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Cat's Cradle Blog

Archive for July, 2012

Armchair travels with Mark Twain…and others

Friday, July 20th, 2012

Mark Twain, 1871 (Matthew Brady, photographer)

On July 20, 1869, Mark Twain, aka Samuel L. Clemens, published his second book, Innocents Abroad; Or, the New Pilgrim’s Progress.  This travel memoir became Twain’s most popular book during his lifetime.

Although it lacks the enduring recognition of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s account of travels through Europe and the Middle East appealed to would-be travelers in the rising American middle class of the Gilded Age.

Travel memoirs remain a popular genre. Why not take an armchair voyage of your own this summer?

Remembering Jacques Derrida on his birthday

Sunday, July 15th, 2012
Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), founder of "deconstructionism"

Jacques Derrida, Algerian-born French deconstructionist philosopher and language theorist, was born 82 years ago today, July 15, 1930.

During his lifetime (1930-2004) Derrida influenced untold numbers of scholars seeking to critique literature, language, gender, sexuality, culture, visual arts, religion, and even politics. A good example would be Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism, a quarterly journal published since 1971 and often featuring Derrida’s work.

Although deconstructionism remained a highly controversial and often polarizing school of critical theory, its importance in intellectual discourse of the late 20th century cannot be denied. Derrida remains one of the most important philosophers and theorists of the last century.

Happy Bastille Day, Francophile readers!

Saturday, July 14th, 2012
History of the Girondists

DeLamartine's History of the Girondists, 3 vol., 1848 (English translation)

Allons, enfants de la patrie!

It’s July 14, Bastille Day.  In France, the tricolor is on display and the strains of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, are in the air.  Once again in the month of July/Juillet, we honor a great revolution.

This time it’s the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and ended – well – that depends on your interpretation of history. Did it end with the accession of Napoleon Bonaparte to power? Or was that simply another unfolding stage? In any event, the Revolution toppled a dynastic monarchy, sent tens of thousands of French citizens – not to mention their king and queen – to the guillotine, and transformed the face of Europe and the world in an era of Napoleonic war.

In honor of this important French holiday marking the storming of the Bastille in Paris, the symbolic onset of the French Revolution in 1789, here’s some reading.

Aux armes, citoyens!

Patriotism, Protest, and the Land of Hope and Dreams

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Wrecking Ball

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Wrecking Ball (2012)

On this Fourth of July, I’m reflecting on what patriotism means.

To revolutionaries who were British citizens in the thirteen colonies, if they were even articulating the word “patriotism,” I think it might have meant fighting to forge a new destiny independent of the old ruling power.

At NASCAR races and other sporting events, it means standing solemnly while jets fly overhead or paratroopers skydive, and then while someone sings the national anthem.

All too often in American politics and history, dissenters have been described as less “American” (i.e., patriotic) than conformers; in that context, conformity has become identified with being “American.” I think Patrick Henry would have disputed this.

In March Bruce Springsteen released his first CD since 2009, “Wrecking Ball,” and launched his current tour featuring the songs from that CD. The lyrics are dark, stark, critical, and yet triumphantly hopeful for America in the end. With a flavor that ranges from rock to gospel to folk to country to an Irish jig, Springsteen reminds us consistently that, while America may be traveling over rocky ground, we the American people are still here.  We’re gritty, we’re strong, and we will weather this current crisis.  We’ll come out the other side despite being shackled and drawn by foreclosures, lack of work, and hard times. His faith in America – as seeen through ordinary working Americans who trust in God and the virtues of their own hard work – is unshakeable.

That’s patriotism to me.  It’s not blind nor mawkish, nor does it require an unquestioning stance of “my country, right or wrong.”  It’s patriotism that speaks to a vision of what America has been and what we will become again. It’s very much part of the literature of protest on behalf of workers that has marked our past in cycles since the Industrial Revolution hit this land.

Sometimes we show our patriotism by holding America to a higher standard and articulating a need for change in this land of hope and dreams.  Patrick Henry knew this.  So did Eugene V. Debs and Asa Philip Randolph.  And so does Springsteen.

We are the nation we are because the wealthy invested and grew industry and governments at all levels collaborated in this investment and growth (and often, as in the 1830s, 1870s, 1890s, 1907, and 1920s) turned a blind eye to the destructive side of it all).

But let us never forget that we are the nation we are, too, because of the people who spoke out in protest and the people who “built this country by the sweat of their two hands” (American Land).

And lest I forget the obvious, although I value the virtue of protest, I also appreciate the sacrifices that American service men and women have made to keep this country secure. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Happy Fourth of July, America.