Category Archives: History

¿Habla American?: Why English as an Official Language is Blatantly Un-American

by Matt McKinnon

We the People...

Nosotros, el Pueblo…

I’m no fan of corporations.  In fact, I am often critical of them and the too-big-to-fail capitalism that has come to dominate global economics. But I am willing to congratulate them on the off-chance that they do something good or get something right.

Like the Cheerios commercials featuring a multi-ethnic girl with her family that prompted racist hate-speech from trolls everywhere. Or the recent revelation that multinational corporations are taking climate change seriously, since it poses a real economic threat to them.

Or when Coca-Cola broadcast this advertisement during the Super Bowl:

(Coke doubled-down amidst much criticism to play it again for the Winter Olympics.)

Now, I’m no dummy, and I’m certainly not naïve. I realize that the folks at Coca-Cola are first and foremost interested in their bottom line, and that means selling more Coke. And as we are all aware by now, the United States is undergoing a considerable demographic shift, so much so that white people will no longer be the majority by 2043. And more to the point: white kids will no longer make up a majority of youth in five or six years. Yes, five or six years! Which is why companies like Coca-Cola are so interested in multicultural approaches to advertising.

So yes, I know all this, and yet still find it laudable (1) that Coca-Cola produced the commercial, and (2) that they stood by it despite heavy criticism.

But enough about Coke. My real interest is the criticism that was generated by having non-white U.S. citizens sing a patriotic song in a language other than English. And the next logical step that many critics make: viz., that English should be the official language of the United States.

This impulse is nothing new. Nor is the fear and prejudice behind it.

Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franklin.

Our brilliant and esteemed Founding Father Benjamin Franklin railed against the unwanted influence of what he called “swarthy German” immigrants with surprisingly racist overtones:

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. “

(Indeed: Who knew that only the English were truly white?)

Of course, Franklin was wrong then, as those who criticize the Coke ad and call for English as our official language are wrong now. They are wrong for a practical reason based in historical fact: the new German immigrants did not “Germanize” the English, despite the fact that more Americans now claim German ancestry than any other ethnic or national group. No, they learned English because it was practical to do so, though some retained the use of their native tongue well into the 20th century.

Likewise, studies show that recent immigrants are assimilating in similar fashion, just as immigrants have been doing since, well, the original English came over and ironically did not assimilate into existing native cultures.

And this means that they are learning English.

Loosing my Espanish, by H.G. Carrillo (2004).

Loosing my Espanish, by H.G. Carrillo (2004).

A Pew study found that 91% of second-generation children from Hispanic families speak English “very well or pretty well” and that the number rises to 97% of third-generation children. Indeed, other studies show that not only are second and third generations learning English, they are more likely than not to learn only English—and not the language of their parents’ or grandparents’ homeland.

But there is another—deeper and more essential—reason why English is not and should not be the official language of our land. And while this argument could be made from the liberal and progressive “love-for-all-things-multicultural” perspective worthy of this “liberal studies” blog, the stronger argument is actually one more conservative in nature, rooted as it is in the very fabric of our democracy, in what it means to be American.

The argument is simple: making English, or any language, the Official Language of the United States is blatantly Un-American at its core.

In fact, the late conservative writer Joseph Sobran made a similar argument some thirty years or so ago, to the chagrin of some whose conservative principles only went as deep as their nationalism. (This was the same Joe Sobran whom Pat Buchanan called “perhaps the finest columnist of our generation” and Ann Coulter named “the world’s greatest writer” and the “G.K. Chesterton of our time.”)

Joseph Sobran.

Joseph Sobran.

The point is twofold: First, from a conservative perspective, government should be limited and should only be about the business of governing—not social engineering. Mandating that Americans learn and use English is as absurd from a conservative viewpoint as mandating that they learn and use French, or that they eat their vegetables and lay off the Supersized fries and soda. This, argues conservatism, is simply not the purview of government, and it doesn’t matter whether learning English or eating broccoli are good ideas or not (as I think they both are). What matters is that this is not the government’s responsibility to decide or dictate.

And second, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” should, as much as is possible, reflect the majority of the people, while safeguarding the rights of the minority. But such a reflection, like the people it reflects, is in a constant state of change.

So in this case, what could be more basic than the right to express oneself in the language of one’s choice? And what could be more democratic than a government committed to accommodating that language—those languages—and to understanding and communicating with its own citizens?

For what right is more basic than the choice of language? Freedom of speech? Freedom of the press? Freedom of religion? All of these are secondary, at least temporally, to the choice of language whereby one speaks, or publishes, or prays aloud to their God.

Indeed, the only act synchronous to that of speaking is the forming of one’s very thoughts. And yet, even here, do we really decide what language we use to form our thoughts? Or does our language shape our thoughts and even ourselves?

If so, what would it mean that for some U.S. citizens, their very thoughts are formed in an unofficial language?

Government should not be in the business of constraining either the free thought or the free expression of its citizens.

"We speak English."

“We speak English.”

Furthermore, the fact of English as our common language is an accident of history. Not only are we the largest English-speaking nation in the world, we are also the second largest Spanish-speaking nation (second only to Mexico). And what is more democratic than a common language that actually resonates with the voice of the people? If Spanish, or French, or Chinese should one day become the preferred language of a majority of U.S. citizens, how undemocratic would it be that their free and common expression would be constrained by the short-sightedness of having made English the Official Language?

To extrapolate from James Madison’s argument against the state establishment of Christianity in his Memorial and Remonstrance: any government that can today make English the official language can tomorrow replace it with Spanish or Arabic.

***

This is what it means to be American: to have the right to choose whatever language one wishes to express oneself, be it for business, or entertainment, or religion, or school—ever mindful of the need to balance this with the necessity of being understood.

As Americans, we lack an ethnic identity. And we lack an established religion. And we lack an official language.

But we are united as a people precisely because we lack these. Since our ethnic identities and religions and languages are plural. As are we.

But in this plurality there is strength.

And from this plurality there is unity.

Or, as our Founding Fathers put it,

Dean Bryant Johnson, "E Pluribus Unum" (2012), detail.

Dean Bryant Johnson, “E Pluribus Unum” (2012), detail.

E pluribus unum.

(And that ain’t English.)

Revisiting Richard III

by Doug McCarty

Garage Sale Books.

Garage Sale Books.

I remember when I was quite young, not quite eight years old, and I visited a neighborhood garage sale. I liked to read and was fairly precocious, so it was natural for me to be drawn to a box of old books in a corner, barely visible among all the various knickknacks and junk. Most of what was in the box was pretty uninteresting, the usual Reader’s Digest collections in hardback and the like. I did find something, though, that caught my eye—a tattered three-volume collection of Shakespeare’s works. I think I paid a dime for all three books.

Wm. Shakespeare

William Shakespeare.

Now, what is a seven-year-old going to do with Shakespeare? Not that much, at first. The collection sat in the bookshelves in my room until a got a little older. Once I started, however, I read the entire set, all the plays, all the poems. I may not have understood everything I was reading all that well, but I kept on and on.

Certain plays held my attention more than others, Richard III especially. Any of you who have read the play or seen one or more of the numerous film adaptions know well the historical description of this king as a deformed hunchback with a withered arm who had his nephews (the sons of his late brother Edward IV) murdered in the Tower of London and who seized the crown through nefarious means. This description bothered me from the beginning, although I could never put my finger on why. Shakespeare, of course, could hardly write about the late king in a positive light, given that in 1591, when the play was probably written, the Tudor line that overthrew and killed Richard was still in charge in England. It always seemed strange that such an enigmatic figure was written in such a way, particularly when this character was given some of the finest lines read from among all the plays.

Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III in 1955

Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III in 1955.

Years went by, and I reviewed the play from time to time, then very little after graduate school. In recent years, I discovered that there was a revival of interest in Richard, especially among those who wanted to reform the negative image created chiefly by Sir Thomas More and dramatized by Shakespeare. After a few moments of online research, I realized that I had been sleeping while new data and information on Richard was being uncovered. Unknown to me, there are several societies and research projects devoted to discovering the truth about Richard, who is, by the way, the current Queen of England’s 14th great-grand-uncle. There is a bunch of new stuff out there, but I will avoid boring anyone with all of it, even though it excites me.

Sir Ian McKellen as a historically-reimagined Richard III in 1995

Sir Ian McKellen as a historically-reimagined Richard III in 1995.

The most interesting thing I found out is that Richard III’s remains were discovered underneath a parking lot in 2012 after vanishing over five centuries ago, at the site of the medieval Greyfriars Church, where he was reputed to have been interred. The skeleton was identified, according to researchers, beyond a reasonable doubt as belonging to Richard.

This reasonably-positive identification was made through comparison of his mitochondrial DNA with that of two matrilineal descendants of Richard’s eldest sister, Anne of York. The spine showed considerable deformity consistent with scoliosis, which may have given Richard the appearance of having one shoulder higher than the other.

The Skeleton in the Grave.

The Skeleton in the Grave.

The skeleton sustained at least ten wounds demonstrative of battlefield injuries of Richard’s day, when he was killed by the forces of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, which was the end of the Wars of the Roses and is typically considered to mark the end of the Middle Ages in England. There are plenty of gruesome details and conjectures about the events leading up to his death, and I invite you to do a web search for yourself, if you are at all inclined.

Portrait of Richard III in National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of Richard III

At this point, the team from the University of Leicester who participated in Richard III’s discovery, among other players, is planning to decode his genome, which has set off a flurry of controversy and protests, even involving Buckingham Palace.

Although history has been unkind to Richard, perhaps justly so in some instances, he was by many accounts an able and talented military commander, a king who reputedly enacted laws to protect the poor, and a noble who lived at the very least according to the principles of his time. He remains an enigma and perhaps always will, but that is what makes him so interesting, at least to me.

Merry and Bright: The Spectacle of the Christmas Tree

By Marc Williams

“Spectacle” can be broadly defined as a visually striking display, event, or performance. Spectacle has long been associated with live performance, since costumes, scenery, lighting, dance, and other visual elements are frequently used to enhance the performance experience. In my BLS class, Eye Appeal, we focus on the spectacles that occur not only on stage but also in every day life. In my most recent blog entry, I wrote about the spectacle of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and its spectacular precursors, the cycle plays of medieval Europe–in this post I’ll focus on Christmas trees and other holiday displays.

2013-White-House-Christmas-Tree-e1386618998921The day after Thanksgiving, November 29, 2013, an 18.5-foot Douglas fir was delivered to the White House. Since 1966, the White House Christmas Tree has been provided annually by the National Christmas Tree Association. Since that time, the First Lady has been responsible for creating a theme for the tree each year, and its decoration and lighting has become an annual spectacle for those in the Washington, D.C. area—an interesting blend of politics, religion, and spectacle. There were indeed White House Christmas trees before 1966, but more on that later.

The delivery of the 2013 White House Christmas Tree

Evergreens have been associated with winter solstice for many centuries. In Ancient Egypt and later in Ancient Rome, for example, evergreens were brought into homes to celebrate the continuation or return of life following the winter. Some believe these pagan solstice traditions were adapted by early Christians and evolved into our modern Christmas tree. The earliest recorded Christmas trees were found in 16th century Germany and were typically decorated with apples. The apple decorations are associated with December 24, as the medieval Christian calendar celebrated Adam and Eve’s Day on that date. Christmas trees were introduced to the United States in the early 1800s and were sold commercially by the 1850s [source]. At the time, Christmas trees were a new “fad” in America and many people associated Christmas trees with the German settlers who introduced them.

Interestingly, the White House Christmas Tree has a controversial past. The first White House Christmas tree was displayed by President Franklin Pierce in 1853. In 1899, while Christmas trees had become more common in America, they were still considered by many to be a fad. A White House Christmas tree was by no means obligatory. That year, Chicago Tribune readers mounted a letter-writing campaign urging President McKinley to buck the Christmas tree trend for a variety of reasons—many letters focused on deforestation, with one writer calling Christmas trees “arboreal infanticide.” Other letter writers called Christmas trees “un-American,” since Christmas trees were still considered a German tradition by many. Given the Christmas tree’s pagan connections, some letter-writers viewed the White House tree as anti-Christian. Controversy surrounding the tree continues today, as some critics wonder if the White House Christmas Tree should focus on tradition rather than religion, or if the tree should exist at all.

rockefeller-center-xmas-tree

The Tree at Rockefeller Center

Perhaps the most iconic Christmas tree in the United States is found in New York City at Rockefeller Center. The tree is positioned just above the famous ice skating rink and immediately front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The Rockefeller Center tree has been a tradition for over eighty years and its lighting has become a major entertainment event. The 2013 tree is 76 feet tall, weighs twelve tons, features over 45,000 lights, and is topped with a nine-foot wide Swarovski star.

angels

Two rows of trumpeting angels are installed along the plaza, forming a lane that frames the tree beautifully when viewed from Fifth Avenue. The lighting ceremony has now become a televised event with celebrity hosts and performers; the 2013 lighting ceremony featured Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, the Radio City Rockettes, and many others.

The Radio City Rockettes at the 2013 tree lighting ceremony.

The Radio City Rockettes at the 2013 tree lighting ceremony.

Here in Greensboro, residents of the Sunset Hills neighborhood create an unique annual holiday spectacle: a neighborhood-wide display of lighted “ball” decorations. This local tradition began with Jonathan Smith’s family, residents of Sunset Hills, about sixteen years ago. The balls are homemade, constructed from chicken wire shaped into spheres, then wrapped with a strand of Christmas lights. The balls hang from tree branches, some nearly thirty feet off the ground.

Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC.

Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC.

The video below features the 2008 display and Smith discussing how the tradition started.

Lighted Christmas Balls In Greensboro, North Carolina

Have you seen any of these holiday spectacles in person? What role does spectacle play in your holiday celebrations?

Santa, Jesus, and Race

by Matt McKinnon

So, as I’m sure most of you have heard, Santa Claus and Jesus are both White.  They just are.  And these are historical facts.

1

Megyn Kelly.

Or so proclaimed Fox television personality Megyn Kelly on her show The Kelly File, while discussing an article by Slate contributor Aisha Harris proposing that the beloved American icon be “made over” in a more culturally neutral manner. (Harris’s suggestion is a cartoon gift-bearing penguin complete with red suit and obviously fake beard.)

What ensued was a predictable lampooning by late-night comedians and news commentators, followed by Fox News’ just as predicable recalcitrant dismissal of a “liberal media’s” obsession with race and race-baiting.  For her part, Ms. Kelly refused to apologize for her position, calling the entire episode “tongue-in-cheek,” though she did acknowledge that the issue of Jesus’ ethnicity is “unsettled.”

2

Harris’ Santa (illustration by Mark Stamaty).

There are many issues here that deserve commentary and discussion, not the least of which is Ms. Harris’ initial suggestion that an ethnically-neutral Santa Claus is much better suited for a multi-ethnic culture like that of the contemporary United States than the image of fat white man landing on rooftops and essentially performing what would be interpreted as “breaking and entering” in most legal jurisdictions.  (And at least one comedian has suggested the ramifications for a black counterpart, given the Stand Your Ground laws in places like Florida.)

But I, like most in the entertainment and media industries, am more interested in what Kelly said, and how she said it, than in what precipitated it.

Kelly, of course, was simply pointing out what most Americans probably assume: Santa Claus as a fictionalized character is based on the historical fourth century Christian bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra.  Santa has always been portrayed as a white man because, duh, his likeness is based on a real white man.  The notion that he can be portrayed any other way than that of mainstream American culture and its hegemonic ethnicity (white) is practically unthinkable—at least by white folks in the mainstream.

In fact, when watching the video from the show, it is more Kelly’s insistence of the brute factuality of Santa’s (and Jesus’s) ethnicity that is so problematic—and not necessarily her position.

And on this subject, a few ideas deserve discussion.

First and most obvious is that what the historical Saint Nicholas and Jesus both share is, if not a common ethnicity, then at least a common geography and culture—that of the Hellenistic Near East.  And while Nicholas was most probably a Greek from “Asia Minor,” and Jesus a Palestinian Jew, neither of them would have considered himself “white”—and would probably not be considered so by today’s use of the term.  So if Santa Claus is simply a reinterpretation of the Anatolian bishop Nicholas of Myra, then Ms. Kelly is mistaken: neither he (nor Jesus) is white.

They just aren’t.

A forensic reconstruction of St. Nicholas' face, surrounded by his image in traditional icons.

St. Nicholas’ face, in a forensic reconstruction and traditional icons.

But, without getting into the specifics, our Santa Claus’s development most probably owes more to Pagan characters, practices, and legends than he does to the Christian bishop of Myra.  And so, arguably, on this point, Kelly is correct: Santa Claus, inasmuch as he evolves from Germanic mythology, is “white” or Northern European (though the same cannot be said for Jesus).

3

A Medieval European “Wild Man.”

Of course, the real issue in all of this is the assumption that Santa is white—must be white, can only be white—whether rooted in history or mythology.  And that is the assumption of hegemony: Where whiteness is the presumed sole and legitimate norm.  Where the way things are is the way they have been and should be.

And pointing this out to someone who is oblivious to the ubiquity of whiteness in our culture can be awkward, unsettling, and even shocking.

Hence the insistence that Santa, like Jesus, is white—without any thought or consideration that such a proclamation may be controversial or that it could possibly be historically and culturally conditioned—tells us more about the speaker, her audience, and our culture than it does about either Santa or Jesus.

But this is not to belittle Ms. Kelly or chasten her about her firmly-held beliefs and ethnic identity.  For the real “White Man’s (sic) Burden” is not to rule over and “civilize” the non-White world, but rather to recognize and confront examples of “White Privilege” in our pluralistic and multi-ethnic culture.  And while there are much more important aspects of white privilege in present day America (like being arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to jail far less often than non-whites for similar crimes), the ubiquity of whiteness as the aesthetical norm is not to be dismissed.

But this is easier said than done, since, while the ubiquity of whiteness is quite obvious to most non-white folks, it tends to be invisible to most whites.

And the same thing that happened to Ms. Kelly happened to me, though I was seven years old and in the second grade at the time.

I had the same reaction to the “Black Santa” that my African-American teacher Mrs. Watson had put up on her classroom wall: “Santa Claus is not black.  He’s white,” I thought to myself, aghast at the suggestion.  Luckily, I didn’t have a television show to proclaim this, and didn’t actually articulate it to any of my classmates either.

But the memory has stayed with me—as one where, for the first time, I was confronted with the hegemony of my own culture: me, a little white boy bused from my mostly white neighborhood to school in the projects: a minority among minorities, but whose whiteness was still the norm.

Or should be, as I mistakenly assumed then.

4

Still from the Good Times episode “Black Jesus” (1974).

And around the same time (1974) and in much the same way, I was confronted by the “Black Jesus” episode on Good Times, where JJ had used Ned the Wino as the model for his painting of the Christ, since—being passed out in the gutter—he was the only one who could hold the pose long enough for JJ to paint.

Much later, of course, I was confronted by a long history of Jesus being portrayed in the varying ethnicity of the portrayers—across the centuries, from Asia to Africa to Europe and the Americas.

An Ethiopian Jesus and a Chinese Jesus

Jesus in Ethiopian and Chinese depictions.

And then by the African-American Liberation Theologian James Cone’s insistence that “Jesus is a black man,” in that, according to Christian theology, God comes to his people in the guise of the most repressed and outcast among us.  And in the United States, the reasoning goes, who has been more marginalized than the African slave?

But, arguably, I may not have been as sympathetic and understanding of art history or liberation theology had I not first been confronted in the privileged place of my whiteness in American culture by folks like Mrs. Watson, and the producers, writers, and cast of Good Times.

So what is troubling in Ms. Kelly’s remarks is not her assumption that both Santa and Jesus are white—but her insistence that they are, an insistence that suggests that she has probably never been confronted by the hegemony of her whiteness or the problems that such an unyielding hegemony can produce, at least in a multi-ethnic culture like ours where the power to portray is the power to influence.

It is the catering to the very understandable perspective of a certain portion of the American public that times are changing, have changed, and that “their America,” for better or worse, is gone and not coming back.  And while such a perspective is frightening and should be met with sympathy and sensitivity in order to soothe and diffuse it, it is usually met with a demagoguery of entrenchment from the one side and outright scorn from the other.

Where are Mrs. Watson and JJ when we need them?

(Of course, I must admit, I don’t particularly care for the Penguin Santa myself, whatever ethnicity it is.)

A Holiday Spectacle

by Marc Williams

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade processes through Times Square.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I remember waking up on Thanksgiving with the smell of sage wafting through the house as my mother began a long day of cooking and baking. Of course my morning was spent in front of the television watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And now that I have children of my own, Thanksgiving has come full circle: I’m the one doing the cooking and my son, now four years old, is the one enjoying the parade.

The Macy’s parade has been around since 1924, when Macy’s department store on 34th Street decided to hold a parade as a marketing ploy. Macy’s employees dressed in costumes—clowns, cowboys, and the like—and walked with Central Park Zoo animals on a six-mile route through Manhattan. The parade was a success for Macy’s, became an annual event, and is now the most popular holiday parade in America. The Rose Parade in Pasadena, California and Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans are also major parades, and communities all over the country stage parades in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, Independence Day, fall harvests, and other occasions. Parades big and small are commonplace, yet many viewers probably don’t realize that modern parades owe a debt both to theatre and to the church.

During the early Middle Ages, the Catholic Church in Europe began dramatizing events from the Bible in an attempt to share the liturgy with a growing population that was largely illiterate. Church interiors were utilized in these liturgical dramas, with the central nave area of the basilica used for spectators and the columns along either side of the nave were used to separate different “stages,” or “mansions,” as they were called. The audience would walk from one mansion to the next, one mansion featuring the Garden of Eden, the next featuring Noah’s Ark, and so on. Interestingly, this staging technique—in which the spectator moves in and out of different acting areas—is still used today. It’s the same staging technique encountered in a “haunted house” attraction, and is also used by theme parks. Disney’s famous It’s a Small World After All and Pirates of the Caribbean rides use the same concept, although the audience is seated in a boat that moves through the attraction.

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

In the 13th century, Pope Innocent III forbade the clergy from participating in these liturgical plays. The performances were enormously popular but the Pope believed the scripture was becoming obscured by scenery, costumes, special effects, and scripts that were becoming increasingly colloquial.

The plays, known as “mysteries,” then moved outside the church. In some cases, the plays were held immediately outside the church—right on the church steps. Large stone basilicas with impressive steps and entryways could make for impressive theatrical backdrops. In some towns, performances moved to a town square. The image below from the Valenciennes Passion shows a town square that has several “mansions” built into its existing architecture for the performance of a 25-day long play depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ. The city’s own gates appear to be used as the gates to Jerusalem, with a setting constructed for the temple, another for the sea, and so on.

Setting for the Valenciennes Passion, 1547.

In other towns, the spectators were spread out, with groups seated on risers in different areas of the town. For these mystery plays, the sets, costumes, and actors moved from one audience to the next on pageant wagons. These impressive devices could “dock” with an existing stage platform, providing a custom backdrop for the performance. Also, the wagon would also carry all the props and costumes needed to tell the story. These pageant wagons are the forerunners of our modern parade floats; the audience sits or stands as the small staging area moves to them. The performance occurs, then the float moves along the designated route.

An English pageant wagon.

Spectacle was of tremendous importance during the mystery plays. Because the church was no longer the organizing force for the performances, the plays were presented by other groups in the community. In England, for instance, the responsibility was given to the local craft guilds. Typically, each guild was responsible for one story: finding the actors, building the scenery and costumes, and paying their share of the overall expenses for the event. The guilds were typically assigned a story related to their expertise: the shipwrights would present Noah, the goldsmiths would present the three kings, since they could supply gold crowns, the blacksmiths might be in charge of nailing Christ to the cross, and so on. The guilds took tremendous pride in their contributions and their efforts were dazzling: some wagons featured trap doors for surprising entrances and exits, others featured elaborate scenic detail that was stunningly lifelike, while some featured flying effects and other stage magic.

Indeed the same is true today at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. New balloons and floats are added each year, and these new efforts are consistently focused on providing a new spectacle that has never been seen in a parade before. In this year’s parade, for example, Cirque du Soleil provided a new float that is the biggest in parade history, complete with acrobats and contortionists—it was like a little self-contained circus.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Dreamseeker” float in the 2013 Macy’s Parade.

In my BLS course Eye Appeal: Spectacle on Stage and in Life, we discuss modern-day spectacles like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and historical spectacles like the mystery plays. We consider why we are so consistently impressed by the “wow factor” that spectacles offer, and wonder what draws each of us individually toward these spectacles. For me, the Macy’s Parade takes me back to my childhood home, watching television in my pajamas with the smell of sage in the air. What memories do you associate with the Macy’s Parade? Or do you have another favorite holiday spectacle?

Who Am I? (On Genealogy and Genetic Ancestry)

by Matt McKinnon

Who am I?

I have long been pestered by this question, seeking the answer not in a litany of likes and dislikes or the self-obsessed perspective that modern Western consumerist culture offers me.  But neither in the personal history of myself—where I’m from, where I’ve been, and so on.  Or even less in my career, my “profession,” what I do to make enough money to live comfortably and raise a family.

1

No, my interest in identity has been more in my genealogy, my distant past, and what we now call “deep genealogy”—the history of my DNA, that mysterious code I have no control over but that dictates much of who I am.

2The more I have sought answers in these two areas, the more I have come to realize that they are decidedly different—that my genealogy (the relatively recent history of my family and ancestors) and my “deep genealogy” (the origins and history of my DNA) offer two quite different portraits—even though the latter, after tens of thousands of years, ultimately leads to the former.

But that’s the key: after tens of thousands of years.

I remember my first dabbling in genealogy when I was in high school: I had always known that my name, McKinnon—or rather MacKinnon—was Scottish in origin.  I had been told by my family that we were mostly “Scots-Irish,” a term which, I came to find out later, is basically an American invention used rarely if ever in either Scotland or Ireland.  It can denote the Ulster Scots whom the English used to colonize Northern Ireland in the 17th century (and are thus not “genetically” Irish at all), or Lowland Scots and those of the Borderlands between Scotland and England.

3But a little research soon proved that the MacKinnon name is Highland, not Lowland or Border, and certainly not “Scots-Irish.”  The Highlands and Islands of Scotland are mostly Gaelic, and hence Celtic in origin, while the Scots of the Lowlands are a mix of Celtic, Roman, German, English, Scandinavian, Irish, and Scottish in varying amounts.  And since our most recent Scottish ancestor was a MacKinnon who left the Isle of Skye sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century, my Highland ancestry was confirmed.

So I spent the rest of my high school days donning plaid scarves, Shetland wool sweaters, and Harris Tweed caps and playing records of bagpipe music at home that frightened the cat and annoyed my parents and siblings to no end.

But deep down, I knew that this was not answer enough.  Indeed, ethnic identity continued to elude me and offer more questions than answers.

And it still does, even after countless hours spent researching family history and genealogy, and hundreds of dollars spent on research and DNA analysis.  Perhaps my developing awareness of the fragmentary and somewhat arbitrary nature of what we call “history” has made my search one of exponential questions instead of hard and fast answers.

For what we call “Celtic” is in fact a linguistic designation, like (and related to) “Germanic” or “Balto-Slavic.”  These are first and foremost language identifiers and not “genetic” ones.

So MacKinnon, being a Highland name, at least designates my ethnic identity as Celtic, right?

Perhaps.  At least to some extent.  But what does that really mean?

After all, these groups—Celtic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Italic—are only Indo-European linguistic identifiers with origins in a shared Proto-Indo-European population of tribes who inhabited Europe most probably during the late Neolithic Age (circa 4000 BCE).  Only then did these peoples begin their various migrations north and west as they differentiated into the more well-known (if often mistakenly applied) names like the Celts, Germans, Slavs, Romans, etc…

4The point being that, any location of one’s ancestry as “Scottish,” or “Highland,” or “Gaelic,” or “Celtic,” or, for that matter “Germanic” or “Balto-Slavic” is rather arbitrary in that it assigns prominence to one moment in a wave of modern human migration that began in Africa some 70,000 years ago and arrived on the Pontic-Caspian steppe in what is today Eastern Europe about 30,000 years later.  From there, these various groups migrated into all directions, as wave after wave of tribes populated Europe, developing different cultures and languages, though all sharing the same not-too-distant Indo-European past.

(It is interesting to note as well that these folks only started to look “European,” i.e., “white” around 11,000 BCE.)

5So that Highland MacKinnon ancestry I was so sure about?  Well, it turns out that a deep DNA analysis confirms my paternal lineage (the Y-chromosome of my father’s father’s father’s father’s father…all the way back to its beginning) to be that of Haplogroup (I won’t even get into it) I2, subgroup a2.

Haplogroup I began 30,000-40,000 years ago in Eastern Europe, with I1 and I2 diverging about 6,000 years later.  I2a arose about 11,000 years ago in the Balkans and is still today concentrated in Eastern Europe and Russia.  I2a2, that of my Highland Scots paternal DNA, only emerged some 7800 years ago, also in the Balkans, before starting its migration north into Central and Eastern Europe as well as Russia.

And, at some point, as the DNA of a male member of a Celtic or perhaps Germanic tribe who ultimately made his way to Scotland.  And then passed it along to me.

So my Highland Scots DNA is actually Baltic in origin, and is shared by more Serbs and Croats and possibly even Russians than it is by my “fellow” Highlanders.

But if that’s not confusing enough, this only represents one line of grandfathers on my father’s side, going back roughly 8,000 years.  If we consider that there are approximately 400 generations between me and my Neolithic “European” ancestors, then the number of my direct relatives from present day all the way back to the New Stone Age is considerably large [nerdy editor's note: large enough to need scientific notation: 2.58 x 10120].

But we need not go back that far to make my point: much of an individual’s “ethnic identity” is relatively arbitrary and tells precious little about their deep genetic makeup.

In calculating the rather complex mathematics of our ancestry, scientists have concluded that all modern humans are related to each other in the not too distant past—within a few hundred years in fact.  Steve Olson, writing in The Atlantic in 2002, reported that

  1. Everyone in the world is descended from Nefertiti and Confucius, and
  2. Everyone of European ancestry is descended from Muhammad and Charlemagne.

Grandma?That would be everyone.

Which means that all modern humans alive today are related to each other—and related to each other rather recently, considering that modern humans have been in existence for about 100,000 years.

7

Indeed, everyone reading this post is probably at most my 20th cousin.

But you’re not invited over for Thanksgiving.

And I’m guessing you’re not all Highland Scots.

Why Venus Can’t Find a Modeling Gig

by Jay Parr

We have a print of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus hanging on our wall at home, and lately it occurs to me that if Botticelli’s Venus were looking for work as a model today, she would never find a job.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

I should clarify my credentials here by saying that I am neither a gender-studies scholar nor an art historian. On the gender-studies front, I’m basically just an all-around egalitarian … just feminist enough to recognize my own male-gaze tendencies. On the art-studies front, I did minor in visual art as an undergrad, but my concentration was in photography. I do also have a Master of Fine Arts, but the “art” in question there is putting lies on paper … um … fiction.

Oh, and I have no credentials in the fashion world, either. Beyond, that is, being subjected to its daily assaults along with the rest of us.

Rihanna looks like this?

Rihanna’s everyday look. No, really.

But compare that canonical painting to the images of women that bombard us from all directions today, and you will plainly see that this goddess–the very quintessence of feminine beauty in 1486 when she was painted–need only go through a supermarket checkout to learn just how desperately lacking she is in “feminine allure” today. The cover of any Vogue, Allure, Vanity Fair, or any of the other myriad fashion/celebrity-gossip/consumerist-culture magazines will inform her, without a single word and without a hint of a doubt, that she stands no chance of competing with the professionally made-up, professionally lit, professionally photographed, and professionally photoshopped images of feminine beauty that set the standard today.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Just go do an image search on the word “beauty,” and guess what you’ll find. Screen after screen after screen of women’s faces, all obviously (and heavily) coated in cosmetics, professionally coiffed, professionally photographed, and then photoshopped to the point that they bear little if any resemblance to what was actually in front of the camera lens. When I did that search while working on this post, one relatively natural-looking face jumped out at me. So I followed the link to discover that no, she was actually pretty heavily made up, with perfectly plucked eyebrows and perfectly mascaraed lashes and perfectly subtle “natural” makeup, and the hair that was out of place was, in fact, that way by design. Even better, the image was an ad for a full-service spa-salon offering such treatments as laser hair removal, microdermabrasion, skin peels, spray tanning, eyelash perming, and lash extensions. No, really. Eyelash perming. Lash Extensions.

Because that’s what women look like, right? They have thin eyebrows and thick eyelashes and translucent, perfectly-toned skin and plump, moist lips and delicate little noses and big, round eyes and tiny waists and full bosoms that utterly defy gravity.

What I look like when I wake up.

What I look like when I wake up.

Even the hippie-living magazine that somehow found its way into our house is guilty. What’s the biggest headline? SEXY SKIN! What’s the standard set by the cover? A healthy and unusually attractive young woman peering over her naked, smooth-skinned shoulder, with straight white teeth peeking through her smile, subtle “natural” lip color, “natural” makeup on her sun-kissed and lightly freckled cheeks, perfectly threaded eyebrows, and what would not be too much of a stretch to describe as something of a come-hither look in her eyes. Oh, and what was that about the out-of-place hair being that way by design? Yeah.

Birth of Venus detail

Detail of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

And that is why Botticelli’s Venus cannot find a job. I mean, just look at her. Her brows are okay, I suppose, but her eyelashes are too anemic, and her skin is too motley, and her nose is too crude and lumpy, and her mouth is too small and her lips are too blurry, and her chin is too big, and her jaw is too heavy, and her hair is all split ends and tangles (but not wild enough to be interesting), and with her brownish auburn hair and medium-brown eyes and dun skin-tone, she’s all one washed-out color. No punch. No pizazz. No waifish, delicate, might-be-dead-tomorrow magnetism here. No sir.

And that’s just her face. Look at her figure through the eyes of the porn fashion industry and you’ll see that her belly’s too soft and her waist is too thick and her breasts are both too small and too low, and her shoulders are too sloped, and her arms are too thick, and her hips are too square, and she could use a manicure.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

I mean, she doesn’t look at all like Keira Knightley on this cover of Allure, so heavily made up and post-processed that the closer you look the more she looks like a video-game avatar. Ms. Knightley doesn’t even look plastic here. Because she doesn’t even look that realistic. She looks like pure CGI. Oh, and what’s with the open fly and the sequined bolero jacket with nothing in between? Correction, nothing but body makeup and post-processing. Is this the new fashion? ‘Cuz I work on a campus with a lot of young women on it, and I ain’t seen no one walking around dressed quite like that.

I’m reminded of the first viral video of that Dove “real beauty” campaign, which, despite getting some harsh criticism from pretty much every direction, actually did a little bit to maybe get people thinking about just how realistic the images in that supermarket checkout (or on that billboard) really aren’t. At least for a moment.

Is it any wonder we have a distorted standard of feminine beauty in our culture? When the high-fashion publications and high-fashion advertising bombard us with images that are more fiction than fact? When even the “real” images are so idealized? When Venus herself looks frumpy and plain?

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Not that men in the public eye are entirely exempt from unrealistic standards of (and undue emphasis on) physical beauty. It’s certainly to a lesser extent, and less all-consuming, but I have a feeling that no one who looks like Abraham Lincoln would stand  much of a chance of being elected president these days. The fashion industry does have its unrealistic images of masculine beauty, of course. Open any high-fashion magazine and you’re going to see the images of the guys with their waxed chests and shaped eyebrows and flawless skin, because the ideal for either gender is a post-pubescent physique, minus the hormone-ravaged skin, with prepubescent hair growth (i.e., none to speak of). And the cosmetics industry does keep making attempts to get its toe in the door of the male market, with some success (skin care, shaving accoutrements, deodorants, gray-hair color and the like), but not nearly to the extent that it dominates the female market. A guy who’s out on the weekend unshaven in rumpled clothes and bed head is still just being a guy on the weekend. A girl who does the same thing is being unkempt and needs to clean up her act. No double standard there at all.

Thinking about this issue makes me miss that little Quaker college six miles west of here where I finished my bachelor’s degree. The traditional college years are an age when a lot of people experiment with nonconformity anyway, so combine that with an institution that was founded by nonconformists and actively encourages individuality and nonconformity in its students? It’s a thing of beauty, let me tell you. You’re more likely to find a copy of Adbusters lying around than a copy of Vogue. Attractive young women eschewed cosmetics, cut their hair into wake-and-go hairstyles, grew out their armpits, unibrows, mustaches, and leg hair, dressed in comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes, and headed out to class. Or to question authority. Or both.

I dug around for a while trying to find a picture from those days, but the closest I could come was this image of English-German author Charlotte Roche looking like she could have been one of my classmates there.

Charlotte Roche

Charlotte Roche

Around that time there was a billboard in town for a laser hair-removal “clinic” with a heavily-retouched photo of a hairless young woman in a postage stamp of a bikini, smooth pits open to the camera, with the legend, “You didn’t shave. You didn’t have to.” I wanted to make a spoof of that ad, same image same pose, same bikini, same legend, only with one of my classmates who was just as fit as the model in the original, except, and this is the important part, spectacularly furry.

But we’re all brainwashed. We’re so saturated with the industry’s definitions of beauty that our capacity for critical thinking just doesn’t even bother to kick in, because we see no reason to question it. I don’t think I realized quite how bad it was until just now, when I was doing the search that led to the Charlotte Roche image. Almost everything I found on the internet was ridiculing those women. Because clearly any woman would have to be a bit crazy to admit she had hair in her armpits. Or on her legs. Or in her pants. Or that she had a little bit of fat protecting her abdomen. Or that her breasts were lower than her pectoral muscles.

And that, my friends, is why Botticelli’s Venus can’t find a modeling gig.

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus,

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863

Cabanel’s Venus, on the other hand, might manage to find work, at least as a plus-size model. I mean, she does kinda look a little like Christina Hendricks.