What Will The Future Say About Us?

Marion Post Wolcott, "Negro going in colored entrance of movie house on Saturday afternoon, Belzoni, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi," 1939. Library of Congress' American Memory Flickr photostream.

Marion Post Wolcott, "Negro going in colored entrance of movie house on Saturday afternoon, Belzoni, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi," 1939. Library of Congress' American Memory Flickr photostream.

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?

The End of History?

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

Who Loves The Seventies? Historians

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).”

Yeltsin goes to Houston (really–Clear Lake) and and shops at Randall’s

“It was September 16, 1989 and Yeltsin, then newly elected to the new Soviet parliament and the Supreme Soviet, had just visited Johnson Space Center.  At JSC, Yeltsin visited mission control and a mock-up of a space station. According to Houston Chronicle reporter Stefanie Asin, it wasn’t all the screens, dials, and wonder at NASA that blew up his skirt, it was the unscheduled trip inside a nearby Randall’s location.  Yeltsin, then 58, ‘roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement,” wrote Asin. He told his fellow Russians in his entourage that if their people, who often must wait in line for most goods, saw the conditions of U.S. supermarkets, “there would be a revolution.’ ” Read the full blog/ article in the Chronicle here .  thanks to G.Campbell for this note. 

From Japan to Three Mile Island

Image of Three Mile Island in 1988 by whiskeygonebad on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license.

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.

Sydney and Daren

Mattel, the famous toymaker and creator of Barbie, has been making dolls with different shades of skin color for years.  In 1967, it introduced Barbie’s cousin Francis, who looked just like Barbie, but she was painted brown. In 1969, Barbie got a black friend, named Christie. And in 1980, Mattel started manufacturing a black Barbie.  But, she looked almost exactly like the white Barbie.  FinallyIn 2009, Mattel decided that it needed to “diversify.”  It created six dolls that looked more African American for a line called So In Style.  But that was just the beginning.  This Wall Street Journal article gives a glimpse of how complicated doll-making can become.  Note, though, that the “freakishly skinny” doll body remains, well, “freakishly skinny.”

Grace and Trichelle. from Mattel


“Mad Men”: History on the Small Screen

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.