Private Life With Public Purpose, Uncategorized

Feeling Overwhelmed by What’s Happening?

Originally published on September 23, 2018 in the History News Network; full article can also be read here:


As a young man, William James studied a range of fields, from chemistry to literature. He focused especially on physiology, psychology, and philosophy. In the 1860s and 1870s, the future psychologist and philosopher was sorting out his own philosophy of life and sampling career paths. Each offered plausible insights, but none was decisive or beyond some criticism, especially as amplified by his temperamental indecisiveness. The swirl of choices, and the dramatically different ways of understanding the world, made him feel downright “dead and buried.” With these burdens, compounded by severe depression and poor physical health, he even vowed never to marry lest his problems descend to another generation. By his late twenties, he felt “rather precipitately old.”

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What’s DAT?—Deficit Attention Tweets

Brief comments on paying attention—the role it has played in American history and culture.  What do we pay attention to, and what do we ignore—what attracts, and what do we overlook?  If you have a story about attention in the world around you, send it in!—at Leave a Comment….


English–to go!

This was originally published on July 9, 2013 by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, and can be viewed in its original format here: 

Spending the spring semester teaching in Rome, I felt very spoiled.  Not only was I teaching the history of my country in my native language, but also, I kept bumping into English words on the street.  The globalization of English includes not only more people speaking this language of British Empire and American influence, but also more people using English words in the everyday speech of their home country.  Ecco Roma. 

Especially for conveying things fast and hip and most especially, things for sale, many signs in Italy’s capital include a few bold English words for punchy impact.  This is a little surprising since most Italians do not speak English very well, although that does vary by generation, with young people generally having more command of the language.  Asking for directions in the Metro subway offered an example: using the best Italian I could muster, I asked an older man, “mi scusi, dov’è linea B? [excuse me, where is line B?]” and he just said, “non parlo inglese”; he wouldn’t even stoop to my English-accented Italian.  Then a young person nearby seemed very proud to be able to answer my question, though in very basic English.  The English on the streets speaks to Italian aspirations for learning English and enjoying American culture, and to some extent British culture too, most notably with the continued popularity of the Beatles.

Some of the English in Italy is associated with the American Western frontier, which has a more powerful appeal here than in the present-day US.  The Marlboro Man still rides on posters, and an ad for sunglasses shows two men in action during a rodeo with a bull coming at them; they look ready for action in their shades, and the caption reads simply “Never hide.”  With a picture of the open range in the background, a car ad declares “Life is an open road.”  Another car ad sells both “Motion and emotion,” while another challenges prospective buys to “Start something more than a car.”

English seems to be the vehicle of choice for conveying anything energetic.  A phone company promises “Power to you,” but the fine print in Italian specifies the amount of money to them.  A photography school is looking for students, but specifies that study there “Requires passion.”  There’s a bar called the “150mph Club,” and once I found my way on the subway lines, I caught a glimpse of graffiti on a train car that summed up this theme: “Life is Fast.”

English also provides the words to use for things trendy and cool.  There is a pizza parlor called “Retro,” and an image at a shoe store of a sultry young woman biting on a sneaker seductively because, well, “It’s a sneaker thing.”  Another ad displaying a beautiful woman as a “Dior Addict,” was not to promote rehab clinics; instead, the caption told the story: “Be Iconic”; but the sheers numbers of this iconic woman and the prospect of big sales to women who then might all look like her made me think that the caption should read “Be Cloned.”  A poster of a woman modeling jewelry displays the unusual combination, “Virtuous-Sensuous,” with more of the latter on display; the jewelry company is acknowledging the power of goodness and beauty, and now just needs to reckon with the true.

English is used most for selling things.  There are signs that invite “Smart shopping,” that offer a “Special price for a special customer,” that tempt with “Must-haves for everyday,” or that simply blurt out “Think trench.”  And the clothing stores feature a “New collection,” “Fashion in the air,” or outfits with a “Sensual fit.”  Some of the English is so thoroughly incorporated that the signs seamlessly mix the two languages, such as the store that’s a “Shopping casa,” and another one selling “Scarpe [shoes]—to go!”  There is enough comprehension of English to allow even for some intentional misspelling for effect; one store invites each shopper to “Be yourslef”—freed even from the conventions of spelling!

Tee-shirts seem to be the place to blurt out something American, but sometimes without a clear meaning.  In addition to the authentic college logos, there was one that looks at a distance like the circular seal of an American college, but close up, it reads, literally, “City, State University”—that generic American college thing.  One shirt states “Box—New—Fun” (still trying to figure that one out), and another declares “No alcohol.  Yes love.  Happiness.”  One other shirt may be a clue about Italian environmentalism; it reads “Save the planet—it’s the only one with chocolate.”  That is actually the color of the Tiber River running through the center of the city, and the branches of the trees on its banks are full of debris that the trees have caught at high water—trees as filters!  But apparently the river is not too far gone since sea gulls and human fishers still work the river.

Many of the signs in English combine their goal of sales promotion with slightly off-tune use of the language to make for downright charming phrases.  A sign for discounted prices reads “Happy price—make your life happy,” and another store boasts “All-inclusive big.”  There is a sign for “Juice shoes,” which may explain what that sultry sneaker woman was going for.  One fashion boutique boasts simply “So style,” and a massage parlor at the airport sits under a sign that states “Be relax.”  But my favorite is the sign on a trash can at an ice cream parlor that asks customers to “Share happy with planet.”

These displays of English on Roman streets show recent chapters of the spread of English, and they also show how American culture is perceived in Italy.  Advertisements are the texts of maximum transparency; in their urgency to sell, they use words bluntly—with meanings … to go!  English offers many of the words of choice, especially when the message is high fashion or high speed.  This medium may not be the message that all Americans have of their own culture, but that is the message that Italians are finding and seeking out about American culture.

I found confirmation of this street reputation of American culture when I asked my students about their impressions of the United States.  They referred to intensity and efficiency, to abundance and an easier life, but they also referred to opportunities and the capacity for personal reinvention.  American culture may often seem to be one grand commercial bazaar and awash in a politics of paralyzing gridlock, but it also possesses at its core a setting for new possibilities that may be the nation’s most enduring product.  And if anyone doubts that democratic potential in the USA, just ask anyone on the street in Rome.

when in rome

Popular Culture and Cultural Politics, Uncategorized

We are all weathermen now

January 2011

Another act of gruesome violence offers a painful reminder of the seething angers that lurk beneath daily life. The suspected shooter in Arizona (I avoid his name to keep from promoting his dark celebrity) may have no connection to extremist politics himself, but his depraved act is a reminder of the intense political views that have spurred violence of word and deed, as they have for years.

Most people lament the level of polarization that has overtaken our political discourse almost as much as they are horrified by the violence, but the polarization persists and even grows.

Just a few months ago, respected education professor William Ayers approached retirement at the University of Illinois, Chicago, but he was denied his bid for professor emeritus status. His case is a symbol of how we have not escaped our history—or our anger.

Read on here.

Campaign 2004, Uncategorized

Bush achieves goal in spite of criticism

November 2004 

President George W. Bush has received an unprecedented amount of criticism, even from military people, fiscal conservatives and other Republican-leaning constituencies. If the election had been held on the basis of these evaluations, it would not have been even close. Instead, Bush won by a comfortable margin. How’d that happen?

To figure out the answer to that question, click here.

Uncategorized, US in the Middle East / Middle East in the US

U.S. roots of U.N. scandal

November 2004

Another scandal? We have heard about so many powerful people abusing their positions to gain still more power that many suffer from scandal fatigue. But we ignore these all-too-frequent events at our peril: they raise our taxes, erode confidence in our institutions, reduce our security—and even cause bloodshed.

Peter Brown’s column “Why does U. N. get free ride in scandal?” last Friday was a welcome assault on that jaded indifference toward scandal. It sheds light on an alleged skimming of billions of dollars by Saddam Hussein and U. N. officials from the organization’s Oil for Food Program during the 12 years before the Iraqi dictator was overthrown in 2003.

If true, this is outrageous. And while we learn about the scandal, we also need to understand its contexts.

To learn a little more about the 2004 scandal, read the rest of this piece here!

Uncategorized, US in the Middle East / Middle East in the US

International politics down the street

May 2003

This is a story of grave international policy questions and clashing worldviews as they played out on a side street in the small town of DeLand where I live.

The story starts with my own skepticism last fall about the policy for invasion of Iraq. While recognizing that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, I suspected war would make matters worse.

My whole family agreed, so we decided to make our small voices heard: We put up a yard sign in January that said “War is Not the Answer.”

For more on the politics right down the street, click here!

1990s Politics, Uncategorized

Presidential Affairs

February 1992

Dear Mr. Clinton,

Those of us who live beyond the grave do not, unfortunately, get very full news accounts. I just heard about your tabloid troubles—when I last heard, you and your fellow Democrats were accused of being colorless! The problem as I see it is not that you might have had that scandal with Gennifer Flowers, but that you never decided how to handle it. I should know: A scandal put its shadow on my campaign in 1884. It blew over, and I went on to win the election. So, from my experience, I may have a lesson or two for you.

If you are interested in the rest of this sage political advice, click here!