Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Hussites Are Back, but Did They Bring Cookies?

The seventeenth century, that chilly, famished, war-wracked saeculum, became for many an age of extinction. The Pequot Indians, the Ming Dynasty, and the Hussite Protestants of Bohemia all succumbed to violence, enslavement, or exile in the 1600s. For human ethnic and religious groups, however, extinction need not remain permanent. The Pequots' descendants made a comeback in the twentieth century, and opened one of the most profitable casinos in the world. Ming loyalists established secret societies that survived, in the case of the Triads, into the modern era. And Czech Protestants, as I learned on a recent trip to Prague, have enjoyed a modest comeback in the past century. During the Thirty Years War the Habsburgs made a mighty effort to crush Protestantism in Bohemia, forcing the adherents of Jan Hus to convert or leave the kingdom. Some rural Protestants preserved their faith in secret, and in the eighteenth century emigrated to Germany, where they became the co-founders of the Moravian Church or United Brethren. Otherwise the Czech homeland remained staunchly and, it seemed, permanently Catholic.

When Czechoslovakia became independent, however, the government decided to shore up their new country's national identity by creating a national church, one independent of the Roman Church hierarchy and evocative of the old Hussite tradition. Their religious project, the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, debuted in January 1920. While the Czechoslovak Church never became a serious competitor with Catholicism – or secularism – it now has about 300,000 adherents, and runs an array of schools, senior centers, and children's homes. Like the Roman Church, the CHC recognizes seven sacraments; I assume that, at communion, both the laity and priesthood partake of the wine (since this was the original Hussites' cause celebre). It has an ordained priesthood and episcopate, though the religious head of the church is a patriarch rather than a pope, and women have been accepted as priests since 1947. Church governance follows a hybrid episcopal/presbyterian model, with decision-making power jointly vested in the priesthood (and episcopate) and local councils of lay elders. How well this works in practice I know not, but hybrid institutions always function a little awkwardly. They are no weaker for it.

(Photo of the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, one of the Hussite Church's parishes, in Prague.)

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Turtle Crawls On

My new blog for H-AMINDIAN, the Turtle Island Examiner, has kept to a regular publishing schedule these past two months. Posts there since my last update include:

Prandial Diplomacy: Negotiation often begins and ends at the dinner table, and its outcome can prove favorable if everyone can actually digest their victuals.

Labors of Sovereignty: Yr. Hbl. Narrator's report on the 2015 American Society for Ethnohistory conference in Las Vegas. The construction of sovereignty was an important theme this year.

The Power of Space, Language, & Communication: Bryan Rindfleisch's report on the 2015 ASE conference. Ethnohistory, he concludes, is a thriving discipline.

Philanthropy as Politics: Why did the deeply-impoverished, post-Removal Cherokees and Choctaws contribute hundreds of dollars to Irish famine relief?

More to come in a couple of months, including my latest post on the Norse and the Inuit in Greenland.

(Photo of ceramic Catawba turtle by the author.)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Mad King Ludwig

Last month my petite amie and I had the privilege of visiting the two refuges that Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-86) built for himself in the German Alps,  Linderhof Castle and Neuschwanstein. Linderhof, a vest-pocket version of Versailles, glistened with gilded furnishings, garish chandeliers, and expensive glass work. One of the other Americans in our group commented on Ludwig’s lack of taste, though Susan and I, who love kitsch, did not concur. Neuschwanstein, meanwhile, perfectly combined the sublime and the ridiculous. We admired its snow-white walls and soaring turrets, and its commanding view of the lakes and landscape below. However, I found the castle’s interior, its masculine dark-wood facings and huge Romantic paintings, more a subject of psychological curiosity than admiration. The stories with which Ludwig illustrated his famous retreat all came from Wagnerian operas, like Parzifal and Tannhauser, in which chaste blonde warriors fought evil and avoided (for the most part) romantic entanglements with the opposite sex. I know nothing of Ludwig's sexual orientation, but I got the strong impression that he did not much like women.

The Bavarian government hated Ludwig's extravagance, though soon after his deposition and death (some say murder) the state opened both of the "Mad King's" castles to tourists. Officials recognized, I think, that both Linderhof and Neuschwanstein were ideal tourist sites, in that both sought to transport visitors into a semi-imaginary past. As time machines to a fake past, they tell us more about the mindset of their 19th-century builder than about the eras that inspired them. Linderhof, which Ludwig built in emulation of Louis XIV, celebrated a time when monarchs ruled absolutely and by divine right. The generation before Ludwig's, the Congress of Vienna crowd, had wanted to bring that era back, but their children learned that the French and Industrial Revolutions had destroyed it. The guillotine and Napoleon* killed the divine right of kings, and industrialization, without which a modern state could neither prosper nor defend itself, required an educated populace who wanted a say in their own governance. Ludwig wanted the respect and power of a Sun King, but his parliament and ministers wouldn't allow him these courtesies. In any case, the Bavarian king couldn't follow Louis's example, because his French predecessor kept his rivals in check by binding them in the elaborate rituals of Versailles. Ludwig was too shy to dominate Bavaria's political class; he built Linderhof to get away from the royal court, not to create a new one.

Neuschwanstein, the more famous of Ludwig's castles, evokes a more intriguing and dangerous historical fantasy. Despite its telephones and central heating, New Swan Stone's builder clearly meant to evoke the mythologized medieval past that charmed the disaffected elites of nineteenth-century Europe. Wagner's operas, Walter Scott's novels, the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, and similar media allowed the haute bourgeoisie and marginal aristos to distance themselves from the awful present, with its sooty cities and grubby, grasping commoners, in favor of a pseudo-reality characterized by chastity, cleanliness, simplicity, aristocracy, and masculine courage.

As Corey Robin has observed, this retreat into an imagined medieval past inspired a new generation of industrial-age reactionaries. King Ludwig merely wanted to retreat into his castles and his fantasies, but these elitists wanted to drag the rest of society with them into a new medieval era. They valorized inequality, worshiped a tiny elite, denigrated the proletarian majority whose labor sustained them, and marginalized and infantilized women. Friedrich Nietzsche and his followers belonged to this group, as did English intellectuals like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. Ludwig was not a reactionary in practice, but he drank from the same poisoned cup as other reactionaries and proto-fascists, and one is glad that, as a mere king, he never acquired sufficient power to put a Wagnerian** agenda into practice.

(Above photos are by the author.)

* While Napoleon did make himself emperor, his reshuffling and deposition of so many European monarchs demonstrated quite clearly that there were earthly powers superior to kings.

** Although Wagner himself, at least in his youth, was a liberal revolutionary and got into considerable trouble for it.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Anti-Presidents Day: Woodrow Wilson

The reputation of Woodrow Wilson, whom American historians once ranked among the greatest of U.S. presidents, has taken in the past year a well-deserved beating. Students at Princeton have requested the removal of Wilson's name from university buildings, and the New York Times published an op ed by Gordon Davis about his grandfather, an African-American civil servant broken and impoverished by Wilson's imposition of Jim Crow on of the executive branch. Wilson's anti-black racism seems beyond dispute. His pronounced admiration for Birth of a Nation, after all, stemmed not from his appreciation of D.W. Griffith's directorial skill but from Wilson's agreement with the movie's historical premise, that whites should not permit blacks to enjoy peace and equality. 

That Wilson also had little respect for non-Europeans living outside of the United States also deserves remembrance. The 28th president twice sent U.S. troops into Mexico and initiated the long and brutal American occupation of Haiti. And, while Wilson coined the phrase "self-determination" and urged the Allies in the First World War to extend it to Eastern European peoples*, he balked at proposing independence for Asians and Africans. Wilson instead persuaded Britain and France to place the dismembered Ottoman and German Empires under League of Nations mandates, ostensibly to "civilize" their subject peoples, in practice to permit their subordination and exploitation for thirty to fifty more years. 

The war that dismembered those empires, meanwhile, allowed Wilson and his officials to demonstrate how little they valued democracy at home, as they blanketed the nation in propaganda and jailed government critics like Eugene Debs. Indeed, the Wilson administration continued to curtail domestic civil liberties (e.g. the Palmer Raids) after the armistice, though it's hard to tell whether the stroked-out Wilson was fully aware of postwar developments. It's also hard to imagine Wilson's political rival Theodore Roosevelt, a pronounced critic of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, embracing so authoritarian a policy. Nor can I easily imagine Roosevelt or Taft (who needed northern blacks' votes) turfing out African-American civil servants and praising the Ku Klux Klan. Arguably the country would have been better off if one of Wilson's adversaries had won the 1912 election. Having passed the centennial of his election, and having gained enough of a collective social conscience to recognize the more repugnant features of his presidency, we would do well to stop praising Woodrow the Racist. 

* The Allies did grant independence to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia after the war, but I would argue democratic self-determination was only a minor motive. Britain and France also wanted to punish the Central Powers and erect a cordon sanitaire between Central Europe and Bolshevik Russia. Wilson may have been a sincere friend of Poles and Czechs, but they were among a very few aspirants for national independence he supported.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

2015: My Year in Reading

Reading seems a solitary pastime, but most readers find they can improve the experience by sharing their literary explorations with others, turning their silent dialogue with the author into a more extended conversation. Your Humble Narrator confines most of his book talk to Goodreads, and has not composed an end-of-year superlatives list in many years. Bearing in mind, though, the pleasure of reading more communally (so to speak), I realized my blog readers might enjoy hearing about some of the more memorable books I read this past year, and perhaps share their own discoveries (and warnings). Here, then, is a summary of the high, low, and weird notes struck by the 140-plus books I read in 2015:

Most Overrated: The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. I read the original version of this, and Saint Augustine both told a better story and took less time to come to the point.
Famous Author of Whose Works I Read Several and Forgot Nearly All: Agatha Christie
One Exception to the Above: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Work I Was Obliged to Read for a Public Address and Found Surprisingly Entertaining: True Grit, by Charles Portis. If you haven't read it, do yourself the favor.

Favorite Non-Genre Novel: An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine

Works that Allegedly Treated of Bureaucratic Institutions but Actually Had More to Do with Superheroes: The Utopia of Rules, by David Graeber

Other Non-Fiction That Left An Impression: Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden; Missoula, by Jon Krakauer; The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert; Between the Moon and Timbuktu, by Nina Sovich

Works of History That Made Me Feel, in Contrast to Their Very Talented Authors, Like a Fast-Aging Mediocrity: Real Native Genius, by Angela Hudson; Gathering Together, by Sami Lakomaki

"This Year," the Disembodied Voice in My Head Declared, "You Must Read Two Monographs on the Delaware Indians, And They Shall Be:" A Nation of Women, by Gunlog Fur; Lenape Country, by Jean Soderlund

Primary Source I Was Pleased to Find at Half-Price Books: The Shipwrecked Men, by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

Best History I Read This Year: Black Earth, by Timothy Snyder   

Genre Author of Whose Works I Read Entirely Too Many, Perhaps Driven by Compulsion: Eric Flint

Weirdest Novel of the Year: Sign of the Labrys, by Margaret St. Clair

Books That, after I Read them, Made me Feel Like Every Page Dripped Slime: Victoria, by Thomas Hobbes, a reactionary screed masquerading as a post-Collapse novel, whose heroes cosplay Prussian aristocrats and Constantinian legionnaires, refer to African-Americans as "orcs," and massacre college professors. Like you do.

Sci-Fi Novels That I Actually Enjoyed: A Darkling Sea, by James Cambias; The Red: First Light, by Linda Nagata; Windswept, by Adam Rakunas; Chasing the Phoenix, by Michael Swanwick; The Martian, by Andy Weir; Implied Spaces, by Walter Jon Williams

SF-related Non-Fiction Book Good Enough That I Was Willing to Spend $18 for the Ebook: Hot Earth Dreams, by Frank Landis

Monday, November 30, 2015

Alexander McGillivray Strikes a Pose

Midway through my graduate studies, the editors of American National Biography commissioned me to write two entries on early American congressmen. Both of my subjects, William Loughton Smith and William Vans Murray, shared a common regional and party identity, apropos of which my adviser Lance Banning said I would soon become an expert on obscure Southern Federalists. Not a terribly marketable specialty, I had to admit. Fortunately, Lance's prediction did not come to pass, and the assignment instead brought me more tangible benefits: one of my first professional writing credits, a modest but welcome paycheck, and some useful bits of research.

Of the two congressmen Smith proved the less likable. He struck me as a typical spoiled conservative rich kid: born into money in South Carolina, educated abroad, lukewarm about the American Revolution but keen to draw a salary from the new national government it created, and supportive of Alexander Hamilton's elitist national economic program. After his few mildly consequential terms in Congress, W.L.S. became the United States' minister to Portugal, a suitably obscure last chapter to an obscure public career. The men with whom Smith worked, however, were often quite famous, and one particularly intriguing acquaintance became directly relevant to my dissertation and first book.

In 1790 William Smith attended the formal signing of the United States' first treaty with the Creek Indian confederacy, the Treaty of New York. After the main event, Smith exchanged a few pleasantries with the most famous Creek man at the conference, Alexander McGillivray. Since the end of the Revolutionary War, the biracial warlord had harried Southern white frontiersmen and perturbed American officials. Now assuming a more pacific and magnanimous posture, McGillivray told the congressman that “his Nation [the Creeks] had been always much pleased with the conduct of South Carolina and had been well treated by us.” By contrast, he continued, the white inhabitants of neighboring Georgia “thought too highly of their own power and too meanly of that of his [McGillivray's] nation.” The new treaty gave Georgia “a line more favorable than they had any right to expect” - an allusion to the Creeks' recent raiding campaigns against that state's frontier, the military power they had displayed, and Creek chiefs' subsequent willingness to give Georgians some of the Creek lands they demanded. Smith closed by noting that George Washington and his secretary of war, Henry Knox, had been competing with one another in expressions of courtesy and hospitality toward the Creeks. Their solicitousness may have contributed to McGillivray's good humor, but probably had no bearing on the outcome of the treaty itself. 

Indeed, McGillivray displayed rather more hauteur in his conversation with Smith than one would expect from a southeastern Indian leader, especially one on a diplomatic mission. His arrogant posture toward Georgia, I suspect, was just that, a pose. Native American diplomatic conferences were always stagy and dramatic events, though they differed in one significant way from stage plays: the Indian "actors" usually got to write their own parts. McG had apparently, in this exchange at least, decided to adopt the role and dialogue of a triumphant but magnanimous general. Perhaps he modeled his part on some of the reading he had done while he was a boy, attending school with white colonists' children in Smith's own hometown of Charleston, back in South Carolina. The cultural distance between nabob and warlord wasn't always as great as one might assume.

Sources: George Rogers Jr., ed., "Letters of William Loughton Smith to Edward Rutledge" (8 Aug. 1790), South Carolina Historical Magazine 69: 135; Michael D. Green, "Alexander McGillivray," in R. David Edmunds, ed., American Indian Leaders: Studies in Diversity (Lincoln, 1980), 41-63.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Introducing the Turtle Island Examiner

Your Humble Narrator announces with pleasure that he has launched a new weblog at H-AMINDIAN, titled “The Turtle Island Examiner.” The blog will focus on Native American history, generally (though not exclusively) pre-twentieth century, and I intend to update it twice per month. Here are links to, and summaries of, the first four posts:

Introduction: An explanation of the blog's purpose and title

Who Your People Are: An introduction to YHN and his people, going several centuries back

Extinction Event: Dating the Anthropocene, and how post-Columbian depopulation changed the planet

Devourer of Towns: How Washington got his famous alias, for an event that happened 57 years before his own birth.

I still plan to blog here once or twice a month, though I will most likely concentrate on non-Native American history, current events, and the occasional bit of snarkiness. I hope some of my readers will also join me over at TIE, but if not I'll periodically post aggregated updates and links to Examiner posts here at Stranger Things.