What Would Thoreau Do?


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I agree with Price when he wrote that Koppe’s review is lacking. “His indictment of boosterism and expansionary economics fails to connect policy with environmental consequences.” However, it’s also important to remember the state of the environmental movement at the time of the Dust Bowl. At this point in time we have national parks, the writings of Thoreau’s, and the beginnings of the Sierra Club – but not much policy. And so I again agree with Price when he wrote, “Over irrigation of water sources and overuse of soils certainly can have dangerous environmental impacts, but Koppes fails to identify any policy of wrongdoing.” Koppes casts the farmers in a negative light – though legally they had not done anything “wrong”.

Koppes writes, “Conservation as a cultural reform had come to be accepted only where and insofar as it had helped the plains culture reach its traditional expansionary aims.” So in that sense, although the foundations of environmentalism have been set, environmentalism is only valued to the point that it meets short-term economic efficiency and growth. Farmers were still thinking in the short term. Exploit the land now for a quick profit with heavy machinery, fossil fuels, and chemicals- but at a point at which you fail to incorporate ecological economics and place value on ecosystem services, you’ve got a lot of long-term consequences. But according to Koppes, “for the individual farmer, devoted to profit maximization in the present, the system is not irrational.” Koppes attempts to tie the Dust Bowl Tragedy to economic systems; capitalism, labor exploits, industry. But does not adequately address policy or culture.

But while I think that Koppe’s argument is somewhat lacking, I think his message is clear: there will likely be consequences when we exploit the land. He writes that the Dust Bowl is where “social forces and natural conditions converge”. And I believe this review serves as an important reminder that our actions can have potentially devastating consequences. Fortunately, our environmental policy has developed tremendously since the Dust Bowl, but we still have ways to go. And our culture as a driving force for conservation could still use some work too.

Dust Bowl: Issues of the Gilded Age…Still Today?


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During the Great Depression, a devastating event occurred that included social, economic and natural forces to create a catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl.  In Clayton Koppes’ evaluation of the two novels by Paul Bonnifield and Donald Worster and their discussion of the Dust Bowl during the 1930s, his bias is clear when he assesses the novels as a play on the trend of the Gilded Age’s capitalism.

Prices’ observation of Dusty Volumes review on the detailed books relating to the Dust Bowl is strong in evaluating how Koppes uses this review as a platform to voice his own argument. Worster described the Dust Bowl as “primarily the work of man, not nature” (536), and Koppes uses this as an underlying theme for his overall argument and to also defend Worster’s three beliefs of capitalist agriculture.

I found it interesting how Koppes includes the notion of the goal for the individual farmer to achieve profit maximization then, and even still today. The reliance on government cleanup has placed confidence in farmers that sustainability of the land will continue as long as technology proceeds to advance. Here is another  parallel from the Gilded Age to today, the ongoing theme of trust in technology. In Paul Bonnifield’s argument (contrasting that of  Worster) he claims, “He stresses that natural forces, not plowing, caused the Dust Bowl, although he concedes the farming practices made it worse. The problems could be solved, however, by technology technique, and (especially) larger farm size” (538). It is apparent here that Koppes’ displeased with Bonnifield’s book when he says that the book has a possibility of provoking debate with Worster’s argument, however fails under the pretense that the presentation is unsophisticated. Even in the video documentary, The Plow That Broke the Plains,  proves the reliance on technology for economic benefits, and how that can ultimately lead to a disaster such as the Dust Bowl.

In the video and through photography, imagery played a large role into how historians were able to perceive the events of the Dust Bowl. With powerful images of farms, families and destruction people all around the nation reacted to the disaster and gave a plea for the government’s assistance. Relating to the plea of government intervention, Worster also brings up the distrust of the government and the policies within the New Deal and its theme of “normalcy”, however, Koppes finds that an expansion on reflected the needs of capitalism in crisis would make his argument even more effective.

Again, I concur with Price’s examination of Koppes’ argument on his views of Plains capitalism. The blunt nature by which Koppes presents his information, by blatantly disagreeing with Bonnifield’s views Koppes goes so far as to call it underdeveloped, even without rightfully proving support for his claim. As I have addressed quite a few topics including capitalism, technology and government intervention…the Dust Bowl is yet another example of the epitome of the Gilded Age disaster.  Koppes’ infers in his support for Worster that these issues are apparent and dangerous still today, are there any examples or possible areas in the US today where this is evident?

 

Make Way For The Plowman


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So an interesting The Plow That Broke the Plains is, a rather boring short documentary film but some interesting takeaways and phrases. Shot in 1936, this film documents what happened in the Great Plains region of the Midwest when new agricultural farming eventually led to the Dust Bowl. It was written and directed by Pare Lorentz with some interesting music selections from Virgil Thomson. I will come back in a little to the music subject but first some commentary on the effectiveness and overall message of the film. Overall, it seems to succeed in delivering the message of the seriousness of the problem caused in the Great Plains by the misuse of land. Using pictures and film of the Plains, the classic documentary explains the over-cultivation and how mixed with the drought brought about the Dust Bowl throughout the Midwest. To understand a little better you can read Price’s blog post on the readings for class. He explains what the film shows through images in which profit maximization, Plains capitalism and Gilded Age failures mixed with the Midwest drought directly led to the Dust Bowl. But, do not think so fast; don’t worry folks- the US government is on the scene to help! Much criticism seems to mention the poetic manner in which Lorentz’s documentary style uniquely captures the essence of the New Deal 30’s.

There were some cool phrases and scenes I thought deserved just to be thrown out there as sort of funny and interesting: “Pioneer came to the Plains,” “Make way for the plowman,” The great day was coming… day of profits,” and the scene where there is a back and forth comparison between the US battle tanks in combat and the new plow machines rolling over the lands of the Midwest.

However, in my opinion the most influential subject to mention was the music. In my mind, the music was rather amusing and clichéd. Supposedly, a famous film score, Virgil Thomson seems to constantly have upbeat, popular cliché songs playing in the background with scenes of the problems depleting the Great Plains are playing in the background. I’m assuming that at that time getting a sound crew to travel all across the plains to shoot people talking and sounds of the lands was rather expensive or impossible so Thomson made the score himself. It is pretty funny to listen to the numerous folk songs and religious sounds playing to the pictures of dry lands.

Dusty Volumes, Hazy Politics: The Ambiguous Intersection of Nature, Economics, and Disaster


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Back in February, we analyzed how Frederick J. Turner and William Cronon viewed the expansion of the American West as an effort of manifest capitalism, as well as destiny. As Emily noted, they presented the idea that the development of nature was inexorably a consequence of commerce and economics. To Clayton Koppes, the Dust Bowl provides no exception. In Dusty Volumes, his review of works by Donald Worster and Paul Bonnifield, Koppes strongly identifies with the argument that the Dust Bowl was an ecological consequence to an economic trend: Gilded Age speculation and profit maximization. While dismissing Bonnifield’s defense of agrarian capitalism as “xenophobic boosterism”, Koppes praises Worster’s indictment of the capitalist agricultural mindset as explaining the environmental origins of the Dust Bowl. (539)

Dusty Volumes is a short review of two detailed books concerning the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, as well as the possible economic causes of the great drought. Therefore, one would be very rushed to use it as a substantial source of disaster analysis. Nonetheless, Koppes seems to use the book review as a platform to voice his own conclusion on the subject. He strongly defends Worster’s “three maxims” of agricultural capitalism, which argue that the pursuit of profits and prosperity led inevitably to acceptance of environmental consequences in the West. (536) Worster and Koppes agree that the New Deal programs of subsidies and conservation provided some relief to troubled farmers, but little or no reform to the destructive capitalist system that incentivized the endless cultivation of farmland. Koppes also utilized the opportunity to bash the ideologically opposite position to Worster presented by Paul Bonnifield. Unlike Worster, Bonnifield argues that farmers’ limited access to technology and economies of scale led to unsustainable farming techniques and the onset of the Dust Bowl by the 1930s. Of course, Koppes dismisses the idea of ‘bigger capitalism’ as the proposal for more tenable farming practices.

While Koppes’ review succinctly outlines his views on Plains capitalism, his evidential base is sorely lacking. His indictment of boosterism and expansionary economics fails to connect policy with environmental consequences. Overirrigation of water sources and overuse of soil (as my research also investigates) certainly can have dangerous environmental impacts, but Koppes fails to identify any specific policy of wrongdoing. Was it the fault of the Reclamation Bureau or the Department of the Interior? Or was it the Gilded Age industrialists who manipulated agricultural prices with their control of the railroads? Koppes fails to go beyond blaming the farmers themselves for the overproduction of crops and misuse of the farmland. After all, the farmers themselves did not choose to be capitalists- they had to respond to market forces in order to survive on the Plains. As a result, Koppes’ assignment of blame to farmers and their practices for the Dust Bowl disaster is an unjustifiable, if not dangerous, conclusion to make.

Leavitt’s motives and Wertheimer’s Legal History Presentation


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I love how Leavitt approaches her argument. She lays out her goals before the reader very clearly, and although I have not read the entire book, from what I have read, I think she does what she planned to do well.

Leavitt explains well in the last chapter how many other Typhoid carriers took the same course of action that she did in dealing with her disease. I want to caution alroberts in making sure that, although Mary’s situation and course of action made her a prime scapegoat for a major epidemic, many other people were just as culpable as she was, and many of these people comprised the lower class. It was not her class status or her situation that made her unique; it was how the public reacted to her that made her unique.

In the last chapter, Leavitt explains many different theatrical and artistic interpretations of Mary Mallon’s story, and many of these  interpretations had very different sentiments toward Mary. Some made her the victim, while others made her the villain and everywhere in between. This approach executes Leavitt’s plan to present many different perspectives of the story well.

In the last line of the book before the conclusion, Leavitt says, “Danger lurks in the most unsuspecting places, and we are now a society on guard against it Is there any way out? What should we do next?” (230). When I first read this line, I thought, ‘why in the world would Leavitt relate this story to danger?’. Then, I realized that this line is a great way to sum up how we deal with natural disasters (one could argue whether or not sickness outbreak is a disaster), and I became much more satisfied with the line in a broader context.

Also, I just wanted to say that Dr. Wertheimer’s class (and CT) has done excellent, extensive research on how juries were composed in South Carolina in the Jim Crow era. If you didn’t get to go to the presentation, you should ask CT how jury selection exercised white supremacy within the south during the era, and how it is still a (not quite as prevalent) problem today.

Disease: a Multifaceted Disaster


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The first chapter in Typhoid Mary highlights mankind’s tendency to find a scapegoat for society’s problems. It also points out the lower class’s vulnerability to man’s hunt for someone to blame. Leavitt notes that many stereotyped the lower classes as “dirtier than their employers” as an explanation for the higher rates of typhoid in the working class (Leavitt 18). This kind of stereotype made lower classes more vulnerable to social isolation.

 

Leavitt suggests that “as a society, we have become masters of stigmatizing the sick and the contagious; we label them as separate from the mainstream” (3). Society tends to dehumanize people with diseases such as AIDs, making them vulnerable to isolation. This narrative fits into Leavitt’s broader argument that disease is a disaster in a multitude of ways. She argues “it is imperative that we learn to consider the full range of contexts in which disease ravages” (3).

 

This argument ties neatly into her other central arguments of the text, specifically the social consequences of disease control and the inherently subjective nature of historical interpretation.

 

It is difficult to tell from only reading one chapter whether Leavitt is successful with her argument. However, her sensitivity to the “various ways to tell Mary Mallon’s story” and the “relevan[cy]” of each narrative seems reasonably convincing (5). Moreover, her argument in chapter one about society’s growing “scientific optimism” seems consistent with her goal to isolate each type of narrative.  Jeremiah rightly points out that Leavitt’s argument and the case of Mary Mallon have a broader impact than one woman’s fate. The vulnerability of the lower classes and society’s tendency to label and ostracize diseased individual’s  are two such impacts that society needs to keep in mind.

A Blessing in Disguise?


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I’d like to start by acknowledging AJ’s post about the tension between protecting public health while still preserving individual liberties. I think that many of the questions he raises are very useful to analyzing this book and I think that the Chapter I read, “Banished Like a Leper” adds something interesting to the discussion. What if the banishment Mary went through provided her with a better quality of life than when she had her freedom? Does this make it more ethical? What if even though she had a better quality of life on North Brother Island, Mary still wanted her freedom, if only to try and clear her name? Does this change anything.

Leavitt starts Chapter 6 by describing the awful conditions that domestic workers faced in  Early 20th century Manhattan. Leavitt writes, “A typical day begins at 6:00 AM  and did not end until the after dinner cleaning, well into the evening hours. Usually the women were on their feet the entire day.” (Leavitt 164) Mary also often lived with her employers in cramped, dirty, spaces, and when she did not she was living with her only friend, a man named Briehof. While on the island, Mary lived in an approximately 400 square foot cabin. Her time was her own and she started a small cottage business as well as being a biological research assistant. As time went on she was even allowed to leave the island to go shopping and visit friends. She also made multiple close lifelong friends on the island. By many metrics, her quality of life was significantly better in captivity than when she was free.

This brings me back to my initial questions, does it make it ethical to hold someone forcibly if you are “improving their quality of life.” For me personally I would rather live “imprisoned” on the island than as a virtual slave with no life or personal time in Manhattan. But, can this personal opinion be policy? Mary continued to insist on her innocence and their is evidence that she wanted to be freed from the island for her whole life, even though she knew it wouldn’t happen and so gave up fighting. Is “freedom” really more important than a comfortable life with personal choice? I really don’t know.

Contemporary Renderings of Typhoid Mary


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After reading the prologue and introduction of Typhoid Mary, I chose to read to Chapter 7,” Misbegotten Mary.” My rationale for choosing this chapter stems from my interest in the contemporary interpretations and cultural persistence of the Titanic in Down with the Old Canoe. This section was my favorite in Down with the Old Canoe and I was interested in how “Typhoid Mary” evolved in meaning and how it had appeared in popular culture since the early 1900’s. Like the Titanic, “Typhoid Mary” still maintains a metaphorical and epithetical role in our modern vernacular. This is what makes this section a useful read for me.

Leavitt begins this chapter by outlining two, distinct periods of “Typhoid Mary” usage: the first is before the advent of HIV/AIDS and the second is after HIV/AIDS. The depictions of Mary Mallon immediately after death revolve around whether or not she was cognizant of her actions. There is a prevailing notion at the time that Mary Mallon is an “innocent killer” or did not understand the carrier state. Portraying Mary as an unknowing killer helped further the belief in the strength of modern science. These scientists used Mary’s ignorance and their successful diagnosis and isolation of Mary to boost their belief in the power of the emerging field of modern science.

The period from the 1980’s to the present sought to infuse Mary’s story with sadness, connect with new diseases, and comprehend Mary’s actions and position (214).  This increase in sensitivity painted Mary as an “unknowing mass murderer ” (218) and begged the question of whether or not Mary should be forgiven. Additionally, the emergence and spread of HIV/AIDS made “Typhoid Mary” a relevant figure again. A central theme from artistic renderings of Mary from this period is the exploration of how the past shapes the present and how the present shapes the past. Our understanding of the past and present shapes our interpretations of events, and the AIDS/Typhoid Mary subject provides an interesting forum for discussing how these two interpretations intersect.

I think the issue of public health vs. civil liberties that AJ brings up is particularly compelling. I think the question that he raises about how much of an importance we place on public health will be a stimulating discussion topic in class tomorrow. Overall, this subject provides a fascinating debate topic. I would like to add my belief that this issue (civil liberties vs. public health) fits into a much larger debate taking place in America right about how much privacy/liberty we are willing to give up in the name of security/public health. I think the discussion of Mary Mallon applies itself to this larger debate.

What is a “good” quarantine?


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I chose to read “Extraordinary and Even Arbitrary Powers” because I was looking to compare and contrast the dialogue of quarantine and public health policies with my own research. I have been looking into federal and state responses to the Yellow Fever Outbreak in the Mississippi River Valley of 1878 and found striking parallels as well as contrasts between the two.

At Mary Mallon’s time, state and national health boards were still in their early formation stages (more so in the South than the North). But a lot still remained unclear about jurisdiction, funding, and research roles of the boards. It was a time of anxiety in the public health world and policy makers, businessmen, and health officials alike were still sorting out their place in the field. New York’s board, however, as Leavitt writes, had been frontrunner in forming policies since it gained legitimate authority in 1866. She writes, “The local board soon became the nation’s leader in terms of defining municipal programs to promote health and prevent disease, and its accomplishments were adopted as models across the country” (40).

And yet, one of the most established boards in the country couldn’t quite figure out what to do with little Mary Mallon. After the yellow fever outbreak in Memphis, state and federal officials blamed the poor sanitation conditions for the epidemic. However, New York was doing fairly well in that regards. They needed to find another way to take action, so they put Mary Mallon in quarantine?  “Why was quarantine the first response of the New York officials instead of last resort?” (47)

John wrote that “Mary Mallon’s capture and subsequent isolation can be viewed as a manifestation of the belief that it was possible for humankind to conquer disease” and I agree with that to a certain extent. However, there was also just a sense that people did not know what to do with her. And this raises a whole host of ethical questions that Leavitt discusses in this chapter, “Was it necessary to restrain even one person’s individual liberty in order to achieve health?” (69) And yet, there are records that officials believed that their capturing of Mallon was reasonable. And while I agree with Molly when she wrote, “The real disaster, was not the outbreak of typhoid, but Mary’s treatment and the public’s reaction to it”, there was no protocol for dealing with cases like silent-carriers. What is our value criteria for dealing with such sensitive subjects like quarantine? Public officials didn’t really have a good rubric back then – and even today we are still having similar discussions about the spread of HIV and tuberculosis.  What is “good” quarantine?

Does Liberty Have A Boundary?


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So, in the introduction of Judith Walzer Leavitt’s work on Mary Mallon and the public’s perception of her legacy and the impact her story continues to have on public health, she explores the meanings of Mary Mallon’s experiences early in the twentieth century and examines how American society, as a nation and as individuals, has approached taking away the liberty of someone who is sick or a carrier of sickness in the name of protecting the public’s health. (Typhoid Mary, 3) By examining the life of Mary Mallon, the situation she was put in, how officials handled it and the resulting influence her case had on the American public, Judith Leavitt ends up poses a very interesting question that I myself haven’t really considered and don’t necessarily have an answer to. She asks how we have weighted the two values of health and liberty when they come into conflict and address what might be at risk in the balancing. (4)

The issue at hand is the value Americans place on individual liberty and the public health of its citizens. We can all understand the extremely high priority Americans put on our individual freedom from our constitution and the laws that reflect it, however, how high is the value we put on public health? We certainly do not agree with most situations that deprive us of our liberty but this issue is immediately confronted in situations that involve public health and safety. Our society demands the government to always protect our liberty but does it come before our public health? Mary Mallon’s situation is a great case study and should start some serious class discussion with this question. Which one is valued more? Can they be interchangeable? Do we sacrifice the liberty of one to save the whole or does that ruin the constitutional system we created? Does the difference in how people value the human life matter? Leavitt opens the door to a whole bunch of debate without answering the question because she doesn’t even know when the line should be crossed or where. The answer is not black and white. This question deems a very blurry grey line which is perfect for our class discussion. Is the health of our citizens overshadowing the beliefs we built our country on? John Marsh in his blog post also brings up a good point to consider, he wrote, “It informs an understanding of Gilded Age culture’s conduciveness to disaster. More specifically, the isolation of Mary Mallon, if considered a disaster, demonstrates the pitfalls of the Gilded Age belief in the infallibility of science, or scientific method, to solve any problem.” This must all be put in the discussion. Does our unwavering belief in science effect how we decipher the value of human life?