Monday, May 14, 2018

Program Notes

My usual monthly (or twice-monthly) post here will have to wait, alas, until early June. My better half and I will be traveling for several weeks, and the end-of-semester grading crunch drained the time I would normally use to finish one or more of my current blog projects. These, which I will endeavor to start posting next month, include:

* A short essay on Rosalba Carriera (1673-1758), the Venetian artist who invented the Rococo style,

* Reflections on David Graeber and David Wengrow's great new essay, "How to Change the Course of Human History,"

* An exploration of the connections between Qing-era Chinese fashion and the Lewis & Clark expedition, 

* and perhaps a word or two about the new book I've got coming out later this month. 

See you in a few weeks.


Monday, April 23, 2018

The Man It Pleases Us to Despise

The man whom it pleases a large but unpleasant minority of Americans to call their president has made little secret of his hatred for Native Americans. In the 1990s he questioned the identity of his business rivals, the Mashuntucket Pequots, declaring before Congress that “They don’t look like Indians to me.” He accused the Oneidas of building a casino as a front for organized crime. More recently he labeled one of his political adversaries, Senator Elizabeth Warren, who had (somewhat inaccurately) claimed Cherokee ancestry, as “Pocahontas” – a slur in the sense that it blurred the identities of different Indian nations together, and caricatured Native women. DJT also held a ceremony honoring Navajo/Nadene “code talkers” in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, perhaps the most famous Indian-hater in American history. The chief executive sees Jackson as one of his personal models, though unlike Jackson he prefers slow-motion genocide to a more complicated program of ethnic cleansing.

That, at least, seems the implication of the Trump administration’s current Native American health policies. In his recent budget proposals to Congress, the president* called for cuts to the Indian Health Service, a vital agency for people who suffer both from poverty and chronic illnesses. Earlier this month, the Trumpista Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that, after Indian leaders asked for an exemption from several state governments’ newly-imposed Medicaid work requirements, the DHHS refused. Native Americans, the department said, comprised a racial group, not sovereign entities, and deserved no preferential treatment. Since 1976 Medicaid has served as a complementary funding agency with the Indian Health Service, and restrictions on Native people’s ability to use Medicaid would place a huge, probably unsupportable, burden on the IHS. Medicaid work requirements, meanwhile, are a dumb idea to begin with – good health is a prerequisite to full-time work, not the reverse – and would pose a particularly large barrier to health care for Indians, who thanks to the isolation of reservations suffer from an unemployment rate above ten percent. The policies, taken as a whole, seem designed to deny Native Americans access to health care and condemn tens of thousands of them to early deaths. That crosses the line from callousness to murderous intent.

The DHHS declaration that Native Americans are not sovereign entities is almost equally troubling. It simply does not conform with the facts. Indigenous Americans signed 400 treaties with the United States between 1778 and 1871. In those treaties the U.S. government repeatedly affirmed Indian nations’ possession of most of the core attributes of sovereignty: defined territorial boundaries; a government-to-government relationship with a sovereign power (namely, the U.S. government); a defined national identity, with (in some cases) the ability to define who was a member of the nation; and national resources, like land or school funds or annuities (paid for with land cessions) under tribal control. These resources, let us note, included federally-provided health care. The Treaties of Medicine Lodge (1867) and Fort Laramie (1868), for instance, promised that the signatories would receive physicians and infirmaries in return for the large land cessions they made to the United States. The modern IHS, which former director Mary Smith called “the largest prepaid health system in the world — [paid for] through land and massacres” – descends from these inter-sovereign obligations.

I’ve written about the relationship between treaties and sovereignty before. Here, let me just reiterate that most independent nations have recognized these as sovereign attributes since the 1931 Montevideo Convention, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the validity of Indian treaties and Native American sovereign identity in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Blue Jacket v. Commissioners of Johnson County (1865), Winans v. U.S. (1905), and Williams v. Lee (1959). Tribal sovereignty is not a fiction ginned up by social justice warriors. It is a juridical, legal, and constitutional reality. Even Andrew Jackson understood that point, which is one reason he signed seventy treaties with Indian nations – more than any other president – during his time in the White House. 

I shudder to think what the seventh president would have made of the forty-fifth. DJT and his fascist advisor Steve Bannon see Trump as a modern-day Jackson, but the real Andrew Jackson would certainly have found DJT’s vulgar contempt for women, his hatred of immigrants, and his complicity with a hostile foreign government appalling. I dare say Old Hickory would have cut out Donald Trump’s tongue. Then he would have eaten it.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Sic transit: Alfred Crosby's Intellectual Legacy

I was sorry to hear of the recent death of Alfred Crosby (1931-2018), professor emeritus at the University of Texas and one of the more influential historians of the past half-century. Crosby’s principal claim to fame was his authorship of The Columbian Exchange (1972), a study of the transfer of organisms between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres that became a foundational text in colonial and environmental history. Crosby’s book was so far ahead of its time that he could not find a university press willing to publish it and had to sign with Greenwood, an obscure independent academic publisher. Greenwood and Crosby had the last laugh, as Columbian Exchange went on to sell more than 80,000 copies (about 100 times as many as the typical academic book) in the next quarter-century.

Crosby observed that the word “exchange” in his title misled readers somewhat. Most of the biological transfers he studied ran in one direction, from the Old World to the New. Europeans introduced to the Americans new plants, like wheat and peaches and Kentucky bluegrass; new animal species, like pigs and horses and rats (all of which flourished); tens of millions of human beings, most of whom, prior to 1860, came involuntarily from Africa; and new diseases like smallpox and typhoid, which reduced the indigenous American population by more than eighty percent. In three of these categories little flowed back to the Old World. Only two or three thousand Native Americans voyaged to Europe before 1800, almost no American animals adapted to Eurasian or African environments (apart from a few small mammals like the raccoon), and no American diseases, except possibly syphilis (and Crosby expressed skepticism about its alleged American origin), crossed the Atlantic from west to east. Plants proved the great exception: Eurasians and Africans slowly but steadily adopted high-yield American food crops like maize, potatoes, and cassava, along with such piquant or addictive newcomers as cacao, tobacco, tomatoes, and chilis. American cultivars increased the total food supply of Eurasia and helped sustain high population growth there,* even as the Native American population plummeted. Columbus and his successors set off not only a major biological exchange but a global demographic revolution.

Crosby followed up this seminal publication with two more works that Native Americanists and colonialists found (I think) equally important. "Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America" (1976) asked why Eurasian diseases hit Native Americans with such ferocity, and found an answer in social dynamics. A "virgin-soil" illness, hitting a population with zero acquired immunity, sickens the entire community or region at once, leaving no-one well enough to take care of the sick. Hunger, dehydration, and cold kill many who would otherwise have a fighting chance at recovery. Ecological Imperialism (1986) extended Crosby's observation about the imbalanced character of the Columbian Exchange. In this later book he argued that the success of European colonial ventures in the "Neo-Europes," the high-latitude settler-colonial societies like Australia and the United States, depended chiefly on the organisms that the colonists brought with them, their "portmanteau biota" of livestock, weeds, and pathogens. European imperialism owed its conquests to biology, not technology or culture.**

Alfred Crosby continued publishing into his seventies. His last three books studied quantitative knowledge, projectile weapons, and energy technology, discussing these highly-technical subjects in clear, crisp, often witty prose. That he kept his mind and his writing sharp during the onset of Parkinson's Disease showed a grace and endurance most of us can only hope to attain. For my part, I will account myself very successful indeed if I can write a book even one-tenth as influential as Columbian Exchange. And I am sorry I never had a chance to meet the maestro in person.

* Europe's population doubled and China's population tripled between 1650 and 1800. 

** Ecological Imperialism won an audience outside of History departments and well beyond the academy. I first heard of the book during a panel on world-building at the 1989 World Science Fiction Convention.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Britain 0, Spain 0, Anopheles 4,000

Spain's loss of Gibraltar in 1704 eventually proved permanent, but the Spanish Crown initially had no intention of acquiescing in the cession. The rocky promontory beckoned to glory-seeking Spanish officers and revanchist monarchs, who made multiple attempts to recover the Rock in the eighteenth century. One of these helped trigger one of the more obscure conflicts of the era, the Anglo-Spanish War of 1727-1729. 

Despite its chronological subtitle, the fighting in this war lasted only a few months. A Spanish army of 18,000 mounted a desultory siege of Gibraltar, pausing its bombardment daily for siesta, a practice their British counterparts eagerly adopted. (They were as likely to spend the time drinking and copulating as sleeping.) Royal Navy ships provided effective covering fire for the defenders until Spain lifted its siege. Across the Atlantic, Britain's navy used the war to justify an offensive of its own, against the city of Portobello on the Isthmus of Panama. This had less amusing consequences. Admiral Francis Hosier's attacks on the port ran afoul of the Caribbean's deadliest resident, the mosquito Aedes aegypti, and 4,000 sailors (and the admiral) succumbed to yellow fever. To the north, one of Britain's North American colonies conducted a more successful raid against the Spanish province of Florida. Militia from South Carolina, assisted by Chickasaw warriors, attacked and dispersed the Yamasee Indians who had taken refuge near Saint Augustine after the Yamasee War (1715-16). White Carolinians didn't quite settle their scores with the Yamasees, but the raid doubtless pleased colonial governor Arthur Middleton.

The war of 1727-29 thus spread to three continents, and cost several thousand men (and a few women) their lives. It ended with a treaty that made no concessions of rights or territory, and both the war and its participants faded almost immediately into obscurity. Kings and princes usually promise those who fight for them honor and immortal glory. They lie.


Sources: James Falkner, Fire over the Rock (Pen & Sword, 2009), 8-10; John McNeill, Mosquito Empires (Cambridge UP, 2010), 1-2; Edward Cashin, Guardians of the Valley (University of South Carolina, 2009), 15.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Cotton Mather and the Bomb

In British America, in the eighteenth century, the month of November became known for the destructive revelry of Pope's Day. It was not anti-Catholic enthusaism, however, that induced someone to fling a very large firecracker - a bomb, actually - through Cotton Mather's window on the 14th day of that month, in the year 1721. Rather, the anonymous bomber wanted to lodge a protest against a controversial new medical technique, smallpox inoculation, that the clergyman had just introduced to Boston. Like other remote European colonies, Massachusetts suffered from repeated outbreaks of the dread pox. The epidemic of 1721 infected a quarter of the city and left hundreds dead. Normally New England colonists dealt with smallpox through quarantine. Deliberately inoculating a healthy person with infectious pus in order to induce a (usually mild) case of smallpox, thus bestowing immunity on whomever survived the treatment, seemed both dangerous and perverse. That Mather learned of inoculation from Boston's African slave community further undermined his credibility in the eyes of white colonists, even though West Africans had been dealing with smallpox for centuries.

The bomb, a gunpowder-and-turpentine-filled grenade, failed to detonate, allowing Mather to die peacefully in his bed six years later. It also allowed him to read the note attached to the deadly billet-doux: "Cotton Mather, you dog, damn you, I'll inoculate you with this." Such sentiments remained common in Boston for some years thereafter. Former Bostonian Benjamin Franklin declined to inoculate his own offspring, later lamenting his decision when one died of smallpox in childhood. Military necessity obliged George Washington to inoculate the Continental Army in 1777. His soldiers might have disdained the procedure but their commander didn't allow them to vote on it. Even quarantine could provoke violence, as during riots in early 1774 against the inmates of a Boston smallpox hospital. 

The notion of injecting oneself or one's children with a foreign substance, even through a very safe procedure like vaccination (inoculation with a dead or weakened microorganism), remained an uncomfortable one for many. Indeed, opposition to vaccination can be revived even in a more scientific age, and adults who religiously vaccinate their children still find the procedure creepy enough to ignore the needs of their own immune systems. How many of my readers get their flu shots every year?


Sources: Mark Peterson, "Life on the Margins: Boston's Anxieties of Influence in the Atlantic World," in Wim Klooster and Alfred Padula, eds., The Atlantic World: Essays on Slavery, Migration, and Imagination (Prentice Hall, 2005), 45-59, esp. 57-58; Pauline Maier, "Popular Uprisings and Civil Authority in Eighteenth-Century America," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 27 (Jan. 1970): 3-35, esp. 5-6.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Is it Steam Engine Time Yet?

In re-reading Alfred Crosby’s Children of the Sun (2006), I was struck by the Rube-Goldberg-like complexity of the first practical steam engine. Thomas Newcomen’s machine, which first went into operation in 1712*, used coal - the remains of Mesozoic plants - to heat water within a large boiler, the steam from which then discharged into a large, cylindrical brass chamber. The steam filled the cylinder with vapor pressure and raised a piston connected to a rocker beam. Then the mechanism cooled the cylinder with a spray of cold water, condensing the steam and creating a vacuum. Atmospheric pressure, whose power Europeans had only discovered a few decades earlier, then pushed the piston back down into the evacuated cylinder and delivered the power stroke to the rocker beam. The cycle then began anew with the refilling and condensation of the engine chamber.

Newcomen’s engine (the “Common Engine”) was clumsy and crude by the standards of later inventors, but revolutionary enough in its day: it generated five horsepower in a confined space, using fuel far cheaper than the fodder and upkeep for five living horses. Its two-cycle rocker beam could power a pump capable of draining some of the deepest coal mines in southern England. One feature of the Newcomen engine strikes me as particularly magical: the way it combined all four of the Classical elements to do its work. From the earth came the machine's black and sulfurous** fuel, and to the earth its labor returned. The common air supplied the pressure for the engine's power stroke. Water became the eponymous steam, and cooled that steam to produce the all-important vacuum. Fire generated the steam itself and thereby drove the piston upward. The chartered firm that patented Newcomen's device in 1715 encapsulated in its name the bizarre and contradictory nature of the engineer's experiment: "The Society for Moving Water by Fire." It sounds almost like an alchemists' club. I imagine Isaac Newton, who considered astronomy and astrology of nearly equal interest, would have found its work intriguing if its members weren't so declasse.

*Hellenistic Greeks knew of steam’s power and one or two had built a simple steam engine, but these functioned only as toys. The Greeks had sufficient slaves to discourage their replacement with labor-saving devices.

** I presume it used bituminous coal.

Friday, December 08, 2017

We Hate Illinois Nazis

So, this actually happened:

Last December, as my partner Susan and I were on our way to O'Hare Airport, our interurban bus driver struck up a conversation with us about the new president-elect. The driver, a white man in his sixties or early seventies - we'll call him Reinhard - expressed great satisfaction with Donald Trump's electoral victory. Now the United States could do something about all the dangerous immigrants crossing its borders and endangering its people.

It was early in the morning, and Susan and I were as yet the only passengers on the bus. Susi maintained a polite if deeply uncomfortable silence,. I decided to talk with Reinhard and see where he was coming from. I asked him which countries he thought had the most dangerous immigrants. "Oh, Syria, Iran..." He stopped there, acknowledged that his familiarity with current affairs didn't extend exceptionally far, but assured me that we Americans needed protecting. We talked a little about our own immigrant ancestors, and found we both had people from Germany. My predecessors (on my mother's side) came from the Palatinate, his from, IIRC, Saxony. Reinhard reported that two of his uncles had immigrated from Germany as recently as the 1950s. Both had to lie about their identities, he said, because both had been in the SS a decade earlier. "It had been expected of them," Reinhard said of his uncles' service to the Third Reich, because they both came from respectable families. He did not seem to see the irony of fearing allegedly dangerous immigrants when his own uncles had belonged to a dangerous, indeed famously hostile, terrorist military force, and had then entered the United States illegally. I suspect he and his family would describe his SS relatives as "some very fine people."

People will tell you the damnedest things if you'll just listen to them, sometimes.

I let the conversation dwindle, and Susi and I kept to ourselves for the rest of our trip to Chicago and our subsequent flight to Taiwan. I was only reminded of our encounter with Reinhard and his Illinois Nazi relatives when his employer made national news for its blatantly racist, anti-Asian advertising. Our driver worked for Suburban Express, you see, and on December 2nd of this year the company advertised itself as a university shuttle service for white people, promising "You won't feel like you're in China when you're on our buses." When their ad met with protests, SubExpress issued a non-apology, asserting that Chinese students imposed an unfair burden on Illinois's institutions and taxpayers, and claiming that anyone critical of the company was merely advancing a political agenda. I wonder if Reinhard has moved from driving the company's buses to running its public relations department?