The Life and Times of Things

I am absolutely fascinated by the relationship people have with things. I am fascinated by the meaning and value humans add to otherwise meaningless objects. I've written about it before: Why do we keep what we do, discard what we decide we do not want? How do we use things to celebrate and make meaning in holidays? And long after we are gone, what patterns do our consumptive and domestic habits leave behind about our lifestyles and value systems?

This is probably part of the reason I am drawn to working in museums with objects that have been selected to be kept, preserved, valued as historical in some way, and chosen to represent people, moments, and eras past, present, future.

That's also why I wish I had thought of this first.

The concept, the hypothesis, and the execution is brilliant. Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker were apparently pondering the regular, conventional assumption, that what gives an object value is somehow determined by laws of utility, supply and demand, or "qualities intrinsic to the object -- e.g., craftsmanship or design." No, there are more powerful, less explicable forces at work behind the irrational behavior of humans (I myself just finished reading Predictably Irrationaland its author Dan Ariely would agree here) and why and what we value. So they created the Significant Objects project, and drafted a hypothesis: "that regardless of of the thing's aesthetic or utilitarian properties, an object's value can be increased by way of the narrative attached to it."

They sough to find more evidence of this link between ordinary objects and extraordinary meaning.

Glenn and Walker thrift-store shopped for one hundred items, spending a total of $128.74 Then they asked one hundred authors (most pretty unknown names) to write a story about an object, so they would end up with one hundred objects and one hundred stories to match. Then, they listed them for sale on eBay, with the story in the item description (and a disclaimer that this was, in fact, a fictitious story).

When all the items were sold, the grand total of what people forked over for otherwise meaningless objects: $3,612.51. For tchotchkes.

They compiled their whole project and process in a beautiful little book that I purchased immediately after hearing Rob Walker talk about their project on Marketplace. They refer to this as a literary and economic experiment. After conducting three series of the experiments, three hundred items given invented meaning and then sold to interested parties online, they compiled the best 100 stories and their conclusions and thoughts into this book. It's part short story fiction, part economic enigma, part "in-your-face, logical economic thinking."

The experimenters, shall we call them, came up with these categories of significance, to try and determine if these kinds of factors play a part in determining what people might value, and how much they will value it (in an actual monetary amount). The short answer is, it's complicated. The shorter answer is, No; these distinctions don't matter overtly. Neither did the author who had penned the tale.

Neither, really, did the object type, which had been split into these categories: Novelty Item, House & Table, Figurine, Decoration, Kitchenware, Toy, Kitsch, Tool, Promotional Item.

It is befuddling, mysterious, and glorious to browse through the items in this series, examine the item, read the story that accompanies it, and marvel at much, or how little, it went for in the end, on the internet auction block. Sometimes a fantastical, or intriguing tale would only garner $20 from a buyer; other times, stories I thought were a bit throw-away (compared to some) brought in a cool $100 or more. Each item was, by their own rules, purchased for less than $4 originally.

What's also interesting is how now, precisely by being featured in a project like this, objects that had no meaning at all, tchotchkes and trash at best, again have a value and shelf-life, because you are unlikely to ever spot a second of these random, old, forgotten things elsewhere in the world. Pairs, brothers, additional copies produced long ago are now likely to have been long trashed, destroyed, abandoned, forgotten.

It speaks highly of the project creators, Walker and Glenn, that these pieces were so well-chosen and curated to begin with. They limited themselves, for example, from including "mid-century-through-1980s pop culture ephemera," and consciously did not include any furniture, clothing, books, or other things that were deemed to obviously "object-like."

What an entirely enigmatic project. I am so jealous to have not thought of this experiment first.

I spent a whole semester reading and discussing and researching topics in material culture, learning about British tea culture, eighteenth century American clothing culture, white and black spaces on the plantation homestead, hand embroidered crafts made by women living in refugee camps, Puerto Ricans' meaning in their homes and spaces on abandoned plots in New York City, and meaning in punk rock clothing and attitude, among other things. I spent a semester thinking about and researching, asking questions about meaning in quilts, for my own final project. We talked of tchotchkes and trinkets and souvenirs from trips far and near. I should have been thinking more deeply about the stories, the ones we create, the ones we forget, the ones that are passed down to us, the ones we make from our own life experiences.

Valueless objects take up lots of space in our lives, even when we consciously resist such a phenomenon. We can be upset that this occurs, and try our best to live simply. I agree. But I also think it is just a source of too much intrigue and love, sadness and grief, too much human drama for us to ignore those little trinkets that survive and speak to moments passed. That is what we do in museums all the time, after all, use objects to represent was once was, what stories have come before us, what things happened here. Who lived, and what they owned while they habited this earth.

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What language can tell us: reflections on dying words and meaning

Two things I love to talk about have collided: National Geographic has published in their July 2012 issue a stunning 33-page spread on the crisis small languages face in a world run by business, the Internet, and a demand for global citizens to all be able to communicate across political and cultural boundaries. On my favorite podcast, we've been discussing the many crises and endangered languages for years, and all the many facets of culture and identity that are threatened by the loss of these smaller languages. Let me first say, that is a truly large amount of printed space to dedicate to this topic. Add to this, the challenge photographer Lynn Johnson faced in trying to capture the story of three dying languages in the frame of her camera, in frozen, singular images. The whole thing is brilliant. Her photos absolutely succeed in telling a complicated story of words, meaning, and meaning lost as fewer people learn these fascinating, enigmatic words and phrases.

Russ Rymer, the author of the article, has perfectly introduced this complex piece of globalization to the regular public, and then highlights three specific languages under threat: Tuvan, spoken in the Russian Federation territory Republic of Tuva; Aka, spoken in the Arunachal Pradesh state of northeastern India; and Seri, spoken in Mexico by two remaining settlements along the Gulf of California.

SERI: [ Miixöni quih zó hant ano tiij? ]: Where is your placenta buried? Caption: This is how the Seris ask, Where are you from? Those who were born before hospital births know the exact spot where their afterbirth was placed in the ground, covered in sand and ash, and topped with rocks.What we can take away from this story are some of the larger questions involved in the phenomenon, because the answers are neither obvious nor easy. Yes, it is actually quite inconvenient to have over 7,000 languages spoken on this planet, but so much is lost culturally, deep-rooted perspectives and beliefs from tiny corners of the world are slipping away, as one language dies every 14 days (as its last speaker passes away). What it comes down to is reckoning with what will remain, and what will be folded in to the larger culture. For example, people who speak Aka might also speak Hindi or Bengali, which both have millions of speakers and are holding strong in the international boxing ring, but what elements of Aka culture will never be properly translated into Hindi? Rymer writes:

Increasingly, as linguists recognize the magnitude of the modern language die-off and rush to catalog and decipher the most vulnerable tongues, they are confronting underlying questions about languages' worth and utility. Does each language have boxed up within it some irreplaceable beneficial knowledge? Are there aspects of cultures that won't survive if they are translated into a dominant language? What unexpected insights are being lost to the world with the collapse of its linguistic variety?

These are excellent, complicated questions that are brilliantly captured with actual words littered below each of Johnson's photographs. The perfection of this combination, word and definition alongside image, still astonishes me, days after first exploring this article. I keep coming back to the words. I'm having an experience with these words and images. Here is an example of the way the story plays out on the pages of the magazine:

The word accompanying this image is [tradzy]: a necklace of yellow stone beads. The Aka have more than 26 words to describe beads. Beyond being objects of adornment, beads are status symbols and currency. This toddler will get this necklace at her wedding.Not only is this a topic I already find important and fascinating, but here my favorite magazine has most exceptionally presented the real and complicated lives, stories, and meanings within threatened languages in a way that appeals to those outside the field of armchair linguistics. (Maybe, it will convert a few more to that pastime.)

One of the most important components of culture that language variation clues us into is the vast difference in worldview across linguistic borders, which widens across continents and geographic distances as well. It is something that first blew my mind as I was learning about other religions, and which continued to surprise me as I studied language as well (and is a reason I love both subjects so much).

Western civilizations, for example, have developed their cultural and mental timeline and calendars on the concept of time as linear, heading in one direction, ever forward. Hindu culture places time in a circle, curving round itself; this is why reincarnation makes much more sense within their concept of time than that of western culture and order. You're circling back on yourself, rather than moving ever onward into future time.

The Tuvan language featured in the article has its own notions of past and present that also highlight these basic, structural differences in world view:

Different languages highlight the varieties of human experience, revealing as mutable aspects of life we tend to think of as settled and universal, such as our experience of time, number, or color. In Tuva, for example, the past is always spoken of as ahead of one, and the future is behind one's back. "We could never say, I'm looking forward to doing something," a Tuvan told me. Indeed, he might say, "I'm looking forward to the day before yesterday." It makes total sense if you think about of it in a Tuvan sort of way: If the future were ahead of you, wouldn't it be in plain view?

These are the kinds of concepts and cultural traits that risk being forgotten. As anyone who spends time with words-- whether in their native tongue or another they have learned--readily knows, language is part and parcel to one's identity. Expressing emotions, dreaming, bonding with other humans all revolve around language. This is the kind of comfort and familiarity entire tribes have to lose as their language languishes against the bigger, tougher giants.

If Aka, or any language, is supplanted by a new one that's bigger and more universally useful, its death shakes the foundations of the tribe. "Aka is our identity," a villager told me one day. "Without it, we are the general public." But should the rest of the world mourn too? The question would not be an easy one to frame in Aka, which seems to lack a single term for 'world.'

Aka might suggest an answer, though, one embodied in the concept of mucrow--a regard for tradition, for long-standing knowledge, for what has come before, a conviction that the venerable and frail have something to teach the callow and strong that they would be lost without.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-conceived articles and photographic essays I've ever read in this magazine, whose journalism and photographs set the standard in the field.

These are a few of my favorite photo/word pairings from the story.

From the Tuvan langauge:

From the Aka language:

From the Seri language:

This doesn't even scratch the surface. Explore the online gallery and the print edition for more of these stunning pairs. Like this one. 

Taryn Simon, exploring bloodlines and stories that bind us, through photos


In the middle of a Saturday afternoon, in midtown Manhattan, we were near collapse after a morning exploring the Upper West Side and Central Park, then shopping around midtown. Then we went to the Modern Museum of Art. I felt it essential to visit at least one of the major, internationally-renowned museums New York City has to offer, even while we were resisting the traditional tourist visit to the City.

Taryn Simon, artist and photographer, has a knack for amazing titles. Her current show: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, I-XVIII. At some point as we neared delirium, we wandered into the photography section of the museum, tucked on one of the expansive floors, and found Taryn Simon's stunning exhibition of photographs. To be honest, the named intrigued me first, as names and titles nearly always do. A great name is the fastest way to get me interested. (I read Angela's Ashes in sixth grade--I know, right?--because I desperately wanted to know who Angela was, and what was her relation to the little grungy boy on the cover; no other reason.)

We found ourselves surrounded by austere faces, portraits of men, women, rabbits, sitting each by themselves, amid a series of people (and sometimes things) who are somehow related, whose lives and stories intersect by some grand or small event. There was something about "bloodlines," as after looking deeper at the panels and photographs, I was confused about the organization of the show and its larger meaning. I left intrigued deeply, wanting to spend more time pondering this series, these "chapters," later, but not wanting to buy the $125 exhibition book--which was the show in its entirety, amazing.

Hours later, I am in the hotel room taking a much-needed rest, and flipping through a Time magazine I'd brought with, when there is this bold headline: "There Will Be Bloodlines: Taryn Simon untangles the ties that bind."

I kid you not, I got goosebumps. If I had looked at this magazine a day earlier, I might have overlooked this name, skimmed the article at best. Here was this woman, and her explanation of this newest project, which was four years in the making, and took her to twenty-five countries.

Now I have a proper explanation of the project's theme and meaning:

The organizing principle for this project is what she calls bloodlines: all the living descendants, plus any living forebears, of a single man or woman who sets a story in motion.

And the reasoning, the messy ties and stories and variable havoc that occurs within these "bloodlines" is where her project becomes truly fascinating. It echoes what I see and know deeply: that family lines, genetics, and genealogy have little to do with  the way our lives turn out, have almost nothing to do with the events that shape our individual lives in the present.A simple concept, really; and this explains why the tribal man with ten wives, dozens of children, and many dozen grandchildren appears in a massive sequence. And also, why there is a man missing from his own story--a blank canvas appears instead; he was executed for war crimes after the end of WWII and Nazi Germany, but descendants appear after his spot, along with more missing people, via their empty canvases, as well as pieces of clothing that act in lieu of a person, who preferred not to share his or her face in association with this man. Meaning becomes clear.

Simone depicts bloodlines as flowing charts of small portraits--like a living periodic table of the elements. What resonates is the persistence, and finally the insufficiency, of ancestry and kinship as systems for making sense of unruly destinies. To show that blood lineage can be an extremely loopy line, she sought out unlikely subjects; one is a Lebanese man who claims to be reincarnated, so he pops up more than once in his own family history. "I was always looking for a surreal twist," she says, "something that would lead to a collapse of logic."

All the same, even the most outlandish chapters have their universal element. As Simon put it, "We're all the living dead, pieces of what came before." What she means is that we all carry the DNA of our forebears; there ghostly current pulses through us. The intricate machinery of her project is designed to show that blood ties are a weak line of defense against the blows administered by history, politics, or sheer unlucky circumstances. [italics my own.]

Yes. This entire work is more stunningly magnificent than I ever could have imagined, aligning greatly with my own theories on this whole world and what happens to us during our time here.

Genealogy and history: love & hate

My hate story

Recently I was talking about the main duties of the student archives technician at the National Archives, and it lead me into a tangent about perceptions of archives and the public’s idea that digitization is some panacea for records management, and an easy fix.

What I didn’t get to are my other duties at work. Besides holdings maintenance projects (the ones that started the tangent on the sheer number of materials we have), I also work in the public areas, assisting the public and researchers, and complete research requests for patrons who are off-site but need help. The first of these assignments takes up half of every workday, as it is the job of the students to assist the public so that the full-time archivists can get down to doing the projects and work they are here to do. Not that their duties don’t also revolve around aiding researchers and the public, but if someone has to sit in the textual research room while a researcher is here and she must not leave the room, well, that limits the amount of other activities that she can complete while essentially on lock-down. In this case, right now, I am in the text room supervising a researcher for the Corps of Engineers, and so I cannot leave the room; it allows for time to write journals reflecting on my duties here, for instance. Sometimes, if the timing is right, we can bring a project into the text room and work on it while we’re trapped in here.

The other room is the research room, and that’s the general public area, the one where you do not need a researcher card to enter, and pretty much anyone who can get past the security guards and metal detectors is allowed in there. It means we are safe from criminals, but we are not safe from idiots and crazy people, and we are especially not safe from… genealogists. I am not the first person to write (no, complain) about genealogists as the annoying part of the duties of a student employee here at the Archives.

Not to sound snooty, but historians have a hierarchy, and genealogists are basically at the bottom, maybe even below the base marker. Family history is basically a nonstarter for most of us working here; it just doesn’t matter too much. We get a tiny thrill maybe the first time we see an ancestor’s draft card. That was the first thing I researched when I started working here, because they are commonly requested, and so I used it as a learning experience in pulling WWI draft cards. I found Perley W. Grubb, scanned his card, and refiled him with rest of the Wisconsin draftees. But where my family was positioned in history does not dictate either my feelings about history, nor the scope or basis of my research.

The problem is, most people’s families did really nothing much that would put them anywhere in the historical records. We have federal records here, and most people go their whole lives never really being really involved in federal functions. You fill out your census every ten years—that’s the main thing. Some people have military records—that’s another biggie. And if your ancestors immigrated or filed for a passport, they would also have filed federal records. But even then, in the case of immigration, they would have had to file their petition for naturalization in a federal court, and before 1907, it wasn’t required that they file them in federal court. So anyone who came to the United States in the nineteenth century could file in any level of court—county, state, federal, random Podunk local courthouse. And that’s if they naturalized at all; they might have remained nationals of their birth country.

We have research tools here for people to begin to find records their ancestors more commonly filed—vital records of birth, marriage, and death. Those are records filed with the state, and so are most often held by either the state’s historical archives or the vital records office—depending on how old they are and varying widely by state. People often get frustrated that before the twentieth century (and even in that one, in many cases) births were not recorded officially. If their great-grandfather’s birth was recorded on the inside of some Bible somewhere, I can’t help them.

It’s not to say that I wholly dismiss genealogy. I understand regular people’s need to see themselves in the past in order to make it meaningful for them. Genealogy is a significant historical experience for many people in today’s digitization-happy world. Part of public history is finding a way to make the past matter to an individual; this means including genealogy on the totem pole, for what value it does offer to a public craving connection. Historians whose focuses lie in larger themes, events, historical trends, and connections—oftentimes professional historians and scholars—don’t focus on minutiae of particular individuals unless they did do something significant or relevant to the subject of their study. Whereas genealogists go looking for a particular person to see if he might have done anything worth recording, historians find the things that were worth recording and then find out more about the people who did them. They start from different points, and work in opposite directions.

I understand though, that a large portion of the public we serve is here to do just that, to find their family. So I work in the research room, patiently helping octogenarians use the printers and computers, and try my best to let them do their own research even when it means teaching them how to move backward and forward on an internet page. (Yes, really.) We don’t do the research for them, we give them tools, indexes, direction on where to begin and what kinds of records will serve their needs best, and then we let them loose.

Once you’ve heard about Great Aunt Gertrude once, you’ve heard about her a hundred times. I cannot tell you how boring it is to hear someone rattle off names in a complicated web, as if I am going to remember or care how their whole family tree is organized. Funny anecdotes to them are a dime-a-dozen to me; but I try not to let my eyes glaze over, and always listen politely for as long as seems normal before bowing out and into my little glass room to hide (which doesn’t work so well in a glass room). Also fun: I can no longer count on two hands the number of people who’ve told me they are related to someone who came over on the Mayflower. This comment is my single biggest pet peeve of working in the research room, bar none. First of all, it’s probably not true; there are so many generations to prove unequivocally. (And there were not that many to survive, if you recall.) Secondly, it truly makes no difference to me whether your long-long-ago ancestors happened to live, even if it was in a colony that is super-famous and iconic in American history. You’d be more interesting to me if YOU have been on the Mayflower. Let’s talk about that!

The most frustrating thing about working with genealogists is when they get angry, upset, or even cry over not being able to find much about those farther back in their family tree. I had one lady in tears at 4:45 one afternoon, because an ancestor she had been researching twenty-five years was still eluding her. He was drafted from Michigan into the Union army during the Civil War, and then she knew that the family received record that he died. She was distraught that there was no record of anything in between. Ma’am, I wanted to say, what the heck else would he have filed with anyone? He was at war. Unless he wrote some diary that somehow made it back into the arms of his family after the war, which is highly, crazily doubtful, there would be nothing else. He fought in a war and he died. That corner of the tree is complete. I am sorry if that is unsatisfying. In my experience, genealogy is highly unsatisfying, because it is so unlikely that your ancestors left much of a paper trail.

We make more of a paper trail these days, but it’s technically an electronic trail. Maybe in one hundred years, my Amazon Wishlist will provide a descendent of mine with endless insight into what I was like. They will also be able to read my Twitter feed, which I do think is very interesting to ponder. I so wish I could read the Twitter feed of Young John Allen, or those sent among the members of a nineteenth century quilting group. But until some of those things become “history,” for now we have the United States census, where you can see interesting things like whether or not your ancestors spoke English and were or were not the head of the household. (Am I coming across here as scathingly sarcastic? I do hope so.)

Ten years later.

We'll call this the requisite commentary-on-the-anniversary blog. Probably every American is reflecting on that Tuesday, September 11 ten years ago, in their own way, to many different degrees of emotion and disconnection, both and neither at once. It has been a decade, and what made it perhaps most poignant was a story posted on Public Radio International's website, on the difficulty of teaching 9/11 in high schools now that so many kids who are in high school recall the event only in vague and foggy ways--if at all.

The story tells of the teachers interviewed for the piece and their experience year by year: how in the years just afterwards, classroom discussions "were much more visceral." The 4- to 7- year olds mentioned in the story, who are in high school today, remember reactions of their parents and other very responses very near to them, but not the same way many who are older (adults, now, like me) remember the images on TV clearly--even if, as in my case, I didn't see them until I got home from school. (At the middle school where I was attending eighth grade at the time, someone higher up made the decision not to tell any of the students what was going on. By lunchtime, teachers around us were in tears and we all detected something was not right. I went home on the bus that day knowing only that "someone had bombed the Pentagon." For real)

Looks like it's history, now, really and truly. I remember in the wake of the tragedy, people saying this would be the moment for my generation that would long be recounted as a universal American experience. The endless and epic tale we each, we all, have. Where You Were When It Happened, much like President Kennedy's assassination in 1963. But really, here it is, a whole decade later, and it has become a part of history, and event that marks a clear delineation in this nation's history: a Before and an After. Strange to be at a stage, in adulthood, where things I experienced are "history." Guess this is what growing up feels like, right?

There was another truly interesting--and also disturbing and crazy and wholly logical given the world we live in today--report on the ten-year-later mark in this world: on the technology of facial recognition, and its birth in the government funding that allowed its remarkable development in the post-9/11 scared, reactionary, and technology and internet-savvy environment. NPR's Marketplace had a segment on the stunning course it has taken, as two enormous events dovetailed in history:

Fred Cate is a law professor and privacy guru at Indiana University. He says after 9/11, two independent trends dovetailed and reinforced each other. The federal government was investing hundreds of millions in surveillance technology and research to try and keep us safer. And companies like Google and Facebook were remaking the digital landscape. There was a data-collecting revolution.

FRED CATE: 9/11 and the sort of huge growth in social networking and in profiling and collecting Internet traffic -- those events are really parallel with each other.

And Cate says:

FRED CATE: We have gotten more used to more surveillance. And it's not clear that that's just attributable to the events of 9/11. But particularly when you think of the types of security we all go through now -- would have been pretty close to unthinkable a decade ago.

What we have created, as the story reports, is technology that fairly easily recognizes your face and identifies you based on photos it draws from the internet, and several other features both amazing and scary at once. The creepiest part: new technology can actually take a stab at what your social security number is, if it can determine from internet sources where you were born. Rest easy, though, because this stuff isn't on the market, and there are no intentions by its creators to put it there. As it stands, as I understood anyway, is that this is for governmental purposes. (You can decide if that makes you feel better about this.)

How interesting to think our post-9/11 perspective has provided the incubator for things like this, and our Facebook pages have fueled the flames, made it all the more possible. We are willing participants, at some degree, of the worlds we create. Ten years later, look at us now. To be honest, I have little memory of what adult life was like, even in a purely observational point of view as mine was, prior to 2001. And now it's a part of our past. Huh.

"History is a giant stone that lies on top of us"

Americans don't tend to see the past in their everyday lives. If they do, it might be because of a personal or ethnic connection, or maybe they hear the president harken back to Sputnik and the Space Race, and greatness of our past. But the average person tends not to feel overly connected to their area's past, nor do they see how history could be valuable in their own lives. Disengagement, you might call it. We have, after all, spent our existence as a nation on a purposeful mission to be constantly reinventing ourselves, getting away from the demons that held down the European ancestors of those early settlers (and with the notion that we were claiming empty land, preordained for us, but that's beside this point). No time for the past.

In an excellent essay (in this book), public historian Michael Frisch talks about this relationship we have with history, using his 1980s perspective to talk about the Vietnam War in our national memory. First, talking about the war was out of bounds because it was current, still present. Then, you couldn't look at the war or its roots because it was the past, an episode that needed to be "put behind us." But what happens then, he points out, is that while we have the living memories, those memories themselves get warbled, people block things out, or chose not to remember. Even films about the war, while providing heroic characters for audiences and poignant stories, keep these figures pointedly isolated from the history of the event, from what it means historically. This puts us at a disadvantage in analyzing our past.

I don't have an answer, nor even a suggestion, about the state of this relationship, or about possible implementations to bring the two, American and American history, closer together. I do hope that some of the projects I want to work on help to bring people closer to their past in ways that are meaningful for their present, for the daily lives now.

Frisch quotes a Nigerian friend who has this to say about Americans and our disconnection from what's behind us:

"What's so mysterious?" he observed.

"Why bother with history when you're rich and powerful? All it can do is tell you how you climbed to the top, which is a story its probably best not to examine too closely. No, you don't need history. What you need is something more like a pretty carpet that can be rolled out on ceremonial occasions to cover all those bloodstains on the stairs. And, in fact, that's what you usually get from your historians."

Then he went on solemnly:

"For the rest of us, its a lot different. We don't have the luxury of ignoring history. History is a giant stone that lies on top of us; for us, history is something we have to struggle to get out from under."

To say that most of American history has been seen through the eyes of the powerful is a familiar criticism, but we rarely acknowledge, as my friend suggests, how profoundly power, privilege, and freedom from historical constraint have conditioned our basic relation to the past.

There was a sense of liberation from the toils of the European past that early Americans felt, and to a large extent, we still run from it today. It is hard to think about bad things in our history. But it is obtuse to ignore them and never face unpleasant truths or critical interpretations of what happened before us (or, more difficultly, during our lifetimes). Taking a deep, contemplative look at the American past does not make anyone unpatriotic. That bloody stairway we climbed? We better know it well, for all its good and bad.

Through the Disney lens

Atlanta got about five inches of snow last night, and in a city with very little equipment for clearing the roads and a populace that doesn't often drive in snow, it means the entire city pretty much took a snow day. The free day allowed me time to finish up some projects around the apartment, and to read a few chapters ahead in one of the few books I already have for the semester (others are delayed with the UPS trucks).

Disney World as a part of popular culture and the most visited tourist destination on the planet is an interesting place to me, and has been for its classic characters long before I had interest in its history or in the way it subsequently tells history. (There was a brief period in high school when I really wanted to go into the animation film industry, as a writer. Then I realized I did not like to draw at all and art school was far too expensive.) But the farther I delve into history and its relationship to the public, the more significant a case study it becomes, as a place where people encounter historical interpretation that they consume as a commodity, and as a form of entertainment. While history should not be boring, it should also be handled with care whenever it nears the entertainment minefield, and that treacherous area where regular citizen meets interpretive history meets patriotic sentiments ends up defining much of the field. Wrap all this up inside a theme park, and it only gets juicier.

Mike Wallace's Mickey Mouse History: And Other Essays on American Memory earns its title from the chapter on Walt Disney's and, later, Disney Enterprises, Inc.'s interpretation and execution of the historical narrative, in "Mickey Mouse History: Portraying the Past at Disney World." Walt Disney's approach to the history that appears in the Magic Kingdom echoed the historical interpretations of the consensus-inspired 1950s, but translated into a theme park, took an extreme step further for the sake it tidying up the past for visitors. Says Wallace, his "approach to the past was... not to reproduce it, but to improve it." The excuse, that it's only a theme park, not a museum, hides below the fact that many may never know the difference. People who take in the past via a Disney presentation file this away in their brain as part of history and as a bit of knowledge to recall later, promulgating  misinformation, and making it harder for people to accept more accurate histories when they are confronted with them.

The park presents pseudo-menaces, like the "natives" you encounter on your ride along the Congo River, and then reassuringly reminds visitors of Main Street's triumph over things that challenge it. ("Main Street" literally being that core street at the front of the Magic Kingdom park, and figuratively representing civilized and clean America.) Each part of the park--Frontierland, Adventureland, Liberty Square, and others--also contribute to the eraser of "depressions, strikes on the railroads, warfare in the minefields, squalor in the immigrant communities, lynching, imperial wars, and the emergence of mass protests by populists and socialists" in the same era that Main Street and the surrounding parks aim to represent.

EPCOT has an array of complications all its own in terms of historic interpretation, being--as it has long been--backed by corporate sponsors who at their best explore the challenges and triumphs of a world that is ever marching forward and improving technologically, and at its worst, ignoring the fact that man's technology has not always had positive impacts on the progression of mankind. (And it would, of course, never be the corporation's fault; they would instead be the ones seeking to find solutions to problems). Each pavilion stands as a tribute to technology and the future, as a permanent World's Fair. Then across the waters lies the World Showcase, where countries' marketable goods are for sale and each destination has been designed to demonstrate the distinct features of its culture.

As Wallace points out, "all historical interpretations [done by Disney Enterprises] are necessarily selective in their facts, but [in EPCOT] the silences are more profoundly distorting. Consider, for example, that in all EPCOT's depictions of the past as a continuous expansion of man's possibilities through technology, there is not a word about war. Nothing about the critical impetus it provided through ages to scientific development, nor about the phenomenal destruction such "development" wrought."

Two other things struck me about the interpretation of the past that we find all around us in a Disney park. First, it presents history as unidirectional, that in fact there was no point that the trajectory could have taken another path. "There were never any forks on the path of Progress," he writes, "never any sharp political struggles over which way to go." The other fault in the clean, unoffensive, and vacation-ready historic package is that it makes the past into a "pleasantly nostalgic memory, now so completely transcended by the modern corporate order as to be irrelevant to contemporary life." We can consume the stories so long as they entertain us, and move on to the next thing. "This diminishes our capacity to make sense of our world through understanding how it came to be," says Wallace.

When the only versions of history people encounter are commodities--theme parks, but also docudramas, Hollywood movies, and even historic fiction--I fear it becomes the norm for them, deepening the chasm between people and their pasts and their understanding of the world. This seems to be OK for people when they can draw intelligent conclusions and have a grounded base of knowledge, but it can by no means be ignored as an insignificant influence on a people's vision of their history, in the midst of a thousand museums that don't draw nearly as many visitors.

For me it is something to ponder on a personal level as well, because, while I can dig through the cleanliness and disregard the stereotypes in the narratives, I highly doubt that is the mental lens that everyone else brings with them to Disney World. And on the other hand, I love the magic of Disney World. Far beyond the history that entrenches it, there is the imagination, the dazzling effects and the ability it has to transport you into another world--not to mention, back a little bit into your childhood. It is a place I will surely take my children someday, although what I do with the historic interpretations and how I explain them might be a little different than the approach others take.

More on the unsolvable morality of the atomic bomb

With the recent anniversaries of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has been the inevitable stirring and rehashing of old debates. August 6 and August 9 (incidentally, the birthdays of my brothers Neil and Carl, respectively) marked military action of unprecedented extremity, and it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of American lives were saved, as those men were ready to storm the beaches of Japan and continue fighting a war with an unrelenting enemy. We had already bombed sixty-something Japanese cities, many of them into more than fifty percent destruction, a fact which caters to either side of the debate when you get right down to it: one side would say surrender could have come without the atomic weapons, as we had already decimated so much of the country; the other side would use this as evidence of the Japanese leaders' inability to admit defeat, and therefore of the necessity of a show of strength that would put them in their place.

As the title of this entry implies, there has been ongoing debate--sometimes heated--over whether or not we should have dropped the atom bomb on two Japanese cities, whether it would have truly ended the war, or whether, once it did, if it was the only way. (I recommend watching The Fog Of War, the interview-style documentary of Robert McNamara's reflections on his time as Secretary of Defense during several important conflicts of American involvement, and especially his reflections on the Americans in Japan in WWII.)

I am not here to discuss the answer, nor do I think there is one. We cannot weigh the value of human life in any other way than by determining who is closest to us (therefore determining who we would wish to save), meaning that we chose those people before strangers; likewise, the strangers would leave us to die before they saw family and friends perish. And so, there will always be the Japanese side, and the American side. The ones who lost everything on those two August days, and the ones who were saved for their families at home. It is a terrible, moral, human dilemma. It does not go away with time, but rather, remains in the consciences of those children and survivors who either thank God for the bomb, or condemn it as the day their life was doomed with a dark, looming cloud.

I do not mean to write of despair, or entrench you in a sad story with no resolution (although that is what it is); but we must be mindful of the fact, the tragic fact, that on the day thousands of American troops were spared, upwards of one hundred thousand people in Hiroshima alone were killed. It was a time of war, certainly, but some children lost their entire families, and some families were extinguished entirely. I heard one story recently, from a woman who was seven when her parents and all her sisters were killed by the bomb over Hiroshima, and she tells how the cries of her dying sisters still haunt her, and that she has rarely felt happy in her entire life. Her life. She's in her eighties now, and that's a lifetime of tragedy that follows her. When this subject comes up, I am always struck by that idea that while my countrymen survived, people on the other side of the world lost their entire lives.

I can't imagine what it must be like for American soldiers, or any of the people, who have lived through the atrocities of war, who have seen it firsthand and experienced it from any side-- be it that of victim, perpetrator, defender, or anything else. I could never condemn it, for it protects my life. But sometimes, I am so heartbroken by its effects on all parties involved, I can hardly bear it. There is no "right" side, and there is no solution, and that is the most depressing part. But we march forward, hoping that at least we can keep the stories of both sides alive so that we can preserve those histories--those of both sides, of the humanity of each person--to the best of our ability.

(Listen to some of the stories of atomic bomb survivors here, recorded in 2005 for NPR.)

P.S. Some historians are rethinking the role of the Soviet Union in the Japanese surrender, giving it more credit than in the past for ending the war in the Pacific theater. For that article, see here.)

Stirring up old leaves, long settled: Willie McGee, family history, and good storytelling

Last Friday, while waiting to depart for Charleston, S.C. to visit my brother, I was listening to All Things Considered. Nothing too unusual for five o'clock on a weekday, until I heard Bridgette McGee-Robinson's story, of an enduring curiosity and quest for answers regarding her grandfather, Willie McGee. In 1951, in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi, Willie McGee was charged with rape of a white woman and sentenced to the electric chair; his granddaughter's probing search for answers and emotions from the people who are still connected to that town and that case lead to one of the most touching pieces of radio storytelling that I've ever heard.

As with any such dive into a family's past, the descendants stir up dust that has oftentimes been more than happy to settle, and which is usually covering up a few things as well. As Ms. McGee-Robinson learns, it is a messy business bringing up what went down in small-town Mississippi between a black man and a white woman: she reports how the white folk in town knew it to be rape, while the black fold mostly agreed the alleged victim had been involved with Willie. (The alleged rape took place on a Friday morning, in the woman's bed, in the home she shared with her husband and young child.) Obviously the "family historian," as she calls herself at one point, while chatting with a Laurel local, is going to carry her own bias, and she may always see her grandfather as the saint (or the martyr) in the story; and it is important to keep in mind the social statuses and conditions of the people she is interviewing--both then and now. Even more vital is the relative impact sixty years can have on the details of each side of the story, and on the memories of those who lived through it, and those who heard the story passed down through there respective families.

Ms. McGee-Robinson has by no means proven any new facts beyond all doubt. But as she reports, that was not her intention. What lied within this journey of discovery for her was a means through which to better understand what happened to her grandfather, and how best to see him in her own eyes. Ancestry is obviously important to each family in its own way, and comes with its own asteriskses and exceptions, oddities and inaccuracies, emotions and upsets. And at then end of the day, there will never be a definitive hard-fact truth to the matter, nor, usually, will any families receive the historical recognition they feel their ancestors are due. But stories like Willie McGee's, told through the eyes of his granddaughter, take this beef out of the equation entirely. It becomes much more than a little research on the lives contained in one family tree; it touches on the living memory of  a city and on the racial flares that still erupt when we question a white woman and a black man romantically involved in the 1950s American South. It suddenly makes family histories, or at least this one, seem much more relevant than they had before to the larger historical narrative, and in a very good way. In a sense, it validates the arguments made for studying ancestry, while also explicitly pointing to the inevitable discrepancies and distortions of time and memory.

By the end of this radio segment, I was in tears; I couldn't believe the power this poignant story, and its development, had on me on that Friday afternoon, while I was set and ready to take to the road. As someone who has spent time preparing both historical and journalistic writing, I appreciate all the more the utterly nuanced elevation the piece contained, building until there was no way to turn it off; when you're writing for an audience, a story like the one she has is both coveted and exceedingly rare.

Listen to the entire radio diary here; it is worth the 23-minute investment, I promise. I would not dub this one of the most powerful things I've ever heard if I was not serious.