Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
Sociology

Departmental News Archive

  • Rachel Iafolla '18 Super Pacs: Buying Influence, not Elections

    SuperPacs seem quite frightening, but are they as scary as we think? A Babe Lincoln Publication. By Rachel Iafolla ’18

    Super PACs: Buying Influence, Not Elections

    By Rachel Iafolla ‘18

    (This essay was first published in the first issue of Babe Lincoln, a new journal of political commentary, created and produced by Wheaton students. For more information about Babe Lincoln, contact its editor Pia Parisi-Marcoux ’19 at

    parisi-marcoux_pia@wheatoncollege.edu

    Super Political Action Committees (PACs). They seem pretty frightening; the idea of big money buying elections is not one that sits well with some citizens. However, maybe they are not as scary as we think. “We”, in this case, refers mostly to self-identified Democrats, a group which is more likely to dislike Super PACS, when compared to their Republican counterparts[1]. While Super PACs are able to advertise, make calls, and raise unlimited funds for a given candidate, a look at their success rates may calm some liberal nerves.

    Prior to 2010, Super PACs were not an issue; unions and corporations did not have the power to independently spend money to influence elections on the federal level. This all changed when the Supreme Court deemed that fact unconstitutional Citizens United v. FEC, and in the subsequent case of SpeechNow.org v. FEC., the Super PAC was born[2]. While some feared the Super PACs would give power to the wealthy to “buy elections”, did they succeed in doing so?

    In the 2012 election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, the Super PAC made its debut. As a result, more than $840 million was spent on the election (as of October 30, 2012), and of the money, a majority went to conservatives[3] Romney received more monetary support from Super PACs than Obama, but did he win the election? Well, obviously not. While both parties utilized Super PACs, if they really bought elections, Romney would have won due to his greater source of funding. In this case, the power of grassroots supporters, smaller donations, and the voice of the American people proved stronger than that of wealthy donors.

    In the current election, Super PACs are once again a big topic of discussion. Most notably, Democratic candidate Bernie Sander’s campaign has managed unimaginable success without the help of a Super PAC. On the opposite side, Republican candidate Jeb Bush has a massive Super PAC, but is currently last in the national polls. The belief in the decisiveness of Super PACs in buying elections is clearly up for questioning.

    Perhaps the true power of Super PACs was best summed up by presidential candidate Donald Trump when he said that, “when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.” The influence that donating to a Super PAC can give to someone is the truly scary thing about them. It is when a huge Super PAC candidate wins that the wealthy have their power. The focus on “buying elections” may take away from the greater issue for the average citizen; it is the matter of buying influence which is truly frightening. If one keeps all of the focus on what happens on the national stage, one may overlook what is happening behind the scenes. Looking at Super PACs as something more complex than simply buying elections is a critical viewpoint we must adopt if we wish to understand what is happening within our government.

    [1] http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_politics/february_2016/voters_say_money_media_have_too_much_political_clout?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=DailyNewsletter

    [2] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trump-money-drew-hillary-clinton-wedding/story?id=32936868

    [3] http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/cheat-sheet-super-pacs-work-controversial-article-1.1005804

     

  • YLLO Convocation DEEP WHEATON: CONVOCATION ADDRESS BY KERSTI YLLO, MAY 5, 2016

    Retiring Professor of Sociology, Kersti Yllo, talks about what students should prize in the Wheaton tradition of education and why a sense of purpose should be more important than finding your passion.

    “Deep Wheaton”

    Honors Convocation

    Wheaton College

    May 5, 2016

     

    Kersti Yllö

    Professor of Sociology

    Hello Everyone!

    I’ve spent a surprising amount of time thinking about this talk, this ceremony and this place - and I’m honored to be here. This is quite an important place and it’s a beautiful space. And as I thought about it, I realized that I see this chapel as a sacred space. But I don’t mean sacred in the traditional, religious sense of the word.   I definitely don’t think of it as sacred in the way I’m sure the other Wheaton sees their chapel as sacred. I mean “sacred” in the sense that Emile Durkheim – French founding father of Sociology – conceived it. Durkheim distinguished between the sacred and the profane; profane - not like swearing is profane- but profane meaning the everyday, mundane aspects of our lives: classes, cell phones, workouts, laundry. But the sacred is a space apart - one that has real meaning for us and inspires a sense of awe and deeply felt community. That’s why we gather here today - in this important place.

    We gather here for rites of passage that honor the academic freedom, inquiry and excellence that we value. Seniors, you began here on your first night at Wheaton for an initiation ceremony. We joined together here to welcome President Hanno into our academic community. And today we honor the wonderful work that you all have done.

    We also gather here for the joy of musical performances – from our acappella groups to President Crutcher’s Klemperer Trio to Yo Yo Ma.

    We also come together here in sorrow. I’ve been to many memorial services here. And you gathered here just a few months ago to remember your classmate Brandon Williams who was lost to us much too soon. Sharing the sadness of our losses here - together – helps, and makes us all stronger.

    At other times we gather here when we are hurt and angry. A few years ago we had a painful and contentious community meeting here in response to a controversial sexual assault case. That led to a full transformation of our approach to rape. More recently, we’ve joined together here to express our outrage over racist and xenophobic graffiti and leaflets.   Coming together doesn’t automatically fix things, but it does let us express our support for those who are violated and reaffirm the values we believe in. We’re a community committed to gender equality, racial justice and the sustainability of this planet. This space, more than any other, holds Wheaton’s values and collective emotions – its soul.

    You may be wondering at this point why this talk is titled “Deep Wheaton”. For you techies out there – this isn’t a reference to the deep web. Deep Wheaton is a phrase coined by Dean Jack Kuzaj in his retirement talk last year – and I’ve thought about it quite a bit since then. I think “Deep Wheaton” incorporates all the values I’ve been talking about - but it is more than that. Deep Wheaton isn’t an abstraction – it’s all of the relationships we have that embody our values and our special sense of community. And I think it’s a community where friendship is the model and we generally prefer to be linked rather than ranked. Deep Wheaton is lived experience.

    Now some of you are probably thinking that this whole “Deep Wheaton” idea is just too sappy, (Dean Jack does sometimes have sappy ideas) so let me be clear that I’m not naïve or nostalgic about it.

    There’s no question that ours is not an ideal community, there’s a lot of “shallow Wheaton” for sure: gossip, yikyak, micro-aggressions and physical aggressions, misogyny, racism, homophobia. Sometimes it feels like it’s all over the place. But we stand against it. It’s shallow and it’s not who we are.

    I’m also not nostalgic for some old “Wheaton Way” – the good old days. I’m not saying “make Wheaton great again!” I am proud of much of Wheaton’s history – after all, we were founded on the radical feminist idea that women can and should be educated. That’s still a great idea! But – back in 1835 - that meant young white women who knew how to act like “ladies”. Despite their education, they were expected to marry and find contentment as their husbands’ property. The lucky ones got to be Wheaton faculty.

    Deep Wheaton does not mean yesterday’s Wheaton, even as we honor our liberal arts heritage - which is also our future. I do think that Deep Wheaton stands against the corporatization of higher education. I think faculty feel strongly that education is not a commodity, not a product that we are selling to consumers. Seniors – you didn’t buy a Wheaton degree, you earned it!

    But that doesn’t mean that Deep Wheaton is an impediment to change – not at all! In fact, I think our deep Wheaton values and relationships are the main reason we are so good at change. Deep Wheaton fosters our resilience and flexibility, our creativity and ability to adapt and to change.

    From the beginning we were committed to women’s education – yes - but we were a pretty parochial white “girls’ school”. We were wrong when we denied admission to Booker T. Washington’s daughter. And we were wrong when we had a quota on Jewish students. One of my students working in the archives even found a letter from President Cole’s wife to the admissions office warning against letting in too many Jewish students because, she wrote, “they’re just as bad as Methodists”! Say What?

    Fortunately, Wheaton has changed - a lot. Our “girl’s school” became a women’s college with a feminist consciousness - and then became a coed college that recognized men as equals - who also had gender. And we’ve worked to become a more diverse, international and inclusive community - and in that process we’ve become better, much better. Change keeps an institution alive. I think that the many changes that are ahead – like the new curriculum - will be more powerful and productive if they are grounded in Deep Wheaton - in our values and our relationships.

    But here’s the thing – Deep Wheaton isn’t a given; it’s not permanent; it’s not engraved on a plaque. As I said, Deep Wheaton is lived experience. It has to be created by faculty and students and staff in collaboration as we go about our daily lives here. We create this community every day in our mundane – or in Durkeheim’s term ‘profane’ – activities. And then we come together here, in this sacred space, to honor and celebrate what we’ve created.

    So, it’s the end of the semester and here we are, together again, to celebrate academic achievement and, especially, the accomplishments of the senior class. And that means that change is ahead for you – and for me. You’ll be graduating and I’ll be retiring, along with my colleagues John Grady and Ed Gallagher. Prof. Gallagher is skipping these end-of-year celebrations. Apparently, he has an aversion to hearing people say nice things about him. And I’m afraid that Ed may be the last of the great Wheaton curmudgeons. (Newer faculty: think about filling this vacuum. I see some potential out there!)

    And Seniors: We’re in the same boat – and that boat is leaving Wheaton. I’ve been teaching here for 35 years (ever since I was 11- a child prodigy.) And you all have been in school for 16 years - or more. And every year you pretty much knew what you were going to do the next year: go back to school. And now it ends – and I feel some real trepidation about that. But some trepidation in the face of change is normal and healthy (at least I hope it is, otherwise I’m in serious trouble.) It’s not easy when lots of well meaning people ask you ‘What are your plans? What are you going to do? You’re going to do what?’

    You seniors know what I’m talking about.

    I do admit that leaving Wheaton is a bit easier for me than for you. I don’t have to find a job. But, like you, I have to figure out what’s next.

    Speeches like this one often end with the cliché of ‘follow your passion’. I’m not sure that’s always a good idea. Donald Trump is following his passion and I shudder to think where that may lead us! And I know exactly one person who was able to turn his passion for weed into an actual, legitimate career.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of passion – but not necessarily as a life guide. Instead of following a passion, find a purpose. Take your values and your talents and turn them into action in the world. As the great philosopher Mae West once said, ‘You only live once. But if you do it right – that’s enough!’

    As we move on from Wheaton - this place we love - we can draw on the wellspring of Deep Wheaton. And we’ll be fine.

    We’ll find out where we need to go by going.

    Thank you!

  • Elise McGovern '18 is from Livingston, New Jersey The Importance of Being Uncomfortable

    Why look at images that make you uncomfortable? Sometimes it’s the only way to really understand what happened. By Elise McGovern ’18 from Livingston, New Jersey

     "The Importance of Being Uncomfortable" by Elise McGovern '18

    Elise is from Livingston, New Jersey.

     

    Man falling from the North Tower of the World Trade Center, New York City, at 9:41:15 AM, September 11, 2001. Source: Richard Drew, Associated Press

    Figure 1. Man falling from the North Tower of the World Trade Center, New York City, at 9:41:15 AM, September 11, 2001.
    Source: Richard Drew, Associated Press

     

    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a novel written by Jonathan Safran Foer. The main character, Oscar, is a nine-year-old boy living in New York City. He is on a quest for the owner of a mysterious key, that he believes contains a hidden message -- or lost memory -- of his father who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Oscar is obsessed with his father’s last moments, and wants to know what exactly happened to him and how he felt. One of the many possibilities that Oscar contemplates is that his father was one of the “jumpers” like the falling man in the picture taken on 9/11 (Figure 1), an image that is woven into the book’s narrative. Oscar, however, likes to look at the pictures in reverse order to imagine that the man is flying upward back into the building.

    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close displays the image in a sequence of photos, each taking up a page. The effect is like a flip book (Figure 2). The man is shown jumping from the burning, smoke filled north tower of the World Trade Center. As the reader flips through the pages the man slowly falls down, and finally off, the page.

    Figure 2. Turning pages of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005. Source: graphicinterventions.blogspot.com

    Figure 2. Turning pages of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005.
    Source: graphicinterventions.blogspot.com

    This image is iconic and has come to represent the unimaginable events that took place above the impact zones of each tower. Accounts from this day describe intense heat and smoke. Floors were buckling, ceiling pieces were falling, and smoke was everywhere. All the stairwells and elevators were blocked or broken. People were trapped. Phone calls to loved ones and police dispatchers from those trapped in the World Trade Center tell stories of not being able to see more than a few feet or even being able to breathe. Many were driven to the edge of the buildings by the intense heat and smoke. Some hung from the sides trying to escape the inferno; some were blown out of the windows, and others just jumped. In all, some 200 people fell to their death from the burning building before it finally collapsed, imploding upon itself.

    There is an interesting history to the image of the falling man. It appeared in the New York Times the day after the attack and was immediately criticized for being inappropriate. Periodically, the image is published in one context or another. There are many photos similar to this one readily available on the Internet, but generally it has not been enshrined in the publicized memories of 9/11.

    Images of falling people make others uncomfortable, and are disturbing because they tell of the reality of death and horror that took place on that day. The horrific images of 9/11 are not talked about or published for fear they are insensitive to the memory of those who died or for the disturbance it might cause the reader. These images are unsettling and a concern over their impact most certainly should not be disregarded. However, by not showing the images of death and horror we forget those who died as well as those who are forever affected by that day. There is no way to sugarcoat these photos to not show death and horror and still remember everyone who lost their life or health that day. Many media sources and individuals choose to focus almost entirely on the community support that formed in the aftermath of 9/11. While it is important to always see the positive points of a negative, horrific situation that negative, horrific situation must not be forgotten. In the case of 9/11 the loss of life and health, newfound fears about security and the lasting impact of trauma should not be overlooked. These stories and images might make readers and viewers feel uncomfortable and that’s okay. To feel pain and hurt is uncomfortable but it is also necessary for a greater understanding of 9/11 and other horrific events that happen around the world every day and throughout history. When photos, stories and events are sugarcoated they disconnect us from what these events mean to those who lived through them.

    Survivors in the south tower recall being told to stay in the building and that everything would be fine. However, the sight of people falling from the north tower created a sense of urgency that something was terribly wrong, causing many to ignore the announcements to stay, and flee instead. More than 1,400 people escaped from the upper floors of the south tower before the second plane hit.

    Stories and images of death, trauma, and horror, emotionally affect people even if they did not experience the actual trauma itself. To avoid awareness because it is uncomfortable is not okay because then there is never a chance to learn the full story or experience the world fully.

    The sensitization of horrific events goes beyond 9/11 and can also be seen in the way people talk about and view the holocaust, slavery, war, rape and other violence that takes place around the world every day and throughout history. ‘Shocking’ photos make the news become well known because they often cross the barrier of what is an acceptable topic of conversation. When images cross that barrier -- as long as it’s not for ‘shock value’ -- that is how individuals learn about the world and history.

    When images, stories and events are sugarcoated they change the existential narrative of the event from understanding the horror that took place to exclusively accentuating the positive. Discomfort is necessary to appreciate horror and its effect on people’s lives. We must never forget that the world is not all happy and good because otherwise how will we be able to prevent more horrors from happening in the future.

    Like Oscar, I was a young child on 9/11. Unlike him, I did not lose a parent that day, but I knew classmates who did and many who are forever affected by that day. I continue to be fascinated by the book not only because it recreates how a child tried to make sense of 9/11 and its images, but also because it reminds me as an adult of my responsibility to remember as much as I can of the terrors of life. Acknowledging the horror and power that images can convey and learning from them educates us about the world and can help us improve the future.

  • Colleen Doherty ’90 A hand up rather than a handout

    Colleen Shea Doherty ’90 influences public housing, from advocacy work to legislative reforms, to multi-million-dollar housing projects.

  • Rivera-small Karl Rivera ’16

    …equipped marginalized people in India with digital cameras so they could express how they see the world…

  • Mia Cambi '16 Wouldn't You Like a Barbie Doll Instead?

    The fact that Little Sally is raising issues of gender equality and sexism in popular media suggests that Santa better watch out. The times might be changing. By Mia Cambi ’16

    "Wouldn't You Like a Barbie Doll Instead?" by Mia Cambi'16

    "What Do You Want for Christmas" by Chris Allison. Source: Toonhole.com, December 2, 2015

    "What Do You Want for Christmas" by Chris Allison. Source: Toonhole.com, December 2, 2015

    What Would You Like For Christmas? is a 2015 gag cartoon by Chris Allison posted on a comic site, Toonhole. The cartoon refers to Americans growing concern about gender inequality. The conversation in this particular strip is not one that would have been seen in comic strips a generation or so ago. In past decades women were mostly depicted in stereotypical female roles – cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children – but to question – let alone speak of -- sexism would not have figured in any of the punch lines.

    In this comic, Santa represents cultural obduracy. He is not villainized by the cartoonist; he is just doing what he has done for centuries, being the symbol of Christmas and answering the dreams of people who have been good. But as a guardian of cultural continuity the dreams he answers are limited by what the system can routinely provide. Whether he is befuddled by, or annoyed at, Little Sally’s request his answer is clear. Little Sally should get over wishing for a future free of sexism and crippling student loan debt because that definitely will not happen by December 25, 2015.

    American society has made great strides in accepting women in the public sphere and reducing their inequality. However, this comic strip makes it clear that the struggle for equality is far from complete. Santa’s response reflects an older view that society in general, and especially many men, discount the needs of women because, after all, so long as women are protected, safe, and secure within traditional arrangements, what more could they want. Santa also may be puzzled about how to respond to a request that can’t be satisfied by commodities. This strip is acknowledging a social disconnect as Little Sally asks for something that many people feel is not realistic from someone like Santa, who couldn’t possibly deliver it, even if he wanted.

    While sexism is still expressed in very obvious forms, it tends to thrive in a kind of cultural underground, the world of everyday life, often outside of public scrutiny. Countless women are laid off or demoted while pregnant or when they return from maternity leave. They also must endure myriad ways of being undercut by stereotypes in the workplace. Some women’s rise up the corporate ladder is cut short when they begin to start a family, something men experience far less often. One way of making gender inequality public is advertising the widely known statistic that women earn 77 cents to every one-dollar a man makes. But this claim is often quickly undercut by sniffing that it does not account for wage differences in the occupations most populated by men and women. While this is true, closer examination of these differences most often shows that income inequality still exists between men and women within the same occupation. According to an article published by CNN Money last April, women hold more than 70% of elementary school teaching jobs but men still earn more in the same position. The median weekly income for a male teacher is $1,096, whereas women earn $956, about 87 cents to the man’s dollar.

    Student loans can be considered America’s next big crisis as the debt reaches $1.2 trillion. Society today puts more of an emphasis on attending college, which under current arrangements only means more debt. At the moment, students are forced to use loans to finance their education if they cannot pay tuition with cash, grants, and scholarships. Until there is an alternative source of financing college tuition, those students will need loans and this does not look like it is changing anytime soon, and it is unlikely that universities will be reducing their tuition costs in the near future. At the rate college tuition continues to increase, in 15 years Little Sally will be asking Santa for $130,000 each year for Christmas.

    Santa probably would have been happier if Little Sally had asked for a Barbie doll instead. In Barbie’s world, things are a lot easier. Everything comes naturally to her and all she needs are the outfits that enable her to be whatever she wants, a college student, veterinarian, lifeguard, or a lawyer. But who’s being realistic here? Nevertheless, the fact that figures like Little Sally are raising issues of gender equality and sexism in popular media suggests that Santa better watch out. What is not realistic today, may be on tomorrow’s agenda, and sooner than many people think!

  • Meyer-cropped Fighting crime in New Orleans

    Henry Meyer ’94 believes in a more cerebral approach to policing, influenced by his time at Wheaton and by his liberal arts education.

  • Megan Barnes '18 Best Buds or What?

    Today we might guess that photographs of two men holding hands and sitting on each others’ laps would indicate they were gay. But not so in the 19th century. Why did the expression of male affection change? By Megan Barnes ’18

    "Best Buds or What?" By Megan Barnes'18

    Two Young Men, daguerreotype, C. 1850. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org

    Two Young Men, daguerreotype, C. 1850. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org

    An unidentified photographer made this daguerreotype portraying two young men in the mid nineteenth century, only eleven years after the invention of photography. On first examination, a modern viewer would likely think that these two men were lovers. However, when the photo was made being “homosexual” was not a recognized identity (however maligned) and a limited number of what we might today view as “homosexual acts” were defined as aberrant. Very few people then would dream of assuming that two physically close men were romantically or sexually involved with each other, just as we do not typically presume that an affectionate dog owner would be sexually or romantically involved with their pet.

    Had it been an established belief that the same desires and behaviors that occur between a man and woman could also happen between men, then it is likely that the same constraints that regulated how men and women were portrayed together in photographs during this period would militate against any depiction of intimacy between men. Photographers did not generally record displays of romantic affection between men and women. It just wasn’t seemly. Thus, when we look at early photographs of men with clasped hands and intertwined legs, we are not seeing an expression of radical sexuality or romance. Rather, we are witnessing a time when the display of unabashed affection between men was an acceptable practice. Sometime between the mid-nineteenth century and today, however, this changed so that what was once seen as normal became abnormal and unimaginable unless it was intended as a spoof. Historians now believe that what transpired was that people in the late nineteenth century to early twentieth century came to identify homosexuality as not just sinful but also a threat to heterosexuality and came to stigmatize most displays of affection between males as signs of being a homosexual.

    Not burdened by the stigma of homosexuality, men of the 19th century enjoyed an expanded emotional and physical closeness with one another. These kinds of bonds were expected and happened largely out of necessity due to contemporary social beliefs and practices. During this period men and women’s social spheres didn't overlap very much because it was believed that the two sexes were intellectually and emotionally incompatible (save for the realm of sexual and marital relations) and that unregulated and frequent contact between men and women might encourage indecent sexual encounters. The result of these arrangements was the creation of “boys only club” mentality that encompassed the life of a young man in the 1850s, fostering intense and affectionate bonds between men that we very rarely see today and find hard to imagine.

    When people started speaking of homosexuality and scientists determined homosexuality to be an “inversion” of heterosexuality -- a deviation from the norm and a mental illness -- men began developing a kind of homophobia. Fearing they would be labeled as homosexuals, men began distancing themselves from each other both emotionally and physically. As you might expect, the commonly assumed pose featured in this daguerreotype, which photographers would encourage men to perform in their studios -- as well as any other gestures of male affection -- became entirely unacceptable,

    Changes in the early twentieth century created a “perfect storm” of pressures that dramatically changed how masculinity was expressed. Men and women found that social expectations afforded them more opportunities for unregulated contact, whether in the office, where women were beginning to work in close propinquity to males, or in the distractions of the modern metropolis. As is clearly shown in the movies and advertisements of the time, men and women were forced to come to terms with each other’s presence, and this encouraged more social interaction and stimulated sexual attraction. Courting and mating was now increasingly unregulated by older generations and became the responsibility of those who were doing the partnering. Roles had to be improvised and the prospects of success or failure created lots of anxiety, which made the participants susceptible to strictures that promised success in the sexual marketplace. Just what attitudes and practices characterized a real man or a real woman? One easy way to establish a comfortable gender identity was to accentuate “heteronormality”, or complete emotional orientation to the opposite gender. In this context, therefore, homosexuality threatened the bond between man and woman, and it was important not only to define it as aberrant but also to avoid any practices that encouraged emotional openness to the same sex. Among other things, this resulted in the reduction of males’ reliance on each other, and in doing so, gave men even lesser reason to form the kinds of bonds with each other that they had in the past.

    With the birth of the stigmatized homosexual identity, we thus see the death of an affectionate freedom captured in this 1850 daguerreotype that is denied to men today. It is hard not to conclude that the erosion of male affection toward each other has come at great cost, not only to the lives of men into the present, but also to women as well.

  • Rachel Iafolla '18 An Abandoned America

    Why are ruins so evocative? What can they tell us about who we were then and who we are now? By Rachel Iafolla ’18

    "An Abandoned America" by Rachel Iafolla '18

    The Packard Plant was abandoned in 1956. Source: Detroiturbex.com

    The Packard Plant was abandoned in 1956. Source: Detroiturbex.com

    Photographs of abandoned structures have become an increasingly popular visual focus for contemporary photographers. Capturing the stillness of long, dark hallways, the crumbling walls of a once cherished home, and the remnants of previous lives has allowed people to travel through time with one single glance. The assumptions and stories which can be drawn from these images are boundless, thus capturing the imagination of photographers and viewers alike. But what story do they actually tell?

    The Packard Automotive Plant in Detroit, Michigan, pictured above, stands empty, yet it has much to say about the American Dream. Opened in 1903, it was once a sign of the power of American manufacturing. The plant produced millions of cars and during War II, the fighter planes, and engines for PT boats that helped win the war. After the plant closed, it was home to various other businesses, and was eventually fully vacated. Various attempts to buy and repurpose it have occurred over the years, but many have fallen through and issues with taxes have abounded (Detroit Free Press); it appears that the future of the plant is something of a mystery, and while ideas are in the works, it may be best to adopt an “I’ll believe it when I see it” mentality.

    The popularity of this photograph, however, is not due to the past or future of the pictured location, but rather to what it says about where we, as Americans, are now. Images like this one speaks to our anxieties and challenge our values. The picture of the Packard Plant reflects the dramatic economic changes the nation has experienced: from a booming factory manufacturing driven economy, to one that outsources and has an uncertain future. It sometimes seems that the American worker has been forgotten, much like these buildings. On a local level, the abandoned Packard Plant reflects the decline of Detroit, a city which filed for bankruptcy in 2013. When you inspect this image, as well as the thousands of other abandoned buildings scattered around Detroit, each one of which has its own rich history and grim enchantment, it is hard to believe that positive changes are possible. As a city and a nation worries about its economy, images of what once was creates a nostalgia for those booming American-made days.

    In terms of American values, images like this one address America’s tendency to embrace new technologies and look towards the next big thing. Instead of improving upon what we have, we want what is bigger and better, and thus we leave once great achievements behind. The Packard Automotive Plant highlights this idea, we have moved towards an era of technology, an era in which assembly line jobs are not as common. Many jobs that were once done in the plant, and others like it, have been moved overseas and replaced with tech-based jobs and industries. Nevertheless, the Packard building still stands, compelling people to appreciate its place in history and recognize its importance. This image reminds us of what we might lose in the changes that we do welcome.
    "An Abandoned America" by Rachel Iafolla '18

    This photograph of the Packard Plant draws the viewer into a depressed present, poised on a cusp between an irrecoverable past and an uncertain future. It tells a story of loss and hope. In broader terms, and aside from their eerie beauty, images like this one can haunt a viewer. These places were once filled with life and people, but now stand neglected. Yet, the photos of abandoned buildings can immortalize them and help us invoke the ghosts that still inhabit them. There is a oddly familiar quality to these desolate structures, which like old snapshots allow us to envision what went on there. Perhaps the fascination with these images comes from a fear that important places in our lives will someday stand empty; perhaps we are simply doing what we hope others will do for us, preserving the memory of lives once lived as a way of finding a thread of hope for their own lives and futures.

  • Andrew Esancy '17 Where the Buffalo Roam? The Story of the American Bison

    The virtual extermination of the American Bison was an environmental disaster. But the backstory is even worse. By Andrew Esancy ’17

    "Where the Buffalo Roam: The Story of the American Bison" By Andrew Esancy '17

    A pile of approximately 180,000 bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer (c. mid-1870s). Copyright expired - Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library - downloaded from English Wikipedia 14 December 2015.

    A pile of approximately 180,000 bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer (c. mid-1870s). Copyright expired - Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library - downloaded from English Wikipedia 14 December 2015.

    Prior to European Settlement, there were an estimated 60 million bison, or American Buffalo, in the continental United States. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, there were only approximately one thousand of these animals remaining. It is easy to see this as a cautionary tale about how human beings -- Americans in this case -- can so recklessly abuse the environment. After all, the immense decline in population was in part a result of environmental factors, such as regional drought, bovine disease and competition for resources with domesticated livestock, or cattle. In addition, there were other commercial motives. Buffalo products, especially their hides and to a lesser extent their meat, were valuable commodities and there for the taking as they belonged to no one.

    This photograph from the mid-1870s provides a window into the story of the Buffalo. In the image, two men stand triumphantly among an estimated 180,000 bison skulls. The identities of the men in the photograph are unknown. One has climbed to the very top of the pile. The picture resembles similar photos taken at the time and since by people to memorialize having reached the peak of an actual mountaintop. They often refer to having “conquered” the mountain. Here we see a similar gesture, except that the mountain in this case is grotesquely composed of the remains of thousands and thousands of living beings.

    In 1812, one M. Figuier, a pharmacist Montpellier in France, discovered that bone char or bone black could decolorize wines and vinegars better than the then prevailing method, which used charcoal. Following his discovery, the firm of Payen and Sons first introduced bone black to the sugar industry. Bone black was used to refine sugar and it also helped give sugar its white color by absorbing impurities. As it was common practice for bison hunters to leave the bison carcass to rot after they had killed them, by the early 1880s bone gathering and selling in the Midwest had become a thriving industry, to which the following advertisement posted in The Grafton News and Times on July 23, 1885 attests:

    I will pay cash for buffalo bones. Bring them in by the ton or hundred. I will give fifty pounds of the best twine for one ton of bones, for this month only, or a $40 sewing machine for forty tons.

    About half way up the right edge of the photograph there is a building in the background, the Michigan Carbon Works processing plant, which had been founded in 1873 by Deming Jarves and William Hooper. The company was established to meet the rapid demands of an expanding sugar industry by distilling animal bones into bone black that could be used to filter and purify sugar. Fortunately for human health considerations, growing public health consciousness and regulation prevented the Michigan Carbon Works from utilizing the spine and skull in the production process to prevent the spread of “Mad Cow” disease. But, in other ways the story of what happened to the Buffalo goes far beyond a tale of environmental profligacy and shows a complete lack of concern for human health and welfare.

    Sociological theory -- especially the Marxist inspired social conflict version -- tells us that society is composed of different groups competing for the same power and resources and that the more powerful groups use their power in order to exploit groups with less power. From this perspective, the tale of the buffalo gets dark indeed. European settlers understood that bison were essential to the survival of North American aboriginals in the form of sustenance and as a trade commodity, and so the United States government capitalized and supported the slaughter of bison by paying a bounty to bison hunters as a means of subjugating the Native Americans. Not being able to hunt roaming herds of buffalo, the tribes had no alternative but to surrender to the American military, give up their nomadic way of life and accept what the white man offered them, farming and herding on isolated reservations.

    This photograph of bison skulls, therefore, provides a strand of evidence that documents not only massive environmental abuse, but also a key element in the strategy to subjugate the Native American tribes who occupied the land that white settlers, and their government, wanted. Often, it is not so much what is depicted in the image that is important, but rather what we can discover about the backstory of the elements in the picture.