Flashback Friday.

Adolf Hitler targeted the Jews in the Holocaust not simply out of hate, but for strategic reasons. Describing his plan to take over Germany, and then Europe, he wrote:

I scanned the revolutionary events of history and… [asked] myself: against which racial element in Germany can I unleash my propaganda of hate with the greatest prospects of success? …I came to the conclusion that a campaign against the Jews would be as popular as it would be successful.

Jews, Hitler figured, were already well hated and, thus, would lend themselves to demonization quite easily.

Once it was decided that the Jews would be targeted, wrote Ronald Berger writes in his essay The “Banality of Evil” Reframed:

the most immediate difficulty that confronted the Nazis was the construction of a legal definition of the target population.

Who was Jewish?

At first, the Nazis defined Jews as non-Aryan. But this became problematic because nations with whom Germany wanted to ally (e.g., Japan) were arguably non-Aryan.

So, the regime settled on a definition that linked non-Aryan-ness to religion. Both racial and religious characteristics could qualify one as “Jewish.”

Like the rules of hypodescent that separated black from white in the U.S. during and after slavery, the Nazis had rules as to what percentage of Jewish blood one needed to have to be truly Jewish. Berger explains that a Jew was defined as a person who was 3/4ths Jewish or more. The term mischling worked like the U.S. word mulatto to identify a person with mixed blood (in this case, someone who was 1/2 Jewish and also was married to a Jew or practiced Judaism).

The next step was measurement. In confusing cases, how could the Nazi’s prove that someone was Jewish or mischling? They developed instruments. These photographs (mine) are from a museum in Munich that has collected some of the instruments used to place a person on the Aryan/non-Aryan spectrum.

An instrument for measuring facial features:


Instruments for measuring skin, eye, and hair color:



This is just one more example of the way in which racial categories are constantly being invented and reinvented, usually for reasons related to power. For others, see our recent post on the deracialization of Irish dance, the shifting meanings of Creole, and the way Census data collection changed race in an instant.

Originally posted in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

14By Tom Gauld.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Today is the first day of the Christian season of Lent, a period of voluntary self-denial that is the excuse for the indulgence of Mardi Gras. Last year a credit card processing company traced spending in New Orleans on both Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. They found a spike in the days leading up to the big day (below) and then a crash the day after.


According to Mark Waller at nola.com:

…people spent 30 percent more at restaurants in the weekend before Mardi Gras than they did in an average of the four previous weekends…

What were they buying? Indulgences: “duck fat fries, king cake burgers, and crab and crawfish mac and cheese.” Mmmmm. The week before they’d mostly bought lattes.


…restaurant, retail shops and other merchants logged about half the business on Ash Wednesday compared with the Wednesday before.

What was the most popular food item that day? Soda.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

On Valentine’s day last year, my Facebook feed exploded with Pakistani memes that, on the one hand, used Islamic texts to criticize the day as unIslamic and, on the other, poked fun at the religious opposition to the holiday.
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When I conducted interviews with Pakistani women in Karachi over the summer, I expected Valentine’s day to be a salient event for my participants.  I did find religious resistance to Valentine’s Day.  The more religious-minded participants  were likely to say things like: “St. Valentine is remembered for fathering illegitimate children, so the day is sinful.”

Less religious women, however, seemed surprised that I even asked about it.  “I can’t remember what I did,” they would say, or they would criticize it as “cheesy” or  “too commercial.” A few respondents asked: “Why does there have to be one day for love? Every day should be a celebration of love.”

Based on the media, I was expecting a contest between people who embraced Valentine’s Day and people who rejected it, but I only found one side of the debate: the rejection.  There didn’t seem to be a large group of women who embraced it. Among those who didn’t outright reject it, I discovered only disinterest.

All this suggests that the push to make Valentine’s Day a thing in Pakistan is more about capitalism and the globalization of Western norms and practices, than it is about a grassroots desire for such a celebration.  It is the marketers, mall managers, and restaurant owners that seem most interested in Valentine’s Day.  I originally thought of this as a battle between the religious and secular members of the society, but it seems to be, instead, a resistance by some to efforts of companies to find one more way to make money.

Fauzia Husain is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Virginia.  She is currently studying globalization through an exploration of Pakistani women’s narratives about love.

Over the past 40 years, Americans have become increasingly likely to deny an affiliation with a religion. The graph below shows that people with “no religious preference” rose from about 5% of the population in 1972 to about 20% today. Overall, however, Americans do not report a corresponding decline in the a belief in God, life after death, or other religious ideas. What’s going on?


Sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer — the guys who made the graph above — argue that the retreat from religious affiliation is essentially, a retreat from the political right. Religion has become strongly associated with conservative politics, so left-leaning people are choosing, instead, to identify as “spiritual but not religious.”

Here is some of their evidence. The data below represents the likelihood of rejecting a religious affiliation according to one’s political views. The more politically liberal one is, the more likely they have come to reject religion.


Using fancy statistical analyses, they explain: “generational differences in belief add nothing to explaining the cohort differences in affiliation.” That is, people haven’t lost their faith, they just disagree with religious leaders and institutions.  Hout and Fischer conclude:

Once the American public began connecting organized religion to the conservative political agenda — a connection that Republican politicians, abortion activists, and religious leaders all encouraged — many political liberals and moderates who seldom or never attended services quit expressing a religious preference when survey interviewers asked about it.

Democrats have wondered how to break the association of the right with religion and claim a little bit of moral authority for themselves. It looks like they may not need to or, even, that having failed to do so has a surprise advantage.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

What do we mean when we say “we”? Or more to the point, what does the president mean when he uses that word?

The Atlantic has an interactive graphic (here) showing the relative frequencies of words in State of the Union addresses. (“Addresses” because I’m choosing my words carefully. These were not “speeches” until Wilson. Before that, it was written text only.) Here “we” is.

The rise of “we” seems to parallel the rise of big government, starting with Wilson and our entry into a world war, followed by a brief (10-year) decline. Then FDR changes everything.  “We,” i.e., the people as represented by the government, are doing a lot more.

Sorting the data by frequency shows that even in the big-We era, big-government Democrats use it more than do Republicans.  (JFK used We less frequently than did the GOP presidents immediately before and after him. But then, it was JFK who said not to ask what the government could do for us.)

Other words are less puzzling. Freedom is a core American value, but of late (the last five or six presidents), it’s the Republicans who really let it ring.

As with We, Freedom gets a big boost with FDR, but Freedom for Reagan and the Bushes is not exactly FDR’s four freedoms – Freedom of speech, Freedom of religion, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear – especially the last two. Nor is it the kind of freedom LBJ might have spoken of in the civil rights era, a freedom that depended greatly on the actions of the federal government.  Instead, for conservatives since Reagan, freedom means the freedom to do what you want, especially to make as much money as you can, unbothered by government rules, and to pay less in taxes.

Freedom in this sense is what Robert Bellah calls “utilitarian individualism.”  As the word count shows, freedom was not such a central concern in the first 150 years of the Republic. Perhaps it became a concern for conservatives in recent years because they see it threatened by big government.  In any case, for much of our history, that tradition of individualism was, according to Bellah, tempered by another tradition – “civic republicanism,” the assumption that a citizen has an interest not just in individual pursuits but in public issues of the common good as well.

That sense of a public seems to have declined. Even the “collectivist” Democrats of recent years use the term only about one-tenth as much as did the Founding Fathers. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison – their SOTUs had more than ten publics for every freedom.

I checked one other word because of its relevance to the argument that the U.S. is “a Christian nation,” founded on religious principles by religious people, and that God has always been an essential part of our nation.

The Almighty, at least in State of the Union addresses, is something of a Johnny-come-lately. Like We, He gets a big boost with the advent of big government. FDR out-Godded everybody before or since, except of course, the Bushes and Reagan.

Thank you and God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.


Update: I just noticed that the two “Gods” in that sentence work out to a rate of 200-300 per million. If tag lines like that are included as part of the text, that accounts for the higher rate since FDR. It’s not about big government, it’s about radio. Prior to radio, the audience for the SOTU was Congress. Starting with FDR, the audience was the American people. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether these closing lines, which have now become standard, are included in the database. If they are included, the differences among presidents in the radio-TV era, may be more a matter of the denominator of the rate (length of speeches) than of the numerator (God). FDR averaged about 3500 per SOTU. Reagan and the Bushes are in the 4000-6000 range. Clinton and Obama average about 7000. So it’s possible that the difference that looks large on the graph is merely the difference between a single God-bless closing and a double.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Yes, but it was a weird thing you see.

The Nazis were waging war and exterminating Jews.  Meanwhile, Christmas was about celebrating peace and the birth of Jesus, a Jew.

Said the Nazi propagandist Friedrich Rehm in 1937:

We cannot accept that a German Christmas tree has anything to do with a crib in a manger in Bethlehem.  It is inconceivable for us that Christmas and all its deep soulful content is the product of an oriental religion.

But Germans were largely Christian, so getting rid of Christmas was going to be tricky.  So Hitler turned it into a celebration of the Third Reich.  According to John Brownlee, they re-wrote Christmas carols to extol the virtues of National Socialism.  Mentions of Jesus were replaced with “Savior Führer.”  Since they well understood that Santa wasn’t white, they re-cast the character; he was played by the pagan god Odin.   And they changed the ornaments and placed swastikas atop Christmas trees.

Hitler ornament and Nazi tree topper:


Swastika ornaments:


Swastika cookie cutter:


The last Nazi Christmas was in 1944.  Post-war Germany quickly “did with Hitler’s Christmas what they did with every other idea the Nazis had come up with: denounced it…”

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

To begin, it wasn’t just a toy. It debuted in 1890 and it was the next in a long line of devices that had been invented to allow people to communicate with spirits. These weren’t intended to be pretend; they were deadly serious.

According to Lisa Hix, who wrote a lengthy history of such devices for Collector’s Weekly, the mid-1800s was the beginning of the spiritualist movement. People had long believed in spirits, but two sisters by the name of Fox made the claim that they could communicate with them. This was new. There were no longer just spirits; now there were spiritualists.

Amateur historian Brandon Hodge, interviewed by Hix, explains:

Mediums sprang up overnight as word spread. Suddenly, there were mediums everywhere.

At first, spiritualists would communicate with spirits by asking questions and receiving, in return, a series of knocks or raps. They called it “spirit rapping.” There was a rap for yes and a rap for no and soon they started calling out the alphabet, allowing them to spell out words

Eventually they sought out more sophisticated ways to have conversations. Enter, the planchette. This was a small wooden egg-shaped device with two wheels and a hole in which to place a pencil. Participants would all place their fingers on the planchette and the spirit would presumably guide their movements, writing text.

Here is an example of a planchette from 1900 and some pre-1875 spirit scribbling, both courtesy of Hodge’s fantastic website, Mysterious Planchette:2

These were religious tools used with serious intentions. Entrepreneurs, however, saw things differently. They began marketing them as games and they were a huge hit.

Mediums resented this, so they kept innovating new and more legitimate-seeming ways of communicating. In addition, the planchette scribbles were often difficult to read. The idea of using an actual alphabet emerged and various devices were invented to allow spirits to point directly to letters and other answers.

A Telepathic Spirit Communicator and a “spiritoscope” from 1855 (source): 3

Eventually, the concept of the planchette merged with the alphabet board and what we now know as the Ouija board was invented.

An Espirito talking board (1892) and the Mitch Manitou talking board (1920s) (source): 4

Here is an antique Ouija planchette:4

In the 1920s, mediums came under attack from people determined to prove that they were liars. Houdini is the most famous of the anti-spiritualists and Hodge argues that he “ravaged spiritualism.”

He set up little “colleges” in cities like in Chicago for cops to attend to learn how to bust up séances, and there was a concerted national effort to stamp out fraud.


The Spiritualist believers never successfully cohesively banded together, because they were torn asunder by their own internal arguments about spirit materialization.

Most mediums ended up humiliated and penniless.

“But the Ouija,” Hodge says, “just came along at the right time.” It was a hit with laypeople, surviving the attacks against spiritualists. And, so, the Ouija board is one of the only widely-recognized artifacts of this time.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.