The Virgin Mary in 19th Century American Culture

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In contemporary American culture the Virgin Mary is associated with Catholic devotion and worship. Because of this, it should come as a surprise to many readers that the mother of Jesus was a general cultural icon in the latter half of nineteenth century Christian America. Temple professor Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez details this history in her new book, The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century American Culture (Temple / Amazon). Images and references to Mary proliferated in popular magazines and on the walls of modest and fashionable homes, appealing to both Protestant and Catholic audiences. The Civil War, industrial revolution, and westward expansion transformed the United States. The rise of major urban centers like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis drew in rural migrants and immigrants, unsettling religious, gender, and social norms. In these early years of mass society when the old agrarian ways were slipping away, the focus on the Virgin Mary offered a safe and familiar way of talking about and negotiating new female roles in this changing social landscape. Professor Alvarez traces the career of Mary from the declaration of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854 through its fiftieth anniversary in 1904.

I spoke with Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez about her new book on November 7, 2016.

 

Vikings Visit Minnesota in 1362

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Well, not really, but that’s a story that had significant purchase in early 20th century Minnesota. In 1898 a Swedish immigrant discovered a buried stone with runic letters and the date 1362. The archaic Scandinavian script described a fishing party that returned to its camp to find “10 men red with blood and dead.”

8 Swedes and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland westward. We had our camp by two rocky islets one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we came home we found 10 men with blood and dead. AVM, save us from evil. We have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships, 14 days’ journey from this island. Year: 1362. [Translation by Erik Wahlgren, The Kensington Stone: A Mystery Solved]

The news of the apparent visitation of fourteenth century Scandinavians to the great state of Minnesota was enthusiastically received by their latter day heirs. With so many immigrants entering the United States, it was reassuring to learn that these norsemen had staked a claim to the United States more than 100 years before Columbus. Better yet, they had baptized the soil with their own blood, consecrating it as holy ground.

As the authenticity of the “Kensington Rune Stone” came under question, supporters dismissed much of the evidence produced by pointy-headed academics in their ivory towers. Though the scientific consensus has clearly declared the stone a fake, books are still written “proving” its authenticity. In Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America, historian and religion scholar David Krueger investigates the century-long story arc of this cultural artifact. He explores the passion for the Rune Stone among Scandinavian and, later, Catholics, who were intent on establishing their rightful place in the American community.

Beyond the history of the Rune Stone itself, Krueger’s work provides valuable insights on the history of immigrant communities and the ways they seek to blend their ancestral histories into a new and imagined cultural landscape. Readers will find the themes of Myths of the Rune Stone illuminating in this time of increased tension and inflammatory rhetoric surrounding immigration.

I spoke with David Krueger on November 9, 2016, the morning after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

(For suggestions for how to use the book in a class setting, visit the book website at https://mythsoftherunestone.com/2015/12/15/using-myths-of-the-rune-stone-in-the-classroom/.)

—Fred Rowland

Who is Fethullah Gülen?

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On the evening July 15, 2016 elements of the Turkish military executed a failed coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tanks and armored vehicles rolled into the capital Ankara and Turkey’s largest city Istanbul, bridges were blocked, and helicopters and F-16s flew overhead. Battles between the coup plotters and government loyalists left over 250 dead. President Erdogan, on vacation in the coastal city of Marmaris, flew into Istanbul and urged followers to take to the streets to resist the coup.

Within a day of the coup attempt, President Erdogan and his government were back in control of Turkey and he began a widespread purge of the military, media, courts, and educational institutions. Before the details were even known, it became clear that Erdogan saw this as an opportunity to eliminate his enemies and consolidate power. On August 2, the Financial Times reported that “almost 70,000 people have been arrested, suspended or fired.” (Turkey’s purge reaches beyond the coup plotters) The New York Times Online made comparisons to “Joseph McCarthy‘s anti-Communist witch hunt in 1950s America, the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and ’70s.” (Turks see purge as witch hunt of ‘medieval’ darkness’, 9/16/16) Though there was little support among Turkish citizens for the coup, the scope of the purge threatens basic democratic governance in Turkey.

Responsibility for the coup quickly settled on the Gülen Movement, whose members were arrested, jailed, and in some cases possibly tortured. The followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Sufi cleric living in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, constitute a decentralized movement that is international in scope, with schools in over 100 countries. The Gülen Movement in Turkey, its country of origin, was – until recently – represented in the highest reaches of the military, judiciary, media, and economy. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have targeted Gulenists for several years now and these purges continue his effort to eliminate their influence across Turkish society. Gülen has been accused of masterminding the coup and an arrest warrant was issued against him in an Istanbul court in August. The Turkish government is seeking Gülen’s extradition from the United States to stand trial in Turkey.

As accusations against Gülen began piling up in the Turkish and international media in the aftermath of the coup, I thought of Professor Jon Pahl of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I knew he was working on a biography of Fethullah Gülen and I was interested in hearing what he had to say about Gülen, the Gülen Movement, and recent events in Turkey. Professor Pahl posted a blog at the University of California Press titled Don’t Make A Mystic into a Martyr: Fethullah Gülen as Peacebuilder on July 24, 2016.

I spoke to Joh Pahl on October 6, 2016.

 

Metropolitan Jews

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In Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit (University of Chicago Press, 2015), History Professor Lila Berman analyzes the Jewish sense of place in Detroit during the twentieth century, first in neighborhoods such as Hastings Street, Dexter-Davison, and Bagley and then in the wider metropolitan area. In the first half century, Jews settled near the Detroit River and then gradually moved north and west. While there was little Jewish presence in the booming auto industry, Jews opened small business establishments, became involved in real estate, and pursued educational opportunities as the community developed vibrant religious and civic institutions.

At mid-century, Detroit began experiencing many of the convulsions that would shake other eastern and midwestern cities. The auto industry, which had built Detroit, began shifting its operations outside the city. White flight accompanied de-industrialization as federally subsidized mortgage loans financed new suburban housing developments from which African Americans were excluded. Detroit began losing popuation while the percentage of African Americans increased and the tax base shrank. For those Jews who remained, there were intense struggles over race, politics, employment, and housing.

Many Jews joined other white ethnics leaving Detroit. As the Jewish community became more established outside the city limits, what were the considerations with regards to synagogues, religious and civic organizations, and homes and businesses left behind? And how did the Jewish community respond to the struggles over politics, employment, and housing? Lila Berman tells the story of the Jewish community and its sense of place as it grew from small city neighborhoods to the wider Detroit metropolitan area.

I spoke to Lila Berman on March 28, 2016.

—Fred Rowland

Death in the Shape of a Young Girl

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Professor Patricia Melzer is the author of a new book titled Death in the Shape of a Young Girl: Women’s Poltical Violence in the Red Army Faction (New York University Press, 2015). By focusing her study on the Red Army Faction (RAF), a West German terrorist group which had many female members, including leaders, Melzer complicates our contemporary understanding of feminism and violence. The RAF committed acts of assassination, bombings, bank robberies, and kidnappings from 1970 to the early 1990s in order to challenge what it saw as the West German state’s support of capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy.

While contemporary feminism is closely linked to positions of nonviolence, this was less the case at the founding of the Red Army Faction, where patriarchy shared responsibility with economic and political structures for women’s oppression. As feminism narrowed its focus to patriarchal violence – especially the personal physical abuse of men against women – the nurturing role of women and the importance of nonviolent political resistance became more essential to feminism’s understanding of itself.

Melzer also analyzes the ways German media portrayed the lives and acts of these terrorists through a gendered lens that was very often inaccurate and misleading. This placed the contemporaneous German feminist movement in the delicate position of trying to respond to the misrepresentation of female RAF members while distancing itself from their terrorist acts.

Juxtaposing feminism and violence in the Red Army Faction offers valuable insights on the nature of the modern women’s movement. I spoke to Patricia Melzer on April 4, 2016.

—Fred Rowland

 

2015-2016 Livingstone Award Interviews

I was able to catch up with four of the six 2015-2016 Livingstone Prize Winners before they dispersed for the summer. Below are the interviews I recorded with these intelligent and talented undergraduate men and women.

  • Livingstone Undergraduate Research Award in Creative Works and Media Production
    Mother Internet : Blessed Virgin : A Coming of Age Story by Elizabeth Baber

 

  • Livingstone Undergraduate Research Award in Policy, Practice, and Public Life
    Cultural Property Repatriation: History, Legality, and Ethical Precedent for Museums in the United States by Rhiannon Bell

 

  • Livingstone Undergraduate Research Award in Sustainability and the Environment (sponsored by Gale, part of Cengage Learning)
    The Mobilization of the Environmental Justice Movement in Louisiana: EJ Disputes and Grassroots Organizing in the Mississippi Industrial Corridor by Joseph Gallagher

 

  • Livingstone Undergraduate Research Award in the Humanities and Social Sciences
    “Glory of Yet Another Kind”: The Evolution & Politics of First-Wave Queer Activism, 1867-1924 by GVGK Tang

 

Saving Faith At the Dawn of the 20th Century

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Living in the early 21st century, it might seem a little hard to believe that a century ago liberal Protestantism was the dominant voice of religion in the United States. Of course in a land so vast there were a lot of voices and opinions concerning religion. But in the urban power centers liberal Protestantism had the ears of politicians and business elites.

At this same time there were centrifugal forces weakening liberal Protestantism’s institutional grasp. As people poured into growing industrial cities from the countryside and overseas, they were greeted by secular clubs, cultural events, and entertainments that loosened the grip of the church. With so many inhabitants of different races, ethnicities, religions, beliefs, and practices, doubts about specific doctrines and creeds grew. The growing authority of science offered alternative explanations for a whole range of natural and metaphysical phenomena.

In Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Cornell University Press, 2015), historian David Mislin explores how liberal Protestantism responded to the pressures of skepticism, doubt, and pluralism. In reaching out to Catholics and Jews of like mind, liberal Protestant leaders were haltingly moving toward what would in the post-World War II world become Judeo-Christian America.

I spoke with David Mislin on January 20, 2016 about his new book.

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—Fred Rowland

Making Medical Knowledge

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Miriam Solomon is interested in the scientific and social processes which come together to create medical knowledge. Patients come in all shapes and sizes and their socioeconomic backgrounds vary widely. Basic sciences and clinical practices produce vast amounts of data that are evaluated and interpreted. Often the data are contradictory. Millions of articles, reports, and conference proceedings are published. Pharmaceutical companies experiment and test drugs with an eye to the marketplace. How do doctors come to consensus on the best diagnoses and treatments?

In Making Medical Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2015) Miriam Solomon addresses this question. She explains how consensus conferences and evidence-based, translational, and narrative medicine promote differing methodologies and organizational schemas for coming to consensus on medical problems. After analyzing the advantages and limitations of each, she recommends a “developing, untidy, methodological pluralism” for “making medical knowledge.”

Miriam Solomon is a professor of Philosophy at Temple University with research interests in philosophy of science, philosophy of medicine, epistemology, gender and science, and bioethics. I spoke to her on December 17, 2015.

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—Fred Rowland

Dissent in America: A faculty-librarian collaboration

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The early 2000s was an eventful period: a popping Internet bubble deflating the economy; the controversial presidential election hanging on chads in Florida and determined by Supreme Court justices long committed – at least rhetorically – to judicial restraint; the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington; and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Polarized politics, contested economics, and lots of bombs dropping in faraway places.

In these anxious times Professor Ralph Young created the Dissent in America course and students eagerly signed up. Young found students enthusiastic to learn about the history of dissenting voices and ideas in American history. Students were introduced to distant voices and gained insight on how the United States had come to its present circumstances. As an outgrowth of the course, Young started the Dissent in America Teach-Ins (see YouTube Video) on Friday afternoons which are open to anyone. Both the course and the teach-ins continue to this day.

After Dissent in America became a General Education course, Young worked with librarian David Murray to add a formal information literacy component. Murray, an experienced instruction librarian, worked with Young for ten years before departing for the College of New Jersey in the summer of 2015. Young published two books as a result of his work on dissent: Dissent in America: The voices that shaped a nation and Dissent: The history of an American idea.

On December 2, 2015 I spoke to Ralph Young and David Murray on Dissent in America and their work together.

—Fred Rowland

 

 

Bollywood’s India: A Public Fantasy

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During the 1950s the young Indian nation faced immense challenges but was, as Professor Priya Joshi explains in this interview, still innocent and optimistic. By the 1970s the bloom of youth had faded as Indians suffered under widespread political and economic corruption and malaise, most visible in the 22 months’ “Emergency” which gave Prime Minister Indira Gandhi the power to limit democratic governance and civil liberties. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, India charted a new course of economic liberalization that led to dynamic growth and increased engagement with the rest of the world.

In Bollywood’s India: A Public Fantasy (Columbia University Press, 2015), Priya Joshi chooses these three historical periods – the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s – to illustrate how, in critiquing the state, Bollywood blockbuster films have performed a kind of “social work” for the Indian nation. Popular throughout India and globally, Bollywood films feature a rich mixture of romance, comedy, melodrama, social themes, and exuberant singing and dancing. Professor Joshi focuses her analysis on the serious social commentary flowing through these films, such as Awara (The vagabond, Raj Kapoor, 1951), Sholay (Embers, Ramesh Sippy, 1975), and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun? (Who am I to you?, Sooraj Barjatya, 1994). She looks at the themes of crime and punishment in the 1950s, the family and romance in the 1970s, and the emergence of “Bollylite” in the 1990s. Throughout this entire period, however, Joshi’s Bollywood turns a sharp edge to the Indian state in the secure and safe fantasy world of the cinema.

I spoke to Priya Joshi on September 16, 2015, about her new book Bollywood’s India: A Public Fantasy.

Audio Download (mp3)

—Fred Rowland