the past in pop culture

Category: History

Some Say in Ice

Endurance final sinking in Antarctica

Endurance final sinking in Antarctica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fairy tales are timeless, aren’t they? If Disney’s box office busting Frozen seems timely in view of the polar vortex then surely that’s just coincidence. Of course, fairy tales are also cautionary or at least they used to be. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen that inspired Frozen had a queen who meant to kill and the original stories that the Brothers Grimm gathered frequently included mutilation, sex out of wedlock, and murder most foul.

In Frozen, Olaf the snowman sings of summer without realizing that melting means an existential crisis. It’s the joke of the movie and also its hint of menace. What happens to said snowman? Let’s just say here that according to the ever reliable Urban Dictionary “Disneyfication” means “to remove the sharp edges and darkness that is life.”

Not that happy endings never happen. Just yesterday the Russian ship the Akademik Shokalskiy that had spent the holidays mired in Antarctic pack ice and the Chinese icebreaker that tried to go to its rescue made it out to open water. Things didn’t always go so well on polar expeditions. In 1915, when Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance got stuck and then crushed by Antarctic pack ice, he and five of his men trekked 800 miles to get help rescuing the rest of the stranded crew. Before setting off, Shackleton reached in his pocket and threw a handful of gold coins in the snow. They would be of no use.

Now, by contrast, cost is at issue in the rescue of the Akademik Shokalskiy since no fewer than three ships needed to come to its aid and thus couldn’t do their actual work of supporting polar research. Still, for fans of Disneyfication, climate change deniers have made merry with the thought that the scientists aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy found more rather than less ice on their expedition. Perhaps they should read the message in a bottle left by an American geologist in 1954 in the Canadian arctic. Recently rediscovered, it served its intended purpose as a measurement for the near disappearance of a glacier that has dwindled by over a hundred meters.

Robert Frost debated whether the earth ought to end in fire or ice. The journalists based in Australia covering the Antarctic rescue contretemps can get a first row seat at that debate. The island continent faces a devastating heat wave even as the polar vortex crushes the northern climes with punishingly low temperatures. Will Heat Miser and Snow Miser become the new Ali versus Frazier? To paraphrase the ever quotable Mohammed Ali, that showdown will be a killer and a thriller and a chiller. Let’s hope Olaf stays home.

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Into the Ordinary

English: Portrait of Charlie Chaplin

English: Portrait of Charlie Chaplin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty is a man who goes to work and pays the bills—until he gets fired when Life Magazine goes digital. Life, it turns out, was so twentieth century. As Mitty and his colleagues act out the downsizing drama, he is finally pushed to make real the adventure dramas of his daydreams. Why? To get the girl, to get a life, and to get the job done. Mitty completes his final assignment at the magazine even if his new bosses belittle him and can him anyways.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an everyman story with a populist flair. It harks back to Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, to Jimmy Stuart and Henry Fonda who revealed common decency and everyday principles to be heroic attributes. Except, of course, that in the 2013 version Mitty actually becomes precisely the kind of movie hero “the rest of us can only dream of becoming.”

Going to work day after day rarely looks like heroism. Running off to climb Mount Everest is something Americans totally understand. Office drones never find their true selves; the oxygen deprived on the other hand always have a good story to tell at the dinner party. Never mind those cautionary tales Jon Krakauer is so good at writing. You know, the one about how climbing Everest is mostly a matter of paying a guide and some sherpas to risk their lives for you. Or that other one about the over confident young man who had read one too many books about the wilderness and ended up starving to death in the Alaskan woods.

Funny that it’s been a century now since Charlie Chaplin made his movie debut in December, 1913. Once the biggest star in the world, Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp persona was the ultimate little guy. In hard times he often couldn’t hold down a job but made comic magic out of being reduced to eating shoe leather. His repetitive stress injury—a mental breakdown—from working on an ever faster moving assembly line led to the best critique of modern times the screen has ever seen.

Stiller seems to throw a nod to Chaplin with a short scene in which his Mitty performs a series of neat tricks on a skateboard that his love interest just misses seeing every time. It’s the kind of small gesture that the Tramp won you over with—the bittersweet display of how an ordinary man might be special, but is rarely recognized. We like our underdogs successful, our Davids always taking down Goliaths. So here’s a New Year’s toast to the shepherds who do nothing more than mind their sheep, even if they daydream of heroism while doing it.

Ships of State

Climbing Ship Breaker

Climbing Ship Breaker (Photo credit: AdamCohn)

Plato once likened leading a nation to commanding a ship. In the new Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips, the ship he helms as the title character is a cargo freighter. As an actor, Hanks took up where Jimmy Stewart left off in the role of most decent man in America years ago. Recently he polled ahead of the President as the most trusted. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that in his turn as Phillips, Hanks manages to sound more like John F. Kennedy than the real Captain Phillips who, though born and bred in Boston, has an accent nowhere near as thick as Hanks’ impersonation.

In the Hollywood version of the true story of the Maersk Alabama, Hanks is captaining not just a ship, but a ship of state. The large and prosperous freighter loaded down with consumer goods lumbers through the waterways just off the coast of some of the world’s most impoverished countries. The small skiffs the Somali pirates use to beset the behemoth appear out of the nowhere of a deep blue sea as suddenly as the planes that approached the twin towers out of a clear September sky.

Director Paul Greengrass previously made United 93 based on the events inside the third plane of the 9/11 attacks in which the everyday heroism of its passengers forced the hijacked plane out of the sky. Here Phillips has to be heroic but doesn’t pay with his life. Instead, he finds himself freed from the all-too-human Somalis who literally have nothing to lose by an impersonal force of Navy SEALs in an outcome as inevitable as the American firepower is overwhelming. While grateful, Phillips is too decent not to see that the story is tragic and that the solution solves nothing. In the end, Hanks might not be channeling JFK but rather his predecessor Ike who made his farewell speech into a warning about the rise of the military-industrial complex that is now bigger and badder than ever.

Ships loom large in the popular imagination as microcosms of the social condition. The Costa Concordia that ran afoul of rocks off the Italian coast as its captain allegedly was distracted by his lover, a dancer from Moldova, struck a chord in a country that saw its Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi brought down by a scandal in which he paid for sex with an underage Moroccan dancer. And in a metaphor made to order for Italy where heartbreaking beauty no longer compensates for economic stagnation, the ugly remains of the cruise ship that blight one of world’s loveliest settings now represent an engineering nightmare as salvage companies work to right it so it can be stripped for scrap. Ultimately, the Costa Concordia may well end up off the coast of India or Bangladesh where barefoot ship breakers tear apart beached hulls of scrapped ships by hand, at great risk to themselves and to the ocean which will absorb the toxic residues of the engines and internal linings.

Like the enormous container ships that span as much as four football fields in length, some cruise ships are now so large that critics wonder whether like banks deemed “too big to fail” these liners are “too big to sail.” The high seas, like high finance, require running risks in our age but ships sometimes founder, their captains can’t always be counted on, and the pirates are real.

The Manchurian Email

The Queen of Hearts

The Queen of Hearts (Photo credit: RobHannay)

In these days of the NSA, and its policy of no email left behind, some propose resistance via nonsense. An Ohio man recently designed a program called ScareMail that will add a string of computer-generated sentences containing significant NSA keywords to every email you write. In his view, if every email has something deemed “collectible” in it, then the results will become meaningless.

The sample ScareMail sentences read like nonsense: “Captain Beatty failed on his Al-Shabaab, hacking relentlessly about the fact to phish this far.” They read a lot like the train scene from The Manchurian Candidate. When Marco (Frank Sinatra) meets Rosie (Janet Leigh) on a train from Washington to New York, he’s so paranoid he can barely light a cigarette. The conversation that ensues when she hits on him hardly helps his mental state:

Rosie: Maryland’s a beautiful state.
Marco: This is Delaware.
Rosie: I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.
Marco: I guess so. Columbus is a tremendous football town.

Things don’t improve much from there and, really, no one has ever agreed on whether Rosie’s words were attempts to trigger Marco into a brainwashed state (as the Queen of Hearts did for Raymond Shaw), or if she was just a pretty blonde for Sinatra to hang out with.

Either way, the non sequitur banter is precisely the kind of thing that some now urge all of us to consider when engaging in private conversations by electronic means. A literary scholar suggests we re-learn the language of beggars, thieves, and bandits who long confounded authority by making one word stand in for another. A Brazilian commentator has described her country’s “Mad Cow Protection Plan”—an effort to include nonsense language in addition to directly addressing NSA workers with holiday greetings—after Brazilians learned about data mining there.

A Dutch-Iranian filmmaker decided instead to take the cow, or rather bull, by the horns. He politely called the NSA on a number of occasions to ask for assistance in retrieving some lost emails. This was, needless to say, a reassuring exercise:

NSA: “What you’re speaking of we’re not involved in. You have no reason to be afraid.”

Caller: “I can tell everyone, my girlfriend especially, that I have nothing to worry about?”

NSA: “Have a good day.”

The filmmakers and writers of Eastern Europe used to do a marvelous job of slipping messages past the censors of their countries back in the bad old days of the Iron Curtain. Sometimes they’d deliberately place an obviously objectionable phrase or image next to one that was a sly jab at authority. The garbage got cut; the important part stayed in. It worked like a charm and meant that movies like Closely Watched Trains or Man of Marble made it to the screen.

The odd twist now is that no one seems to be worrying much about what gets said publicly. It’s our private remarks that have us going all retro-Red Scare. But then, this is a story in which one of the key figures–the director of the NSA–publicly stated that he gave “the least untruthful answer possible” in response to questions about privacy concerns. So speak up, speak out, but for safety’s sake, at least consider speaking in tongues.

Workin’ for a Living

The New Deal

The New Deal (Photo credit: Greg Foster Photography)

Labor Day honors work and workers. Maybe that seems like a truism, but it might just be truthy. As more than a few commentators have noticed, recent political rhetoric more often features “America’s small-business fetish” than concern for the conditions of work. The 2012 presidential debaters jousted about the definition of a “small business,” but only to cloak themselves in the mantle of populism. Small business owners are heroic, job creating, risk takers—which leaves one to wonder what the rest of the population is.

Everyone else, and that’s the vast majority, is, in the words of Huey Lewis and the News (and Garth Brooks, in the 2007 version), taking what they’re giving ‘cuz I’m working for a living. This is a pretty perky song, but let’s admit that it’s about realizing that you just can’t get ahead by waiting on a paycheck. It’s surely no coincidence that the 1982 original was pop and the newer cover is country and even in the 80s, the lyrics of Dolly Parton’s country crossover song 9 to 5 hit the theme of worker exploitation a lot harder. Country singers have kept on singing to the blue-collar class in the tradition of Woody Guthrie while recent pop, rock, and rap are a lot more likely to be about money than about work. Case in point: Bon Jovi who had the 1980s rock anthem Livin’ on a Prayer about a diner waitress and her unemployed dock worker boyfriend now leans Nashville.

Country is more likely to be about sincerity in a contemporary pop culture that favors cynicism, irony, and self-reference. T.V. and movies about work and working tend towards sarcasm, not solidarity. Two words here: The Office. Watching workers on screen these days is likely to remind one that work was the price we paid for original sin. We might roll our eyes at the fictional Mark Zuckerberg’s heartlessness in The Social Network but let’s admit the dominant notes of the movie are envy and admiration. I wanna be a billionaire so freaking bad. And etc.

These are the days of the one percent and the rest. Labor Day is a day devoted to the dignity of work. Work in the abstract. Self-employed or working for the man. Work for pay, even if paltry. It’s a Gilded Age holiday, after all.

Foods of our Fathers


Foodie (Photo credit: Sybren A. Stüvel)

Have you ever wondered if the past tasted differently? If so, you’re not alone. Indeed it’s hard not to notice the new love of all things retro in food and food preparation. In fact, there’s an entire borough of New York City so excessively devoted to the painstaking, handmade, and pre-industrial production of comestibles that the artisans there go Portlandia one better and caricature themselves. (Yes, Brooklyn, we’re talking about you. But you already know that. The message was for those who live elsewhere.)

But it’s not just in the heart of hipster heaven. No, canning and pickling, cheese making and beer brewing, coffee bean roasting and meat smoking have infiltrated the daily lives of many Americans who, just a couple of decades ago, probably never imagined that they would someday seriously consider raising chickens in the backyard of their suburban split-level. Then there are the actual foods of our fathers. Well, at least the drinks. Would you like to try George Washington’s whiskey? Come April 4th, Mt. Vernon will start selling whiskey brewed to GW’s own specifications at a distillery re-created along the lines of the original. You can also sample the Ales of the Revolution from Yards Brewing in Philadelphia: they make ales based on original recipes from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. You can almost taste the red coats coming.

We could go highbrow and suggest that this is all very Proustian. There’s nothing like the sense of smell or taste to bring back the past. Really though it’s more Pollan-ian. As in Michael Pollan who suggested in his book In Defense of Food, as one of his three rules for eating, to consume only foods that your great-grandparents would have recognized. In short, this would mean rejecting processed foods in favor of things prepared from natural ingredients. Who could argue with that? One might quibble and point out that Twinkies were first introduced in 1930 when great grandma and grandpa were around but back then, the cream-filled cake was actually made with eggs, flour and milk and stuffed with banana cream, or seasonal strawberries. It had a shelf life of just two days. Which means, of course, that it had nothing whatsoever in common with the Frankenfood presently known as Twinkie.

If only it were so simple. B.R. Meyers in The Atlantic kicked off the backlash a couple of years ago with a piece on how contemporary foodie-ism looks a lot like gluttony. Now there’s a blast from the past: one of the seven deadly sins lurking in the shadows as you hesitate over the pink Himalayan salt or the French fleur de sel. He’s probably right that our great grandparents might well have been appalled at such shenanigans as characterize foodie behavior. Meyers sure stepped on a few toes with that one but the backlash hasn’t backed off. Nor is it just about skewering the pretensions of those who treat every restaurant meal as worthy of the kind of criticism formerly reserved for European art house cinema.

More seriously, the anti-foodie faction has pointed out that not only is it classist to blame the poor for their poor taste in food, it’s delusional to think that returning to the foods of our fathers is a possible solution to the problems of obesity, epidemic diabetes and other nutritional ills of the first world countries. The argument runs, in short, that while it might not be a mortal sin to advocate eating fresh, well-prepared, locally sourced food, it isn’t a scalable approach to changing the diets of the majority of the population who regularly eat processed, mass produced and fast foods and depend on their low prices. This, instead, might require re-engineering the way foods are processed to improve their nutritional profiles and for this to happen, foodies have to stop with the ad hominem attacks on the junk food industries. For their part, the foodie defense claims that any recent improvements to the quality of fast food are a result of “trickle down gastronomics”—a case of the elites leading by example. If Marie Antoinette were around today, we have to imagine that the peasants would be asked to eat whole wheat chocolate zucchini cake. Let’s see how that works out for her.

Free Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela's Prison Cell

Nelson Mandela’s Prison Cell (Photo credit: Mark H)

Twenty one years in captivity / Are you so blind that you cannot see? / Are you so deaf that you cannot hear? / Are you so dumb that you cannot speak? / I’m begging you to free Nelson Mandela.

When The Specials recorded that song back in 1983, Mandela still had seven more years of imprisonment to go. It was a good thing that unlike many political protest songs, it had a beat you could dance to because its cause wasn’t going to be resolved any time soon.

In cosmic terms, all lives are but a blink of an eye. In human terms, Mandela has had a particularly long life. He was born in 1918, the year the Great War ended. He became an activist in the African National Congress during the middle of World War II. His anti-apartheid activism and increasing militancy led to his arrest and trial in South Africa in 1962 on charges of sabotage and conspiracy. At the age of 44, he went to prison. For the next 20 years on Robben Island, and for seven more at two other prisons, Mandela devoted himself to transcending the divisive struggle over apartheid. Ultimately, he imagined and then led the way to a multi-racial government of which he became the first president at age 76 in 1994.

However dramatic the outcomes, the long arc of Mandela’s political activism and organization that brought apartheid to an end took place remarkably slowly. Try to imagine being a reporter assigned the Mandela beat in 1962 when he was allowed just one visitor and one letter every six months. And for twenty years, not a single photograph of Mandela appeared in the press. What a sad Instagram page that would be.

We like to watch events in real time these days and expect constant updates. From the hunt for the Boston bombers to the asylum seeking NSA leaker, the drama of the day requires refreshing the webpage minute by minute. It’s not just us. The New York Times recently reported that one of the things that drove Snowden to flee for Russia was the realization that he would be deprived of a computer if jailed by the Hong Kong authorities. Waiting for new news ain’t easy. At the time of this writing, the where’s Snowden watchers are already beginning to despair as they start another week spent trapped in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. They have likened Snowden’s overly long layover to Tom Hanks’s stateless refugee character in The Terminal and their own fate to Waiting for Godot. Existential crisis? Hardly.

We will know the time of Mandela’s death almost to the minute. Before posting this, that will be the last fact checked. Whenever it comes, it will be the final fact of a long trajectory, notable not for its instantaneity but its profundity.

Back in the USSR

Edward Snowden stencil by Eclair Acuda Banders...

Edward Snowden stencil by Eclair Acuda Bandersnatch (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)

Edward Snowden was just six when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and with it, more than three long decades of a Cold War. But he’s managed to revive the good old fashioned game of Kremlinology. Unnamed sources trade in rumors of lights going off or on the upper floors of embassies, the police cordon off a plane carrying no one special, and politicians split hairs over double speak. Any wonder that ever since Snowden George Orwell’s 1984 is selling like hotcakes on Amazon?

Vast shadowy networks of surveillance, espionage and double crosses—whether or not what Snowden uncovered merits the word Orwellian, his story sure reads like a novel, although maybe John le Carré should get the nod on that one. His most famous character, British spy Alec Leamas, could have told Snowden a thing or two about “the expediency of temporary alliances.” And as The Spy who Came in from the Cold, Leamas might have posed the rhetorical question, “What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs?”

As much as Cold War nostalgia lurks in the shadows of the Snowden story, back in the day no one took comfort in what now look like the ideological certainties and clearly drawn lines of the US:USSR faceoff. Sure, songs like 99 Luftballoons and Russians (in which Sting hoped the Russians loved their children, too) still sound sweet but the existential fear that the world might end via mutually assured destruction was anything but. Those songs were hits right around the time Snowden was born. Back then Ronald Reagan was in full swing and a guy by the name of Mikhail Gorbachev was just about to become General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev introduced a little policy known as glasnost, defined in English as “openness.” At the time it meant that the Soviets would allow open discussion of political issues, freer dissemination of information, and more government transparency. This new openness ultimately helped bring down the Soviet Union although it’s debatable how much this reduced corruption and repression in Russia. Now, the word has been re-purposed. It’s currently used as the name of a computer diagnostic about the effects of an ISP on traffic flow (a “glasnost test”). It also survives as Glasnost: The Game in which the goal of each player is to disarm as many countries as possible. The most disarmament wins.

Can openness save the world or is the glasnost of Snowden and Assange just another game of mirrors? In short, are we back in the USSR? Paul McCartney first wrote that song in 1968 for the Beatles’ White Album but he remained persona non grata in the Soviet Union all the way until the end. He finally got to sing it in Moscow’s Red Square in 2003. The crowd loved it. This week, it sounds remarkably fresh.

Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC
Didn’t get to bed last night
On the way the paper bag was on my knee
Man, I had a dreadful flight
I’m back in the USSR
You don’t know how lucky you are, boy
Back in the USSR, yeah
Been away so long I hardly knew the place
Gee, it’s good to be back home
Leave it till tomorrow to unpack my case
Honey disconnect the phone

Envying Amish

Amish country near Arthur, Illinois

Amish country near Arthur, Illinois (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Minneapolis, a group of neighbors started what they dubbed the “Amish Envy Club” to help them tackle tiresome house projects. Inspired by the idea of a barn raising or a quilting party, they get together to rip out carpets or till a garden. A large group works, a smaller group takes care of the kids, and dinner is potluck. They have since inspired others to form A.E. clubs. And elsewhere in America, somebody somewhere is picking up a new Amish romance novel to read since in 2013, one is being released about every four days.

Everybody loves the Amish. They love them so much, in fact, that well-known Amish areas in Pennsylvania and Ohio receive millions of visitors a year and generate hundreds of millions in tourist revenues. Their Amish populations each number about 30,000. On a per-Amish person basis, that’s an amazingly high productivity rate.

Not many things say “pastpersistent” louder than does Amish envy. Scholars tell us that we’re casting a nostalgic gaze back to the past when we take a weekend trip to Amish country, read a “bonnet ripper” as Amish-themed chick-lit is known, or buy a handcrafted piece of furniture or shoe-fly pie. Why? Because the Amish are living in the past, right now. Yes, they are so much realer than those Civil War re-enactor guys who are always a little too old and a little too chubby to make the illusion convincing. And unlike living history interpreters (that is, those people who pretend to be Ben Franklin or some anonymous colonial-era milkmaid), the Amish don’t speechify about the Revolution or give you overly long explanations about how cheese is made. No, the Amish actually live like people used to do in the American past of covered wagons and homesteading. They churn butter by hand, go to one-room school houses, wear clothes without zippers, and—best of all—travel by horse and buggy not just from 9 to 5 or on odd weekends, but every single day, year after year.

We look beyond the fact that we’re just day trippers in Amish land and focus on all the uplifting reminders of the values of how things used to be. It’s the simple life versus the complicated life. No movie got it better than Peter Weir’s Witness in which Harrison Ford’s cynical cop has to flee the corrupt Philadelphia police force for Lancaster County Amish country. The beautifully lyrical barn raising scene is enough to give anyone Amish envy. The plot toys with the idea that he might stay or that his Amish love interest might leave, but go back he must. And she has to stay or the rural fantasy of a superior past would be tarnished. Since Hollywood loves a happy ending, that just wouldn’t do.

It’s easy to forget that envy was traditionally counted among the seven deadly sins (for which you would not burn, but rather freeze in hell). Perhaps this explains the rather darker undertone of Witness when the “present” intrudes on the “past” and Ford punches out a local thug who was getting his kicks taunting the Amish. Even more does it explain the current reality shows such as Breaking Amish and Amish Mafia (reality television motto: leave no sub-culture unturned!). The relentless commodification of the Amish as a wholesome source of traditional values makes the thought of seeing an Amish kid walk through Times Square fiendishly attractive and visits to night clubs and strip joints aren’t far behind. That the moral superiority attributed to the Amish way of life (regardless of whether they claim it) can be turned on its head by a short trip to the temptations of the Big Apple surely has something to do with a kind of sour grapes. Envy isn’t admiration for the achievements of others, it’s resentment of them. It pays to remember that the line between them is thin.

The Patron Saint of MOOCs

Carnegie, right, with James Bryce, 1st Viscoun...

Carnegie, right, with James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MOOCs are so of the moment, they barely seem to have a past. The coinage of the acronym dates to just 2008. (It stands for massive open online course, but the unfortunately bovine MOOC might also contain a subtle suggestion of a herd mentality and the ever-growing likelihood of a stampede.) Yet every movement needs a guiding light or heavenly advocate. Since MOOCs are a secular phenomenon, their acolytes have looked to historical figures to play the role of patron saint. To date, the front-runners include Ben Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and Abraham Lincoln, American auto-didacts all.

The MOOC is an international phenomenon but like Silicon Valley from which much of the enabling technology has sprung, it remains an emphatically American way of thinking about education. If Ben Franklin is sometimes known as “the First American,” it has a lot to do with his up-by-the-bootstraps boyhood. Pulled out of school at age 10 to be indentured to his older brother’s print shop, Franklin spent his limited free time holed up in his room studying books that he borrowed or bought with the money he saved by becoming a vegetarian. He mastered the art of English composition in prose and verse by inventing ingenious exercises for himself using nothing more than a few editions of a popular publication. When he later ran away to Philadelphia with just a few coins in his pocket, these skills served him well as he was able to get in on the ground floor of the newspaper business in colonial America. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Franklin’s poor boy made good story has inspired generations of Americans. It’s the reason that Jack Hitt was able to write a very entertaining chapter in Bunch of Amateurs contrasting Franklin’s innovative, ahead of his time genius with John Adams’s boring old traditionalism. Sure, whatever, Adams helped out a little here and there with independence, the Revolution, and all that. But Franklin was a dropout and Adams actually graduated from Harvard so his accomplishments are hardly impressive. We all know that that these days the cool kids make a point of dropping out—Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg—or not even starting college—David Karp, founder of Tumblr. (If you’re interested, there are lots of “famous dropout” lists; there aren’t any for dropouts who didn’t do so well.) So Franklin’s got a good claim as patron of the MOOC revolution. Sure he founded an Ivy League school (Penn) but he also got together America’s first lending library—for a fee.

Andrew Carnegie went Franklin (whose Autobiography Carnegie adored) one better when he gave a great deal of his fortune to fund free public libraries. Carnegie, the child of a poor immigrant family who left school to start working at age 13, educated himself in the private library of one of his employers and wanted to give others the same chance that he had. This backstory makes Carnegie a likely candidate: MOOC developers like to highlight stories such as that of the poor, bright striver in a country like Mongolia who suddenly vaults into the big leagues via the miracle of MOOCs and is applying to MIT and Berkeley. (Oddly, Thomas Friedman, who recounts this anecdote, seems to have missed the contradiction here in which MOOCs are supposed to be reasonable substitutes for a quality education.) And Carnegie knew a thing or two about economies of scale. His recipe for beating the competition in the steel industry remains a classic:

Two pounds of iron-stone purchased on the shores of Lake Superior and transported to Pittsburgh. Two pounds of coal mined in Connellsville and manufactured into coke and brought to Pittsburgh. One-half pound of limestone mined east of the Alleghenies and brought to Pittsburgh. A little manganese ore mined in Virginia and brought to Pittsburgh. And these four and one half pounds of material manufactured into one pound of solid steel and sold for one cent. That’s all that need be said about the steel business.

The MOOC business model, on the other hand, remains a bit uncertain. It involves economies of scale, and putting together lots of the component parts of different industries, but it’s not quite clear to everyone just yet where the money-making part is going to come in. So far, the best indication of the future of profit making in MOOCs is the recent announcement that a series of public universities have partnered up with Coursera to introduce a MOOC model for scaling up large enrollment courses. On a per-student basis, the costs, compared to a traditional teacher-taught course, are very competitive:

In a typical case, the company would charge the university a flat fee of $3,000 for “course development.” After that, Coursera would charge a per-student fee that would decrease as more students registered for the course. The first 500 students would cost the university $25 per student; the next 500 would cost $15 per student; the university would pay the company $8 for each student beyond that.

Carnegie may have the jump on Franklin after all. Abe Lincoln who, according to legend, studied by firelight and scratched out his lessons on the back of a dirty shovel, is probably running a distant third. Still, Lincoln started out with even less schooling than either Franklin or Carnegie. And if Lincoln didn’t quite teach himself to read, as some versions of the myth have it, he made up for his lack of opportunities by sheer tenaciousness. This is a pretty good qualification for patron saint of MOOCs: it looks like 90 percent of those who start them fail to finish.

Such statistics have made some a little cynical about whether the much-ballyhooed “disruption” that the MOOC-ification of higher ed promises to deliver is really the promised land after all. Because when the odds are stacked against you, it takes more than the average amount of drive to succeed. It’s funny that Frederick Douglass isn’t in the running for patron saint of MOOCs, but maybe it has something to do with the uncomfortable reminder of how unreasonably high the bar is for some people. The heart of Douglass’s Narrative recounts his struggle to learn to read and write while an enslaved boy in Baltimore. Since it was illegal to teach slaves, Douglass bartered bread for letters with white street urchins who knew how to make out a word or two. He copied the letters he saw ship’s carpenters use to mark boards. He fed his masters’ paranoia about slave rebellion by sneaking off with newspapers left lying around the house. And he became ferociously literate. So much so that the best tack pro-slavery critics had of his Narrative was to claim that he could not possibly have written it. This is precisely the kind of thing that MOOC defenders claim that the new technology would eliminate. MOOCs are a perfect meritocracy since they promise to extend educational access to all the world. The meritocratic claim that a level playing field justifies the outcome of ultimate inequality means that original inequality is not a problem. As long as opportunities are available, then effort is all that is required to succeed.

This is an old argument in American society and it explains our deep love for the stories of self-made men. If the poor boy can become a robber baron, then robber barons must not be so bad. After all, they have made a habit of endowing educational endeavors with their wealth. This was true of Carnegie and is now true of the Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation, among others. Speaking of which: maybe Sam Walton is the real patron saint of MOOCs. True, he pursued a traditional education but his rise to become the worldwide king of big box retail from a single storefront in Bentonville, Arkansas is surely an American Dream. Mohammad H. Qayoumi, the president of San Jose State University (an early adopter of MOOCs as replacements for courses taught in-house), thinks that higher ed can learn a lot from Walmart. The retail chain employs massive economies of scale to be able to cut costs to the bone and offer shoppers truly remarkable savings. Walmart, at least back in the day, was pretty much the poster child for disruptive innovation, much like MOOC providers seek to become. The Walmart-ization of higher ed. What could possibly be bad about that?

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