionist wasn't interested in what the man wanted or needed done. He had no insurance.

For example: I was in a room in emergency at a hospital in the US. My doctor had sent me there for a series to tests to rule out the worst case explanation of the wheezing/tickling in my lungs. I had been wired up and tested for one thing, blood had been drawn to test for something else, I had just had a CAT scan and now I was waiting to see the doctor. Through my door I could see a bedraggled elderly couple--her sitting on a stool and him the floor. She was crying and I gave them some tissues and learned that they had been waiting for 8 hours sitting on a stool and the floor. They were poor, from out of state and had no insurance. I sat in my private room (I had excellent health insurance through work) and waited in comfort for reports on my tests. They sat in the hall and finally someone came by and did something that looked and sounded painful to the suppurating lesion on her arm. Then my doctor came in, told me that there was nothing wrong, all the tests were negative and I was free to go. I checked out, paying a copay that was probably more money than that bedraggled couple had to their name.

Like most Canadians I have complaints about the short comings of our health care system--but the most important thing is that for the most part Canadians are all in the same boat. Canadians who are comfortably well off receive, for the most part, the same care as Canadians who are not. If there is a shortage of doctors wealth won't buy your way into a doctor's practice. If there is a shortage of rooms at the hospital wealth won't buy you a bed a poorer person can't lie on. When my American friends say, in condemnation, "you can't buy your way to the front of the line" I nod my head in agreement and approval. Because when you can't buy your way to the front of the line you are highly motivated to make sure that that line is never very long.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The poverty tax, part two

I made a quick stop at the grocery store today. We were both in the mood for potato-leek stew so I wanted to get more leeks before our next regular shopping trip. Whenever I am at the store I check to see if there is a store special on anything we regularly use and which stores well. Today the brand of olive oil we use (and since we are vegans we use olive oil quite a bit) was on sale -- 23% off. So of course I brought a few bottles of olive oil home along with the leeks.

As I was putting the olive oil away (we always put the most recently purchased items at the back the shelf and move the oldest to the front) I realized that everything in that particular cupboard had been bought on sale. We can afford to take advantage of store specials because we have a freezer large enough to hold a substantial amount of food and a bank account that allows us flexibility in our budgeting.

Those who are poor, those who barely scrape by from week to week, and those who are living on food stamps cannot take advantage of the same specials as do we. So those who least need to stretch their food budget are most able to do so.

Yet another invisible tax on being poor.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

100 years ago today: America at War

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

While I was scanning the pages of American newspapers published 100 years ago one headline caught my eye:
RACE WAR IN SOUTH IMMINENT: National Guard Rushed to Oklahoma Town One--Negro Is Lynched and Two Others Are Shot--Negroes Mustering Fight Force [Medford Mail Tribune (Medford, Oregon) Oct. 23, 1911, page 5]
The article below gave few details of the events that led to the "troublesome negro" being lynched. Coweta, Oklahoma was, according to the first paragraph, under virtual martial law as the National Guard had been called out due to "threatened manslaughter on the part of the negro element."

My first thought was that the editor/publisher of that particular newspaper was overreacting to a vague report of unrest in Oklahoma. I decided to keep my eyes open for more news on the same story as I looked through the other newspapers. It turned out that in most cases, it would have taken more effort to miss the story than to find it.

The Arizona Republican put the same story above the fold on the front page:
SENDS CALL FOR TROOPS: National Guard Will be Needed in Ending Race War Which Broke Out Last Night in Black Belt of Oklahoma: NEGRO WHO RAN AMUCK WAS KILLED: Trouble Occurred at Coweta in Heart of District Which is Populated Largely by Blacks From Far South [October 23, 1911, page 1]
[NOTE: In 1911 it was the fashion of many papers to have nesting banks of headlines which told as much of the story as many of the public would ever read.]
The particular details of the case are repeated, in more or less the same words, across many of the newspapers. An African-American shoved a white women off the sidewalk. The white man who had been walking with the woman, along with another white man then assaulted the African-American (Ed Ruse.) The next day Ruse returned to the town armed with a knife and looking for the man who had helped in the assault. According to the town officials (all white as far as one can tell) Ruse shot the Marshall when he was ordered to hand over his knife and then another African-American man, Ed Suddeth, rushed out of a nearby house and shot and killed the Marshall. From this point on the story becomes a confusing one of Suddeth being captured by a mob, hung, rescued before he was dead (for fear that his lynching would lead to a race riot) and then later shot at least fifty times.

There is no way of verifying exactly who started things and who did what to whom in what order. What is clear from the various accounts as that the officials (and much of the white populace) of the area viewed all African-Americans as monolithic group that were liable to rise up at any moment, violently assault any white people they came upon and destroy the town they lived in.

Geographical distance did not seem to lessen the fear that the African-Americans of Oklahoma were poised to begin an armed assault on the white population of the state. The Times Dispatch of Richmond, VA, was another newspaper that ran the story on the front page above the fold
BLACKS THREATEN TOWN Of COWETA: White Men Are Patrolling Streets and Guarding Homes.
The Call of San Francisco managed to suggest by its headline (front page, above the fold):
Fearing Attack Lynchers Cut Rope and Hide Captive in Vacant Building
that stopping an extra-judicial killing was a symptom of breakdown of social order.

What I realize as I read one newspaper after another is that any individual act of violence/resistance by an African-American was seen as a potential assault on the social order and that any group of African-Americans males larger than 1 was a mob that threatened the safety of white Americans. All African-Americans were suspected of working towards an armed rebellion and the overthrow of the existing government.

The question I ask myself as I read these articles is "why were the white authorities so sure that all African-Americans would rebel violently if given a chance." The answer is, of course, "because they were well aware of how African-Americans had been treated in the past and were still be treated -- and would themselves if treated the same way rebel violently against those who oppressed them.

The best evidence we have of how badly African-Americana had been treated was how much white Americans feared their vengeance.

A moment of terror and an "unsexy" charity

Charities, like many other things in the modern world, go in and out of fashion. One week/month/year celebrities are lending their faces and names to one cause and a few years later the same celebrities are associating themselves with another. Some diseases are easy to dramatize. The story of the person looking for marrow donor or the matching kidney almost writes itself.

And then there are the causes and charities that quietly trudge along, never in the spotlight and yet for all that alleviating just as much misery as those that are better known.

This morning I couldn't find my glasses. I need my glasses to perform the routine tasks of life. I put them on before I get out of bed in the morning and I take them off only after I turn off the lights at night. Today I took them off to wash my face and when I reached out my hand for them they weren't were I expected them to be. I looked frantically at the things on the counter but I couldn't find them. Yes, I have a backup pair (which I keep in a spot I can reach even if I can see nothing) but the moment of terror remains with me. Without my glasses I would not be able to cook (I couldn't measure ingredients and nor could I safely use a knife.) I wouldn't be able to read (magnifying things won't solve the problem since I am severely astigmatic.) I couldn't drive. I couldn't knit unless someone else cast on the stitches and I couldn't crochet save by feel alone.

We who are privileged forget how life-changing the simple technology of "glasses" can be. There are hundreds of thousands of people who could live better, more comfortable, more remunerative lives with the aid of something we take so for granted that we know longer think of it as a medical technology.

Many optometrists and opthalmologists belong to groups that will accept old/used glasses. Groups of doctors go to areas of the world where people get no eye care or where most people can't afford glasses and provide the required necessary tests for free. They then match people up with the used eyeglasses closest to the prescription required. Yes, of course it would be better if everyone in the world had access to best of modern eye medicine but realistically that is not going to happen anytime soon. Just remember, the next time your replace your glasses to find a doctor/organization that can pass them on to someone whose life will be made, quite literally, clearer and brighter by an act of charity that cost you nothing.

Friday, October 21, 2011

100 years ago today: How we talked about the things we couldn't talk about

One hundred years ago one of the stories on the front pages many of the newspapers in the United States told of the arrest of Rev. C. V. T. Richeson for the murder of Avis Linnell. Miss Linnell, whose body was found in the bathroom of the YWCA rooming house where she lived, was first thought to have died of natural causes and then, after the contents of her stomach were examined, was presumed to have committed suicide. Why, I wondered, would the police think that an attractive, talented and not noticeably depressed young woman would have committed suicide?
Miss Linnell. who was nineteen years old, and a student at the Conservatory of Music, was found dead in the bathroom of the Young Women's Christian Association home here. At first the police believed she had committed suicide, but later developments indicated that she had unknowingly taken cyanide of potassium sent her by some other person, in the belief that it would remedy her embarrassing physical condition. [The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA) Oct. 21 1911, page 1]
At first the police believed that she had committed suicide but later developments indicated that she had unknowingly taken cyanide of potassium, which had been sent to her by some other person, and that she used it In the belief that it would remedy a certain embarrassing physical condition. [New York Tribune Oct 21, 1911, page 1.]
[SubHead]Cambridge Clergyman Accused of Murder of a Young Girl to Concel an Earlier Sin [The Bisbee Daily Review (Bisbee, Arizona) Oct 21, 1911, page 1]
Richeson is charged with furnishing a nineteen year-old girl, to whom he is said lo have been engaged to be married, and who in the course of six months would have become a mother, with cyanide of potassium and the inference is that he told her that by taking the deadly drug she bring about a desired change in her physical condition, when In reality he furnished the cyanide and deceived the girl as to the nature of its effect for the express purpose of causing her death so that no entanglement might exist which could prevent his marriage to Violet Edmonds of Brookllne, whose father is a rich man. [The Sun (New York) Oct 21, 1911, page 1.]
Clearly what is at issue is not the concepts it is the words. It is crystal clear from the various accounts that Miss Linnell was pregnant and Richeson (the presumed father) was suspected of giving her the potassium of cyanide and telling her it was an abortifacient.

At the same time words (and concepts) that we would now find deeply shocking can be found on the same pages where the word "pregnant" could not be written.
The halfbreed was found in the brush near the scene of the crime early today and brought to the Oroville jail. There is talk of lynching.[The Tacoma Times (Tacoma, Washington) Oct 21, 1911, page 1]
From reading that article it is clear that if an "Indian" was accused of murdering a white woman by other white people -- then no one considered it necessary to go through the formality of having an actual trial. A lynching would do just as well.

Just as "everyone knew" that things such as premarital sex went on "everyone knew" that non-white and white Americans got treated differently by the American legal system. One hundred years they spoke circumspectly about sex and opening about legal inequalities. Today we speak openly about sex and circumspectly about legal inequalities.

But just as people were having sex then even if they weren't talking about it--bigotry and legal inequalities exist today even when we aren't willing to speak openly and honestly about them.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

100 years ago today: Othering and diminishment

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

One hundred years ago today the University Missourian (Columbia, Missouri) ran the following article on the front page:
Head: Cinders Cause Suit
SubHead: Negro Woman Asks $300 Because Wabash Trains Soil Washing.

Emmeline Williams is not only identified in the subhead as a "Negro Woman" in the very first line of the article we are told that she is "a negress." In the second paragraph of the same article she is referred to as "Emmeline" without an honorific and with no last name.

The article, which is a roundup of the various cases currently before the court, next moves on to the story of "William Miller, a negro" who is later referred to as "Tude, as he is known in Columbia."

No one on the page is identified as "white" and no one not identified as "negro" is referred to only by their first name or not given an honorific on their first mention.

These are, no doubt, "little" things but it says much of what life was like for African-Americans that no matter what they did their "racial identity" was given as automatically as honorifics were given to whites and that the small dignities of life were accorded to white men and women but not African Americans.

Women's Rights and the Decline of Democracy, Part Four

Right now, in the United States, there are still places where people are being told that they have to ride at the back of the bus.
City Human Rights Commission To Examine Sex-Segregated Bus Line
A driver observed and interviewed by The New York World did not intervene when a woman accompanying this reporter was forced to move to the back of the bus. The New York Post subsequently sent its own reporter, who was told by the driver, as well as passengers, that the front of the bus was reserved for men.

Women ride in back on sex-segregated Brooklyn bus line
The B110 bus travels between Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn. It is open to the public, and has a route number and tall blue bus stop signs like any other city bus. But the B110 operates according to its own distinct rules. The bus line is run by a private company and serves the Hasidic communities of the two neighborhoods. To avoid physical contact between members of opposite sexes that is prohibited by Hasidic tradition, men sit in the front of the bus and women sit in the back.
‘Back of bus’ furor
Rosa Parks must be spinning in her grave!

A Brooklyn bus contracted by the city to operate a Williamsburg-to-Borough Park route -- catering to Orthodox Jews but open to the public -- is under investigation for allegedly forcing women to sit in the back of the bus, authorities said yesterday.
At Front of Brooklyn Bus, a Clash of Religious and Women’s Rights
Even though a private operator runs the bus, it was awarded the route through a public and competitive bidding process. Seth Solomonow, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, said the bus was supposed to be “available for public use” and could not discriminate.


On Wednesday afternoon, the custom of women’s sitting at the back of the bus was evident, both in practice and in writing.

Guidelines, posted in the front and the back, said that “when boarding a crowded bus with standing passengers in the front, women should board the back door after paying the driver in the front” and that “when the bus is crowded, passengers should stand in their designated areas.”

If you read the articles (and the comments attached to them) the lack of outrage is noticeable. Why, I wonder, does forcing someone to sit at the back of the bus not spark massive anger and immediate reactions from government institutions? I suggest that the reasons are twofold: what group is the discrimination being carried out by and who is being discriminated against.

First, In certain areas of American politics today it is important to demonstrate that you are for Judeo-Christian ethics/beliefs and that you are a "friend of Israel." Ironically your friendship for Israel may be based on your belief that Israel needs to be around to be destroyed at the right time, but until then you are a friend of Israel. Specifically (for a secular Israel will not result in the rebuilding of the temple) this involves supporting the those groups within Israel that are least supportive of western values/women's rights. This political "third rail" is not equally electric in all communities in the United States but it plays a crucial role in New York politics.

Second, Women rights are always negotiable. They are something that will have to wait. Brutal and unequal treatment of women can be included as one of many charges against another country or leader but that is never enough to spur western countries to action. If men are not being jailed then the jailing of women will not bring down upon you the wrath of the United States. If men are not being mistreated then the mistreatment of women will not bring down upon you the wrath of the United States. Women rights are the last rights that will be insisted on, the last rights to be granted and the first rights to be lost.

One hundred years ago yesterday (October 19, 1911) the Mayor of New York decided to not veto legislation that mandated that the New York City school system pay all women teachers the same wages as male teachers. The first several times such legislation was passed it was vetoed. As the mayor announced his intentions he reassured his constituents that paying women more would actually lead to more male teachers getting jobs.

Women's rights don't seem to have traveled as far as we had hoped over the last 100 years.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

100 years ago today: Don't worry--giving women equal pay will benefit men

The World, New York New York, October 19 1911.


The newspaper reported that the legislature had passed the bill which mandated equal pay several times before and each time it had been vetoed. This time, according to the major
After careful consideration I see that I should accept this bill for the city. It gives the women teachers in our common schools equal pay with the men teachers in all the grades
and, as the mayor points out, this may actually redound to the benefit of men
Instead of lessening the number of men teachers it will increase it. The economical reason for appointing women teachers because they are paid less is removed.
Now, whatever the reasons the mayor had for not vetoing the bill it is interesting that he felt he had to (or wanted to) make the comment/reassurance that the bill would result in more men being hired. And it is important that in this day of fighting for equal pay for work of equal value that people be reminded just how recently in the United States one could openly and baldly pay a women less than a man just because she was a woman and he was a man. Laws had to be passed to prevent that from happening. And it would go on happening (and more laws would be required to be passed) for decades to come.

Channelling cynicism: Mr. Blandings and the directed negotiated reading, part one

Why, one might ask, should we care about the troubles of the most fortunate? Why should we not mock, or even celebrate the things that try them?

Writers and artists have been dealing with that particular problem for as long as there have been writers and artists.

Timothy Daulton, in a comment to an earlier post, mentioned watching Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. In addition to the points Timothy made about the movie's relevance to circumstances today the movie also stands as a brilliant example of how the screenwriter/director/actors can deflect and channel possible oppositional responses to a narrative and (generally) successfully direct the audiences emotional responses in the desired directions.

Mr. Blandings began its life as an article in Fortune magazine in 1946 and was then published, in longer form, as a book. The movie is both faithful to and departs greatly from the original article. And the way in which it does both is instructive as to how an audience can be seduced and distracted into a dominant or acceptable negotiated reading of the text.

In the case of the movie this seduction/distraction might be argued to take place long before the movie begins with the selection of director, screenwriter and cast but I will defer the discussion of those choices until a later day and begin with first moments of the short story, the book and the movie.

Mr. Blandings, the short story, was published in 1946 and Mr. Blanding the movie was released in 1948. The United States was at the moment of publication and release in the midst of what was generally accepted to be a housing crisis. Housing starts had declined precipitously during the Great Depression and during the Second World War manpower and materials that might otherwise gone to building homes went instead into the war effort. With the end of the war hundreds of thousands of men returned to civilian life eager to get married, find a home and start a family but there were not available the hundreds of thousands of homes and apartments required for them to do so. So they lived with family or shared homes with other young couples in similar circumstances. So it is understandable that the "money people" in Hollywood would think that a movie about the troubles that beset a couple trying to build a house would evoke fellow-feeling among members of the audience. But the Blandings in the story, the book and the movie were very unlike most of the millions who desperately needed a home of their own.

If you check the US Census the median household income in the United States was $3200. Just over 3% of American households had an income of over $10000 a year. In the short story the reader learns that the final cost of the land and house was over $50,000 -- a figure well beyond the reach of most of the people who would go to see the film. The Blandings are not rich but they are very wealthy compared to the majority of Americans. A the beginning of the film the audience is told that Blandings is he's as typical a New Yorker as anyone you'll ever meet. And then we are immediately given information that proves that Blandings is anything but a "typical" New Yorker. College graduate, ad business, lovely wife, two fine kids, makes about fifteen thousand a year. Yes, Americans who lived in large urban communities make somewhat more than Americans who live in smaller communities with the 1948 median income of $3200 for those living in cities of more than a million. So Blandings was not making a typical New York income. Nor was the typical New Yorker a college graduate. Indeed, directly after we are told that Jim Blandings is a typical New Yorker we are given ample evidence that he is not.

So, how did the movie-makers ensure that audience members would, for the most part, side with the Blandings even while taking delight in their travails? Over a number of posts I'll examine the skillful way in which they pulled of this feat.

Monday, October 17, 2011

100 year ago today: Mitt Romney, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the 6,000 year old definition of marriage

One hundred years ago today The Logan Republican of Cache County, Utah published the obituary of President John Henry Smith. At the time of his death Smith was the Second Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The obituary is, not surprisingly, laudatory but as I read it over I felt that there must be something missing. Smith had been one of the people who worked behind (and in front of) the scenes to negotiate Utah's transition from territory to state. He had been born in Iowa in 1848 son of Gordon Smith (a leader in the LDS) and must have known in his childhood and his early adult life many of the towering (and many married) figures in the LDS. Including his own father.

Reading that obituary made me think about a statement made not to long ago by Mitt Romney, We’re going to call marriage what it’s been called for 6,000 years or longer: A relationship between one man and one woman. Surely Romney is (and his followers are) aware that not too many generations ago his co-religionists did not consider a marriage to consist of one man and one woman (unless, of course, you are making the rather sophistical argument that each of a polygamist's marriages are between one man and one woman. But each woman was only allowed one marriage at a time while a man might have as many as he liked/could afford.)

How "hidden" was the practice of polygamy (or plural marriage as the LDS often referred to it)? The death of Smith was recorded in The New York Times of October 14, 1911. The last sentence of the obituary was Two wives, fifteen children, and eight grandchildren survive him.

Mitt Romney has, of course, a right to his own beliefs about the what marriage "should be" but, as it has been said elsewhere "you have a right to your own opinions but not a right to your own facts." It is not factually true that marriage has been called "a relationship between one man and one woman" for 6,000 years. Indeed in Utah it wasn't until President (of the LDS) Woodruff's manifesto of 1890 that Morman leadership stopped solemnizing plural marriages. Since those men who were already married to more than one woman were not called to separate from all but one the church leadership did not seem to be stating that those prior relationships had not been marriages and thus were acknowledging the fact that relationships that could be called marriages varied by place and time. If was, after all, not until 1904 the the leadership of the LDS issued a worldwide ban on plural marriage.

So, Mr. Romney, you have a right to your opinions, you have a right to your religion but you do not have a right to alter (or ignore) the historical record.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

100 years ago today: Women, minorities and the law

Many of the rights that women in the "western" world consider unquestioned and unquestionable are comparatively recent and thus, one might argue, have shallow roots and might be less secure than one might presume.

Consider this headline on the first page of The Washington Herald on October 16, 1911. "Court may have women for jury" with the subhead "Suffrage victory affects McNamara Case." The reader is told that given the recent passage of the women's suffrage amendment,[1] "Eminent legal authorities hold that women of the State are now on an equal footing with the men. so far as jury service is concerned," and given the fact that the court may find it difficult to seat a jury of men women "may be peremptorily summoned." The ruling of the judge that "there was nothing to prevent a woman serving on a jury." came after a "demand by Mrs Johanna Engelman that she be given a place in the jury box."

It may seem strange to us today that even after the suffrage there were questions about whether women could serve on juries and it is clear from the text of the article that they would be only if men could not be found. This clarifies one of the basic underlying issues that made women's fight for the vote and other legal rights so difficult--women may have been seen as citizens for the purposes of paying taxes and apportioning congressional seats, but they were not seen as completely, fully functioning adult human beings in the eyes of the kyriarchy. Thus rights and duties which one might imagine would have flowed automatically from the passage of suffrage did not.

The same page of The Washington Herald also gives one a rather frightening insight into the treatment of and attitude toward African-Americans in 1911 and includes a laudatory piece about a lecture on eugenics that was schedule to be given by Willet M. Hays [2] at the local YMCA.

The offensively jocular page 1 article about "Charles Charles" attempting to rescue a beleaguered elderly African-American woman gives the reader a sense of just how "free and equal" life was for African-Americans in Washington D.C. in 1911. On page two of the same paper one finds the article Will Celebrate Freedom: Washington Negroes to Commemorate Abolition of Slavery just about the article Veterans Will Convene: Confederates of Virginia meet at Newport News tomorrow. The placement of the two pieces seems an appropriate commentary on the reality of their lives--whenever African-Americans gather to exercise their theoretical rights they need look over their shoulders for the men who are still celebrated and honoured for having attempted to deny them those rights.

And, of course, The Herald's Page for Every Woman includes the requisite advice and criticism of mothers without which few family newspapers ever went to print.

[1] At the state level. The 19th amendment, which gave American women the right to vote, was not ratified until 1920.

[2] Not the Hays of the Hays Code.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hitchens is 'splaining again.

Whether or not one agrees with Christopher HItchens' conclusions a surprising large number of people don't question the statements of "fact" on which he bases his argument. After all he is male, white, has what sounds to American ears a posh well-educated "British accent." He went to the right schools and speaks with the tone of authority--so what more is there to say?

The first thing to say that HItchens not infrequently is wrong. By this I don't mean that frequently I disagree with HItchens' conclusions but rather that sometimes he is simply wrong on the facts. And since he is wrong on some facts for all I know he is wrong on many facts. And since he is well-educated enough (and has enough resources) that he can easily find out what the facts actually are then he is either consciously lying, unable to conceive of the fact he could be wrong, and feels that the point he is making is so important that fudging or overlooking a few facts is acceptable.

Case in point, in his article Lord Haw Haw and Anwar al-Awlaki Hitchen's wrote:
The United States happens also to be almost uniquely generous in conferring citizenship: making it available to all those who draw their first breath within its borders.
Now that statement is a piece of arrant nonsense. Leaving aside the past actions the American government denying access to citizenship to some groups of immigrants the country is today far from being "almost unique" in granting birthright citizenship. The number of member nations in the UN is 193. Let's round up and say that there are at the moment 200 nations. Over 30 of those nations recognize birthright citizenship. So the United States is among a minority of nations there need to be far, far fewer before the phrase "almost uniquely" become appropriate.

Hitchens may be suffering here from "old worldism." He himself was born and raised in Britain and most European nations do not grant birthright citizenship. However the United States, like most of the other nations in the Western Hemisphere, was built from immigrants and historically offered few bars to children of those immigrants becoming citizens. The mistake he makes here is not particularly relevant to the overall argument he is making however it warns the reader that he is arrogant and/or careless about facts.

A further, minor example of the same thing can be found later on in the same article when he writes of William Joyce:
He actually became rather a popular entertainment item in Britain, his arrogant drawling tones earning him the nickname “Lord Haw Haw.”
Despite that rather definitive statement as to why Joyce was known as "Lord Haw Haw" there is some question as which voice of German propaganda the original epithet "Lord Haw Haw" was used to describe. At least four different people were dubbed "Lord Haw Haw" during the war. We also know that some members of the British media simply used that phrase to describe any English language speaking German propagandists irrespective of their particular manners of speech.

Again, this is a minor point except that we become lazy listeners/readers and HItchens (like many other "respected" pundits") becomes a lazy writer/speaker thinker if the underpinnings of their arguments are not subjected to scrutiny.

Interestingly enough neither of these points is pertinent to the case Hitchens is arguing--indeed they obfuscate it. William Joyce (the Lord Haw Haw to whom HItchens is referring) argued as to his "true" citizenship as part of his defense against being executed as a traitor. He claimed that since he was actually an American citizen he could not be guilty of treason to Britain. al-Awlaki, unlike Joyce, was not tried in a court of law. al-Awlaki was not executed he was assassinated. In fact he was assassinated while outside the United States on the basis of the President "deciding" he was a traitor. In other words, the argument is not whether al-Awlaki was actually an American citizen but whether the President acted extra-judicially. To bring up any other points is to muddy the situation rather than make it clearer.

As George Orwell, one of Hitchens' favourite writers, put it. "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Review: Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq during Would War II

Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq during World War II

This small book(let) prepared for American servicemen stationed in Iraq during the Second World War is in its own way a masterpiece. The "voice" in which it is written is friendly and easy to understand and it is informative without being condescending. Individuals writing training manuals for governments and institutions today would do well to study this (among other manuals and booklets released during the war) for tips on how to write clear and useful instructions without descending into jargon and writing down to one's audience.

Reading it gives one insight into what was considered normal among American servicemen in 1943. For example, its readers are admonished not to "show race prejudice" because the Iraqis "draw very little color line," and soldiers are advised not to approach women on the streets not only to avoid offending Iraqis but also because that is not where the prostitutes could be found. The underlying presumption is that the men reading the booklet do draw more than a little color line and will attempt to locate prostitutes.

But the book also can surprise with its determined resistance to what is now called "mission creep" and cultural colonialism:
Sure, there are differences...But what of it? You aren't going to Iraq to change the Iraqis. Just the opposite. We are fighting this war to preserve the principle of "live and let live." (5)
Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl writes in the modern day introduction
I wish that I had read it before beginning my own yearlong tour of Al Anbar in late 2003!
and I imagine that many of the pundits I hear every day on television would do well to read it before next they share they thoughts on the US involvement in Iraq.

It is short and aimed at someone with no more than a high school education so I think that they could manage it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The teabag movement: Some archeological thoughts

Some questions crossed my mind the other day as I watched the coverage of teabaggers at a rally. At almost every rally there was at least one person festooned with teabags. 'Do these people think that the tea thrown into Boston Harbor in 1773 was packaged in tea bags?' 'Do they think that the tea the Founding Fathers drank was brewed using tea bags?' and 'Do they think that tea bags are historically associated with conservatism?'

As comic and irrelevant as those questions might seem to be they help to identify some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings that befall many in the teabag movement.

First, 'Do these people think that the tea thrown into Boston Harbor in 1773 was packaged in tea bags?'

No, it wasn't (and more on that below.) I ask the question because I am fairly sure that many of the people in the movement (many of whom are decorating their hats and caps with teabags) have no clear idea of what happened at (or caused) the original Boston Tea Party. Yes chests of tea were thrown into the Boston Harbor. Yes, the destruction of the tea was part of a larger action to protest taxation without representation. But much of the anger about the Tea Act of 1773 was that it was passed in part to support what we would now call a large multinational corporation (the East India Company) by allowing it to charge less for tea than its local (to Boston) competitors who were smuggling tea into the colonies.

If any group today did what the "tea partiers" did in 1773--trespass on private property and destroy merchandise and goods for the purpose of making a political statement against the government--they would be labelled terrorists.

Second, 'Do they think that the tea the Founding Fathers drank was brewed using tea bags?'

The rhetoric of the modern "teabaggers" is often that of originalism and constitutional essentialism yet there was at the time not a particularly strong association between that act of rebellion with the larger project of colonial independence. Indeed many of the early histories of the American Revolution played down or ignored what was then called "the act of the destruction of the tea" since it had been violence aimed at private property not the installation of an oppressing government. Given the laudatory rhetoric about corporations, capitalism and private property of many modern day teabaggers one wonders if they realize they are lionizing an attack on the very things they appear to hold most dear.

Third, 'Do they think that tea bags are historically associated with conservatism?'

If the tea baggers wish to associate themselves with the "old days" and "old ways" it would better serve them to sprinkle themselves with loose tea leaves. The brewing of tea with tea bags is a quite recent custom. The tea bag is the accidental creation of an American tea merchant who, about 100 years ago, sent out samples of his tea leaves in silk sachets which some recipients thought were to be used for the brewing of tea. It took some time for the practice of using tea bags become wide spread (especially in England) and even today many tea snobs consider tea brewed from bags rather than loose leaves to be of inferior quality. Indeed they argue that the use of tea bags is yet another sign of the modern day devaluing of the things that matter and the turning away from the manners and beliefs of our forefathers.

In short, the history of the tea bag and the act of the destruction of the tea suggests that the tea bag itself is a symbol of much that the teabaggers despise and the teabaggers' ignorance of the real history and meaning of the tea bag and the act of the destruction of the teat make the tea bag a perfect symbol of all the modern day teabag party stands for.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Spoiler warnings please!

<reader rant>

Writing a "good" book introduction is a difficult thing--not least because of the fact that readers do not agree among themselves on exactly what it is they are looking for in an introduction. Some readers are looking for information about the life and career(s) of the author(s) while others are hoping that the introduction will place the book into a larger context. Some readers think that the larger context the book should be placed into is that of the author(s) thematic and stylistic growth (and perhaps decline.) Other readers think that books should be placed within the context of the time and culture in which they were initially written and/or published. Yet other readers would prefer that books were placed within the context of other books written/published at the same time and/or same genre.

I, myself, am open to many types of introduction. However no reader should stumble across spoilers in an introduction. If the writer of the introduction cannot discuss the book without spoilers then they, or the editors, should do the reader the courtesy of marking them plainly and unmistakably.

And yes, I did just have that happen to me. I curled up in a chair with a book I had not read before and glancing at the introduction hoping for insight into the placement of this book in the development of the author's style and choice of topic(s) I came across a massive spoiler. Yes, I will forge on and read the book but (warning to any editor who happens to come across this entry) I have made a note of the author of the introduction, will avoid reading any by the same author and will, if possible, avoid buying editions that include introductions by that author.

Avoiding spoilers and/or clearly marking them is an act of respect to the reader.

</reader rant>

Friday, October 7, 2011

But why Prunella Scales?

I have been reading (and rereading) quite a bit of E. F. Benson lately. Benson is probably best known today for the novels about Miss Mapp and Emmeline Lucas [1] published between 1920 and 1939 and later bundled together and published in omnibus form in 1977 as Make Way for Lucia. Benson's writing styles (for he had more than one) and the things about which he wrote (he had several distinct subjects of interest) were extremely popular during his lifetime but subsequent to his death and the end of the Second World War his books fell out of print.

Benson's fortunes revived in the 1970s as many of his books began once again to be available in print however it is likely that many know Benson (and his characters Mapp and Lucia) more from the BBC Mapp and Lucia series than from the novels themselves. I did not see that television adaptation before I first started to read Benson. I chanced on a description of one of the Mapp and Lucia books in a critical review of another book I had been reading and I tracked down a copy of the The Worshipful Lucia in the local library. I soon began to hunt down every Benson book I could find. Since most were out of print I either found old battered Benson books in used bookstores and I downloaded those that were now in the public domain from online sources.

Yesterday I was trying to trace the origin of a theme (and style of writing) that I had noticed in Benson's writing as early as 1912 (Mrs. Ames) and in full flower by 1929 (Paying Guests). I wondered if there were hints of that theme in his earliest books so I pulled out my copy of Dodo: A Detail of the Day first published 1893 and first read by me in a battered old copy I no longer own. My current copy is one of three Dodo novels published together 1986 in Dodo: An Omnibus the cover proclaims.....a "New Introduction by Prunella Scales." 'Oh,' I thought, 'I hadn't realized that Scales had been a Benson aficionado before she was cast as Miss Mapp in the BBC series.' The second sentence of the introduction disabused me of that notion
I had read very few of his books before 1984, when I swallowed all the Lucia novels at once while preparing to attempt Miss Mapp in a television serial.
Scales was not familiar with any of the Dodo books before she was asked to write the introduction to the omnibus. The introduction itself is competently written but has as much depth and insight as one would expect from a high school student's "treatment" of an author. It doesn't help me as a reader to understand the world of the book, it doesn't help me as reader to understand Benson as a writer, and it doesn't really help the reader to place Dodo into the context of its time.

I understand why someone at The Hogarth Press decided to ask Scales to write the introduction since the BBC production of Make Way for Lucia did much to revive Benson's popularity. Scales was Miss Mapp for many people who had not read the books previous to their television adaptation. One can imagine the logic "people associate Scales with Benson so if we get her name on a Benson book it will help to sell the book." That may even have worked. However, that decision distresses me for two reasons.

First, I do not begrudge Scales the right to have opinions about the Dodo books but I wish that they had spent the money instead on a less famous but better qualified person who could have written informedly and usefully about the book(s) and the author. No reader who knows Benson only from the BBC adaptation and is not used to reading books written in the latter years of the 19th century is going to find Dodo an easy book to read. Putting Scales name on the cover may have sold more copies of the Dodo omnibus but only, I fear, at the cost of readers who never "got" the books and never bought another Benson (from The Hogart Press or any other publisher.)

Second, even in the few pages of the introduction Scales convinced me that she misunderstands Benson in much the same way as many writers of his time (and his subjects of interest) are misunderstood by people who come across them without the appropriate context. Scales writes of Benson:
one must not be too frivolous about this dear, gentle, funny writer, with his romantic cynicism and demure extravagance, his faultless ear and wicked tongue
and I watch Scales' (in my opinion dreadfully misconceived) performance of Miss Mapp and can only think how little she understands Benson. Benson could be icy, insightful, cynical and cruel. He had seen some of the horrors of life. He was for some time mayor of Rye (the 'real world' Tilling.) He was the son of an Archbishop of Chanterbury and the sibling of writers and intellectuals. None of his generation of the family married and had children. His parents had a famously "chilly" marriage and once widowed his mother lived the rest of her life with a woman friend. Underneath the glittering surface of Benson's books one can often glimpse the emptiness and hopelessness of the lives of his characters.

So, the answer to "why Scales" is--a short-sighted marketing scheme that did nothing to build a readership that would continue to buy Benson's less famous books and that helped to perpetuate a facile understanding of his best selling books.

[1] Queen Lucia (1920), Miss Mapp (1922), Lucia in London (1927), Mapp and Lucia (1931), Lucia's Progress aka The Worshipful Lucia (1935) and Trouble for Lucia (1939)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The death of Steve Jobs as seen through the eyes of western privilege

Last night I heard the news that Steve Jobs had died just a few minutes after posted the announcement on their website. His death was not unexpected but I was still struck by it. For me, as for many other people who grew up in a world without personal computers and who were involved (in a far more tangential way than Jobs) in their development and popularization, this man I never met was vividly real to me. I am very aware of the impact that Jobs had on the development of much of the technology we now depend in the western world.

Almost as soon as Jobs' death was officially announced the responses poured in from people who ranged from customers, to co-workers to politicians. His death was not a surprise and I imagine that many of the formal responses to the announcement had been drafted weeks ago when it became clear that his health had taken a turn for the worse.

One of the constant claims/statements/arguments across the many expressions of sympathy was that virtually everyone in the world had been touched by Jobs. And that claim led to me think "how" and ask "for the better?" I have no doubt that the lives of those in the Horn of Africa, in Darfur and in Myanmar have been touched by the information revolution if we stretch "touched" to include "the individuals who hound the poor and prey on the weak have been known to use new technologies in order to perpetuate their power." I have no doubt that the lives of those in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq have been touched by the computer revolution if we stretch "touched" to include "they are now being killed in ways that would not have been possible without the computer revolution." And it is important to remember that not everyone who has been more directly "touched" by Jobs and Apple would describe the result as "for the better." The workers in Taiwan who committed suicide after enduring the working conditions in IPhone assembly plants would probably not have characterized they way in which their lives were "touched" as for the better.

I am not arguing that Jobs was a bad person. However I do think that we should take care not to universalize from the nature of his impact on the lives of comparatively privileged people to the impact it had on humanity in general. I do know that Jobs was a charismatic individual who could sweep a room of tech reporters off their metaphorical feet. I don't know that Jobs ever sat down and thought about what his wealth could do beyond "make more money" and "create more gadgets that he would like to play with."

Bill Gates was never Steve Jobs equal in terms of charisma. One seldom hears of Gates "wowing" a room of reporters. And Microsoft in its time has resorted to some extremely questionable business practices. But so too did Apple. Bill Gates has spent over a decade giving away much of the money that he made while he, too, was changing the world. We have not heard of Jobs doing anything similar.

Today there are people in the world who are safer, less hungry, healthier, more educated and have more hope for the future because Bill Gates has decided to work almost as hard at giving away his money as he once worked at making it.

Steve Jobs made life more fun, interesting and easier for that portion of the world that already enjoyed the most privilege and the greatest likelihood of having safe, interesting and comfortable lives. It would be nice to find out that Jobs decided that in death he would attempt to compete with Gates on the field of philanthropy just as in life he competed with Gates on the field of technology.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hey there, politician, I'm watching you

Ontario goes to the polls tomorrow (October 6th.)

It seems like such a small thing to do. Someday between the 9 in the morning and 9 at night I will wander over with my notice of registration and draw an X through the circle next to one of the local candidate's name.

Like most of the elections in which I have taken part the person I will vote for has little chance of winning. But it is still very important for me to mark my ballot. I read the local newspaper, I talk to other people on my street and in my neighbourhood and I do some research to find out the relative strengths of the different parties in my riding. I rank the local candidates from those I think are very bad for my community, my province or my country to those which are think are best. Then I have to sit down and work out the likelihoods. If 'VeryWorst' is leading 'NotMyFavouriteButAcceptable' by a small margin then I will vote for NMFBA (hoping to help keep VW from winning.) If one of the parties enjoys a comfortable margin locally then I like to sit down and take a good look at the minor parties in my riding. And sometimes I vote for one of those parties not because I agree with everything in their platform but because I think that they are talking about things which are very important and offering solutions and suggestions which should be among those seriously considered.

Canadian political parties can grow very quickly. Take, for example, the Bloc Québécois. That party began in 1990 as disaffected members of both the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals joined together informally. In 1993 (the next federal election) the Bloc won the second largest number of seats and became the official opposition. Because political parties such as the Bloc and Reform (which was born in the 1980s and by 1997 had replaced the Bloc as the official opposition) can grow so quickly there is room for new ideas and new conversations in Canadian politics. If the old parties won't talk about the things we care about then we just go out and form new parties that will.

Both the sense of power this gives to voters and the way in which the growth of new parties allows for new ideas to take root hit me today as I sit and watch the CNN coverage of the occupation of Wall Street. Few reporters talk to the protestors and most of the reports I listen to are interviews of the old regulars--the talking heads who I could have seen and heard anytime in the last two decades. One can imagine the logic of those of those who handed out the assignments and who edited together the news reports. After all, they must be thinking, what choice will the protestors have when next they vote? Everyone to the left of whatever point will be the "center" at that moment will have the choice of voting for a Democrat or strengthening the Republicans by not voting at all. Everyone to the right of whatever point will be the "center" at the moment will have the choice of voting for a Republican or strengthening the Democrats by not voting at all. The greatest degree of freedom in voting will be during the nomination processes but even then the voters will have a severely limited range of ideologies among which to choose and the barriers for entry into the "serious" nomination race will be high. Those who give aid and comfort to some portion of the monied and active elements of the kyriarchy will be given the money and the access to the media necessary to run a serious campaign. Those who do not, will not.

When it is members and functionaries of the kyriarchy who decide the candidates you get to chose between then no matter the tally the outcome is the same:
Meet the new boss
same as the old boss[1]

[1] The Who, Won't get fooled again.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Tardis in the library, part two

I have time machines in my library. They work like magical one-way windows for when I gaze into them I can see and listen to people from times past yet they cannot see or hear me. Some, I think, suspect that people from the future might occasionally look in on them and so they are on what they feel to be their "best" behaviour. It is interesting and informative to see what they consider "best" behaviour." Other people from the past seem either to be totally unaware or totally unconcerned that people from the future might pass through every once and a while.

In 1943 the Special Service Division of the Army Service Forces, United States Army prepared a booklet Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq. In 2007 The University of Chicago press recently reprinted a facsimile of the original with an added foreword written by Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl. Nagl served in Iraq from September 2003 to September of the following year. He has high praise for much of it "I wish I had read it before beginning my own yearlong tour (v)" although he also points out:
there are also tips in the 1943 Short Guide that absolutely would not see the light of day in the politically correct world of today. None of the men serving there need to be told, "Don't make a pass at any Moslem women or there will be trouble." But the guide continues with more advice that caused my jaw to drop; "Anyway, it won't get you anywhere. Prostitutes do not walk the streets but live in special quarters of the cities." If service members today do need this guidance, I can absolutely guarantee that they won't get it from an official War Department publication! (xi)
Two other pieces of advice stood out to this reader:
Be kind and considerate to servants. The Iraqis consider all people equal. (29)
Note that the soldiers are not told to be kind and considerate to servants because it was right to do so. Nor were they told that they should be kind and considerate to servants because it would make the United States look good. Nor does the booklet say "The Iraqis, like us, consider all people equal." The Iraqi attitude/belief that all people are equal is put forward as just another one of their cultural quirks about which servicemen should be forewarned.
Avoid any expression of race prejudice. The people draw very little color line. (29)
The American Army was at the time this booklet was issued a segregated institution. One can deduce that the troops for whom this booklet was published were overwhelmingly white, male and at least nominally Christian. They weren't admonished not to "feel" race prejudice, just to avoid expressing it. And they were to do so not because it was right or reflected well on the United States but because having "very little color line" was just another one of those strange Iraqi quirks.

These two points stand out because of the clear line against religious proselytizing and prejudice in the same booklet.
You probably belong to a church at home, and you know how you would feel towards anyone who insulted or desecrated your church. The Moslems feel just the same way, perhaps even more strongly. In fact, their feeling about their religion is pretty much the same as ours toward our religion, although more intense. If anything, we should respect the Moslems the more for the intensity of their devotion.(12)
So, in 1943 the authors of this handbook felt that the ordinary American serviceman was more able to feel fellowship and empathy with Moslems on matters of religion that they were about matters of racial and social equality.

Which tells us just as much about the America of 1943 as it does of the Iraq of the same year.