Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Democracy Takes Hard Work

While sifting through my postings from earlier this semester I came upon something that I think really sums up some of my views on Democracy after our semester-long discussion of what democracy truly means in America. I've reposted it here, as I think it serves as a good reminder to us all whenever ''the going gets tough''and we feel discouraged.

"When we expect liberty and justice to appear miraculously, like fast food, without more rigorous forms of participation, definition, and sacrifice, we are like farmers who curse the dirt and pray for rain, but "want crops without plowing the ground. Yet some people are already plowing" (Stout 289-290).

This quote comes from Jeffrey Stout's book Blessed are the Organized Like so many of the authors we have been reading this semester (Putnam, Tocqueville, to name a few) Stout calls for the need for association and mobilization of the populace towards a grassroots democracy. This quote was a great analogy for me: it compared the democratic ideals we are striving for to farming, and reminded me of how it takes hard work in order to get somewhere. We cannot just expect that things will happen overnight and on an individual level we all need to put in the effort and sacrifice to see it succeed. However, first we must "plow the ground" and lay the foundation in order to see it succeed.

Symbolism Inherent in Transformation Spurred by Westward Expansion

As Neihart writes in Black Elk Speaks, "During the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cutting the hair, together with the change to Euro-American style clothing, was symbolic of Lakota men's acceptance of the white men's way of life. When boys attended school their braids were shorn away, their hair was cut short, and they could no longer wear breechcloths and blankets. By the 1930s, only a few men refused to cut their hair. They were called "long hairs," a term that designated not merely their hairstyle but their orientation to traditional Lakota culture" (xxi). This footnote provides interesting insight into the life of the Lakotas, and in the extinction of much of their culture in the face of westward expansion of the European settlers. Their hair was an integral part of their identity and so losing their hair, after already being forced to conceed their land, was the last heartbreak for many of these Indians. Furthermore I think it's important to note how this practice occurred primarily in schools--something that would generally be seen as surprising today, given the uproar in many countries like America and the United States about freedom of expression to wear headscarves and other religious or culturally-designated items or practices. Nonetheless, though many Lakotas felt that they lost the last shred of their identity with the cutting of their hair a few resisted the Western influence, and those "long hairs" are still remembered to this day. Regardless though this is yet another aspect of native american lifestyle that was forced to go to the wayside when confronted by Western expansion.

Bin Laden through Walt Whitman's Eyes

As I wrote in Democratic Vistas, "it may be, a single new thought, imagination, abstract principle, even literary style ..and projected among mankind, may duly cause changes, growths, removals, greater than the longest and bloodiest war, or the most stupendous merely political, dynastic, or commercial overturn" (761). Personally I find it so intriguing to see the effects that Bin Laden has had upon the American psyche. Children who have grown up since 2001 believe that the intensive screening practices at airports are normal, and live in a heightened state of fear regarding terrorist attacks that had never existed before. Bin Laden and his subsequent death have powerfully shaped people's perceptions about America today, impacting their beliefs about safety, acceptability of wiretapping and increasing worries. One single man is seen (though perhaps mistakenly) at the root cause of it all, and so for this reason many people naturally rejoice in light of his death.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Reactions to A Country's Troubled History

In conjunction with the pronoun use that we discussed in AmCon this past week I was reminded of something that we have been talking about in Social Psychology looking at groups. We have been looking at ingroup attitudes and actions, and learned about how since the aftermath of Nazi Germany Germans sing only one verse of their national anthem, and sing it only at sporting events. This stems from the shame that the country still feels for the actions of Hitler and others responsible for the Holocaust. I also found this interesting in light of how patriotic America is; in our country our loyalty to our nation and the principles upon which it is founded (freedom, democracy, equality amongst our nation's many grand ideals) are an immense source of pride and expressing that through our own anthem and other patriotic acts are vital to bringing all of us together, uniting us as Americans. Given my own experiences as an American citizen it is interesting to learn that Germany doesn't have anything like that, having lost it since the Holocaust--though it clearly makes sense in light of the nations' history.

Guilt from our Predecessors Passed-Down

In our section of AmCon this week we had an interesting discussion about something that I have always found curious. While discussing Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt many of us used the pronoun "we" when referring to the European settlers who oppressed the Native American people. Someone commented upon this trend and we had a discussion about it. I have always found this to be an interesting trend amongst Americans today. It can be so easy to use "we" rather than "they"--why do we fall into this pattern? As Zoe rightly pointed out, today we as Americans really have little to no more relation to the European settlers than to the Native Americans. So why do we say "we" oppressed "them"? One of the things that I think plays a powerful role in fostering this tendency is the way in which we are taught American history in schools today. As far back as elementary school I can remember talking about the Native Americans and that it is more often taught using these same pronouns--therefore as a country and an education system our society is almost conditioning students into adopting this mindset. However, as this discussion reminded me, it is important to remember that this is not really the way things were. Americans today should not label them as "we"; rather when discussing the events of our past should say "they" because really American citizens today really had no impact on the oppression.

Though we can feel badly that the oppression of the Native Americans occurred we cannot (and should not) lump ourselves together with them because in reality the European settlers are no more related to us than the Native Americans and we should not take responsibility for their actions.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Don't Let the Bastards Scare You

One of the lines that I found particularly memorable in Dan Rather’s speech earlier this week was to “not let the ‘bastards’ scare you”. He was referring to the government and heads of news agencies that exerted pressure on him and other reporters to censor what they said or to skew the story in a certain manner. Rather acknowledged that a reporter (and people in virtually any line of work) can meet bastards “anywhere and at any time, but that ‘they’ should not discourage ‘us’”. I found this to be particularly moving. His use of ‘they’ and ‘us’ drew us together as a collective with him, which was a powerful tool in his speech. His acknowledgement that we will all face ‘bastards’ who tell us we can’t do something or shouldn’t. We are not alone in the fight, it is something that people all over the country are facing (and in our nation’s history have faced) against those who want to benefit from the system in unfair ways—whether that be from discrimination, censorship, or merely preventing us from pursuing our passions for their own monetary gains or personal satisfaction. I found this to be incredibly inspirational, and it was something that I will definitely take with me for comfort that I am not alone when I face adversity in my own life.

The Need for Relationships and the Expression of Gratitude in Our Lives

When Dan Rather mentioned in his speech that he has been married to his wife for almost fifty-four years, I have to admit I was surprised. That is a long time. Especially when compared to today’s statistic that almost fifty percent of marriages will end in divorce. Clearly Rather and his wife must be doing something right. A key thing to relationships is helping one another grow. In Prager's book Happiness is a Serious Problem: A Human Repair Manual the author talked about the need for relationships in order to be happy. Looking specifically at romantic relationships he said that we seek them out because we find meaning in fulfilling others’ needs. The bond found in intimate relationships is like no other.

In Rather’s case his relationship with his wife has clearly played a key role in his life. For example even look at the story he told at the beginning of his speech about the trip his wife decided they needed to make to her hometown. She felt Rather’s accomplishments were going to his head and efforts needed to be made to make him more humble. When Rather commented that if she had married her high school sweetheart she could have ended up helping to manage his convenience station she had a great response. She said something to the effect of “no, if I had ended up marrying him he would have ended up as the talk host for Good Morning America”. Dan Rather and his wife reminded me of how relationships are there to provide us with support and to give us the feeling that we are needed by somebody else. For Rather they help to keep him humble and for all of us can serve as means of growth and maturity.

Also, we must remember to appreciate what we have. The fact we live in America, something that we so often take for granted, is something to be thankful for. We live in a democracy where our voice can be heard and every citizen granted a right to vote. Rather told us that we should also express thanks for the incredible opportunity to go to St. Olaf. Sure things are not perfect at our school or in our country but they could be so much worse. For that we must always be fortunate.

News in Rather's Eyes

Something Petra brought up in class on Friday was a quote she liked from Dan Rather's speech. It was that "News in it's best definition is something you need to know that someone in higher power doesn't want you to know."

I think this definitely holds true today. Living in a world where radio, TV and newspapers are collectively owned by 4-6 companies within their market we must be even more careful that we rely upon honest and unbiased sources of journalism. It can be hard but the news is the backbone of both democracy and freedom, the best way and sometimes only option for citizens to evaluate if the nation's leaders and laws are serving his or her best interests and change them if needed. It is more than just interesting or meeting curiosity.

The news is the raw material of freedom & democracy. Furthermore though stories like the royal wedding can be interesting we definitely have issues with our priorities when coverage of Prince William and Kate Middleton gets 11 whole minutes of coverage while pressing issues such as the war in Iraq get less than 11 seconds in a broadcast. Entertainment, though definitely something we, and I know I definitely for sure enjoy should not overwhelm news like it does. Wars and issues half the globe away matter. After all, as Rather said "we live in serious times. That means you and me folks. But nonetheless there is always causes for optimism; history is filled with obstacles overcome but without correct and complete information its hard to come by."

Chasing Your Dreams

In addition to his statement that we will all face bastards in our own lives, (though each person’s might wear different disguises), Dan Rather spoke movingly about following your passions. This is something we have talked about extensively in one of my classes here at St. Olaf, Images of Wellness. As Rather urged, follow your dreams. If you have one passion, one specific dream, follow it until it dies out. In particular I found the raw emotion he put into his voice with these words to make me really pay attention.

Rather spoke with such emphasis and enthusiasm in his advice that it really made me listen and take his wisdom to heart. Oftentimes a potential career or even unpaid volunteer opportunity can give your life fulfillment and meaning, which in turn reaps both happiness as well as the feeling that one is truly making a difference in the world. No matter if a salary is low or high or a dream seems virtually impossible it is so important to try. Several of the authors we have read this semester in my Images of Wellness class include Prager and Kushner in Happiness is a Serious Problem and Living a Life that Matters respectively have stated this point many times throughout their books. It has come up in our class many times as well. As Rather said, ‘follow it until it dies out’, because after-all enthusiasm for life is what makes each of us come alive and find happiness and fulfillment , leading a life of personal wellness. I will not forget Rather’s words or those of Prager or Kushner, and their wisdom fuels me with extra incentive to pursue a future which I am passionate about, and to follow any dreams until they die out.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Transcendental Wild Oats: Grand Ideas vs. Rationality: Living in the Dual Land of Imagination and Reality

Today we discussed a reading from Louisa May Alcott, entitled "Transcendental Oats". In her piece, described as a 'biting satire on life in a 19th century Utopian community' she provides an interesting perspective on Transcendentalism. She contrasts possiblities with practicality, or grand ideas vs. rationality in a Transcendentalist community. In her piece she contrasts the father who is the dreamer with infinite ideas and the intellectual in the family with his wife, the practical one of the two who sees what needs to be done to keep things going in their daily lives like meals and housing. I think this passage sums it up quite nicely:

"'Each member is to perform the work for which experience, strength, and taste best fit him,' continued Dictator Lion. 'Thus drudgery and disorder will be avoided and harmony prevail... Each one finds congenial occupation till the meridian meal; when some deep-searching conversation gives rest to the body and development of the mind. Healthful labor again engages us till teh last meal, when we assemble in social communion, prolonged till sunset, when we retire to sweet repose, ready for the next day's activity'" (5).

In theory this all sounds great, right? Every person is supposed to do the jobs which he or she is best skilled for and which fits his or her interest. This in turn will prevent boredom, and get everything accomplished, and in the end of the day all can engage in thoughful conversation which will foster thought and growth in all citizens. However, this clearly has some problems as Alcott points out...

As one citizen asks, "'What part of the work do you incline to yourself?'[said Sister Hope], with a humorous glimmer in her keen eyes. 'I shall wait till it is made clear to me. Being in preference to doing is the great aim, and this comes to us rather by a resigned willingness than a wilful activity, which is a check to all divine growth,' responded Brother Timon. 'I thought so.' And Mrs. Lam sighed audibly, for during the year he had spent in her family Brother Timon had so faithfully carried out his idea of 'being, not doing', that she had found his 'divine growth' both an expensive and unsatisfactory process. Here her husband struck into conversation, his face shining with the light and joy of the splendid dreams nad high ideals hovering before him" (5).

This passage demonstrates so clearly the issues found in a community where many of the men focus on the infinite possibilites, the theoretical, ignoring the practical needs of daily subsistence. For this reason the man's wife is forced to do the daily chores, yet receives little to no recognition for her work, while these men sit by 'waiting for a revelation of divine growth' to come to them. For these reasons though the description of the community above may sound great in theory but clearly is unfair and unrealistic in practice. Sometimes imagination must be sacrificed in need for the more pressing needs of food and lodging.

Transcendentalists and Change in Society Today

When were talking about Transcendentalism and our assigned reading, "On Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau on Wednesday, we talked about our ideas about what transcendentalism really was. One of the things we agreed upon was that Transcendentalists in the time of HDt comprised a small group in society, which had high optimism about an individual's power to accomplish much in the face of the masses.

This reminded me of a popular quote from American Anthropologist Margaret Meade: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

I think this quote is essentially the definition of Transcendentalists at the time, and also reminded me that even when it seems like change is impossible and the individual can do nothing that really isn't the case. You can always do something, and that is far better than to be a bystander, not directly responsible for the nation's issues but not contributing to their improvement either.

Language Use: Don't Intend to Offend, But It All Depends on the Listener

In class today we talked about how in many instances people do not intend to offend others in their language use, even telling others not to take offense by preceding what they say with the phrase "don't take offense". Nonetheless though it is easy to forget that despite a warning not to 'take offense', it's really all in the eyes of the beholder and he or she still may take offense.

This came up from a passage in Alcott's Transcendentalist Wild Oats, in reference to the part where she writes that "One youth, believing that language was of little consequence if the spirit was only right, startled new-comers by blandly greeting them with 'Good-morning, damn you' and other remarks of an equally mixed order" (8).

This reminded me of how in middle school health my class was told that though many of us thought that swearing was "cool" but that the people who also swear won't notice if we did (because they do it too), and the only people who would really notice were those who took offense, so that honestly there really was no status elevation found in swearing.

It also reminded me of how many people will say "don't take offense", but then are surprised to find the listener does, in fact, take offense. In these instances it seems important to remember that what matters most in the end is not your intent but rather how it's perceived by the listener. After all, in the end that's what counts. A good reminder for us all, I think.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Indians and the Railroad

I was definitely horrified to read Native Americans and the Transcontinental Railroad. It was interesting to read about how the railroad contributed to the escalating conflict between white settlers and the Native Americans. I thought the fact that they wanted to "exterminate" the Indians though was crazy. The whole thing seemed very violent, such as this: "In 1868 a group of Sioux created a more intense blockade, upturning both rails and piling wooden ties in between them, then tying the whole thing together with telegraph wire. The resulting wreck killed two crewmen, one of whom was crushed beneath the train's boiler (1)" The visual imagery I get in my head reading about the crewman who was crushed beneath the train was honestly kind've disturbing. This is one of those moments in history, much like Nazi Germany or the Japanese Internment that is almost hard to imagine actually happened.

I Don't Feel Like Dancin'

I Don't Feel Like Dancin' is a song I really enjoy by the Scissor Sisters. It's one of those unique pump-up songs that really gets me going in the morning. It's also a song that is one of my best friends back home's favorites. It reminds me of many of my memories from back home too, which is a plus. Here it is, if you haven't heard it before:

More Thoughts on Thoreau

I present you with another quote I liked from Thoreau:

"We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep" (4).

I thought this was cool. I am always invigorated by imagining the possiblities in life, enthused about planning for my future and how that relates to the moment that we are in now. What can I get out of today that will help me in the future? Thinking about the many possiblities keeps me enthused about life as I go about my daily tasks.

Thoreau on Early Mornings

Personally I really like early mornings (as long as I get an adequate amount of sleep the night before). On the weekends I almost always wake up for breakfast, and get there by 9:30 (I know, it's weird. Trust me, my friends like to joke about it but that's okay.). Usually I am one of the few people in the Caf in the mornings and eat by myself in one of the booths. I actually kind've enjoy this because it provides some time for reflection. I also like the fact that each day is a new beginning, and even if yesterday didn't go as well as I had planned (I didn't get as much homework done as I wanted to, or didn't get the chance to see a friend) this is another chance to do it. In a sense these new beginnings energize me.

For this reason I particularly enjoyed parts of Thoreau's Where I Lived and What I Lived For.

In the passage he writes, "Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself" and "Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again (5)" These two sentences in particular really resonated with me. I liked how he phrased that each morning was "a cheerful invitation" to create a life of simplicity, and that each day was something that you could renew yourself in. Yes there is the repetition of one day coming after the previous but each day is a new chance. A new opportunity. And I love that.

And for that reason I get up early.

Thoughts on Thoreau

Something I didn't really understand when reading Thoreau's Where I Lived and What I Lived For earlier this afternoon was the following: "But I would say to my fellows, once for all, As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail (1)" Perhaps he was talking about the idea that one shouldn't devote too much effort (or commit too much) to one thing, but the comparison of a farm to the county jail seemed odd to me. Also, I've always thought commitments were a good thing. I mean, in high school I was always encouraged to commit to several activities that I found meaningful and spend time on those, rather than spreading myself over many activities and making less of a difference. Does anyone else have insight on this? Maybe I'm just not reading it right.

An Intriguing Example of the Power of Blogging

DeAne recently told me about a great article that demonstrated the power that blogging can have. It serves as a reminder that when one worries that one's blogging is useless musings that no one really reads them that is not always the case.
In the article, titled The Vast Virtual Body of Christ: Cancer Patient Deanna Thompson on the Beauty of the Internet the author wrote about how internet postings both provided a source of reflection upon her struggle with cancer, as well as provoking thought (and subsequent action) in a coworker. As she writes, "My colleague wrote about my postings on Caring Bridge and about how my journey with cancer–and along with it, my struggles with my own faith–had become a source of inspiration to her. Spurred on by my story, she had even gone out on a limb and attempted to pray herself (1)" I thought this was awesome. So cool to see the power of blogging!

Anyways, I found this to be a very thought-provoking article. I really encourage you to take a look.

Read more:

Monday, March 28, 2011

Interesting Connection to Tocqueville...

I was pleasantly surprised to find a connection to Tocqueville's Democracy In America in one of our readings for Wednesday about the Hudson River School, the first native school of art in the United States. When Tocqueville was in America he did not witness the "American identification with nature" (1).

In fact writer Kathleen Hogan points out,"he thought that nature was primarily a European concern, of no interest to Americans," writing that "Europeans think a lot about the wild, open spaces of America, but the Americns themselves hardly give them a thought" (1). This is an interesting idea; I hadn't thought of that.

However, Hogan says that Tocqueville's opinion is not accurate--for two glaring facts. She points out the following: "First, the Hudson River School had come into being to great critical and popular acclaim five years before Tocqueville arrived in the United States and ten years before Democracy in America was published" and second, "these images and images like them were not solely the intellectual property of the cultural elite but were widely disseminated throughout the public through their publication in newspapers, the mass production of prints and as illustrations in American novels such as the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper, which concerned themselves, at least in part with the place of nature in the American experience" (1).

I found this an interesting read, particularly in how Hogan disagrees with Tocqueville's assessment of America, as well as the surprising ties between the reading to something we discussed in length earlier this semester.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Are All Activities Equal in Developing Social Capital?

One of the things I have been wrestling with throughout our discussion of Putnam's Social Capital is whether all activities are truly equal in their generation of social capital. Do a boy scouts group and a Facebook group promoting awareness, discussion and contributions for Hurricane Katrina damage really generate equal amounts of social capital?

I would argue no. Boy scouts promotes life-long skills, working in groups, leadership and social skills; the Facebook group for Hurricane Katrina (though very admirable and a needy cause) is a one-time thing and one which doesn't force the participant to go beyond writing a check, making a comment on the page or just joining the group. It still has a lot of merit, but cannot do as much to generate community in the real world beyond a computer screen. Afterall, "Social capital refers to the collective value of all "social networks" [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other ["norms of reciprocity"]" (Better Together 1); clearly a Facebook page can contribute to this as a social network, and fosters inclinations to help those affected by Katrina. Nonetheless, it is not doing as much as a boy scouts group, nor does it have the benefits from being a group that meets regularly like a boy scouts group.

Therefore does the difference in benefits from these activities need to be something that is discussed when we're looking at the idea of Social Capital? I'd argue yes.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Internet: Social Capital or Not?

In Bowling Alone Putnam expresses the viewpoint that social networking websites do not create social capital, a viewpoint that many teens today disagree with (myself included), since it can be a great way to organize people and spread awareness. Admittedly though I do have to say that social networking websites, though generators of social capital definitely pale in the quality of social interaction they foster. Afterall, in order to gain social skills one honestly needs the face-to-face interaction that bowling leagues, churches, boy scouts and other groups provide.

However, I found it interesting when reading the article for Friday which further defined Putnam's term of Social Capital, (linked below). On the Better Together website the organization cited "e-mail exchanges among members of a cancer support group" (1) as an example of generating social capital. I wonder if this contradicts Putnam's argument, considering its similarities to the communication found on social networking sites like Facebook. Personally, given my own ideas about Facebook being included in Social Capital I think email exchanges should be included too. This example makes one stop and think: is this social capital? Who's right?

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Democracy: Not like Jelly

According to Alinsky Democracy is "a way of life, not a formula to be 'preserved' like jelly." I agree with this quotation. I think Democracy is more a mentality, a way of living out your life. It is a dedication to freedom and equality for everyone. And as Stout says in his piece "Blessed are the Organized", one cna really only do this and exert strength and change by forming groups. Alone each of us has little say, but together our voices are much more powerful.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Democracy in America Today

"When we expect liberty and justice to appear miraculously, like fast food, without more rigorous forms of participation, definition, and sacrifice, we are like farmers who curse the dirt and pray for rain, but "want crops without plowing the ground. Yet some people are already plowing" (Stout 289-290).

This quote comes from Jeffrey Stout's book Blessed are the Organized Like so many of the authors we have been reading this semester (Putnam, Tocqueville, to name a few) Stout calls for the need for association and mobilization of the populace towards a grassroots democracy. This quote was a great analogy for me: it compared the democratic ideals we are striving for to farming, and reminded me of how it takes hard work in order to get somewhere. We cannot just expect that things will happen overnight and on an individual level we all need to put in the effort and sacrifice to see it succeed. However, first we must "plow the ground" and lay the foundation in order to see it succeed.

On a side-note this quote also seemed applicable to college. Students (myself included), want to get the best possible grades but soon learn that in order to do that a considerable amount of sustained effort is required. It doesn't just require the want to do well but the effort and motivation to do the day-to-day work and effective study habits which leads to success.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Implications for Paying Attention

The idea of paying attention can have some interesting implications. As Petra mentioned in-class, it is often so rare to find someone who, when you talk to them really pays attention to what you say. Frequently people are focused on what they plan to say next, or worrying about other things or one's surroundings. For this reason we tend to gravitate towards those who we feel really listen to what we say. Everyone loves to be heard, right?
In addition to being appreciated by others as a good listener and friend, we also can find implications for focus in other areas, too. As Bellah writes about moments of true attention in Democracy Means Paying Attention, "And even though they are moments of minimal self-consciousness and their purpose is not to maximize pleasure, it is in such moments that we are most likely to be genuinely happy" (254). Though attention's primary goal is not maximizing happiness and pleasure or ameliorating self-consciousness, these can be great by-products of effective use of one's attention span. Afterall, when we aren't worried about how we look or act to others we can focus on the tasks or people at hand and just enjoy ourselves.
However, to cultivate good focus high self-control and self-discipline are required, which is not always an easy task in the world we live in, where multi-tasking is often the norm.

Paying Attention

I really enjoyed the Democracy Means Paying Attention article. I found it to be instantly relatable to my own life, because so often I have found that when I am able to devote my attention to a task fully virtually everything becomes so much more interesting (even if it's something I find really difficult or boring, like math homework). As Bellah writes, "When we are giving our full attention to something, when we are really attending, we are calling on all our resources of intelligence, feeling, and moral sensitivity" (254).
Maybe this has something to do with it.. after all, "At such moments, we are not thinking about ourselves, because we are completely absorbed in what we are doing". In the moments when we are able to focus solely upon what's in front of us, rather than stressing about the pile of homework we have left, the fatigue from not getting enough sleep last night or the argument we had with a friend earlier we are able to fully attend to the immediate and immerse ourselves into it. Thus it makes sense why when we are able to pay attention to something fully it becomes much more interesting (and often easier) than we first assumed.

Monday, February 28, 2011

A Different View of Criminals

When I reread the passage on the Criminal that Chris was talking about in-class I was reminded of an interesting quote that I had marked in my book.

"In Europe the criminal is a luckless man fighting to save his head from the authorities; in a sense the population are mere spectators of the struggle. In America he is an enemy of the human race--and every human being is against him" (96). These are two starkly different views on the criminal in Europe and the United States, as described by Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America.

However, there is reasons for this. The United States is markedly different from France. As Tocqueville states, "The criminal police in the United States cannot be compared to that of France; the officers of the public prosecutor's office are few, and the initiative in prosecution is not always theirs; and the examination of prisoners is rapid and oral" (96). However, despite the lack of officers Tocqueville states that "Nevertheless, I doubt whether in any other country crime so seldom escapes punishment. The reason is that everyone thinks he has an interest in furnishing proofs of an offense and in arresting the guilty man" (96). Why is this? Apparently this is a uniquely American tendency. Does it come from our patriotism or from a feeling of obligation as a civic duty?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

An Association

In Tocqueville's book he talks a lot about the association. However, this idea needs a clear definition. As he states, "An association simply consists in the public and formal support of specific doctrines by a certain number of individuals who have undertaken to cooperate in a stated way in order to make these doctrines prevail" (190).
An association is created to fight only moral issues: that of morality, religion, public security, or trade and industry. They can be a religious group, political group, etc.
Additionally as Tocqueville so clearly states, "An association unites the energies of divergent minds and vigorously directs them toward a clearly indicated goal" (190). To me, this is exactly what an association means. Tocqueville, you've hit the nail right on the head on this one.

Ways to Limit the Power of Authority

In our reading from Tocqueville's Democracy in America I found the following to be very interesting: As Tocqueville states, there are two methods by which one can diminish the power a government wields. Number one: "to weaken the very basis of power by depriving society of the right or the capacity to defend itself in certain circumstances" (72). Pretty obvious, right?
The second one I found more intriguing, and it clearly relates to our government in America today. The "other way of diminishing the influence of authority without depriving society of some of its rights or paralyzing its efforts by dividing the use of its powers among several hands. Functions can be multiplied and each man given enough authority to carry out his particular duty" (72). In America we don't have a king with all the authority. True, we have a president but we also have countless other people who do different things within our government--there are representatives, senators, govenors, etc. I may be wrong but it seems like this principle could apply here.
Another benefit from the second method is that it limits the influence that corruption on the part of a government official has on society as a whole. Say a mayor is embezzling money from the city or using it for things that are not improving his city. Bad as this is it's not as bad as if a king was doing it. The govenor's power doesn't extend as far as a king's and so he can do less damage. However, it also means controversely that each official can also do less good.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Democracy: A 25-Word Max Definition

At the end of class today we were trying to define democracy in 25 words or less. Here's my definition.

Democracy is: the political system in which every citizen is granted the right to vote, to involvement and to voice his dissent without fear of repercussion.

Anyone else have any thoughts? Differing ideas?

Reynold's Political Map of the United States: Slave and Free States

This map of the United States in 1856 outlines which states were free and which ones were slave. It's from the Library of Congress Collection, created by American artist Mr. Reynolds. I thought it was interesting to look at because it outlined visually which states fell where in the issue of slavery.

How to Write a Sentence

One thing I've been trying to work on at college is my writing. I think that is an area in which I can always improve on, and a critical skill to develop. When reading the handout How to Write a Sentence I liked several pieces of advice.

The first was "But if one understands that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships and that the number of relationships involved is finite, one understands too that there is only one error to worry about, the error of being illogical, and only one rule to follow: make sure that every component of your sentences is related to teh other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming at)" (20). This simplified the editing process for me. Often I will find myself deliberating over whether a wordy sentence I've created gets my point across in a clear manner. I think this is a new and more simplified way that I'll try looking at my writing in the future.

Also, I liked this point as well: "Scrutinize every part of your sentence and ask, "What does it go with?" or "What does it support?" or "What information does it give about some other part?" or "What is it referring to?"--all variations of the master question, "How does it fit into the sentence's logical structure?" (20-21).

This seemed like a good strategy to me, and one that could even be applied to whole sentences in a paragraph. It's important to ask whether a sentence is repetitive, useful or necessary. What does it help to clarify? How does it connect to the other sentences in the paragraph? Does it fit my topic sentence?

These pieces of advice seem like things which could help me in my future writing. Perhaps they may be of help to you too!

Lincoln's Concept about Slavery and the Founding Fathers

In Cullen's chapter about Upward Mobility he talks about Lincoln and his ideas about slavery. From the chapter I learned that Lincoln himself was not opposed to slavery because he cared very much about slaves... rather he thought it was bad because it "contaminated and, if left unchecked, would eventually destroy the American Dream in which he believed so deeply" (84) because it threatened the future of whites. I found this to be interesting. Before reading this I couldn't remember what Lincoln's stance on slavery was, and his grounds for opposing it were ones that I hadn't ever encountered before.

Furthermore, Cullen raises the subject of the hypocrisy on the part of the founding fathers, who were slaveowners themselves. Lincoln believed this was "less a matter of hypocrisy than an intractable problem that defied immediate resolution" for the founders of our country (101). As Lincoln writes, "they found the institution here, they did not make it so, but they left it so because they knew no way to get rid of it at the time". By keeping slavery out of the territories they demonstrated their faith that slavery would eventually die out. They could live with it because they know it would die out.

However, the Kansas-Nebraska Act threw a wrench into this line of thinking. It "suddenly threw it into question, because it was now possible slavery could grow stronger rather than weaker". The Kansas-Nebraska act stated that settlers in the territory would vote to decide whether or not to allow slavery--which had the potential for slavery to grow stronger, rather than die out like the founding fathers had anticipated! This called into question many of the assumptions people had had about slavery and provoked a lot of anxiety.

Modeling Sentences

In class the past couple days we've been working on sentence structure. We have chosen specific sentences, analyzed their structure and re-written them in the same form with new subjects. We've looked at the "doer" and whom it is "done to" and "what's done".

My group worked with Jim Cullen's sentence about upward mobility on page 70 in The American Dream,
"Women were marginalized from the public sphere that was the natural home of upward mobility, and the existence of slavery both limited the arena of upward mobility and gave whites an economic and psychological gauge by which to measure themselves".

Rewritten about fish and their lifecycle, a new sentence might look like: The salmon jumped upstream as they climbed up the fish ladder, an integral part of their journey, and the kids standing in the stream beyond both threatened these fish and the future generations they would soon produce as the next part of their lifecycle.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

One thing I really miss about the West Coast is the mountains. Last summer I went backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail (or the PCT as it's commonly called), and loved it. It's a trail that spans the entire west coast in length, running 2,650 miles all the way from Canada to Mexico. With two young teachers from my high school and eight friends we embarked on an adventure that created lasting memories long after the trip. Backpacking is an incredible experience. Being out in nature, meeting random people on the trails, getting lost, having crazy escapades with friends.. it's all part of the experience and something I would encourage everyone to experience if they get the chance. I've decided that my goal is to travel the entire 2,650 miles before I die.
Reminds me of Summer!

A Change in Perspective

In Jackson's time there was a sharp change in perspective: as historian Cullen states, "modest beginnings were no longer a somewhat embarrasing obstacle to be overcome but rather the indispensable bedrock of distinction" (68).
This change came with the idea of upward mobility, that anyone could improve upon his lot in life. However, nonetheless this change in thinking was not universal.
Slave-holding the social norm at the time, "the dream of upward mobility had less of a hold on the south than on the rest of the country. There the force of tradition, familial ties, and, above all, the force of slavery limited the appeal and efficacy of the self-made man" (74).
Though this was a changing idea coming to the fore-front, it was not held throughout the country. Nonetheless it played a role in Jackson and others' popularity as they were seen as stronger and more powerful leaders because of the adversity they had overcome in their rise to power. This was a sharp turn from the time from the age of when one's less-than-ideal past was considered to be a source of embarassment.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Finney and the Altar Call

In the article we read this past week "The Christian Movement in the United States" about Charles Grandison Finney, a religious leader key to the Second Great Awakening author James Noll raised the idea of the "anxious bench", which was important in forming later church practices. Now what is an "anxious bench", you might ask? According to Noll it is a "specially designated area, usually in front of the auditorium to which Finney called people for prayer or to be admonished about the condition of their souls" (176). The anxious bench was one of the 'new measures' in the church that Finney became known for.

Before Finney's time revivalists had been more inclined to let God handle the timing of religious conversions. However, Finney believed that "if God had commanded individuals to repent, he had also given them the means to do so at once" (176). Finney thought that people should convert as soon as they were willing to confess their sins.

The anxious bench, along with Finney's idea that conversion should happen at once "led to the modern evangelistic practice of coming to the front at the end of a religious service to indicate a desire for salvation" (176). For these reasons Finney's impact lasted far beyond his time, impacting modern church practices like the Altar Call far into the future.

Utica: Surprising Demographics

When reading the article about the Second Great awakening specifically in Utica, called "A Women's Awakening: Evangelical Religion and the Families of Utica, N.Y., 1800-1840" by Mary P. Ryan I was surprised by many of the statistics given about the converts. Women overwhelmingly made up the converts. They were also instrumental in getting relatives to convert as well, getting both male and female relatives alike to join their ranks. Most of the women were young and single though.

As Ryan states, conversion for many women was likely a way to "assuage their anxieties and affirm a modern identity in the act of religious conversion" (611). Their conversion eased stress and gave them a more current image in society. What does this really mean though? It sounds great generally, but I wonder what the statement really means.

Another thing I found interesting was the way the churches got new converts. Pastors were instructed "to preach every November...the duty of pious parents to dedicate their infant children to God in baptism" and reminded parents of their "responsibilities in connection with their [children's] religious training and the precious grounds of expectation and confidence that, if found faithful, saving blessings could follow" (611). In other words, if parents wanted to be considered to be faithful adherants to their religion and their church they were expected to baptise their children at birth and educate their kids in order to be blessed by God themselves.

However, a lot of the converts left the church within five years of joining. This was something I thought was odd. Why would people join, only to leave after such a short time? Did they not find what they were looking for?

This article was very surprising to me in many ways, and the statistics it gave were very insightful. However, it also left me with a lot of unanswered questions as well.

Check out Frykholm's Blog Post about Religion in the Conflict in Egypt!

While on Amy Frykholm's website (the author of our reading for monday), I came across a blog posting she had written about religion's role in the conflict in Egypt, titled "No Religious Dimension?".

Her thoughts were insightful, particularly clarifying a term I've always grappled with when trying to understand it's definition. As Frykholm writes, "Religious," in media language, is shorthand for "religious extremism" (1). This clarification made me realize what the word often stands for in the media, and that it doesn't always merely refer to anyone who practices religion--it often is seen as religious extremism.

The link's for the article is below. Take a look!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Amy Tan: Saying Thanks to My Ghosts

National Public Radio or NPR does a great broadcasting program called "This I Believe", a program designed "during its four-year run on NPR, to engaged listeners in a discussion of the core beliefs that guide their daily lives". The station said "We heard from people of all walks of life — the very young and the very old, the famous and the previously unknown." I was recently browsing the broadcasts online and came across one that related directly to AmCon, from one of the authors whom we read last semester (and whom I particularly enjoyed), Amy Tan!

In her "This I Believe", titled "Saying Thanks to My Ghosts" Tan provides an interesting look into her own life--it's a neat article, though I don't want to spoil it.

At the culmination of her "This I Believe" though, Tan wrote something that really made me take note: as she says, "Joy comes from love. Peace comes from love". This really struck me. For me at least personal happiness is definitely derived from love--of my family, friends and the things I'm involved in. Happiness comes from appreciation of the great things in my life and in who I am. Peace, or content with myself comes from this joy as well.

Below I've added both the link to Tan's "This I Believe", and to the website as a whole. I'd encourage you to browse, because there's a lot of really awesome posts (and a wide diversity of them, too).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Ferris Bueller

Democracy In America: Some Issues, but Something to be Thankful For

Democracy is an integral part of America and the American lifestyle. Though a highly diverse nation of people of different backgrounds, vocations, religious affiliations, socioeconomic status, values, beliefs, etc. democracy is something that we all experience on a day-to-day basis.

To me democracy is manifested most clearly in two areas: the right of free speech and every citizen's opportunity to vote. A democracy allows all of its citizens to have the chance to vote for candidates whom he or she chooses, and each vote has equal weight. I think this is important on a day-to-day basis because it affords citizens the opportunity to influence politics on a personal level.

Additionally, citizens can use their voice to campaign for candidates whom support their own priorities and values.
Citizens can voice discontent with the government without fear of being silenced or thrown in jail as well. They can write newspaper articles criticizing governmental action without fear of reprecussion. In this way I think my own ideas about democracy tie into the personal freedoms of free speech and to vote.

Democracy is something that I personally feel very thankful for. It is not in every country that people have the right to speak their mind and vote to influence change in politics.

However, there are always improvements to be made. For example, is the electoral college, which some say may not always represent the national sentiment about a candidate. Also, there is the problem that many people see with big businesses being able to back politicians and thus influence policies that they may or may not want in action. Personally, I don't think this is a good thing.

Additionally not everyone takes advantage of the priviledges that democracy affords. Not all citizens register to vote. In particular young people are considered to be the most disenfranchised of any age group.

Furthermore, not everyone is knowledgeable about the issues at the forefront in politics, or in the candidates up for election. Many people choose not to engage in politics through a lack of interest, or some see it as something they do not have the time for. Some merely see it as impossible when they are working three jobs per week just to make ends meet for their families. For some there is a language barrier that makes it more difficult. It's much easier for some to get involved than others. Some people choose to vote with limited knowledge of the candidates. For example, one of my high school teachers once told me about a neighbor of hers whom chose who to vote for based upon "who's name sounded coolest". Though we may hope that all people in America take advantage of their right to vote and make an educated decision, this is not always so. Though this is a disappointment in democracy, I think it is something that is reality and must be accepted.

Though I think improvements can be made to our democratic system in regards to issues like huge businesses backing politicians financially, democracy provides us with many opportunities for the average citizen to have a voice in Washington. Though it can be disappointing that not everyone takes advantage of his or her rights to a voice in our democracy I think the fact even that people are afforded these rights is key. American citizens have the right to free speech to voice discontent without fear of backlash, and the right to a vote --two of the many things that I am thankful for in a democracy.

The Beginnings of a New Semester

This week I've really enjoyed how we've been discussing the situation in Egypt in our daily classes of AmCon. I've been surprised how it ties into some of the topics we've been talking about. I love when we're able to talk about how what we're learning in-class ties to things that I have heard about in the news or which are up for debate today.

On the whole I'm really excited about the new topics we'll be discussing in AmCon this semester. I hadn't ever thought about the link between democracy and religion, either.

A key thing I have been thinking about has been the idea of 'Ideals versus Reality' in our democratic system. Ideally a democracy would be a form of government where everyone would have the opportunity to voice his or her opinion. However, though Americans are given the opportunity to vote or campaign for certain candidates we don't always make use of this opportunity--for example, there are people who lack access to the ability to vote, or whom choose not to. Is it better to strive for perfection, though ultimately having to resigning ourselves to the fact that we cannot achieve it (and that there will always be issues in our system)? Or is it better to be more realistic about what's actually attainable?

This week we also talked about Democratic Vistas, a reading that I found to be rambling and kind've difficult to read. In class we talked about whether or not it was the best political sermon. For these reasons I think it is not, because it seemed too disorganized to expect the American general public to read. I think it could be more logically thought out and given more structure to be a better sermon. However, I did find it very thought-provoking. One thing that stood out to me was Whitman's discussion of great literature: As he said, "Few are aware how the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after sutle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will" (760). I found this to be very true in many ways. So often we look to great works for inspiration. It also provides us with a lens through which to view the world. In these ways it can indeed hold great power, far beyond the seemingly passive words on a page may appear.