Friday, December 19, 2014

Attempt to mold students' minds hearkens back to Cold War

Originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on December 16, 2014.

The Legislature is considering a bill that would mandate the showing of a conservative film to all eighth- and 11th grade students in Florida. I'm sure the supporters of the bill believe the documentary, America: Imagine the World Without Her, will help influence the students' political beliefs.

This is not the first time our state legislators have tried to mold the minds of young people. I remember how the same group passed laws requiring all high school students in the state to take two special courses in order to graduate. It was the early 1960s and the Cold War was at its peak, with the space race, the Cuban Missile Crisis and early days of the Vietnam War. Fear of a nuclear war was at the forefront of our minds.
I was in high school at the time and took both courses. The first was "Survival in Case of Nuclear Attack." It was taught by a crusty old woman from the Red Cross who started the first class by pointing her finger at us and issuing a dire warning. "You," she said, "may be the unfortunate one to survive a nuclear attack." It was a threat that made us all feel very uneasy.
The second course was "Americanism vs. Communism." The Legislature had mandated a six-week course, but because that didn't fit into the academic schedule very well, the local school system made it a full semester.
Our textbook was called The Masks of Communism, and I still remember the cover. It was red and black and featured the upper portion of a man's face, his two sinister eyes staring out at us. Included in that book was a portion of a poem by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Half a century later, I can still recite his words.

"They say that I am a brave man, I am not.
Courage was never my strong point.
How strange these times when
ordinary common honesty
could be mistaken for courage."

Yevtushenko was known for pushing the limits of free expression in Soviet society and his words changed my perspective of the world. He was a Russian, a Communist, one of America's sworn enemies in the Cold War and yet he was talking about basic human values such as honesty and courage.
As a result, I began to question what I was being taught. I began to think critically about the issues of the day and I began to recognize that most Russians were just like most Americans — honest, hardworking people who wanted to live peaceful lives.
When my classmates went on to another course the following semester, I convinced my teacher to let me spend the semester in the library doing an independent study exploring the history of Russia. I was fascinated and I wanted to know more.
Of course, the intent of the Legislature in the 1960s was to persuade us that all Communists were evil monsters, the absolute antithesis of American capitalists. Today, one only need look at the origin of many of our consumer products — Communist China — to know that this is not true.
Don't get me wrong. The world has seen some very evil Communists, but it has also seen equally evil capitalists.
Thus, as the Legislature again seeks to tinker with schools' curriculum for political purposes, it may want to consider its past efforts. An atmosphere of fear and an educational system built on closed-mindedness does not always produce a generation of true believers. Indoctrination is apt to produce a backlash of equal force.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day 2014 and the Words of a Fallen Soldier

This is a particularly meaningful Memorial Day.  We are entering the fourth and final year of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War and preparing to begin the 100th anniversary of World War I, two extremely bloody wars that provided the foundation for modern warfare, heralding the advance of technology on the battlefield.
As we celebrate this Memorial Day, remembering those who died in war, I find myself recalling the words of a young British poet who died during the final days of the First World War. 
“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”
By Wilfred Owen
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and strops,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one. 
If Owen were alive today, he would tell us to stop believing the propaganda of the warmongers who shout all those simplistic slogans about  “God and Country” or “Freedom and Democracy.”  He would tell us to look for the real motivations behind war, such as greed, stupidity and arrogance. 
Isn’t it time we devoted more of our resources toward the goal of peace than toward preparing for war?  Shouldn’t we work toward a world where we no longer need to set aside special days for remembering those who died in war?  Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had a holiday that celebrated a thousand years of peace?
© 2014 by David Lee McMullen, All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Education Should Be More Than A Punched Ticket

Here is a recent, and disturbing email exchange with a prospective student.  The student is an education major and apparently approaching graduation, since the course in question is an exit course.  Exit courses are designed to evaluate the student’s critical thinking skills, as well as their oral and written communications skills.  Simply put, these courses seek to evaluate the student readiness to face the world.

The emails are presented exactly as sent, errors and misspellings included, except that I removed the student’s name.  The course is a short summer course, meeting from 1-5 pm, twice a week, for six weeks.

My name is (name of student removed) and I am enrolled in your summer B course. I know this request may be out of the question but thought I would ask. I enrolled in the course prior to my schedule being changed unexpectantly so instead of getting off at 11am, I now get off at 2:30pm. I understand that the present is very important in order to succeed and the overall respect for being a student in this course. But is it any way possible to stay in this class and email classwork or bring classwork to your box?  If so, was the amount of points or highest grade to be expected to receive for the course with this circumstance? The reason inseatd of changing course, is because I think the class in interesting and I heard about previous courses you taught.
Please and Thank you,

My Response:
It appears you will miss half of the class.  I would suggest that you find a course that is a better fit with your work schedule.

I understand, but hypothetically speaking if I'm not able to find another open course to for the criteria to graduate will I be able to get a C+ or better with all coursework completed with being physically absent from class.

Thank you, 

My Response:

Thank you

This brief exchange is rather disheartening for a couple of reasons.  First, it highlights two very different perspectives on the purpose of a university education.  Is it for acquiring knowledge and understanding, or is it simply a ticket that needs to be punched so one can move one? Second, this is a future teacher who appears willing to short change her own education simply to graduate.

I look back at my own educational experience and recognize that I started with a clear lack of maturity.  Fortunately, universities are protected environments designed to help students grow at their own pace.  I too worked my way through college and often was faced with the challenge of conflicting schedules.  I made some bad choices and hit some very large pot holes, but as I approached graduation, I began to understand the importance of the learning experience. 

In the years that followed, I earned a master of arts degree while working full time and going to class at night.  Later, I returned to academia full time, earning a doctorate in history.  I often remark that I went back to school, after spending years in the business world,  simply to awaken parts of my brain that had been put to sleep by Corporate America.  More importantly, I learned that education is not a destination, it is a journey – a lifelong journey.  If we stop learning, what is left?

Sadly, there are far too many people who fail to understand that a diploma is only piece of paper and that piece of paper is worthless if it is not built  upon a quality education.  Even sadder, this particular student will probably be a teacher in a year or two, and how can someone who does not savor the acquisition of knowledge plant the seeds of intellectual curiosity in others?

Punched tickets have no value once the destination is reached.

© 2014 by David Lee McMullen, All Rights Reserved.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Who the hell is Charles J. Guiteau?

Cleveland Heights police are searching for a shirtless, chain smoking, whiskey drinking vandal who recently broke into the tomb of President James A. Garfield and stole approximately twenty commemorative spoons of very little value.

That in itself says something about America’s lack of interest in our 20th President, a man who has never been a hot topic at cocktail parties.  This lack of interest is rather sad, because he was a fascinating fellow whose death brought about one of the most important changes in the history of the federal government.

It is said that Garfield was our first left-handed President and the last to be born on the frontier in a log cabin.  An Ohio native, he served in the Union Army during the Civil War, rising to major general and fighting at Shiloh and Chickamauga, two of the bloodiest battles of the war.

A Republican, he served in Congress before being elected President in 1880.  Then on July 2, 1881, just 200 days after taking office, Garfield was shot by a disgruntled office seeker. The assassin,  Charles J. Guiteau, had supported Garfield during the campaign and was angry because he was not given a federal appointment.  At the time, all federal employees were political appointees. 

The President did not die immediately.  He lingered for more than two months before he finally died from complications associated with the gunshot wound.

As a result of Garfield’s murder, Congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, the  law establishing the U.S. Civil Service and requiring that government jobs be awarded on the basis of merit.

Today there are approximately 2 million federal civil service employees, often referred to as the federal bureaucracy.  So if you are one of those people who likes to complain about the federal bureaucracy, don’t blame the current President.  Blame Charles J. Guiteau, he’s the guy that started it all.

© 2014 by David Lee McMullen, All Rights Reserved.

Monday, April 21, 2014

From the History News Network

What Do You Call It When a Big Country Takes a Chunk of a Small One?  Greed (And We Should Know)
By David Lee McMullen
A greedy nation amasses a large military force on the border with its neighbor, a young nation that only a few years earlier threw off the shackles of an empire to declare its independence.  The intent is a massive land grab, pure and simple.
                Some might think I am referring to Russia and the Ukraine in 2014, or perhaps Germany and Poland in 1939.  I am not.  I am talking about the United States and Mexico in 1846, a war that ultimately allowed the U.S. to annex most of the modern Southwest.
                It seems odd, given all the commentary about the current crisis, that no one has made the connection, because the Mexican War is a harsh reminder that the United States has been guilty of the same type of aggression.
                Mexico won its independence from Spain in the 1820’s, after a decade of bloody fighting.  They established a republic, modeled on the U.S. and based in part on the U.S. Constitution.  They created a central government and a nation of states, even naming their new country Estados Unidos Mexicanos – the United States of Mexico.
                To protect the central Mexican states from Comanche attacks, and to forestall the expansionism of its northern neighbor, Mexico invited settlers to come to what is now modern Texas.  New settlers were offered large land grants in exchange for becoming Mexican citizens, respecting Mexico’s abolition of slavery and adopting the Catholic religion.
                The offer was accepted by thousands of U.S southerners, many of them slave owners, who sought to expand slavery westward.  They accepted the land from Mexico, but failed to live up to their promises.  It was this group that rebelled against Mexico in the 1830’a and established the Republic of Texas.  
                After accepting Texas as a state, the U.S. sought to buy much of the modern Southwest.  Mexico declined our offer.  In response, the United States moved an Army south to the Rio Grande, into territory claimed by Mexico for the purpose of sparking a conflict. From Mexico’s perspective, it was an invasion.
                The war that resulted lasted two years, and involved American forces who invaded central Mexico, capturing both the capital and the country’s major port, Veracruz.  In addition, the U.S. mounted naval and military operations in the Mexican territories of California and New Mexico. It was the first of many times during the next century and a half that the United States flexed its power against Mexico and other Latin American nations, openly or covertly. 
                When the Mexican War was finally over, the U.S. forced Mexico to surrender a vast amount of territory, land stretching from the Texas border to the Pacific Ocean.  As a result, relations between our two countries were poisoned for decades, something that can be seen today in the unequal partnership between our two nations.
                Of course, there are differences between the Mexican War of the 1840’s and the current standoff between Russia and the Ukraine, including Russia’s long history of domination in the region and the large number of ethnic Russians living in the Ukraine.  Yet the underlying issue is very much the same, a larger, more powerful nation using brute force to take what it wants, leaving its weaker neighbor to nurse its wounds with little or no recourse but to accept its fate.
Despite our best diplomatic efforts, Russia has annexed Crimea and now is threatening to take control of the eastern half of Ukraine.  Military action by the U.S. or NATO would be unwise.    Remember, it was Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 that sparked the start of World War II in Europe, forcing Britain and France to abandon their diplomatic efforts and declare war on Germany.
The reality of the current crisis is that there is little the United States can do to resolve it without risking war.  As we watch the events unfold, perhaps we should recognize that America does not always hold the moral high ground.

Copyright 2014. All rights reserved

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

From the St. Petersburg Times

Remembering the Triangle Fire
By David Lee McMullen

This essay was originally published on the 100th anniversary of the fire -- March 25, 2011

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City's Greenwich Village — perhaps the most infamous industrial disaster in American history.
On that day, 146 workers, mostly young women, some as young as 15 and 16, died in a fire that could have been prevented. Today, that fire provides a tragic reminder of what happens when the greed of employers is afforded more importance than the safety and welfare of their workers.
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory occupied the top three stories of a 10-story building in Manhattan's garment district. There, approximately 500 workers, mostly Jewish immigrants, worked 52 hours a week for weekly wages that ranged from $3 to $14.
Even by early 20th century standards, the factory was courting disaster. Despite the availability of modern fire safety measures — including automatic sprinklers, fire-retardant walls, doors and stairs, and periodic fire drills — none were in use because employers said they were too expensive.
No one knows how the fire began. Some speculated that it started in a bin of scrap cotton material, perhaps from a cigarette. The cotton scraps exploded and the fire spread rapidly across the cutting room floor, which occupied most of the eighth floor. It spread so rapidly that the bodies of some of the workers were found still bending over their sewing machines.
Of the two internal stairwells, one was blocked by fire and the other was locked by the owners. Some workers were able to make their way through the smoke to a poorly constructed outside fire escape, but they died when it collapsed, impaling several workers on twisted pieces of iron. More than 60 women, terrified by the smoke and flames with their hair and dresses on fire, jumped to their death on the sidewalks below. Another 50 women, those afraid to jump, were later found huddled together in a cloak room, their faces turned toward a tiny window, burned to death.
The factory owners escaped unharmed. Tried for manslaughter, they were acquitted and ultimately collected a large insurance settlement. David Von Drehle, author of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, noted that the factory owners "were so-called rotten risks, in insurance parlance, because they kept having fires." He also observed that at the time of the fire the owners were paying high premiums for insurance coverage that was almost twice the value of the factory. Arson was, after all, a common method of balancing the books and assuring a profit.
The fire sparked reform in workplace safety and inspired activists to take on the cause of the workers.
Sadly, the Triangle fire is not unique in American history. In 1991, 25 people died in a chicken processing plant in Hamlet, N.C. Just like the Triangle workers, the poor men and women found the exit doors locked when they sought to escape. After the fire, footprints were found on the locked doors, left by panicking workers who had tried desperately, but in vain, to kick down the door.
Today, there is growing evidence that the lessons of the Triangle fire have been forgotten. The rights of workers — public and private, union and nonunion — are under attack. Employers, business groups and their political servants want to repeal government regulations designed to protect workers. Where regulations cannot be eliminated, they seek to cut government funding, thus reducing oversight and enforcement.
These employer groups say such changes are needed to create jobs in America, but aren't these the same people who have been responsible for sending American jobs to other parts of the world for several decades?
Too many employers continue to value profit over the safety and welfare of their workers — particularly those at the lowest economic levels who work the longest hours for the least amount of compensation. Business interests disseminate disinformation designed to frighten average Americans into believing that their neighbors are responsible for America's economic problems. It is an old strategy that has long been used by the rich to pit one worker against another, dividing Americans by race, gender, ethnicity and religion.

As one New York City newspaper noted after the fire and the trial where the Triangle owners were acquitted, "Capital can commit no crime when it is in pursuit of profits." Sadly, that observation seems to remain true a hundred years later.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

From The Tampa Tribune

Working with Gov. Nice Guy

Reubin Askew’s death will undoubtedly provide an abundance of stories about his political career, his accomplishments as governor during the 1970s and his reputation as one of Florida’s most popular governors. We will remember his honesty, sincerity and commitment to building a better Florida. But he should also be remembered for being a genuinely nice guy.
Gov. Askew was midway through his first term when I graduated from Florida State, his alma mater. He was the first FSU graduate to be elected governor. Not long after my graduation I went to work for state government, where writing speeches and proclamations for the governor’s office was among my responsibilities.
I still remember the first speech I wrote for Gov. Askew. It was short, perhaps five minutes in length, commemorating the planting of a tree on the capitol grounds in honor of those missing in action during the Vietnam War. The speech referred to the MIA bracelets that many people were wearing at the time. These metal bracelets were engraved with the names of individual soldiers who were missing in action. As he delivered the speech, Askew veered from the prepared text, holding up his arm and adding, “just like the one I am wearing.” By the end of that speech, the governor was in tears. He was a veteran of both the Army and the Air Force, serving during the Korean War, and understood the suffering of those who did not know the fate of their loved ones.
That speech was one of the moments when the man behind the public figure emerged. He was someone who cared sincerely about his fellow human beings, and he was courageous enough to reveal his own emotions. For me, it was the most memorable speech I ever wrote.
Years later, the first year Florida State joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, I was living in Charlotte and attended the ACC basketball tournament. At the tournament each year all of the universities erect hospitality tents outside for their supporters.
Upon entering the FSU tent, I was delighted to see several familiar faces, including a tall, thin man with a full head of snow white hair. It was Gov. Askew. I approached him and said, “Governor, I am not sure if you will remember me, but I used to write speeches for you.”
With a very serious face, he looked at me and asked, “Were they good speeches?”
“I thought so,” was my response, at which point his stern demeanor turned into a broad smile, followed by a hardy laugh as he reached out to shake my hand.
This Everyman aspect of the governor could be seen in a variety of ways. According to a friend of mine who served on his security detail, the governor’s favorite place to eat when he traveled was not a fancy restaurant, but McDonald’s. One day when I was walking to the capitol in the rain, sharing one umbrella with two other men, the governor’s limo pulled up beside us, and the governor put down the window, told us how funny we looked and then offered us a ride.
Living in Chicago in the 1980s, I worked on Askew’s short-lived exploratory campaign for president. For years I kept a box of “Askew for President” buttons and bumper stickers just in case he changed his mind. He would have made a great president.
Others will remember Reubin Askew for his political accomplishments. Yes, he was one of Florida’s greatest governors, but I will remember him for being a genuinely nice guy.
David Lee McMullen is a writer and historian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he teaches about modern Florida politics.

Monday, March 10, 2014

From the Tampa Bay Times

Remembering the Crimean War
By David Lee McMullen
Published Monday, March 10, 2014

Given the current tug-of-war in Crimea, it is hard not to think about one of the most romanticized wars of the 19th century — the Crimean War. Fought during the 1850s, it pitted Imperial Russia against the forces of Great Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire.
The issues that brought about the conflict were Russia's demand to protect Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman territories and a dispute between Russia and France over the rights of the Russian Orthodox versus Roman Catholics in the Holy Land.
But the underlying cause, as with most wars, was economic. In this case it was the growing competition among the empire-building nations of Europe, and involved Russia's need for a warm-water port. As Russia began to push south, it came into conflict with the British in India and the Middle East, which explains why the British sided with the Ottomans. Interestingly, these same economic issues can be found intertwined in the current crisis.
The Crimean War lasted for more than two years, involved almost 2 million men and cost the lives of more than half a million. Fought in the decade before the American Civil War, the death toll was almost as high, over a shorter period of time.
Ultimately, Russia abandoned Sevastopol, sinking its own fleet as it departed. The war ended when Austria threatened to join the fight against the Russians, a decision that soured relations between the two countries and would push Austria into an alliance with Germany by the end of the century. The seeds of World War I were already beginning to grow.
Today the Crimean War is mostly forgotten, overshadowed by larger and more terrible conflicts. This is sad, because the war included some of the most memorable moments in the history of warfare.
There was the Battle of Balaclava, remembered today as "the valley of death" and commemorated by two of Britain's most famous poets. There was also the courage and leadership of a young woman who went to Crimea not to take lives, but to save them.
After reading news accounts of the battle, Alfred, Lord Tennyson dashed off a poem that immortalized the courage of the 11th Hussars, the British light cavalry remembered for their suicidal charge against the Russian lines. That poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, later made into a Hollywood movie, offers insight into the fate of the average soldier on far too many battlefields. As Tennyson noted, "Some one had blunder'd: theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die."
Years later, in his poem Tommy, slang for the common British soldier, Rudyard Kipling wrote about the Sutherland Highlanders, a small group of Scottish soldiers who withstood the assault of a much larger Russian cavalry unit at the same battle. For their courage, the Scots became known as the "Thin Red Line of 'eroes," a name that today is synonymous for a small force standing against overwhelming odds.
Finally, there is the memory of Florence Nightingale, who led a group of young women to the Crimea to tend wounded soldiers. There, because of her late-night rounds, she became known as "The Lady with the Lamp." It was a time when more soldiers died from disease than battle.
In Crimea, she fought for better sanitary conditions, improvements that are credited with saving a great many lives in that war and the wars that followed. After the war she returned to London to establish the world's first modern school of nursing and, most notably, inspired Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross.
While the Crimea may be an obscure corner of the world, and the Crimean War a forgotten folly of European imperialism, the nobility of these men and women, and the examples they offer, are worth remembering. Let's hope the current crisis in Crimea will be resolved without another bloody war.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Death of a Dear Friend

A decade has passed since I first discovered Ellen Dawson, the fiery Scottish radical who became a leading American communist during the 1920’s.  Over the next several years I read stacks of dusty old newspapers, pushed through numerous government documents, explored the world in which she lived, and recorded the fading memories of her surviving relatives.   It was a long journey, that included stops at more than 35 libraries on two continents.  What kept me going was a fascination with Ellen and the world in which she lived.

In 2010, Strike! The Radical Insurrections of Ellen Dawson was finally published.  It was a moment of great personal satisfaction.  Now, less than four years later, Strike! is going out of print.  It is sad, sort of like the death of a friend.  Personally, I don’t think that the book got a fair chance.  Academic presses are not very good at promoting their books and that was certainly true with Strike!.

I can take consolation in the fact that copies of the book can now be found in the Library of Congress, the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the public libraries where Ellen fought for the rights of American textile workers – Passaic, New Jersey, New Bedford, Massachusetts and Gastonia, North Carolina – and in university libraries around the world, but I had hoped to reach a broader audience.  All authors hope for that.

The publication rights have been returned, so I have another opportunity to tell Ellen’s story, without being shackled by the arcane rules of academic writing.  It is something I will consider, because I still think her life is a great story. And, I can still envision Ellen Page playing Ellen in the movie version.

Dreams die hard.

(© 2014 by David Lee McMullen, All Rights Reserved.)