Tag Archives: Power

Naming New Worlds

Behind the house where I grew up there is an undeveloped lot of trees and grass. As a child, my neighbors and I often climbed over the back wall into this untamed world. We constructed imaginary realms and a gateway to the outside. We even gave it a creative name: Trocourba.

Always fair (even as children), I remember we pulled the name from fragments of each of our respective school mascots: Trojans, Cougars, and Braves. As children, we saw this lot as an empty palate for us to fill with our imagination. Much of what we built has been lost, but I still walk through those woods when I’m home and remember the days spent claiming and naming that empty space.

***

This post is about the attitude of the explorer: the belief that discovering a place makes it “new.” And if it’s new then it’s never been named. We name things every day in order to claim them and make sense of them. In order to understand a place, we give it a name. It makes it familiar.

What first started me thinking about the idea of “naming and claiming” was a conversation I had with my high school students last year. I was teaching the “pre-European” section of a class on Richmond history and we started to discuss the word “savage.” This post is a follow-up to my fascination with the word “savage” over a year ago.

The concept and conviction of savagery, I realized, is a necessary precursor to the process of “naming new worlds.” There are two primary steps in this process. First, discovered lands are proclaimed “new” simply because nothing there is familiar and, second, the existing names for that land (and all inhabitants) are deemed illegitimate. In my class, we discussed the British invasion of present-day Virginia, but that’s not the only example of “savage” places being invaded. Many years after the US gained independence from the British monarchy, the kingdoms of Europe made similar claims on land in Africa. Much of this continent was subdued by the military might and shameful brutality of early Europe. As tribes and kingdoms in Africa fell, new nations were formed.

It was time for some new names:

Many of these names have been changed in the past 50 years of independence, but the legacy of colonization, of course, lives on.

In my search to understand this connection between mapmaking and empire, I remembered one of my favorite sections in the play, Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe. Tamburlaine is a play about a man that seems superhuman in his ambition and his strength. In one scene, Tamburlaine discusses the growth of his kingdom by using the metaphor of a map and a pen:

“Zenocrate, were Egypt Jove’s own land,
Yet would I with my sword make Jove to stoop.
I will confute those blind geographers
That make a triple region in the world,
Excluding regions which I mean to trace,
And with this pen reduce them to a map,
Calling the provinces, cities and towns
After my name and thine, Zenocrate”

(Marlowe, Tamburlaine, I, iv, 72-79).

Here Marlowe conveys the dreams of a new map for a new kingdom with a new king. Tamburlaine connects the map of the world to his goals for military conquest and his desire for increase. With these words he boldly speaks the future into existence. He, like many leaders throughout history, desires to claim the earth as an extension of himself and his power. His kingdom will be as large as his desire because his strength will not be stopped in his pursuit.

This confidence is not unique to Tamburlaine or fiction at all. There are many examples of powerful men looking over other people’s land with greed. These days we all understand this idea of a “nation” as if it is the way that we’ve always structured the world, but that is not the case. As we shifted to nations from the former powerful families, kingdoms, and empires, many voices of dissent were silenced as neat maps were drawn by powerful hands. Here’s a few examples (with dissenting factions in parenthesis):

  • The United States of America (The Lakota, The Sioux)
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo (The Banyamulenge)
  • The United Kingdom (Northern Ireland)
  • China (The Uighur, The Tibetan)
  • Iraq (The Kurds)

In America, we expanded our borders with military victories and the conviction that God Almighty had ordained our growth. In other nations, it was a colonizing force that created new borders with little regard for indigenous territories or cultural differences. While the colonizing or invading forces subdued, they claimed the land and it’s “inferior” inhabitants. In nearly every single case, it went something like this:

“Sorry, that place you call home isn’t your home any more. Oh, and stop calling it that. It’s not called that any more. You’re pronouncing it wrong. How could you be so stupid?”

***

This is the power of names. When a name is given, it becomes familiar. When the name of a place is changed, natives become foreigners. Dignity is stripped. Identity is lost. And there is a deep unquenchable resentment that lives on in hearts and minds.

We are all a part of this legacy. We are all naming or being named.

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Start at the Edge

As a resident of Richmond for the past five years, I have had the privilege of living through an exciting and dynamic season of change. It seems that after about 60 years of condescension and loss, it’s becoming a good time to be an American city. It’s a good time to be Richmond.

So, with that in mind, I was a little surprised when I read three editorials recently published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch addressing the “issue” of the view of Richmond from the highway. As I read each article, I felt that importance had been placed, not on the city, but on the opinions of passersby. This editorial is a response to those articles and perhaps generations of similar articles that have come before them. I believe that before we have a conversation about Richmond, we need to have an understanding of how the city changed during the twentieth century and more importantly what changed about the way we talk about cities in general.

My undergraduate education on the urban crisis in America presented changes in the city as a process of politics, prejudice, and technological advancement. More recently, I have come to understand the urban crisis as a gradual shift in investment and perception that took the American city, a source of pride, and turned it into a mark of shame. Furthermore, I understand the urban crisis as a rhetorical war between old and new. The goal of the war, as with any, was to frame the other as “backward” and the self as “progressive.” While Richmond attempted to maintain dignity, new technologies seemed dissatisfied with older cities: You’re too compact, too dilapidated, too prone to riot and rot.

As each new suburb was developed it became yet another statement to the American people pointing toward the promise of new, more civilized places with room to roam and play. Within this promise there was also a clear distinction being made from the archaic, dark city where most Americans at the time resided. As with all major shifts, the new way of doing things had to work to undo the more traditional ways of life. Many believe that the post-war zeitgeist of modernization, on a national level, did much to shift popular opinion. But on a local level, citizens of the Richmond metro-region still had to prove to residents that there was a more abundant life to be lived on the other side of the city limits.

This was accomplished through a series of events: The celebrated opening of Willow Lawn Shopping Center (1956), the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (1959), the failure of plans for consolidation with Henrico (1967) and other semi-related moments along the way. Each of these also had their corollary effect on the life of the city exemplified by events such as the closing of Miller and Rhodes/Thalhimers, the destruction of urban neighborhoods, and the political isolation that conclusively trapped and humbled this once-proud American city.

As money and people continued to migrate to the suburbs, local officials turned their attention from annexation to urban renewal. “If we can’t have the suburbs,” I imagine them thinking, “we have to do something about this city.” But rather than invest in what already existed, they fixated on dreams of what could be. “We get it” they tried to say “and we’ll fix it,” just don’t move your family to the suburbs.

As Silver writes, the city then “embraced urban renewal with a sense of urgency unprecedented in Richmond … Consolidation would have afforded vast new areas for growth and would have enabled the city to continue its policy of neglect toward inner-city areas” (254). Now left to embrace the demands of reality, Richmond’s city fathers sold out and destroyed much that today would protected as historical. They were always looking to what the city could be rather than accepting the city as is.

To me, this moment of urban renewal was a sign that the suburbs had won the war. This was the point in the story where it was finally decided that new was in fact better than old: Look! Even the city hates the city. In the decades that followed the tumultuous 60s and 70s, much has been said of the potential of cities, but almost all of it with the understanding that cities have something to prove. To this day, the standard to which Americans hold their cities is strangely high while their commitment to funding urban institutions and infrastructure is remarkably low. As Kunstler might argue, this is because we are no longer a nation of citizens; we are a nation of consumers.

Additionally, it seems that many of us have a powerful aversion to cities because we’re still trapped by the negative stigma established all those years ago. While local boosters proclaim, “Richmond is a city of art and great food!” critics reply, “Parking lots! Potholes! Prostitutes!” And regardless of their merit, these conversations do little to change the paradigm.

In this sadly familiar conversation, the subject is always “the city.” The place that needs to change is the city. The place that we want to love is the city. But this is not the perspective of an insider. Instead, we need to recognize that this critique is one of suburban condescension. The suburbs are still trying to prove their worth and their legitimacy and they are still quick to do so by orienting themselves against the “corrupt” and ” inefficient” locality they are ashamed to call neighbor, but delighted to visit for a basketball game.

We cannot have a productive conversation about Richmond until we move past the negative stigma that outsiders have placed on the city and begin to see Richmond as good once again. We should welcome visitors to come and enjoy themselves in the city, but our ultimate concern must be with the needs and desires of existing residents. Developments in Richmond should be for the city, not at the city’s expense, because that is what we can sustain and appreciate. And no longer should we consider developments for someone else to enjoy.

We have nothing to prove and everything to gain.

Photos from the Capital

I loved D.C. even before I knew that I loved cities in general. There was something about the power, the tradition, and the variety of architectural styles placed within the order of the L’Enfant Plan. So when I visited recently, began to remember why I loved the city then and found a few more reasons to love it now: A red castle, a circle of art, and a statue in a garden. Enjoy:

The Smithsonian Castle


The Hirshhorn Museum

Delusions

For the past few months I’ve been writing about identity and perspective. My primary goal during this process has been to answer the following question:

Along the way, I’ve considered various delusions that we humans believe about ourselves and each other … and I’ve found many of these within myself. It’s been a pretty worthwhile experience, but recently I was amazed by a passage from the Hebrew prophecy found in Isaiah. It is perhaps the most profound answer to my question.

Reading Isaiah 44:13-20 is a humbling experience. Here is an excerpt:

This passage is a profound metaphor for the lies that we tell ourselves.

The man in the story worships something that is temporary, a wooden idol. Something that he himself created. Alone in his own world, the man has convinced himself that he is in the presence of greatness. This thing then becomes the object of his worship.

I love the first line, “No one recalls.” It reminds the reader that the man in the story has not been afforded the same perspective that makes his delusion obvious.

Then I wonder, how many lies have we told ourselves? The first that comes to mind is my Facebook page. When I look at it, do I not believe what I see? In my heart, I know that I am more complex than this one page, but on a daily basis I put that knowledge aside and believe the lie that I have created for myself and others. I literally give of my time and energy to supporting that “Facebook me” that sustains this limited identity.

We humans create many amazing things. We also often like to convince other people that these things are important … sometimes we even convince ourselves. Then we unwittingly begin, ever so slowly, to sacrifice our “selves” to the thing that we have created. Some major examples that come to mind are empires, corporations, religions, and nations. Each one of these entities is created and buttressed by the energy of human work, but many still believe that their individual lives are less important than the entity being sustained.

To these we give our time, our money, our creativity, and our lives.

Finally, it seems that the difficulty of my favorite question is that it inserts doubt into our enlightenment notions of human reason. As humans, we often employ our own reason to save ourselves from delusion. This endeavor, I believe, has had limited success. This is because I have found that every such human attempt toward salvation or enlightenment (even this blog) can itself become a new object of worship and delusion. So here is my desire: To find those humans who are pointing their lives toward something that is not made, discovered or achieved by men. That, to me, is the Christian walk. It is not to sustain a structure or to defend an ideology. It is to follow a path that no human could (or would) have ever devised.

As I mentioned earlier, the oposite of delusion is perspective. Without something outside of the human experience, we will never see ourselves properly and we will be perennially stuck like gerbils on an exercise wheel. Perspective allows us to first see the wheel (the ideology, culture, addiction) that was created by men and then to leave the wheel entirely. This is the beginning of a journey of faith.

Many people would say that, as a Christian, I fit the description of the deluded man I described above. They say that I worship something that has been created by men … not dissimilar from the example in Isaiah 44. They say that the Bible is simply paper and ink and that I’m defending an idol. I can’t say that they’re wrong and I’m right. I can only say that the more I search for even a glimpse of eternal perspective the more I am drawn back to my Christian faith. This faith is not easy, or white, or  American, or something for which I feel personally responsible.

It is difficult and uncertain and leads me to constantly see myself in a new light.

At this point, that’s the only conclusion I can think to give this post. I will continue to interrogate my delusions and I hope to continue to learn more about my perspective on myself and others. All the while, I’ll be personally seeking the Truth that opens my eyes to the man-made objects that I continue to worship each day. Giving them up may seem irrational, but they are the exercise wheel and I would like to soon step off.

Amen.

This post is a part of my “Savage Faces, Human Places” series that I’m putting together in my section on Power.

Not “the Poor Kid”

I’ve been sitting on this post for weeks, but last night’s South Park episode put me over the edge … “The Poor Kid” is both funny and excellent commentary on the ways in which we see ourselves and each other.

The main point of the plot (aside from mocking the Penn State scandal) revolves around Eric Cartman’s constant attempt to solidify his identity as “not the poorest kid in school.” The introduction of course begins with Cartman realizing that he is, in fact, the poorest kid in school. A terrible blow for his shallow identity. He then fakes a meth lab in order to get the attention of CPS and a new start as a foster child in small-town Colorado. Ridiculous, yes, but I bet everyone who reads this post (or watches the episode) can relate to such a desperate attempt to restore their identity rather than own up to reality and move on.

Cartman’s first conversation at his new school highlights this experience:

“O.K. All right, so listen, I know our family is poor, ok, but before we lived here, Kenny was actually poorer than me so technically he’s the poorest kid at this school.”
 
“What are you talking about? The poor kid at this school is Jacob Hallery.” “Really?”
 
“Yeah, dude. His dad died five years ago and his mom went crazy from depression so she can’t even keep a job.”
 
“YES!! Did you hear that, Kenny? We’re good! I seriously didn’t think we’d stand a chance but everything’s gonna be O.K.! (singing now) Cause I’m not, I’m not the poor kid in schoooooool.”
 

The point is not that Cartman’s mean, although he is. The point is that he’s saying what everyone else is thinking. I laugh because I know it’s true. More broadly, I laugh because the greater message is that we generally follow the human instinct to identify ourselves against others rather than towards ourselves or a purpose.

So this post is about our perspective and identity as well as the external places and people that give us a standard from which we may contrast ourselves. In the same way that Cartman feels relieved by the presence of a “poorest kid” in school, I’ve found that we all believe, in some small way, that we will be “O.K.” as long as we’re not the worst.

For me, if I found that I actually was the worst (e.g. being one of two in the first round cut from the basketball team in 7th grade), then I just decided that it wasn’t worth my time. Ever. But no matter how well I invested my energy in other places, I still felt the need to “beat” basketball (or whatever it was at the time) by thinking of jocks as uneducated or otherwise illigitimize general athletics. In this way, I propped myself up on a prejudice that made me feel more intelligent, industrious and orderly.

In short, this is Orientalism.

Originally used to denote academic and artistic work focussed on “Eastern nations,” Orientalism has now become the term for a strong critique that debunks the very perspective it used to denote. In 1978, Edward Said published the book Orientalism which fundamentally shifted the usage of the word from the study of “The Orient” to the actual perspective with which “the Orient” had been studied and the imaginary space was created as a result. Today, his ideas form a sort of standing check on every scholar attempting to “understand” anything remotely foreign or exotic. The reason why this concept is still important is that Orientalism (the critique) states that the very act of such research is fundamentally a form of identity formation rather than simply an intellectual pursuit for understanding.

I propped up my identity on the myth of the “uneducated athlete,” Cartman celebrated the existence of a “poor kid” on which he could rest his shallow pride, and Orientalists may have sought the “Orient” in order to further the narrative of the progressive, industrious, and powerful West.

At its best, this sort of identity gives people confidence and empowers them to remove themselves from negative influences. At worst, the Orientalist perspective is a delusion completely unable to engage reality. This delusion can lead individuals as well as entire nations to stigmatize other people and regions as inferior to the point of dehumanizing the other. As Ziauddin Sardar writes,

“Orientalism’s failure, Said argues, has ‘been a human as much as an intellectual one; for in having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience’ (Sardar, Orientalism,” 74).

In other words, the perspective established it’s object of study as so distinct that it no longer engaged the complexities of human experience. After years of this study, the Orient became as much a myth as a reality. More broadly, this perspective can prevent individuals from forming whole and healthy identities if they are positioned in opposition to imaginary people and places.

Some more fine examples of this perspective in action are the “rebellious youth,” the “corrupt inner-city,” and “the backward south.” Implicit in each of these titles is the presence of an onlooker (Adults, suburbs, and the Northeast) employing this dehumanizing Orientalist lens. In the context of my general thoughts on “savagery” I believe that everyone, to some extent, believes in this notion of the Orient. The farther away from yourself that you find this ‘other,’ the saver and more comfortable you may feel. The closer the ‘other’ is to yourself, the more unsettled and protective.

Either way, the more we work to prop up these identities, the more unhealthy our lives will become. Humans are complex … we can seek to understand each other as long as we accept that we never truly will. It’s more difficult, but I think this acceptance will allow us to be a little more realistic about ourselves and each other.

That’s the point of this post … and this series: “Savage Places, Human Places

P.S. Nina just called me out the other day for still maintaining that “all b-school students” are completely out of touch with society. So this never stops … and it never should because humans are complicated. Amen.

This post is a continuation of my “Savage Faces, Human Places” series that I’m putting together in my section on Power.

Savage Faces, Human Places

I’ve been thinking about the word “savage” for about a month now. What does it mean? Who uses it? What purpose does it serve in society? At this point, I think I’m about ready to move on.

I may break up this piece later and turn it into more of a series … for now, here’s where I’ve landed:

According to the Wiktionary entry, the word originated in the “Latin silvaticus (‘wild’; literally, ‘of the woods’)” then moved through late Latin and French to English and eventually became the word “savage” as we know it today. The first thing I notice is that the word has always had an implicit vantage built into it. This unspoken perspective is the place from which savagery was determined. “Of the woods” can be read as “not from the city” or at the very least, “not of us.”

My first question quickly emerged, “From where is this word spoken?”

A few weeks ago, my Richmond Perspectives class discussed the relationship between the Native American Chief Powhatan and the English settler/invader John Smith. One of my handouts that week included the following insight on an entry in John Smith’s journal:

“‘Powhatan carried himself so proudly, yet discretely, in his savage manner, as made us all admire his natural gifts,’ Smith wrote, ‘considering his education.’ Majestic, mighty, and prideful Powhatan may well have been, but, in Smith’s eyes, he was still, and ever would be, a savage” (The River Where America Began, 77). 
 

This quote moved me to wonder about Smith and the British perspective at the time. Was there something particularly savage about Powhatan or had Smith simply decided that every person he encountered would be savage? Clearly, thousands of Native Americans believed Powhatan to be an effective leader, but Smith couldn’t see past his seventeenth-century English perspective of the “New World.” From this vantage, the entire territory, Powhatan’s chiefdom and beyond, was “savage” before it was even encountered.

There was something within John Smith’s mind that prevented him from developing an appreciation for the powerful leader with which he dealt. I’ve landed on three posible explanations for this: 1. Smith came here believing that every inhabitant was inferior, 2. Smith was legitimately shocked by Powhatan’s physical appearance or behavior and lastly, 3. Smith was afraid of Powhatan and used words such as “savage” to demean him and minimize his power.

When I read this quote with my students, I asked them what thought in particular about the word savage. I was actually surprised to hear that they use the world all the time. To them, “savage” is a joke to make fun of friends when they’re not acting proper or just to make fun of someone in general. One mentioned that the projects in Richmond are savage. Another joked that it’s savage when you pick up food off the ground and eat it. I think this conversation actually filled the rest of class and I left that day with a lot to think about.

My history class had just launched itself into the twenty-first century.

When I first started writing this post, I realized the topic was making connections to all sorts of other ideas and semi-related thoughts. This post is the first paragraph of that original piece and I’ll publish the rest in segments. I’m also starting a new page titled, “Power,” where I’ll store these and others because I think perspective and “savagery” are linked to how we position ourselves in relation to each other … identity is a powerful thing.

This post is this first of my “Savage Faces, Human Places” series that I’m putting together in my section on Power.

Moses to Zuckerberg: A Position of Power

Mark Zuckerberg is the Robert Moses of the twenty-first century. Never elected, powerful beyond imagination. Not from the right family, but more influential. Not a member of Phoenix, but extremely selective. Not in the game, but driven to rewrite its rules. Robert Moses experienced similar social exclusion at Yale. Similar to Zuckerberg, this exclusion drove him. On Moses, Caro writes,

“Alongside the massive cathedrals of Yale’s traditions, buttressed by prejudice and pride, Bob Moses had erected his own small but sturdy structure. ‘In our little world…,” Bacon was to say, “he made himself a position of power.’ 

In light of Moses’ later career, that was the key point” (Caro, 47).

From his Ivy League education, Zuckerberg didn’t look to New York for power, that traditional American icon. The internet and computers were dramatically reshaping global influence in Silicon Valley.

In grand New York, Moses planned and completed massive public works projects to connect the boroughs and the region while Zuckerberg, from a garage in the valley, constructed a virtual bridge to connect the entire world. Through their efforts, these two men shaped the world that we inhabit today.

Facebook’s Twitter description states, “Giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Essentially they want to democratize the world, to end exclusivity. Moses also worked to make the city more accessible for the average American (as long as they could afford a car) and used his power to force roads through old-money estates in Long Island and elsewhere.

Someone from a powerful, WASP background wouldn’t work to undermine regional power. But neither of these men had much to loose. Moses was a Jew, didn’t know how to drive a car and spent his life building roads, bridges and tunnels. Zuckerberg (also of Jewish descent) is a socially awkward computer hacker who made billions connecting “friends” around the world.

Zuckerberg and Moses both lived life on the margins of traditional power.  As a result, they both developed a deep understanding of power. And when they realized that power wouldn’t engage them as equals … they turned it on its head. Both knew they could not win at the old game, both knew that the game had a weakness, and both were smart and industrious enough to exploit it.

Both created new worlds and situated themselves comfortable in the center.