Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mother Earth - Sam D. Gill

The ubiquity of the Mother Earth story in Native American traditions rest, in Sam Gill's estimation, upon a mistaken legacy of simplified scholarship and dismissive, and one might argue racist, history. Gill's historical scholarship looks at the scant evidence upon which this myth was originally perpetuated, and, then, how it did become adopted by latter-day Native American's in defense of their lands and tribal rights.

Gill has uncovered a historical narrative worthy of examination, and his thorough scholarship strongly contrasts to the small evidence upon which the traditional Mother Earth narrative took shape. Perhaps the most interesting point his scholarship addresses is concern over what is lost when traditional voices are abstracted to fit a predetermined mold: by assuming before-the-fact that Native American tribes have similar Mother Earth traditions, we risk overlooking the cultural nuance and uniqueness of each tribe's stories and myths.

While the work raises many interesting questions, Gill addresses too few of them. His depth of historical research succeeds at the hands of what might be a more creative scholarship. Seemingly much  of the conclusions highlighted could be better addressed in an essay or introductory chapter. Unexamined are questions surrounding the power of narrative and the ability to take ownership of discourse. Why is that a story imposed by a powerful colonial system, became adopted by the very people oppressed to defend themselves from further divestment? What does this tell us about the politics of story and narrative? It is possible that to answer such is not the purview of this work; but the questions sit as inescapable. When Gill compares the differences between tribal-belief structures to the gaps between Catholic and Protestant Christians, or, furthermore, between Jews, Christians and Muslims, he seemingly undermines his own argument. Symmetrical interrogation suggests a Native American anthropologist traveling to Europe and the Middle East and wondering at how all of these people have come to believe in single, indivisible ancient father who created heaven and Earth; and man in his image. The level of analysis and abstraction is crucial when looking for similarities and differences in such an arena. How we look greatly influences what we see. Yes the particulars of each sect differ, but, depending on the level of abstraction, they can seem similar indeed.

While Gill's work puts forward interesting insights and broaches numerous interesting questions, the work, finally, waivers between being too deep and too broad. It is a successful provocation of novel lines of thought in need of further pursuit.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Kennedy - Theodore Sorenson

The days of the Cuban Missile Crisis would test the organization, the powers, the wherewithal and the abilities of the Kennedy White House. So much in those days of greatest tension was uncertain, and so many pieces were, by needs, juggled to ensure that such a defining moment would become, in essence, landmark for what did not, what could not be allowed to happen. Amidst the storm of danger and uncertainty was President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. With less than two years - and, one could argue, more than a few missteps - under his belt in the Oval Office, President Kennedy had to be ready, had to be willing to look out to the precipice and bring his country back from the ledge. To hear Ted Sorenson tell it, this was not a question of politics or ethos, patriotism or toughness, President Kennedy was uniquely able, in such overwhelming circumstance, because of a very simple, though nonetheless rare, quality: his humanity. John Kennedy was many things to many people: a symbol of hope and a new generation, a war hero, a political upstart and accidental superstar. For Sorenson, a man who would work with the Senator-cum-candidate-cum-President, John Kennedy's greatest strength and most virtuous depths were as man suited to the time and task; a man of great care and compassion, patience and thoughtfulness. He was, in one estimation, a bigger man than could have been supposed. It was this that set John Kennedy apart.

Sorenson's laudatory biography traces the political growth of Kennedy from 1954 to his assassination. Largely a character study, we are given insight into how Kennedy thought-about and approached such numerous issues as Civil Rights, peace summits, arms control and trade policy. Because it was written so soon after the President's death in Dallas (published in 1965), it is little wonder that Sorenson's work speaks in unparalleled terms of the man. That he was a great man is not in question, yet Sorenson perhaps oversells the young President's wisdom and adequacy to each task of his mammoth office. When missteps occur it is rarely on account of the President's approach or judgement, and all victories are won by his sage abilities and good humanity. Virtual deification can only help us understand the man in relation to his times to a certain extent, and runs the risk of leaving an audience feeling disempowered in the light of a complex and uncertain world: not a particularly democratic ideal. Though Kennedy's calls to service energized a nation, Sorenson biography may leave us all too willing to look for our next savior. He is, through and through, a Kennedy man.

Despite this Sorenson's work has achieves an insightful look into the most inner of circles of power. That we have a record of how President Kennedy governed, less from a perspective of politics and more as a study in character, is a gift. Should future generations ever wonder what it was about the brief public career of John Kennedy that made him such an important figure, they will need to look no further then Sorenson's work.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Africa as a Living Laboratory - Helen Tilley

Helen Tilley’s work examines the role that colonial science played in the expansion of empire in British Africa. Rather than succumb to the traditional narrative that scientists and colonial administrators blindly employed pre-conceived epistemologies to African environmental issues of the day, she reveals an intellectual and administrative history whereby African indigenous knowledge played a formative role in how western scientific concepts evolved and were translated back to the seats of Empire. Being able to govern an empire, with the attendant necessity of integrating varying disciplines and realms of knowledge, meant that these emergent scientific understandings also had to be integrated into a broader framework that scientists at the time were beginning to refer to as ecology. Tilley’s work gives voice to a heretofore overlooked concern of colonial science that still speaks strongly to our contemporary concerns: how do we apply practical and conceptual developments within the sciences to address complex and heterogeneous environments? Not only does this work address the role of science in the development of Africa, it asks us to consider the role of colonial Africa in the development of modern western science. Surely such an inversion is potentially grounds for fruitful discussion concerning ways of knowing, localized and universal knowledge, and how the sciences speak, not only to one another, but to the world at large.

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