Critical Intel

Critical Intel
A BioShock Infinite Primer

Robert Rath | 20 Mar 2013 12:00
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As we await the arrival of BioShock Infinite I began reflecting on the amazing power of the franchise. Though set in a fictional world, the game has gone the extra mile to tap into the zeitgeist of 1900s America. That it's an obscure period of history is actually exciting, since it means players will get a grounding in an era that hasn't captured the modern imagination. That creates a problem too - what if you pocket-texted through your U.S. history class and don't realize what's real and what's invention? What if you're not an American, and turn of the century U.S. history was absent from your education?

To help, I've put together a list of historical concepts and events you'll encounter as you explore the floating city of Columbia. So get on the trolley, and let's take a trip down Main Street USA - from technological wonders to anarchist bombings.

American Exceptionalism and the Age of Optimism

"American Exceptionalism" is a widely misunderstood term. Some people erroneously believe it means the United States is the "best" country, or is somehow above international law. Actually, it's a concept dating back to the 1840s, when European and American writers began suggesting that America was qualitatively different than any nation that had come before. The argument ran that because of its foundation on democratic principles, emphasis on commerce, Puritan roots, possibility of social mobility and vast natural resources, the United States developed into a radical new form of nation that had a special role to play internationally. This was a narrative the young republic embraced with gusto, especially since it fed into the ongoing, but contentious, policy of Manifest Destiny, which held that America was preordained to expand and fill the continent. As the 19th century came to a close and America started collecting its first overseas territories from the Spanish-American War, many seized on the idea that the special role of the United States lay in Imperialism: to export democracy, civilize native populations and "Christianize" the globe (though a vocal minority were opposed to this idea, including Mark Twain). According to the period mindset, America was not only a bastion of freedom, but would lead the world into a new American millennium.

Indeed, with the pace of technological innovation at the time, it's understandable why much of the U.S. population envisioned an approaching utopia. Within twenty years, American life went through the greatest transformation of living standards its citizens ever witnessed. Men and women who grew up drawing water from wells and refilling kerosene lanterns suddenly had electricity, running water and even for a lucky few, indoor plumbing. Those who were too poor to afford such innovations gloried in the knowledge that they'd receive them soon. Cities started building the first mass transportation systems, and railroad improvements meant citizens could go from New York to San Francisco in six days rather than six months. Medical science performed magic too - X-ray machines saw straight through flesh and vaccination programs eliminated the dreaded smallpox. Automobiles were beginning to replace the horse, airplanes were on the horizon and telephones could link cities. These inventions not only changed daily life, but they created a sense of limitless optimism that technology would lead to a healthier, happier nation. "Laws are becoming more just," said one preacher from the pulpit, "rulers are more humane; music is becoming sweeter and books wiser; homes are happier, and the individual heart is becoming at once more just and more gentle."


Hearts, however, were not becoming more just and gentle toward immigrants. At the turn of the century, nativism - the fear that outside influences in the form of immigrants or racial "others" would change the makeup of America, weigh the country down, or destroy the founding values of the nation - were in full force.

Between 1900 and the 1920s, nativism surged to become a fixture of American politics and life. While African American segregation was the rule in many parts of the South (and the de-facto norm in many parts of the North) it also applied informally to new Americans. Upon arrival, an immigrant would be greeted with signs reading, "Irish Need Not Apply," "No Wops Allowed," and "The Chinese Must Go." Other popular targets included Eastern Europeans, Jews, Muslims and later the Japanese. According to nativists, people from these countries carried disease. They were drunks. "Inferior" or "mongrel" blood pumped through their veins. Criminality was in their nature. There were worries that immigrants would feel more loyalty to their old monarchs or the Pope than they did their new homeland, or that they'd crash the economy by working cheaper than native-born Americans. Political cartoons showed waves of racial caricatures pouring onto America's shores, with labels like "Mafia," "disease," "socialism," and "popery." As proof of this mental and moral inferiority, nativists used junk science like eugenics and phrenology to back their claims that immigrants were polluting the nation's racial purity. Later, IQ tests conducted under highly dubious conditions became the go-to tool. In an infamous study during World War I, Princeton psychologist Carl C. Brigham tested American recruits, and concluded his report with the highly doubtful statement that "The intellectual superiority of our Nordic group over the Alpine, Mediterranean, and negro groups has been demonstrated."

You'll be interested to note that Dr. Brigham was also the principal author of the SATs.

These faulty reports - which Brigham later disavowed as faulty and racist - fueled the calls to set quotas on the number of immigrants entering the U.S. from certain countries. The more "desirable" the country's bloodline, the higher the quota. English, Norwegian and Scottish settlers were welcome, while the Chinese and Russians were not. Meanwhile, plans to "Americanize" new immigrants emerged in the form of books and pamphlets that encouraged recent arrivals to abandon their culture and embrace the American ideal. This frequently went hand-in-hand with pushing immigrants into jobs where they were less visible, like textile factories, coal mines and domestic servitude.
From our first glimpses of Columbia, it seems similar opinions hold sway in Comstock's paradise. Propaganda posters show the need for defending Columbia from "lesser" races, and in the prequel short story The Mind In Revolt, Dr. Pinchot expresses surprise that Daisy Fitzroy scores a 149 on an intelligence test, not the 70- 80 range which is the "average for non-whites."

It's unfortunate that he, and the rest of Columbia, underestimates her.

Wounded Knee Massacre

The Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 provided the symbolic, if not actual, end to the multi-century conflict known as the Indian Wars. It was also one of the most shameful acts in U.S. history, and according to BioShock Infinite's fiction, was the mental undoing of Booker DeWitt.

In 1889, a new messianic belief called the Ghost Dance took hold among the Plains and Great Basin tribes, who believed a savior was coming to bring back the buffalo and ancestor spirits while making the white men disappear. The doctrine alarmed U.S. officials enough that they began arresting prominent chiefs in order to head off the uprising they believed was coming. When Indian police tried to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, gunfire broke out leaving men dead on both sides. After the shooting, refugees from Sitting Bull's tribe fled to a nearby reservation to take shelter with the Lakota Chief Spotted Elk. Fearing government reprisal, the combined band tried to flee further, but were intercepted by the U.S. 7th Cavalry.

The Cavalry relocated the refugees to Wounded Knee Creek and camped for the night, setting up four light artillery pieces to guard the 350 refugees - 230 of whom were women and children. At daybreak on December 29th, the Army moved in to disarm the party. What happened next is still debated. A medicine man named Yellow Bird started the Ghost Dance. Soldiers struggled with a deaf warrior who hadn't understood the order to disarm, and his rifle discharged. Lakota warriors may have drawn weapons and fired. Here's what we do know: the Hotchkiss guns opened up, spraying refugees and cavalrymen with indiscriminate fire. At this point, the officers lost control of their men and the incident turned into a massacre. Cavalrymen mounted horses to chase the routed survivors, killing unarmed men and women with infants in their arms. Somewhere between 150 and 300 of the Native American men, women and children were killed, their bodies left to freeze in a three-day blizzard before civilians dumped them in a mass grave.

Congress awarded the medal of honor to twenty members of the 7th Cavalry.

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