Category Archives: History

The Yellow Day

I made the mistake of going outside today, so now all I can think about is how incredibly hot it is. For people who bask in warm weather, I suppose, it is not too miserable – but, for me, upper 80s at the end of September is more that I would hope for.

Mid-60s would do just fine.

If you’re wondering, the average high for Boston in September is a reasonable 73 degrees Fahrenheit. The record high, however, is a discomforting 102, achieved in 1881.

I was curious to learn more about that heat wave – hoping, perhaps, for some eloquently antiquated news paper articles on the subject.

Instead, I found something much more interesting. The record 102 temperature was reached on September 7, 1881 – the day after the “Yellow Day,” when “saffron curtain” mysteriously blanketed New England states.

It was eventually traced back to the great Thumb Fire of Michigan, one of the most devastating fires in that state’s history, burning over a million acres, but at the time, no one had any idea what was going on.

As the Boston Globe described:

Yesterday Boston was shrouded, and nature’s gloom soon infusing itself into the hearts of all made it a day long to be remembered, reminding one vividly of the famous dark day of years ago. About 7 O’Clock in the morning the golden pall shrouded the city in its embrace, and the weird unreal appearance continued throughout the day. As one approached a doorway from within and glanced out upon the sidewalk and street, it was difficult to dispel the illusion that an extensive conflagration was raging near, and that it was the yellow, gleaming light from the burning houses that produced the singular effect. Stepping to the sidewalk and glancing upward the roofs of the houses cut sharp and clear against the depths beyond.

A historian further described the eerie chromatic effects of the smoke:

The air became still, and calm, during that Tuesday, and people remarked about the odd tinge that colors took on as the day wore on.  Plants were particularly brilliant – the odd light sharpening their green and blue hues.  Lawns, usually a mundane green, took on brilliant color, and looked oddly bluish, in the day’s strange light.  Yellow objects appeared colorless and white, and the color in red objects popped, while blue objects became ghostly.  People in the street looked sickly and yellowish.  Overhead, birds flew low in the skies.

The event was particularly startling because professed Prophetess Mother Shipton had reportedly predicted some two centuries before:

The world to an end shall come,
In eighteen hundred and eighty one.

As far as I can tell, however, the world did not actually come to an end that day.

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Labor and Civics

Earlier this week, we celebrated Labor Day in the United States – a day which only became a national holiday in the wake of the Pullman Strike; a dark ordeal in which 30 American workers were killed by U.S. Federal Troops.

Of course, most of the world celebrates the contributions of labor on May 1 – International Worker’s Day. But that was a bit too radical for the American palate, so sensible moderates – such as President Grover Cleveland, who authorized the use of force against American civilians during the Pullman Strike – consolidated on the September date.

And now, as Americans celebrate the unofficial end of summer and try to remember rules about when it is appropriate to wear white, they are encouraged to also remember the contributions of the American worker and the progress made by labor unions. The 8-hour work day, the 5-day work week, safety in the work place; these are just a few of the things which labor unions have given us.

But the contributions of unions run deeper than that; indeed they are at the very core of our democracy.

In classical Greek thought, laborers could not be citizens. While there was surely an elitist air to this view, it was driven more directly by a practical belief: citizenship is work.

To be a citizen in the classic sense was not merely to be the recipient of certain guarantees and protections – e.g., rights of safety, security, and redress – it was to contribute wholly to the improvement and wellbeing of your society.

In a practical sense, a citizen could not engage in physical labor because he (yes, “he”) must devote his time and energy to the real work of citizenship. Any other vocation would reduce and ultimately remove his ability to work as a citizen.

Of course, such a view was also elitist and absurd – a society cannot function without laborers and a system in which laborers are excluded from citizenship automatically creates an irreparable class system.

But, on the other hand, the Greeks had a point: citizenship is work, and one cannot engage in that work if they are wholly consumed with other responsibilities.

Neither a person who has to work 3 jobs just to make ends meet nor a high-powered executive who responds to emails in the middle of the night will be in a position to contribute to the work of citizenship.

Labor unions provide protections for workers. They serve as collective bargaining units which give the collective of workers more power than a single worker alone. They provide a vital role in ensuring safe, just, and productive workplaces.

But more deeply, they provide the foundation for democratic engagement – both as a venue where every day people are empowered to share their voice, and as a tool for ensuring that people who work – most of us, quite frankly – have the space to engage in the hard work of citizenship.

In short, our democracy would not function without labor unions, and when we weaken them, we weaken our democracy.

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In Defense of DACA

“On June 15, 2012, the Secretary of Homeland Security announced that certain people who came to the United States as children and meet several guidelines may request consideration of deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal,” reads the website for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Consideration of deferred action for childhood arrivals, or DACA, has narrow guidelines as to whom is eligible: to qualify, you must have arrived in the US before the age of 16; you must have continually resided in the US for the past 10 years (since June 15, 2007); must be a student, high school graduate, or an honorably discharged veteran of the US armed services, and must not “pose a threat to national security or public safety.”

In short, DACA applies to people who have gone to American schools, contributed to American society, and who came to this country before they were even old enough to have a choice in the matter. They are students virtually indistinguishable from their classmates.

Many don’t even remember a time when they weren’t living in the U.S.

This is their home country.

There are many reasonable debates to have around immigration policy. We could talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which opens with the shockingly straightforward line:

Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof…

The Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Chester A. Arthur, represents the first time ethnic exclusion was explicitly stated in U.S. immigration law; justified merely by the flimsy fear of colonizing Europeans that Chinese residents endangered “the good order of certain localities.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed as the Geary Act in 1892 and made permanent another decade later. Incidentally, the Geary Act also expanded the language used; targeting any “Chinese person or person of Chinese descent.”

In 1943, in the midsts of World War II and after 60 years of virtually banning Chinese immigration, the Magnuson Act allowed for limited Chinese immigration and provided a path to citizenship for persons of Chinese descent living in the U.S. It did nothing, however, to address issues such as California’s Alien Land Law, which barred non-citizens from owning property. The full repercussions of the Chinese Exclusion Act weren’t legally addressed until the Magnuson Act itself was repealed in 1965; after eighty-three years of explicit discrimination.

In relaxing restrictions on Chinese immigration, the Magnuson Act brought Chinese immigration guides inline with another U.S. immigration bill, the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, or the Johnson-Reed Act.

This act, which introduced national-origin quotas, was designed to “preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity,” according the U.S. State Department’s Office of Historian. This act greatly restricted immigration of Italians, Eastern European Jews, and people from other Asian countries, most notably Japanese. Quotas were calculated in such a way as to have little effect on immigration from Western Europe.

The point of this history lesson is simple: the United States has a long history of racist, exclusionary immigration policies designed to favor that amorphous group of “people like us.” For all our talk of a melting pot and the American dream, where any child – any child – can grow up to succeed – we have long merely shrugged while endorsing policies with the clear message, we conquered here first.

There is so much I would change about U.S. immigration policy if I could. I find myself generally inclined to agree with Peter Singer’s argument that it is time to abandon the constructed narrative of a national community in favor of conceptualizing ourselves as members of a global community.

But the plan to end DACA, to end legal protections for over 800,000 people who have grown up in this country, goes beyond philosophical debates about what immigration is or ought to mean. It is straight up unconscionable. These are our friends and neighbors. They are members of our community.

Quite simply, in the most robust sense possible: this is their country, too.

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Now We Are All Sons of —

On July 16, 1945, 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, the world’s first nuclear weapon was detonated at 5:29 am.

The test was code-named Trinity by J. Robert Oppenheimer. There is no definitive explanation for why Oppenheimer chose the name, but it is widely believed to be a reference to John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God.

Oppenheimer had previously been introduced to Donne’s work by his mistress, Jean Tatlock, before she committed suicide the year before Trinity.

Donne’s poem reads:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you 
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; 
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend 
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. 
I, like an usurp’d town to another due, 
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end; 
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, 
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue. 
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain, 
But am betroth’d unto your enemy; 
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, 
Take me to you, imprison me, for I, 
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, 
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Upon witnessing the detonation, Oppenheimer recalled being inspired by a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

It is unclear whether Oppenheimer actually uttered those words in the early morning hours of July 16, so perhaps the most memorial line from that day goes to another scientist on the project, director Kenneth Bainbridge:

Now we are all sons of bitches.

In a letter to Oppenheimer, Bainbridge later tried to clarify his words:

The reasons for my statement were complex but two predominated. I was saying in effect that we had all worked hard to complete a weapon which would shorten the war but posterity would not consider that phase of it and would judge the effort as the creation of an unspeakable weapon by unfeeling people. I was also saying that the weapon was terrible and those who contributed to its development must share in any condemnation of it. Those who object to the language certainly could not have lived at Trinity for any length of time.

In the May 1975 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Bainbridge shares Oppenheimer’s reply:

Years later [Oppenheimer] recalled my words and wrote me, “We do not have to explain them to anyone.” I think I will always respect his statement, although there have been some imaginative people who somehow can’t or won’t put the statement in context and get the whole interpretation. Oppenheimer told my younger daughter in 1966 that it was the best thing anyone said after the test.

In the same article, Bainbridge describes the detonation in careful detail:

The bomb detonated at T = 0 = 5:29:45 a.m. I felt the heat on the back of my neck, disturbingly warm. Much more light was emitted by the bomb than predicted, the only important prediction which was off by a good factor. When the reflected flare died down, I looked at Oscuro Peak which was nearer Zero. When the reflected light diminished there I looked directly at the ball of fire through the googles. Finally I could remove the goggles and watch the ball of fire rise rapidly. It was surrounded by a huge cloud of transparent purplish air produced in part by the radiations from the bomb and its fission products. No one who saw it could forget it, a foul and awesome display.

A few weeks later, the United States dropped atomic weapons on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki; shaking the world with their devastation.

The U.S. won the war, but the horrors unleashed by humanity that day can never be put back in the box. We made something great and terrible; a remarkable tribute to the accomplishments of science and tragic testament to the destructive power of mankind.

Now we are all sons of bitches indeed.

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The Sleep of Reason

I recently ran across Francisco Goya’s 1799 etching, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos: “the sleep of reason produces monsters.”

The piece is housed by the Met, where it is described as follows:

This is the best known image from Goya’s series of 80 aquatint etchings published in 1799 known as ‘Los Caprichos’ that are generally understood as the artist’s criticism of the society in which he lived. Goya worked on the series from around 1796-98 and many drawings for the prints survive. The inscription on the preparatory drawing for this print, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid, indicates that it was originally intended as the title page to the series. In the published edition, this print became plate 43, the number we can see in the top right corner. Nevertheless, it has come to symbolise the overall meaning of the series, what happens when reason is absent. Various animals including bats and owls fly above the sleeping artist, and at the lower right a lynx watches vigilantly alerting us to the rise of monstrous forces that we are able to control when sleep descends.

It feels deeply appropriate for modern times, an apt critique of our current world.

The sleep of reason produces monsters.

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Everyone is Talented

László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian artist who joined the Bauhaus as a professor in 1923, was known for his philosophy that “everyone is talented.”

By this, he meant that, “every human being is open to sense impressions, tone, color, touch,spatial experience, etc. The structure of a life is predetermined in these sensibilities. But only art – creation through the senses – can develop the these dormant, native faculties towards creative action.”

Moholy-Nagy further argued that “any health man can become a musician, painter, sculptor, or architect, just as when he speaks he is a ‘speaker’.”

As Éva Forgács describes in her book, Hungarian Art, this philosophy was similar to the post-expressionist view of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. In his Bauhaus Manifesto, Gropius argued, that “art cannot be taught.” That’s not to say that art is an intrinsic skill relegated to a select few, but rather that “the world of the pattern designer and the applied artist must become a world that builds again.”

As Forgács argues, both artists’ philosophies replaced the classic concept of “the artist who expresses individual concerns” with “the vision of a new type of creative man who was more of an engineer and designer of the world.”

If art cannot be taught, it not because some people are unable to learn, but rather art should be more accurately seen as a way of living and existing in the world.

This vision is strikingly similar to that of deliberative democrats; of John Dewey’s claim that “democracy is a way of living.” A philosopher and educator, Dewey was an American contemporary of the Bauhaus, which perhaps points more generally to the egalitarian optimism of the interwar period.

After the ruinous war to end all wars, our world needed to be rebuilt – a task that could not be left to the same aristocratic interests which had led us down the path to global conflict. We needed to rebuild the world. And we – each and every one of us – had the ability to do it.

Forgács concludes that “Moholy-Nagy ultimately believed that the world of artistic creation would not remain restricted, and as a natural course of development, every imaginative individual in the future would own it.”

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Isotta Nogarola

Isotta Nogarola was a great one of the great female humanists of the Renaissance.

Born to a wealthy family in Verona, Nogarola was trained in the humanist arts – as was the custom for aristocratic men and women of the day.

Women, however, were expected to do little with their training but be personally enriched to that they may later similarly enrich their own children.

Nogarola, however, sought to further enrich the humanist field by entering into scholarly correspondence with some of the leading humanists in Italy.

Her letters drew scorn from the greater public. There is a long history in the Western world of women being excluded from the public sphere; of being silenced and branded as unclean if they dare speak up.

Nogarola was no exception – rumors spread that she was a prostitute, and that she had engaged in incest.

The reasoning for these rumors?

An eloquent women is never chaste.

 

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Economics of Matching

A canonical problem in graph theory is that of matching – pairing people (or nodes) based on mutual preference. The classic example of this – framed, unfortunately, in a cis-heteronormative way – is known as the marriage problem. Assuming knowledge of the whole population, men have a ranked-order list of appropriate female partners and women similarly make a ranked-order list of appropriate male partners. The question then, is can we, as an all-knowing mathematician, make a matching in which no non-matched (opposite sex) pair would prefer to be with each other than with the partners they are matched with?

The mathematical solution to “stable marriage matching” is elegant, and worth at some point a post of its own. But for the moment, I was recently struck by the economic implications of this problem. That is, I had always considered it from the vantage point of the all-knowing observer, with the implicit understanding that such scope of vision is what makes the solution possible.

Roth’s 2008 article, What have we learned from market design?, brings a new perspective to the market failures that can result from the lack of such global coordination. Because it’s such an interesting story, I include below a long excerpt describing the history of today’s residency-matching program for medical school graduates:

The first job American doctors take after graduating from medical school is called a residency. These jobs are a big part of hospitals’ labor force, a critical part of physicians’ graduate education, and a substantial influence on their future careers. From 1900 to 1945, one way that hospitals competed for new residents was to try to hire residents earlier than other hospitals. This moved the date of appointment earlier, first slowly and then quickly, until by 1945 residents were sometimes being hired almost two years before they would graduate from medical school and begin work.

When I studied this in Roth (1984) it was the first market in which I had seen this kind of “unraveling” of appointment dates, but today we know that unraveling is a common and costly form of market failure. What we see when we study markets in the process of unraveling is that offers not only become increasingly early, but also become dispersed in time and of increasingly short duration. So not only are decisions being made early (before uncertainty is resolved about workers’ preferences or abilities), but also quickly, with applicants having to respond to offers before they can learn what other offers might be forthcoming. Efforts to prevent unraveling are venerable, for example Roth and Xing (1994) quote Salzman (1931) on laws in various English market from the 13th century concerning “forestalling” a market by transacting before goods could be offered in the market.

In 1945, American medical schools agreed not to release information about students before a specified date. This helped control the date of the market, but a new problem emerged: hospitals found that if some of the first offers they made were rejected after a period of deliberation, the candidates to whom they wished to make their next offers had often already accepted other positions. This led hospitals to make exploding offers to which candidates had to reply immediately, before they could learn what other offers might be available, and led to a chaotic market that shortened in duration from year to year, and resulted not only in missed agreements but also in broken ones. This kind of congestion also has since been seen in other markets, and in the extreme form it took in the American medical market by the late 1940’s, it also constitutes a form of market failure (cf. Roth and Xing 1997, and Avery, Jolls, Roth, and Posner 2007 for detailed accounts of congestion in labor markets in psychology and law). Faced with a market that was working very badly, the various American medical associations (of hospitals, students, and schools) agreed to employ a centralized clearinghouse to coordinate the market. After students had applied to residency programs and been interviewed, instead of having hospitals make individual offers to which students had to respond immediately, students and residency programs would instead be invited to submit rank order lists to indicate their preferences. That is, hospitals (residency programs) would rank the students they had interviewed, students would rank the hospitals (residency programs) they had interviewed, and a centralized clearinghouse — a matching mechanism — would be employed to produce a matching from the preference lists. Today this centralized clearinghouse is called the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP).

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On Violence and Protest

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the role of violence in social movements. Such violence could take many forms, from punching nazis to property damage.

Conventional wisdom among the mainstream left is that such violence isn’t a good tactic: not only is morally problematic, it is typically unsuccessful.

In his biography of Gandhi, Bhikhu Parekh describes Gandhi’s utility argument against violence, which went hand in hand with his moral argument against violence:

Gandhi further argued that violence rarely achieved lasting results. An act of violence was deemed to be successful when it achieved its immediate objectives. However, if it were to be judged by its long-term consequences, our conclusion would have to be very different. Every apparently successful act of violence encouraged the belief that it was the only effective way to achieve the desired goal, and developed the habit of using violence every time ran into opposition. Society thus became used to it and never felt compelled to explore an alternative. Violence also tended to generate an inflammatory spiral. Every successful use blunted the community’s moral sensibility and raised its threshold of violence, so that over time an increasingly larger amount became necessary to achieve the same results.

There are some compelling points in that argument, but it fails to address the larger question: is violence never a justifiable means for social change, either morally or pragmatically?

After all, Gandhi’s level of commitment to non-violence may not be the example we want to follow. In an extreme example of pacifism, Gandhi wrote of Jews in World War II Germany:

And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring [Jews] an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can…The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.

In contrast to Gandhi’s view, there are many reasons to think violence in response to genocide may be permissible – or should even be encouraged.

My friend Joshua Miller recently reflected on this question, writing:

…in many ways, the canonization of Gandhi and Martin Luther King have served to create an artificial standard of non-violence that no social movement can ever really achieve and that neither the Civil Rights movement nor the Indian independence movement actually achieved. Plus, if violent repression by the police goes unmentioned in the media but activist violence becomes a regular topic of debate, then it will appear that the only violence is coming from the activists. 

I particularly appreciate his insight regarding the ‘canonization’ of Gandhi and King – they both deserve praise for their work and impacts, but we tend to enshrine them as peaceful activists who could do no wrong; who should be emulated at all costs. Malcolm X, on the other hand, is pushed by the wayside, his story is less told. Yet he did have an important and lasting impact on the American civil rights movement; could King’s pacifism have succeeded without Malcom X’s radicalism?

I have no easy answers to these question; indeed, such easy answers do not exist. But I think we owe it to ourselves to think through these questions – is violent protest ever morally justified? If it can be morally justified at times, is it ever pragmatically justified? Do our collective memories of history really capture what happened, or do we tell ourselves a simpler, softer story – do we only remember the way we wish it had happened?

Perhaps, as Camus wrote, there is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.

 

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Social Movements and Leadership

In his autobiography, appropriately titled The Long Haul, activist and educator Myles Horton writes about the leadership of social movements. While great charismatic leaders serve an important galvanizing role and go down in history as the leader of the movement, the real power of a social moment is that it multiplies leadership – it turns the people themselves into leaders.

He tells the story of a elderly black woman who started a Citizen School. She heard the idea somewhere, figured it out, and taught a few other people how to do it as well. She had no idea Citizen Schools were happening all over. It was simply an idea which she could pick up and make her own. Horton writes:

It’s only in a movement that an idea is often made simple enough and direct enough that I can spread rapidly. Then your leadership multiplies very rapidly, because there’s something explosive going on. Please see that other people not so different from themselves do things that they thought could never be done. They’re emboldened and challenged by that step into the water, and once the get in the water, it’s as if they’ve never not been there.

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