Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ngram 150th: Race, Sex and Big Data

Data is powerful in the right hands. Aggregate data is even more powerful. And Google is data.

One of the odder tools in the Google arsenal is the Ngram viewer a search engine which charts trends within the folds of Google Books' database. Punch in anything. I mean it. Try anything in the Ngram search engine and start falling down the historical trends rabbit hole.

Cross the power of big data with where my mind has been drifting of late here in Southern Pennsylvania, and you can start to see the birthpangs of modern racist dogma.

Wait, what?

With the Ku Klux Klan once again threatening to protest something or other here in Gettysburg, I've been thinking of that perennial bugaboo wielded by racists like a cudgel: miscegenation.

The argument is simple, especially when the Klan or other white supremacists employ it. In essence, and put in kind words which hate-mongers would likely pepper with expletives and slurs, any non-white man will defile the white daughters of America. In this upcoming protest, it looks like the boogieman will be Latino immigrants.

But the source of this age-old scare tactic might be something pure, something lovely, something fundamentally good: the Emancipation Proclamation.

Look at that Ngram above.

As racists and bigots grasped for straws in the aftermath of Lincoln's Proclamation, desperately trying to find a reason black men shouldn't find freedom, they played on an innate fear. What man doesn't want to protect his wife? His daughter? His sister? If the black man was made free, the nascent argument grew in a sharp spike in 1864, insatiable lust for white women would take over.

Sex sells. And the argument employed by Copperheads in 1864 and 1865, the argument employed by the opponents of the Radical Republicans throughout Reconstruction, was pure sex.

It was at its core a stupid, bigoted argument. It was the last resort of a group of destructive bigots doomed to failure. And yet, that hasn't stopped the term "miscegenation" from climbing steadily up the Ngram ladder since 1863. 150 years of the last resort argument, still alive today.

Emancipation brought freedom. But freedom meant continued struggle. And the struggle continues today.

Welcome to the sesquicentennial of the advent of modern hatred; that's one anniversary I surely won't be celebrating.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Things Never Change: Piecing Together College Life

Sometimes you stumble on something on eBay you just can't pass up. It's that $6 buy that is awkward, odd and just a little out of your scope. But it's only $6. If you'd buy a burger for $6, you shouldn't pass up an original letter from 1835.

Every letter has a story. And each of those stories has its own drama, its own meaning, its own power. The mundanities of human life can be just as powerful as the battles and charges.

In the waning days of August 1835, George Heilig set pen to paper to send a message off to his brother William. His motives were two-fold. His pastoral duty called him to let a local Gettysburgian, a man named Buehler, know that his sister-in-law was in dire straights near Norristown. A widow and her two children suffered in destitution without their husband and father. But George wasn't quite sure how to contact Buelher. "I could not for certain tell," George wrote to his brother William, "whether he was a black smith, or Dr. or Bookseller or what." William's task was simple: "see to it that he may get the letter in calling upon him & asking him whether he has rec'd an epistle from me."

But George seems to be practicing pretense; he didn't mince words to his beloved brother William. "Why don't you write to us," George pleaded to William, "as an affectionate brother who has more time to engauge in such matter than we."

William Heilig was away at college in Gettysburg, studying at the newly minted Pennsylvania College. His school wasn't north of town; it sat smack dab in Gettysburg's bustling streets at the corner of Middle and High streets. Pennsylvania Hall and the sprawling campus where decades later soldiers would suffer were all just a pipe dream of delusional Lutheran church fathers.

And like every young man far away from home, he forgot to write. "I have been looking for a letter long since but in vain," George told his brother. And news from Gettysburg back toward Philadelphia's outskirts was important to George, pastor of a congregation in Centre Square. "I'm always pleased to receive some intelligence from your place since it is the head quarters of our Lutheran Zion."

That Gettysburg was someone's Zion long before a battle was fought here is hard to imagine. Pilgrims make annual hajjes to the sacred shrines scattered across the town's fields like lost words. They genuflect at altars and offer supplication to violent and, perhaps, Christ-like sacrifices.

Before the Lutheran Theological Seminary and Lutheran College were hospitals and charnel houses, they were the heart and soul of the Lutheran church in America.

Before the violence, before the blood, before the Civil War Zion, there was the Lutheran Zion.

George Heilig walked to the post office to mail his brother the letter. He entered and paid the 12 1/2 cents to mail his letter. The clerk mentioned he had a letter for Heilig, perhaps he said it as he neatly penned the postage rate in the letter's corner. The pastor tore open his own letter, one from Mr. Buehler in Gettysburg. Enclosed was cash for the widow and her orphan children.

His pretense foiled, George asked for his letter back. He ripped open the wax seal and grabbed a pen, scribbling hurriedly. He explained that the letter was unnecessary, that the Buehler's were sound. William needn't bother the blacksmith or doctor or bookseller but to give him the family's thanks.

Then George Heilig carefully resealed the meaningless letter to his brother William and handed it back to the clerk. It traveled the long road to Gettysburg.

Perhaps George never cared about the Buehlers at all. Perhaps news from Lutheran Zion didn't matter. Perhaps he only longed to hear from William.

Perhaps we all have Williams who we long to hear from.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Shaw's Backside: The Other Side of an Icon

This week I find myself in Boston, one of the couple of American cities which call themselves the cradle of liberty. But I'm not drawn like a moth to the Revolution. It's just not my bean.

Instead, I find myself in the awkward position of standing at a visitor desk and asking a park ranger what will interest a Civil War geek in a Revolutionary-bent city. That dog don't hunt so well.

The Shaw Monument was the ranger's only suggestion. The Shaw Monument was already on my list. So the Shaw Monument it was.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens crafted an amazing piece of art to sit along the edge of Boston Common. Standing in awe staring at the bronze, the 54th Massachusetts came to vivid life as I stood in the waning hours of Sunday evening. I found amazing power in the words at the base of the monument, so much so I needed to trumpet them on Facebook: "Forward as fits a man, but the high soul burns on to light men's feet." That's art.

But somehow, I missed the fact that there is a backside to that bronze statue. Shaw and his soldiers have more to say through their marble resting place.

Every photo I see are those faces, those men, those chiseled jaws and striking brows marching into unknown death and destruction, but also winning freedom. I'd never seen the back of the monument.

The White Officers
taking life and honor in their hands cast in their lot with men of
a despised race unproven in war and risked death as inciters of
servile insurrection if taken prisoners besides encountering
all the common perils of camp march and battle.

The Black rank and file
volunteered when disaster clouded the Union Cause. Served
without pay for eighteen months till given that of white troops.
Faced threatened enslavement if captured. Were brave in action.
Patient under heavy and dangerous labors and cheerful amid
hardships and privations.

they gave to the Nation and the World undying proof that
Americans of African descent possess the pride, courage and
devotion of the patriot soldier. One hundred and eighty thousand
such Americans enlisted under the Union Flag in

The text was written by Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard in the years following the war. It is a powerful epitaph to the regiment made famous in our age by the film Glory and the rising neo-emancipation interpretation of the war. But it is not simply that. It works as an epitaph to the war itself, as a description of what the whole affair meant.

An imperfect partnership, inherently unequal yet striving toward equality, of white men and black men. Here, in this memorial to a war many have eschewed and subverted, ignored or swept under the rug, the two are offered a balanced set of praise.

The consequences are balanced as well. White officers and black soldiers risked not only their lives, they risked their freedom. And together, they proved that black folks were deserving of freedom.

Lincoln took that proof to heart. The faith he had in those black soldiers, the fact that he respected their willingness to step up and fight for a nation which didn't see them fully as men, the thought that because they fought that nation should treat them like men ultimately got that tall man killed.

The bronze on the front of the Shaw Monument at Boston Common is striking and powerful. But so are the words on the back.