Sunday, October 26, 2014

October anniversaries: Happy Birthday, USS "Constitution"

October 21 is the anniversary of the launching of the USS "Constitution," which earned the nickname "Old Ironsides" during the War of 1812, whose bicentennial we are still marking. The "Constitution," as Mass Moments reminds us, is the "oldest commissioned warship in the world." (basic story here)

• Date of issue: Oct. 21, 1947
• Place of issue: on the deck of the Constitution, Boston Naval Yard
• Printing: 131,488,000

The average person would never guess from looking at it that this rather understated stamp could give rise to controversy, but that's just what happened when some naval aficionados and historical enthusiasts first laid eyes on it. As Arago, the online resource site of the US Postal Museum, explains, experienced Boston Naval architect Andrew Hepburn "designed the stamp after considerable historical research." And yet:
The stamp received criticism for ignoring the ship's grandeur and thereby under-representing the role it played in building America. While many stamp designs have been challenged and criticized over the years, the uproar over Old Ironsides was one of the loudest ever. Typical of the very strong criticisms was that of Elmer C. Pratt, the stamp columnist for Camden, New Jersey's Courier-Post. "The idea of showing that great fighting hero as a mimbly-pimbly boat sailing along in a light wind . . . when all her life she was a fighting ship full of fight. She should have been shown in a heavy wind, with full sails set, in a heavy sea, going someplace where she should be going, often did and as a rule won the day-into a well fought and victorious battle."
The controversy notwithstanding, the stamp was quite popular with the public. Arago tells us that first-day sales amounted to "An unusually high" figure of 4,700,000, including almost 700,000 first-day covers.

The storm over the stamp was of course a tempest in a teacup compared, as an earlier post shows, with the competition between New England cities to claim the title of birthplace of the US Navy. In addition, the ship itself poses some interesting problems of historic preservation. On that subject: more in the next post.

Previous and related stories:

• (2010) 21 October 1797: Launching of USS Constitution; the need for preservation and interpretation continues
• (2011) July Anniversaries: Wooden Whaling Ship "Charles W. Morgan" Celebrates 170th Birthday, 21 July

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Happy Dictionary Day

Dictionary Day is the anniversary of Noah Webster's birthday, for good reason.

I am remiss in not having gotten my full-fledged post up for Mr. Webster's birthday (it turned out some extra work is required), but in order to honor (or placate) his spirit, I have uploaded a large new scan of a portrait engraving from his lifetime, over on the Tumblr.

Stay tuned for more in the near future.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Removing Columbus from the Calendar

Ironically, as I noted in an old post, the cancellation on this stamp honoring Christopher Columbus and

the "discovery" of America obscures the figure of the putative hero. It could serve as a metaphor for his fate in recent years.

The reaction against the glorification of Columbus advances a bit further this fall as the government of the city of Seattle today--on the federal holiday of "Columbus Day"--signs a measure mandating the celebration of the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Nothing of the sort planned in Amherst yet. (Select Board signed the fall Town Meeting warrant a week ago.)

My 2012 roundup of stories on changing attitudes toward the explorer and his holiday. covered a lot of ground, so I won't try to do the equivalent here again. (I think there was some pretty good stuff there: check it out.)

Instead, I'll just note that the Harvard Crimson got into the game this year with the brief and light-hearted Even People in the 1400s Agreed Columbus Was An Asshole.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Un-bombs (2)

Ever since Isaiah had a vision of men beating their swords into ploughshares, it has been pleasant to imagine or witness other examples of the tools or symbols of war being converted into those of peace. I've posted a couple of examples over on the Tumblr.

Ballet bomb

Un-bombs (1)

Ever since Isaiah had a vision of men beating their swords into ploughshares, it has been pleasant to imagine or witness other examples of the tools or symbols of war being converted into those of peace. I've posted a few examples over on the Tumblr.

Books, not bombs

Going Postal in Gaza

Artifact of the Moment:

Not necessarily what you think. An arcane and quotidian piece of history. Over on the Tumblr:

Would You Wear Jewelry Commemorating a War or Battle? (The Somme of All Fears)

Would you consider it strange to wear jewelry commemorating a contemporary war or battle, say, the Iraq or Afghanistan wars? the battle of Falluja? Or maybe 9-11.

While we're at it: could you imagine someone doing that in the case of, say, D-Day? Gettysburg? the Third Crusade?

Over on the Tumbler, a look at this Artifact of the Moment involving World War I and soldiers' gifts to loved ones:

Battlefield Bling From the Bloodiest Day in British Military History: The Somme

Franz Ferdinand, unloved bulldog

With the World War I centenary now upon us, there will be plenty of cause for blogging. To start things off: over on the Tumblr:

"broad and mighty … with his bulldog neck and his cold, staring eyes": Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 1914

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Coming to America: The Immigrant Experience During the Cold War (I)

As thousands of refugee children from Latin America rush to enter the United States and politicians even more hastily rush to trade accusations about security and humanity, immigration is once again a hot issue this summer.

Ironically, the country makes a point of holding especially festive citizenship ceremonies for new Americans on the 4th of July. (Here, stories of local immigrants and festivities in the Gazette: 1, 2, 3, 4). As I followed the news stories and prepared for the July 4th weekend, I suddenly realized that it was exactly 65 years ago, in July 1949, that my father came to America. Three years later, he became a citizen. Those who arrived here at that time had been fated to live in "interesting times" (as the apocryphal Chinese expression would have it): the European world that had given birth to them and shaped their identities was destroyed, yet the new American world did not fully understand them, either.

The following artifacts are a modest testimony to that experience.

Then, as now, every prospective citizen had to study to pass a test and qualify for admission. But becoming a citizen was about acculturation, not just education. Much of the naturalization process involved teaching the newcomers how to be(come) American. Just to make sure, the government provided further reading for the time after securing the coveted certificate, as well.

This booklet, written by the Attorney General and Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (1951) contained:
  • The Star-Spangled Banner (text)
  • Greetings from the President and the Attorney General
  • The Meaning of American Citizenship, By Argyle R. Mackey, Acting Commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Service: no longer a foreign citizen, but also not "a hyphenated-Amercican."
  • The Duties of a Citizen [include: obeying laws, voting, informing oneself about issues on the ballot, paying taxes, jury duty, holding office, serving in the military, etc.]
  • Rights and Privileges of a Citizen: basically standard civil and political rights, derived from the Constitution
  • Photo of the Declaration of Independence in the National Archives, along with an "Oath of Allegiance"
  • The Five Qualities of the Good Citizen
  • "America" (My country! 'tis of thee; text) 
  • Memories of the Occasion (space for "signatures," "messages of congratulation," and "newspaper clippings")
    The "Five Qualities of the Good Citizen":
    1. "cherishes democratic values and bases his actions on them"
    2. "practices democratic human relationship in the family, school, community, and the larger scenes"
    3. "recognizes the social problems of  the times and has the will and the ability to work toward their solution"
    4. "is aware of and takes responsibility for meeting basic human needs"
    5. "possesses and uses knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary in a democratic society" 
    Most of this was the standard stuff. The "Five Qualities" are unobjectionable--even admirable. If phrased in the language of a warrant article, they could pass muster even in Amherst Town Meeting. But it was also the era of McCarthyism, which caused my parents some concern. (More on that on another occasion, perhaps.) The combination of the hunt for subversives and the dominant doctrine of assimilation could create an atmosphere of uncertainty for even the most well-intentioned of immigrants. 

    A piece in the booklet by Argyle R. Mackey, Interim Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, reflected the combined spirit of democratic hospitality and assimilationist advice:
    Today you have become a citizen of the United States of America. You are no longer an Englishman, a Frenchman, an Italian, a Pole. Neither are you a hyphenated-American--a Polish-American, an Italian-American. You are no longer the subject of a government. Henceforth, you are an integral part of this Government--a freeman--a Citizen of the United States of America.

    This citizenship, which has been solemnly conferred on you, is a thing of the spirit--not of the flesh. When you took the oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States you claimed for yourself the God-given unalienable rights which that sacred document sets forth as the natural right of all men.
    One notes that only immigrants from southern and east-central Europe merited the term, "hyphenated." (No one, after all, speaks of an English-American.) Not coincidentally, these were immigrants from the groups whose entry was severely curtailed by the notorious Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924. Its replacement, the likewise restrictive McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act, aimed particularly against immigrants from "eastern" Europe, passed Congress over President Truman's veto days before my father received his citizenship.

    The stress on popular government must have been empowering. To what extent was it offset in the minds of the newcomer by the equal stress on assimilation and homogenization?  A subtly engaging short film, "The Cummington Story" (1945; score by Aaron Copland) shows how standoffish New Englanders and insecure European refugees right here in western Massachusetts overcame cultural barriers to become friends as well as neighbors.

    In 1952, Congress changed the name of the holiday honoring new Americans from "I Am an American Day" to "Citizenship Day" and shifted the date from the third Sunday in May to September 17, the anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution. In accordance with President Truman's declaration, the Mayor of Minneapolis held a reception for the newcomers at City Hall.

    My father was selected as one of the two new citizens to speak at the ceremony. The name of the other, "Mrs. H.A. Bullis," is somewhat misleading. She was a fellow Polish refugee, the Countess Maria Smorczewska, who was active in the underground during the war, fled to the US in 1947, and married the widowed Harry Amos Bullis, Chairman of the Board of General Mills, in 1948.

    The program of the ceremony refers to the new Americans receiving four things: "Certificates of Naturalization," instructions concerning "The Etiquette of the Flag," "Greeting Cards," and "Citizenship Buttons."
    I of course have the Certificate of Naturalization. Curiously, given that my father was a meticulous record-keeper (regardless of whether the subject was his travel experiences, the family budget, the car's gas mileage, or my height and weight as an infant), I did not find the other items among his papers and memorabilia.

    It is possible that the booklet welcoming immigrants to American citizenship constituted the "greeting card," for I found it along with the above program. In any event, I do have the flag presented at the naturalization ceremony. My parents each had one, and I recall playing with one as a child.

    Here is the other, still striking in its freshness and simplicity. Protected from the light all these many years, it has kept its color, which appears to have been stenciled with paint onto the fabric (presumably linen?). It is less vibrant than today’s flags or even others of that day, but the muted colors are warm, and the texture of the  natural fabric offer a visual and tactile satisfaction that our slick modern synthetics simply do not. The effect, whether reflecting reality or merely a construction of our imagination, evokes a bygone era.

    Back then, of course, the flag had only 48 stars, here in the configuration specified by the Executive Order of President Taft, 24 June 1912. It did not change until the admission of Alaska and Hawaii under President Eisenhower, both in 1959.

    American flag, c. 9 3/4 x 14 1/4 inches [enlarge]

    As I've said before: whatever America's flaws and continuing problems, I'd much rather live in a country that people are fighting to get into rather than out of. Happy Fourth of July--and a warm welcome to all those still struggling to join us as citizens of this constantly evolving country.

    Friday, July 11, 2014

    Ramadan Kareem

    Wishing all my friends and readers all the best for the month of Ramadan.

    In 2011, belatedly recognizing the religious diversity of our country, the United States Postal Service issued this Eid stamp
    I am sorry that the 9th Annual Ramadan Iftar sponsored by The Turkish Cultural Center of Springfield and the UMass Rumi Club was canceled this year. It is an event that I have very much enjoyed attending in years past: one of the few genuinely multicultural gatherings here because it actually educates rather than merely promulgating platitudes.

    I of course nonetheless take to heart the spirit of the season. Because Ramadan this year falls during a time of renewed conflict in the Middle East, here are two selections from previous posts.

    In 2011, Gershon Baskin and Hanna Siniora of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) offered the following simple greeting:
        To all of our Muslim friends and colleagues, Ramadan Kareem!

        May we all enjoy the blessings of health, prosperity, happiness and peace into our lives and may we all multiply it and share with others as well!  

    And in 2012, Michael Oren, Ambassador to the US from Israel (whose population is 20% Muslim) said the following at the White House Iftar:
        It is a world grounded in our holy books. Tonight, of course, is Laylat al-Qadr, the night of the Holy Quran’s revelation. As a student, I spent an entire year reading the Quran and vividly remember how it referred to the Jews as Ahlu al-Kitab—the People of the Book. It says in Sura 29, “Our God and your God is one, and to Him do we submit.” And in Sura 3, the Jews are invited to, “Come to a word that is just between us and you, that we worship none but God, and that we associate no partners with Him, and that none of us shall take others as lords besides God.”

        Similarly, the Bible tells us, in the Book of Psalms, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” And the Book of Proverbs says, fittingly for this Ramadan feast, “Better a dry crust with peace than a house full of feasting, with strife."

    * * *
    Update July 28:

    As has become the custom, the Empire State Building displayed green lights in honor of the end of Ramadan:

    And President Obama issued his Eid greeting:

    As Muslims throughout the United States and around the world celebrate Eid-al-Fitr, Michelle and I extend our warmest wishes to them and their families.  This last month has been a time of fasting, reflection, spiritual renewal, and service to the less fortunate.  While Eid marks the completion of Ramadan, it also celebrates the common values that unite us in our humanity and reinforces the obligations that people of all faiths have to each other, especially those impacted by poverty, conflict, and disease.

    In the United States, Eid also reminds us of the many achievements and contributions of Muslim Americans to building the very fabric of our nation and strengthening the core of our democracy.  That is why we stand with people of all faiths, here at home and around the world, to protect and advance their rights to prosper, and we welcome their commitment to giving back to their communities.

    On behalf of the Administration, we wish Muslims in the United States and around the world a blessed and joyous celebration.  Eid Mubarak.

    Wishing all my friends and followers Eid Mubarak and the blessings of peace in the coming year.

    Update July 29:

    It seems that our hapless President, attacked from all sides, can do no right. Many evidently took umbrage at his wishing people a joyous celebration when fighting rages in Gaza and without mention of the situation there. Not for nothing do they call it the toughest job in the world.

    from Al Arabiya: Obama's Eid greeting to Muslims backfires

    Previous Ramadan posts:

    • 2012 Ramadan Reflection
    • 2012 Eid Mubarak!
    • 2011 Ramadan in Amherst: Celebration of Community and Concerns Over Intolerance
    • 2010 Ramadan Kareem! (with some tools for keeping track of non-Christian holidays)