Archive for July, 2007
Andrew Jackson affected a radical, and beneficial, change in American politics by the efforts of his new party – the Democrats – to make the presidential election less dependent on state-appointed “electors.” There was, however, a downside to his populism: Jackson may have made American politics more democratic, but this also made it more difficult for presidents to stand against popular causes that they opposed.
The downside of Jacksonian populism was most clearly illustrated by the Indian Removal Act of 1930. To appease Southern voters who wanted access to Native American lands, Jackson lobbied for and signed a law that caused the forcible removal of Native Americans from Eastern lands to areas West of the Mississippi. Though the act called for “treaties” to be signed between the United States government and the various Native American tribes, it functioned very differently in practice. Tribes were forced to accept the terms of the act, and those who resisted were dealt with very harshly. The most famous example is the Cherokee Nation, who were rounded up by the military into camps where thousands died of malnutrition and disease before being sent into exile on the “Trail of Tears.” This was a clear indication of just how destructive a “majority” could be.
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Today’s entry provides a good opportunity to make a small but substantial difference: you’ve just learned about the importance of blood, so why not donate some of your own?
If it weren’t for blood transfusions, over 4.5 million Americans would die every year from blood loss. Other statistics are equally shocking: someone needs a transfusion every three seconds; one out of 10 people entering a hospital will need blood; one pint of donated blood could save three lives. Despite the importance of blood for transfusions, hospitals often experience shortages, especially for types O and B. If you have one of these blood types, or if you simply want to make a charitable gesture today, consider donating at your local Red Cross. (To find your local Red Cross, click here.
Of course, not everybody should donate blood. If you’re worried about your eligibility, or about potential health risks, click here for more information.
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Like Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Fagin, from Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, is often described as an anti-Semetic Jewish stereotype. It’s hard to say whether Shakespeare and Dickens were actually expressing their own feelings about Jews with these characters, or if they were subtly undermining the stereotypes. (Though Dickens makes the second interpretation difficult: when asked why he chose to portray an “archetypical Jewish villain,” Dickens responded, “Fagin is a Jew because it is unfortunately true, of the time to which the story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was Jewish.”)
One person who was troubled by the depiction of Fagin was the comic artist Will Eisner. Eisner is most famous for his work on the comic strip series The Spirit, but he was also one of the pioneers of the graphic novel. These works used the comics form, but at much greater length than the scattered panels of a strip, and often addressed far more advanced themes. (One particularly influential graphic novel – Maus by Art Spiegelman – is a description of a Holocaust survivor’s wartime experiences.) One of Eisner’s last works (he died in 2005) was the graphic novel Fagin the Jew. In it, he tells the story of Oliver Twist (and the years that preceded it) from Fagin’s point of view. You can buy it here, and decide if you find Fagin’s version more convincing than Dickens’.
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Devout Muslims believe that the Qur’an is a direct transcription of God’s words, as recited to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century by the Archangel Gabriel. It is regarded by believers as a perfect document, and as God’s final revelation to mankind. All copies of the Qur’an in its original Arabic present exactly the same text. For this reason, the discovery of the oldest Qur’an in the world came as quite a shock.
In 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana’a in Yemen, construction workers found a large collection of parchments in between the building’s inner and outer roofs. Because they didn’t recognize the importance of the find, they simply put the papers into twenty large potato sacks, set them aside and continued with their work. A few years later, though, the parchments were rediscovered, and a team of scholars set to work on them. What they found was the oldest existing copy of the Qur’an. Most shocking to devout Muslims, however, was the fact that the text of these parchments differed in subtle ways from the text of the Qur’an as they had learned and (often) memorized it. This made it harder to maintain the notion that it was a divine text, and raised the troubling possibility that the Qur’an was a human creation after all.
For more, read a 1999 article from The Atlantic about recent scholarship on the Qur’an here.
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Music20 Jul 2007 08:29 am
If Felix Mendelssohn were the only famous member of his family, the clan would still have quite a bit to be proud of. Felix was one of the great composers of the Romantic Period, and his “Wedding March” may be the most commonly performed piece from the era. But Felix’s grandfather Moses was no less accomplished himself. Regarded by some as the “Third Moses” (after the Biblical Moses and the Medieval scholar Moses Maimonides), Moses Mendelssohn was among the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment era.
The Mendelssohn’s were not the only family to be so lucky. In England, the utilitarian philosopher James Mill provided a rigorous education to his son John Stuart, who would himself become one of the greatest philosophers in history. In a somewhat different field, there is the Amis family. Father Kingsley won the Somerset Maugham Award for the best novel by a young writer for his 1955 book Lucky Jim. In 1973, his son Martin won the same award for his first novel: The Rachel Papers. In politics, America has the Adams family, which produced two presidents and a number of great writers. And the siblings Henry and William James covered everything from literature to psychology to (perhaps less impressively) the paranormal. Maybe there is something in the genes.
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Look carefully at paintings from the late-19th century, and you’ll often spot glasses filled with an iridescent green liquid. This is absinthe, the famed “fée verte” (or “green fairy”) of Belle Epoque France. It appears in the works of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh and, as in the painting L’Absinthe above, Edgar Degas.
Absinthe is made by distilling wormwood (the word “absinthe” is actually “wormwood” in French). It is an anise-based drink with a licorice flavor, like Sambuca or Pastis. (Herbs added after distillation give the drink its famous green color.) The ritual of serving absinthe is very elaborate: a perforated spoon is placed over a glass filled with absinthe, and a sugar cube is placed on the spoon. Water is then poured over the sugar drip by drip – a process known as the “louche” – which causes the drink to take on a cloudy white color. Every part of the process produced elaborate paraphernalia, even green glasses containing uranium!
But it wasn’t the flavor or the ritual that made absinthe famous. It was the “fact” that absinthe causes insanity. This notion was based on the fact that absinthe contains “thujone,” an oily chemical some believe to be a neurotoxin. As it happens, absinthe only contains trace amounts of thujone, not enough to cause any real harm. (Arsenic occurs naturally in seaweed and some species of fish, but you’re not gonna be poisoned the next time you eat sushi.) Nonetheless, the argument that absinthe did cause insanity won the day: France prohibited the manufacture and sale of the elixir in 1915, and the Era of Absinthe quickly came to an end.
Learn more about absinthe at La Fée Verte’s Absinthe House.
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The Irish potato famine was undoubtedly one of the most tragic episodes in European history. Hundreds of thousands of people died horrific deaths. Destitute farmers and peasants had to flee their country, landing everywhere from America to Australia. And the British government did not do nearly enough to alleviate the suffering. But, did the British deliberately murder their colonists? This is a claim that few historians accept, but that all New York schoolchildren are taught.
In 1996, then-governor George Pataki signed a law that required all schoolchildren to be taught about the Irish potato famine. Nothing to object to so far: the potato famine was not only a tragedy but an extremely important event. (To take just one effect, it established an Irish diaspora in the United States that is today ten times larger than the native population of Ireland.) But the law also required that the famine be taught in the context of other great human rights violations, including slavery and the Holocaust. When he signed the bill into law, Pataki was absolutely clear about what the law implied. The famine, he said, was “the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive.”
This may be true, but it’s not quite an open-and-shut case. Predictably, the British Embassy in Washington immediately protested the bill. (Though Prime Minister Tony Blair would admit, only a year later, that the British government did not do enough at the time to prevent the tragedy.) Less predictably, many scholars joined the protest. There is no serious debate about the Nazi genocide, but there is still considerable debate about the role of the British government during the Irish potato famine. Unfortunately, New York’s curriculum doesn’t encourage that debate to continue. It simply declares a side and stops the conversation.
Disagree? Join the conversation in the “Comments” section…
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