Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Seventies Sucked Everywhere

Including Newfoundland, it seems, though less because of economic depression (that came later) than because the island's inhabitants remained isolated and what they received of contemporary popular culture was sad and shabby. From the National Geographic*:

"In many an outport I found one establishment emblazoned 'General Store and Entertainments.'" (This should give you a good idea of what the author was in for.) In "prosperous" fishing communities, the Entertainments "consisted of a pool table and a jukebox; if not, they consisted of a couple of pinball machines." I imagine at least one of these didn't work. The other was emblazoned with clowns. Sad clowns.

Moreover, "in only two outports did I find a movie house, each of them showing a ten-year-old movie on a screen of wrinkled canvas silvered with blotchy radiator paint." The author doesn't say, but I'll bet the movie was the original Ocean's Eleven (1960). A tedious film in the best of circumstances, despite its partial redemption by Sammy Davis Jr.'s singing.

For more provincial fare, Newfoundland residents had access to TV broadcasts from all three of the island's principal towns. And "for a more riotous social life, an outport may stage an occasional net-knitting contest, while fairs may feature competitions in fish cleaning." It almost makes Indiana sound cosmopolitan by comparison. Almost.

* G. Jennings, "Newfoundland Trusts in the Sea," Jan. 1974.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The A-Number-One President

I've remarked elsewhere on my fondness for the cult movie Escape from New York (1981), and a recent viewing of the film with my petite amie, along with an email conversation with my brother regarding the director's commentary (which is quite good), got me thinking about what still makes the film compelling. There are many answers to that question, one of which is “first-rate acting.” Adrienne Barbeau turned a throwaway part into a major character; Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, and Harry Dean Stanton showed off their decades of acting experience; Isaac Hayes brought just the right amount of eye-twitching menace to the big villain's part; Kurt Russell, fading teen-movie star, transformed himself into an action hero; and Donald Pleasence played a surprisingly convincing president.* Pleasence's chief executive was one part ineffectual cipher, a blend of Nixon's charisma with Carter's effectiveness, and one part fraying victim-turned-madman, a manifestation of Pleasence's own experience as a POW in the Second World War. I think I would prefer either part to one of the major-party candidates running for president this year. So herewith I offer:

Reasons why The President in Escape from New York was a better president than Donald Trump would be:

1) Had a better hairpiece

2) Showed respect for his social betters (dukes, etc.)

3) Personal jetliner had more modest escape pod

4) At least minimal respect for those who died for their country

5) Able to pray convincingly

6) Understood that tritium creates only one one-millionth of the biological damage of iodine-131

7) Gave useful counter-terrorism advice to member of Ford family

8) Did not insult Native Americans, even when fighting them

9) Maintained a decorous distance from the Russians

10) Didn't need an escalator – could run down fifty flights of stairs.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Can Historians Contribute to Society?

A few weeks ago Patrick Johnson, vice-chancellor of Queens University in Belfast, expressed what I suspect is a view of history commonly held by Euro-American elites: “Society doesn't need a 21-year-old who is a sixth-century historian. It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyze things, [and] understands...contributing to society.” He then announced the creation of an Office of Analyzing Things and Contributing to Society, and the appointment of a deputy vice-chancellor, two deans, and seven assistant deans to manage it. I'm kidding. (Sort of.)

In response to Johnson's remarks, Professor Jonathan Healey wrote an engaging defense of the formal study of history, which I commend to my readers' attention, Briefly, Healey noted that social leaders like to use historical examples to justify themselves, so society needs good history students to serve as fact-checkers; the general public loves a good story, and historians can provide content to the museums and script-writers who furnish the public with its history; the weirdness of the past obliges students to develop their analytical skills in order to study it; and that very weirdness reminds us that societies do change over time, and that our modern values and hierarchies are contingent and mutable.

Healey's clear, elegant essay makes a nice complement to Timothy Burke's 2008 HNN piece on the purposes of historical analysis. Using Burke's article, I would add that history also helps 21-year-olds more fully understand long-term processes, like human-induced environmental change, that have ongoing consequences in the twenty-first century. It lets us appreciate the importance of individuals in society, particularly obscure characters (like George Robert Twelves Hughes or Domenico Menocchio Scandella) whose lives and thoughts tell us more about the lived experience of an era than those of a Napoleon. Finally, history teaches humility, as students learn that they are not the only generation and that persons in the deep past have solved complicated problems without help from their descendants.

I suspect academic administrators, politicians, and other elites don't want ordinary college students to develop these skills. They want round pegs for round holes, not challengers of the status quo. But, as Healey points out – and as everyone over the age of 35 could attest – the status quo is fragile and as subject to change as any other human construct. We need people who appreciate this fact, who have studied change over time and who have the intellectual flexibility to respond to it. Their willingness to say this explains why history professors are almost never invited to speak at university commencements. It's just as well. 

(Above image, "Clio, the Muse of History," by Giovanni Baglione, is in the public domain.)

Monday, July 04, 2016

The Revolutionary Monarch

I think many Americans assume that autocratic states rest exclusively on fear, that subjects of a repressive dictator or oligarchy obey only because they and their families will otherwise suffer terrible punishment. Those familiar with the history of monarchies recognize, however, that dictatorships (hereditary or otherwise) also rest on a kind of popular magical thinking, a widespread belief that supreme rulers have powers superior to those of mere mortals. Only a few centuries have passed since Britons believed their sovereign's touch could cure scrofula; only a few decades since Japan was ruled by an actual deity; and only a few years since North Koreans paid their final tribute to Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, whose sacred birth was attended by supernatural omens.

In Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1992), James Scott observes that this tendency to ascribe super-human traits or virtues to monarchs certainly applied to imperial Russia. He quotes Lenin's contempt for Russian peasants' superstitious monarchism, their tendency “naively and blindly to believe in the Tsar-batiushka [Deliverer]” and petition him for redress (p. 97). Accompanying their faith in the Tsar-Deliverer, however, was the peasantry's complementary belief that any evils done in the tsar's name were actually the work of corrupt officials. Peasants could resist those officials while retaining their loyalty to the tsar, confident that “if the tsar only knew of the crimes his faithless agents committed in his name, he would punish them and rectify matters.” The apparently reactionary worship of a semi-divine monarch could lead to insurrectionary, even revolutionary action.

A similar dynamic drove the decade of colonial uprisings preceding the War for American Independence. Opponents of the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, the military occupation of Boston, the Tea Act, and the Coercive Acts assumed (or persuaded themselves) that these impositions came not from the king but from a corrupt Parliament. His Majesty was good and patriotic, but in the colonies, away from his watchful eye, his evil ministers tried to plant their boots on freeborn English colonists' backs. Thus Patrick Henry, denouncing the Stamp Act, simultaneously pledged to defend George III to his dying breath. Sons of Liberty settling in Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley gave their new townships such patriotic names as Hanover (after Britain's ruling dynasty) and Kingston. New Yorkers erected an equestrian statue of the king in 1771, well into the imperial crisis. As late as 1775, the American rebels referred to the British forces fighting them in Boston as “the ministerial army,” not the king's army.

Brendan McConville pointed out (The King's Three Faces, 2006) that American monarchism had not come over in the Mayflower, bur rather had been built by colonial and imperial elites. By putting royal images in their homes (on tea sets and objets d'art), celebrating royal birthdays, and burning the king's enemies in effigy on Pope's Day, the leaders of colonial society imbued their followers with affection for a distant and artificial* British monarchy. The colonists, however, viewed the king much as Russian peasants viewed the tsar: a benevolent father-figure who would right the wrongs perpetrated by aristocrats and officials. Rebellious slaves, for instance, invoked the king's aid against their masters, and rebellious white colonists considered their resistance to tax collectors and soldiers entirely consistent with loyalty to the king.

The big change, as Pauline Maier reported (American Scripture, 1997), came in early 1776, when colonial newspapers finally reported that George III had declared the colonies in rebellion and withdrawn his royal protection. The king had now publically proclaimed himself the colonists' enemy. Common Sense, published at the same time, made it safe to discuss the superstitious absurdities that underlay devotion to a monarch, and the Declaration of Independence pointedly indicted the king (not the Parliament) for abuse of power. Later in the War of Independence, the new loyalty oaths that the rebels forced upon former royalists helped dissolve the bonds of duty that still bound many to the Hanoverians. Yet the desire to follow or at least show affection for a monarch persisted in the United States into at least the 1780s – for I agree with Forrest McDonald's argument (Novus Ordo Seclorum, 1985) that residual king-worship explains Americans' celebration of the French royal family and their naming of towns and counties for the Bourbons. Arguably, it took the “party war” of the 1790s, in which “monocrat” became a deadly epithet, and the rise of a post-Revolutionary generation to bury American monarchism for good. Until the early nineteenth century, monarchism was as American as corn cakes or witchcraft trials.

So, Happy Independence Day, and God Save the Queen.

* The Hanoverian dynasty was essentially imposed on Britain by act of Parliament, and its first two rulers didn't speak English particularly well.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What I Learned at the Constanta EAAS

In April my partner Susan and I attended the biennial meeting of EAAS, the European Association of American Studies. This academic consortium brought together several hundred scholars from four continents and half a dozen disciplines (English, history, cultural studies, etc.) for five days of presentations, coffee klatches, and intellectual exchange. Practical limitations prevented me from attending more than a handful of papers, nearly all of them in my specialty of early American history, but I thought a summary of these presentations would give a sense of the scholarship on display.

Przemyslaw Damski reminded us that the fin-de-(vingtieme)-siecle United States followed a strongly interventionist foreign policy: American officials attended the 1899 Hague conference, developed the Open Door policy, and concluded treaties with Britain, and Theodore Roosevelt brokered the Treaty of Portsmouth. (We might throw in the Spanish-American War, but point taken.)

Abigail Fagan studied the German temperance movement and its adherents' relationship with American reformers in the 1830s. Temperance in central Europe grew out of liberalism, from the belief that one couldn't have a free state with a drunken populace - and, as in the U.S., from elites' desire to police the lower classes, who preferentially drank hard liquor. (This surprised me; I assumed all Germans drank beer.)

Elise Kammerer discussed Anthony Benezet's school for free black children in colonial Philadelphia. She observed that the Quakers, pioneers of education for African-Americans, wanted black children trained in grammar and vocational skills, but not to the same level as their own children - and not in the same schools.

Hilary McLaughlin-Stoneham studied segregated transport in New Orleans and the lower Mississippi Valley, noting that racially segregated streetcars and steamboats dated to the Civil War rather than the 1890s. This shouldn't have surprised me, but it did; my knowledge of segregation in the late 19th-century South derives too much from my memory of STRANGE CAREER OF JIM CROW.

Damian Pargas, who is working on a study of fugitive slaves in the urban South, observed that runaways didn't always head for the North or Canada. Many went instead to Southern cities, where they believed it likelier they would find free kinfolk and employment.

Jean Pfaelzer gave a preview of her book CALIFORNIA BOUND. Despite calling itself a "free state," nineteenth-century California was anything but. Chinese companies employed captive women as sex workers, Anglo-Americans imported 2,000 African-American slaves as "indentured servants," and whites could essentially enslave Native Americans under state vagrancy laws.

Zsolt Palotas observed that one-sixth of the early American grain trade, and much of the nation's trade in provisions, was with the Mediterranean. This made relations with the Barbary states at least as important as those with Central Europe, and tribute payments to Algiers and Tripoli correspondingly significant.

Finally, a workshop on Digital Archiving reported that the University of Salzburg is working on a searchable database of early American drama, including tags for “gender relevance:” “male vanity, hypocrisy, cowardice, female boldness, women mocking men, [and] women...performatively reproducing certain kinds of masculinity."

Since you asked, Your Humble Narrator presented a short paper on the Chickasaw students who attended Plainfield Academy, Connecticut, in the late 1840s, and Mlle.* Livingston presented on the theme of disgust in children's toys.


The Association held its conference in Constanta, Romania, a city and a country I never thought I would have occasion to visit. Romania is poor as European countries go, and some of my sights and experiences reminded me of the other second-world country I have visited, Cuba: run-down and semi-abandoned buildings in the capital, stray dogs in the towns, piles of trash in unkempt vacant lots and on the railroad tracks, mediocre food, dodgy-looking polyclinics, and old women rationing out toilet paper at the public lavatories. Yet despite its relative poverty the country had a lot of charm. The run-down buildings were often covered with ivy, the stray dogs were obviously well-fed and enjoying themselves, the train service was smooth and fast - and I've never before taken a train where book vendors came aboard shortly before departure -  and we did manage to find a couple of good restaurants (Thalia and Pata Negra) in Bucharest. I am glad that I didn't have occasion to visit one of the clinics or hospitals, however.**

The Romanians we met were friendly, thought it was funny when we tried our few words of Romanian, and wanted to know what was up with our electorate and Donald Trump. We said that confused us too. Romania recently held its own elections and decided to reinstate its former democratic socialist government, an example we Americans would do well to follow, if only we could.

(Above photos are of Ovidius University, Constanta, and a street scene on the Calea Grivitei, Bucharest. Both taken by the author.)

* Since May 15, Dr. Livingston. 
** We did patronize one of the pharmacies a couple of times, and I will say that whatever Romanians use in place of Immodium is very powerful.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Everyone Wants to Be a Wild Man

The April issue of Archaeology Magazine features an artifact, a gold spoon finial from late medieval Europe, crafted into the form of a bearded, club-wielding humanoid of doubtful sanity. The editor identifies his visage as that of the "Wild Man," a common motif in European art and ceremonial from the twelfth century to the fifteenth. Scholar Ronald Hutton notes that the Wild Man evoked earlier pagan deities and at the same time warned Christian Europeans of the chaos that lurked at the edge of their civilization. We might add Robert Berkhofer's observation (in The White Man's Indian [1978]) that the Wild Man heavily influenced Europeans' perception of Native Americans. Early modern Europeans sometimes assumed that Indians, like Wild Men, lived on raw meat or human flesh, and referred to both groups as "woods-dwellers" or "silvani" - in English, "salvages." 

What interested me most about the article was the obvious ambivalence Europeans displayed toward Wild Men. Commoners and elites feared these mythical figures but also emulated them, the latter by including them in military heraldry and by dressing as Wild Men for pageants. The image, like that of Native Americans in later centuries, suggested strength, physical courage, and a carnivalesque suspension of social rules. (We may note that the same elites who dressed as Wild Men in the fourteenth century also dressed as Brazilian Indians in the sixteenth century.) The Wild Man thus served as a precursor to the early-modern trope of the "noble savage," and a bridge between that era and the pre-Christian Europeans whom Tacitus and his Classical contemporaries admired.

Monday, May 09, 2016

The Attack Monkeys of Ningbo

I'm brushing up my knowledge of what Gary Brecher calls “the Teflon Empire” by reading Julia Lovell's clear-eyed, balanced history of the First Opium War, the event that Chinese nationalists consider the founding episode (founding atrocity, if you prefer) of modern Chinese history. Like most military conflicts, this one had few redeeming features. It doesn't even bear a very accurate name. Qing officials did destroy a lot of English opium in 1839, but the British government did not go to war as payback; rather, it wanted to humiliate the decadent government of an allegedly inferior nation. Humiliate China it did: the war proved hopelessly, tragically one sided, with thousands of demoralized Chinese troops crushed in their indefensible forts and drowned in their obsolete junks. British casualties numbered in the low hundreds. Like the Falklands War, the Opium War was (to quote Ricky Gervais) “basically a range war...the equivalent of holding a midget at arm's length...[while] you're just kicking him in the bollocks.”

There's not much levity in Lovell's book, but she does have an eye for colorful details. I particularly enjoyed her account of one of General Prince Yijing's attempts at unconventional warfare: "Before the [Chinese] assault on [British-held] Ningbo, Yijang had made room in the budget to buy nineteen monkeys: the idea was to tie firecrackers to their backs then fling them onto English ships moored nearby.”* None of the general's subordinates, however, would volunteer for monkey-tossing duty, so Yijing's special simian attack force went unused. I regret to say the monkeys' attendant eventually abandoned them to starve. The ministrations of Mars are usually cruel.

* My petite amie suggests that General Yijing had read of the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, who ignited enemy buildings with his tail.

Above image: Japanese (not Chinese, but certainly East Asian) macaques frolicking in the snow. Taken by the author, Dec. 2014.