Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp

I’ve been interested in Aladdin for many years since I learned working on a Smithsonian project on ethnic imagery in advertising that in the 19th and into the 20th century, he was presented as a Chinese figure. Recently I’ve been working on and off on a piece about Aladdin that I don’t quite know how to finish. Here’s the first part of it:

I’ve always loved to read. When I discovered libraries growing up, I read anything and everything I could find. One of the subjects I devoured was fairy tales and folktales and one of my earliest sources for them were the various colored books of stories collected and published in the late 19th century by Andrew Lang.[1] It was in The Blue Fairy Book that I first encountered the story of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” At the time, I found the story simple and straightforward, but magical and marvelous nevertheless. As an adult and as a historian, I’ve learned the story of the story is anything but simple.

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circulation, sales, and distribution

In Astounding Days, his autobiographical reminiscence of a youth reading science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke recalled that English fans learned that Woolworth’s was the best place to find the pulp magazines where the stories they wanted to read. “According to legend, all these ‘Yank pulps’ invaded the United Kingdom as ballast in returning cargo ships. Presumably it was worth disposing of unsold issues in this way, rather than recycling the paper.” Colorfully entertaining, Clarke’s recollection also illustrated the incidental—and often unseen and unconsidered—consequences of distribution for publishing’s sales and circulation.

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circulation and sales

One of my favorite passages from Raymond Williams’ cultural criticism and commentary is from his essay, “Communications and Community.” Encountering it in his book, Resources of Hope, it helped me realize the broader sensibility I wanted to take in my dissertation. I printed a copy of the passage and taped it to my monitor with “READ ME!” handwritten for emphasis above while I wrote to remind me to maintain its perspective. Its point, a response to post-World War Two developments in advertising, marketing, and culture and their academic study, remains relevant in contemporary considerations about social media in the age of the Internet.

“For it is a terrifying thought that most of the real work on communications is now being done by advertisers, to discover more effective ways of selling the products of whoever hires them. It is just as bad that almost all our terms for talking about communication come from America, where you among some good sociology a very largely debased and hired sociology. There nothing is an effect or impression, it is always an impact. People even are not people, they are mass audiences, they are socio-economic groups, they are targets. And the aggression within those terms, the aggression within ‘impact,’ the aggression within ‘target,’ is the expression of people who want to control. But the basis of a democratic system is that ordinary people should have control in their own hands, that they should not be targets for anybody.”

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the jobs plan

I watched President Obama’s speech to Congress presenting his jobs plan last week and have watched and read some of the commentary on it, most of which as been favorable. While the plan may indeed create jobs and improve the nation’s economic situation, it still struck me as having the wrong tone. It wasn’t a jobs plan so much as another stimulus package.

In the difference lies the President’s slight, but still significant failure to address and communicate the issue politically. Clearly the nation’s economic situation requires attention and intervention, which many of the ideas in Obama’s plan seek to affect. But as with the administration’s response to the financial crisis of 2008, the presentation and justification for the plan was couched in the language of macro-economics, not moral sentiment. It aimed more to convince members of Congress to enact specific legislative policy than to address and affirm the concerns of the American public. While the one narrow aim was necessary–if probably also doomed to failure in the face of recalcitrant Republicans–its priority overrode an rhetorical opportunity for the President. The specific details he outlined, reducing payroll taxes, providing incentives for businesses to hire more employees, etc., would, if passed, help individuals and families in need and, indirectly, create jobs, but their very variety–as well as that indirection–diluted any focus his plan could have brought to bear on what is the one urgent issue for the public. In this case, it’s not the economy, it’s jobs.

remembering immigration reforms

Michelle Bachman’s comments this week about immigration incensed many people, including many Asian Americans. Angry Asian Man wrote about it. ThinkProgress posted about it. The Washington Post wrote about it. While I don’t agree with Bachmann’s statements, these responses themselves cite an immigration history that is as nostalgic, albeit with a different political outlook, as hers.

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strawberry fields

A few years ago, while teaching my introductory Asian American history course, I decided to personalize the subject of my lecture, truck farming. Most students who take an Asian American history course will learn that Asian Americans contributed significantly to American agriculture and farming, far more so than for their significant, but short-lived work on the transcontinental railroad. It is one thing, however, to learn about farming in the abstract, removed from its actual practice and experience, and another to consider it from the perspective of those who worked in the fields. It surprised many of my students that their Harvard and Berkeley-educated professor had any such experience.

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FDR, Hoover, leadership, and history

The New York Times ran an op-ed this past Sunday (August 7) about President Obama’s leadership, or lack thereof. I don’t necessarily disagree with the author’s and others’ critique of President Obama’s handling of our current political crises. He and other writers also contrast Obama’s style with that of Franklin Roosevelt’s. These comparisons, however, force history into convenient parallels—as the matching metaphors for the respective crises each faced, what some now call the Great Recession and what many remember as the Great Depression, suggest—rather than gain from the perspective it might offer.

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Chinese and the transcontinental railroad

Angry Asian Man posted yesterday about an interview (in the Washington Post) with producers of an upcoming original series on AMC, Hell on Wheels. The series’ producers were asked why there were no Chinese characters in the series and, in their fumbling responses, gave no clear answer to the question but did manage to inflame emotions with a statement that “they ended up getting excised” from the show’s pilot. Angry Asian Man uses the statement to make a larger point about the historical contributions of Chinese. While I sympathize with Angry Asian Man’s broader concern, in this specific instance, he (and for that matter, everyone involved) confuses “history” in several ways.

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