The Races of Man

W.J. Astore

In the 19th century, many people believed in polygenism, and others used the concept of “the races of man,” where by “race” they often meant species.  At home, I have a framed copy of the races of man taken from an encyclopedia published in the 1890s.  Here’s a photo of it:

IMG_1827

Of course, there’s always an assumed hierarchy to the races of man concept.  White Europeans are at the top, since it’s they who defined and ordered the hierarchy.  Surprise!

In my photo, White Europeans take pride of place in the center, with some swarthy Italians at the top right (I’m half-Italian).  Meanwhile, Polynesian (pink flowers in hair) and Indian (from South America) women are shown with bare breasts.  “Primitives” are primitive precisely because they’re “immodest” in dress, a convention that allowed publishers to show nudity in illustrations and photos without being accused of pornography.  You might call this the “National Geographic” dispensation for nudity.

My college students were often amazed when I told them that science shows that all of us — all humans — came out of Africa.  Far too many people today still think of race as both definitive and as a rung on a ladder, and naturally they always place their own “race” on the top rung.

Even more disturbing is the resurgence of racialized (and often racist) thinking in the United States.  The idea of the races of man and the “scientific” ordering of the same was debunked a century ago, yet it’s back with a vengeance in much of the U.S.

Naturally, those who promote racialized thinking always put their own perceived race at the top.  In that sense, nothing whatsoever has changed since the 19th century and the “races of man” concept.

Hollywood Stars and Sports Heroes: Uncle Sam Wants You!

Stewart
No — Jimmy Stewart is not acting here.  He flew bombers in World War II and rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Air Force

W.J. Astore

Back in 2013, I wrote an article on U.S. wars and the absence of movie and sports stars in the ranks of those who serve.  Hollywood and sports leagues such as the NFL and MLB celebrate the military today, but that celebration does not extend to service and sacrifice.  Indeed, the main service is lip service: basically, cheap words to the effect that we celebrities “support” the troops.  It’s not exactly the kind of service we associate with the Greatest Generation of World War II, is it?

Yet the absence of Hollywood celebrities and sports “heroes” in the ranks may be indicative of another, much more serious, issue.  Maybe America’s wars simply aren’t vital to them — or to us?  And if they’re not vital, why are they still in progress?  Why can’t we end them?

Here is what I wrote in 2013:

The tradition of the citizen-soldier is still alive in this country — just look at our National Guard units. But the burden of military service is obviously not equally shared, with the affluent and famous tucked away safely at home. How many people remember that Jimmy Stewart, legendary Hollywood actor, flew dangerous combat missions in the skies over Europe during World War II? Stewart didn’t flaunt his combat service; in fact, playing against type, he stayed home as the unhallowed George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie that celebrated the heroism of the ordinary citizen. In the movie, Stewart’s quiet, home-based heroism, his powerful sense of fairness and decency, is even allowed to overshadow that of his younger brother, who returns from war with the Medal of Honor.

There’s an interesting lesson there. In World War II, celebrities often risked life and limb in real military service, then after the war played against type to celebrate the virtues of a homespun heroism. Today’s celebrities avoid military service altogether but play tough in action films where they pose as “heroes.”

Other than Pat Tillman, who gave up a promising NFL football career to join the military after 9/11, I can’t think of a single celebrity who answered the call to arms as a citizen-soldier.

Then again, that call was never issued. After 9/11, President George W. Bush famously told us to keep calm and carry on — carrying on shopping and patronizing Disney, that is. He did so because he already had a large standing professional military he could call on, drawn primarily from the middling orders of society. This “all volunteer military” is often described (especially in advertisements by defense contractors) as a collection of “warfighters” and “warriors.” In the field, they are supplemented by privatized militaries provided by companies like Academi (formerly Blackwater/Xe), Triple Canopy, and DynCorp International. In a word, mercenaries. These bring with them a corporate, for-profit, mindset to America’s wars.

If we as a country are going to keep fighting wars, we need a military drawn from the people. All the people. As a start, we need to draft young men (and women) from Hollywood, from the stage and screen. And we need to draft America’s sports stars (I shouldn’t think this would be an issue, since there are so many patriotic displays in favor of the troops at NFL stadiums and MLB parks).

Jimmy Stewart served in combat. So too did Ted Williams. So too did so many of their Hollywood and sporting generation.

Until today’s stars of stage and screen and sports join with the same sense of urgency as their counterparts of “The Greatest Generation,” I’ll remain deeply skeptical of all those Hollywood and sporting world patriotic displays of troop support.

If this whole line of argument sounds crazy to you, I have a modest suggestion. Rather a plea. If our celebrities who profit the most from America are unwilling to defend it the way Stewart and Williams did, perhaps that’s not just a sign of societal rot. Perhaps it’s a sign that our wars are simply not vital to us. And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we end them? Now?

The U.S. Postal Service: Ripe for Privatizing?

download

W.J. Astore

I got involved in a brief discussion on Facebook about privatizing the U.S. postal service.  Briefly, those in favor of privatization argued that the post office is inefficient and costly, and that exposing it to market forces through privatization will result in much improved efficiency at lower cost to the American taxpayer.

First of all, if you’re looking for a wasteful government agency to privatize, why not start with the department of defense, which spends roughly $750 billion a year, and which has never passed an audit?  Leaving that aside, the privatization enthusiasts assume that “market forces” will necessarily generate improvements in efficiency and improved service.  But what if it just monetizes everything, leading to higher prices and poorer service?

Furthermore, why should “efficiency” be the primary goal for a public service? Many small communities and villages rely heavily on local post offices. Under an “efficient” and private system, these local post offices are likely to be closed or consolidated in the name of efficiency, with prices rising for poor and rural communities. Those steps may be “efficient” to private owners, but they won’t be beneficial to all the people who just want mail and related services (and maybe a place to chat with neighbors).

Service to the public should be the primary goal of a public service, not “efficiency.” Sure, efficiency is a good thing, but so too is affordability, convenience, trustworthiness, courteousness, and so on.  When you elevate efficiency as the goal above all others, and measure that by metrics based on money, you are inevitably going to compromise important aspects of public service.

Consider the state of public education. When you privatize it, new metrics come in, driven by profit.  Private (charter) schools, for example, pursue better students and reject marginal ones as they attempt to maximize test scores so as to justify their approach and ranking.  Public schools have to take all students, the good and the bad, the affluent and the disadvantaged, and thus their ratings are often lower.

There’s a myth afoot in our land that government is always wasteful and inefficient, and that unions are always costly and greedy.  Our postal service employs roughly 213,000 people, fellow Americans who work hard and who, when they retire, have earned a pension and benefits.  Why are so many people so eager to attack public postal workers as well as public schoolteachers?

In my 55 years of living in America, I’ve been well served by a public post office and well educated by public schools. I see no compelling reason to privatize public services just because someone thinks a corporation driven by profit can do it more efficiently.

People think that corporations driven by the profit motive will inevitably produce a better system with improved service.  While profit can be made by providing superior service, it can also be made by providing shoddy service or even no service at all, especially in a market resembling a monopoly, or one where corporations are protected by powerful interests.

To recap: public service and efficiency are not identical. Nor should we think of ourselves merely as consumers of a product, whether that product is mail service or education.  We need to think of ourselves as citizens, and the post office as composed of citizens like us providing a public service for us, a service where “efficiency” is only one driver, and not the most important one.

A final, perhaps obvious, point: often those who argue for privatization are also those with the most to gain, financially, from it.  A lot of people are making money from charter schools, for example.  It’s not “efficiency” that’s the driver here: it’s the chance to make a buck, and despite what Gordon Gekko said, greed isn’t always good and right, especially when public service is involved.

What do you think, readers?

Declaring Independence from Walls, Weapons, and Wars

old photos 004 (2)
My family’s old wringer-washer.  Look closely: as a kid, I stuck an American flag just above the “Maytag” label.

W.J. Astore

Walls and weapons and wars have come to define the USA in the 21st century.  The most infamous wall is Donald Trump’s proposed extension of the border wall with Mexico.  Weapons are everywhere, domestically with guns and mass shootings even as weapons sales overseas drive U.S. foreign policy.  Wars are simply endless in places that most Americans would struggle to identify on maps.  What percentage of Americans, for example, could identify Niger before the ambush that cost four Green Berets or Yemen before a Navy SEAL died there after Trump’s first military action (which he subsequently blamed on the generals)?  Indeed, how many Americans could identify these countries now, even with U.S. troops having died there, ostensibly in the name of fighting terrorism and keeping America safe?

I’m both a baby boomer and a retired military officer.  Looking back to the 20th century and in the context of the Cold War, when I thought of walls, images of Berlin came to mind, with desperate people risking life and limb to seek freedom in the West.  A wall was a symbol of them – you know, the Evil Empire, the Soviets, the Stasi, the freedom-deniers. The USA, land of liberty, neither needed nor wanted walls.  Weapons?  Sure, we had plenty of those when I was young, and sold lots of them too to countries overseas, when we weren’t using them ourselves to pummel Southeast Asia and other regions.  But military-style assault weapons for citizens were virtually unknown until the 1980s, and extensive weapons sales overseas had a purpose (at least in theory) of deterring communist expansion.  Nowadays, weapons sales need have no purpose other than profit for those who make and sell them.

And wars?  However evil the U.S. had acted during the Vietnam War, and indeed there’s much evil in policies that enjoin troops to “kill anything that moves,” as Nick Turse has documented in his book by that name, at least one thing can be said of that war: it ended, and America lost.  Even the Cold War ended (or so we believed, until recent claims that Russia and China represent the threats of the future).  Today, America’s wars never end.  Retired generals like David Petraeus spout gibberish about the wisdom of a “sustainable sustained commitment” to the war in Afghanistan, with the Pentagon babbling on about “long” and “generational” campaigns, as if prolonging wars for less-than-vital causes is a sign of U.S. strength.

The point is this: Walls were not us.  Weapons, however prevalent throughout U.S. history, were not treated as panaceas and sold as solutions to everything from classroom shootings to saving American jobs to boosting economic growth and cutting trade imbalances.  Even America’s wars were not open-ended or openly described as “generational.”  All of this is either new today or a twisted version of past policies and practices.

The Unmaking of American Idealism

As a teenager, I embraced American idealism.  The bicentennial was coming in 1976, and I was the proud owner of a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence.  It was on pseudo-parchment paper, a cheap copy for sure, but I treated it as if were precious because it was – and is.  It’s precious for the ideals it represents, the enshrinement of self-evident truths like life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, however imperfectly America upheld and advanced these in practice.

Maybe this is why I bought a roll of American flag stickers and stuck them on everything (including our kitchen door and our washing machine, which must have thrilled my parents).  Back then, I thought I knew what America stood for, or at least what my country stood against.  Despite all our sins, America was anti-wall, and even as we built and sold weapons and fought proxy wars in a contest with the Soviets, there was a sense America stood for freedom, or so I believed.  Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, we were also not as eager to fight wars everywhere and without end.

But that was then, and this is now.  Forget about the “Age of Aquarius,” a trippy song about peace and love that I remember singing when I was eight years old.  Today in America, it’s the Age of Mars, the Age of Walls and Weapons and War.

Coming of age in the 1970s, I heard and read a lot about war.  Vietnam had been a disaster, but there was always the example of World War II to set things right in my mind.  I could read about American heroism at Wake Island and during the Battle of the Bulge; I could watch movies like “Patton” that glorified tough-talking U.S. generals; I could look to my uncle who won a bronze star fighting at Guadalcanal in the Pacific.  I knew (or so I thought) that America stood for freedom and against tyranny.

But that ideal of freedom was always tinged by images of violent frontier justice, as depicted in popular culture.  Memorable movies of my teen years included Clint Eastwood playing a rogue cop in “Dirty Harry,” Charles Bronson playing a shattered vigilante in “Death Wish,” and John Wayne playing tough cop roles in movies like “McQ” and “Brannigan.”  These movies were clear about one thing: the rule of law wasn’t enough to keep us safe.  Sometimes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, which usually involved Clint or Chuck or John (and, later, Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo) dispensing justice with fists and from the barrels of various (big) guns.

Extreme violence as well as images of the lone gunfighter were and are features of American history and culture, of course.  But these were counterbalanced in the 1960s and 1970s by peace anthems such as John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  A less known song, one I sang as a kid, was “Billy don’t be a hero” (how could I resist: It had my name in it).  In this song, young Billy wants to go off to war, but his fiancée discourages him.  Predictably, Billy goes anyway, the words of his fiancée following him (Billy don’t be a hero/don’t be a fool with your life).  Billy, after volunteering for a dangerous mission, dies a hero, the government sending a laudatory letter to his fiancée, who tearfully tosses it into the trash.

That song made an impression, though it didn’t stop me from joining the military.  Why?  Because I bought the narrative: the U.S. was fighting a war of survival against godless communism, showing patient resolve as we worked to contain a threat to freedom around the world.

That cold war ended more than 25 years ago, yet nevertheless the U.S. continues to build and sell more weapons than any other country; to support higher and higher military spending; and to wage more wars in more places than ever.  Clinton or Bush, Obama or Trump, the war song remains the same.  It all represents a narrowing of national horizons, a betrayal of American promise, one we’ll overcome only when we change course and reject walls and weapons and war.

Stopping Walls, Weapons, and Wars

There are two war parties in the U.S. today.  We call them Republicans and Democrats.  When it comes to fostering and feeding war, both are essentially the same.  Both are slaves to the national security state, even if Democrats make a show of rattling their chains a bit more.  Both define patriotism in militaristic terms and loyalty in terms of blanket support of, even reverence for, American military adventurism and interventionism.  Political candidates who have rival ideas, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson (remember him?) or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, are not even allowed on the stage.  Even when heard, they’re dismissed as jokes.

In 2016, for example, Johnson suggested cuts to military spending approaching 20%; Jill Stein suggested cuts as deep as 50%.  Their proposals, however, were simply rejected as preposterous by the mainstream media.  Even Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, refused to propose serious cuts to military spending: if he had, he knew he’d be dismissed as either a weak-kneed appeaser or an unserious ignoramus.  (Recall how Gary Johnson was depicted as clueless by the mainstream media because he couldn’t place Aleppo in Syria or instantly name a foreign leader he adored.)

Unmasked military authoritarianism is the new reality in U.S. government and society today, complete with a martial parade in Washington, D.C. come this November.  This is no surprise.  Recall how both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump boasted of how many generals and admirals supported them in their respective presidential campaigns, as if they couldn’t run for office unless they’d been anointed by men in military uniforms wearing stars.

And we dare call this a democracy?

Seeing the problem clearly is a way to begin to solve it.  Want to restore American liberty?  Stop building walls (and tearing children from parents).  Stop buying and selling massive amounts of weaponry here and everywhere.  And stop waging war across the globe. Americans used to know the chief result of divisive walls, proliferating weapons, and endless war is chaos everywhere and democracy nowhere.  How did we come to forget this lesson?

If we take these simple yet profound steps, I could look again at my childhood copy of the Declaration of Independence with a renewed sense of hope.

On Love

Aunt Mary 007
My Aunt Mary, on the left, with a friend

W.J. Astore

In Memory of My Aunt Mary (died 2012)

When I was in CCD and preparing to be confirmed at St. Patrick’s Church in the late 1970s, our teachers tried to teach us kids what “love” is.  We were asked to give definitions.  As teenagers, we came up with the usual definitions of romantic love, all valentines and holding hands and smooching.

No, our teachers explained, love should be selfless.  It’s not about you.  Love is about giving without expecting anything in return.

Throughout her long life, Aunt Mary demonstrated that kind of love.  She gave to her own mother, caring for her as she aged.  She gave to her sister Corrine through her struggles.  She gave to her brother Gino.  She gave to us all, and she did so with generosity and goodness and grace.  She gave without expecting anything in return.

She loved.

So, if my old CCD teachers asked me today for a definition of love, my answer would be a simple one.  “ ‘Love,’ ” I’d say, “is my Aunt Mary.”

Aunt Mary blessed our lives for 94 years.  Let us give thanks to God that she was with us for so long.  And let us all learn from her shining example the true meaning of love.

Trump and Noxious Notions of Masculinity

Two_complete_science_adventure_books_1951win_n4

W.J. Astore

A friend recently sent me a passage from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) that resonated with me.  It comes when the main character journeys deep into the future.  He muses about what kind of human beings he will face:

What might not have happened to men? What if cruelty had grown into a common passion? What if in this interval the race had lost its manliness and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful? I might seem some old-world savage animal, only the more dreadful and disgusting for our common likeness–a foul creature to be incontinently slain.

Writing in the late Victorian era, Wells put a heavy stress on manliness that is decidedly unfashionable today.  Yet his description of manliness is interesting: he contrasts it to men who are “inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful.”  For Wells, true manliness taps humane qualities; it values sympathy; it resists being consumed by a will to power.

And it struck me that in men like Trump, a portion of the dystopic future Wells envisions in The Time Machine is now.  For Trump, being “manly” is about acquiring power, commanding obedience, forcing other men to submit while grabbing pussy whenever you can.  It’s a noxious notion of masculinity, an unsympathetic, even an “inhuman” one.

Another interesting passage I came across this week appears in Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity (1980). The main female character in that book, a Canadian economist by the name of Marie, muses about the men she’s encountered in government employ, at the highest and most secretive levels:

Oh, God, she loathed them all!  Mindless, stupid men.  Playing with the lives of other men, knowing so little, thinking they knew so much.

They had not listened!  They never listened until it was too late, and then only with stern forbearance and strong reminders of what might have been—had things been as they were perceived to be, which they were not.  The corruption came from blindness, the lies from obstinacy and embarrassment.  Do not embarrass the powerful; the napalm said it all.

And again it got me thinking of Trump and men like him.  Trump is all about his “instincts.”  He doesn’t bother to read or study, and he sure as hell is not a listener.  And he lies and lies just to stay in shape.

But Trump is less cause than symptom.  America produced him, and voters voted for him.  Roughly one-third of Americans continue to say they support him, irrespective of his serial lying, serial infidelity, and his greedy and grasping policies that favor the richest few over the poorest many.

As Marie said in The Bourne Identity, America has too many “mindless, stupid men.”  Men whose ideas about masculinity are defined in opposition to that of H.G. Wells’ concept.  Men who are driven by power, who think being manly is about suppressing any sympathy for those less fortunate, men who are proud to be “tough” by being inhumane and nasty.  “Empty souls,” as my wife succinctly said this morning.

Education is Labor, Right?

download

W.J. Astore

So, the Trump Administration wants to merge the Department of Education with Labor.  What a surprise.  According to Mick Mulvaney, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, “They’re [Education and Labor] doing the same thing.  Trying to get people ready for the workforce, sometimes it’s education, sometimes it’s vocational training – but all doing the same thing, so why not put them in the same place?”

I saw this push for education as workforce development when I was a professor of history in Pennsylvania.  Education was largely reduced to vocational training, in partnership with business and industry.  My classes in history (including the social history of technology) were essentially “filler” classes, and indeed I had a student tell me he might see me again if he needed another “filler” class.  I wasn’t angry; I was amused at how perceptive and honest the student was.

Of course, America will always have the Ivy League.  Education as training for a job won’t really drive the curriculum at Yale or Harvard or Princeton.  You can still get a decent liberal arts education in America, assuming you have money.  But if you don’t, it’s off to “workforce training” for you.

When I was still teaching, I used to argue that my history classes were especially valuable to students at the college where I taught since they might be the only college-level course in history that they’d ever experience.  I’d argue that plumbers and welders and nurses needed to know history too.  Why?  Because they’re not just aspiring plumbers and welders and nurses — they’re American citizens, and the health of our democracy is based on a well-informed and broadly educated citizenry.

The Trump Administration doesn’t want such a citizenry.  Their vision of education is not about creative and critical thinking, and it certainly isn’t about challenging authority.  Rather, it’s about job training, workforce development, preparing people for a lifetime of labor — and supine obedience.

Well, as our “stable genius” president said, “I love the poorly educated.”  Under this latest proposal, he’s putting his “love” into practice.

An Addendum: When you treat education as a business, as administrators have been doing in higher ed, is it any surprise when education is reduced to a feeder and filler for labor, for business and industry, for the workforce?  As a professor, I had plenty of experience with administrators who sold education as a commodity, who talked about students as “customers” and professors as “providers” of a product.  One high-level administrator insisted that we professors meet our students “at their point of need.”  Another big push when I was a professor was on retention.  Keep those students in college!  If only to keep enrollment up and the tuition dollars flowing.

We have reduced education to a business and classes to commodities, so why not combine education with labor?  It makes perfect sense … and supports perfectly authoritarian rule.