Jim Loewen

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

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  • Wabash Cannonball

    by James W Loewen

    "Wabash Cannonball" is a light-hearted yet serious country-music song. It celebrates a train that went past my house at the southern edge of Decatur, Illinois, throughout my childhood. Maybe for that reason, my father bought Roy Acuff’s recording of it shortly after Columbia’s invention of the “LP” (long-playing record). I’ve heard this song since about 1950. I sang it myself – in public – in 2009. Now, I cannot get it out of my head.

    Remembering Mark Twain’s famous short story "Punch, Brothers, Punch!", about the man who could not get a catchy jingle out of his head until he infected another person with it, in desperation, I turn to you. In the process of my passing the "Wabash Cannonball" on to you, we might enjoy a little railroad history together, perhaps a sort of baseball story, and even a bit of economic history from the 1890s.

    Like several other railroads, the Wabash connected Chicago to St. Louis. It also went to Detroit and Kansas City. Perhaps its #2 claim to fame (after the song) was that its freight trains went fast, often averaging 55 and even 60 MPH. On many other railroads, then and now, freight trains trundle(d) along at 40 or even 20 MPH.

  • The Nature (or is it Nurture) of Color

    by James W Loewen

    Years ago, when I was teaching sociology at the University of Vermont, a colleague introduced me to a classroom exercise that he found useful for showing students gender differences.

  • New Opposition to Old Sports Mascots

    by James W Loewen

    On February 7, 2013, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) hosted a day-long seminar, "Racist Stereotypes in American Sports." The handout they used to promote the show paired two graphic images:  a stereotypical black doll on a base saying "Not. Cool." paired with the stereotypical Cleveland Indian mascot on a base saying "Go Tribe!" It made a stunning impact. So did the symposium, getting considerable attention from the Washington Post, including the entire front page of its free "Express" edition the next morning.

  • At War With Art

    by James W Loewen

    “The Civil War and American Art,” the current exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. After it closes in late April, the show will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for most of the rest of 2013. To complement the show, the Smithsonian has published, in conjunction with Yale University Press, a beautiful companion volume that includes many images not on display in the galleries and several chapters of commentary. The exhibit and book are an occasion not only to showcase some fascinating art, but also to clear up the misconceptions that many Americans still hold about the period. Unfortunately, both squander that opportunity.

  • Mitch Daniels: Friend or Foe to Academic Freedom?

    by James W Loewen

    On January 18, 2013, Michael Gerson, formerly George W. Bush’s speechwriter, wrote an op-ed bemoaning Mitch Daniels’s retirement from politics. He called Daniels “arguably the most ambitious, effective conservative governor in America” and was proud that Daniels had decreased state government by 6,800 jobs, ended mandatory union dues, and privatized a toll road. “Daniels is just the sort of leader most needed in a Republican revival,” Gerson proclaimed. He concluded, in sorrow, “The best Democratic politician in America is about to take his oath as president of the United States. The best Republican politician will soon be president of Purdue.”  From personal experience, here’s another side to Mitch Daniels.

  • "The Other Civil War": Howard Zinn, Abraham Lincoln, Lerone Bennett, Stephen Spielberg, and Me

    by James W Loewen

    Two years ago Michael Signorelli, an editor at Harper/Collins, asked me to write an introduction to a little book that Harper/Collins was spinning off from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. It would include chapters 9, on the Civil War and Reconstruction, and 10, "The Other Civil War," about the class warfare of the late nineteenth century. A marketing ploy to tie in with the sesquicentennial, it would carry "The Other Civil War" as its title. I had just written the introductions to the documents in The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, so I had been thinking about the issues Zinn addresses. Besides, my name alone would convince some bookstore browsers to buy the little volume, Signorelli said.

    No stranger to marketing ploys and always susceptible to flattery, I agreed to write the introduction. I warned Signorelli, however, that I was not a Zinn partisan; my introduction would probably include some negatives as well as positives. The editor assured me that would pose no problem. I set to work.

  • Reviewlets

    by James W Loewen

    Yesterday I went through my enormous "books to read" pile and realized that more than half of them I did not choose. Publishers send copies hoping I will blurb them. Authors send copies hoping I will recommend them when I speak to large conventions of teachers. I keep them because their topics interest me, or should, and I intend to read them tomorrow.

    Of course, tomorrow never comes, at least not to my book pile. Time does march on, however, and soon it's too late to blurb them anyway.

    How do "real" blurbers and reviewers keep up? Well, some cheat. They blurb books they have not read, not even skimmed, only looked at. Or, as we used to say in grad school, discussing a source glibly, "I haven't read it personally, but ...," and we proceeded to invoke or dismiss it, hopefully to good effect. (This is called "socialization into the profession.")

    I cannot bring myself to blurb a book I haven't read, so I hardly ever blurb anything. But my heart is in the right place. I try to read what authors and publishers send me. I just fall behind.

  • Morons in Africa

    by James W Loewen

    In 1994, with Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray brought out The Bell Curve, subtitled "Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life." It sold well and soon came out in paperback with Simon & Schuster. Indeed, the acquisitions editor at S&S who bought The Bell Curve next bought my bestseller, Lies My Teacher Told Me. I know this because she bragged to me about having done so. She wanted me to infer that she was a big-league acquisitions editor, worthy of my book, since she had acquired Murray's book. I had already bought The Bell Curve in hardbound and was teaching a course that considered it at length; her acquisition did not excite me as much as she'd hoped.

    The Bell Curve makes an astonishing claim about the 700,000,000 people in Africa (its approximate population when the book came out -- now nearing 900,000,000). Herrnstein and Murray (hereafter "Murray") cite studies, particularly by Richard Lynn, showing "the median black African IQ to be 75, approximately 1.7 standard deviations below the U.S. overall population average, about 10 points lower than the current figure for American blacks." (Bell Curve, 289)

  • High Speed Amtrak: Part II

    by James W Loewen

    A year ago, I wrote about Amtrak's efforts to achieve high-speed rail, or at least what is now coming to be known as higher-speed rail. Higher-speed rail does not mean trains that go faster than bullet trains in Japan (185-mph), high-speed trains in France (180-mph), or even Acela Express in our Northeast Corridor (150-mph). Higher-speed rail merely refers to trains that go faster than they used to. This is an update.

    On October 19, 2012, according to a release by the National Association of Rail Passengers (NARP), "federal, state, and local leaders gathered ... in Illinois to celebrate the start of 110-mph rail service along the Chicago to St. Louis rail corridor."

    A train averaging 110-mph over the 274 miles from Chicago to St. Louis would take 2½ hours. Flying takes just an hour, but that does not include the hour travelers must add for screening and flight check-in. As well, Amtrak travels city center to city center. For the business traveler or the tourist, Chicago offers much more within a few blocks of Union Station than Elk Grove Village does within a few blocks of O'Hare. So the higher-speed rail trip might generate considerable ridership. At present, "Lincoln Service" trundles along at 51 miles per hour, requiring 5 hours and 25 minutes for the journey.

  • Registering to Vote, Then and Now

    by James W Loewen

    During the summer of 1965, while a graduate student, I ran the "Social Science Lab" at Tougaloo College in Madison County near Jackson, Mississippi. "Ze Lab" was the creation of Dr. Ernst Borinski, a refugee from Hitler's Germany who taught at Tougaloo from 1947 until his death in 1983. Borinski was a remarkable man -- an inspirational professor who used his status as outsider to cross boundaries between white and black Mississippi on behalf of social change. He is one of the main subjects of the book, movie, and now museum exhibit, From Swastika to Jim Crow.

  • Dinesh D'Souza: Knave or Fool?

    by James W Loewen

    Recently right-wing commentator Dinesh d'Souza released 2016: Obama's America, a movie trashing President Obama.

  • Project Censored At Home And Abroad

    by James W Loewen

    Recently I received an email from Peter Phillips, the president of the Media Freedom Foundation, also known as Project Censored. With Mickey Huff, Director of Project Censored, he co-edited Censored 2012, their annual account of news stories that received little or no coverage in the previous year. Phillips titled his email "Cuba Sets a Global Example for the Achievements of Socialism." His article with the same title is the current lead item at the Project Censored website.

    It's a curious antique, redolent of leftist writing in the U.S. 40 years ago, and is perhaps instructive as well. The title is a fine example of that style of "news" writing found even further back in Pravda and Izvestia, known as "socialist realism." 

    My first reaction was: "a global example of socialism?" Isn't that a euphemism? Isn't Cuba an example of Marx's dictatorship of the proletariat, a one-party state, a.k.a. communism? Certainly it's not an example of democratic socialism like, say, Sweden. Indeed, isn't Cuba just about the only remaining example of Marxist socialism, other than perhaps North Korea? 

  • We Have Had a Gay President, Just Not Nixon

    by James W Loewen

    In his recent article in the Washington Post "Was Nixon Gay?" journalism professor Mark Feldstein puts down the claim recently made by Don Fulsom in his book Nixon's Darkest Secrets. Almost no evidence supports it, he (rightly) points out.  He calls the book a "pathography," using a term invented by Joyce Carol Oates for biographies that emphasize the pathological. 

    But then he goes on to decry similar claims about Abraham Lincoln, James Buchanan, and J. Edgar Hoover as similarly baseless.

    Just as we should not rush to believe all the rumors about the sexual orientations of important past Americans, neither should we rush to deny them. Feldstein implies that history on this issue is just about impossible: "[T]here is almost no way to prove—or disprove—alleged intimacies from so long ago." But there is. It is called evidence.

  • Meaning in 'Pure' Music: Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony

    by James W Loewen

    Within sociology is an exciting field, the "sociology of knowledge." Its name is unfortunate, because it not only studies knowledge, but also error, as well as things like law, religion, and art that cannot easily be categorized "true" or "false." The sociology of knowledge, especially the subfield the “sociology of sociology,” is somewhat similar to historiography in history and epistemology in philosophy. In the words of Karl Mannheim, a pioneer, "The principle thesis of the sociology of knowledge is that there are modes of thought that cannot be adequately understood as long as their social origins are obscured." Historians might say, we must locate a speaker within his/her own time and situation to understand him or her fully. This notion can provide useful insights to students of law, science, religion, art, and other areas of human thinking. 

  • Can American Trains Achieve Steam Speeds in the Modern Era?

    by James W Loewen

    I began writing this piece aboard Amtrak's Acela, the fastest train in North America.  It travels from Washington to Boston in 6 hours and 32 minutes.  Eventually, we read, despite Republicans, we may have truly high-speed rail, linking those cities and also perhaps speeding through corridors in California, Florida, and the Midwest. 

    Pardon me, but haven't we been around this track before?

  • Penn State and Violence Against Men

    by James W Loewen

    The Penn State scandal brought forth a thoughtful commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn, Charles Ranlett Flint Professor of Humanities at Bard College.  Mendelsohn begins his recent New York Times op-ed, “What if it had been a 10-year-old girl in the Penn State locker room that Friday night in 2002?”

    He concludes that then Mike McQueary, the graduate assistant to the football team, would surely have intervened or at least called the police.  "But the victim in this case was a boy," Mendelsohn notes.  He goes on to speculate that the university, too, would have taken the crime more seriously, had the victim been female.

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