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Archive for the 'American History' Category

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

A Stroke of the Pen

Chow Chop Suey

“Forty years after the Johnson-Reed Act had slammed the door on immigration from most of the world, people had generally stopped expecting further chapters to unfold in the story of immigrant cooking. Not even culinary snobs had reason to suppose that the new law [the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965] would ever affect anybody’s ideas of what to have for dinner in Minneapolis, Tallahassee, Boise, Spokane, Houston, or New York.” — Anne Mendelson

This week, our featured book is Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey, by Anne Mendelson. To start the week’s feature off, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book’s prologue.

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

The History of Chinese Food in the United States

Chow Chop Suey

“Wasn’t this sudden culinary coinage simply a travesty of honest Cantonese cuisine? Well, perhaps ‘travesty,’ but not ‘simply.’ The whole story is not at all simple. We would be wrongheaded to forget that chop suey and kindred inventions like American-style chow mein or foo young took on – and possess to this day — a vigorous life of their own in American culture. For more than a century they have given millions of white (and black) diners a pleasure not to be discredited by cavils about authenticity. By my lights, they represent a permanent enrichment of the American table, first accomplished by a community under siege.” — Anne Mendelson

This week, our featured book is Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey, by Anne Mendelson. Today, we are pleased to present an article on the intertwined history of Chinese immigrants and Chinese food in the United States.

The History of Chinese Food in the United States
By Anne Mendelson

“Go back to China!” a white woman screamed at New York Times deputy Metro editor Michael Luo during the homestretch of the 2016 presidential election. The taunt is vicious even now. But at one time in this country it often presaged not hateful stares but either deportation proceedings or homicidal violence.

Chinese entering California in the 1850s with hopes of gold or at least jobs soon found demagogues accusing them of malignantly undermining honest white workingmen’s wages. One result was a series of federal laws allowing Chinese manual laborers to be deported, after a year’s hard labor, unless they could produce official certificates of residency. Another was an eruption of arson and lynchings during the 1870s and ‘80s, frequently sanctioned by local authorities.

Cantonese-born fugitives from murderous xenophobia in the Far West not only founded the Chinatowns of the Midwest and the Eastern seaboard, but managed to invent an unexpected culinary novelty that white people called by the garbled name “chop suey.” For all its ignominious modern reputation, chop suey represented a pioneering gambit in American racial politics. It turned to surprising account a hated minority’s reputation as fine cooks.

One of the few things agreed on by both hostile and friendly Westerners was that, as an English newspaper correspondent stationed in China declared in 1857, “Every Chinaman has a natural aptitude for cookery.” A phenomenal talent for cooking to please white employers had earned Chinese men a niche as household servants even in Sinophobic California. Meanwhile, they cooked for themselves with great skill whenever possible, drawing on a supply network of ingredients imported from Hong Kong to San Francisco and later New York.

Refugees from lynch mobs began settling in New York’s old Five Points district at around 1870 and promptly founded restaurants serving Cantonese cuisine, widely regarded as China’s finest. Some white New Yorkers were intrigued enough to become regular chopstick-wielders at these eateries by the late 1880s.

Within a decade, the Chinese struck gold by carefully reading the dominant race’s preferences. They improvised an ingenious marriage between Cantonese-style stir-fried dishes and some striking effects inspired by their prior experience in cooking for white people. The winning formulas depended on plenty of sugar in glossy, starch-thickened sauces liberally laced with soy sauce and browning agents. The idea was to imitate roux-bound gravy from a Western-style roast while introducing supposedly “Oriental” touches.

White patrons joyously devoured the new dishes under such names as “chicken chop suey,” “beef chop suey,” or “shrimp chop suey.” These jumbled labels reflect linguistic cross-purposes. The Chinese characters for the same items indicate “chao [stir-fried] chicken,” “chao beef,” and so forth. But the English term “stir-fry” did not yet exist. The technique was unintelligible to people who had never seen the workings of a Chinese kitchen. Encountering the romanization “chow chop suey” (“chao mixed bits”) for a dish of stir-fried innards and offal, somebody cluelessly latched onto the last two words and ended up baptizing America’s first nationwide ethnic-crossover food craze.

With unerring instinct, Chinese restaurant cooks had fashioned a cuisine that appeared exotic and adventurous to the target audience while staying safely within a middlebrow white American frame of culinary-cultural reference. The combination of very rapidly prepared food – stir-frying is the ideal short-order cooking method – with atmospheric décor featuring Chinese lanterns or dragon motifs was an instant draw.

“Chop suey” caught on from coast to coast with a speed made possible by the new miracle of wire services distributing syndicated copy from big-city newspapers to the boondocks. By 1910 it was well on its way to being the stock-in-trade of Chinese restaurants in every metropolis, small city, and large town throughout the contiguous United States.

Wasn’t this sudden culinary coinage simply a travesty of honest Cantonese cuisine? Well, perhaps “travesty,” but not “simply.” The whole story is not at all simple. We would be wrongheaded to forget that chop suey and kindred inventions like American-style chow mein or foo young took on – and possess to this day — a vigorous life of their own in American culture. For more than a century they have given millions of white (and black) diners a pleasure not to be discredited by cavils about authenticity. By my lights, they represent a permanent enrichment of the American table, first accomplished by a community under siege.

At the height of “Go back to China!” rabble-rousing cloaked in the mantle of patriotic support for jobless native-born workers, an undaunted segment of the despised Chinese community in America responded by reaching across racial divides through the medium of food. The chop suey-style cuisine that it created may be more resoundingly American than Delmonico’s, the Golden Arches, or Trump Grill.

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

Introducing Chow Chop Suey

Chow Chop Suey

“It may seem unnecessary for a food historian to rehash events that have been abundantly chronicled by political and social historians. But I believe that readers of a book on Chinese American food will be well served by being asked to recognize these matters.” — Anne Mendelson

This week, our featured book is Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey, by Anne Mendelson. To start the week’s feature off, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book’s introduction.

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey

Chow Chop Suey

Chow Chop Suey is an eye-opener, a book that will give everyone a deep appreciation of the exquisite skill required to produce authentic Chinese food and the sweep of history that brought Chinese cooking to America. Anne Mendelson’s prodigious research has given us a highly respectful, insightful, refreshing, wonderfully written, and utterly compelling account of the role and plight of Chinese restaurant workers in this country. I learned something new on every page.” — Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of Soda Politics

This week, our featured book is Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey, by Anne Mendelson. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Whose Identity? Which Politics?

Desegregating the Past

“Even when museums like the NMAAHC explore into painful content like racial violence and terrorism, it is seen as delving for the purpose of presenting a resilient identity narrative. And they do. But so does the National Museum of American History in its presentation of Americana, from Dorothy’s ruby red slippers to the two hundred year-old flag from the American Revolution. The relegation of museums like the NMAAHC to the stuff of identity politics neutralizes those driven by white nostalgia.” — Robyn Autry

The following is an excerpt from an article by Robyn Autry, author of Desegregating the Past: The Public Life of Memory in the United States and South Africa, originally posted at the Huffington Post.

Whose Identity? Which Politics?
By Robyn Autry

In the weeks following the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in late September, a historic presidency ended, and then hundreds of thousands of people converged on the National Mall as another shocking one began. The NMAAHC hosted a widely popular alternative inauguration organized by Busboys and Poets, increasing its symbolic power as a place of resistance and celebration. How can we make sense of the throngs of people still flocking to the Mall to visit that nation’s first black history museum in a political climate openly hostile to so-called identity politics?

The NMAAH is not an identity museum per se. Neither is the National Museum of the American Indian, nor the Latino and Asian Pacific history museums also under consideration. Or, at least they are no more driven by the desire to celebrate identity than the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum or the National Museum of American History, or even the National Air & Space Museum. In fact, all historical products, whether they be national museums or history textbooks, contain facts and fictions about who we are, or dream of being in relation to lives already lived and lost and those still in the making. In effect, they all offer different interpretations of how great America was (or wasn’t) and how we can all do better.

While there is nothing wrong with projects aiming to interpret or represent collective identities, ‘identity-driven’ is a label used to distinguish them from those museums viewed as more objective or less biased. Museums dedicated to representing the lives and cultures of people of color are seen as self-affirming celebrations that some see as divisive and fixated on what makes us different. Critics also charge that these museums offer less historical context and material evidence or artifacts, relying instead on personal testimonies, multimedia displays, and sweeping summaries. In short, they are thought to be touchy-feely. Even when museums like the NMAAHC explore into painful content like racial violence and terrorism, it is seen as delving for the purpose of presenting a resilient identity narrative. And they do. But so does the National Museum of American History in its presentation of Americana, from Dorothy’s ruby red slippers to the two hundred year-old flag from the American Revolution. The relegation of museums like the NMAAHC to the stuff of identity politics neutralizes those driven by white nostalgia.

After decades of political maneuvering, fundraising, and development, the NMAAHC opened on September 24, 2016. Televised and streamed online, the extraordinary occasion was marked by heartfelt words from President Obama, Congressperson John Lewis, Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith, and musical performances of Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle and Angélique Kidjo. Even more noteworthy, were the 30,000 ordinary people who visited the first weekend, and the tens of thousands who have followed them. With lines circling the building, the museum has been so popular that timed-passes are still being used to manage crows and to allow more people to traverse the 350,000 square foot museum. The passes available online are booked through June 2017, with a limited number being offered for same-day visitors.

How can we account for such keen interest in the museum, from the millions of dollars raised to the thousands of people clamoring to get inside? It’s as much about an insistence that identity is indeed political, as it is about collective yearnings to see that which has been kept off limits, to venture into those spaces that unsettle official accounts and expose the social fissures we already fully know exist.

Read the article in full at the Huffington Post.

Friday, November 18th, 2016

Richard Plunz on Housing in New York City

A History of Housing, Richard Plunz

We conclude our week-long feature on New York City books with A History of Housing in New York City, by Richard Plunz, who recently appeared on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show to discuss the book.

In the interview, Plunz discussed the unique historical situation that New York City confronts today with a combination of a housing shortage and an affordability crisis. As Plunz explains, the efforts of Mayors Bloomberg and DeBlasio have largely been frustrated for a variety of political and economic reasons. With new little land in the City to build upon, solutions to the problem are somewhat elusive.

Plunz also talked about the future of public housing and ways in which neighborhood can become more integrated. Needless to say, the city’s most famous real-estate figure was also discussed and Plunz expressed skepticism that the president-elect would pay much attention to housing for those not in the upper classes.

Finally, Plunz considers his favorite part of the book, which was Bronx in the 1920s. It was during this period that many immigrants moved out of the Lower East Side and built great housing in the Bronx and created a vibrant community of associations and neighborhoods.

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

The Prehistory of Brooklyn Bridge Park

A History of Brooklyn Bridge Park

We are continuing our focus on New York City books with A History of Brooklyn Bridge Park: How a Community Reclaimed and Transformed New York City’s Waterfront, Nancy Webster and David Shirley.

In the introduction, Webster and Shirley examine the prehistory to the park and how the area, which was once a bustling pier fell into disuse. By the 1970s, the piers had become abandoned and it was at this point that the Brooklyn community stepped in to imagine the space as a possible park on the water.

At the end of the introduction, we’ve included some images from how the park looks today.

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

An Interview with Gayle Rogers, author of “Incomparable Empires”

Gayle Rogers, Incomparable Empires

“But we should ask ourselves why we (and anyone, globally) might wish to study foreign literatures? To make ourselves better, more well-rounded humans? That’s a lofty and often immeasurable goal. To understand better the cultures that we fear, the cultures of the markets our country is entering, to understand our own syncretistic pasts? All complicated, too. And then, how much is enough?”—Gayle Rogers

The following is an interview with Gayle Rogers, author of Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature:

Question: What was the role of empire in shaping how Americans saw themselves and their culture over the past century?

Gayle Rogers: I have always had a profound interest in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the “splendid little war” that set into motion many trends that are still unfolding in our contemporary moment. I came across this amazing speech from 1899 by William Graham Sumner, a famous sociologist and anti-imperialist. It was called—and this is not a typo—“The Conquest of the United States by Spain.” Sumner believed that this new stage of American imperialism, marked by the country’s first overseas interventionist war, would ultimately ruin the country, just like imperialism had ruined Spain over the course of several centuries. He claimed that the United States had “beaten Spain in a military conflict” but was “submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies.” In other words, we were on a course to become the new Spain—a formerly great empire that had gradually lost all of its foreign territories (including large swaths of the United States itself) and, at the turn of the twentieth century, found itself bankrupt, broken, and largely forgotten on the world stage.

This notion that a growing empire would cause America’s cultural ruin led me to the larger issues that this book takes up: namely, the relationship between geopolitical power (often exercised through imperialism) and literary eminence. A common narrative holds that the United States was a minor or second-rate literary scene at least until the late 1800s—that we were derivative, that we mostly imported British and French texts that held higher and more enduring cultural value. And then, we emerged onto the global literary stage right around the moment that we began acquiring overseas territories, consolidating our new territories and states in the west and southwest, and intervening all across the western hemisphere. In essence, against Sumner’s claims, American empire meant the birth of a globalized American literature.

Q: So, greater empire, greater literary prominence?

GR: The Spanish-American War looks like a well-placed axis in which the United States surges and Spain declines, with geopolitical and literary fortunes neatly yoked together in both cases. Of course, it’s not so simple, and as I knew from reading a good deal of literature of the early twentieth century, many leading authors believed that such a narrative was either horribly misleading or, if accurate, the signal of a terrible future for America in particular.

Q: To what extent are the imperial fortunes of Spain and the United States unique, or how do they speak to larger cultural or literary questions?

GR: I realized that this case study—the U.S. and Spain—actually framed a host of larger issues about the way we write literary histories: the models and assumptions we rely on, the trajectories and paths we follow in them. The modernist author John Dos Passos looked at the state of literature in the mid-1910s and concluded that great eras of empire actually strangle fruitful literary production, and so, he hoped that America’s new empire would quickly collapse in order to allow its literature to truly flourish. He saw a model in post-imperial Spain, where his peers like the novelist Pío Baroja were headlining what he believed was a new golden age of Spanish letters in the wake of an empire’s collapse.

(more…)

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

A 19th Century Populist Revolt Against NYC’s Elite — An Excerpt from “In Pursuit of Privilege”

In Pursuit of Privilege, Clifton Hood

“The draft riots were carried out by desperate people who had serious grievances against the established order yet who lacked access to political and social channels for seeking redress for their grievances. Resorting to force because they had few alternatives, the rioters conducted reprisals against members of social groups and institutions whom they blamed for their suffering.”—Clifton Hood, In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis

One of the most violent challenges to New York City’s elite was during the Draft Riots in 1863. Clifton Hood writes about the riots in his new book In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis. In the passage below, Hood describes how white working-class frustrations led to violence against African Americans and the elite:

Irish immigrants lived in appalling poverty and endured ethnic and religious discrimination from the Protestant majority. In the six months since President Lincoln had made the abolition of slavery an official war aim by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, speeches by Fernando Wood and other Peace Democrats had stoked Irish fears that the freed slaves would compete for jobs and drive down wages. And now, with the passage of a conscription law designed to rectify the manpower shortages caused by the wartime slaughter, the federal government proposed to tear working-class men from their families and send them to the butcher’s yard, all, it seemed, to elevate African Americans above white workers.Worse yet was a provision of the conscription law permitting anyone who had been drafted to secure an exemption by paying a $300 waiver fee, a stipulation that put the burden of combat on the poor.

The draft riots were carried out by desperate people who had serious grievances against the established order yet who lacked access to political and social channels for seeking redress for their grievances. Resorting to force because they had few alternatives, the rioters conducted reprisals against members of social groups and institutions whom they blamed for their suffering. Mobs assaulted sites associated with the Republican Party, such as the offices of the New York Tribune and the home of its editor, Horace Greeley, and symbols of police and military authority, like police stations and draft offices. Yet their prime targets were African Americans. A large crowd attacked the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, clubbing to death a nine-year-old girl who was discovered hiding under a bed. African American men were beaten and sometimes killed and mutilated. The bodies of African American men were hung from trees and lampposts. Their homes were destroyed. By the time that five regiments dispatched from the Gettysburg battlefield could restore calm, at least 105 people died and another 2,000 were injured.

To read more:

Monday, November 14th, 2016

Book(s) Giveaway! 3 New Books on New York City!

This week we are very excited to be featuring three new titles in New York City history: In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis, by Clifton Hood; A History of Brooklyn Bridge Park: How a Community Reclaimed and Transformed New York City’s Waterfront, by Nancy Webster and David Shirley; and the revised edition of A History of Housing in New York City, by Richard Plunz with a foreword by Kenneth T. Jackson.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of each book to one lucky winner! To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, November 18 at 1:00 pm.

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

Interview with Richard Plunz, author of “A History of Housing in New York City”

Richard Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City

“Beyond doubt the large question facing New York housing production today has to do with a market that can not provide for the half of our households that are low income…. One can hope that growing public pressure bottom-up can merge with a top-down realization that we need to innovate in order to grow and prosper as a competitive and cosmopolitan global urban entity.”—Richard Plunz

Tonight, Richard Plunz will be at The Museum of the City of New York to discuss the revised edition of his classic book, A History of Housing in New York City. Below is an interview he recently had with the State of the Planet, part of the Earth Institute:

Question: What prompted you to revise the history?

Richard Plunz: The book has had a long shelf-life and is still very much in use, such that it seems important to update it to include the period of the past two decades. As well, the changes that the past 25 years have brought seem especially important to keep in the public eye, as housing becomes a growing concern in New York. Indeed, housing production plays an essential role in forming our culture and economy, and at present is too little recognized as such. For example, housing should be considered “resilient infrastructure,” but is rarely considered as such. And “climate resilience” obviously must engage where and how people live, let’s say the “soft” side of the equation, in addition to heavy infrastructure. Amazingly, infrastructural discussion in the present presidential campaign is limited to roads and bridges and shorelines, rather than to city fabrics, even as every city faces “affordability” issues of one form or another.

Q: Looking over the past 25 years, what do you see as the most significant changes or trends in housing in the city?

RP: There are many changes, and many are substantial improvements in the quality of life in the city relative to the rather dark days of the 1980s, which is when the earlier edition ends its narrative. As Ken Jackson describes so well in his preface, the Bronx is no longer burning, the pathologies of crack cocaine are no longer with us, and all of the advantages of our density are apparent as we move into an age when urban resilience is synonymous with well-being both local and global. Yet there is a dark side to this transformation. Neighborhoods have gentrified to the great detriment of long-term residents who are displaced; the positive economics have not abated the homeless dilemma; the robust housing market is limited to the high end, [and] that leaves half of the city with little recourse. And if the growing lack of equity in terms of access to adequate housing will not abate, how will we be able to resolve our long-term economic and social viability.

Q: You say in your preface to the revised edition of A History of Housing in New York City that New York has had the most severe housing problems, and also been a center for innovation and reform. In updating the story, where now do you see the worst problems, and where do you find innovation, and perhaps reform?

RP: Beyond doubt the large question facing New York housing production today has to do with a market that can not provide for the half of our households that are low income. And while both Mayors DeBlasio and Bloomberg tried various measures to stimulate this production, it remains unacceptably flat. The last mayoral campaign was won based on this question of fundamental inequities. But our tools for stimulation are too limited, and therefore innovation must somehow break out of normative models. One can hope that growing public pressure bottom-up can merge with a top-down realization that we need to innovate in order to grow and prosper as a competitive and cosmopolitan global urban entity.

(more…)

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Alan Schroeder on How Twitter is Changing Presidential Debates

Presidential Debates, Alan Schroeder

“The explosive growth of Twitter brought not just a dramatic increase in the number of users in 2012 but also a radical shift in the way presidential debates are viewed, critiqued, won, and spun. By exponentially broad­ening the conversation, Twitter, along with other social media, forced campaigns and the press to reconfigure their approach to debates.”—Alan Schroeder, Presidential Debates

In the following excerpt from Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, Alan Schroeder considers the impact that Twitter had on the 2012 presidential debates and the way campaigns use social media.

2012: THE YEAR OF TWITTER

The general election debates in 2008—three between Obama and McCain, one between Biden and Palin—generated a combined total of around half a million debate-related tweets. Four years later, the firrst Obama–Romney debate alone inspired 10.3 million tweets, making it the most tweeted-about event in American political history up to that point, and the fourth most tweeted-about telecast of any kind. By the time the series ended in 2012, some 27.5 million debate-related tweets had been sent—fifty-.ve times as many as in the previous presi­dential race.

Impressive as these statistics are, they tell only part of the story. The explosive growth of Twitter brought not just a dramatic increase in the number of users in 2012 but also a radical shift in the way presidential debates are viewed, critiqued, won, and spun. By exponentially broad­ening the conversation, Twitter, along with other social media, forced campaigns and the press to reconfigure their approach to debates.

A key effect of Twitter was to transplant the locus of debate reaction from after to during the event, with live responses delivering an ongo­ing nationwide verdict. According to Democratic debate adviser Ron Klain, “It definitely moves the power over how this event is interpreted from a postdebate spin game to an in-the-debate Twitter game.” What was once a closed loop—journalists covering the debate, campaigns seeking to influence that coverage—is now open to the public at large. And the public has eagerly jumped on board.

“Twitter has become the natural companion to the televised experi­ence,” according to Adam Sharp, head of government and elections for Twitter in Washington, D.C. “It has taken us back to the idea of every­body gathering together on the couch to share the experience of watch­ing this pivotal event in history—but now, that couch is big enough to .t the whole country.”

Shortly after the first Obama–Romney debate, Dashiell Bennett of the Atlantic summed up the shift in an online post entitled “Twitter Won the Presidential Debate.” “The idea of watching such a key national event without the instant reactions of your fellow tweeters has become almost unthinkable,” Bennett said. “If you’re just watching on TV and not tak­ing part in (or at least following) the simultaneous online conversation, then you might as well not even be paying attention at all.”

Debate reaction on Twitter and other social media took some unfore­seen turns. Bluefin Labs, a social analytics company in Cambridge, Mas­sachusetts, conducted a study of social media conversations as part of its Crowdwire initiative, which focused on the presidential election of 2012. According to Crowdwire, more women than men commented about the first debate by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. “It pulled in a lot of women who don’t typically talk about political shows,” Crowd-wire concluded; “younger women in particular.” Over the course of the remaining debates, women continued to outnumber men as social media commenters.

Researchers found that nearly one in ten of those who wrote on so­cial media about the opening Obama–Romney debate were tweeting or posting about a televised event for the first time. “The Super Bowl and several entertainment-awards shows have drawn responses from large numbers of newbies,” according to Crowdwire. “But this is the first time a political event has sparked such a large in. ux.” To a great extent, debate reaction on Twitter centered upon specific phrases and moments. Mitt Romney’s reference to Big Bird inspired more than 250,000 tweets. President Obama’s “horses and bayonets” line sparked more than 105,000, and Joe Biden’s use of the word malarkey produced 30,000. Romney’s oddly constructed phrase “binders full of women,” intended to accentuate his commitment to gender diversity, rose to number one on Twitter’s trending topics. Each of these examples became amplified both during and after the debates in parody accounts, Facebook groups, web searches, and visual spoofs.

(more…)

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

Alan Schroeder on the Debating Styles of Kennedy and Nixon

“Kennedy ran for president not just as a politician, but as a leading man. In the debates as in the overall campaign, this positioning paid off. Presumed stardom led to genuine stardom.”—Alan Schroeder

The first televised presidential debate took place, of course, in 1960 pitting John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon. Their first debate has become historic if not almost mythological in its importance and its legacy for the modern presidential campaign. In his introduction to Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, Alan Schroeder takes us behind the scenes of that now-legendary debate.

Below, we’ve also included an excerpt from later in the book in which Schroeder analyzes the performances of Kennedy and Nixon. In assessing the performance of JFK, Schroeder writes, “Kennedy ran for president not just as a politician, but as a leading man. In the debates as in the overall campaign, this positioning paid off. Presumed stardom led to genuine stardom.”

Nixon had actually very skillfully used television to his advantage while vice-president. His famous “Checkers” speech and the “kitchen debate” with Khrushchev showed his ability to to command the media spotlight. While fatigue and illness certainly played a part in Nixon’s weak performance, it can also be attributed to his lack of understanding about the nature of the debate. Schroeder explains, “Nixon had fundamentally misconceived the event, viewing it as a rhetorical exercise, while Kennedy approached it as a television show.”

In addition to the excerpt below, we also offer a clip from that first debate:

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

Interview with Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates

Presidential Debates, Alan Schroeder

“Debaters must remember that audiences appreciate performers who relish the platform, who take pleasure in delivering a nimble performance. The best debaters—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, for instance—always communicated a desire to engage with voters, to sell the message.”—Alan Schroeder

Today’s New York Times has an article on how Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are preparing or not preparing for their debate on September 26th. In the following interview with Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, he addresses what makes for a good debater, what’s at stake, and how debates might be improved.

Question: The presidential primary debates of 2015-2016 set viewership records and generated enormous media coverage. How are general election debates different from primary debates?

Alan Schroeder: The key difference is that primary debates are produced by the television news networks, which approach them as vehicles for selling advertising and generating revenue. This became particularly true in the most recent campaign cycle, when the presence of Donald Trump in the Republican debates drew millions of viewers who otherwise would probably have tuned out. These primary debates generated tons of income for CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and various other media outlets. General election debates, on the other hand, are sponsored and produced by an independent debate commission and contain no commercial breaks or advertising messages. Despite their enormous ratings, these blockbuster events fall into the category of public service programming, which means they generate zero profits.

Another difference between primary and general election debates: the number of participants. This past cycle, with nearly 20 candidates on the Republican side, debate producers had to divide the field into two teams—varsity and junior varsity—as a way of bringing the production logistics under control. In a general election, obviously, there are usually only two (sometimes three) contenders sharing the stage, which creates an entirely different rhythm and dynamic. Last but not least, general election debates feature considerably higher stakes and a far higher profile than primary debates. Candidates who stumble in primary debates stand a good chance of recovering; in the big leagues, a poor performance resounds with vastly more damaging consequences.

Q: What makes a good presidential debater?

AS: A fundamental requirement of any good presidential debater is that he or she wants to be up on that stage debating. If we analogize debates to job interviews, then it follows that a candidate must use the 90 minutes at hand to make a positive impression on the folks who do the hiring—the voters. Too often candidates go into debates dreading the experience—Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992, George W. Bush in 2004. Seeking protection, these reluctant warriors arm themselves with talking points and one-liners that come across as phony. Debaters must remember that audiences appreciate performers who relish the platform, who take pleasure in delivering a nimble performance. The best debaters—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, for instance—always communicated a desire to engage with voters, to sell the message.

Other qualities are also required: advance preparation, command of the issues, projection of authority, an appropriate attitude toward one’s opponent and toward the moderators who ask the questions. All these things matter a great deal, though not as much as that simple desire to be there.

Q: How has the rise of social media changed debates?

AS: Social media have reinvented the way people consume presidential debates. To an increasing degree, especially among the young, debate watching is a dual-screen ritual, with viewers keeping one eye on the debate and one on the reaction. The rise of social media has democratized the viewing experience, allowing the general public to have its say alongside that of professional journalists and pundits. Because reaction on social media can be measured in real time, the power of the people manifests itself more strongly and more immediately than ever.

Social media—especially Twitter—have shifted the debate conversation from a post-event activity to something that occurs while the debate unfolds. It used to be that winners and losers would be declared only after the fact, when pundits and spinners rushed on the air at debate’s end to render their judgments. Today post-debate spin has been largely supplanted by real-time reaction in social media. For the debaters themselves, this means that any misstep at any moment has the potential to instantaneously alter the commentary’s direction and tone. Pressure on presidential debaters has always been enormous, but with social media that pressure becomes even more relentless. After a widely panned first debate in 2012, for instance, Barack Obama spent the next two weeks trying to divert the story line back onto favorable terrain.

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Monday, August 29th, 2016

Book Giveaway! “Presidential Debates”

With the election season heading into the home stretch, we are featuring the third edition of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, by Alan Schroeder.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Presidential Debates to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, September 2nd at 1:00 pm.

Allan Louden writes, “Schroeder reaches beyond the political junkie and occasional academic with Presidential Debates. Packed with illustrative stories and enough intrigue to be an ‘insider’s’ view, this book not only can be read as a history of presidential debates, but, more importantly, brings alive the dynamic and evolutionary nature of political debates.”

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

Interview with William Paul, author of “When Movies Were Theater”

When Movies Were Theater, William Paul

“How to arrange a movie theater might seem a fairly simple matter: a projector at one end, a screen at the other, seats in between. But it turned out not to be so simple after all.”—William Paul

The following is an interview with William Paul, author of When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film:

Question: Nowadays, we are used to watching movies anywhere and everywhere. Why should the space in which we view a movie make any difference?

William Paul: Beginning with the rise of television in the 1950s, the moving image became progressively divorced from architecture, but before that movies were for the most part associated with a specific architectural form. Given that early movies ran for less than a minute, showing a collection of them in a row could fit very nicely into the modular programming of the vaudeville theater. And so, in the United States, movies initially became associated with vaudeville, with each of the short films in the collection chosen for the sake of variety. Consequently, variety became a strong concern in American film exhibition. With the decline of live performance in the sound period, variety nevertheless continued to be an important concern in movie exhibition: programs of short films and double bills, two features for the price of one, made up in variety what was lost in live performance. And variety might well have been a governing aesthetic in American film production, leading to odd things like song numbers in gangster films or in film noir.

Q: So, theater programming at the time had an impact on film exhibition, but in what ways did the space of the theater impact on movies?

WP: How to arrange a movie theater might seem a fairly simple matter: a projector at one end, a screen at the other, seats in between. But it turned out not to be so simple after all. Vaudeville theaters in the 1890s, for example, were built on the dominant horseshoe form, which put a large proportion of the audience at extreme angles to the movie screen. The early design for purpose-built movie theaters recognized the problem of side-view distortion by an understanding that long and narrow was the best configuration for viewing a flat image.

The increasing dominance of the feature film throughout the teens coincides with the building of the great movie palaces. Architecturally these invoked live-performance theaters, but on a scale that went far beyond anything used for drama. While the theaters built in Times Square in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century ranged from about 600 to 2,000 seats, the palaces ranged from 2,500 to 6,000 seats. These enormous sizes were based on the belief, actually mistaken, that the optics of the motion picture image presented the same view to every audience member and democratized theater in the process. While early film theory sought to distinguish movies from theater, the architecture of these spaces announced that movies were an extension of theater, drama for the masses. These theaters stressed the continuity between movies and live drama in one other regard: the screen was located upstage, anywhere from twelve to twenty feet back from the curtain line, and placed within a theatrical set rather than the now familiar black cloth surround. The set was often a variation on a window in a garden, with the window being replaced by a screen when the show began, but it also might be a set specifically related to the content of the feature film. So, for example, performances of Quo Vadis (1913) had the image surrounded by a set that invoked ancient Rome. Although the image would be the brightest area on the stage, the set would be visible throughout the show and necessarily had an impact on how movies were shot.

Q: Does this mean that the theaters impacted on film style?

WP: There is ample evidence, from contemporary observers as well as the films themselves, that these palaces did have an impact on the development of American film style. Even as the architectural spaces kept getting bigger and bigger, the screen itself remained fairly small in order to keep the image sharp and brightly illuminated. In the early store theaters and nickelodeons that preceded the rise of the feature film, the screens generally ran from twelve to fourteen feet wide. In the palaces the screens grew somewhat larger, ranging from twenty to twenty-four feet wide, but they would be located on stages with proscenium openings from about forty all the way up to one hundred feet. Aside from emphasizing the theatricality of movies, one of the functions of the “picture settings,” the theatrical sets that surrounded the film image, was to make the image seem less small by expanding the visual field. Locating this small image on a very large stage had a number of consequences, but let me isolate the most obvious one here: as the architectural spaces got progressively larger, the camera throughout the teens got progressively closer in. The resulting style which became dominant in the twenties privileged close-ups as a way of making story points or revealing character. Clearly this style was in part a consequence of the grand spaces in which these movies were shown.

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Thursday, July 7th, 2016

The Sierra Club as Book Publisher — An Excerpt from The Man Who Built the Sierra Club

The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower, Robert Wyss

“Brower was now the darling of publishing, the upstart who had proven that the commercial publishers were wrong. He had created a new genre, an expensive, sprawling book that openly touted an environmental message.”—Robert Wyss, The Man Who Built the Sierra Club

In the late 1950s David Brower wanted to produce a book of Ansel Adams photographs celebrating nature. It would be a big, slick, oversized book of very high quality. But commercial book publishers scoffed at the proposed book, saying it was too expensive and it would never sell. Brower convinced the Sierra Club to assume the risks and thus was born the first in a series of what were called Exhibit Format books. Brower edited or oversaw virtually all of the books, which were wildly successful and changed both the club, and publishing.

Today we excerpt from The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A life of David Brower, the story behind one of the early books published by Eliot Porter.

In 1950 Eliot Porter’s wife suggested that Porter do a book on Henry David Thoreau. “Your pictures remind me so much of him,” she told Porter. “They show his Walden as it is.” No one was more qualified than Porter, who ten years earlier had given up a career in medicine and research at Harvard to take photographs of nature.

What catapulted Porter’s reputation, bringing Brower and the Sierra Club books along for the ride, was the color Porter could achieve. His chemistry background enabled him in his own darkroom to experiment with Eastman Kodak Company’s new Kodachrome film at a time when other photographers shunned it. Porter spent years experimenting, but the result was clear, crisp color transparencies that dazzled. They pushed Porter to the forefront of photography as the popularity of color surged and that of black and white waned.

It took Porter ten years to finish the Thoreau book, and the expense of printing it scared publishers until it got to Brower. The beauty of the proposed book overwhelmed Brower, and he told Porter in a letter in February 1961 that he would be willing to begin a life of crime to pay for its publication. He knew he would need lots of cash to undertake the book and he finally convinced a local businessman, Kenneth Bechtel to provide $50,000 in loans and grants to subsidize the book. Bechtel was an interesting choice. His family owned an engineering and construction company based in San Francisco that was best known for building oil refineries, power plants, and facilities. In later years Brower would rail against such projects.

The next challenge was to find a printer capable of reproducing Porter’s superb color photographs. It took months before Barnes Press of New York passed muster on the samples it showed to Brower and Porter. Barnes needed to produce ten thousand copies of Porter’s seventy-two color prints and to get the four colors to balance and register on the presses. The firm used a sixteen-plate form, with four rows of four, each of a different photographic image. The yellows, reds, blues, and blacks had to be matched perfectly in trial runs, with paper spewing off the presses. These experimental runs took an inordinate amount of time and often forced another trial. Brower recalled one evening when he stayed to supervise, while Porter and the owner of the press, Hugh Barnes, went to dinner around seven. Barnes returned at nine. Brower stayed until eleven and returned to his hotel. Porter, who had slept after dinner, returned at one and stayed until dawn. This kind of pattern was not unusual at Barnes, and Brower’s journal for years in the 1960s was filled with entries of his returning to the printing company at odd hours of the day or night.

Finally, on a day in August 1962, Brower, Porter, Barnes, and others gathered around press number 3 and watched the first 2,500 sheets roar off the presses. The men examined them at a table, using lenses carefully.

They were excellent, recalled Brower, but they were not perfect.

Hugh Barnes agreed. “How about it, Dave, shall we throw out the first 2,500 sheets, and will you go fifty-fifty with me on the cost of the paper?”

How much would that cost? Barnes said $200 for each of them. For Brower, that was equal to the amount of dues the club got in a year from twenty-five members, but he agreed.

Barnes returned a few minutes later. “You did the right thing,” he said. “Now they (the Barnes workers) really know that this is a fussy job.”

Even though this book would be sold at an incredibly expensive $25 (the equivalent of nearly $200 fifty years later), the first five thousand books of In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World quickly sold out, as did the next nine reprints. Critics praised the book. “Only a bold photographer could try to capture Thoreau’s vision again and again. But Mr. Porter succeeds triumphantly,” declared the Christian Science Monitor.

In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World, Eliot Porter

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Thursday, July 7th, 2016

Who Was David Brower — A Post by Robert Wyss

The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower, Robert Wyss

“What mattered [to David Brower] was the long term, not for what his contemporaries thought of him. ‘Environmentalists make terrible neighbors,’ he often said, ‘but great ancestors.’ And Brower was both.”—Robert Wyss, author of The Man Who Built the Sierra Club

The following post is by Robert Wyss, author of The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower:

John McPhee writing in the New Yorker in 1971 called him the Archdruid, a moniker he expanded upon when he wrote Encounters With An Archdruid.

Two documentary films were produced about Brower during his lifetime and the titles say a great deal about the duality of the man they were profiling. One was For Earth’s Sake and Brower liked it so much he borrowed it for one of the several memoir-type books he produced. The other was even more grandiose — Monumental.

Those productions along with a vast trove of newspaper and magazine stories including obituaries after Brower’s death in November, 2000 were what I had to go on when I began working on my biography, The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower.

It turned out that Brower was a far more complicated character than I ever imagined. In some respect, a researcher’s delight because of all of the trails he took me down. But in others, a writer’s challenge.

Here’s what I wrote in the book’s introduction:

Over the years, David Brower has been called many things—tireless, unyielding, passionate, visionary, bold, influential, uncompromising, handsome, charismatic, opinionated, and articulate. He became a circuit-riding prophet, the environmental movement’s conscience who defined conservation and environmentalism from the mid-1950s until his death in 2000. He was an angry trailblazer responsible more than any other for turning environmentalism from hiking and bird-watching into a social and political force.

Those same admirers also called Brower stubborn, contentious, controversial, irascible, impossible, polarizing, impolitic, impolite, and a notorious curmudgeon. He on occasion would willingly stretch facts into falsehoods, was so unwilling to tamp down his views that he destroyed lifelong friendships, and refused to take orders even from those in institutional positions above him. He was frustratingly independent.

And yet he did all of this for one selfless reason—to sustain the earth’s natural environment. He wanted to save as much of the planet as possible from humans. He wanted to preserve what remained of the natural world and safely pass it to future generations.

Two related stories illustrate the opposing sides of Brower, the idealist conservationist who awakened a new movement and the messianic hubris that prompted him to engage in willful insubordination.

In 1966 Brower was engaged in his greatest conservation battle of his days as executive director of the Sierra Club, and he was losing. The federal government wanted to build two dams in the Grand Canyon, and as outlandish as this plan was, few seemed alarmed.

Brower placed full-page advertisements in some of the nation’s largest newspapers. The most famous declared: “Should We Also Flood the Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer the Ceiling?”

The next day the U.S. Internal Revenue Service told the Sierra Club it was under investigation because the club was violating its’ tax exempt status by engaging in political activity. This was a blow—the Sierra Club depended on such donations for its financial survival.

Brower announced that the federal government was trying to censor the Sierra Club and the story literally exploded in the news. Why was the club losing its tax status? Because we’re trying to save the Grand Canyon, Brower said. Newspapers were irate, so was the public.

It was the tipping point. Dam builders were quickly on the defensive and they never recovered. Within months the dam project was dead.

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Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

An Interview with Robert Wyss, author of “The Man Who Built the Sierra Club”

The Man Who Built the Sierra Club, Robert Wyss

“[David] Brower was a true bellwether, a man ahead of his time.”—Robert Wyss

The following is an interview with Robert Wyss, author of The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower:

Question: What was the status of the environmental movement when David Brower began as the head of the Sierra Club in 1953?

Robert Wyss: Weak. It was called the conservation movement and there was a plethora of volunteer organizations from (women’s) garden clubs to professional science organizations to a very few broad based groups like Audubon. But only a handful employed even a single full-time employee. Brower was the first at the Sierra Club. Washington D.C. was also far smaller in those days so it was possible for either prominent volunteers of these organizations (or their paid directors) to meet and have personal relationships with people who headed the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. But they had very little clout in Congress. In contrast, a little known agency such as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for decades made massive changes in America’s landscape by erecting these massive dams. Dams created jobs and both voters and Congress appreciated those federal dam builders.

Q: How did Brower’s approach to environmental conservation differ from others?

RW: Brower was absolutely fearless. While his colleagues refused to directly challenge the Bureau of Reclamation, Brower took them on and soon he was also criticizing the Forest Service and even those who should have been his friends running the national parks. The incident that first began to build Brower’s national reputation occurred during the fight to oppose the construction of two dams in Dinosaur National Monument. Reclamation officials had made a very basic math mistake in their calculations to justify the dams but it dealt with an arcane issue few understood. Engineers told Brower that while the mistake was obvious, it would be foolhardy to confront Reclamation. No one would believe the dam builders made such a mistake. Brower ignored the advice, he publicly confronted the Bureau in a Congressional hearing, and ultimately Reclamation engineers backed down. Such reckless, plucky daring can be found throughout Brower’s career.

Q: How did he change the Sierra Club from the mission set by John Muir?

RW: John Muir founded the club in 1892 to encourage his friends in the greater San Francisco area to hike and camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Muir was a pretty radical conservationist for his era, but after he died in 1914 the club became politically conservative. It was a California-based hiking and social club that preferred to work through gentlemanly channels to protect natural resources. That was changing after World War II when a new, younger board of directors hired Brower. Brower expanded the club’s focus nationally and it became increasingly confrontational. Older members were immediately uncomfortable with this approach and as Brower (over the years) became more radical he began to lose the support that would contribute to his firing in 1969. But in many respects Brower was only following in the footsteps of Muir. They both strongly believed in protecting natural resources over anything else.

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Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

Book Giveaway! The Man Who Built the Sierra Club

This week we are featuring The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower, by Robert Wyss.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Man Who Built the Sierra Club to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, July 8th at 1:00 pm.

In their review of the book Library Journal wrote, “A riveting…. extensively researched, balanced account…. This absorbing portrait of a flawed yet fascinating figure, beloved and scorned, who defined America’s national parks will engage all biography lovers.”

You can also read the Introduction: