No pole dancing allowed

Museum Challenge: The New York Transit Museum – Fun and Interesting

Of all the museums I’ve visited in New York City, the New York Transit Museum was the most fun, even though it’s also (so far) the smallest. The museum is designed in a way that allows for interaction with many of the exhibits. There was a whole class of children on a field trip playing with the turnstiles when I first got there. I think the museum staff was aiming for making the place a popular field-trip destination. Besides all of the interactive exhibits, there is also a cafeteria/classroom area.Just because it was set up for kids doesn’t mean it can’t be fun for adults too, though.

Students on a field trip trying out old subway turnstiles.
Students on a field trip trying out old subway turnstiles.

Just because it was set up for kids doesn’t mean it can’t be fun for adults too, though. On the first floor or first basement level, depending on how you look at it, there are old buses or portions of buses that you can walk into and sit in. The driver’s seats are accessible and you can have a friend take your photo through the windshield. The newer buses are definitely designed better. The driver’s seat and the angle of the pedals were much more comfortable than an older model I tried out, which required me to keep my leg elevated all the time to press the pedals. I have no idea how people actually drove those older buses all day. Their right legs must have been twice the size of their left legs.

The bottom floor of the basement is where all of the old train cars are. They had everything from A trains, supposedly mid-90s to 2010 (some of which I still see on the A line, not sure why it’s in the museum), to trains from the early 1900s. A lot of the train cars looked similar inside. Even some of the same advertisements spanned decades. It was interesting to see how the seat configurations changed over time. I also thought it was interesting to see ceiling or rotating fans in some of the older train cars. Once a year, New York City runs some of these older trains on the 7 line (I think).

Vintage train advertisement.
Vintage train advertisement.

What really interested me, though, were the old advertisements. I’d like to go back and just spend a few hours studying them. You can tell a lot about people during a certain time period based on the products they were buying and how the appeals made by advertisers were framed. It’s also just neat to see the artwork styles.

Signage meant to regulate passenger behavior.
Signage meant to regulate passenger behavior.

 

More signage meant to regular passenger behavior.
More signage meant to regular passenger behavior.

Another awesome exhibit in the museum is of signs meant to regulate the behavior of passengers. The signs are from multiple transit systems around the world. Some of them are hilarious; all of them are necessary. Or at least, the ones for the New York transit system are necessary. I remember being shocked by how clean the trains and buses in Singapore were when I first moved there. The trains were so clean that sometimes people would sit on the floor, something that is totally out of the question in New York City trains. The buses in New York City are usually just as filthy as the trains. People litter everywhere here; they spit everywhere here. It’s a shame. The city would be so much nicer if people would take care of it, but they don’t. They just complain about how dirty the city is while contributing to the problem.

Anyhow, the New York Transit Museum is pretty awesome and I’ll definitely be going back at least one more time in the future. Take a look through the photo gallery below for more images of exhibits in the museum:

 

The New York Transit Museum

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark book cover image

Wide Awake: Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” and World War I

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is an eminently readable account of the events that led up to the outbreak of World War I. Written in a narrative style, but rich with detail and innovative arguments about the origins of the war, Clark’s work is meant for a general audience but will also appeal to scholars looking to broaden their understanding of the events leading up to World War I. Clark is well versed in his subject matter. He is currently the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University with a focus on European history. His prior works include a study of Christian-Jewish relations in Prussia (The Politics of Conversion. Missionary Protestantism and the Jews in Prussia, 1728-1941, Oxford University Press, 1995), a general history of Prussia (Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, Penguin, 2006), and a biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (Kaiser Wilhelm II, Longman, 2000).

In The Sleepwalkers, Clark attempts to fundamentally change the way the origins of the war are discussed. Rather than trying to make a claim about who bears the most responsibility for the outbreak of World War I, the author is instead more concerned with the agency of individuals within the state power structures, the decisions they made, and why. Using a wealth of primary documents in state archives as well as secondary sources, Clark brings these “characters” to life in a story that begins with the assassination of King Alexander and Queen Draga in Serbia in June of 1903 and ends with European mobilization in August of 1914.

The scope of Clark’s narrative is impressive, despite being limited. The focus is placed primarily on Serbia, the Habsburg Empire, Russia, Germany, and France. Clark goes into detail regarding meetings, conversations, letters, and press publications in these countries. Other nations that played important roles in World War I are only touched upon briefly, including Italy, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire. Does it make sense to limit the narrative to these countries? For the most part, yes. Clark demonstrates that the rivalries between Russia and the Habsburgs and between the French and the Germans were the driving forces behind the outbreak of war; the assassination of the Archduke and Archduchess of Austria-Hungary by Serbian assassins was simply a pretext used by these nations to pursue other goals. On the other hand, Clark positions the ongoing decline of the Ottoman Empire and the loss of Ottoman lands to other states as a primary cause of continuing unrest not only in the Balkans, but in Europe as well. If the loss of Libya to Italy and Russia’s longstanding conflict with the Ottomans over the Dardanelles and Bosphorus was so crucial in laying the groundwork for the events that led up to World War I, why was the Ottoman Empire (the so-called “sick man of Europe”) not given a greater place at the table in Clark’s narrative?

The role Clark attributes to the Ottoman Empire in The Sleepwalkers ties into one of his larger themes, in which he presents the alliance bloc system as a driving force behind the outbreak of hostilities. The new bi-polar system (Entente vs Central Powers) developed out of an earlier multi-polar system which hinged on the maintenance of the status quo, including the propping up of the Ottoman Empire as a vital part of the European political establishment. The formation of powerful alliance blocs coupled with the linkage of diplomacy to military power, as well as the lack of available colonial territories to barter and trade away in international diplomacy, created a situation that was inherently volatile. Clark writes that war was not inevitable, that it was the result of actions taken by individuals. The evidence Clark presents strongly supports his thesis. Clark clearly shows that the French elite were agitating for war to regain territories previously lost to Germany. Russian elites were looking for an excuse to finally capture the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. They understood that they would likely trigger a continental war, but decided to push forward with their plans anyway. These players were not sleepwalking towards war; they were wide awake, even if they were unaware of the scale of the consequences their actions would bring.

One of the larger problems with Clark’s work is that he places so much emphasis on Serbia and Serbian history when his narrative clearly shows that events in Serbia and Sarajevo were merely a pretext that France and Russia used to start a war that they hoped would allow them to achieve their own national goals. The amount of space in the book devoted to Serbian history seems disproportionate to the country’s influence on events. Without Russian backing, would a larger continental war have started at all? In his introduction, Clark writes that he is not interested in placing blame, but based on the evidence he presents, Russia is responsible for the start of World War I. Serbia was not a part of the Entente Alliance of 1907. Had Russia not intervened on its behalf, the treaty stipulations would not have been triggered. Germany, by contrast, comes across as an underdog in The Sleepwalkers.

Two minor issues stood out to me in this book. One is the mention of but lack of development of the idea that a new trend in masculinity affected diplomatic relations between the countries involved. The second is the repeated use of “public opinion” to explain events without developing the reader’s understanding of the actual relationship between the media or government and the public. Who was “the public”? The elite, or all classes? What was the literacy rate? Did people consume news by reading or through word-of-mouth in public spaces? Did people understand that some news was camouflaged diplomacy? Clark indicates that the outbreak of war surprised rural populations in Russia and France and they did not understand what was going on, so how could “public opinion” have played such a crucial role in government policy formation?

Overall, Clark’s presentation of the backdrop to World War I in The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is brilliant. It is written in a way that is informative and yet entertaining. He opens an old topic to fresh discussion by revealing the complicated web of interactions between individuals in the state governmental systems, calling into question anew who is responsible for the start of World War I, even if that is not the author’s intention. More importantly, Clark’s work is a solid reminder that wars do not start themselves; people start wars and bad decisions by people in key positions can have devastating consequences.

Book Review: Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, by Kevin Kenny

Kevin Kenny’s book, Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, is part of a series of short introductions on a wide range of topics published by the Oxford University Press. As a very short introduction with just 109 pages of content, Kenny does his best to avoid becoming bogged down in historical details and instead focuses on elucidating the theoretical framework of diaspora itself. Kenny argues that the term diaspora has been used in so wide a variety of situations that it has begun to lose its utility as a tool of study. To combat this trend, Kenny tries to narrow the definition of diaspora by identifying three key attributes that diasporic groups possess: movement, connectivity, and return. He supports and expands on this framework for diaspora by analyzing a geographically diverse range of population movements.

Kenny’s conception of diaspora is heavily rooted in Jewish tradition. He traces the word diaspora back to its use in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures from approximately 250 BCE. He argues that the Jewish understanding of diaspora, which was originally meant to convey the idea of spiritual estrangement from God, became conflated with galut, a Hebrew word which means physical exile (Kenny, 4-5). So, the Jews saw physical and spiritual exile from the land as being part of the same experience or process. Kenny positions this process of catastrophe, forced movement and a hope for redemption through return as the most useful structure of diaspora as a concept.

Is Kenny’s understanding of diaspora sound? Does it make sense to only apply the term diaspora if a migratory group’s situation conforms to the Jewish experience of exile and a hoped for divine redemption, or does that privilege Western understandings of history unnecessarily? One could argue that a word must have a set meaning, but the meanings of words have always changed over time. Also, for an academic study, it might make more sense to define a term in a way that does not rely on a specific set of religious ideas, especially if the goal is to make it generally applicable for groups of differing religious and cultural backgrounds. Because of how Kenny positions the idea of diaspora, at times it feels as if he is stretching the experience of the immigrant groups he examines to push them into the box he has built. He also fails to examine in any meaningful way the experiences of groups that would challenge his construction of diaspora. That may not be a fair critique for a very short introduction, but considering his conjecture that there are many opposing viewpoints of what constitutes a diaspora, including an example could have benefitted readers. Also, if Kenny is committed to the idea of scholars having the obligation to create a specific definition of diaspora and maintain it, why does he backpedal in his closing chapter by asking, “But if a given group chooses to define itself as a diaspora for its own purposes, who is the author of a short introduction to disagree? (Kenny, 109).

Kenny’s book is arranged thematically, rather than by group. He defines how he understands diaspora in chapter one and then spends the next three chapters expanding on the experiences of a handful of groups to elaborate on that definition. On the one hand, arranging his book this way makes it difficult to follow the individual experiences of the groups he reviews. In most cases, there are no chapter subheadings to orient the reader if they were interested in just one group’s experiences, making the reading experience potentially more laborious. Arranging his book thematically also leads to the repetition of information in some cases, which is space that could have been used for opposing views or the analysis of additional groups. On the other hand, organizing the book thematically allows the reader to clearly see the similarities between the experiences of the different groups, which better suits the author’s purpose of attempting to define diaspora.

Kenny’s first qualifier for a group to be a diaspora is an initial movement from a homeland. This movement must have a catastrophic element that creates a sense of imposed exile. Because of his concern for overextending the use of the word diaspora, Kenny is careful when discussing the history of the migration of different groups to differentiate between normal migration and a forced migration that creates a diaspora. His best example to support this idea is his discussion of the continuous migration of Irish to other countries over a period of hundreds of years, beginning in the 1700s. He points out that it was the potato blight in 1841to1855, which caused massive famine and a sudden, massive increase in the number of people migrating out of Ireland that was the defining moment in the creation of an Irish diaspora. The Irish who went abroad blamed England for their circumstances and for the deaths caused by the famine. They felt that England engineered the blight to eradicate them. This feeling of oppression created a sense of exile that reinforced their identity as a diasporic community. He also shows how the Jewish diasporic community suffered a catastrophic event that began a period of diaspora, though he oddly positions the beginning of diaspora in 586 BCE with the Babylonian exile. While historically accurate, Jews see exile and return as cyclical and the most recent exile, imposed by the Romans in 70 CE after they destroyed the Second Temple was the defining event for the majority of diasporic Jews. It marked the end of Jewish sovereignty for approximately two-thousand years and, unlike the Babylonian exile, removed almost the entirety of the population from the area.

Kenny’s second qualifier is connectivity. This is an interesting idea, but it does not seem as well-developed as Kenny’s explanations of either the initial migration or of the desire for return. Or rather, it seems that in each category a different group fits more neatly into Kenny’s definition of diaspora. For the initial migration, Irish and Jews clearly fit into the model of catastrophe leading to diaspora. For Africans, there was certainly a catastrophic event, but Kenny points out that Africans were victims of being sold into slavery in other parts of the world as well. Kenny attempts to downplay the experiences of African slaves in other areas of the world to bolster his claim that Atlantic slavery was definitive in creating an African diaspora. It seems more likely, however, that rather than the initial experience of being sold into slavery, it was racialization that created a feeling of commonality between Africans, which is something that Kenny brings up, but only in the sense that it created a sense of connectivity among Africans in the Atlantic world. This brings up another point. What is connectivity? Did Africans in South America actively communicate with Africans in the southeast United States or the Caribbean? Or is Kenny simply referring to a feeling of solidarity and common experience?

The third qualifier, which focuses on the idea of return, is the most interesting. Kenny focuses on the fact that many members of diasporic communities may not choose to return, even when given the opportunity. He oddly situates a discussion of this regarding Indians in South America in the chapter dealing with connectivity, but it is relevant here as well. This speaks to Kenny’s definition of the desire to return as being a desire to return a homeland that may be more imagined than real. His explanation of return focuses most heavily on the Jewish experience and the Rastafari movement. The Jewish experience was extremely informative because it shows what can happen when a diasporic group attempts to become a singular nation. The differences between the waves of immigrants that arrived in Israel shows that life in the diaspora has an effect on migrant groups. They become partially assimilated the cultures they live in. One could almost say that they stop being part of the same group in almost every sense of the word, becoming something in-between, rather like the Japanese experience in the American west. This is something that Kenny touches on when discussing the reasons why diasporic groups may choose to remain outside of their homeland. His discussion of the Rastafari movement was fascinating, though it seemed out of place. Kenny attempted to present the entire African diaspora in the Atlantic as connected, but used the experience of one group to show a general desire for return to Africa.

There were other odd additions to Kenny’s narrative that seemed out of place. One was the long discussion of the Palestinians in the chapter on return. Why add in a new group of people but only discuss them in a specific chapter, rather than as a part of the whole narrative? This may have been a limitation of the decision he made to structure his book thematically, but if that were the case, it may have presented a cleaner narrative if the Palestinians had not been included. However, since they were included in the narrative, the way they were approached feels like a missed opportunity. Rather than describing in excessive detail the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, Kenny could have examined the Palestinians as a diaspora. Even more, he could have looked at the dynamics between the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas and discussed how they affect, or possibly reinforce each other. Another odd inclusion was the discussion of ancient human migrations out of Africa. Was this necessary for a discussion on diaspora?

Despite any problems that Kenny’s book may have, he is tackling a topic that is hard to define and hard to discuss, especially in a very short introduction. With a book this short, Kenny necessarily must take a certain point of view and stay with it. His desire to give the term diaspora a set meaning is reasonable, especially if we want the term to be useful as a tool for studying migration, and he presents a definition that seems to fit the groups he chooses for analysis reasonably well. Kenny spent time on subjects that were not necessary to his topic, but they do not detract from the book in a serious way. He also seems to broaden and bend his definition based on the group he is analyzing. As an introduction to diaspora, this book is well worth the time it takes to read and, if the reader has more questions, Kenny provides a list for further reading based on chapter.

 

References

Kenny, Kevin. 2013. Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Universy Press.

Reading Response – Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America by Mae Ngai

Ngai’s main argument is that illegal aliens were created through acts of positive law rather than through bad character, conduct, race or culture. In other words, prior to legislation that designated certain individuals as being in the country illegally, the category did not exist. Further, she argues that illegal immigration is a necessary by-product of a restrictive immigration process and that, in the American context, illegal immigration was not a side-channel to legal immigration. She argues instead that illegal immigration was used as a primary means of entering the U.S. by many immigrants and played a major role in populating the country. It seems that what she is attempting to clarify is the fact that many people immigrated to the country illegally, but found ways to have their status legalized after the fact, with the moral implications of illegal entry being dependent on race and the time-period examined.

While touching briefly on Filipinos, Japanese, and Chinese immigrants, Ngai’s narrative focuses primarily on migrants and immigrants from Mexico and how their experience has shaped the modern discourse regarding illegal aliens in the United States. She presents Mexicans as the archetypal illegal immigrant in the American imagination. In Ngai’s view, the focus on Mexicans as illegal immigrants is a result of the border culture in the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico as well as U.S. labor practices and policies. Ngai’s aim seems to be to show that the push by southwestern agriculturalists for cheap labor drove the importation, legal and otherwise, of Mexican laborers. Because the legal avenues for migration for work purposes became increasingly odious, many Mexicans preferred to cross into the country illegally.  The best example she gives for this is the bracero program, which put Mexicans in a situation that left them generally worse off than if they hired themselves out on an individual basis.

Ngai’s argument is reasonable. She points out that illegal immigration from Mexico was the result of a failure on the part of the U.S. government to create adequate structures for legal entry by Mexican workers. She also points out that the drive for cheap labor that created the bracero program was based on a failure of the U.S. government to stand up to greedy agriculturalists and insist on fair wages for American workers. Ngai argues that this happened because the way people thought of America as a nation shifted. Laws were created to create the desired legal population. This shift created avenues for Europeans to become legalized but left Mexicans excluded from belonging to the nation in the American imagination. This exclusion was also the case for Japanese and Chinese immigrants, regardless of their legal or illegal status and whether they were citizens by naturalization or birth.

Ngai’s use of the Japanese and Filipino experience in the context of illegal immigration seems out of place. Did she include these groups to present a broader contrast between the way that Asiatic and Latin American immigrants were treated in comparison to Europeans? The experiences of these groups show that racism played a part in defining European Americans’ view of the nation, but “nullification” of citizenship rights and decolonization with voluntary repatriation are not the same as being considered an illegal entrant. The concept of being illegal connotes a violation of the law and a lack of citizenship status. For the Japanese, or at least the Nisei, their citizenship was never in question and neither was the legality of their status as Americans. The Issei did not enter the country illegally. They did not have access to citizenship but they were accepted legally, if not socially, as residents. With the Filipinos, repatriation was voluntary, rather than forced, indicating that their position was not illegal in the sense that they could be forcefully deported in an immigration sweep like Operation Wetback.

Ngai’s work is especially important in the way that it reveals the underlying assumptions about how the national body was viewed and how that view created the legal structures that created illegal immigrants. The immigration system was constructed in a way that ignored existing labor migration and pandered to the desire of agriculturalists to maximize profit with cheap labor. The willingness of Mexicans to take on jobs that were considered low paying to Americans fed into a racial image of Mexicans as undeveloped, while simultaneously painting them as lazy or arrogant if they refused to be cheated out of their wages or benefits. The Mexican stereotype that developed seems to have been applied to all non-European immigrants and work like Ngai’s helps to correct that historical narrative.

Reading Response: Becoming Mexican American… by George Sanchez

Considering the title, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, one would assume that George Sanchez’s book would be a history about the growth and development of a unique Chicano culture in Los Angeles between 1900 and 1945. However, the scope of the book becomes increasingly far-flung as the narrative progresses, much to the detriment of the author’s stated intention of examining cultural change in Los Angeles. Instead, Sanchez’s book shallowly covers multiple topics and areas, from labor history to radio programming, from rural villages in central and northern Mexico to El Paso, TX and points beyond, leaving the reader with the impression that much ground has been covered, but not in detail on any given subject. Despite the wide range of topics covered, Sanchez uses a variety of records and information from numerous fields of research to support his arguments, including Mexican consular documents, American government records, transcripts of oral testimonies from Mexican immigrants, and letters to provide a broad understanding of the factors that impacted Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles and their descendants.

One of the areas where Sanchez’s work excels is in his depiction of the social and economic interconnectedness of Mexico and the southwestern United States as a result of pre-existing Mexican communities in the area as well as through labor migration that led to cyclical and, eventually, additional permanent settlement. Part I of Becoming Mexican American… describes this process and is, in effect, a transnational historical narrative. Sanchez states that he wants to show that the culture that immigrants brought with them to the United States was not stagnant, but was rather a vibrant, complicated amalgamation of rural and urban mores that developed in Mexican villages in in the second half of the 19th century. However, this does not come through clearly in his writing. For one, the implication is that rural laborers somehow came to possess urban culture while migrating along rail lines for work. Additionally, it implies that laborers arrived in Los Angeles with a fully formed and static culture. It seems more reasonable to say that the process of cultural change that took place in Los Angeles was a continuation of what began in small rural villages in central and northern Mexico.

Sanchez’s comparison of labor migration within Mexico and the United States builds on the idea of regional interconnectedness. He demonstrates this primarily through his discussion of the Mexican rail system that connected northern Mexico more fully to the U.S. than it did to the rest of the country. The opportunities for labor created by the rail system pulled manual laborers away from their homes to travel and work on the rails. As they reached areas closer to the border with the U.S., they saw opportunities to perform the same labor for higher wages. However, this discussion, along with the highly detailed habits of border checkpoint guards, does not seem highly relevant to the topic of the development of a unique Chicano culture in Los Angeles.

Certainly, the openness of the border led to continued migration into the U.S., part of which created the community in Los Angeles, but why was a third of the narrative devoted to what feels like only partially relevant background information. It would have been more useful if the author had provided a brief overview of this topic and then spent more time explaining what the culture of Mexicans in Los Angeles was and how it developed over time. For example, Sanchez devotes an entire chapter to religion, but never goes further than saying the immigrants practiced what Catholic priests in the U.S. considered “folk Catholicism”. What is folk Catholicism? Exactly what were their beliefs and how did they contrast to mainstream Catholicism? Similarly, why did Sanchez spend so much time describing propaganda to encourage Anglos to move to Los Angeles? Why should we care what a Mexican intellectual who is not a resident of Los Angeles thinks about racial homogeneity in relation to the topic of this work? Also, why does Sanchez treat buying a radio as a special sign of cultural development? Is it not normal for people to be interested in purchasing devices that make their lives more comfortable, like the sewing machines he notes were prominent in rural Mexican households in Mexico?

While Sanchez’s book clearly has a lot to offer in terms of in-depth research about regional migration and labor history, most of what he presents is only coincidentally relevant to the community in Los Angeles and how their view of themselves and their position in relation to other inhabitants in the city changed over time. One is left with the feeling that certain sections of the book were originally meant to be stand-alone articles and that an original, cohesive text was supplemented by partially relevant, sometimes dense, textbook-style prose that was book-ended with an argument to attempt to tie everything together.