Tagged with " history"
Sep 25, 2011 - Political Science    2 Comments

When in Rome…

Confession time: I’m a total news junkie, and politics are the top of the list. World politics, national politics, issue politics — doesn’t matter. Find that vein, stick it, and give me a mainline 24/7.

I went to college intending to get double degrees in French and journalism, and spend the rest of my life dashing from one global hotspot to the next, sending home breaking stories of crucial importance. But I had a come-to-Jesus-type moment about the depth of my twin history and teaching vocations in the manuscript library, and with that came the conviction that I couldn’t concentrate on telling the stories unfolding now as long as I knew that so many stories from our past lay still untold.

That doesn’t mean I still don’t long for those credentials. And, until Rachel Maddow came along, I thought I was the only one who did a little butt dance in her chair when the network election music played. I love the whole messy, unpredictable, thrilling, hair-tearing, nail-biting, eye-rolling, stranger-hugging, flag-waving, bumper-sticking, petition-signing process.

But this presidential race is already testing my limits. I make no bones about being a total, dedicated, activist, bleeding heart, crackpot, commie pinko liberal. At the same time, I believe in the spectrum, and I believe wholeheartedly and — however paradoxically — almost militantly in the decorum and civility of public service. The minute you care about scoring points, or filling your war chest, or denying the “other side” some victory more than helping all of your constituents? Out of the pool, bucko.

And yes, Washington is dysfunctional. And yes, Obama the president and Obama the candidate are further apart than anyone would’ve hoped. And yes, the array of characters on stage at the GOP debates look like a cross between an Edward Gorey illustration and one of Jim Henson’s darker menageries. But the most ghoulish, terrifying thing so far in this campaign has been the audiences at these debates.

America’s had a problem for a little while now with its growing resemblance to the Roman Empire. Let’s leave alone for a moment the 500K+ troops in more than 20 countries around the world, and practices like stop-loss and use of mercenary contractors, at the same time as we lack enough National Guard troops and equipment to dig out from natural disasters at home. And this isn’t the time to get into the culture of consumption that clogs our ports with empty shipping containers, our bodies with empty calories, our economy with empty promises.

(By the way, that thing I just did there, where I brought things up by saying I’d be skipping over them? That’s an awesome Roman rhetorical device, called praeteritio. Cicero used it all the time. It’s my favorite. Now you can use it too!)

I thought our appetite for reality TV was the way our Colosseum-audience attitudes would manifest, but then came that rousing round of applause for Rick Perry’s execution record at the GOP debate in California. Perry’s answer that he’d never lost a night of sleep over the possibility that he’d ever put an innocent man to death– an extremely high probability, in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, which hopefully enters the discussion soon — came as an only slightly-more-soulless afterthought.

The next debate crowd may as well have been wearing tunics and stolae, because when Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul what should happen to a 30-something uninsured man who is stricken with sudden catastrophic illness, several audience members actually called out, “Let him die!” Other attendees applauded that sentiment vigorously, since no one had briefed them on the use of the proper thumb gesture to indicate their favor (it’s actually a thumbs-up to vote for death*).

I’m hoping the booing of an active-duty soldier, who hid an essential part of his identity for the “privilege” of shipping out to serve in Iraq, will be where everyone draws the line. Defense is a pretty sacred cow for Republicans, and while the crowd’s actions were repellent, the candidates’ cowardly silence was truly shocking.

In the meantime, the media needs to act the grown-up for once, and reinstate the strict audience rules which governed political debates for so long. Sure, those long silent exchanges feel stilted and awkward, but it’s got to be better than debasing ourselves another notch. And while I think the clappers and yellers and booers in those crowds were aware of what they were doing, it’s worth remembering that even the Romans knew that crowds lost their consciences a lot faster than individuals.

Augustine of Hippo wrote of a former student who was addicted to the arena spectacles. The effect on the crowd in that ancient stadium seems to describe what took hold of those audiences in California and Florida:

“… [T]he entire place seethed with the most monstrous delight in the cruelty… He was not now the person who      had come in, but just one of the crowd which he had joined, and a true member of the group which had brought      him. What should I add? He looked, he yelled, he was on fire, he took the madness home with him so that it            urged him to return not only with those by whom he had originally been drawn there, but even more than them,      taking others with him.” (Confessions VI. viii (13))

The great thing about history is that we know how it ended. Our discomfort with the Roman comparison surely stems in part from the last hour of that particular film. There are certainly lots of ways we aren’t like the Romans, for the better, and lots of ways we can avoid that particular exit ramp. But maybe a good place to start is to leave the bloodthirsty crowd behavior in the arena.


*No, really! Read more: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/gladiators/gladiators.html


Sep 18, 2011 - AV Club    1 Comment

It’s a Geek World, After All

I debated for days what to write my last Speak Out with your Geek Out post about, and it seemed like there were still too many important topics to reconcile. But it hit me yesterday: really, they’re all one topic. I’m a World Geek.

Not a geek about other worlds, just this one, the big blue marble. After a week with so much glorification of the realms of fantasy and fiction, creativity and imagination, I know this sounds like cheating, but bear with me — this really does cover so much about me and all the things that make have made my gears tick faster, my whole life through.

I was never destined to be much of a homebody. I come from a traveling family: every three-day weekend, spring break, teachers’ convention, and summer vacation, we were on the road, in station wagon and pop-up camper with my grandparents, or RV with my stepdad. I was one of those kids you used to see in the backseat sometimes, lying down with legs up the backseat, reading a thick book (iron stomachs, all of us, I tell you). By the time I’d graduated from high school,  I’d been to all 48 contiguous states, all the provinces of Canada, and even dipped into Mexico; we did the “it’s Thursday, it must be Belgium” 22-day trip to Europe the following summer. Living in France for a year as part of my degree program only seemed logical, and I was on the train every time we had a break, dashing off to the corners of the continent least likely to be explored by any of the other American students I knew.

And I was generally enraptured with ancient and foreign cultures from an early age. I collected dolls, and my favorites were the ones in ethnic and period costumes. I pored over Peter Spier’s fabulous book People, and my collection of 1880’s Harper’s Bazaar fashionplates. I had a Hollie Hobbie dress for the Bicentennial that I wore long past both the event and the day I outgrew it. In the mobcap and hornbook I got at a Colonial War encampment, I spent hours as Dollie Madison, eventually deciding that the Wisconsin state capital was named for her (what did James ever do, really?). The more I learned, the more it wound the clock back and broadened the map, until the limitations of the American timeline and continent became too restrictive, and I drifted back into the ancient and medieval histories of Europe and even Asia.

My love affair with languages started early, too. My mom says that I would babble polysyllabic nonsense around age 2 or 3, and when told to speak clearly, I would sigh condescendingly and inform the adult, “I’m speaking French.” She says she wishes she’d known someone whom she could ask if I really was, because I took to the language like a duck to water when I started it in junior high. Once I’d unlocked the mechanisms of learning language, I got greedy in my acquisitions and spoiled by the access to primary sources it granted me. I went after them like Pokemon: Old Irish, Welsh, Latin, German, Anglo-Saxon … gotta catch ’em all! I’m still enchanted by the look and sound of other languages, and I’m in the market for a new one to study, but as always, it’s so hard to choose. I can’t be the only one with both a list of languages I should learn for my studies, and ones I’d like to learn just for fun.

(And don’t get me started on the wonderful nexus of my two loves, history and language: the etymological dictionary. Very shortly after Cam arrived in the U.S. to marry me, we were sitting around after a family dinner, and everyone was talking about how we liked to keep reading other entries in the dictionary after we’d found the one we’d gone in for. Yes, that’s the kind of family I’m from. I mentioned that my very favorite dictionary to read for fun was the etymological kind. Cam said that was his favorite kind of dictionary too! We got all swoony, and made googly eyes at each other for a while. Mom decided that we were, in fact, made for each other, and that this crazy Internet marriage thing would probably work just fine.)

Mustn’t forget the food, either. While the American versions of ethnic food don’t usually have much to recommend them, I was as adventurous as possible, right from the start. I loved enchiladas, lasagna, chow mein, venison stroganoff, pirogis, and rinderrouladen. And Milwaukee was a great place to grow up steeped in real ethnic food, although back in the ’70s and ’80s, that was mostly just every variety of white people the Old World had to offer. Still, not many towns that size give you your choice of Serbian restaurants, and I consider myself to have been spoiled. As I grew, both my tastes and my willingness to experiment in the kitchen expanded, especially as I encountered my true loves, Mediterranean and Indian foods. Tabouli and gyros and dal, oh my!

Now, with kids of my own, practical considerations take hold, and we haven’t done as much traveling for the sake of travel as I would’ve liked to. My kids will probably get excited when they see Mount Rushmore because they’ll know it from North by Northwest, instead of the other way around, like it was for me. But my kids know the cooking smells of a dozen different cuisines, and the feel of falling asleep with lullabies of a dozen languages in their ears.

But can a subject as literally global as this really count as geekiness? Well, let’s see. Relentless pursuit of (some may say, nearly useless) knowledge, in an increasingly broad array of minute specializations? Check. Uncontrollable urge to share this knowledge, both practical and trivial, with those who show the slightest bit of interest? I think a career in teaching (not to mention the recent urge to blog) is a fair indication of that. Not to mention the practice of parenting, which is one long exercise in imposing my interests on those too young to fight me off effectively yet. Flights of wild delight at new discoveries of related tangents and others’ creative contributions? On a daily basis; those who know me at all (and probably, by now, those who’ve ready any of my blog posts) are familiar with my regular paroxysms of joy over new words, cultural workarounds, historical facts, research revelations, and gustatory novelties.

This place isn’t perfect, and like most intelligent people, there are days when I’m about ready to give up on the whole muddy ball and every so-called higher species on it. But for the most part, the marvel of diversity is my ultimate geek. What gets me most? The same things that bring people to their favorite TV shows, movies, sci-fi/fantasy, and comics. It’s the richness of the stories, and the unexpected twists and turns as they weave together in a greater tapestry. It’s the infinte complexity of detail: the patterns, colors, flavors, spices, textures. It’s the constellation of decision points on a thousand moral continuums, each branching into so many possibilities for beauty and cruelty and creation and destruction.

The best art imitates life. But I guess, for me, the best life is as good as the best art, and I can’t help but be a world-class geek about it all.