State of the Union: A Commentary

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In President Obama’s State of the Union Address, he touches upon a variety of issues critical to the future of the United States of America. The cornerstones of Obama’s administration were all mentioned, including lengthy periods of space dedicated to discussing pressing issues such as economic growth, technology, unemployment, energy, immigration, healthcare, and equality.

However, underlying every issue discussed was a central message from President Obama. This message was simple. The citizens of the United States need to come together collectively, as an American people, in order to achieve a successful future. The volatile arguments between the various political powers in the United States have to stop, or at least subside to a point where at least some progress can be made. To put it bluntly; America must become unified again.

This in my opinion is a fair and fascinating argument. In class, we’ve been studying the very beginnings of this nation. The foundational building blocks of the United States of America.  At this point in our studies, the United States has yet to form into a cohesive nation. We’re reminded that the land where we now live was founded, colonized, and made inhabitable by a variety of different nations that we are no longer affiliated with. And yet, somewhere between the beginnings of this nation, and where we find ourselves now, an American identity was formed. A variety of people with different backgrounds managed to come together to forge this nation through a great deal of bloodshed, sweat, and toil. I feel as if we sometimes take this fact for granted.

Obama is also quick to point out that “those at the top have never done better.” Moreover, he states that “inequality has deepened,” and that “upward mobility has stalled.” In light of our recent studies, I found Obama’s statements particularly meaningful. The initial colonizers came to North American for a variety of different reasons, mainly religious and economic ones. The ability to climb the social latter in England and other parts of Europe had stalled, and people came to the New World looking to improve their fortunes. Thus this nation was at least partially founded on the basis that through hard work and dedication, one could improve their social standing in life. However, in recent times, it appears as if this notion is fading. Poverty has risen at alarming rates, and as Obama mentioned, the ability for Americans to improve their lot in life has increasingly become more difficult. I find it somewhat startling to see that this nation is possibly regressing once again in regards to social mobility.

Overall, I found Obama’s speech extremely compelling. The historical parallels that could be drawn to our lessons in class were extremely interesting, and helped deepen my understanding and appreciation for many of Obama’s arguments.





Old Conflict and New Order

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Today’s reading is particularly interesting because it zoomed in on the specific events happened between English colonizers and Native Americans, which demonstrated the English brutal colonial approach. Then on the other end of the spectrum, chapter 12 described diversity in middle colonies that embraced differences among various ethnic groups and foreshadowed American’s future as a melting pot. 

When the New English first immigrated to the New World, they tried to dominate the natural world, wild animals, and Native Americans through various economic means. In particular, they recreated the English style landscape and converted the Indians to establish their identity as civilized Christians. In efforts to refine the Indians, the colonists introduced modern concepts of private property and mentality of capitalism to the New World by buying Indians’ land and offering goods in return for their marks on paper documents called deeds. Furthermore, they tried to subdivide the landscape into thousands of privately held properties and regarded the deeds as Indian submission to European dominion.  On a more sophisticated level, the colonists extorted wampum from southern New England Indians to exchange for furs from Maine in order to finance their continued expansion. In order to “enlighten” the Indians religiously, the English colonizers established praying towns with close surveillance to change their behavior and appearance. These various economic exploitation and religious subjugation planted seeds for imminent armed conflicts between the New English and the Indians. Since the Native Americans lack a collective identity as “Indians”, the natives operated in a fragmented way and were prone to English manipulation. For example, the English manipulated various tribal groups to provoke the King Philip’s War, the first civil war among the Indians.  The conflict killed approximately a thousand English colonists and about three thousand Indians. By 1670, the 52,000 New England colonists outnumbered the Southern New England Indians by three to one. Other than the King Philip’s War, the English provoked many regional conflicts by giving fake promises and manipulating different tribes. These incidents clearly indicated that the English were experienced political entrepreneurs and colonizers, which contributed to the title of ”the empire on which the sun never sets” because they had been so effective at exterminating the local population and maximizing economic interests.

On the other hand, the mid-Atlantic colonies were more accepting and friendly toward different groups. The land was more promising than the initial colonies along the coast for cultivating grain and raising livestock. In addition, the region was not controlled by an exclusive power rather it was colonized by both the Dutch and the English.  In particular, the Dutch established a republican government, naval power and had a high religious toleration. The Dutch captured huge economic interests by exporting sugar from American plantations and conducting slave trade from West Africa. Interestingly, Dutch also had the one of the greatest national wealth and the highest standard of living in Europe—they were extremely good at doing business and were least interested in mass migration to the Americas compared to English and Spanish. Unlike the English or the French, the Dutch made no missionary effort and considered mission work as unnecessary expenses. They told the Indians that they were brothers and joined together with chains as long as there was beaver trade. Thanks to the religious tolerance, middle colonies received dissident Puritans. The Dutch territories attracted a variety of peoples: Swedes, Norwegians, Finns and etc. Furthermore, the enslaved Africans were able to preserve their traditional beliefs. The overarching theme in the middle colonies is diversity and that allowed various beliefs and economic activities to thrive. It signified that the Great British colonial approach may not be the only way of life in the New World and different groups could coexist.

State of the Union Address

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President Obama’s Address to the country last night began with stories of hard working Americans who represent the country as a whole. Especially during the beginning of his speech, and also throughout, the President used pathos to make himself appeal to the average citizen. The way in which he chose stories of empowerment and success when describing the new Health Care, military support, and education reforms shows similarities to when the English colonists were attempting to persuade their fellow English to join them in the New World by exaggerating the truth and only describing the good of the colony, and not the bad.

The main point of Obama’s speech was to express his concern for the unemployed and to create more jobs. In England during the colonization period, there were plenty of people to work but not enough jobs, and in the colonies, there was plenty of work but not enough people to fill all of the jobs. Unemployed English moved to the New World upon the promises of jobs and prosperity. It seems as though the country has now come full circle, since corporations move overseas and put many out of work. The unemployment state could be compared to that of England during the colonization period, yet the jobs have now started to come back from overseas.

Obama also made the push in his speech for immigration reform. Immigrants founded this country; in school it seems that students are taught that Europeans solely shaped the United States. Yet from reading Inhuman Bondage, one would see that in fact African immigrants played just as large of a part in shaping the country, although brought against their will in the form of slavery.

In all, this country has come far from what it was in the colonization days in a short amount of time. The United States is a young country, but recognized as the worlds dominate power. The issues that Obama described and promised to fix in his speech were all hot issues now, but many stemmed or were similar to issues that had been around since the days of colonization.

Old Traditions and New Progress: The State of the Union

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The State of the Union Address given by President Obama last night had a surprising number of correlations with our current lessons. The President talked at length about current inequality and the lack of upward mobility that we see in the job market and in social classes. We recently discussed in class, and Yuxi pointed out in her post “The Necessary Evil,” how slavery and its economic benefits created a system of inequality that benefited producers and extractive economies. She continues this conversation and extends it to show that this system of separation and oppression supported the prosperity of the country and the potential of the “American Dream.” That dream has changed with industrialization, urbanization, and development of new and more equal economies. We also discussed how classes were intentionally separated for social or economic purposes, and this separation is still entrenched in us today. Mobility is much more difficult than many Americans would like to believe. However, I find that the issue is not that class or race that separates us, but that education levels separate us. This is proven by the fact that today we have a well-educated African American as our president. Education has shaped America over the years, and has allowed for not only more economically sound markets, but ones with higher values. It is our hope that this positive trend continues with some of the extensions of education programs and trade programs that Obama has asked. They should help improve this mobility and erase the last true inequality gaps between races, regions, and genders. Obama touched on a few issues concerning “labor insourcing,” increasing the minimum wage, and expanding trade programs so that people do not have to live in poverty. I certainly agree with the fact that the higher levels of human capital that exist in the United States have created an incentive for investment. We discussed how slaves with special skills were often sought after and were worth more for plantations that needed more educated labor. This principle holds true today. During the time of slavery the Americas were a land of investment because of our natural resources and factor endowments including vast lands. Today industry is turning back to us because we not only have the physical resources, but also the human ones necessary to make change.

I think that it is too early to consider raising the minimum wage, however. Encouraging investment often requires the premise of potential profit. If we raise the rate before investment takes place, I believe we will see fewer jobs added and more cut as labor becomes too expensive. Slavery existed for the reason of eliminating a major cost. If we desire for more jobs to be created, and for each employee to work for more hours, we must let the economy develop before introducing a new expense. I hold the view that bringing more people to employment is going to help our economy grow and average wages will increase as competition and innovation continue. Along with the additional expenses that the Affordable Care Act has brought to businesses, the addition of other costs for labor would cause more problems with unemployment, and result in more underemployment. An almost $3 per hour increase in wages would render full-time labor often too expensive. We also do not want to see this cause unnecessary inflation levels either. Producers will not be ignorant of the increase in income, and may seek to raise their prices if they understand that consumers can afford them. This could cause a general price spike, weakening the purchasing power of the dollar and perhaps harming rather than helping workers.

Whether or not we like to admit it, much social change is stimulated by economics. Bolstering the middle class and opening opportunities to mobility are attractive for moral reasons, and there are ways that we can make them attractive economically as well. We will encourage investment, both domestic and foreign, by showing our relatively high human capital in conjunction with economic sense. We have seen, as the President mentioned, 8 million new jobs created in the past year. We would all like to see this trend continue. I believe that encouraging employment of more people full-time will stimulate the economy and produce a more productive, innovative, and mobile middle class. Poverty is today’s slavery. It holds us back from fulfilling our potential. We all would like to end it across the world, and each believe in different paths to that success. I will be interested to see if these programs take effect and if they will succeed.

POTUS and the Rhetoric of Colonization

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A few key quotes struck me as I was watching the State of the Union Address yesterday, and they mainly fell into the first opening minutes of his speech as President Obama seemed to employ the rhetoric of the idyllic American Colonization. It is often the same wording utilized when recounting the typical American dream, but is undoubtedly similar to the romanticized notions of the Plymouth colonies. The President first states that the similarity and bonding power of this nation is in the “simple, profound belief in opportunity for all, the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America.” The idea of  responsibility, hard work, diligence and even to an extent, patience, is the way to prosperity. If “get ahead” in the President’s statement was changed to “finding the Lord” or “be rewarded by God,” it would almost sound identical to a Puritan Philosophy during colonization. They took pride in hard work, diligence, and had faith that these facets of their lives would ultimately come with reward. This is all mirrored today by Economic Growth and the strengthening of the “working middle class,” as Kurt had mentioned in his previous post on the President’s address.

Americans want to think that today, and Obama, despite admitting the flawed nature of this dream, is attempting to rally behind that same, rhetorical cornerstone to incite unity in our nation. When asking for Congress’ action, he implores for congress to “give these hardworking, responsible Americans that chance.” It is the government’s responsibility to ensure to the best of their ability that these ideals remain true.

On a similar note, the President mentions expansion four times in his address, growth another five, and brings up the notion that “But America does not stand still, and neither will I.” When I heard this in the context of our classes so far, it does illicit this emotion of boundlessness for the United States. It feels as if the rhetorical tools used here liken that of a modern Manifest Destiny, of hope of new eras, new opportunities, and new uninhabited land (obviously a false assumption) with the first settlers in what would become the United States. Americans still want to have these stories told to them. We still want to believe that if we work hard, are diligent and are unremitting in our efforts, we have this boundless horizon with which to conquer, much like the  early settlers in our nation. These are the tenants that the President hoped would bind us together as we listened to his address, the rhetoric of colonization and of a unending and unyielding possibility, even if they come from a heavily romanticized recounting of the past.

New England and the Middle Colonies

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Taylor took an in-depth look in chapter nine at the Puritan New England colony. What was especially interesting to me was his contrasting of English and Indian culture.  There were critical differences between the two, such as the more nomadic Indian life as compared to an English settlement and also the differing gender roles of each.  It was cultural misunderstandings that precipitated the clashes like the Pequot War and King Philip’s War, although greed I am sure played a large role.  The Puritans thought they were superior, and the benefits of the New World were a gift to them by God himself.  The idea of Praying Towns seemed to have ulterior motives, where on one hand they were trying to settle and eventually convert groups of natives, they were also boxing them in and taking land for themselves, which does not seem as noble.

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, I too was also very interested in the history of New Netherlands for the same reason of never having covered it in depth.  It seemed like a lucrative port that was not constrained by religious and missionary efforts, and from the first part of the chapter I was questioning why I was not speaking Dutch right now, because it seemed like a complete success.  But as the chapter would explain, Netherlands was almost a victim of its own success back home.  There were not enough settlers willing to leave Netherlands, which left them thin in New Netherlands and susceptible to Indian attacks.

However they did leave a model for the English to follow by showing them how important and prosperous it was to control the seas.  England came up with the Navigation Acts, which solidified their control of the colonies oceans, as well as encouraged more ships to be built.  Without the Dutch precedent, the English may have taken more time to develop their sea presence and other colonial powers may have became more of a threat.

This reading did not really address how slavery played a role in the founding of these middle to northern colonies, which is in stark contrast from last classes readings and the blog posts that addressed them.  I think it was alright for Taylor to omit this information because it was more of a “minor” issue for these colonies, and most people reading this book would already have a base of knowledge to know that slavery is happening.  Taylor continued his pattern of a more Eurocentric take on colonial history.

‘Opportunity for All’

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President Obama’s State of the Union Address was largely centered on employment, economic growth, and “opportunity for all” in America.  In light of our class discussion on Davis today, I found myself comparing the job creation mentioned in the speech to the enslavement of Africans in colonial America.  In modern-day America, many writers and critics claim that there are still leaps and bounds to cover before everyone is provided with equal opportunities.  Leading me to my next point of comparison surrounding inequality.  As ‘opportunity for all’ is a major pillar of the Democratic Party and for Obama himself, the President spoke mostly to the middle-class American—a class today that makes up the majority of our population.

In comparing this to the socioeconomic demographics of colonial times, the middle class seemed much more present in the North based upon descriptions in our readings.  As Dana mentioned in his post on January 26, life did not seem that bad for enslaved peoples (in comparison).  Many were able to gain freedom and even employ their own slaves one day, which I guess could be similar to Obama’s idea of working hard, taking responsibility and getting ahead because of it.  This idea of ‘opportunity for all’ may have been more realistic in the North for both enslaved Africans and lower-middle class craftsmen.   However, in the South it seems as though the opportunity existed only for the select few at the top—i.e. the white landowning males.

Income inequality in the south was much greater due to the obvious reason of the white farmer becoming immensely rich from cash crops like tobacco while the enslaved Africans underwent subjugation, cruel conditions, and unequal treatment.  This notion of hard work being the only thing necessary to get ahead may have been more true for slave-owning landholders of Virginia and South Carolina colonists.  Yet, for enslaved Africans their fate seemed ultimately sealed by the time they took their first steps on American soil.  It is an interesting parallel to consider Davis’ notion that freedom was achieved through slavery in colonial times mentioning “black slavery was basic and integral to the entire phenomenon we call ‘America'”(Davis 102).  Yet the consistent treachery of morals and lack of compassion for human beings of a different color begs the question of how much was too much.

I think the obvious answer, by most standards, is that slavery went too far in its subjugation of Africans creating an immense disadvantage for the entire race.  Furthermore, the sheer magnitude of the divide between the rich and the poor is astounding.  Moreover, modern day protests like Occupy Wall Street in 2011 demonstrate our contemporary view of inequality, which looks quite meager in comparison to the class disparity in southern Colonial America.  Although black slave labor was “indispensable” to the successful boom in growth for America, the short-term costs came at the hand of the black men and women.  However, the argument presents itself that the unbearable costs paid by the colonial slaves led not just to the freedom of the white man, but eventually of the African slaves as well—after all, is it not enormously impressive that the man delivering the State of the Union is black.  The fundamental aspect of our country, which makes it so great, is the fact that our fates are not sealed, but rather it is indeed a land of opportunity.

State Of The Union

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Seeing a black president stand in front of a room of (mostly) white, grey-haired men was more powerful than ever after reading Inhuman Bondage this week on a history of the enslavement of Africans in the New World. Although Obama is no descendent of slaves (his father was born in Africa), the historical treatment of Africans and blacks in the US is unfathomable when paired next to our first Africa American president. In Obama’s lifetime, MLK was shot, and despite this, he now is delivering the state of the union. Obama is a symbol of the American dream that he kept referencing; the belief in opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, age, gender, etc., and an ability of upward mobility regardless of where or to whom you were born.

While there are still too many class and racial differences in opportunities in society today, as shown by Obama’s focus on “young men of color” and on women, the country has come far within the 200+ years of its existence.

I found it interesting that Obama focused on the “broken immigration system”. As the son of an immigrant himself, he failed to mentioned that this country was built and founded by immigrants. As we saw through the Inhuman Bonding reading, much of what made this country become so successful was its huge importation of immigrants. Additionally, contrasting this to our readings on the essentially mass genocide of Indians — the only non-immigrants — it is interesting to see how problems with the “other” has always been a problem in America, even if the perspectives has changed.

In addition to this, our readings have all shown the economic and financial drive that colonizing countries had in the New World. I found it interesting that Obama backed almost all statements he made by the economic gains America can or has achieved, and how many of his proposals will add to the economy or not “add a dime to the deficit”. It was also interesting to hear that in the first time in a long time, manufacturers are considering moving production back to the US from China; America is now a place to invest. This is similar to the colonizing countries, who also saw the New World as a place to invest. This will also help boost and strengthen the middle class, another point Obama emphasized. The history of this country that we’ve learned in class so far is almost all low- to middle-class families migrating to America in order to obtain and work the land outside of being a tenant on a duke’s land. Many American ideals rely on a robust middle class to keep the country functioning and keep the country self-reliant.

Obama ended his State address by committing to the constitutional ideals. “America has never come easy”, he stated. All the readings and lectures for class so far has proved this, from malaria and other diseases, to failed colonies, starvation, cold winters, enslavement, and more. It should be fun to fill in the gap from where we are in class to where we are today (or at least up until 1877).

2014: A Year of Action

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President Obama delivered a high energy and patriotic State of the Union address Tuesday night. This speech worked to both highlight the progress that has been made throughout his administration, as well as to bring attention to issues he intends to act upon. While the president paid tribute to American accomplishments in the past, such as wounded Army Ranger Corey Remsburg, he maintained the message that 2014 will be a year of political action to increase jobs, create equality for all, and improve wealth inequality. Although these issues have current day prevalence, many of these issues can be traced back to the colonial period of America.

President Obama spoke multiple times about the middle class and the quest to accomplish the American Dream. But the American Dream that the President speaks of is not much different than the one of the European colonizers. In the context of President Obama, the American Dream is for people to work hard, make a good living, and support a great family in an area where they are happy to live free. He also believes this dream consists of small business owners who strive to turn their hometown store into a thriving business that will lead to wealth and create more jobs. Although it sounds very distant from the American Dream of the Europeans who first came America, the backbone of this dream is the same. Particularly with the English colonists at Jamestown, their dream was to come to America to acquire wealth from gold mining and exploiting the raw materials that America had to offer. This coincides with the current day dream of becoming a successful entrepreneur. With the puritans who made up the plymouth colonies, their American Dream was to find a place where they could work hard, raise a family, and escape religious persecution so they could worship as they pleased. Even though centuries divide the America of today and Colonial America, the over arching dream and vision has not changed for what people seek to accomplish in this great country. In addition to making this dream for citizens come true, the President there must be more equal distribution of wealth, to strengthen the middle class. This can relate to the Colonies achieving their own American Dream instead of the ones that the King/Queen wanted.

Another issue that came up was the equality for women’s wages in the workforce.  The President stated that it is embarrassing that women today average only 77 cents to every dollar a man makes. One of my classmates wrote in “English Colonization in the New World”, that in the English colonies, women were seen as more equal to men. This may be true, but the President highlighted that full economic equality has still not been reached and that is unacceptable.

Although the President made it very clear that 2014 will be a year of political action, The state of the Union Address made it very evident that the past America has shaped the current.

“Barbarians”: a Justification for Oppression

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In Chapter 8: “Puritans and Indians, 1600-1700” of American Colonies, Alan Taylor addresses a series of violent conflicts that occurred between the New England Indians and the Puritans shortly after Puritans founded the Plymouth settlement. While Taylor focuses on an overview of the wars until the Indians’ defeat following King Phillip’s War in 1676, he also outlines Puritans’ justification for aggressive action against the Indians, which often included massacres of Indian women and children. Puritans, who perceived themselves as “God’s Chosen People,” considered Indians to be “savage people, who are cruel, barbarous, and treacherous.” Throughout Taylor’s text, as well as in many other academic histories I have read, white western Europeans frequently describe Indians and other non-Aryan races as “barbarous” in comparison to their own “civilized” society.

Coincidentally, just before reading Chapter 8 of Taylor, I read Walter D. Mignolo’s The Idea of Latin America for my Spanish seminar, “Latin American Culture and Literature Before 1900.” The central argument of Chapter 1: “The Americas, Christian Expansion, and Racism,” affirms that European colonizers justified their dominance over South and North American Indians by categorizing them into varying degrees of “barbarous”, thus affirming Europeans’ superiority over them. Bartolome de Las Casas, a Spanish friar who participated in the colonization of the Americas, outlined the racial inferiority spectrum, dividing “barbarians” into four distinct categories. The first form of barbarians exhibited irrationality and “a degenerate sense of justice reason, manners, and/or human generosity.” The second categorization deemed barbarians to be a group of people who lacked a written alphabet and language system mirroring Spanish’s appropriation of the Latin language. Third, barbarians did not have a formal system of law and justice as defined by the nation-state. Finally, groups of people who rejected the Christian faith were Pagans, and consequently, barbarians.

While the Puritans did not specifically utilize Las Casa’s system for barbarianism as justification for their violent oppression of the Indians, it is a useful template to understand the complex system of racialization that cemented Puritans’ sense of superiority. In her blog post, “Violent Puritans and the Not-So English Middle Colonies,” Rebecca articulates Puritans’ religious rationalization for the massacre of Indians, who “claim they are permitted to exploit others because they are in God’s favor.” Rebecca does an excellent job of explaining this vicious cycle; Puritans’ successful massacre of Indians served as Divine validation for their superiority, thus perpetuating Puritans’ belief that they were “God’s Chosen People” and Indians were Pagan barbarians. Following Las Casas classification of barbarians, Puritans primarily grouped the New England Indians under the fourth category—Pagan barbarians who rejected Christianity. Puritans, whose entire society centered around conservative Protestantism, judged Indians with respect to their religious beliefs. It is significant to recognize that other colonizers, like Spanish conquistadores, may have placed a larger emphasis on different types of barbarism in affirming their superiority over Indians. For instance, South and Central American Indians’ lack of a conventional language and alphabet system highlighted their alleged barbarity in terms civility and intellectual capabilities.

Most importantly, I believe one must recognize that Europeans did not cognitively articulate the grounds for Natives’ inferiority that justified the oppression and annihilation of Indian population. Rather, during the period of colonization, the complex system of racialization that still polarizes modern society was already cemented in the collective mindset of Europeans. Indians’ barbarity need not be articulated, it just was. In the study of American history, we must consciously acknowledge the racialization that shaped society and not ignore it as relic of antiquity, or risk being complicit in the institutionalization of racism.

Knowlton, Rebecca. “Violent Puritans and the Not-So English Middle Colonies.”

Mignolo, Walter D. The Idea of Latin America. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.