Tag Archives: History

Historical Subjectivity

I think I mentioned a while ago that I signed up for a few courses on Coursera, an site that has a multitude of classes available cheap as free. My first class, which started about two weeks ago, is History of Rock (Part One) taught by the University of Rochester’s Professor John Covach. So far, I’m really enjoying. This is not a class I would have ever been able to take in college because I would have been far too busy trying to cram one more comparative literature course into the semester. And, for some reason, I love seeing how any art form evolves, shifts and borrows from its past.

There’s also something to be said about watching how history unfolds from multiple different viewpoints and not just from the grand scale of politics and war. For the most part, any history class breaks everything into moments; those pivot points where it all changes. But with a class like this, or an English literature class or anything that focuses on day-to-day minutia of our past, it becomes possible to view history from a different angle.

When you view history through the lens of the culture, you can get a better idea of how those pivot points, those grand moments, are felt by people who do not make the policy decisions and do not make laws and great decrees. It’s an emotional and subjective view of history by the people who experienced. Examining how the culture (popular and sub) reacts to an event can tell you a great deal about how the people felt and thought, rather than just getting a bird’s eye view of history and sometimes it’s a good idea to dive down and examine those emotional snapshots.

Anyway, back to learning about Doo-Wop.

-D-

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Culture Defined by Pop

Alan Lomax was a folklorist who spent the majority of his life preserving small, local folklore traditions. He believed that globalization was encroaching on the traditions of countless subcultures and slowly but surely pushing them toward extinction. He was also, potentially, a manipulative, manifest destiny toting jack-ass, but that’s not important here.

The main crux of his beliefs were that the important local traditions and stories and music of Americana would be subsumed by the mass media and rendered meaningless. Instead of the local storyteller, we would listen to radio programmes. Instead of being taught by the local wise-man, we’d be taught by a Federal mandated school curriculum.

Cultural individuality would be gone and we would be left with one, big, happy social identity.

He was, for the most part, correct. Television and the Internet have become one of the primary means that we identify with one another. If I mention Grumpy Cat to an individual who lives on the opposite end of the county, he will know what I am talking about, even if we were born and raised in completely different regions and sub-cultures.

If I talk about Game of Thrones with someone, we will connect. If I mention Downton Abbey, we will bond. Culture is rapidly becoming defined by popular culture; state-wide, country-wide, world-wide. It is steadily and irrevocably moving toward this one, great global culture.

I don’t think this is a scary thing or an arguable thing. It’s just a thing; an inevitable consequence of a communication network that binds together every corner of the globe instantaneously.

What is interesting is the fact that there are still sub-cultures and sub-sub-cultures that are forming and blossoming within this new global identity. Even with the ability to unify everybody under one pop culture umbrella, there are still individuals who huddle under their interests and beliefs, separate and isolated from the main culture.

The difference between then and now is that these people have self-determined their own sub-culture. While in the olden days, Appalachian musics and stories were determined by geographic isolation and blues music and the Harlem Renaissance was determined by socio-economic political subjugation, the various sub-pop-culture interests and traditions that are starting to flower are solely determined by the interests and desires of the individual wishing to define themselves.

And that is not nearly as bad as Mr. Lomax feared.

-D-

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The Park

One of the most surprising things that I’ve read through-out my spring training, was that, prior to Henry, Werner and Lucchino buying the team, there was a lot of talk about abandoning Fenway and building a new park elsewhere.

To me, even before I started my whole Baseball Project, this was unthinkable. Leave Fenway? But…it’s Fenway! It’s one of those places people think of when you say, “baseball.” It’s been around almost as long as the Red Sox have been around. It’s been the home to Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and that Yaz fellow. You can’t leave Fenway.

Since I’ve never been to a major league ballpark and since the season is still a ways out, I decided to take advantage of the Fenway Park Tours. After all, what better way to get acquainted with a ballpark than when it’s completely empty? When it’s full of screaming fans and vendors and balllplayers and reporters and crew, you don’t really get to appreciate it. You miss out on details that are going to be obscured by the excitement of the game.

But a ballfield without players is such an odd thing to see.

The view from the Green Monster.

The history of Fenway is apparent from the moment you walk through the gate. There are dates everywhere; marking the first series the Red Sox won (1903, which was also the first World Series ever) and the years they won the American League pennant. There are the old bleacher seats that have been there since 1934 and they show it: There’s no leg room. There’s no room between you and your neighbor. And, as our guide pointed out, there are no cupholders.

Everything has a story attached to it. There’s the red seat out behind right field, where Ted Williams’ home run landed, the longest homer hit in Fenway. There’s the Green Monster, where Carlton Fisk’s homerun safely landed after he willed it there.

The Green Monster in all its glory.

Fenway is both one of the oldest and one of the smallest ballparks in the major leagues. It’s crammed into a tiny space, surrounded on all sides. Fenway represents Boston, in the way that Boston embraces its past and the future on the same street corner. History and progress in one square block. To me, a newcomer to the game and its history, it’s unthinkable that they even contemplated building a new park.

I can’t wait to see it in action.

Dylan Charles

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The Lost

When learning about baseball’s history, it is impossible to ignore the forty years that African Americans were not allowed to play, regardless of ability. Any attempt by a black american to play ball was rejected by Major League Baseball. They were shut out and forced to form their own leagues.

There debates, even now, about the possibilities. What if they had been allowed to play? How would things have been different? How would they have measured up against Major League Players?

In my mind, that prompts other, far more depressing questions than who would have beat who in an All Star line-up. From the 1600’s to the late 1800’s, countless men and women were unable to pursue anything they wanted. How many artists were lost? How many doctors? How many lawyers? How many writers and sculptors and athletes and orators and businessmen and senators? What did this country lose? What did those people lose? Because they were unable to choose their own fates, to strike out on their own, to determine who they were in a very fundamental way, society lost something dear.

And society continued to throw it away with Jim Crow and segregation and through the intimidation of the Klan and other groups. The poverty and crime that bore down the Black community, kept it from achieving the great things it would have achieved. For every George Washington Carver and Lewis Latimer and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglas and Langston Hughes and Miles Davis, how many others never got the chance to be who they should have been?

It is only recently in our history that Black Americans have the semblance of the same freedoms as the majority of Americans, but for the millions before, they lacked that option.

What they were, what they could have been, whatever they truly wanted, was and is forever lost, and we are forever poorer for it.

Dylan Charles

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Book Review: Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen

I’ve never been a fan of the idea that the government is hiding space aliens from us. Partly it’s because the people who espouse this particular brand of paranoia always strike me as two hairs away from batshit insane. Mostly though it’s because I’ve never seen any good evidence for it. I haven’t seen good evidence that any U.F.O. is alien in origin. The locus of most of these theories is the mythical military base Area 51, a place I’ve wanted to know more about, but without having to wade through five-hundred pages of paranoid rambling.

So when I heard that Area 51 was less a book about alien ships and cigarette smoking government agents hording alien corpses in the basement of the White House and more about the actual history of the base, I decided to give it a chance. I was hoping for a grounded, well researched book based on history and not just baseless conjecture and that’s exactly what I got.

Jacobsen does a great job of tying together the multiple points in history that led to the creation of Area 51 and following its role in the American government throughout the years. It’s where the Blackbird and drones were developed. It’s where they reverse engineered the MiG and finally figured out how to beat the Ruskies’ plane. During the later half of the 20th century, Area 51 lurked in the background of history, quietly doing its part. It’s a very levelheaded book. It’s as if Jacobsen wanted to counteract the hysterical paranoid tone that usually surrounds Area 51. She manages to strip a top secret military base of most of its mystique and does it methodically, piece by piece.

Throughout the book, Jacobsen raises several points about the scariness of the lack of government accountability for black ops projects, such as when government scientists nearly blew a hole in our atmosphere with nuclear tests that accomplished nothing scientifically. She acknowledges that the government most certainly does not need to tell the public everything, but that there’s a problem when even the president doesn’t have access to records.

My one problem with the book is toward the very end. After teasing the reader for the entire book with the secret about what really happened at Roswell, she reveals what happened with a flourish of melodramatic camp that is better suited for The X-Files than for what was a very reasoned and grounded book. She talks about secret Soviet plans to undermine the United States, which involves a devil’s pact between Mengele and Stalin. She talks of an anonymous man who speaks in cryptic comments and refuses to reveal everything he knows. It’s such an abrupt departure from the rest of the book that I have trouble believing what she’s saying. The whole chapter feels like she’s inserted herself into a Tom Clancy novel.

Aside from that one brief departure, Area 51 is a great history of the most talked about secret in modern U.S. history and I recommend it to any modern history buffs.

Dylan Charles

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Beyond the Veil

Millenia ago, people believed that alongside our own world was another world. The worlds existed apart, but the borders between the two could wear thin and it was possible to cross from one t’other.

It was said that in certain places, during certain times, going to the other world was as easy as crossing through a doorway. One just had to know how.

But to do so, would be to draw the attention of the things that lay beyond the veil. Those things were often beautiful, magickal and immortal, but they were also vicious, cruel and insane. And they coveted us.

There were many stories that told of people being taken. Often the people would never return. Or they would return, only not in their right mind. The beauty of the other world was a strong draw, but it was beyond anyone’s mind to comprehend. Colors and shapes that could not and should not exist. Sounds that demanded to be heard, but defied recognition. The other world was an offense to the mind and abhorrent to the senses, in spite of that awe-full beauty.

So people began to learn the Rules that governed travel between the two worlds. They noted the special times and the special places where travel occurred, even without the consent of the traveler. And sometimes the travel happened the other way: they would come to our world to come for what they coveted.

They noticed that the travel happened during the In-Between Times. The time between night and day. The time between seasons. These were times when it was most easy for the things beyond the veil to cross-over. The biggest In-Between Time came during fall. It was in-between seasons, and in-between years, for they used a different calendar than we did and their New Year was in Fall. It was a powerful time, when the border between the worlds all but fell ‘way.

The people would lock their doors as the sun set, because the time In-Between Day and Night gave the other side the strength it needed to cross over. Inside their homes, they would try and ward off the magick folk that moved through and into shadow. The creatures that lived in the walls of our world. Little scratching, gnawing things that took no shape, that blinded with their very existence, that wanted to take the children away as their own, to be raised in that Other World.

It was a day dreaded and now, on our calendar, that day falls on October 31st.

Dylan Charles

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Set in Stone…Like Talc or Something

One of the more interesting and appalling aspects of history is its malleability.

I constantly have to relearn what I thought I knew about history. For example, it’s common knowledge that Egyptians used slave labor to build their pyramids, who were a bunch of sad bastards who were worked to death against their will.

Except that’s not true. Being a pyramid builder was apparently considered a pretty sweet gig. They were fed, housed and paid. They got weekends, unlike farmers. And they chose to do it.

Or take Rome. Every fifty years or so, they reevaluate how the Romans are viewed. They’re either barbaric murdering savages or the bright light of republicanism, architecture and science. Or both.

Or English feudal peasants: beaten down mud farmers or experts in local law and self governance? Depends on who you ask, but it’s starting to look like the latter more than the former.

This kind of constant re-evaluation has to do with a variety of factors. Sometimes it’s just getting more information, sometimes it’s the result of a change in attitudes and sometimes it’s just removing all the white-washing (pun intended). Columbus used to be a great hero who discovered America and proved to all those morons back home that the world was not flat.

Now, Columbus is considered a genocidal, incompetent fool and a damned lucky one at that. People thought he was crazy to sail to India via a western route because they thought the world was far too large for a ship to sail that distance, whereas Columbus thought the world was much smaller. And Columbus was wrong. Had there been no America to land on, he and his fellow sailors would have died long before they ever reached India.

History is such a strangely flexible thing, especially considering how inflexible most people view it. Most folks view it as a collection of facts that are immutable. Whereas it’s more a collection of interpretations of sometimes very sketchy and incomplete records that are influenced by the biases of the person reading those records. One way, Columbus is a hero, another he’s a barbarian. One way, Caesar was a leader of the people unjustly murdered, another is he’s a power hungry dictator who was put down before he could destroy the Republic.

This makes history either infuriating or wonderfully fluid, depending on the kind of person you are.

Me, I’m just interested in what makes the better story. So, to me, Caesar is a time traveling cyborg trying to stop the evil Fourth Dimensional Wizard Pompey from gaining control of the S.E.N.A.T.E., a gestalt super-robot formed by 100 other robots.

Dylan Charles

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