I was just helping a student do some research for a history essay. The mission: find 3 primary documents from the 19th Century that reveal something about the spirit of the age. Her topic: Christmas shopping.

We did a database search of all the articles from the New York Times published before the year 1880, using the terms “Christmas” and “Shopping,” and got a measly 40 hits on 2 pages, a good number of them tiny classified ads. The first article, written in 1870, was titled, The Enemy of the Family, and was a complaint about “middle men” running up the prices of goods at Christmas time. Other titles included:

PERU.: How Christmas was celebrated in Lima—Peruvian Ladies—Their Lack of Refinement—Political Matters.

COMMERCIAL AFFAIRS.: Sales at the Stock Exchange Dec. 16.


And, lumbering in at #24:


This last one very nearly crushed her spirit. We were stymied.

Then I remembered that I’d recently read Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, by the historian William R. Leach. According to Leach:

Before 1880 business like department stores did not exist…In the next twenty years, however, cities throughout the country would be filled with large retail establishmentsmultifloored, multiwindowed buildings of great concentrated selling power.

These huge department stores were the result of a deliberate, concentrated culture of shopping,

unconnected to traditional family or community values, to religion in any conventional sense, or to political democracy. It was a secular business and market-oriented culture, with the exchange and circulation of money and goods at the foundation of its aesthetic life and its moral sensibility.

In the case of Christmas,

when the large department stores first began to overshadow retail districts, Santa Claus’s status also started to metamorphose. The big merchants laid claim to him and to the imagery of the Christmas holidays. Urban merchandising began to give substance and form to the Christmas rituals.

So, on a hunch, I suggested to the student that we change the search criteria to articles published between 1880 and 1900. A few clicks of the mouse later, and we had 406 citations on 21 pages. The title of the 1st article was:

MUCH CHRISTMAS SHOPPING: The Season of 1898 Has Been the Best in Many Years. THE FINAL RUSH LAST NIGHT Belated Buyers Crowded the Stores—A Great Year for Mistletoe and Other Greens.

Some others were:


FOR THE COMING HOLIDAY: Suggestions to the Christmas Shopper and Home Worker. THE SEASON’S RARELY LAVISH DISPLAY What a Round of the Shops Offers — Prices and Quality Most Satisfactory — Designs for Home Work. (1895)

STORE THIEVES AND DETECTIVE: Both Have Already Appeared in the Mass of Holiday Shoppers That Crowd the Big Shops. (1899)

And, of course:

Killed After Christmas Shopping Trip. (1900)

Thank you, Santa! The student left happy, if a little over-burdened, and now I’m looking forward to reading a fine essay.

And to Bill O’Reilly and all the other commentators who complain yearly about the government and the forces of political correctness storming the Christmas gates, I offer this line from The Odyssey:

But come now, change thy theme, and sing of the building of the horse of wood, which Epeius made with Athena’s help, the horse which once Odysseus led up into the citadel as a thing of guile, when he had filled it with the men who sacked Ilion.

Christmas lost the war a long time ago, taken from within before it even knew it was vulnerable.


An Icon is (Re)born

November 20, 2011

According to Kim Murphy of The Los Angeles Times,

The dramatic photo of a young woman getting a blast of pepper spray on her face during a mostly peaceful Occupy protest in Portland is destined to become an enduring image of the national movement.

I agree. Although the details surrounding the actual incident are in dispute, the photo, taken by Randy Rasmussen at OregonLive.com, depicts an iconic, almost mythic encounter between two forces, forever frozen in time.

It reminds me of a question Kenneth Clarke asked in his book, Looking at Pictures:

Can the instantaneous become permanent? Can a flash be prolonged without losing its intensity?

And his answer was: Sometimes.

Almost the only affirmative answer in painting is Goya’s picture of a firing squad, known as The Third of May.

Here are the two images:

Randy Rasmussen, "Occupy Portland N17 Pepper Spray," 2011

Francisco Goya, "The Third of May," 1814

The similarities are striking. In both pictures, there is an implicit sympathy for the figures on the left, making the viewer complicit in the artist’s political position. For one thing, according to Rudolf Arnheim, in Art and Visual Perception,

an observer is subjectively identified with the left, and whatever appears in that part of the picture assumes greatest importance…The left side of the stage is considered the strong one. In a group of two or three actors, the one to the left dominates the scene.

The eye reads from left to right. If the pictures were reversed, the image would become subsumed by the drama in time. As it is, however, this dramatic motion runs counter to the movement of the eye, so that the two forces meet just left of center. The result is a kind of stasis, a self-contained image that enshrines a moment of contact. There is no before and after—there is only now, endlessly revealed in a cycle of intensity.

Also, the figures on the left are brighter, and more colorful. Their poses are diverse, bordering on chaotic, and display a very human range of defiance, acceptance, and shock. Faces are exposed. Palms are turned outward. All are vulnerable.

On the right side of the images, however, individuality disappears into a dark mass of anonymity. We see only backs. Goya has the French soldiers bent over and taking aim beneath heavy caps. In Pepper Spray, the riot gear features something particularly modern—numbers—and faces are covered by visors. These can also be seen, oddly enough, in Picasso’s pastiche of Goya, Massacre in Korea:

Pablo Picasso, "Massacre in Korea," 1951

There are some important differences between the images, though. In The Third of May, the victim’s arms are thrust upward into a V, which also becomes a reflection of the Crucifixion. In fact, a closeup of one of his hands reveals a distinct hole. In Pepper Spray, there’s also a V, but it has quite a different connotation:

Also, the face of the young woman getting sprayed (identified as Liz Nichols, a “soft-spoken 20-year-old who’s only about 5 feet tall”) has, in the photograph, a fierce look of archetypal female vengeance. If the blast of pepper spray was slightly lower, it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine her breathing it onto her enemies, instead of the other way around. Ms. Smith may be a lovely person in real life, but when I look at this…

…I’m immediately reminded of this…

Caravaggion, "Medusa," 1596

…a creature of outraged fury that, even after supposedly being slain, still has lethal power. Just when you think you’ve decapitated it by gazing into your riot shield, the head pops out of the bag, then flash!—stone where once was life. Or the semblance of life, anyway.

And this flash, as Kenneth Clarke said, can be prolonged, as long as there are the right images to keep it going:

Egypt, 2011

Where in time is this? Does it matter? It could be Troy, or Gaul, or perhaps a future Zuccotti Park. A dark, faceless mass…riot shields…a flash of color…a solitary, defiant figure…

No wonder they’re sending out the troops again.


Here’s the poem The Unknown Citizen, by W.H. Auden, which he wrote in the late 1930′s.

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

The main difference between then and now, of course, is that JS/07M378 most likely does not work in a car factory, he tends to get fired, and, once he does, owning that frigidaire suddenly makes him a Communist. Just ask Fox News. So today he is certainly making himself heard, and, before long, he might make himself felt. After all,

When there was war, he went.

And he’s going.


Fortress New York

October 18, 2011

Other than a few communities in upstate New York that are worried about free labor for their winter carnivals,  it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking the recent study by the Poughkeepsie Journal, also published in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, which shows a 22% drop in the number of state prisoners over the past 11 years. Here are some numbers:

  • A 62% decline in the number of people serving time for drug crimes today compared with 2000.
  • Nearly 7,700 fewer black people incarcerated in state prison in 2011 compared with 2000.
  • Among the 50 states, New York charted the biggest drop in its prison rolls from 2000 to 2010.
  • In 2000, the most common top crime for which inmates were incarcerated was third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance—with almost 10,000 people sentenced. That’s now down to about 3,000.

At first blush, this seems to be a positive step in the drawdown of the “PIC,” or Prison Industrial Complex, and it has a lot of experts very happy, as well.

“The drop itself is really quite extraordinary,” said Michael Jacobson, director of the Manhattan-based Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit center for justice policy research. “This is very intriguing stuff and encouraging,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has criticized sentencing policies as racially biased and counterproductive.

What’s causing it? According to the Journal, the trend is the result of, among other things, better drug treatment programs and the ongoing challenges to the Rockefeller Drug Laws. So far, so good. The report then goes on to cite lower crime rates, especially in New York City:

There, aggressive “stop-and-frisk,” zero-tolerance and computer-driven anti-crime programs have been employed, some say, with remarkable results.

Granted, “stop-and-frisk” is highly controversial, with “600,000 people…frisked in 2010,” and “90 percent of them minority,” but, says the article, “there’s little doubt of the city’s mighty contribution to the state’s prison reversal.” A lot of studies have been done of this particular “mighty contribution,” and they all find pretty much the same thing, which can be seen here and here.

One thing the Journal article does not mention, though, is the increasing use of the city’s SkyWatch platforms, 2-story mobile towers that allow police to watch an entire area of the city from one spot. The towers are made by FLIR Systems, Inc. According to the company’s web site,

SkyWatch™ mobile observation towers provide a high level platform for an array of surveillance options. Every portable tower includes the basics for the comfort and safety of the officer inside through adjustable heat and air conditioning, tinted sliding glass windows and comfortable seating. And no matter the application, only one person is required to set up and deploy a unit.

There are 2 models of tower: the Frontier, which is designed for military deployment, and the more basic Sentinel.

The SkyWatch Sentinel facilitates a completely customized surveillance platform. This unit provides the additional line of sight and command and control capabilities necessary to high-level, impermanent security ventures. Compared to a mobile force, the SkyWatch Sentinel provides constant deterrence with nearly unlimited location flexibility. The SkyWatch Sentinel is ideal for commercial and civilian security operations.

Jeremy Bentham, who first created the idea of the Panopticon in the 1700′s, would undoubtedly be very proud.

So here’s another “mighty contribution” that the Journal article failed to point out. What with all the corrections officers on the streets, who have the power to stop anyone at will, and the strategic placement of guard towers on various corners of the city, New York may have simply realized that, instead of sending people to prison, it’s a lot cheaper to bring the prison to them.

I’ve heard of ad hominem attacks, but this is getting just plain weird.

Ever since Occupy Wall Street began, conservative commentators have been obsessed with the protesters’ bodies, particularly their smell. The most recent such prissy attack is by Ted Nugent, of all people, who, in a Washington Times column, called them “stinky hippies.”

Whence comes this obsession by Nugent, Bill O’Reilly, P.J. O’Rourke, and so many others? Well, I think I found the source.

In 1787, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

 The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. – Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of Superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.

This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it. They seem to require less sleep…

Etc., etc., etc.

Now, as Jefferson is one of the main freedom fighters of the the Conservatives, and as he is generally believed to have enjoyed some, for lack of a better phrase, Liaisons dangereuses with one (at least) of his many slaves, this obsession with body odor by Nugent et al. takes on a whole new angle, one which I’d really rather not pursue any further.

Or, as Shakespeare said, “Methinks they doth protest too much,” if you kow what I mean.


I’m writing this on an iPad 2, black, with Verizon 3G and a red leather Smart Cover. It’s only got 32 GB. Even though the price was still less than many laptops, forgoing the most powerful model allowed me to add a wireless keyboard and handy charging dock. Certainly, I coveted the 64 GB monster, so that I could store my entire collection of Sergei Eisenstein movies, but I’m trying not to think of myself as a mass consumer.

I read up on iPads for months before actually making a purchase, and one of the things I learned, besides the fact that iPads were great for educators, was that 3 workers at the Chengdu plant in China died recently when explosive dust that is created by the polishing process collected in the air vents and…well…exploded.

According to InformationWeek, the plant is the property of Foxconn/Hon Hai Technology Group, which had set a new record in its construction (76 days). On its web site, Foxconn boasts that they “provide the lowest ‘total cost’ solution to increase the affordability of electronics products for all mankind,” a rather grandiose goal, to be sure, made a bit more achievable now that the All Mankind List is 3 people shorter than it used to be. Foxconn doesn’t want it to get much shorter, though: they recently starting requiring employees to sign a pledge promising they won’t commit suicide at work.

Anyway, when I first read about the explosion, I became concerned. The iPads, I knew, were scarce, driving demand to a fever pitch, and the last thing I wanted to do was order one, and have to wait 2 or 3 weeks, when there’s an Apple Store at the Eastview Mall, just a few miles down the highway. But, I needn’t have worried. As Brian White, an analyst at Ticonderoga Securities, quickly reported,

Our current view is that this tragedy is likely to have some impact on iPad 2 production; however, we believe Hon Hai has the flexibility to shift manufacturing back to the Shenzhen facility if necessary…As such, we currently don’t expect a material impact to Apple’s iPad 2 shipments, but we will continue to monitor the situation.

Problem solved. Or is it? According to a report that came out shortly before the explosion, by a Hong Kong-based group called SACOMStudents and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour–the Chengdu plant was dangerous, workers were not trained properly, they suffered from a variety of health problems that were ignored, and, “even though they have worn gloves, their hands (were) still covered by dust and so (was) their face and clothes.”


To anyone even remotely aware of American labor history, all of this seems terribly familiar, an almost nostalgic look back at a time before unions and federal safeguards made manufacturers pack up their locks, stocks, and barrels, and flee to hungry nations that had never heard of minimum wage and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. It’s like the Gilded Age all over again, for them, and they know that as long as the Eastviews are full, the newspapers empty, and the oceans wide, people like me won’t ask questions.

In these terms, a trip to the mall is a little bit like the King Cotton diplomacy that the Confederacy tried on Great Britain back in the day: help us break the Federal blockades, convince your textile workers to stop complaining about slave labor, and we promise not to cut off the supply of cotton that keeps your mills running. As South Carolina’s James Hammond said, in 1858, “What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years? England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with it.”

The Confederacy, not known for rhetorical subtlety, overplayed its hand. But what if no iPads were furnished for three months? The question is moot, of course; very few people are screaming about factory conditions in China, and neither Apple nor Foxconn has to browbeat anyone into silence by withholding electronics. They know that there are many people out there like me—saps who claim to care about workers’ rights, but, occasionally, are ready to slip into a little hypocrisy, covered up with red leather.

It really is a beautiful machine, after all, polished to a fine, lustrous black. As I type, parts of my face become reflected in the frame, and, if I turn my gaze just a tiny bit to the right, the light bouncing off the thing is positively blinding.


Pronoun Trouble

March 27, 2011

I once taught a class at a career college in the city, the kind of place that has signs on the doors saying, “Check and correct your clothing to ensure that your naval, buttocks, chest or cleavage is not showing,” and, “Remove your hat, stocking cap, ‘do-rag’ or bandanna (this includes both men and women).” The students were dedicated, hard working, and so passionate that they would sometimes stand up during discussions.

Their attitude was infectious. One day, while telling them one of my favorite stories from history—the arrest of escaped slave Anthony Burns in 1854, and the massive protest by around 50,000 Bostonians—I said, “Don’t you wish you’d been there?” Out of the silence that followed came a single, quiet,


I knew immediately what I’d done. By “you,” of course, I had meant “we,” while there was actually only an “I.” By projecting myself into an idealized past, enjoying the benefits of free expression and political agency, I had been indulging my political fantasies, reveling in the possibilities of my historical narrative, and the fact that the story had 50,000 characters meant nothing to the students in front of me; they couldn’t see themselves in a single one of those other faces.

It was my powdered-wig-and-tricorn-hat moment. Self indulgence by pronoun.

Here’s another example. It’s a book that was recently used during a unit called “Colonial Days,” at my son’s school:

Now, I’m sure the history in this book is sound, as far as it goes, although it is interesting to compare the cover art with this passage from the site, slavenorth.com:

In statutes enacted at various times between the 1720s and 1750s, slaves in Boston were forbidden to buy provisions in market; carry a stick or a cane; keep hogs or swine; or stroll about the streets, lanes, or Common at night or at all on Sunday. Punishments for violation of these laws ranged up to 20 lashes, depending on aggravating factors.

But the book does take certain liberties with its title. Who, as they say, are “you”? My own child isn’t a very good antecedent for that second person pronoun. (He once told me that his skin is brown, while mine is “silver.”) And, no, I’m not going to say a word to him about it. No doubt he’ll come to some kind of conclusions on his own, sooner or later.

There’s nothing wrong with historical narratives. Every nation has them: The Aeneid, Arminius, King Arthur, Colonial Days. Whether or not the stories correspond to actual history is not really the point. Like all living myths, they are maps of the present and the future, not the past, at once assuming and solidifying cultural unity. In a fractured and jittery society, though, they can get told with a kind of nervous energy, in either an unconscious or a deliberate attempt to uphold cultural hegemony. They have work to do, and pronouns do a lot of the heavy lifting.

Take, for example, this passage from Mike Huckabee’s book, Simple Government, which touches on Obama’s replacement of the bust of Winston Churchill with that of Abraham Lincoln (emphasis added):

Every president is the keeper of our American narrative, “our story.” He is the commander in chief, yes, but he is also our commemorator in chief. Our wartime partnership with Winston Churchill and the British people is part of our story; the Mau Mau rebellion is not. When we elect a president, we entrust to him not just our security but also our story. These two are inseparable because our security depends on the story we believe in, that inspires us, that we teach our children, and that we, as a nation, are willing to fight for…President Obama’s emphasis on his story rather than history has become symptomatic of his tenure.

This is a virtual pronoun tsunami. And what, exactly, is the antecedent? Huckabee says it’s “all Americans.” Really? I wasn’t insulted, and I’m an American, so that really ends the argument right there.

But lets keep going: when I brought the subject up in class, my American students weren’t insulted about the statue thing, either. In fact, many of them knew nothing about it. Winston Churchill? Our partnership with Britain? Sorry. World War II? World War I? The Boston Tea Party? Nothing much there, either. The Civil War sometimes gets a response, but it’s not the one Huckabee would probably expect, and it’s certainly not the usual narrative that culminates in the feel-good climax of the 13th Amendment.

Does this mean they’re clueless when it comes to American history? Nope. I’ve been given essays on Presidential Reconstruction, General Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15, the Pig Laws, and the Civil Rights Era. (Links are provided for those of us who are unfamiliar with these parts of our history.) My favorite so far was titled,

Here’s to John Wilkes Booth, the Bastard who Freed the Slaves.

And, of course, they’re interested in the President, and know a lot about him.

Huckabee, by so deftly switching from the collective to the singular pronoun, reinforces the story told by most conservatives that Obama stands alone, that he’s un-American, not one of “us,” and the story weaves a complex plot involving Kenya, Islam, urban activists, and basketball. I can see why they want to erase the other narrative, though: they’ve been terrified of it ever since the last election. First they brought in a D’Souza to dismiss it, to declare it dead, historically irrelevant. Then they tried to swallow it, to Disney-ize it, in a way, by quoting Martin Luther King, and pointing out that the Republicans are the party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (who actually makes Rev. Wright sound like Ronald Reagan). And they become enraged whenever anyone suggests that their motives are anything other than an allegiance to “our” history, and “our” country, like when Sean Hannity said, in response to questions about birtherism,

“Don’t bring up race. Do not bring up race. Do not bring up race. It is a constitutional requirement.”

Of course it’s about race. It’s part and parcel of the movement to portray Obama as the alien, the “other”–the singular pronoun, that lives outside the communal narrative. But the President is not alone; he’s more American than they realize. It’s a kind of blindness, really, a cultural ignorance just like I displayed in front of my class. And if they want to believe in their American narrative, become inspired by it, and teach it to their children, that’s fine.

However, whenever someone puts on the tricorner, metaphorically or otherwise, and says “we,” and “us,” and “our,” he is indulging in a narrative delusion. When he does so in a political attempt to erase the entire 20th Century, he becomes actively hostile to those Americans who have no part in that exclusive narrative—the Golden Age of “our” glorious freedoms—and for whom it is both meaningless and dangerous.



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