Tag: Columbia University

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History

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“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.

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Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans. Read more…

Day 905: Slapping Those Words In Their Smarmy Little Faces

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There is a scene in the Kevin Smith film Clerks 2 in which a character (a very white character) decides he wants to “take back” the term ‘porch-monkey’ so that it can shed its racist connotation and act as a slur against lazy people of all tints and hues. The joke, of course, is that he is far too pink to spearhead any reappropriation effort. That sort of collective shift in perspective has to take place within the group who had been thwacked and battered by the word to begin with.

This is why I get physically jolted by a mighty douche-chill whenever I hear two white guys refer to one another as “nigga”. That not only betrays the linguistic rules, it comes across as patronizing and – as much as the intent may not be there – at least mildly racist. Oh, and put your damn hat on straight. The brim has a functional purpose, squank-bag.

The unholy n-word is probably the most famous case of a word being reclaimed by its one-time victims and re-introduced into their lexicon – albeit only into theirs. But all across the cultural spectrum there are reappropriation missions underway, consciously or unconsciously shaping the way our language will taste and smell for the next few decades.

Sorry, white people. Even if we're quoting Chris Rock bits, it's still not cool.

Sorry, white people. Even if we’re quoting Chris Rock bits, it’s still not cool.

For a minority to capture a word that had once been used as a pejorative slur against them, to tame it, then to re-release it into the wild as a neutral or even a positive thing, that’s an act of true empowerment. A perfect example is the word ‘gay’ – once fired as a derisive snip toward homosexuals, the word was forcefully taken back with the advent of the Gay Pride parade in 1970. So much so that the word is now commonplace among gays and non-gays alike. Unlike the n-word, those outside the box are allowed to use it. Read more…

Day 719: The Nine Titans Of Little Rock

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Every so often I like to remind my readers that we used to live in a world that was, by all modern standards of logic and sanity, ridiculous. Perhaps it’s my subversive way of suggesting that some of the issues we face today will be looked upon as ludicrous and/or moronic by the next generation. Or maybe I’m not quite that crafty. I suppose it depends on my mood.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States dropped the checkered flag on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, the landmark ruling that declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional and backwards. But the transition from ignorance to stable integration was about as murky and clumsy as you’d expect. Racism was alive and thriving, particularly in some parts of the country which have spent generations making obliviousness into an entrenched lifestyle.

Amid the thick, almost tactile fog of racial disgruntlement in Little Rock, Arkansas, a group of nine unfathomably brave young men and women volunteered to honor the Supreme Court’s ruling by marching unblinkingly into the den of hate. These nine kids were to be the first black students at Little Rock’s Central High School, and there was no way the white folk were going to make it easy on them. They are the Little Rock Nine, and a greater display of teenage badassery you will likely never find.

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Virgil Blossom, Little Rock’s superintendent, had a plan to gradually unravel the segregated school system. The NAACP was, not surprisingly, displeased with this idea, as it was so vague and open-ended, the schools might still be partially segregated a decade down the road. Led by Daisy Bates, they orchestrated a search for a handful of bold youths who were willing to kick off the 1957 school year in uncharted territory.

They found the Little Rock Nine. Read more…

Day 649: Looking For That Lucky Number

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For the record, should anyone feel to compelled to keep such statements in some sort of record, I do not believe I will ever win the lottery. I say this with the utmost confidence and a wry awareness that the universe has gone out of its way to prove me wrong on an incalculable number of occasions in the past. Why not this one? Come on… daddy needs a new fur-lined stapler.

Playing the lotto takes a decidedly different mind-set than any other form of traditional gambling. You aren’t asserting your confidence in a sports franchise’s chances of success on Sunday, nor are you seeking a favorable roll of the dice or turn of a card. No, the odds of victory in this scenario are so astronomical, it’s laughable. To invest $1 or $10 or whatever in a lotto ticket is akin to deciding that you have that amount of money to throw away.

And yet we continue to play, millions of us every week. It’s that wispy dream of an endlessly overstuffed wallet; even those of us with enough sense to know that a few million in the bank will not absolve us of all future problems still want to experience that hypothesis first-hand. And so we crumple up a few bucks and turn to the magic numbers of the lottery.

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There is evidence of keno (known today as the most boring game in Vegas) being played in China during the Han Dynasty, most likely as a way for the government to pay for that gigantic wall. Augustus Caesar gathered some trinkets that he deemed too valuable for a garage sale and gave them away as prizes in a Roman lottery that aimed to pay for repairs in the grand City of Rome. Read more…

Day 570: The Crown Jewels Of Cinemas

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When Samuel Lionel Rothafel first arrived in New York, he had big plans for the place. The year was 1912, and people had been cramming into nickelodeons and converted vaudeville theaters to watch movies for more than a decade. But to Rothafel, movies were more than globs of sideshow kitsch or passing carnival entertainment, like plate-spinners or turtle jugglers. He knew movies were going to be important.

Mr. Rothafel, or ‘Roxy’ as he was known by the world, managed shows, he produced shows and – once radio showed up and became a thing – he had his own show. But were it only for these accomplishments, he’d be little more than a footnote to a footnote in the history of movies, or more importantly, in the history of New York City.

What Roxy unleashed upon the world redefined theatrical architecture, and it redefined the experience of going to the movies, transforming it from a viewing experience into a full-on sensory event. His brilliance resonated in two historic theatres, one of which is still standing (nobly and triumphantly) today.

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The Roxy Theatre on 50th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues was to be the flagship of a fleet of six monumental movie palaces in the city. Herbert Lubin, who had been producing movies but saw big money in theatres, was the money. Roxy was to be the brains. The aim was to build something more glamorous than Carnegie Hall, more regal than Madison Square Garden, and more astoundingly grandiose than any movie theatre in the country. Read more…

Day 484: The Darkness Of The Padded Walls

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With no cash prize, with no great inheritance on the line, would you be willing to spend a night in an abandoned insane asylum? This is the sort of question which could open up an episode of American Horror Story (in fact, I think it did). A question which the average person never has the opportunity to answer with action.

Why does the idea strike such a cold quiver of mercury-fear into our hearts? It’s not the notion of the myriad of deaths which no doubt took place on the property. We have an abandoned hospital in my city, and nobody but the kookiest of kooks believes it to be haunted by spirits of the departed. Is it the notion of insanity that frightens us off? Few things are more terrifying than losing dominion over one’s mind whilst one’s body remains intact. No, I think it’s more than this.

I think the scariest thing about an abandoned asylum is the specter of cruelty which clings to the air, thickening it with the suffocating dread of the abuse, the neglect, and the outright vicious degradation which awaited those whose minds were crumbling in these institutions. The ghosts of places like Letchworth Village are not cruel – it is pure cruelty itself which haunts these decomposing walls.

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In 1911, the New York State Board of Charities opened up Letchworth Village in the small hamlet of Thiells. It was a state institution designed for the segregation of the epileptic and ‘feeble-minded.’ It was a farming village, and the patients who were physically able were encouraged to tend the farms that would subsequently keep everyone inside fed. Letchworth landed on the medical map in February of 1950, when Hilary Koprowski tested his new polio vaccine on one of the children patients. Nineteen more tests followed, and Letchworth became a crucial step en route to the banishment of the disease from humankind. Read more…