Some say that President Reagan’s demand that Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev “Tear down this wall!” marked the end of the Cold War, signalling “the end of history.” Tear Down this Wall
Here’s a fun historical game to play: if people in the past managed to convince themselves that slavery, segregation, and coverture were somehow okay, what are we convincing ourselves about right now? Thinking about this is a good exercise, if only because it reminds us that although we make it our business as historians to point out by-goners’ blind spots, we are not immune to shortsightedness of our own. Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at Princeton, published an interesting op-ed in the Washington Post about this very subject. Appiah proposes a test to which we can put our own social customs to see if they’ll be scorned in the future: when a custom will eventually be seen as abhorrent, arguments against these customs are often commonly advanced; people can’t make moral counterarguments defending the custom, and instead resort to citing human nature or expediency as defenses; and finally, people practice strategic ignorance to avoid thinking about the true nature of the custom. Appiah argues that future generations will condemn us for our prison system, the factory farming of animals, the isolation of the elderly, and the destruction of the environment. What do you think?
Presidents have not immune to the wonders of technology. As soon as new devices were invented, political leaders put them to use. President Hayes installed the first office telephone. It connected directly (and only) to the Treasury. Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have experimented–some more extensively than others, with recording their conversations. Historian Taylor Branch writes that the secret recordings of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon offer “a democratizing glimpse into how our government really works…. They humanize the institution of the presidency in a way that’s good for all Americans because we tend to think of these great impersonal institutional imperial forces and everything and forget that the president is a person like all of us: often flummoxed, sometimes passionate. A lot of things that perplex us, perplex them as well.”
How would you feel if government employees burst into your room while you were sleeping, forced injections on you, and took your sick babies away to a hospital against your will? On the other hand, how would you feel if you lived in a city filled with fellow citizens who refused to get vaccinated against smallpox, thereby putting you at risk? Historian Michael Willrich talks about his new book, Pox: An American History, in this episode of NPR’s talk show “Fresh Air,” and tells some startling stories about the early enforcement of vaccination laws during the smallpox epidemics of 1898-1904. In New York and Boston, immigrants who often associated state interference in their lives with the regimes they’d come to America to escape were forced to submit to vaccinations. In the South, black people were scapegoated for the spread of the pox:
“There was one episode in Middlesboro, Ky., where the police and a group of vaccinators went into this African-American section of town, rounded up people outside this home, handcuffed the men and women and vaccinated them at gunpoint,” says Willrich. “It’s a shocking scene and very much at odds with our daily-held notions of American liberty.”
Given the recent uptick in parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated for fear of autism (see journalist Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus for that story), Willrich’s book has a great deal of contemporary relevance; I’ll be picking it up at the earliest opportunity.
The AMC show “Mad Men,” which is now in its fifth season, is set in a fictional Madison Avenue ad agency just as the ’60s begin. You can watch the show on a couple of different levels: keep one eye on the soap opera-y character interactions (that cad Don Draper and his affairs!–and that new wife! ); keep another eye on the fantastic costume design (sure, girdles were uncomfortable, but those fabrics are to die for); and keep your history eye open to the show’s constant references to the larger political happenings and social change of the early 60s. Characters on this show go down to Mississippi to register voters, mourn the death of Marilyn Monroe, or wonder whether to start taking the Pill (a relatively new option at this time), visit a few psychiatrists (only women, though. I think Betty Draper/ Francis is suffering from the feminine mystique).
Here’s a timeline published by the New York Times that can help you follow along with the historical events embedded in the show. Here’s a piece about the show’s efforts to maintain linguistic accuracy (would a character actually have said “the medium is the message” in 1960, despite the fact that Marshall McLuhan didn’t coin this famous slogan until four years later?) Here’s a link to one of the many blog posts that have debated whether MM’s portrayal of the racism and sexism of the era is accurate, and whether this depiction works to glamorize the very problems being shown. And finally, just to prove how much mileage the average arts reporter has gotten out of writing about MM, here’s a piece about the historical accuracy of the cocktails that the members of the MM crew sip at every possible moment of the workday.
For a while now, historians seem to have been stuck on the sixties as The Most Interesting Decade in American History. But a new wave of historical work is coming out that focuses instead on the decade that brought you Earth Day, Nixon, the oil crisis, tax revolts, the end of the Vietnam War, and the Sunbelt: the lovely Seventies. I hypothesize that this shift is happening because people like studying the decade in which they came of age–thus, baby boomer historians love thinking about the sixties, and the rising generation is just moving forward accordingly. But that’s just a theory.
A couple of handy historiographies (a “historiography” is a review of the work of other historians) have recently been published that can give a sense of the scope of new seventies work that’s coming out. Recently, in the Nation, journalist and historian Rick Perlstein talked about his experience writing a book about the seventies, and surveyed other recent books about the decade—books whose approaches range from cultural analysis (why disco?), to industrial history (the roots of offshoring), to political theory (the beginnings of 80s conservatism). In the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Dalton Conley, a sociologist, looked at recent work on the changes in the American family structure and race relations during that pivotal decade. Conley also argues that many of the defining features of today’s popular culture can be traced back to seventies innovations: “From hacker culture to hip-hop, from conceptual art to cyborgs, the 1970s was a time of experimentation whose fruits we can see all around us today (the Internet is and the trackball mouse are just two of those fruits).”
Much of the coverage of the compromised Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan has compared the ongoing crisis to the incident at Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, in 1979. (This piece, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, has a detailed rundown of the difference between the two incidents.) How much do you know about Three Mile Island (abbreviated, somewhat unfortunately, as “TMI”)? This incident, which began in the early morning hours of March 28, 1979, was essentially a cascading series of engineering errors, compounded by human inability to correctly read the situation; the crisis lasted for five days, and eventually resulted in the release of a moderate amount of radioactive gasses. Although the incident was later understood to be not nearly so severe as people had originally feared, the panic that the public felt during the five days of uncertainty resulted in much tighter regulation of nuclear power plants, and (some say) crippled the nuclear power industry, which had been gaining traction during the 1970s. This cultural reaction, argue historians such as J. Samuel Walker, may have been heightened by the fact that the movie “The China Syndrome,” starring Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas as reporters who discover hazards at a nuclear plant, came out less than two weeks before the TMI crisis. (See Walker’s 2004 book, Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective, for more.) The Fukushima crisis has already outdone TMI, in terms of potential damage; here’s (fervently) hoping that Japan can minimize the severity of the meltdown.
Apparently the link for “Is this Tomorrow” (4.1.) has disappeared. Try this Flickr site. http://www.flickr.com/photos/57391637@N05/sets/72157625660722718/
No need to read the whole thing. You’ll get the idea soon enough. Also, simply search for the entire title “Is this tomorrow?” to find a little background.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Tuskegee Experiments—a shameful chapter in US history in which doctors funded by the U.S. Public Health Service recruited a group of African-American sharecroppers who had syphilis, then watched as their disease progressed, withholding treatment and lying to them about the source of their sickness, all in order to see how the disease worked. In 2011, a professor of history and women’s studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Susan Reverby, was all over the news for having discovered documents that proved that similar studies had been carried out in Guatemala in the 1940s. A doctor who had been part of the Tuskegee experiments, John Cutler, used National Institutes of Health money (that’s taxpayer funding, as the New York Times pointed out) to infect Guatemalan prisoners with venereal diseases in order to test the efficacy of penicillin. Sometimes Cutler even hired prostitutes (which were apparently allowed in Guatemalan jails) to carry out the transmission of disease; sometimes the method was to scrape part of the prisoner’s body and infect that way. The Times quotes a medical ethicist from the University of Chicago, Mark Siegler, who gives some historical perspective: “It’s ironic — no, it’s worse than that, it’s appalling — that, at the same time as the United States was prosecuting Nazi doctors for crimes against humanity, the U.S. government was supporting research that placed human subjects at enormous risk.”
UPDATE: Here’s an interview with Dr. Reverby about her research methods and the initial reception of her work.