Author Archives: anhermann

Education as our saving grace?

In The Post-American World, I felt that Zakaria tried to talk about everything and in so doing, ended up talking about nothing. Obviously, trying to tackle a topic as wide as the current state of America and the world would not be handled well by anyone, but most people would not attempt to. I found myself skimming over frivolous facts that seemed to fill every paragraph most of the time, and I believe Zakaria could have made similar points in a much more succinct fashion.

That being said, Zakaria did raise many interesting issues, despite a complete lack of citation for most of the information he presented. I found his section on the influence of American education on the world, and vice-versa, to be intriguing. As someone interested in the American education system, it was interesting to view our system in a more international lens. Most of my studies focus on the American system and its influence within our country, without thinking much on its influence on the outside world.

Zakaria claims that “higher education is America’s best industry” (209) which is a big claim to make. He cites(or really references without citation) research which says that the United States has 7 or 8 of the world’s top ten universities. This data does not specify whether or not colleges as well, or just universities in a stricter sense. Since Zakaria provides no citations, I remain blissfully unaware, but I’m not sure if it would influence the outcomes at all. Regardless, the statistics are impressive. The United States has realized exactly how to make higher education work, in which case I agree with Zakaria that it remains the one field which we still hold complete dominance of, for now.

However, it is absolutely hilarious that we boast about having the best higher education system in the world, and yet our lower schools are some of the worst. Somehow, we managed to harness the ideals of teaching adults, but forgot those same ideals when creating the lower schools. Since lower schools have been around for much longer, the newer higher education institutions were able to learn from example and implement the methods which truly work: teaching to think, not to memorize. You would think this principle would have been applied to all our schools at this point though, but you would be completely wrong. For some reason, our lower schools are moving completely backwards, and a teaching-to-the-test approach becomes increasingly more dominant. This is terrifying.

Zakaria discusses his views as a student from a non-American school, which were interesting because he praised the American universities so highly, then immediately made fun of Americans for being so bad at math and science in the lower schools. The countries that he then praises for being competent in math and science are mostly the asian countries which fully harness the idea of teaching to a test and only to a test. To them, students doing well on every test is the only thing that matters in their life-long journey of becoming something. Therefore, these countries do incredibly well in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study which is used to decide which countries have the best educational systems.

I had a huge problem with the idea of something called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study being used as an indicator of which schools were best. I might be wrong, but I don’t see any way that this study could even begin to actually understand how “good” a country’s schools are. However, I am not surprised that this study is used for the purposes of worldwide comparison. If you look anywhere in this day and age, everyone is obsessed with math and science, while the humanities and social sciences are being pushed from the public eye. Even looking at Vassar, which would probably be considered an example of America’s top universities by Zakaria, moves towards a more heavily dominated math and science campus, as we are all constantly reminded of with the construction everywhere.

Zakaria claims that America’s educational system is perhaps our saving grace in this day and age because we teach our students to think and not to memorize, but if you actually pay attention to our schools, we are moving closer to the systems which only teach to the test. Zakaria problematizes these systems greatly in comparison with the way American students are able to think freely and voice their own opinions, but the world’s structure as a whole forces even the most liberal of us to engage more with the maths and sciences and less with humanities. The idea that all the world’s schools are compared based off of their TEST SCORES in MATH and SCIENCE blows my mind. If people recognize the power in teaching students to think, which they clearly do when stating America has the top universities, then why why why why why does the world push everyone to outperform each other on tests? I feel that at this point enough people have problematized standardized tests that we should be moving away from them, but every day we seem increasingly more caught up in their ties.

 

Propaganda

The film “One, Two, Three” provides a unique look at the harsh realities of U.S. imperialism through the lens of comedy. Throughout the movie, we see glimpses of Americanization. Particularly striking is the prominent map across the wall of Macnamara’s office which shows how far spread Coca-Cola had become even at that point. Overall, the film portrays how the United States aimed to infuse its own culture across the world. The cuckoo clock symbolizes the United State’s power throughout the film, and serves as a constant reminder of who really has control. Each time it goes off, the clock reminds the characters of their true mission of Americanization. As Macnamara rushes to perfect Otto’s new character, the clock constantly reminds him that the time is short for assimilation.

“One, Two, Three” puts you on the side of the capitalists, since the “enemy” is portrayed as East Germany and the Russians, or anyone who stood in the way of the infiltration of American culture in their country. Although I do not label myself as a full supporter of capitalism, I found myself hoping that Otto would assimilate to the American way, as Macnamara wished, because the plot placed me (or the viewer) on Macnamara’s side. Undoubtedly, this film intertwines politics into its script, and I find it noteworthy that it is written in favor of the American movement. They speak of American propaganda throughout the film, but the film in and of itself could be considered anti-communist propaganda.

Otto is portrayed as a lesser being to the American family. From his appearance, Macnamara and his family viewed Otto as crazy and unworthy of Scarlett’s love and attention. Otto’s appearance is disheveled and he looks ridiculous next to the well-dressed Americans. He is also portrayed as a crazy radical with ideas that were made to seem absurd. Otto’s differences climax when the family rushes to make him into a worth partner of Scarlett, as he seemingly becomes more and more barbaric as they try to make him more American. This portrays communists as crazy compared to their level-headed American counterparts. However, the film ends on a happy note as Otto finally accepts his new role as a capitalists and his barbarity dissipates. When Otto finally acts like a “good American”, he finally seems familiar to the audience.

Because the film portrays the communists as barbaric creatures with absurd ideas, it serves as a form of pro-American propaganda. As stated earlier, the viewer feels inclined to root for the success of Macnamara, not Otto and Scarlett. Many times, Otto’s views are even laughed at for being so ridiculous. This idea of the film being used as propaganda is mirrored in Pells piece on the influence of American mass culture. He argues that films were a primary way in which the United States was able to infiltrate its culture into most of Europe and other parts of the world so successfully because they were easily accessible to many audiences and stylistically pleasing. Since movies were a tool for the United States to spread their views across the world, I am not surprised that Wilder’s film took a strong pro-American stance. The film seems like an easy-going comedy about a man’s life, but the political undertones suggest otherwise. I cannot claim that Wilder made this film with the intention of using it as propaganda, however I believe that any foreign audience would also be swayed to side with the Americans.

Political Cartoons

Political cartoons are a valuable primary source as they allude to the feelings of the people at the time, which can be lost in more literal interpretations of a time period. Whereas history is usually told from the point of view of the victor, political cartoons allow a glimpse at the darker or lesser-known sides of a story. They usually depict sentiments ridiculing the actions of the government and illustrate the dissenting opinions within a society in a rather subtle matter. Because political cartoons are labeled as such, “cartoons”, many push them aside as childish banter. However, most of the time these cartoons contain strong political messages and reveal true histories.

The Portfolio of Editorial Cartoons we looked at provides a perfect example for the strength of political cartoons. With the literature we read for Tuesday about the nature of the relationship between the United States and the Philippines and Puerto Rico, the cartoons provide a different side to the story which we heard before. The cartoons also parallel the articles and illustrate many of the main arguments in a succinct fashion. I found this parallel most apparent between the cartoon on page 159 and Erman’s piece, where he discusses how the United States implemented foreign tariffs on Puerto Rico, despite it technically being within our sovereignty. The cartoon makes the same point as the article, but the cartoon also appeals more to the viewer’s emotions, as the United States clearly buries the Puerto Rican without a glimpse of remorse.

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I found the cartoon on page 162 particularly striking as well because it relates almost a bit too well with my topic for the research project. The cartoon depicts a Puerto Rican man, made to look barbaric and almost inhuman, looking on as Uncle Sam uses the hammer of English to nail Americanization into the lands of Puerto Rico. One of the main problems with the annexation of Puerto Rico was whether or not the residents could become true Americans, as the Erman article illustrates. The cartoon shows that, at the time, the United States wanted to assimilate the Puerto Ricans and make them become more “American” before allowing them to become citizens. The main tool used by Uncle Sam (who personifies the U.S.) is the english language, which becomes a tool of force and coercion.

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This cartoon is from 1900. In the year 2013, more than a century later, it fascinates me that the same exact issues still exist within our country. As new people enter our country, we continually impose our language as a necessity to survive and succeed. In my research, I have found multiple accounts of immigrant children entering school speaking a language from their home and then being forced to learn English, while neglecting their home culture and language. A century later, our country uses the same forceful tools that the artist of this cartoon ridiculed so long ago. Clearly, people took issue with the approach of forced assimilation at the turn of the twentieth century, so why has it survived well into the twenty-first?

Just as political cartoons remain a force within our society to this day, forced assimilation and americanization of immigrants remain large issues across the country. At this point, I am interested to know whether, in such a long period, our forceful nature to create ideal American citizens has changed at all, or if we remain like stubborn children, unwilling to accept the idea that maybe other ways exist that are better than our own. I think, as a society, we like to believe we have moved forward from our darker past, but I believe that we may have fallen deeper into the trap. At this moment, I think we pretend that issues such as forced assimilation no longer exist, and if we do not talk about them, then maybe they will disappear. However, these issues are just as present as they were when Imperialist America took over all the new land. Just because we are not conquering people on their own land does not mean it is not happening. If we look to our side, I am sure we will find traces of forced assimilation everywhere.

The Power of Language

I found the amount of power held within language fascinating in Moon-Kie Jung’s article and Shelley Streeby’s definition of “empire”. Both pieces illustrated how the personal with the loudest voice is the one who gets heard, and that has lead to countless problems within our country and the world. A man of power could speak gibberish and still have the following of his people, as long as the gibberish sounds convincing. This overwhelming power hidden behind something as pedestrian as language cannot be ignored. Articles such as these are important because they serve as a reminder to everyone that the powerful are not the only ones who can have a loud voice, despite what history shows.

Our choice of words proves interesting when we look at how the United States defines itself: as a nation-state versus an empire-state. The two words may seem similar at first, but being labeled as one or the other has the ability to make or break a country. The problem with empires, as seen by the United States, is that they ultimately fall, as history has shown. Because of the seeming inevitability of the downfall of empires, as well as other reasons, the United States has proudly labeled itself a nation-state. As Jung discusses, being a nation-state involves “a deep, horizontal comradeship” (Jung 2), meaning members of a nation-state enjoy equal access to all aspects of the nation-state. In contrast, an empire-state is “not horizontally uniform but hierarchically differentiated” (Jung 3). By looking at these two definitions, there is no question on how to define the United States. It is almost laughable to think that the U.S. is perceived as a nation-state, but this belief is so widely spread that there has to be some truth behind it.

As the articles suggest, the United States has spent a lot of time working on her reputation as a wonderful nation-state, a place where all are welcome, a protector of the marginalized people of the world. However, a quick look at our history suggests completely otherwise. I bet that if I asked the 30 people in the room with me right now if any of them or their ancestors had been oppressed by the United States, more than half of them would respond affirmatively. With this in mind, I find it absurd that our country as a whole so widely believes that we are the perfect country that escaped the ruins of colonialism, racism, genocide, and all the other ailments we see in other “Third-World” countries. We are far from being a perfect nation-state where every voice is heard and accounted for, as the people of Puerto Rico and Guam would argue, as well as the Native American populations that have so long been oppressed. The widespread belief of U.S. exceptionalism amazes me more when I think about how untrue it really is. There has to be an extreme force behind the idea that continues to make it believed in our society, and I believe that force is language.

For as long as the United States has been a country, our mentality has always been to promote ourselves as the greatest of the great. This has fostered an attitude in our country that we can do no wrong. Even if we perform the exact same action as another country, they did it maliciously, whereas the Perfect United States did it in the better interest of the world. This is because our government has always used a language that puts our actions into a positive light, and since our voices are usually the loudest, those are the ideas that become most widespread. This use of language is exhibited, for instance, in our taking of western territory and thereby colonizing the Native America lands, but calling it “westward movement” rather than colonization. Westward movement sounds like a great thing that does not marginalize any people but instead betters the lives of Americans. Because it is framed in such light, most Americans saw no problem with stripping the Natives of their lands. Similar tactics were used during the Spanish-American War when the government portrayed the U.S. forces as liberators rather than conquerors. Obviously, the Spanish were doing wrong, therefore we had full rights to walk into their lands, kill people, take over, and implement our cultural norms. Something as simple as using positive language as opposed to negative language has fundamentally shaped our country, how we as citizens think about it, and how the world thinks about us.

After examining this overwhelming power of language, I am left thinking of how we can use the power of the loudest voice for our own good. The media in this day and age plays such a huge role in the nation’s thinking as a whole, and I believe we must begin to call the United States what it is: an empire-state. We must take pieces such as Moon-Kie Jung’s, spread them across the country, and counteract the power of the government by using their own weapon: language. Perhaps if the notion of U.S. exceptionalism is eradicated, our country will no longer feel the need to constantly intervene in foreign affairs as ultimate protector of the world. Perhaps we will begin to recognize the unequal standings between citizens and also between non-citizens, and we can then address the huge issues within our own country that many want to ignore.

Constructed Borders

During my high school philosophy class, I developed a keen interest in the nature of borders and their overwhelming power. The idea that borders are mostly concepts living within our minds interested me greatly seeing as these borders can have such a strong influence on daily life. It always fascinated me that something that could be labeled imaginary wielded such great power. I have always wanted to explore further borders’ manifestations within the real world.

Gloria Anzaldua’s piece “The Homeland, Aztlán” provided me a framework within which I could think about these concepts that have fascinated me for years. I found myself drawn to her separation of the ideas of the border and the borderlands, the former being a dividing line, the latter “a place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” (Anzaldua 25). With this distinction, I found that I have really always been interested in the borderlands, and not so much the borders themselves. As Anzaldua describes, the borderlands provide a place where the prohibited and forbidden reside, those who cross over the line from being “normal”. These borderlands stem from an unnatural border being forced upon a group of pre-existing people, forcing them from being true inhabitants of the area, to becoming the outsiders in their own home. I found this concept interesting because it concretely shows from where the disparities within our societies stem. Through war, the white men were able to strip societies such as the Mexicans and the Native-Americans of their land, and in so doing created a cultural barrier where racism grew. The physical boundaries we have created between places have resulted in cultural boundaries between people. As both the physical and metaphorical boundaries solidify, they become harder to cross and thus conflict arises.

This idea of physical and metaphorical boundaries reminds me of European colonialism in Africa. When the colonists entered Africa, they viewed the land as a place to be used for their own benefits. However, the African lands already had a rich history of peoples and cultures. The colonists failed to recognize these histories, and thus implemented boundaries that worked for their benefit, completely ignoring the cultures and peoples present. This resulted in multiple territories being created where multiple cultures were split up and then forced to live in an area defined by the Europeans, away from their cultures and mixed with unfamiliar faces. The boundaries implemented by the Europeans on the cultures of the African people are another example of how forced boundaries can cause conflict.

Anzaldua argues that borders, and their creation of borderlands, are responsible for the racial barriers and racism present in our society. I agree with her argument, to an extent, but I am not sure if I believe the absence of borders would lead to the absence, or at least dwindling, of racism. Is there a world where borders are not present, either nationally or culturally? I struggle to imagine the possibility of such a place existing. However, I do agree that in an ideal world, unnatural borders would not be forced upon anyone, thus providing a place where harmony abounds. Unfortunately, I believe that creating borders is human nature as we find comfort in the differentiation of us versus them.

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White Supremacists: Ships to Nations

“The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night …” – W. E. B. Dubois

While reading Nikhil Pal Singh’s article “Rethinking Race and Nation”, I was particularly compelled by his argument suggesting the correlation between racism and nationalism. Singh underlined the underlying effects that racism has had on the production of nationalism in the United States. Singh argues that the taboo subject of racism cannot be ignored in thinking about the United States and our national identity. Rather, racism must be the focus of our discussion on “American” nationalism, as it is a primary tool with which nationalism has been created.

Singh begins by identifying the first instances of self-ownership in the United States: white males. This self-ownership meant a potential for access to Indian land and African slaves. From the beginning, property-owning U.S. citizens were defined by their race as compared to the “others”. The ideal national subject was thus developed by his non-national counterpart: slave, Indian, immigrant. This differentiation provided a political argument for the inferiority of non-white men, and placed racism in the center of our polity. The foundation of the United States lay on the concept of the equal creation of all men, but, naturally, blacks were viewed as on an inferior level of humanity than whites, therefore this all-covering equality must not apply to them. Since blacks acted as slaves since their arrival, and since slavery was a necessary act in the sustaining of the glorious United States, slavery was deemed an exception to the liberty of all men in the U.S.

However, soon the blacks began to gain traction within the United States, and with the end of the Civil War, blacks were allowed to enter the arena they had been kept from for so long. The white man’s response to this intrusion resulted in segregation, white supremacist organizations, and widespread violence. Again, the national identity was constructed around an us versus them mentality, racism. Blacks were viewed now as “anti-citizens”, enemies rather than members of the national community. The black community was prevented from acting as proprietors of their own capacities, sellers of their labor-power, and sensuous participants within exchange relations. In essence, their status as anti-citizens prevented them from being perceived as qualitatively differentiated individuals.

The theme of preventing individuality caught my attention as I remembered the Walter Johnson’s article, “Turning People into Products”, where the discussion of the slave pens and market illuminated the system which stripped blacks of their individuality. To be sold, the white men categorized the Africans into groups based on their qualities. The Africans were no longer identified as a person from a certain area, family, or with a certain history, but rather as a First Rate slave, Second Rate, and so on. With this classifications came a dehumanizing sameness attributed to every person. The white men thought of them as others, rather than as a person with real history, experiences, and skills. It is interesting to note the prevalence of this same theme nearly a century later when the blacks were granted emancipation. Emancipation may have seemed like a new hope for the newly freed slaves, but in reality it was just another name for the continuation of white supremacy.

White supremacy became a common theme throughout the United States when the first ship of African slaves arrived and they were classified as second-class humans. With the inclusion of other races, the whites retained ground by which to assert their dominance and superiority. White supremacy started with the captain and sailors aboard a slaving ship, who classified themselves as higher beings than the men and women they had just captured from their homes. On the ship, the captain could do as he pleased because of his light complexion. This superior attitude continued from the ship to the slave markets, and then to the plantations, and eventually found itself rooted deep within the foundations of our great country. As Singh argues, racism abounds itself in our society, as it always has and may forever be. Just because outright slavery no longer exists does not mean that the ideologies of white supremacy have escaped our minds.

Another idea which Singh brought to my mind was the role of white supremacy to our idea of U.S. exceptionalism and our desire to better those others who live in a society different than our own. On the forefront of everyone’s minds currently is the debate over intervention in Syria. However, this is not the first time the United States has wanted to intervene in the matters of other countries. Recently, I read an article on the discussion of the nature of the Save Darfur movement in the United States. ( http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/the_genocide_myth/ ) In this article, Mahmood Mamdani argues, in a way, that our white supremacist attitudes lead us to believe that our ideas, if implemented across the globe, can fix everyone’s problems. This, in turn, leads to projects such as the Save Darfur movement. However, instead of engaging in critical discussion and analysis of the situation, movements such as these are used as an advertising campaign, in a way. The goal is to raise awareness more-so of the name of the movement than of the actual problem that the movement is trying to fix. People would buy Save Darfur t-shirts and wear them around, but if asked, most of them would most likely be unable to give any form of account of the issues present in Darfur. I believe this is another example of white supremacy that intertwines with Singh’s argument that our idea of nation is built around the idea of racism. White supremacy is a necessary effect of this framework and has consequently lead to a wide variety of movements such as Save Darfur; more of a way to show that your whiteness makes you an agent in social change, rather than having an actual concern with the issues at hand.

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