April 2009

History is Seductive

Did you know that in Utah socialists have held public office? This is just one of the juicy tidbits that history professor and historian John McCormick Ph.D., shared in his fascinating presentation at the March meeting of Humanists of Utah.

History is not only a study of the past; McCormick began, but is a selective history since not everything can be included. War, diplomacy, politics, and stories of great people, that usually means men, usually white men, are the exclusive subjects.

A fun way to illustrate how narrow history is to ask students to list who they remember from their history classes. Typically the list is 90% male, mostly white, many of them presidents, generals, and inventors. Few women and non-whites are mentioned.

So McCormick has worked toward being more inclusive and expansive in his teaching and writing, particularly in showing how history is about many peoples, ideas, experiences, and cultural traditions.

Thus in looking at any event in history, he will explore a range of individuals and groups that might have been involved and affected an event. A group usually left out that McCormick has learned to appreciate centers on the ordinary person in everyday life–history isn’t limited only to influential, great, and important people. For instance, what was the experience of women in the Civil War? What was the experience of an ordinary soldier or person at the battlefront or home front?

McCormick recounted a lecture he gave earlier that day. Given the current economic downturn, the subject chosen for him was the Great Depression. How did the Depression affect ordinary people in their everyday lives?

Nationwide the unemployment rate was about 25%. Utah had an average 26%, but in 1933, it soared to 36%. In1940, ten years into the Depression, Utah still had 18%. There was widespread, growing unemployment and underemployment with lost homes and apartments.

Showing how the Depression affected ordinary people, McCormick shared the story of his family. In 1930, his grandfather at age 46 lost his job, never again to obtain a full-time, permanent job. He died thirteen years later.

Born and raised on a farm near Price, his mother, youngest of seven children and the first of her siblings to graduate from high school entered the University of Utah in 1929 intending to be a teacher. A month later, the stock market crashed, and she managed to stay at school for the rest of the year, but was financially unable to complete her degree. So she returned to Price where at least there was food and a place to live rent-free. That is, until her parents lost the farm because they couldn’t pay the mortgage.

What was the impact of these circumstances for McCormick’s parents? They delayed getting married until eight years after they’d met, which meant fewer children–only two–his sister and himself: money and age the determinants. Wanting security, his father stayed in a job he hated. Since it didn’t pay well, his mother who had wanted to stay home and raise her family had to work. These events exacerbated the challenges in their marriage.

Noteworthy from the Depression is that our government under Roosevelt changed in unprecedented ways that remains to this day.

In addition to exploring how ordinary people affect history, McCormick also explores the radical tradition, radical people, radical movements. After all, this country originated from an act of revolution.

McCormick defines radicalism as a fundamental restructuring or changes in the way society is arranged or organized–not mere adjustments. He is particularly interested in radical changes that involve inclusion rather than exclusion: inclusion expands rights and opportunities. E.g. Ku Klux Klan is a radical group, and is interested in fundamental changes, but they restrict opportunities and rights.

Here McCormick referred to a relevant book: The Radical Reader: A Documentary History Of The American Radical Tradition. It is a collection of 155 primary sources of those people who changed history through what then was considered radical. It includes notables like Jefferson, Paine, Thoreau, Friedan, Ginsberg, Carson, etc.

Referring back to Utah’s 36% unemployment, McCormick related an incident of radicalism–possibly Salt Lake City’s first protest–how ordinary people in everyday life reacted.

In February 1933, a number of houses and farms were o be auctioned off at Salt Lake City and County Building. A group of 200-300 Salt Lake City citizens disrupted the auction, saying that people shouldn’t lose their homes through no fault of their own (sound familiar?). They refused to allow this sale to go on. In desperation, the sheriff called the Fire Department, which turned hoses onto the group, flooding the basement of the County Building; police turned tear gas onto the crowd. Fifteen were actually convicted of unlawful behavior and served time in jail. After the crowd dispersed, most of them reassembled and marched up State Street to the Capitol where the State Legislature was in session. There they held a rally with signs e.g. organizers starve, we want milk for our children, moratorium on mortgages.

What was going on here? McCormick wondered. Why and how is it that in Salt Lake City where the majority is conservative that such an event took place?

Interestingly McCormick discovered that a communist candidate in Utah got 15% of votes who ran 4th out of 7–another radical act.

He also discovered that in 1911, Murray City voted in a Socialist mayor and city council, and re-elected them in 1913 so that for four years, Murray had a Socialist administration. What happened here, he wondered. How could that have happened?

Of course, he knew that during this period, the US had its only significant socialist movement, which was a viable part of American history. Between 1900 and 1912, two Socialists were elected to Congress, there were over 1500 Socialist mayors and city commissioners, they had a significant presence in the labor movement, and there were 300-400 socialist publications then, one with a circulation of 750,000.

With further study, McCormick discovered that between 1900 and 1923, Utah had over 100 Socialists in public office with Eureka electing the most: 35. For three years, the Utah State Federation of Labor officially endorsed the Socialist Party.

McCormick said he finds these historical events extremely interesting, partly because some of it is relatively unknown, but more importantly, history of this type is critical because of its potential to fundamentally change our way of thinking about the past, since the way we think about our past affects the way we think about the present and about the future. There is not just one way to think about our past.

Concluding with a quote from one of his books, The Gathering Place: an Illustrated History Of Salt Lake City, he asserted that we need to look at the study of history in a new way because the old way is inadequate. Rather than exclusionary and narrow as it has been, we need to move toward a history that is more inclusive, more expansive, more accurately taking into account the diverse society that Utah really is and has been. We need to resist rather than uphold monolithic, one-dimensional, stereotypical representation. A new way of looking at our past could help us overcome longstanding, narrow, restrictive, crippling definitions of ourselves and of our society.

–Sarah Smith

Degrees of Doubt

April 2009

Questioning science is a good thing. It’s how science works; a hypothesis is put forth. Based on observation and experiment, it is then open to challenges from other scientists. Can they duplicate the results of the experiments? Do these results support the stated conclusions? Are there alternate explanations for the results?

That being said, it is obvious that there comes a time when enough study has been done about certain theories that any debate about them can be (at least provisionally) set aside. For instance: We needn’t question the theory that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, or the theory that the Earth is round, not flat. And of course, having to make clear that labeling something a “theory” does not, in scientific parlance, indicate doubt is one of the ongoing frustrations in debating creationists.

But I say “provisionally” because science is always open to new evidence, new observations if they call into question the current mode of thinking. If a paleontologist were to suddenly find human fossils in the same geological layers as dinosaur fossils, it would be a kick to the groin of evolutionary theory. But in 200 years of digging, that hasn’t happened, so scientists are pretty secure in continuing to accept evolution.

Yes, some scientists continue to question global warming theory. Its status is not as certain as round-earth theory or evolution theory.

There are degrees of doubt about anything. An important message of one of my favorite movies, Contact, Is that even science has to eventually make certain assumptions “on faith” (namely that what our senses are telling us is real). Because the Jodie Foster character is the lone observer of what she experiences, she can’t prove it really happened.

So when I approach questions of what to believe, I ask myself: “What does the preponderance of scientific study suggest?” When I learned to ask myself that question is when I began to doubt the existence of God, UFO’s, pyramid energy, psychic powers, etc. None of us has the ability to independently examine every item of discovery, conduct our own experiments, or even learn how to conduct all of the possible tests. So we rely on the experts, and their accumulated knowledge. But the time to doubt an “expert” is when he’s the only one, or one of the few, to draw a particular conclusion. Remember “cold fusion?”

So those who doubt what the preponderance of scientific study suggests need to honestly examine why they doubt it. If their motivations are political or religious, it obviously calls into question their objectivity. And in that case, their doubt is unwarranted.

–Jerry Petersen
Central Ohio Humanist
March/April 2009

President’s Message

This month I am including a letter to the editor I sent to the Salt Lake Tribune, which they chose not to print. The question concerns the ongoing conversation of whether we should criticize someone’s religious beliefs, how much, or how harshly.

Most recently two things have brought this subject back into focus for me. First, a recent op-ed in the Tribune by Dennis Clayson, which is the subject of my letter below. Mormons, and religious people in general, are always playing the victim and whining about criticism.

The other motivator was the recent news that the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on “Defamation of Religion.” The language of this resolution equates criticism of religion with anti-religious defamation. Those pushing these resolutions (mostly Islamic nations) are trying to further this notion by asking the nations of the United Nations General Assembly to adopt laws in there countries to repress decent of religion or of so called “sacred individuals.” I find the whole notion rather absurd and an outright assault on the right of free speech.

Here is my letter:

After reading Dennis Clayson’s op-ed “Bigotry against Mormons apparently acceptable in Utah,” several things came to mind. First is that I would agree that simply bashing someone’s basic religious beliefs is not a useful thing to do and is, in fact, mostly counterproductive. Civility is always in order.

Second, I would ask Mr. Clayson, “Are you that naive? Do you think that all those who criticize Mormons do it out of sheer mindless malice or bigotry? Do you not understand that many of them feel the way they do about Mormons for a reason?”

But most irritating is his final sentence, “There is, however, an obligation to treat the religious beliefs of well meaning people with restraint and respect.” To which I respond that I have no obligation whatsoever to treat someone’s beliefs with “restraint and respect.”

Bigotry is simply utter intolerance. Of that I am sometimes guilty. I have very little tolerance or respect for a Pope who proclaims, falsely, that condoms are not the way to prevent AIDS and actually make the problem worse (thus becoming complicit in unnecessary deaths due to disease); or local religious individuals and organizations that work to prevent the use of a vaccine to prevent the Human papillomavirus (HPV) known to help prevent cervical cancer because it ‘promotes promiscuity’ (again becoming complicit in deaths due to unnecessary disease); or for those who work to prevent others from their right to the same protections under the law regarding personal relationships (civil unions, marriage); or those who wish to degrade science by introducing religious nonsense into the realm of science and science education.

When religious people turn their religion into a special interest group, they enter into the secular and political world and become fair game for criticism and derision. In my opinion, quite often they deserve all they get.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU

Humanists of Central Ohio

Member Recommended Websites

This is the webpage of an active humanist chapter in central Ohio. It is interesting to see what other chapters do and how they are organized.

Humanists of Central Ohio