Author: Nicholas Archibald

The importance of memory

Jeffrey Schnapp’s lecture on the importance of monuments was right in my ballpark, so to speak. This semester, I took a class focused on debating the Nazi past, both from a historiographical perspective and looking at the contemporary politics and importance of memory. Monuments are undoubtedly a key part of understanding history. They remind us of what has been done and, if the monument is effective, facilitate a dialogue on how to grow from our past experiences and come together.

The monument I’m about to bring up isn’t necessarily a ‘revolutionary’ monument, but it is crucial nonetheless. In Hamburg, there is a “counter monument”. It is a simple monument – a square pillar with a message on it written in several languages to essentially remain vigilant moving forward, decrying the atrocities of the Nazi regime. The monument has many signatures on it of people who visit. This interactive monument is both a means to remember and uplift the victims of the holocaust and also an interactive call to work against the powers still present to some degree in society – racism and hate chief among them.

In more recent years, in Germany, as a result of the influx of immigrants, many of whom do not know or do not understand the importance of world war two in German History and memory, often have trouble relating to and engaging with the past. This is a problem that crosses borders. How do we make history relevant to those who don’t relate to it? Monuments are one answer to this question – but a monument is useless to this segment of the population if all it is meant to do is drag people back toward the past, back toward often dark times in a particular country’s history. Furthermore, too often monuments exist as a means to inspire mass guilt in the population. There are sometimes good and evil forces in history, but more often there is an expansive gray area that a monument can’t quite encapsulate. Does a German today need to feel remorseful for their ancestor being a member of the nazi party? That seems problematic to me, and I think it explains to some degree why many in Germany would avoid regularly attending holocaust memorials – it is either irrelevant to them or masochistic.

So how do we remember the past in a healthy way? We see monuments as we see our culture – dynamic, progressive, with a distinct reflective look at the past as a guide for our future. When a German looks at a commemorative monument, perhaps they can think about current oppression in the world today, not necessarily in their country, and they can muse on how to best combat that. As an American, I can go to an American history museum and think about how we are still oppressing Native American groups. I can go to the Vietnam memorial and think about how we are still utilizing an illiberal interventionist policy and this is the end result. A monument isn’t a tool for the past. It is a key to the future we want, that we can fight for.

Why join a Revolution?

Why join a revolution? This was a question covered extensively by Marcos Perez in his lecture. What he revealed is that joining a revolution isn’t so simple as just wanting “change”. Change is obviously a necessary outcome of a successful revolution, but the causes of revolution are much broader than many might think.

Some revolutions are irrational, carried out for anarchic purposes. Some people might classify the French Revolution as “Anarchic,” as it was done to eliminate the state apparatus. It turned into much more than that, but the roots of this revolution were anarchal in nature. Some revolutions are rational. The 1960’s civil rights movement was carried out with a plan and purpose mind – Non-violent protest with the goal of achieving racial equality. Because of that blueprint, it is easier to judge the success of rational movements.

But why join any revolution – rational or irrational? A cost-benefit analysis would show that joining a revolution hardly pays off most times, and could often lead to imprisonment or death. Also, the revolutionaries aren’t always the ones to profit off of the change they inspired, as the fruits of their labor might come much later.  A revolution carried out ‘before its time’ is not really a revolution – it is a squashed attempt at insurrection. Revolutionaries, especially the ‘irrational’ ones, likely don’t weigh the costs and benefits of their actions. Revolutionaries acquire at some point a rabid drive for their respective cause. Revolutionaries look at risks like a man trapped in the Sahara looks at a murky bottle of water – it is a necessary part of their survival, of their identity.

Also important to consider is the very human ‘mob’ mentality of any movement, revolution or otherwise. People generally want to be involved with something bigger than themselves. This runs the gamut from religion to cults to political parties. Once someone is committed to defending a way of life, a specific view, or the merits of a revolution, there is really no convincing that person otherwise.

Some revolutions can even be considered as revolutions to revolutions! An added emphasis on identity politics and the contemporary social movements therein can spur an equal reaction from nationalists. A political revolution establishing a communist regime might be met with an immediate capitalist or democratic reaction in the form of a coup. Are these revolutions, or are they returns to the status quo? Can a revolution move “progress” (and whatever label we give to that) backward?

So, is ‘revolution’ a symptom of a problem in society, or purely the outcome of human nature? That is, are revolutions legitimate in most cases or forced by groups refusing to see otherwise or accept the ‘status quo’? There are multiple examples to fit both definitions. As with almost any social construct, the context of the place and time period and population defines what revolution really is and if it has true merit. Additionally, the reasons for why someone might join a revolution are pliable and need parsing out beyond what can be done in 500 words.

The Climate (R)evolution

Throughout this course, we’ve been inundated with so many different kinds of “revolutions”, it is hard to pinpoint what the term means exactly. In the case of the Climate Revolution, it seems more a series of scientific developments towards the end goal of learning why the climate around us is the way it is. Kerry Emanuel went through the history of climate studies and how we got to the point where we can predict weather patterns, explain natural phenomena, and (so importantly) understand why our world is warming and put it into the context of historical climate change and what it means for our world today. But was this development truly revolutionary?

I am perhaps fortunate that I am taking a course on climate and weather in society because otherwise I would have been left to believe that the greenhouse effect was only identified recently. In reality, the warming of our climate as a product of human actions has been known for a couple hundred years. It is only more recently that worldwide notice has been given to the subject. Our increased means to accrue observational data has made it easier to come to conclusions about climate change and try to establish policy working against it. But I tend to believe “revolutionary” includes a definite change in the way people think and see the world, so the more recent environmental revolution fits into the spectrum of the long-term climatic revolution, only it has been aided by technological revolutions running contemporaneously with it.

It is also important to note that “Climate revolution” deals with more than just climate change. The climate revolution deals with any scientific development that has improved our understanding of climate and the natural world. This can include studying everything from volcanic activity to solar radiation to hurricanes and typhoons. For that reason, it is difficult to pin down “climatic revolution” in simple terms. It is hardly one occurrence, as research into all that makes up our understanding of climate goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. Learning that the world was round and the angle and duration of sunlight determined the length of seasons is part of the climatic revolution. The publication of Silent Spring and finding out how pesticides have an impact on our environment and contribute to our changing climate falls into the spectrum as well. In this sense, the climate revolution was not a revolution, but rather an evolution – a series of events and scientific discoveries, each coinciding with a number of alternate revolutions that aided our understanding of climate in some way. But it did, undoubtedly, change the way people perceive the world. I think if I were to pin down the climate revolution accurately I would say it was an evolutionary process with revolutionary results.

History is all about perspectives

When we think of political/national revolutions throughout history, several come to mind right away. The American revolution (of course), the French Revolution, and (for some) the Bolshevik Revolution and the political ramifications of that. Those are just three of many important and well-known ones. A revolution that doesn’t receive the same kind of recognition or attention is the Haitian revolution. Why is it that perhaps the most successful slave rebellion in the history of the western world is essentially swept under the rug? Even as a history major, I have only heard about it in passing, and I certainly heard next to nothing about it in High School. Is there a reason for this?

Ultimately, I think the reason we “neglect” the Haitian revolution is because of the difference in historical perspective. The American revolution is central to our ideas of what it means to be American. It is a part of our patriotic culture, and it will undoubtedly lead to a large number of American history historians moving forward. The French Revolution is “sexy”, for lack of a better term. It reads like a story. You have your central characters of personality and importance like Robespierre and Napolean, a setting to die for in Paris, and there is enough cultural significance in terms of novels (a tale of two cities, for instance) and other ways to make the revolution significant in more than just historical terms. The Bolshevik Revolution is a precedent-setting political revolution with immense consequences for the world moving forward. What I mean by that is it was a revolution that gave rise to the first communist superpower. Of course, it will get significant attention.

The Haitian revolution wasn’t purely American, it wasn’t a  cultural “event” to the same degree as the one in France, and it wasn’t in a major country. The Haitian Revolution was, however, inspired by the enlightenment, had ramifications in America in terms of the ongoing slavery taking place at the time, and it gave a view into the manner in which a newly formed republic, created and led by former slaves, would operate. Maybe most importantly, the Haitian revolution challenged ideas of racial inferiority of the ability of colored people to achieve and maintain freedom. Also important to consider are the ways the Haitian Revolution connects to the French revolution, as the speaker Jeremy Popkin explained. The latter influenced the former, and the former gave rise to a government that challenged the latter.  The Haitian revolution proves the interconnectivity of history. Revolutions influence each other, just as the slave rebellion in Haiti influenced slave rebellions in the United States. For this reason, perhaps it would be useful to offer more attention to the Haitian revolution because of what it meant worldwide, even though it isn’t necessarily “mainstream”.

Too much Data?

Common sense would dictate that the more information you have, the more prepared you are to make a better decision or draw a better conclusion. That’s why it was bizarre to me when the other day I was reading through articles on – one of my favorite sites – and one of them was called “Why we got the election the least wrong.” The article was as thought-provoking as it was depressing (given the results of said election). 538 predicted Clinton would win 70% of the time. This was compared to the Huffington Post and other outlets who had Clinton winning upwards of 97% of the time. All of these models focused on polling data from various polling institutions, which got me wondering, at what point do we have too much data? That is, are we so inundated with data that we can’t see a threat as foreboding as a storm cloud heading our direction because we’re looking at numbers and figures that normalize the event of a strongman narcissist running for president? Would we have voted differently had the polls not convinced so many that Clinton had it in the bag? And how much do we trust sites like 538 moving forward after they underestimated the human element of election day results?

At Thanksgiving dinner, my soon to be brother in law, recently engaged to my older sister, said to my family  “I’m just never going to look at polling data again. They don’t know what they’re talking about.” I didn’t question him at the time. As an avid Clinton supporter, he still had a bitter taste in his mouth post-election, and I did not want to be argumentative. Underneath, however, I was curious about his comments. Is one failed measure of polling enough to make all polling, and statistics in a larger sense, useless? I don’t want to call Nate Silver’s life work valueless. I think there is so much to be gained from looking beyond media and cultural narratives and looking at the statistics and raw information firsthand in order to make a cogent argument. As was said during the data lecture when that first scientific book was published, letting the population at large be their own observers, read into the information as they want to – that process makes us a more intelligent society. The problems arise when statistics are taken like religious scripture – when analytics replace arguments and when someone becomes the mouthpiece of a data collector rather than forming any nuance in their views. I almost think the election of the demagogue that is Trump was in part a rejection to this kind of robotic thinking, for better or for worse (worse).

Moving forward, I’m still going to use 538 for my politics, rather than MSM where they just have ridiculous talking heads shouting over each other all day long. But the next time I see a poll I will take it with that added grain of salt. Data is critical, as if making arguments out of individual research, but not at the cost of a human element to all things that is so hard to predict.

Is Science Racist?

No – Science is not racist. The systematic study of the natural world around us through observation and experimentation is not on its face “racist”. When professor Stone gave her talk last week, however, she wasn’t just blowing off smoke about a problem that doesn’t exist. Sometimes, the way scientists classify variations within a given species by their typological differences has the potential to promote a stereotypical ideology that can be harmful to the way we as a species see and define the world.

For example, when I was a kid growing up learning about heredity and genes my science teacher, an elderly woman who by no fault of her own as she was jus working with the tools she was given, had us read a textbook circa 1980 that felt the need to provide profiles to differentiate genetic variation. That’s why I nearly laughed during the lecture when the slide came up showing the different boxes of “types” of humans – I had seen that before! There was a  latino person blocked off from a red-headed person as if they were completely different species. That alone might be an unfortunate coincidence, but the textbook went further than that. On the next page, there was a chart that showed dominant genes vs recessive genes and increased melanin was one of the dominant genes – so you can see the possible racial intonation to that kind of ‘educating’. It might have been a product of budget cutting or something not the fault of the educators, but it was science that enforced a kind of racism that science should, by definition as an intellectual and practical discipline, be divorced from. Stone’s lecture was a timely reminder that our preconceptions can leak out into any field.

One devil’s advocate argument that could be made against this kind of reasoning is the idea that typological science is a useful way to separate certain variations within plants. How else would we classify certain shrubberies from one another? Is there some kind of gray area to all of this? Can typological science be useful in some instances? I think it can be but we need to be careful when and how it is used because the way we learn about genetic variation as children does determine the way we think of different races and ethnicities.

Virtual Revolutions

Khalid A. Ali’s Q & A was by far my favorite of the presentations so far in this course. His discussion on the impact of social media in contemporary revolutions was both informative and relevant. I had actually seen that cartoon before (the play on words with Mubarak in Arabic Script) so that was what first got my head perked up that evening.

Artwork can be such a powerful motivator of revolution, not just in the Arab world, but in the United States and the rest of the world too. We see political cartoons in newspapers and magazines and react instinctually to them and form opinions based on those reactions much more readily than we would to a written story. Not just that, but artwork is easier to share and gather interest among people, visually, especially in this day and age. Someone is much more likely to retweet a cartoon of an orange blob (trump) dropping a globe off of a cliff than someone is to read and retweet an article titled “Debate shines American politics in a negative light.” There can be some concerns, of course. Certain individuals look at art and react with violence – see the murder of Charlie Hebdo. In displaying an opinion in such a visceral way the reaction is often visceral and hate filled. Not to say that Charlie Hebdo did anything wrong – art is a medium of free speech. Certain individuals like those that killed him still have a long way to go before they completely understand and respect the concept of free speech in art all throughout the world.

The second thing I wanted to talk about was the idea of “going viral”. This concept is a new one – that people can have a spotlight on them through social media or otherwise for 60 seconds before the world turns to the next tragedy or social issue. It’s very difficult to combat that inclination, what with the low attention span of the average person today. How can we make sure each issue, each artist, is given full voice to speak of an issue, not just for the moment that people find their cartoon interesting, but in the days and weeks following? Do they simply have to suck it up and pump out more great work? That must be difficult with such a crowded field of cartoonists. I think the only way to really meet the dilemma of the “going viral” world head on is to change the media’s procedure as it relates to covering issues, asking them to go beyond the surface and not just request 60-second basic interviews with artists who clearly have a lot to say. That is definitely easier said than done, though.

Regardless, I loved the talk this week, and I hope to hear more of Ali in the future!

Teleconnections? When Science and Sociology collide.

Recently Gillen D’Arcy Wood gave a lecture about the Tambora Volcano eruption of 1816 and the “year without a summer” that ensued. His lecture was unique for two reasons. First; it connected the science of volcano studies and climatology to what is probably his first love, English literature in a cross-disciplinary way that we don’t often see in our studies. Second; it introduced this idea of dynamic “teleconnection” that I have not come across before that essentially means one event in one part of the world influences an event in a separate region of the world.

Typically, teleconnection focuses only on environmental and meteorological events. Prof. Wood took it a step further. He made the claim that an environmental event (i.e. Tambora) not only caused meteorological phenomena (the year without a summer) but it also influenced human events beyond just a recognition of it being cloudy that day. In his book, Wood made a lot of claims about this more dynamic teleconnection, but in his lecture, he stuck with two primary ones – the creation of the story Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and the refugee crisis that the aftereffects of Tambora caused.

Here is why I have some problems with this line of thinking. While I do think there is value in parsing out what the inspiration for a novel might be (as someone who reads plenty of novels I am intrigued by that) I think it is a bit simple and maybe inaccurate to say “Mary Shelley would not have written Frankenstein had Tambora not erupted.” I am sure you would find many English literature professors or classical professors who would point toward the mythology Prometheus as the the guiding influence behind the theme for Frankenstein (titan given life and power by the gods), not the refugees or the weather. Any attempts to pick through Mary Shelley’s mind to find her motivation is just psychological guesswork and some rash jumping to conclusions. The refugee crisis being teleconnected to Tambora is much more plausible. The lack of a typical summer devastated the harvest and caused farmers to lose their jobs and caused a massive food shortage. That all makes sense. My concerns are that some of that information is incomplete. The economic and political climates weren’t structurally set to endure a crisis like in 1816. To be fair to Prof. Wood, he did do his best to cover that and show how Tambora exposed those already present issues. I just think sometimes when studying interrelationships of events we need to be careful we don’t fall into the “A leads to B and B leads to C” formulaic understanding of these relationships when there is so much more to these events to analyze from multiple angles. It would be like saying (for comparisons sake) Moby Dick was inspired by the growing whaling industry in the 19th century when there is clearly allusions to the bible and Shakespeare in the story that inspired it just as much if not more.

The Genius of Darwin

Charles Darwin, to me, can be compared to a hard working, ingenious artist. He provided a second look into a world that religion thought to have discovered, filled with interpretations of the deep natural beauty of the world around him, and the value of his contribution was not totally understood during his time. Today, Darwin’s studies are crucial in understanding our place as humans in the world. The question is, were Darwin’s findings truly revolutionary, and not just ‘evolutionary (mind the pun)? I say Yes.

Revolution refers to an overthrow of the standing order of things. Was Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos islands and the 35 pages of sketches on its face revolutionary? No – but the challenges (perhaps even unintentional challenges) that these sketches made to the status quo were revolutionary and not just intriguing. At some level, the Darwinian revolution destroyed forever the notion of humans as somehow miraculously special, symbolically and literally the greatest species on earth, risen above the rest on the basis of some religious mandate. This occurs on two levels.

Religion promotes the idea that humans were created by God himself, in his perfect form. The idea that we evolved from apes pretty much blows that to pieces. Obviously, that is why Darwin was so hated by the churches during his time, but religion always has trouble accepting real foundational discoveries in science and this is no different. The one interesting branch to cling to, from the religious perspective, is the idea of consciousness, and where that comes from – something Darwin and other scientists have yet to discover. I expect scientists and neurologists especially will develop a greater understanding of our origins of a unique consciousness and religion will have to adjust yet again, but for the moment that is an area of question that makes some people believe our species lives by a moral code that makes us better than apes, for example.

The second level is a more tangential outcrop of Darwin’s discoveries. The idea of Natural selection, that the best of a species survives and adapts to their environment, has been morphed from a purely scientific argument to a more political/ideological argument – but I’ll get back to that in a moment. One of the core basis of the church is the idea of the ‘weak’ being meant to inherit the earth. Natural selection destroys that notion as well. Unfortunately, Darwin’s correct ideas have been used to promote an agenda of certain humans being more valuable than others, culturally, genealogically, and intellectually, and that has led in the past to dangerous ideas of eugenics and genocides such as in Rwanda or Germany during world war 2. Hopefully, Darwin’s ideas moving forward will be expanded upon in a positive way, and not used as a shield to defend the evil actions of individuals who don’t understand the purpose of them.

Thoughts on the (or a) Scientific Revolution

Professor Dan Cohen’s lecture on the Scientific Revolution was the rare lesson that brings up more questions than answers. Is something truly “revolutionary” if many of its greatest achievements call on the teachings of civilizations that preceded the time of the revolution by thousands of years? Is a revolution truly “scientific” if many of the scientific discoveries were not a product of an experimental process but rather the most aesthetically pleasing alternative? Was THE Scientific revolution the only scientific revolution (probably not)?

Instead of trying to provide answers to those questions, which I could not (Dan Cohen spent over an hour trying to), I’m going to come up with more! Being a history major, and trying to see this and any revolution through a causality lens, what social/political conditions can lead to scientific revolutions? Logic would state a democracy with stable living conditions would be best, but didn’t the USSR get the first satellite in orbit? Some have even argued that the bubonic plague was a triggering event for advances in Europe over the next century that would lead to ‘world domination’ by that continent.

Can Scientific Revolutions be harmful to society? While we see plenty of innovated technology that helps the world, not just during THE scientific revolution but also during the 21st century, science can also be held partially accountable for advances in weaponry, before world war two that led to devastating bombs, before world war one that led to mustard gas and the advances in chemical warfare, even now with drones and all of the controversy that surrounds them. In the early 20th century the world outside of Europe, seeing the sometimes devastating impact of scientific ‘achievement’, turned away. “This is what your progress has done?” People like Gandhi said, and there is a valid argument to be made there.

A final question – when is the next scientific revolution going to be? I think, and I might be wrong (but I want to answer one of my questions), hundreds of years from now when humans are in flying cars going on time machine vacations on the weekends we will look back at this turn of the millennium and see it as a period of great technological achievement. The internet, which will only become a larger part of society as time goes on, is one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time. Advances in medicine, communication, transportation, and yes, the military, have all come thick and fast during our lifetimes. Professor Cohen said that many of the intellectuals and inventors during the Scientific Revolution knew something special was going on during that time period, that they were a part of something larger. I think if you asked Bill Gates or Elon Musk or whoever they might say the same.

There are so many more questions to consider: Will overpopulation as a product of scientific achievement extending people’s lives become a problem and how will we solve it? And one that particularly grabbed my attention as a result of that mini-debate at the end of the lecture between professors – Is our view of scientific achievement too euro-centric (even though most scientific discoveries, for a variety of reasons, have either come from or been stolen by these pale, white, men)? The Scientific Revolution is filled with these sort of questions, but, as we saw from the lecture, the answers are more difficult to parse out.

~Nick Archibald