Sunday, March 1, 2015

On Buddy Cianci's Providence

On Buddy Cianci's Providence: As mayor of Providence for two (non-consecutive) decades, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci epitomized the city's "underworld" reputation. Ever since Providence's founding by Roger Williams in 1636, it has been known as a refuge for religious exiles, political prisoners, and career criminals. Situated under the arm of Massachusetts, it has been referred to as both "the sewer" and "the armpit" of New England. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholic immigrants, mainly from Ireland and Italy, converged upon the city to work in its burgeoning textile industry. It was under these circumstances that some of Cianci's ancestors emigrated from Italy to Rhode Island in the 1890s. By the early 1900s, Providence's various neighborhoods had become divided along ethnoracial lines. The Italians settled in Federal Hill, the Irish in Smith Hill, the "old-moneyed" WASPs in College Hill, and the African Americans in Wanskuck. Cianci himself actually grew up in Cranston, but he attended private school in the wealthy College Hill neighborhood (where Brown University is located). Yet as the city's youngest-elected and first-ever Italian mayor, Cianci sought to smooth over the city's ethnoracial divides (which had persisted throughout the decades). And although he survived two felony convictions, with the second one sending him to prison for five years, Cianci has become an icon in Providence. The city will never be the same without him.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

On the Birth of American Judicial Review

On the Birth of American Judicial Review: This concept may seem somewhat rudimentary, but it's crucial to the founding of the United States federal government. In 1803, a major case involving the constitutionality of a federal law came before the Supreme Court, which did not have a permanent home in Washington D.C. till around 1810. Known as Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall, whose formal legal training was no longer than six weeks, held that part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was "unconstitutional." In doing so, Marshall established the principle of "judicial review," which saw the Supreme Court curbing the power of Congress (and the Presidency). This principle essentially completed the trifecta of "checks and balances" that the Constitution's writers had originally envisioned (and borrowed from Montesquieu). Ultimately, it would be fifty-four years before the Supreme Court invalidated another federal law (see the 1857 Dred Scott decision). And although Alexander Hamilton had discussed "judicial review" in his Federalist No. 78 essay, the concept had never been put into practice. Thus, until Marshall rose to the occasion in the Marbury case, the Supreme Court (or Judicial Branch) was commonly viewed as the weakest (or least effective) branch of the federal government.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

On the Golden Age of Caribbean Piracy

On the Golden Age of Caribbean Piracy: Pictured above is a version of the Jolly Roger (flag) flown by pirates (mostly English privateers) during the early eighteenth century. A more traditional Jolly Roger would contain crossbones instead of crossed swords. This specific version was actually invented by Calico Jack, who was perhaps the most notorious pirate to operate from New Providence Island in the Bahamas during the early 1700s. What made Calico Jack particularly intriguing was the fact that he allowed two female pirates in his crew, Mary Read and Anne Bonny. For the most part, the presence of female pirates on ships was extremely rare throughout the Caribbean, as eighteenth-century seafaring occupations were almost entirely male-dominated. In fact, Read often had to dress like a man in order to be taken seriously as a privateer. Although Read was born in England and Bonny in Ireland, they both ended up in the Bahamas by the late 1710s. Read was originally part of the British military (dressed as a man), but left after realizing that her prospects for promotion were severely limited in peacetime. Bonny, on the other hand, had married a small-time pirate named James Bonny, who eventually became an informant for the Bahamian Governor (Woodes Rogers). Yet Anne decided to join forces with Calico Jack, becoming his mistress and "baby mama" in 1720.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Why American Public Schools Have Struggled

Why American Public Schools Have Struggled: American public schools today seem concerned about almost everything except education itself. From Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to 504 plans to English-language learners (ELLs), how are teachers expected to educate "all" children to high standards? And how did it get to be this way? To answer this question, one ought to examine the emergence of Progressive education in the early 1900s, when the very definition of "school" was entirely up-for-grabs. According to education historian Diane Ravitch, when the American high school curriculum started to become standardized in the 1890s (in preparation for college admissions), it opened the door for a series of "experts" to assess how knowledge transferred from teacher to student. These "experts" largely possessed backgrounds in child psychology, and included people like G. Stanley Hall, Henry Goddard, and Edward Thorndike. For Ravitch, these "experts" represented a kind of "anti-intellectualism," which diverted attention away from the process of teaching a traditional curriculum and toward the process of satisfying student needs. Unfortunately, American educators simply forgot how to say "no," as every conceivable student need started to seep into the once revered curriculum.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

On the End of History

On the End of History: Ideologically speaking, the end of history is not the same thing as the end of time. Whereas the end of time has a kind of religious connotation to it, the end of history is merely philosophical. With that being said, there have been a variety of philosophical viewpoints put forth on this topic from thinkers like Kant, Hegel, and even Nietzsche. Yet the two philosophers who have probably made the biggest impact on "end-of-history" thinking are Karl Marx and Francis Fukuyama. For Marx, the end of history would arrive once communism had replaced capitalism as the sole socioeconomic ideology in the world. This meant, in effect, that social classes would cease to exist, that private property would be abolished, and that the state would become the primary source of socioeconomic engineering (jobs, education, healthcare, etc.). But Marx could/did not foresee the rise of labor unions, which often served to mitigate/reconcile tensions between capital and labor (bourgeoisie and proletariat). For Fukuyama, who's writing roughly 150 years after Marx, the end of history would coincide with the end of the Cold War. In a sense, the absence of a Soviet superpower threat meant there was no longer any major ideological obstacles for Western-style liberal democracy to overcome. However, in the time since Fukuyama first published his thesis (1989), the globe has seen a significant rise in Islamic fundamentalism that frequently seeks to destroy the Western world.