Friday, December 30, 2011

A Parting Quote for 2011

"Dresden, royal residence of dukes and kings of Saxony since the Middle Ages, whose Baroque skyline had inspired painters such as Canaletto, where Friedrich Schiller had written 'Ode to Joy' and which Napoleon had seized for his imperial command, greeted the 150 POWs trudging into the city on January 12, 1945, with a billboard proclaiming TRINK COCA-COLA."

From Charles Shields's new biography of Kurt Vonnegut, And So It Goes (New York, 2011), p. 62. The sentence above is a good sample of Shields' prose, which is lively, perceptive, and humorous. The biography as a whole is first-rate, and doesn't pull any punches.

Vonnegut's experiences as a prisoner-of-war, particularly his witnessing the firebombing of Dresden, shaped the author's most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. For all that book's strengths (and it is a masterpiece), Vonnegut was a novelist, not a historian, and his account of the Dresden bombing is not the most accurate. His famous summary of the attack, to the effect that it only benefited one person and that person was Vonnegut - and that "one way or another, I made five bucks for every person killed" - is doubly incorrect. The author's sardonic estimate of the profit he made from the dead assumes that 135,000 people died in the attack, an assumption based on David Irving's 1963 book on Dresden. Irving has a habit, shall we say, of playing fast and loose with the truth, and he overstated German casualties by at least 75,000.

Vonnegut's other observation, that he was the only beneficiary of the Dresden raid, is also untrue, though few people know the truth of the matter: that the attack on Dresden saved the city's tiny surviving Jewish population from deportation to the death camps, was originally scheduled to take place three days after the raid. Among the survivors was Victor Klemperer, whose harrowing diary remains one of the best primary sources on Jews' experiences in Germany during the war.


Happy New Year, everyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

10 Centuries, 10 Links

1100s: Here's a recent Slate article on the 12th-century Lewis Chessmen. (The shield-chewing berserker rook is probably my favorite, with the pensive queen a close second.)

1200s: A blog entry, lavishly illustrated, on the geological and strategic importance of the town of Stirling during the wars of William Wallace. Look closely enough and you can see a tiny figure of Mel Gibson, mooning his adversaries.

1300s: The 14th-century Arab traveler, Ibn Battuta, who journeyed 75,000 miles during his lifetime, is being honored with a videogame. Apparently, there are zap guns.

1400s: While we're on the subject of guns, want to watch a short video demonstrating the use of the Hussites' early 15th-century handguns, the pistala (pipe gun) and hakovnice (hook gun)? Of course you do. (The clip is about halfway down the page).

1500s: Double-entry bookkeeping was first used in Europe in the 14th century, but the first popular text on the practice, Quaderno doppio col suo giornale, wasn't published until 1540. A webpage from the AMS follows the narrative of this 16th-()century textbook and finds that it is still a useful explanation of this accounting practice.

1600s: Sarah Underwood and Kathleen Brown try to guess what the 17th-century Pilgrims must have smelled like at the first Thanksgiving. Best not to read this one before dinner.*

1700s: Lynn Hunt, one of the world's experts on the 1789 French Revolution, recommends the five most influential books on the subject. Looks like I'm going to have to read R.R. Palmer's opus fairly soon.

1800s: The U.S. Mint will issue two coins in March 2012 honoring the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The coins will refer to the two images that most Americans associate with the war: the Star-Spangled Banner, and unnamed warships firing desultory broadsides at each other.

1900s: Did the French build a fake Paris during the First World War to fool German aerial bombers? Apparently so.

2000s: And Hungary has apparently decided that the best way to start the second decade of the 21st century is to slide back into fascism...

(Update, 12 July 2018: The Underwood and Brown piece is no longer available, but this more recent essay by Ruth Goodman suggests the Pilgrims didn't smell as bad as one might think.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

President Antichrist, Jr.

Writing in Slate Magazine, Forrest Wickman observed that would-be presidential assassin Oscar Ortega-Hernandez was hardly displaying originality when he called President Obama the "Antichrist." Other adversaries of the 44th president, including his 2008 election opponent John McCain (in a commercial called "The One" that was tailored to fans of the Left Behind novels), have either directly or indirectly called Obama the Antichrist, and a variety of ministers, politicos, and garden-variety crackpots have leveled the charge against twentieth-century presidents, including John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt. In his wonderful blog Goblinbooks, author Paul Bibeau argues that FDR wasn't the first American chief executive to earn this distinction, noting a famous Punch cartoon that depicted Abraham Lincoln as the "devil's minion," and quoting a Samuel Padover biography of Thomas Jefferson to the effect that many New Englanders regarded Jefferson as Antichrist. Since Padover provides no direct quotes, however, it seems that no-one actually went on record (in a region where record-keeping was obsessive) calling T. J. the Antichrist or Devil. Instead, Jefferson's religious critics seem to have regarded him as another "devil's minion," guilty of moral indecency and religious infidelity.

During the contentious 1800 presidential election, some Federalist editors warned pious New Englanders to "hide their Bibles should Jefferson be elected" (John Ferling, Adams vs. Jefferson [Oxford UP, 2004], 154), and one overwrought political cartoonist portrayed Jefferson trying to sacrifice the federal Constitution on a Satanic "altar of Gallic despotism" - a reference to the anticlerical, Deistic, and frequently despotic French Republic that Jefferson had supported.* In the cartoon, Jefferson is stopped by a "federal eagle" under the watchful gaze of God Almighty, who appears to have taken the form of a cloud with a giant eye. In reality, neither imaginary eagles nor amorphous deities stopped Jefferson from becoming president, and Jefferson's election apparently did not stop Federalists from calling him an atheist monster.** Somehow, though, the Devil managed to avoid eating the Constitution, and the republic, as it usually does, survived.

* The document near Jefferson's right hand in this cartoon is his famous 1796 letter to Phillip Mazzei, in which he called the Federalists the "Anglican monarchical aristocratical party" (not entirely untrue) and intimated that the very highest Federalist officials, "men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council...have had their heads shorn by the harlot England." (Merrill Peterson, ed., The Portable Thomas Jefferson [Viking Penguin, 1975], 470.) Piled up at the base of the altar, meanwhile, are bags of treasure from various small countries that Revolutionary France has plundered, including the United States.

** This despite Jefferson's well-publicized attendance of at least one church service while in office and his opening of Treasury and War Department offices for religious services (James Hutson, "Thomas Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists: A Controversy Rejoined," William and Mary Quarterly 56 [Oct. 1999], 775-790).

Update, 13 December: The redoubtable Susan Frey has located a political cartoon, "Office Seekers of 1834," portraying Andrew Jackson as the Devil; it may be found here. Since Jackson's critics had already denounced him as a murderer, bigamist, despot, and would-be monarch, we shouldn't be surprised that one of them added "Oh, and he's the Antichrist, too. Just sayin'."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Douchebag

A few weeks ago I took Niall Ferguson to task for an essay, excerpted in part from his book Civilization, that he published in Newsweek, arguing that when empires fell they did so rather suddenly and that the United States might be on the verge of doing so. I asserted both in my comment and title that Ferguson was something of a "dolt," insofar as his essay betrayed considerable ignorance about the way historical events actually happen. I now wish to apologize to my readers for referring to Ferguson as a dolt, which turns out to be an inadequately pejorative epithet. He is, in fact, a douchebag.

I base this judgment on a kerfuffle that has arisen in the London Review of Books, where Pankaj Mishra reviewed Ferguson's Civilization and several of his earlier books in a long review essay ("Watch This Man," 3 Nov. 2011.) Mishra compared Ferguson to Theodore Stoddard, a purveyor of white-supremacist fantasies from the 1920s, and like Ferguson a writer who warned of the decline of the West relative to a vaguely sinister East. While not calling Ferguson a racist, he did accuse him of stoking the "racial anxieties" of the Euro-American elite and of writing at least one "Stoddardesque" book (The Pity of War, 1998) bemoaning the crippling impact of World War One on the British Empire, for which empire he later wrote at least one avowed apologetic, Empire (2003).

Regarding Ferguson's latest book, Mishra noted that not all of the author's "killer apps" were confined to Western Europe in the early modern era; Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, and India all had strong work ethics, abundant trade, and strong consumer economies until 1800. Perhaps more importantly, "killer apps" weren't necessarily the keys to the West's conquest of the "Rest"; in the case of the Americas and Australasia, epidemic diseases and Eurasian livestock were (as Alfred Crosby and Jared Diamond have argued) probably more important than technology and hard work in effecting English and Spanish colonization. And once the West conquered the Rest, its empires left behind a legacy that was ambiguous at best and often ghastly - vide the serial famines and economic devastation that the British left in India, the destruction of indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere and the South Pacific, and the mountain of bodies that the Belgians left in the Congo in the early twentieth century.

Mishra's review, it is fair to say, is a hostile one. I cannot judge whether it is an accurate treatment of Ferguson's book, not yet* having read Civilization, but I can say that Ferguson has overreacted to it. In the LRB's November 17th issue Mr. F. wrote an angry letter (scroll up to read), claiming Mishra had engaged in "character assassination" by insinuating that Ferguson was a racist, and owed Ferguson a public apology. In his reply, Mishra did not exactly apologize - he said Ferguson was guilty of the same "pathology" that George Orwell diagnosed in James Burnham, power-worship - but he did write that Ferguson was "no racist" and went on to argue Ferguson had misrepresented his review essay.

This was unacceptable to Professor Ferguson, who replied (scroll down) that Mishra's "mealy-mouthed" assertion and the "smear" that followed it vitiated any apologetic intent in Mishra's reply. He closed his second letter by noting that "the freedom of the press does not extend to serious defamation, at best reckless, at worst deliberate and malicious," and upped the ante, demanding apologies from both Mishra and his editor and insinuating that he planned a lawsuit. In his second reply, Mishra noted that Ferguson has long defended "the innate superiority, indeed indispensibility, of Western civilization," and offered the following Ferguson quote (from earlier this year) as evidence:

"The Apache and the Navajo had all sorts of admirable traits. In the absence of literacy we don’t know what they were because they didn’t write them down. We do know they killed a hell of a lot of bison. But had they been left to their own devices, I don’t think we’d have anything remotely resembling the civilisation we’ve had in North America."

So the subjugation and dispossession of the Apaches and Navajos, and I assume that of many other Native Americans, was justified in Ferguson's view by the great civilization that Anglo-Americans built in their former homeland. I might wonder if Ferguson is aware of the civilizations that some Native North Americans, like the Chaco Canyon peoples (Anasazi) and Mississippians, actually built on this continent prior to European contact, or what the Good Professor would say about the Native peoples, notably the "Civilized Tribes" of the southeastern U.S., who made a concerted effort to "download" Western Europe's "killer apps" in the 19th century and were still squashed by the U.S. government. But I doubt Ferguson gives a damn; he's too busy bursting with anger over an unfavorable book review and preparing to sue the reviewer in the name of freedom of the press.

* I guess I'll have to read it now, and possibly review some of its content. Stay tuned.

[Note: An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to Prof. Ferguson as "Andrew Ferguson." His real, full name is "Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson."]

Monday, November 21, 2011

What I Saw of the 2011 Ethnohistory Conference, Part Two

Continued from my previous post, here are summaries of or excerpts from nine more papers I attended last month at the annual meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory:

Evan Nooe
argued that violence, as employed by the Red Stick Creeks in 1812-13, was part of the Creeks' judicial system, and that their targets in the Fort Mims attack of 1813 tended to be white women and children because Creek men were attacking lineages, not individuals.
Elena Vega Olivera revealed that the children's novel Island of the Blue Dolphins was based on the story of a real person – a California Indian woman stranded on San Nicolas Island, who was "rescued" in 1853 and died of illness almost immediately thereafter.
Kristalynn Shefveland reminded her audience that the Chesapeake colonies were major players in the seventeenth-century Indian slave trade, and observed that the enslavement of Native Americans, particularly children and those convicted of crimes, continued in Virginia well after a 1691 statute banned the practice.
David Silverman argued that if the New England Algonquians had maintained their access to the trading center of Albany, they might have been able to prevail in King Philip's War, but their exclusion therefrom by the Mohawks cut off their supply of powder and ammunition.
Christina Snyder observed that elite Choctaw students at Richard Johnson's Choctaw Academy behaved rather like the sons of white planters, breaking into Johnson's house and holding "drunken orgies" with the (perhaps not-entirely-willing) daughters of Johnson's slave "concubine" Julia Chinn.
Jessica Stern explained something I'd been wondering about for ages – why British trade regulations stipulated that traders in the southeast had do business in Indian towns (answer: so that chiefs could supervise the trade) – and then noted that Indian hunters routinely ignored these regulations.
Carl Strong gave an ill-considered paper about John Collier's efforts to disprove the "Indian-ness" of the Unkechaug and Shinnecock Indians of Long Island and the Lumbees of North Carolina.
John Troutman told the story of Neal "Pappy" McCormick, an Creek musician who led a Hawaiian/hillbilly/gospel band (one of whose performers was Hank Williams, Sr.), and later became an activist for federal recognition of the remaining Georgia Creeks.
And Susan Wade talked about the evolution of maple sugar into a valuable commodity in the Great Lakes Indian trade; the Ojibwe sold this former "starvation food" (Larry Nesper's words) to the American Fur Company, which in turn shipped it by the ton and marketed it in Cleveland, Detroit, and other Great Lakes towns where cane and beet sugar were expensive.
Thanks to all for their presentations, and for making this a stimulating conference.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What I Saw of the 2011 Ethnohistory Conference, Part 1

The Annual Meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory, a multidisciplinary academic organization dedicated to historical research on indigenous peoples (specializing in the peoples of the Western Hemisphere), took place last month in Pasadena, California. Your humble narrator was privileged to hold a place on this year's program and to present a paper on Chickasaws and commodification, though he was equally privileged to have attended nearly twenty other academic papers on aspects of Native North American history. In this and my next weblog post, I will be providing short summaries of or excerpts from the presentations I heard in Pasadena, beginning with these:
Mikaela Adams, as part of a fascinating comparative study of tribal citizenship in the post-Civil War southeast, noted that Mormon missionaries taught the Catawbas of South Carolina that they could "whiten" themselves by renouncing sin, as their "Lamanite" ancestors had once been white. (By 1900 or so, 80% of Catawbas were Mormons.)
Bill Carter complicated our view of Native Americans’ dependency on European goods by reporting that much of the merchandise requested by Iroquois in the late eighteenth century – even those at the Revolutionary-era refugee settlements near Fort Niagara – was “non-utilitarian” (e.g. jewelry, fancy shirts, tobacco), and thus represented things with which Indians could easily dispense.
Julia Coates ruefully observed that many modern Cherokee Indians view their tribal membership card as merely an access point to services ("What do I get?"), then noted that people who took the Cherokee Nation's 40-hour Cherokee history course tended instead to view that card as a badge of ethnic pride and responsibility.
John Douglass and Steven Hackel described a recently excavated Gabrielino-Tongva site, probably the village of Guaspet, in the marshland near West Los Angeles, noting that the Indians there had family ties with Chumash and Catalina Indians (reflected in baptismal records) and traded with both for Spanish goods like shoes, beads, and copper pots (for drinking chocolate).
Tim Garrison, ably represented by Michael Green, reported on lawyer Elisha Chester's bizarre plan to relocate Cherokees, Choctaws and Creeks to the Columbia River Valley, where they could live without being molested by whites and serve the United States as colonial settlers in a contested region.
Alice Kehoe gave a negative overview of John Collier's Indian policy, codified in the "paternalistic" Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, and joined it to a shout-out to Richard Nixon, who stressed Indian autonomy (or some facsimile thereof) during his troubled presidency.
William Kiser discussed the evolution of Navajo pawnshops into large businesses (some occupying 12,000 square feet) with inventories of 60,000 or more items, noted their accession to some Navajo demands (like never selling "dead pawn"), and also noted in passing the high interest rates they charged (30-40% per annum).
Kevin McBride noted that the Pequot Indians had a network of tributaries and trading partners extending from Iroquoia to eastern New England, from whom they acquired goods such as "Mohawk stone" (greywacke) war hammers and Dutch brass kettles (which they cut into arrow points), and to whom, in the latter case, they owed protection, which generated the 1636 attack on Wethersfield which started the Pequot War.
Rowena McClinton, in a tribute session to Theda Perdue, noted that Cherokee women continued to consult conjurors in the nineteenth century because conjuring provided Cherokee women w/rituals that reinforced family relationships.
(To be continued...)

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Dolt

I sometimes envy Niall Ferguson his productivity, but that envy rarely survives contact with the ponderous prose that Ferguson uses in his books and the diaphanous twaddle that appears in his columns. Take his latest essay in Newsweek, “America’s ‘Oh Shit’ Moment.” Let us set aside, for the moment, the most grating element of this column: Ferguson’s determination to seem “cool” by dropping cultural references that are both out of date and irrelevant to his argument. The dorm-room poster to which the title of the essay refers is sufficiently old that I don’t recall ever seeing it in college (and I’m not a young man), and Ferguson’s reference to the hoary Mac-vs.-PC debate isn’t going to win him many new readers among the 17-to-21 set.
Instead, your humble narrator would like to draw attention to the biggest intellectual flaw in Ferguson’s piece: his assertion, buttressed with historical examples, that when great nations fall they fall quickly and catastrophically. Ferguson is fond of disaster scenarios, to the point where they appear to have clouded his judgment. He asserts that Imperial Rome and the Soviet Union are both relevant examples of great empires that fell with great alacrity. Actually, both of these states had been undergoing serious internal problems for decades, if not centuries, before they formally “fell.” Rome experienced a hundred years of civil war, foreign invasion, plague and famine in the 3rd century CE, and entered the 4th century a much diminished empire. However, thanks to reforms by emperors such as Diocletian and Constantine, it was able to survive for nearly two more centuries. The Soviet Union, for its part, had been in serious trouble for almost 30 years before its collapse in 1991. In the early 1960s its industrial sector began to stagnate and its cities began to run out of food; only by selling oil and natural gas and borrowing money was the Politburo able to import enough grain to survive. These stopgaps lasted for about 25 years, and then they failed, and so did the Soviet Union. Final collapse may come quickly, but it is usually preceded by a long and often highly visible period of decline.
Ferguson argues that the United States is coming close to collapse by neglecting the "killer apps" that made the West great. However, some of the evidence he adduces in support of this argument is contradictory or otherwise flawed. He notes that American consumerism is declining and also that Americans don't save enough, which suggests that he thinks we should be both consuming and saving more money. One can't really do both at once, not on the scale needed to resuscitate a stagnant economy. He also infers that the United States runs the risk of falling behind East Asia in public health because the U.S., Japan, and China now all have life expectancy in the 73-83 range. That's good news for China and Japan, but it's relatively easy to raise life expectancy from 43 to 73 (through better nutrition and preventative medicine); it's much harder and more expensive to raise it from 78 to 88. As with other forms of growth, the U.S. is simply running into diminishing returns as its economy and society mature, and so will Japan and China and (eventually) India.
Of Ferguson’s solutions to our collective ills, the less said the better. He seems to favor abolition of public education – or at least the expansion of tax-funded voucher programs – the abolition of “pseudosciences and soft subjects” (like history?) in universities, the elimination of banking regulations, and admonishing Americans to work harder and save more money. The former three projects are beloved of Republican governors and legislators throughout the United States. The last was actually advice that David Halberstam was giving Americans 20 years ago, warning that if we didn’t work harder and save more we would never have an economy as successful as Japan’s. That path didn’t lead Japan anywhere we would care to follow. Perhaps, with 9 percent unemployment and flat consumer sales, we would actually be better off if everyone in the U.S. worked less and consumed more.
Just as a stopped clock is right at least twice a day, however, Ferguson does have one intelligent thing to say: “We need to download the updates that are running more successfully in other countries, from Finland to New Zealand, from Denmark to Hong Kong, from Singapore to Sweden.” I don’t disagree. Americans have gotten a number of good political and economic ideas from abroad, including secret ballots and Social Security. One suspects that Ferguson and I would disagree about what constitutes a good “update” to our national operating system, but let’s give credit where it’s due, especially since so little is due.