Do I look “illegal”?

Here’s a great American, fretting about immigrants:

Few of their children in the country learn English; they import many books from [their nation of origin] …. The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only [the other]. They begin of late to make all their bonds and other legal writings in their own language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our courts, where the [non-English] business so increases that there is continual need of interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our legislators what the other half say.

If I didn’t tip my hand with the use of the word “great,” it may surprise you to learn that the American doing that fretting is not a current member of the Republican Party, but Benjamin Franklin; and the immigrants occasioning that fretting are not Latinos but Germans. The above passage is a quote from one of Franklin’s letters, dated 9 May 1753, which I found in H.W. Brands’ excellent biography The First American.

These were my people Franklin was fretting about. Most of the time it’s easy to forget that I have an ethnicity, much less one that was once at odds with an English-speaking colonial culture. That’s my privilege as a white man in the twenty-first century U.S. Many folks don’t enjoy such a privilege—particularly not in Arizona, where a widely-discussed law will soon allow police to ask for proof of legal residence based on only a “reasonable suspicion” that someone is in the country illegally. It’s an invitation to racial profiling, aimed squarely at people of the current fret-worthy ethnicity, Hispanics.

Fortunately, the American Civil Liberties Union (among other organizations, including the federal government) will contest the law. In another 250 years, maybe this law will seem as quaint as Benjamin Franklin complaining about street signs in German—but before then, I’m sure the ACLU would appreciate your support.

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“The Origin,” 150 years old today

Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking work, The Origin of Species, was published 24 November, 1859, 150 years ago today. This makes a rather neat bookend to the Darwin Bicentenary, the year of events commemorating the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth on 12 February, 1809. I’m going to be lazy and simply link to everything I wrote back concerning that earlier anniversary.

Oh, and serendipitously, today is also the anniversary of the discovery of Lucy in 1974. I saw her in person (behind glass) on a trip to Seattle during last year’s fall break, which was pretty cool.


Photo by CharlesFred.
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The birth of “scientific” management

Read this last weekend, but didn’t get a chance to comment: online at The New Yorker, Jill Lepore reviews Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong. Lepore digs into the origins of “scientific” management approaches that emerged in the early 20th century, aiming to wring the maximum productivity out of every worker. The field was essentially created out of whole cloth by one Frederick Winslow Taylor, who made up data, trafficked in racist stereotypes, treated industrial workers like livestock to be trained, and charged companies ridiculous fees for the service:

How did Taylor arrive at forty-seven and a half tons [as the amount of iron one man could load in a day] for Bethlehem Steel? He chose twelve “large, powerful Hungarians,” observed them for an hour, and calculated that, at the rate they were working, they were loading twenty-four tons of pig iron per man per day. Then he handpicked ten men and dared them to load sixteen and a half tons as fast as they could. They managed to do it in fourteen minutes; this yields a rate of seventy-one tons per man per ten-hour day. Taylor inexplicably rounded up the number to seventy-five. To get to forty-seven and a half, he reduced seventy-five by about forty per cent, claiming that this represented a work-to-rest ratio of the “law of heavy laboring.” Workers who protested the new standards were fired.


Cheaper by the Dozen first-edition cover. Image from Wikipedia.

The saner practitioners of scientific management turn out to be none other than Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, whose efficiency-oriented family life is chronicled in Cheaper by the Dozen, a book I loved in about sixth grade. What doesn’t come through in the book is that Lillian was a substantial contributor to Frank’s thinking and writing about worker efficiency, and may have ghostwritten one or more of his books. This moment, I think, sounds like the Frank and Lillian Gilbreth I know from the CBTD:

Onstage, Frank was challenged by Emma Goldman. He was pointing to a chart illustrating the hierarchical relationship between the foreman and the worker. “There is nothing in scientific management for the workman,” Goldman shouted. “The only scheme is to have the workman support the loafers on top of him.” Lillian leaned over and whispered something to Frank, who cheerfully turned the chart upside down.

“Management,” as a separate academic discipline has always struck me as basically bunk. But the Gilbreths, at least, seem to have had legitimately good intentions.

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The other big 200th today

I’d be deeply remiss if I neglected to mention that today is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

Sarah Vowell, Lincoln’s leading hipster advocate, says it best in The Partly Cloudy Patriot:

How many of us drew his beard in crayon? We built models of his boyhood cabin with Elmer’s glue and toothpicks. We memorized the Gettysburg Address, reciting its ten sentences in stovepipe hats stapled out of black construction paper. The teachers taught us to like Washington and to respect Jefferson. But Lincoln – him they taught us to love.

I suggest, as a sample of his speeches, the second inaugural, which concludes appropriately for our turbulent present:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

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A limerick for Darwin’s 200th

Thursday is, of course, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. To kick off a week of commemorations, symposia, and nerdy parties, I humbly submit a limerick:

The vicar, one Quite Reverend Darwin
Considered, whilst penning each sermon,
How he might have advanced,
Had he taken that chance
To go with the Beagle a-voyagin’.

(It is widely considered that Darwin, had he not taken an interest in natural history, would’ve ended up as a clergyman; see David Quamman’s excellent pocket biography, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.)

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Inauguration Day


Photo by Jeremy Yoder.

In one of those quirks of political geography, the Idaho panhandle is apart from the rest of the state in the Pacific time zone. So Barack Obama will become President of the United States at about 0830 local time, and I am listening to the Inauguration on NPR as part of only slightly extended morning laziness with a cup of coffee and Ovaltine. Through one of those quirks of weather, my part of Idaho is under what’s called a thermal inversion – a layer of warm air somewhere above us is preventing the air at ground level from moving. At this time of year, that means there’s no wind to blow away the freezing fog, which every night coats trees’ leafless twigs in a filigree of frost. In Washington, though, a new wind is blowing, and today, at least, there’s a smell of spring in the air.


Photo by Barack Obama.
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Founding faith

Jon Rowe profiles U.S. founding father Benjamin Rush, who, though generally cited as an orthodox Christian, showed ample evidence of freethinking. Rush wrote, for instance, that he “never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men,” and seems to have been far more interested in the spirit of the Gospel than proof-texting justifications, opposing both slavery and capital punishment. My holiday reading prominently featured H.W. Brand’s excellent biography of Benjamin Franklin – maybe Rush would make a good followup.

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