Thursday, August 19, 2010

Plumes Happen

Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have taken what they characterize as a major step toward establishing that the Deepwater Horizon disaster created underwater plumes of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

In a study appearing in the August 19 issue of the journal Science, the researchers gave measurements for a plume they studied in June, before Hurricane Alex forced them to abandon the work. They described it as about 1,100 meters below the Gulf's surface, over 35 kilometers long, 200 meters high and up to 2 kilometers wide. It also contained about 6 to 7 percent of all the BTEX hydrocarbons -- the variously toxic benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes -- which leaked from the Macondo well. In addition, quantities of dissolved oxygen the WHOI team found around the plume had not dropped to levels that would suggest bacteria were breaking down the oil.

The plume might be hard to discern with the naked eye. "It looks like spring water," said Chris Reddy, one of the study's co-authors, describing the samples taken from the plume area. Photos of the water column, however, show a change in water color and turbidity at the level of the plume. In addition, it was clearly detectable using mass spectrometry from an autonomous underwater vehicle which traversed the plume area and found abnormally high levels of hydrocarbons which could be tracked back to BP's Macondo Well.

Remotely operated vehicle (ROV) still images taken during descent through the water column from a location less than 500 meters southwest of the well site on June 1, 2010. Still images were recorded from a forward looking video camera on the ROV. A highly turbid oil-emulsion layer was evident in the depth region between 1065 and 1300 meters, with small oil droplets temporarily collecting on the camera lens within this depth interval.
[Credit: R. Camilli, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution]

The picture painted by WHOI scientists at a press conference today suggest that while the Macondo well might now be sealed, the story of the massive leak's effects is far from over. In answer to questions from journalists, researchers spent as much time detailing what they don't know as what they do. They don't know whether the plume they measured in June still exists, or where it might now be. They don't know its level of toxicity, or how it might be affecting fisheries in the Gulf or consumers eating seafood at NOLA restaurants. They don't know whether its existence might contradict recent government estimates that 75% of the oil spewed out of the shattered Deepwater Horizon rig has somehow been removed from the Gulf.

Given, however, that the very existence of these plumes had initially been denied by BP or had been attributed to natural seepeage, researchers considered this study a very significant scientific step.

"One of the most important aspects of this is to document that these plumes do exist," said Richard Camilli, the study's lead author. "To understand other ecological complications, we have to first establish a base case, plume or no plume."

This research, Camilli added, was able to "document using a fairly rigorous approach not only that the plume did exist but it was stable at a particular depth interval, and that it was not produced by natural seeps."

The study team hopes to learn more about the nature of the plume as they continue analyzing samples over the next several months.

For a series of commentaries on the Gulf oil disaster please visit

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Summer Heat ... in Lake Superior?

"They're swimming in Superior," read part of a headline in the Detroit Free Press this morning. The item, written by Patrick Condon of Associated Press, reported some news I'd heard already from local friends: Lake Superior is hot this summer -- relatively speaking, of course.

Except in late July and August -- and in the past, sometimes even then -- swimming in Superior generally has required wearing a wetsuit. In summer, it is "normal" for lake temperatures to "warm up" to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but this year, weather buoy readings have reached as high as 71 -- only one degree shy of the record. And we're still a month ahead of summer's peak heat.

Comments on Superior's current warmth have become as prevalent in local conversation as last winter's comments about the lake's lack of ice cover. There is, of course, a relationship between the two, as lack of ice allows lake waters to absorb more heat. Jay Austin of University of Minnesota at Duluth, quoted in this morning's report, explained some interesting nuances of this ice cover/lake heat relationship for Keweenaw Now a few years ago.

The warmth might feel good for swimmers, but it has worrisome ramifications for wildlife and for business. It is consistent with global warming trends, could promote the growth of invasive species, and might lead to greater evaporation which in turn could lower lake levels. And the effects might not stop there.

"Scientists and fisheries managers are concerned," wrote Patrick Condon in the Associated Press report. So enjoy your swim -- but be prepared for more changes in and around Lake Superior, and all the Great Lakes.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Slow Death by Rubber Duck

I’ve just finished reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, a surprisingly charming book about a not-so charming topic: the proliferation of toxic substances in common products and how this exposes us to cancer-causing, brain-wrecking, hormone-disrupting chemicals. Subtitled The Secret Danger of Everyday Things, the book chronicles an experiment cooked up by its authors, Canadian environmental leaders Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, who decided to shut themselves in a condo with several ubiquitous but highly health-damaging substances, then measure the effects on their bodies.

As Rick and Bruce take turns dosing themselves with phthalates, mercury, and more, the first eight chapters of their book raise awareness about the ways everyday products regularly bring us into contact with chemicals that endanger our health. A ninth chapter tells us how to “detox.” In the course of their experiments, the authors’ facetime with chemicals is somewhat concentrated, but they make a point of only exposing themselves in ways we normally encounter these substances.

In Chapter Two, for instance, Rick exposes himself to phthalates – a group of chemicals used to soften plastic and carry scents – by using a complete set of phthalate-containing body care products over 24 hours. During this same period, he also hangs out in a room with a plug-in air “freshener,” another prime source of phthalates (I can’t think of a more oxymoronic product than these toxin-spewing devices turn out to be). Children, as it happens, regularly consume phthalates when they chew on rubber ducks and other soft plastic toys. Adults and children inhale them because they are in almost every commercial fragranced product on the market, including soaps and other toiletries. With his 24-hour experiment, Rick manages to substantially increase the phthalates in his urine. And if they are coming out in urine, it means they have first traveled into the body and bloodstream, where they mess with hormones.

In Chapter 5, Bruce more than doubles the mercury levels in his blood by eating a series of seven tuna meals and snacks over three days: tuna on sushi trays, tuna sandwiches, tuna steaks. He reports feeling irritable by the time his mercury levels have spiked, perhaps an indication of the neurotoxic action of this heavy metal. Mercury is linked to a wide range of neurological and behavioral problems, and at high enough levels can kill. At this point, thanks mostly to the coal-burning that disperses mercury into the air and from there into the food chain, we all have it in us.

In other chapters, our heroes bravely dose themselves with flame retardants, bisphenol A (BPA), the ubiquitous (and largely unnecessary) antibacterial chemical triclosan (think: Microban®), and Teflon® ingredient PFOA. They also look at pesticides and nanotechnology. Variously cancer-causing, mutagenic, and/or linked to birth defects and developmental problems, all these things contaminate our lives in hidden and unexpected ways.

A good example of this comes from coffee. Buy it organic, fair trade, or shade-grown all you want, but if you run it through a typical coffee maker – most are constructed with polycarbonate plastic – you’ll get BPA in your brew. Rick discovers this when he attempts to lower his BPA exposure before deliberately attempting to raise it in his experiment. In determining how to prep for the procedure, he realizes he can’t drink his coffee from home or office coffee makers, since they’re both mostly plastic. He decides instead to get his coffee from a café that uses a stainless-steel cappuccino machine. But when the café owner gives him a tour of the shop’s entire coffee-making process, he sees two places where beans meet BPA: they sit in one polycarbonate plastic storage tank before grinding, and land in another one once ground. As Rick notes, “The possibility of some serious BPA contamination was there in the grinding process.”

This is typical of the way chemicals have insinuated themselves into our everyday lives. They’ve seeped so far into the cracks and crevices of our existence that it’s impossible to avoid them entirely. However, we can reduce our exposures. In the case of his coffee, Rick finally hits on the solution of using a glass French press coffeemaker. There are similar solutions that can reduce exposures to many toxics, and this book includes very helpful guidance on how to do that.

Equally enlightening and entertaining are the true stories of political struggles over these chemicals. Yes, this book does focus on one side of the issue. These are tales told by environmental campaigners. But this is the side we don’t hear nearly as often as the billions of dollars worth of “Better Living Through Chemistry” messages that inundate us via advertising and public relations campaigns. Slow Death by Rubber Duck reports things that are important for consumers to know, and I don’t doubt that the book serves to balance the overall body of information about chemicals in consumer goods.

Particularly inspiring – even moving – is the story of events leading up to Canada’s 2008 ban of BPA-containing polycarbonate plastic baby bottles. I can understand why the authors saved this chapter for nearly the end of the book, as it closes on a very triumphant note and affirms their opening line: “The book that you’re holding is downright hopeful.” After reading how a horde of stroller-pushing parents swayed Canadian politicians to enact the BPA ban, we’re left with the feeling that similar triumphs are imminent, or at least pending. In the meantime, the book gives enough information to enable readers to watch out for these problematic products and reduce the quantity of toxics in their everyday lives.

This is a very readable blend of science and storytelling, in places even laugh-out-loud funny. Most of us need to raise our awareness about how the chemicals around us can affect our health, and I can’t think of a better way to do so than by reading this kind of book.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Howard Zinn: On Reasons for Optimism

Howard Zinn concluded his 1994 lecture at Michigan Tech with an expression of optimism that I did not expect, especially as it came right after his description of the shameful treatment of Native Americans in U.S. history, and after he’d stressed the ways factual omissions distort our understanding of history. He closed his talk by saying:

“Unless we begin … thinking about other points of view and enlarging the scope of our understanding, we’re just going to repeat history as it was. My hope is that we are beginning to learn, that people are beginning to think in different ways, and that maybe the next century will be different.”

Then he opened the floor to questions.

This January, after Zinn passed away, I listened to his lecture on an old audiocassette tape. In more than 15 years I’d forgotten much of what Zinn had said, and I’d also forgotten about the Q&A after the talk. So it was with great surprise, as I listened to this part of the tape, that I heard a familiar voice – my own – ask Zinn a question.

“You ended this on an optimistic note,” I said. “What makes you optimistic?”

Zinn paused, and must have had a look on his face, since the audience laughed a little – and then he laughed a little. He might have picked up a slightly incredulous tone in my voice when I asked the question, because he began his answer with:

“Behind that is the thought, ‘How can you be so ridiculously optimistic, given what is happening in the world?’ I’m drawing on my age and experience. We like to do this, we in my position.”

He chuckled again, then continued:

“I’ve lived through situations where things seemed hopeless and where people didn’t seem to have a chance to do anything and yet they did something. That is, going to live in the South when it looked in the mid-1950s as if nothing was going to happen here and then to see a movement spring up and to see an amazing development, and to see suddenly hundreds of thousands of people in action, millions of people becoming aware of what they did, and to see, really, changes take place in a very short time in the South. Obviously not enough. Changes are never enough – it was certainly not enough.

“But yes, real changes take place. To see people who did not seem to have any power at all suddenly develop power, power that comes out of their organization, their sacrifice, their commitment to one another. Same thing with going through the anti-war movement and seeing the feeling of hopelessness at the beginning of the escalation of the war in Vietnam. I mean, how in the world can you affect the decision-making of this powerful country, how can a handful of protestors – I mean, in spring of 1965 we had our first protest meeting against the Vietnam War on the Boston Common. There were a hundred people there, at this anti-war meeting. I remember I was one of the speakers, Herbert Marcuse was one of the speakers, and a hundred people were there, in the spring of ’65. In the fall of ’69, there was another anti-war meeting on the Boston Common and a hundred thousand people were there. In a few years, an anti-war movement had developed all through the country, embracing every section of the population. GIs were coming back from Vietnam, angry at the government, wanting the war to stop, forming an organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Throwing their medals over a fence in protest.

“Sure, we’re not in a great state, but the fact is that people have a capacity to [change things]. Out of what seems like nothing, and powerlessness … the things that they do which are small and isolated and don’t seem to have any effect – at a certain point in history these things begin to come together and you have a great movement and things begin to change.

“It sort of gives me hope that that possibility exists. And I guess I believe that people basically have good common sense and good values. I don’t really believe that people are fundamentally selfish or people are fundamentally, inherently racist or people are fundamentally mean and violent. I believe they are made so by what is fed to them day after day. But I think that at certain points in history, that common sense asserts itself.

“I go around the country, and I speak in different parts of the country, and I speak in places [about which] my friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts, would say: ‘What? You’ve speaking in Texas City, Texas? Is there anybody there who will listen to you?’ Maybe they’ll say this about the Upper Peninsula! ‘Really? Are there people in the Upper Peninsula who care what’s going on?’ …. But there are people all over this country, no matter how small is the town that you go in, anywhere in this country, there are people who care: care about children, care about war, care about poverty.

“I’m convinced that you can’t judge the possibilities in a situation by looking at it at any one point and seeing silence or inaction, and then deciding, well, this is the way it’s always going to be. Surprising things take place. Well, we’ve seen it happen in Eastern Europe, right? Who expected suddenly the rise of great movements of people in Eastern Europe, and governments [to] topple and systems [to] change? Surprises take place in history, and we’re surprised only because we’ve not had the faith that the common sense of people and the good instincts of people and the small acts of people will at certain points come together and have an effect. So I meet a lot of very good people all over the country, and that’s what makes me hopeful.”

Thank you, Howard Zinn, and thanks again to all those who helped bring him to Houghton in 1994. May we continue to live in surprising times.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Howard Zinn: On Political Movements and Democracy

At the end of my last post, I promised one more excerpt from Howard Zinn’s 1994 lecture at Michigan Tech. Really, though, there are two more posts I want to include here to complete this series. I’ll still end with an entry on Zinn’s optimism, but first, I want to share part of what seeded that optimism by posting some of Zinn’s remarks on political movements and democracy.

Teaching at Spellman College in Atlanta in the late 1950s and early ‘60s put Zinn in the midst of the blossoming Civil Rights Movement. He both witnessed and participated in this striking moment of change in the U.S. Here’s what he told his Michigan Tech audience about that experience, and about the role such movements play in democracies.

Howard Zinn:

My first real teaching job was in the south [at] Spellman College, a black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia. I taught there from 1956 to 1963, seven years. My wife and I and our two little kids left New York … and went down south and spent the next seven years essentially living in the black community … at that time in the south when the Civil Rights Movement was coming to its head. And there was no way I could teach in that kind of situation and be neutral – teach in a city like Atlanta, which at that time was as totally segregated by race as Johannesburg, South Africa. A city where if a black person and a white person walked down the street together and it looked as if they weren’t employer and employee, looked as if they might be walking down the street as equals, there was an immediate change in the atmosphere of that street. An immediate tension, an immediate air of threat in the street. That’s what Atlanta was like ….

“You have to understand that southern colleges were more conservative than northern colleges, and women’s colleges more conservative than men’s colleges, and black colleges more conservative than white colleges, and you put all of that together and you have Spellman College, virtually a convent, really, in which students were signing in and signing out and going to compulsory chapel six times a week. There was like an unspoken pact between the City of Atlanta and the black colleges of Atlanta, and the pact was or seemed to be, you can have your nice little Negro college, and turn out the college graduates who will service the segregated black community, the social workers and the teachers and maybe a doctor or a lawyer here or there, and in return, don’t venture out into the city. Don’t trouble the way we live in the City of Atlanta.

In the late ‘50s and especially in the 1960s, with the sit-ins, that pact was broken. The students at Spellman College and at Morehouse College, the men’s college across the street where Martin Luther King went to school – they saw on television the pictures of the four black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sitting in at a lunch counter, and the violence and the arrests that ensued. And they decided it’s time to move, to do something, and they leaped over the wall – there actually was a stone wall around the Spellman College campus – and they went out into the city and they demonstrated and they got arrested and they came back from that experience no longer the same, no longer the quiet subdued dutiful obedient students they had been. They were very different.

“You mentioned Alice Walker, who was one of my students and who participated in that movement. Marion Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, who was another one of my students at Spellman, and who came out of jail a very different person than she went in. Then I as a teacher felt that I had to somehow join them. I had to become involved, I had to sit in, I had to march. I didn’t see how I could simply be a classroom teacher while all these things were swirling around me, because I thought by doing that, by just being a classroom teacher and not taking part in what was going on out in the city, that I was teaching my students that it’s all right to talk but not to act. And I felt that a teacher teaches more by what he or she does than by what he or she says. And so I became involved … with a particular civil rights organization in the south, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee … and I went to Albany, Georgia, and I went to Selma, Alabama, and Townsend, Mississippi, and I was both a participant and a writer about these events.

“One of the important things I learned – and this is a lesson that history books, the traditional history books, somehow fail to convey (it struck me that I’d gone through all this training as an American historian and I still hadn’t learned [this] until I saw events unfold before my eyes in the south in a social movement) – what I learned was that when important social change comes about in our country, it doesn’t come about as a result of the operation of our formal democratic system. It doesn’t come about as the result of Congress passing a law, the President signing a law. It doesn’t come about as a result of what we learn in the civics classes in junior high school, the three branches of government, the checks and balances, oh how beautiful it is, how wonderful it works out. Those alone have never sufficed to solve any important problem that we’ve had in the United States. When we have faced important injustices, they were redressed not by the formal structure – voting for this candidate or that candidate – they were addressed by citizens, getting together, forming a movement – the Anti-Slavery Movement before the Civil War, the Labor Movement in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Black Movement of the 1960s. The Anti-war Movement. The Women’s Movement. The Gay Movement. The Disabled People’s Movement. It’s when citizens get together and organize and do things, that’s when democracy comes alive. I mean, to think that we live in something we call a democracy and that we don’t learn through our history what democracy is, that we come out of all this learning thinking that the most supreme act that a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls every two or four years and vote for somebody we don’t care about? I began to understand that democracy was much more intricate, more complex. It required much more of us than voting, and I suppose in my teaching and in my writing I try to convey that.”

Tomorrow, at last, I’ll put up the final post in this series: Zinn on optimism.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Howard Zinn: On Facts About Wars

To lead off Howard Zinn’s 1994 lecture at Michigan Tech, Social Sciences Professor Mary Durfee gave a superb introduction, highlighting the famous historian’s experiences both in war and against war. As Durfee said of Zinn, “Here is a man who has been active in pressing the cause of peace, but who was a bombardier during much of World War Two because he believed strongly in combating the evils of fascism.”

Zinn also mentioned his wartime experience, explaining how he had evolved from “enthusiastic bombardier” to peace activist. In fact, a significant part of Zinn’s lecture focused on war, on reasons for and against war, and on the questions we need to ask about war.

We especially need to ask these questions, Zinn said, because the stated reasons for any particular war might not be the prime motivations behind it. It thus becomes important for citizens, historians, and journalists to dig into these motivations, to ask questions about the factors underlying wars, especially if we hope to understand wars and how we might avoid them in the future. This kind of questioning was my own goal in the article, “Afghanistan: War for Oil? Local Voices Weigh In,” published online in 2002 by Keweenaw Now.

With war as his subject, Zinn illustrated for his Houghton audience how he differentiated between the types of facts addressed by history. On one hand, we have standard facts from standard texts – such as names of presidents or dates of events – memorized (or not) by standard students. These, Zinn opined, might not mean as much as the types of facts that he considered more important. Here’s how he explained what he meant.

Howard Zinn:

“There are important facts to ask about – let’s say, in connection with the Mexican War. It’d be very interesting to ask, how did the Mexican War start? The Mexican War, you may recall, took place between 1846 and 1848…. It started with a fabricated incident. It started with the United States government sending troops into a disputed area with Mexico. It wasn’t clear who this land belonged to…. Mexico claimed it, the United States claimed it, but the United States sent troops into this disputed area, whereupon there was a skirmish, blood was shed, and immediately President Polk … announced to the nation, ‘American blood has been shed upon American soil!’

“That happens every once in a while, right? Somebody has done something, somebody has insulted us, somebody has fired at us, somebody has done something to us – we’ve got to go to war, concealing the real reasons for the war. In this case, concealing the fact that Polk and the United States government – they had their eyes on Mexican territory long before this incident took place on the Texas-Mexican border…. There was a big part of Mexico that they coveted, and the war enabled them to get it. Relatively short war, America victorious, and we take 40 percent of Mexican territory: California – nice place to have – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, that whole area of the southwest. That was Mexico. You wonder, why are there so many Spanish names there? It was Mexican!

“Well, that would be an interesting and important fact to ask about, not because it’s a fact about the past, not just because it informs you about something that you didn’t know about in the past, but because it has very strong connections with things that happened after that and things that are still happening today. Because it raises questions about how wars begin. And to learn that about the Mexican War might lead you to ask questions about other wars. It might lead you to wonder, is it possible that governments – I mean, not just our government, of course, but governments everywhere – find reasons to start wars that they want for purposes that they will not tell the public about.

“It might lead people to ask whether we really went into Cuba to fight Spain in the Spanish-American War in 1898 because we wanted to ‘liberate’ Cuba from Spain, because we were just natural-born ‘liberators.’ But it’s very appealing to think that we are. It’s always appealing to think, well, when we go somewhere, it’s to liberate somebody. Might be interesting to go into that and then ask, well, what happened in Cuba after the United States ‘liberated’ Cuba from Spain? You’ll discover very quickly, we got the Spaniards out, we got ourselves in. Now Cuba no longer belonged to Spain. Now Cuba belonged to us. Now American corporations could go into Cuba. Now American railroads could go into Cuba. Now American banks could go into Cuba. Now United Fruit could go into Cuba. Now we could take several million acres of Cuban land and get it dirt cheap, and we could write into the Cuban constitution the power of the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever we felt like. Well, that’s dangerous thinking….

“We might ask questions then about how did the war in Vietnam start? And we might look into the Gulf of Tonkin episode in 1964, when … the United States leaders … announced that ‘American destroyers have been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin’ …. Nobody asked, ‘What were we doing halfway around the world in the Gulf of Tonkin?’ …. What were our destroyers doing there? And were they really on a ‘routine patrol’ as was claimed by the Secretary of Defense, or were they doing something else? And in fact did the attack really take place? There was no physical evidence of any attack. Nobody had been hurt, no injury had been done to any American vessel….

“What if people then ask questions about the Gulf War? …. Did we really go into the Gulf War because President Bush’s heart ached for Kuwait? And because President Bush just is emotionally moved every time one country invades another? Is that why? People might ask: Why did we go into Panama? Did we really go to end the drug trade? Any of you who have followed the situation in Panama since the United States went into Panama and yanked Noriega out – any of you who have followed the drug trade will learn that the drug trade has increased since that time.

“Anyway, yes, there are historical facts which are important and interesting because they reverberate through history and they come down to our present day and they raise important questions about national policy which as citizens we should be asking….

“I guess all of this is to explain my point of view in teaching American history…. I was – I dropped bombs in the Second World War. I hesitated to tell you which war that I was in, but I thought if I didn’t say it, you might think it was the Spanish-American War. [audience laughs]

“But it was the Second World War, what is known as ‘The Good War,’ right. That’s the war that has the best reputation. It’s the best of wars, although some of you may have noticed if any of you have read Studs Terkel’s oral history of World War Two, you may have noticed that he puts quotation marks around ‘The Good War.’ And when I came out of the Air Force, although I had been an enthusiastic bombardier, by the time I finished and came out of the Air Force, I, too, was putting quotation marks around it. I was beginning to have questions about this simplistic notion that there are good wars and bad wars …. Especially as the years went on and I observed the world after the war, the world that had been promised as: now, finally, a world without fascism, without racism, without Hitler, you know, this would be the good world, after the expenditure of 40 million, 50 million lives. And I guess I came to the conclusion that war, even the best of wars, really doesn’t solve anything in the long run. And that somehow, human beings have to find different ways of solving problems of aggression and tyranny, all the problems that exist in the world, the real problems. Not to be passive, [but] to find a way to solve these problems without the massive destruction of human life and the corruption of values that goes along with it.”

Coming soon, one more excerpt from Howard Zinn's 1994 MTU lecture: Zinn on his reasons for optimism.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Howard Zinn: On the Native American Perspective

When Howard Zinn lectured in Houghton in 1994, his remarks included stories about his well-known book, A People’s History of the United States. One such story involved the first chapter of the book, a chapter that examines the arrival of Columbus in North America from the Indians’ perspective.

Zinn didn’t tell this story until nearly the end of his lecture, but something in his tone suggested – at least to me -- that he wanted to emphasize it, to leave us with this so we would remember.

He had good reason to do this, if in fact it was his motive. “The really crucial distortions in history come not from lies,” he had told us, “but from omissions.” One of the most significant of these omissions has been the neglect and even suppression of the Native American perspective in history.

In A People’s History of the United States, Zinn addressed this omission head-on. Here’s what he said about it to the audience at Michigan Tech.

Howard Zinn:

“I’ll say one more thing. It has to do with Native Americans, with Indians. When I began to write my book, A People’s History of the United States – and I knew already what my point of view was, I knew I was going to write American history from the standpoint of people who I felt had been ignored mostly in American history. …. I knew I had to start the book with Columbus, because there it is at the beginning. …. And I had learned about Columbus just the way every American has learned for generations about Columbus, the same story. About Columbus the adventurer, Columbus the brave man, Columbus the intrepid sailor, Columbus the discoverer of the New World, one of our heroes. ….

“What about the point of view of the people he encountered when he arrived, the Native Americans, the Indians? What would their point of view be about Columbus? And so in looking into that I learned – I’m a little ashamed to say this. Here I was with a PhD in history, and I was learning about Columbus things that I absolutely did not know. About what he did. About Columbus as a person who kidnapped Indians, who enslaved them, who mutilated them, who killed them, and who was driven by greed, by profit, by the need to send something back to his financiers back in Europe. And how a whole Indian population on Hispaniola, on this island that Columbus and his other Spanish conquerors spent time on, how a whole Indian population was wiped out on that island. And so I started my book that way.

“I found that when my book appeared, and I began to get mail from around the country about the book, almost all of the mail was about the first chapter of the book. About Columbus. …. It seemed that the reason was that this was the most startling thing in the book. Because Americans have not been given that information. ….

“If you begin to look at American history from a Native American point of view, lots of things look different. The whole ‘noble’ history of American expansion – which I remember in high school making me proud, as I looked on the map that the teacher put up there showing how we grew -- ‘grew’ as if it were a biological thing, just ‘natural’ in our genes to grow – from this straggling bunch of colonies along the Atlantic across to the Pacific. At whose expense? How many people did we kill? How many tribes were massacred? How many civilizations were destroyed by that great triumphant expansion?

“If you look at the Civil War …. during the Civil War, more land was taken from the Indians in the West than in any other period of American history. During the Civil War, while some armies were fighting the Confederates, other armies of the United States government were out west destroying Indian tribes in order to gain more territory. In 1863, the very time that the Emancipation Proclamation had just been issued, an Army out in Utah was massacring a Shoshone tribe of peaceful Indians to get that territory. In 1864, another massacre [took place] at Sand Creek, Colorado. Now, in how many historical accounts of the Civil War do we learn about that? ….

“If we don’t want … to repeat those horrors, then it seems to me that it’s absolutely necessary … to get away from that nationalistic narrow white male elite point of view which is given to us in our history books.”

During Q&A after Zinn’s remarks, an audience member made this comment:

“You brought up the Native perspective of history …. An example in 1934 is the Indian Reorganization Act. Reservations were supposed to be sovereign nations [but] the Indian Reorganization Act forced Natives to change their governments to resemble ‘democratic systems.’ Another example would be the supposed ‘freedom of religion’ … where they took native children off the reservation and took them to a boarding school, and if they practiced their religion or spoke their language they were beaten and whipped. The last boarding school closed in 1987. You could just dwell on Leonard Peltier still being in prison. That’s a whole other realm of the Native perspective, and Native issues not being [included in] history. It’s still going on today.”

Zinn replied:

“What you’re saying of course is important, and this is a huge gap in our knowledge of American history, something that’s passed over very very quickly. I think one of the important things that’s passed over is the kind of civilizations that Native Americans developed on this continent before the presumably ‘advanced’ civilization of the white man came in to replace it.

“The example that you cite is part of that, where – in the 19th century they decided at a certain point that they’ve got to take young Indians out of the tribal atmosphere and send them to boarding schools so they could be acculturated in the American way – an attempt, really, to destroy Indian culture. Senator Dawes, the author of the Dawes Act – which had as its motive the sort of turning of the Indians, well, into little capitalists, little individual owners of land – Dawes at one point visited a Cherokee tribe, and came away saying, ‘Really, these people, I don’t understand them, they sort of own everything in common, they share things. They don’t understand what is at the root of civilization: selfishness!’ That’s the word he used, really.”

Again, thanks to Howard Zinn and to everyone who helped bring him to Houghton in 1994.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn: On Objectivity and Omissions

In December of 1994, Howard Zinn came to Houghton to speak at Michigan Technological University. I was fortunate to be in the audience as he gave one of the most provocative and consciousness-raising lectures of the many I've heard on that campus. After Zinn passed away on Wednesday, I dug out an old audiotape of his talk and was reminded just how important he was as a thinker, writer, and advocate.

Introduced as a man with "a whole litany of academic achievements," Zinn was also lauded for having "taken to the streets for civil rights, peace and justice." Alice Walker, who studied with Zinn at Spelman College, once called him an "unassuming hero." "Unassuming" indeed seemed apt for the slender, spry and casual fellow who stood before us that evening.

"Thanks for inviting me to a part of the country I've never been in. But then again," he said to all who'd tromped through the snows of this remote, sparsely populated region to hear him, "I guess I'm not alone." Everyone laughed.

Zinn quickly moved on to more serious matters: his approach to teaching, academic politics, war and peace, civil rights, the shameful neglect of Native American perspectives in history. His ideas have important implications for everyone and in particular for writers and journalists, those of us who chronicle politics, culture and life.

I haven't read all of Zinn's books, but I'm guessing some or all of what he said at Michigan Tech appears elsewhere in his work. Still, it's important enough to repeat. In memory of Howard Zinn, below are some of the comments he made in that lecture. Emphases in bold are mine. I hope to post further excerpts in the next few days.

Howard Zinn:

"I started out teaching with the idea that I was not going to be a neutral teacher. I would start my classes, the very first day I would tell my students, 'This is not a neutral class, I want to make that clear. I am not a neutral teacher. I am going to express my point of view as strongly as I can, and I want you to express your view as strongly as you can. And then it'll be more interesting.' ....

"In fact, you can't be neutral. It's impossible. That is, we live in a world in which things are already happening, things are already in motion .... People are already dying in wars. Terrible things are happening. To be neutral, to be passive, to be uncommitted, to be standing outside of this, to pretend to be objective is to collaborate in whatever is going on. The word 'collaborate' had a very very special meaning during World War Two and during the years of Fascism. People who lived in Fascist countries, or people who were overrun by Fascist powers and who did nothing ... you might say, oh, they were being neutral. They weren't being neutral. They were collaborating by doing nothing.

"And so I thought from the beginning I was not going to be a neutral historian .... I guess I went into history with a very modest aim: I wanted to change the world. I wanted to do something useful .... I wanted to go into the past and I wanted to see what I could learn that would be useful for the things that are going on in the world today and I wanted to come out and DO something. And I knew it would be safer just to stay in the past, and very often that's the great inducement for not coming out, and not applying history to the urgent and controversial issues of today. It's safer that way. But I guess to -- well, to put it in contemporary language, I didn't want to practice safe history.

"I was aware that when history was talked about as an important thing for people to learn ... that very often it was talked about as something that required people to learn a certain set of important facts, a certain amount of important information. This was the emphasis: facts. It seemed very clear to me that there was no such thing as just a fact without a judgment. That is, every fact -- every selected fact to be put into a book, to be presented in a class, to be passed on to somebody else -- every fact is selected out of an infinite number of facts and therefore every fact represents a judgment that this fact is important. So to say, well, this is a purely factual account -- and it may be, in the sense that everything in this account is true -- but why just these things that go into this account, and what are the things that are omitted from the account?

"The important things in history, the important distortions in history, do not come from outright lies in history, outright falsehoods. That would be relatively easy to check up on. The really crucial distortions in history come not from lies, but from omissions. And when things are omitted, well -- you have no way of checking up. The information is being kept from you. And this is true whether it's in history books or on television screens or in the newspapers. When the New York Times says 'All the news that's fit to print,' that is an arrogant and false statement. [It's] all the news that the Times editors deemed fit for you to read. But there are a lot of other things going on in the country that the New York Times does not report."

More to come. Recalled, transcribed and reprinted with thanks to Howard Zinn and to all who contributed to bringing him to the little town of Houghton, Michigan, in December of 1994.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Church of the Almighty Dollar

On a September 2009 visit to a small Upper Michigan town, my spouse and I came across this historic church, now office space for investment brokers.

The stone structure displays a plaque which tells passers-by of its identity, when first built in 1908, as the Immanuel Baptist Church. The plaque blends discreetly into the building’s rock walls. In contrast, each single letter in the brokerage sign beside it stands taller and some stretch wider than the entire historical nameplate.

In the autumn evening light, this Church of the Almighty Dollar struck us as iconic. We spotted it at the end of a tumultuous year in U.S. economic history, a year in which “bailout” became the buzzword and “too big to fail” furnished the favored rationale for corporate welfare.

This converted house of worship seems even more symbolic of the country’s prevailing ideology today, after last week's Supreme Court strike-down of restrictions on corporate political spending. Follow the money. If ever we needed separation of church and state, we need it now – from this kind of church.

©2010 by Katie Alvord

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Resisting the Lure of the Web

For a writer, avoiding distractions on the web can be a challenge. I don’t know about you, but I can lose hours playing around online when I might otherwise be writing. Yet since a computer is now a publishing writer’s primary tool, the risk of online distractions is ever present. For any other writers out there who might need self-discipline aids, here are some steps I now take to manage my tangential surfing.

1) I set goals for online time. I don’t connect until I know exactly what I intend to accomplish by doing so: who I need to contact, what facts I need to check, and so on.

2) I prioritize my goals. I figure out which ones are most critical and address those first. Sometimes it helps me to write them out – yes, with pen and paper! – and turn them into a checklist.

3) I set a time limit. This helps especially when my goals are research-related. Chasing down links can send you on a websites-long trail of information, where you’ll likely find lots and lots of material related to your research question, probably all very interesting, but also probably of low value. When I use a time limit, it helps me control this by reminding me of my priorities and keeping me efficient.

4) I also set a lights-out limit. I do this for health reasons: staring at that lit-up video screen at night affects the pineal gland and suppresses production of melatonin, making it harder to sleep. I know of at least one expert -- neurobiologist Dietrich Klinghardt, MD PhD -- who recommends no video of any kind after about 8:30 p.m. if you want to sleep well.

5) Finally, I give myself some web play time – after my writing and research are done. All work and no play not only dulls us, it also precludes those serendipitous discoveries of strange and wonderful web items that only show up when you diddle around. Giving myself sacrosanct play time helps me keep my work time sacrosanct, too: if I don’t let myself play, I’m much more likely to cheat as I work. Plus it’s much nicer to surf without your inner critic's nagging voice guilt-tripping you about the article or next chapter you SHOULD be writing.

Which reminds me -- I have a bit more work to do before I hit my lights-out limit. Happy writing!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Environmental writing redux

I’m thinking back over the directed study I taught at Finlandia University last fall, Environmental Writing and Literature. Leading this little course let me come at the topic from a different angle than usual.
Instead of being immersed in environmental writing as one of its practitioners, I got to step back and look at the whole body of environmental literature.
Examined broadly, environmental lit is more complex and varied than you might first imagine. It includes nature writing, which itself is quite varied. You can see this if you look at some of its classics, from HD Thoreau’s Walden to Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf to Terry Tempest William’s Refuge. You can also see this from looking at Tom Lyon’s wonderful anthology This Incomparable Land which proposes a marvelous taxonomy of nature writing.

Overlapping with but also going beyond nature writing is environmental journalism, which ranges from stories about sewage in your local paper to features on global climate change written for E Magazine. Sometimes it’s hard to tell on what side of the line a piece of writing might fall. Should we label Bill McKibben, for instance, a nature writer or an environmental journalist? Or is the more general “environmental writer” the best moniker?

Environmental journalism is further complicated by the drift into what some call advocacy journalism. Here I’m thinking about articles of the sort published in Sierra or Audubon or Earth Island Journal – often an important source of factual information, but clearly presented with a slant. In contrast, environmental journalists who write for mainstream news outlets strive for objectivity just as much as reporters on any other beat.

In our directed study, we also added ecofiction and green poetry to the mix. Originally I was just looking for a way to get a Carl Hiaasen novel onto the syllabus (we read Skinny Dip) but we really could have done an entire class on ecofiction alone, it’s that rich and varied a genre. Skinny Dip, by the way, details the environmental travesties of the Florida sugar industry in the context of a truly hilarious albeit raunchy story. Not so hilarious is the true part, i.e., what’s happened to the Everglades as a result of agriculture and development in South Florida.

Environmental writing and literature, I decided after teaching this class, is both expansive and expanding. The latter, no doubt, is a sign of our times.