What It Means to Be American »

How a Death Valley Mineral Became a Ticket to the Middle Class

By | May 16, 2016

One fall evening in 1881, a prospector named Henry Spiller knocked on the door of Aaron and Rosie Winters’ modest stone cabin about 40 miles due east of Death Valley and asked to stay the night.
After dinner Spiller exuberantly showed off a sample of “cotton ball,” a weird, semi-translucent rock formation containing borax. Spiller suggested to his hosts that fortunes awaited those lucky enough …

What It Means to Be American »

How L.A. Artist Zoe Crosher Got Into Trouble in Moscow

By | May 12, 2016

Zoe Crosher is the co-creator of the Manifest Destiny Billboard Project, a series of 100 artist-designed billboards that spanned the United States along Interstate 10. Before joining a Zócalo/Smithsonian “What It Means to Be American” panel discussion about creativity in America—“What Does American Ingenuity Look Like?”—she talked in the green room about the eclectic mediums she works in, D.C. punk rock, and that time Bill …

What It Means to Be American »

What Did ‘Natural-Born’ American Even Mean in 1776?

By | May 10, 2016

When choosing among presidential candidates, Americans find plenty to debate about their fitness for office, experience, and economic and foreign policies. But the framers of the Constitution made no mention of such qualifications; they were primarily concerned that the president be truly American. And one of the ways that a president counted as truly American was to be, in the Constitution’s phrase, a “natural-born citizen.”
In …

What It Means to Be American »

The Chicago Physician Who Understood the Paradox of Radiation

By | May 4, 2016

Radiation is a paradox. On the one hand, it’s a lifesaving tool. As powerful energy that can pass through solid matter, it’s often used in medicine for everything from diagnostic X-rays to cancer therapy. But radiation also can be deadly. If handled carelessly, it causes cancer.
No one was better witness to the split personality of radiation than Chicago physician Emil Herman Grubbe, who lived …

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Meet Craig Calhoun, the New President of L.A.’s Berggruen Institute

By | April 28, 2016

Craig Calhoun has been director of the London School of Economics and Political Science since September 2012 and is poised this summer to become the new president of the Berggruen Institute, a “think and action tank” concerned with political governance, philosophy, and cross-cultural understanding that is building new headquarters in L.A.’s Brentwood neighborhood. Among Calhoun’s books on politics and social movements are Neither Gods Nor …

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America’s First Indian TV Star Was a Black Man from Missouri

By | April 26, 2016

Turning on the TV in Los Angeles in 1949, you might have come face-to-face with a young man in a jeweled turban with a dreamy gaze accentuated by dark eye shadow. Dressed in a fashionable coat and tie, Korla Pandit played the piano and the organ—sometimes both at once—creating music that was both familiar and exotic.
According to press releases from the time, Pandit was …

What It Means to Be American »

How Disney’s Bambi Hoodwinked American Environmentalists

Perking up her ears, the dog was the first to notice them, just a few blocks from our homes in east-central Illinois. One-by-one the does strolled from the woods into the meadow. They eyed us without lifting their tails, seemingly habituated to this neighborhood. Their appearance awed us but also prompted different responses. Joseph recalled long past hunting trips four miles south in a tree …

What It Means to Be American »

Meet the Mad Men Who Invented the Modern Political Attack Ad

By | April 12, 2016

On September 7, 1964, a 60-second TV ad changed American politics forever. A 3-year-old girl in a simple dress counted as she plucked daisy petals in a sun-dappled field. Her words were supplanted by a mission-control countdown followed by a massive nuclear blast in a classic mushroom shape. The message was clear if only implicit: Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was a genocidal maniac who threatened …

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How World War II Turned Soldiers Into Ravenous Bookworms

By | April 8, 2016

In January 1942, thousands of New Yorkers gathered on the steps of the legendary New York Public Library, at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, wearing their Sunday best and warmest coats. When standing room became scarce, crowds formed across the street. Nearly everyone had at least one book in hand. These were not overdue, nor did they need to be returned to the library; instead …

What It Means to Be American »

The Chinese-American Lawyer Who Beat a Racist Law, One Loophole at a Time

By | April 5, 2016

Recent politics is full of debates about erecting walls on the U.S.-Mexican border or barring Muslims from entering the U.S. But excluding groups of immigrants based on a particular background is nothing new—though the targets may change. It was in 1882 that Congress, for the first time in the history of the United States, passed legislation to prevent a specific ethnic group from entering the …