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I’m a historian, and a staff writer for Slate. I have a Ph.D in American Studies, and have written one book: Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States.
Intensely committed to unique collaborations against all odds, Jessica acknowledges that the deepest beauty comes from the mysteries discovered through connection.

Rebecca Onion
is In Wild Air



Culture

The Hobby Lobby Supreme Court Case


Last month, the American crafts company Hobby Lobby was the subject of a civil action filed by the United States Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York. The company, the Department of Justice had found, had been smuggling cuneiform tablets and other clay artifacts out of Iraq under false pretenses, a practice that encourages looters and wrecks items’ provenance. On the sociology blog scatterplot, Fiona Greenland wrote that Hobby Lobby had created what she called “a parallel universe of antiquities studies,” amassing a huge group of artifacts at its Museum of the Bible. The evangelical Christians who run Hobby Lobby control access to these artifacts, leaving historians to decide whether to sign a non-disclosure agreement and make scholarly breakthroughs by working in their giant collection, or refuse out of principle, and risk missing out.

Before the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case, before the smuggling revelations, I used to go to my local branch of the chain in Texas, to buy materials to make into Halloween costumes. It’s an emporium of bric-a-brac, and not even fun bric-a-brac at that; every fake pussywillow branch, plastic decorative flower, and skein of acrylic yarn is of the lowest possible quality. There’s something so wrong about the people who run this company using the money made from selling glitter glue and plastic jars—the ultimate in disposable culture—to buy something so enduring, and keep it for its own.

People

Smedley Darlington Butler


Smedley Darlington Butler was a United States Marine Corps major general, who won two Congressional Medals of Honor. He was a Quaker, but spent the first decades of the twentieth century fighting for the United States’ interests. In more than three decades of service, he had one episode that was described as a “nervous breakdown,” but went back into the Marines after just a short stint out. He was decorated for his service during World War I, when he became known as a logistical wizard. In 1931, he was censored for spreading gossip about Benito Mussolini, saying that the fascist had hit a child while speeding in his car. His unpredictability and outspokenness caused him to miss out on a final promotion to Commandant of the Marine Corps, and he retired in 1930.

After he got out of the service for good, he began speaking out against war. He called his own former self “a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism,” characterizing his stints with the Marines in Central America and the Caribbean as a series of dirty gigs, making companies and banks more comfortable in new markets. He traveled around the country speaking to veterans and pacifists, and spoke out against what he perceived as protofascism in the United States.

In 1933, according to Butler, a group of fat cats asked him to lead a coup to overthrow Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was too socialist for their tastes. Instead of complying, Butler took the tale to Congress. Was there really a plot? We still don’t know. The fat cats denied it, but Butler doesn’t seem like the type to make such a thing up. In 1935, he wrote
a book called War Is A Racket, with the following chapters: “War Is A Racket.” “Who Makes The Profits?” “Who Pays The Bills?” “How To Smash This Racket!” and “To Hell With War!”

He died in 1940, right at the beginning of the Second World War, which seems to have largely killed non-interventionist spirit in the United States—some 1960s paroxysms aside. I find myself glad he never saw it happen.

Places

Southeastern Ohio


I’m living in Southeastern Ohio, which is in the Appalachian part of the state. Before I first visited, I thought there would be corn, but it’s mountains instead; right across the river from West Virginia.

I make a game out of cataloging the differences between this place and New England, where I’m from. I think “No white birches. Redbuds.” “Sharper hills. No big mountains with the names of Presidents. Anonymous ridges, and steep.” “The streams are turquoise blue and orange. This place wasn’t rich enough to keep mining companies from wrecking its water.”

I live here because my husband grew up here, and I could feel trapped. But this place insists on its placefulness. It refuses to be sorry that it’s not on a coast; it won’t be ashamed it’s not New York. It turns out, I love its singularity. Big rocks rise out of the forest, hulking and portending. The train still goes by, down the hill, its long whistle like whale song in the night.

Things

Metal Bowls


I decided to follow a theory of child-rearing, called RIE, that prescribes open-ended toys for kids. And so my daughter, age six months, has some rattles and stuffed animals, but mostly I’ve been giving her things from the kitchen. I watched a video online when I was bingeing information about the philosophy, of a little baby lying outside holding a metal bowl and watching the light bounce off of it onto the wall of his house. The baby was four months old and he was tripping out with joy. I was sold.

J. didn’t start to love the bowls until a few weeks ago. Now she turns one over, beats it like a drum. Now she spies herself in its shiny surface, breathes out and sees the condensation, beats it again with her wide-open hands. Now she flips it back over, puts her mouth on its rounded edge, then grabs it and clangs it on the floor.

Regular toys are a crock. Get metal bowls instead.

Thoughts

The Deficit Model


The idea that people who don’t “believe” in science—who deny climate change, or refuse vaccines—simply need to be told the correct information has long been disproven. Science communicators know that the “deficit model” of talking about science doesn’t work; people are not empty buckets, there to be filled by your wisdom.

During the nightmare half-year we’ve just passed in the United States, there have been a few times when somebody (the President, even) has said something blatantly historically untrue, and historians and journalists have responded with explainers and “did you know” pieces. But the problem isn’t that people don’t know history. It’s that history, like science, is complicated and various, and in order to engage with it honestly you have to be ready for ambiguity and uncertainty to emerge, and you have to be ready for the conclusions you reach to undermine your assumptions.

Even “correct” history can be dangerous, when it’s used partially or disingenuously—as the foul confusions peddled by the likes of Dinesh D’Souza, a pseudo-intellectual who likes to remind everyone that the American Democratic Party was full of eugenicists and KKK members (without then noting that things have changed significantly for that party since 1960), surely prove.

The history deficit model doesn’t work. How can we move beyond the idea that simple instruction will solve things? I, for one, am truly stuck.

Wildism

Loon Song, Digitized


I’m from the state of New Hampshire, in the northeast of the United States, and one of the best parts of going home for the summer vacation my family takes on a lake together every year is listening to the loon calls at night. I can’t make my throat make these lonely noises; can’t describe anything except the feeling they give me.

When homesick, I sometimes go to Cornell University’s catalog of digitized bird sounds and search for loon calls. The recordings also capture the crickets, frogs, and other little sounds of northern nights, and you can almost hear the person making the recording holding their breath, hoping the loons sing out, one more time.