Monday, December 31, 2012

Blogroll update

I have finally retired the link to the Orwell Diaries from my blogroll, as the site editors have posted the last entry from G.O.'s wartime journal.  Orwell went to work for the B.B.C.* in late 1942, and did not resume keeping a diary until 1946 (and his postwar diary focused almost exclusively on trivia).  It's been fun following his account of World War Two.

Replacing Mssr. Blair is a link to a new weblog put together by a group of graduate students and recent Ph.Ds in early American history, The Junto.  The site launched a couple of weeks ago, and already the authors have published several excellent articles on Jay Gitlin's Bourgeois Empire, the communitarianism of the Founding Fathers, the best history books of 2012, and other subjects.  I look forward to following their exploits.

Your humble narrator has also been alerted to this list of the 50 best American history blogs, in which his humble site appears as number 45.  Huzzah!**

Updated Update, 4 January 2013: Allow me to introduce my readers to "Baby Got Bactria," Briana Kristler's research blog on commerce, law, and architecture in pre-modern Balkh (Bactria).  Really, how could one not support a weblog with that title?

* If memory serves, the B.B.C.'s headquarters was the architectural model for the Ministry of Truth in 1984, and one of the conference rooms where Orwell's section met was Room 101.

** Pronounced "hoozay."  Really!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What I Saw of the 2012 Ethnohistory Conference

Your faithful working boy managed to attend the annual meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory, which met last month in Springfield, Missouri.  Thanks to a full teaching schedule, several midweek professional obligations (including a breakfast meeting with my university's president), and a long drive from Indiana to southwestern Missouri, I was unable to attend any panels on the opening day of the conference, though I did register and pick up my convention swag bag, including this kick-ass coffee mug.  (The Mayan letters, included in honor of the forthcoming End of Days, either read "Here Comes the ASE" or "All Hail King Seven-Jaguar Snake-Person.")

On Friday (November 9) and Saturday (the 10th), I attended the following papers, which I summarize on behalf of those of my readers who'd like to know what North American ethnohistorians are up to this year:


David Buhl ("Water Out of Nowhere: Technological Solutions to a Legal Failure on Salt River Reservation") discussed the early 20th-century struggle for water rights on the Salt River Pima reserve, noting that despite a federal court decision (the Winters case of 1905) upholding Pima water rights, the Office of Indian Affairs let white farmers take most of the Salt River's water and sink new wells whenever there was a drought.

Brenda Child ("Healing and Renewal: Ojibwe Women, Nursing, and the Influenza of 1918") gave a brief biography of Lucient Levoy, an Ojibwa boarding-school student who worked as a volunteer nurse in Washington, DC, during the Spanish flu pandemic.  Child used this to start a brief discussion of the impact of the flu pandemic on the Anishinaabeg, who created a new "healing culture" (based on ceremonies like the jingle-dress dance) in the wake of the flu.

Regna Darnell ("The Transportability of 'Home' across First Nations Territory and Generation") discussed the concept of home for the formerly nomadic Algonkian peoples of Ontario.  She defined a homeland as a place with which a people have a personal and familial relationship, where they gather periodically to renew social relationships; it is not necessarily a long-term dwelling place nor a store for resources.  Darnell's paper would have nicely complemented Sami Lakömaki's argument (based on his work on the Shawnees) that a people's kin network, however far-flung, can serve as their homeland.  Indeed, Darnell and Lakömaki were scheduled to be on the same panel, but Sami wasn't able to make it.

Tom Fujii ("Cash, Gold Dust, and Credit: California Indian Economic Advancement") gave a wide-ranging paper on California Indians' economic strategies (to 1870), from which I learned that archaeologists have discovered glass trade beads in California dated to the early seventeenth century, and that the California Indians used glass and shell beads as currency into the mission era.

Mattie Harper ("White, Black, or Ojibwe?: The Bonga Family and Race in Minnesota") made the useful point that race was a fluid category in early Minnesota Territory.  Census takers were happy to classify mixed-race families like the Bongas as white in order to qualify Minnesota for a territorial legislature, while missionaries generally distinguished Indians from "half-breeds" by cultural markers like clothing and the "habiliments of civilization."

Clara Sue Kidwell ("Law and Order in the Choctaw Nation") talked about the 1826 Choctaw constitution, which she argues is (in part) a product of the 1825 diplomatic mission to Washington, DC that killed two of the Choctaws' traditionalist chiefs, Pushmataha and Puckshunubbe, and cleared the way for a more progressive faction to draft a new frame of government.  The paper was a preview for a book Clara Sue has coming out soon on this constitution.

Daniel Monteith ("A Story about the Taku Kwaan and a Tlingit Village on Douglas Island") presented on the Tlingit community of Douglas Island, Alaska, who were marginalized when the Treadwell Mining Company built a massive mining complex and refinery near their home in the 1880s.  Treadwell killed off most of the herring population, left toxic ore tailings on the beaches, and bulldozed one of the nearby Tlingit villages after it was partly destroyed in a fire.  From this paper I learned an interesting piece of climate history: the Alaska Gold Rush was partly a product of global warming, since glacial melting at the end of the Little Ice Age exposed surface quartzite deposits that indicated, to experienced miners, the presence of subsurface gold.

Jonathan Olsen ("Fur Trade Imports, Indigenous Spirituality, and the Conflation of Economic Performance") revisited Claude Schaeffer's 1965 Ethnohistory article about the Kutenai female berdache, Madame Boisverd, observing that she claimed to have had both her gender and her physical sex altered by British traders and to have received the power of prophecy from them.  Olsen argued that we need to remember the close connection between economic and spiritual power, and between trade and religion, in Native North America.  For my part, I was somewhat distracted by Olsen's statement that the Pacific Northwest was part of the "Atlantic World," an assertion supported by much of the audience.  Throw in the towel, would-be Pacific World scholars; you've lost.

Robert Przeklasa, Jr("One Flea-Bitten Grey Horse: Women, Horses and Economy on the Yakama Reservation") reported that among the early 20th-century Yakamas, the principal purchasers and owners of horses were women, who used the animals on their long-range gathering expeditions.  About 60 percent of the Yakamas' calories came from wild plants, and women traveled up to 80 kilometers from their winter camps to gather them.

Michael Witgen's paper ("Crime and Punishment on the Borderland of Anishinaabewaki and the United States") I could barely hear, but it apparently dealt with an 1837 murder case in western Wisconsin, in which territorial officials intervened by employing biracial American Fur Company employees as witnesses.  Witgen also brought up the distinction between colonialism (the subordination of an indigenous people to a settler/intruder population) and settler-colonialism (the extirpation and replacement of indigenes), but I didn't see the connection between this analysis and the rest of the paper.  One hopes he will publish this paper in the near future, so that I can figure out what the author was saying.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Through the 18th-Century Midwest with Commandant Sabrevois (Part Two)

(For the previous entry in this series, see here.)

Jacques-Charles Sabrevois was for several years the commandant of the French post at Detroit, and it is to this community that his memoir now takes us. Detroit ("the Strait") had been founded in 1701 by Antoine Le Mothe de Cadillac, who established the settlement to bar English expansion into the upper Great Lakes. In 1718 the site had a small French fort and trading post, but most of the local inhabitants were Indians whom Cadillac had invited to Detroit to serve as his farming population and military auxiliary. At least three Native American nations had built villages at Detroit by the time of Sabrevois's memoir: the Huron-Wendats, an Iroquoian-language-speaking people whom the Mohawks had driven from their homeland in 1648; the Odawas ("Traders"), one of the three constituent nations of the Anishinaabe people; and the Potawatomis ("Fire-Keepers"), another Anishinaabe nation from southwestern Michigan. The Hurons had "100 men" (16:370) at Detroit in Sabrevois's time, probably equivalent to a total population of 250-300 men, women, and children; the Potawatomis had equal numbers; and the Odawas had "100 men and a great many women," a gender imbalance no doubt due to that nation's recent wars with the Iroquois.

Not surprisingly given their common background, the Odawas and Potawatomis had very similar customs, differing only in the construction of their dwelling places: the Potawatomis lived in portable huts built of overlapping reed mats, while the Odawas built wood and bark cabins like those of the Hurons. (Perhaps they adopted this building style from the Hurons while the two peoples lived together at Michilimackinac in the seventeenth century.) Both groups otherwise had the same economic base: fishing, commercial hunting, trading animal pelts for textiles and other European goods, and farming. Odawas and Potawatomis both cultivated the "Three Sisters" of Native North American agriculture (corn, beans, squash), along with melons and peas. Both had the same gendered division of labor: women did the "drudge" work of farming, preparing food, treating skins, and transporting and assembling shelters, while men did the "fun" jobs like hunting and fishing and fighting. (Lakes Indian men actually worked about as hard as women, but women supplied most of the calories and raw materials that their kinsmen consumed.) Both also had similar dances and games, of which more below.

To the Hurons of Detroit Sabrevois devotes relatively little attention, though more than he gave the Senecas who resided near Niagara. They are, in his telling, an "exceedingly industrious nation," brave, intelligent, and generally praiseworthy, but rather dull. Their town near Detroit consisted of a fort enclosed in a double wooden palisade, several bark longhouses - Sabrevois calls them "cabins" but describes them as "high...and very long" - and extensive fields of corn, legumes, and "sometimes French wheat." While Huron men were expert hunters and spent most of their time, summer through winter, in their hunting ranges, Huron women generally remained closer to home, tending their fields, gathering wood, and guarding the Hurons' fort, a task they leave to "old women."  (16: 368). Of the Hurons' cultural and religious lives, Sabrevois appears to be unaware.

Sabrevois provides far more information about the cultural lives of the Potawatomis, and by extension the Odawas. Their clothing style, he observes, was beginning to change in consequence of the fur trade: women increasingly wore white dresses, glass-bead necklaces, and vermilion to community events, while men dressed in red and blue cloth garments in the warmer months, though they generally donned bison robes in the winter. Their dances Sabrevois divides into three types: war or "scout" dances, wherein men took turns striking a pole and reciting their martial exploits; social dances, in which dancers of both genders moved to the accompaniment of male singers, drums, and rattles; and midewiwin or medicinal dances, performed in the evening by older men.

Of the Detroit Indians' games, finally, Sabrevois describes two, which he has probably seen played in person. One is lacrosse, which the Odawa, Potawatomi, and Huron towns play against one another in the summer, with some of the French joining in as well. It is, as most modern North Americans know, a field game in which two teams of players (20 each, in this case) drive a wooden ball toward their team's goal with wooden rackets. Sabrevois noted that the game's players, all male, usually dressed in no more than breechcloths but usually painted themselves lavishly, some with white pigment in patterns resembling lace. (Sabrevois infers that this "lacework" was a coincidental effect, not a deliberate one.) The Indian spectators were just as lavish in the bets they placed on the games' outcome, wagers which could collectively exceed 800 livres' (francs') worth of goods (367). The other Native American game Sabrevois encountered at Detroit was "dish," a game of chance in which the players "tossed on a dish" eight "balls" or disks with two differently-painted sides (369), winning the round and the bet whenever seven or eight tokens landed on the same side. Thankfully, they did not have to yell "Yahtzee!" to collect their winnings.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Through the 18th-Century Midwest with Jacques-Charles Sabrevois

For the next few blog entries, I am going to take my readers on a tour of the Midwestern United States, at a time when the region was considerably less dull than we believe it to be today. Our tour guide will be Jacques-Charles Sabrevois, a French military officer who served as the commandant of French Detroit, and who in 1718 either wrote or helped write a "Memoir on the Savages of Canada as Far as the Mississippi River," which nineteenth-century researchers found in the French colonial archives in Paris and reprinted in volume 16 of the Collections of the Wisconsin State Historical Society. Sabrevois's memoir, which I first encountered in the footnotes to Richard White's Middle Ground (1991), appears brief and superficial on first glance, but it is actually full of ethnohistorical detail for those who pay close attention to it.


Sabrevois begins his memoir at Niagara, where the French were in the process of establishing a fort and trading post, and carries his account thence to Lake Erie and the Detroit River, where we will end this first entry. Like most Europeans who have traveled through western New York, he of course mentions Niagara Falls, "the grandest sheet of water in the world" (364), but his chief interest in these first couple of pages is a small Seneca village located on the portage road around the falls. Like the rest of the Five Nations Iroquois, this Seneca community derived most of its subsistence from agriculture – the "Three Sisters" of corn, beans, and squash, plus peas and melons – but also obtained European goods, like ammunition and mitasses(cloth leggings), by working for hire. In return for helping to move French trade goods up the portage road and French furs and pelts down it, the local Senecas earned French merchandise. The Great Peace which the French and their Great Lakes Indian allies had concluded with the Iroquois (1701) allowed some Iroquois to become middlemen in the Lakes fur trade, and apparently it turned some of them into employees of French voyageurs.

(Our guide also tells us that this village consisted of "ten cabins," which recalls a point raised by Daniel Richter in Ordeal of the Longhouse (1992): by the 18th century, the Iroquois had stopped living in multi-family longhouses and had moved into smaller cabins, suggesting a more family-oriented than clan or lineage-oriented society.)

Casting his gaze southward and westward, Sabrevois notes the "abundance of game" south of Lake Erie, including herds of bison, an animal whose range extended well eastward of the Mississippi River.  He mentions some of the water routes connecting the Great Lakes to the "Auyo" (Ohio) or Beautiful River, including the Genesee (which approaches the headwaters of the Allegheny, though Sabrevois seems a bit confused about this) and the "Sandosquet" (Sandusky), which is separated from the southward-flowing Scioto by a one-mile portage. Our narrator has heard that bison and other game animals are so plentiful on the banks of the Ohio River that one must drive them off with gunfire if one wants to walk along the shore. He is equally interested in the uses to which the Indians put these rivers: the Odawas, Potawatomis, and Huron-Wyandots who live near Detroit use the Sandusky, Scioto, and Ohio Rivers as war corridors, descending the latter two waterways in "canoes of elm bark" (364) to attack the Cherokees, Shawnees, and "Tetes Plattes" (presumably Chickasaws or Choctaws) living near the Tennessee River. This came as news to me; I knew that the Iroquois made war on the southern Indians during this era, but not that the Hurons and Anishinaabeg did so. I suppose the 1701 peace treaty between the Five Nations and the Lakes Indians encouraged warriors from the latter nations, formerly used to fighting the Iroquois, to find alternative adversaries.

Reaching the western end of Lake Erie, Sabrevois mentions the abundance of fish, including 5-foot-long sturgeon, off Point Pelee, and the large population of raccoons on the western Erie islands – presumably they swam there, but I wouldn't put it past raccoons to build boats - as well as the many turkeys that roost on the Ile aux dirdes near Detroit. On a similar trip an Anglo-American traveler would preoccupy himself with soil fertility and the species of trees (supposedly clues to the quality of the underlying soil) he encountered, but Sabrevois does so only when discussing the farmland around Detroit. Otherwise he is interested in subjects that would interest a traveler and trader rather than a developer: what game one could catch, what rivers one might follow, and the habits of the Indians with whom one might trade. To that latter subject I shall devote more attention in my next entry on Sabrevois's memoir.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Late Unpleasantness in Salem

While the colonial period of American history is full of drama and violence, public remembrances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have generally bled all traces of excitement from the story. Our commemoration of the era focuses instead on an arid narrative of pious pioneers building orderly towns on the edge of a wilderness, from which Indians occasionally emerged to skulk about, eat turkey, or marry the odd colonist. One well-known episode of public violence and madness interrupts this otherwise dreary story: the Salem witch trials of 1692, which were popularized by nineteenth and twentieth-century authors, particularly Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. The bare outlines of this story - ten teenage girls in Salem afflicted with unexplained pains and spectral tormenters, snowballing accusations by locals against other suspected witches (including Salem Village's former minister), a special court appointed which allowed "spectral evidence," over two hundred people accused of witchcraft, 150 of them imprisoned and 20 executed - are reasonably well known today.  The causes of the crisis, however, remain a matter of controversy. To a nation with a short and dry public history, and without much of a tradition of supernatural events, the Salem crisis necessarily remains weird and fascinating, and in his recent overview of New England history, Saints and Strangers (2006, pages 121-130), Joseph Conforti performs the useful task of summarizing historians' theories about the origins of the Salem witchcraft trials. I am pleased to recount, with my own observations and glosses, some of his findings here:

I. It was a social forces/conflict/thingie: Forty years ago, in Salem Possessed, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum observed that the initial accusers in the Salem cases and the people they accused lived on opposite sides of Salem Village, the inland community (now Danvers) where the witch craze began.  There may have been an element of class conflict behind the accusations: the accusers lived in the poorer, western part of town, which the "witches" lived in the more commercial, eastern part of town, near Salem port and the Ipswich Road.  Certainly there was social conflict within the village: westerners generally wanted to make Salem Village a separate town, independent of the port of Salem, while easterners preferred existing arrangements.

II. It was a gender conflict: Of the 200 or so persons accused of witchcraft in Essex County in 1692, about 80% were women.  This was also characteristic of the smaller witchcraft trials held in Massachusetts and Connecticut earlier in the century, and also of the much larger trials in 16th and 17th-century Europe.  Puritan theology held that women were "weak vessels" prone to sin and vulnerable to corruption by the Devil, communion with whom was the essence of witchcraft.  Gerald Klaits observes (Servants of Satan, 1987) that in early modern Europe, theologians commonly linked witchcraft to sexual congress with the Devil, and assumed that women, whom they believed were more lustful than men, were particularly attracted to the prospect of Demonic Sexytime (TM).  Puritan men were prone to concur with this judgment, all the more worrying since woman had by the late 17th century become a majority of the communicants in Massachusetts's churches.

III. The Puritans really believed in witchcraft: The witchcraft trials reflected not only underlying "real" conflicts but a common, widespread Puritan belief in supernatural forces.  David Hall argued in Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (1990) that the 17th-century Puritans were far more "Elizabethan" than modern in their religious beliefs, and that those beliefs included the notion that God communicated with his People through meteorological signs, numerology, dreams, and unusual events (such as earthquakes and comets).  The Puritan elite thus believed that one could ascribe strange occurrences to the supernatural.  Since they also believed in a Devil, it is unsurprising that they attributed some of their misfortunes to that very being.  In the case of witchcraft the Devil had to work through human agents, such as women, or Indians.

IV. It was the Indians' fault: Apart from the Pequot War, the Puritans had a fairly peaceful relationship with their Indian neighbors for nearly half a century after the start of the Great Migration.  Puritan land theft, legal discrimination, and other provocations progressively strained Puritan-Indian relations until finally, in 1675, Wampanoag sachem Philip led a confederacy of Indian warriors against the English towns of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  "King Philip's War," which burned on in northern New England until 1678, killed thousands of people and persuaded many second- and third-generation Puritans, like captive Mary Rowlandson, that Indians were not only barbarous but intrinsically devilish.  The Abenaki Indians reinforced this view during King William's War (1689-97), when then raided several English settlements in Maine and New Hampshire.  Refugees from those raids came south to Massachusetts, bearing frightful accounts of attacks on civilians.  The residents of Salem, according to Mary Beth Norton, would have been primed to view the witchcraft outbreak in Salem and the Indian attacks on the Maine frontier as part of a single demonic conspiracy against New England. One of the accused witches at Salem, Abigail Hobbs, had recently moved to the town from Maine, where she confessed that the Devil persuaded her to recruit other witches; witchcraft accusations in Salem rose dramatically after she gave her testimony in April 1692.  Several of the "afflicted" girls in Salem were refugees from the Indian war in Maine, and some said they had seen a spectral "black man" whispering to some of the accused witches; New Englanders of the era assumed that this man was an Indian.. (See Norton, In the Devil's Snare [2002].)

V. Good government could have prevented the crisis: When the Salem witch trials took place, Massachusetts Bay did not actually have a legitimate government.  King Charles II had condemned the overly-independent colony's charter in 1684, and a year later his successor James II merged the New England colonies with New York in a single super-colony.  After the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 Massachusetts's magistrates arrested James's unpopular governor, Edmund Andros, and sent him back to England.  The province had no charter and only an interim government until 1693.  If Massachusetts had had a legitimate governor and legislature, its government might have shown more restraint and confidence in dealing with the crisis in Essex County, instead of deferring to the judgments of a special court of oyer and terminer.  When Massachusetts's new governor, William Phips, finally assumed office he was quick to dismiss the remaining 50 or so witchcraft cases still pending and free those still in jail.

In sum, historians can't fully explain what happened in Salem and the surrounding towns in 1692, but they can use the witchcraft crisis as an excuse to talk about other subjects that interest them more - and which may, in fact, be more important.


And, no, it wasn't ergot.

Monday, October 15, 2012

This Continent is DRUGGED

In her new book The Atlantic in World History (Oxford, 2012), Karen Kupperman records an inadvertent and amusing use of a native North American hallucinogen, jimsonweed*, by Virginia troops during Bacon's Rebellion (1676). Gathering the plant for a "boil'd salad," the men

"'turned natural fools upon it for several days: One would blow up a feather in the air, another would dart straws at it with much fury, and another, stark naked was sitting up in a corner, like a monkey, grinning and making mows [moues] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces, with a countenance more antic than any Dutch droll.'" (89-90)

It took eleven days for the afflicted men to come to their senses, during which time their companions had to restrain them from "wallow[ing]" in their own filth.

Kupperman also discusses other drugs and stimulants that Europeans discovered in America, including coca, of which one Italian researcher wrote in 1859 "I sneered at all the poor mortals condemned to live in the valley of tears while I, carried on the wings of two leaves of coca, went flying through the space of 77,438 worlds, each more splendid than the one before" (89). I guess he counted all of them.

* Named, apparently, for Jamestown.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Whatever Became of Cahokia?

Several years ago I wrote a blog entry about the rise of Cahokia, the largest pre-Columbian settlement in North America, and the stresses and compensations of living in that extraordinary city.  My entry did not, however, address the reasons for the city-state's decline, which began just a century after Cahokia's founding, in 1150 CE.  Research for another project has introduced me to several articles which provide reasons for Cahokia's eventual disappearance (except as a cluster of mounds and a museum).  One of the principal causes for the decline, according to Timothy Pauketat, Larry Beacon, and Edward Cook, was environmental: a series of droughts that afflicted Indian communities in the Midwest in the 12th and 13th centuries, leading to the abandonment of the farming villages that supplied Cahokia with food.  The city was already suffering from resource depletion and shortage: the American Bottom, fertile though its soils were, had a natural shortage of mineral resources, and the construction of Cahokia and its satellite communities produced severe shortages of firewood by 1150.

To these environmental stresses we may add a cultural one: Cahokia's religious and social elite began pursuing individual display and military glory in the 12th and 13th centuries, a shift from more communally-oriented behavior that is demonstrated in the archaeological record by increased burials of exotic, even unique, "prestige goods" like copper jewelry and shell cups, and by the abandonment of mound-building in favor of constructing defensive palisades.  This increased individualism undermined the elite's authority as mediators for the community, while increased drought and resource depletion made it clear that both the spiritual and material worlds were angry with the priest-aristocrats. By the middle of the 12th century Cahokia had lost about half of its peak population, and the rest of the city's inhabitants had dispersed by the early 1300s, just in time for the Little Ice Age to shut down the other Mississippian settlements in the Midwest.

Sources:  Larry Benson, Timothy Pauketat, and Edward Cook, "Cahokia's Boom and Bust in the Context of Climate Change," American Antiquity 74 (2009): 467-83; Mary Beth Trubitt, "Mound Building and Prestige Goods Exchange: Changing Strategies in the Cahokia Chiefdom," ibid, 65 (2000): 669-690.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Great Books That the Teacher Hasn't Read Either

In my last entry on Niall Ferguson's Dear God, I'm HUGE (also known as Civilization), I noted that Professor Ferguson's proposal for Western educational reform centers on a "Great Books" curriculum, of the sort that has fallen out of fashion in the United States and Europe. According to a footnote on the next-to-last page of his book, Niall-o's core curriculum would consist of "the King James Bible, Isaac Newton's Principia, John Locke's Two Treatises of Government, Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, to which should be added Shakespeare's plays and selected speeches of Abraham Lincoln [an honorary Englishman, I suppose] and Winston Churchill" (324n). I am just about willing to bet that Professor Ferg hasn't read a few of these titles cover to cover, and he would be hard-pressed to teach any of them effectively to a class of 40 or 50 disaffected college students. Perhaps I might propose my own substitute list of ten "Western Classics That People Are Actually Likely to Read, Not All of Which Were Written By Englishmen"?

Sophocles, Antigone – is one's obligation to the state or to a higher morality?
Tacitus, De Germania – is civilization a source of improvement or weakness? 
Beowulf – can one be a Christian prince and still fight monsters?
Machiavelli, The Prince – can one be a good ruler without any sort of spiritual morality?
Shakespeare, Macbeth – is power worth it if the means to attain it corrupt the goal?
Voltaire, Candide – should we assume that priests and philosophers have all the answers?
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto – is the industrial bourgeoisie wrecking everything?
Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House – are the bourgeois wrecking their own lives?
George Orwell, Animal Farm – is revolution the answer?
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – surely science, at least, is neutral and unbiased – except that it too is socially constructed…

These readings total about 1,100 pages, which modern American college students could probably handle in two semesters. Moreover, only three of them are by Englishmen; the other authors are Greek, Roman, Italian, French, German, Swedish, and American. Regrettably, none of these authors are female, unless one accepts Woody Allen's theory that Shakespeare was actually four women.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mary Block on the Todd Akin Scandal

My longtime friend and colleague, Mary Block of Valdosta State University, is an expert on nineteenth-century American rape law. Whatever her immediate reactions may have been to Representative Todd Akin's declaration on August 19th that pregnancy was prima facie evidence of consensual sex, surprise was not among them. To media commentators who wondered where Akin's outre (and deeply ignorant) remarks came from, Mary sent the following explanation, which she has kindly permitted me to repost here:

Anderson Cooper stated on his show AC 360 that we did not know where Todd Akin got the idea that a raped woman could not conceive and most other print and TV commentators act like Akin simply pulled the notion out of his own backside. The idea that a woman can't get pregnant as a result of rape, however, has a long and storied history. It began when the Greek philosopher Aristotle asserted that even though only a man emitted seed during sexual intercourse, pregnancy depended on and resulted only from female orgasm. Several Greek and Roman physicians picked up on that theory of conception and altered parts of it, for example the Roman physician Galen posited that both males and females emitted seed during intercourse, but they carried forward the idea that no woman could beget a child unless she had an orgasm during coitus.

The theory made its way into Roman law in the sixth century during the reign of the Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565). Justinian's chief physician was a man named Aetios of Amida. Aetios was not just any physician, he was also one of the best trained and the foremost expert on the womb. The doctor told Justinian that in order for a woman to conceive, she had to experience 'violent passion,' by which he meant an orgasm, during sex, and that the more violent the passion she exhibited, the more likely was to become pregnant. Conversely, a woman who did not achieve violent passion was highly unlikely to conceive. Women who claimed to have been raped, according to Aetios, could never conceive because such an event was so traumatic the female could never experience orgasm and thus no woman could ever conceive as the result of a rape. Aetios is asserting, or perhaps inventing, the idea that conception is possible only if the sex is consensual. Rape is possible only in the absence of consent, ergo, any woman who cried rape yet subsequently conceived had lied. Pregnancy served as proof of consent and proof of consent negates a claim of rape.

During his reign Justinian compiled a Civil Code of all extant Roman law. His compilers actually broadened the law of raptus to include the forcible rape of virgins, nuns, and widows and added the ancient medical fiction that a raped woman could not conceive. Roman law thus made it official that any woman who claimed to have been raped, but who then got pregnant had lied. English canon lawyers beginning in the twelfth century, good Catholics that they were, emphasized the Roman law over Anglo-Saxon law, and in so doing, introduced Byzantine science into English canon and civil law. The idea quickly made its way into common law through the treatise writings of Gratian (late twelft century) and Bracton (early thirteenth century) and remained there until the early nineteenth century.

American law is based in English law. One point of note is that American courts rejected this medical and legal fiction in 1793 when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared that rape was a crime against the honor and person of a woman and had nothing to do with the begetting of a child. Alas, unlike Todd Akin, the Pennsylvania judges were products of the American Enlightenment and men who respected eighteenth-century science. To be sure, there were men of medicine, and a few of law, who continued to peddle the idea that a raped woman could not conceive well into the nineteenth century, but most people considered them to be quacks.

I guess no one should really be surprised that those trying to force us to live according to the dictates of the ancient Near East would also try to force us to accept the science of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Akin was invoking the medical science of the ancient Greeks and Romans when he asserted that a woman who was raped could never get pregnant. What he meant when he used the phrase "legitimate rape" was that any woman who was in fact 'forcibly' raped, another term fundamentalists like Akin and Paul Ryan like to use, cannot ever conceive. Conception means consent and if she consented, then she could not have been raped. Therefore, in their twisted little minds, no rape exception need be written into any abortion laws because pregnancy serves as affirmative proof that a woman is lying about rape. She just wants an abortion. If enough of these guys get elected in 2012, expect to see reality TV showing us the witches being burned at the stake. Sadly, on some level, their invoking the science of the Dark Ages means they've advanced several millennia from their usual biblical frame of reference and that means, I suppose, that they can call themselves progressives!

Contact information:

Mary Block
Associate Professor of History
Valdosta State University


Many thanks, Mary!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

It Should Be Thrown with Great Force

As a courtesy to those readers interested in my blog entries on Niall Ferguson and his 2011 book (White Christian) Civilization, here is an index to the entire series:

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Dolt (8 Nov. 2011)
A review of one of Ferguson's vapid Newsweek articles.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Douchebag (29 Nov. 2011)
Niall-o threatens to sue one of Civilization's reviewers.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Tosser (13 Jan. 2012)
On the Introduction to Civilization.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Colossal Muttonhead (31 Jan. 2012)
Civilization, Chapter One.  Niall misinterprets early modern China.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Rotter (11 Feb. 2012)
Niall-o urges Westerners to prepare for a holy war against Iran in Civilization, Chapter Two.

Niall Ferguson Is Still Careless and Intellectually Lazy (29 March 2012)
Civilization, Chapter Three. Niall is still a wanker.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Kneebiter (27 May 2012)
Civilization, Chapter Four. Some empires are more equal than others.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Jackwagon (7 July 2012)
Hunting the DFHs in Civilization, Chapter Five.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Ghastly Asshat (26 July 2012)
On your knees and pray for salvation, dissolute youth of Western Europe! (Civilization, Ch. 6.)

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Fecking Gobshite, with Extra Gob (2 Aug. 2012)
Civilization, Concluded, and none too soon.

I'll probably have one more entry on Civilization in a week or so, but for now I think I've spent way too much time with Ferg's little billet-doux to himself.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Fecking Gobshite, with Extra Gob

Niall C.D.E. Ferguson, O.F.G.*, concludes his book Civilizationpants with an expanded version of the essay he published in Newsweek last year, and which drew your humble narrator into this extended wallow in crapulence. To summarize: Ferg asserts that all civilizations eventually fall, and often do so very quickly, as in the case of the Romans, the Incas, the Bourbon Dynasty in France, and the Soviet Union. (That the Roman Empire took several centuries to collapse, that French civilization and the Bourbon monarchy survived 1789, and that even the collapsing Soviet empire enjoyed two decades of fitful adventurism before the final dissolution, are observations that need no expansion here.) In the modern West, the last imperial power, the United States, is likely to collapse in consequence of its excessive debts, which Ferguson argues are comparable to those of several past empires on the verge of collapse: Habsburg Spain, the Ottoman Empire, France under Louis XVI (again). The successor to America's imperial mantle, China, has absorbed some of the West's values but remains an aggressive and authoritarian state; it has downloaded some but not all of the West's "killer apps." Westerners probably cannot recover their former predominance without matching China's investments in education and scientific research, and without balancing their nations' budgets.
          Ferguson's last few pieces of advice seem sensible enough, as does his reminder in passing that Europe owed its rise to power more to its institutions than to its military strength. But I'm not sure I would want to appoint Niall-o to head any sort of Multi-National Task Force on the Current Crisis, in part because one of his proposals, regarding balanced budgets and austerity, would be very counter-productive right now. Setting modern Europe aside for the time being, Ferguson's insistence that the U.S. has reached an unsustainable level of debt elides one essential figure, which is the cost of servicing that debt. At present the U.S. government spends about ten percent of outlays on interest payments (including intra-governmental debt), which is high, but nowhere near the 50 percent paid by the Ottomans and Bourbons and the nearly 100% paid by the sixteenth-century Habsburgs. The reason debt-servicing costs remain low, even as the national debt climbs to record levels, is because interest rates are effectively zero – on some Treasury bills, they are negative. Given that the United States can essentially charge investors for the privilege of loaning it money, it behooves the U.S. government to borrow every penny it can lay hands on, and use the revenue to jump-start a stagnant economy. (Yes, this means we'll be bequeathing the millennial generation a huge debt, but right now we're bequeathing them a 20 percent unemployment rate, which is more damaging to their long-term economic prospects.)
          Mainly I want to keep Ferg away from policy-making because I'm not sure he's willing to support policies that reflect his more sensible assertions. Niall may be skeptical about the long-term correlation between military force and world dominance, but that doesn't mean he isn't prepared to commit American air forces to the destruction of Iran's nuclear program (as he intimates at the end of Chapter 2). He may favor scientific research and educational investment, but his idea of an appropriate education would be one steeped in Western classics – all written by British authors,** incidentally – rather than one which focused more directly on developing critical thinking skills. Niall-o has more recently argued that Americans shouldn't bother to invest in education, because it won't do impoverished children any good. In April 2012 Ferguson was one of the distinguished guests at the Millken conference, a $6,000-a-ticket gathering of the rapacious rich hosted by Ferg's soulmate Michael Millken. When one of the panelists, billionaire Jeff Greene, began talking about the stresses faced by the impoverished American underclass, and suggested that with a little more "education" and "after-school programs" poor kids might be able to stay out of jail, Ferguson "drawled…'Dream. On.'" It appears Niall-o doesn't really believe education will help anyone who is much below his own income level. Presumably, like other American conservatives, he would prefer to build more prisons, where as punishment disaffected young people would be forced to read Ferguson's books.

(The above photo is either of Michael Millken or Niall Ferguson; take your pick.)

*Order of the Fecking Gobshite, created by King George V in 1931, and awarded quasi-annually since then. 

** The author has decided to reserve discussion of Ferguson's ideal core curriculum for another blog post, as this one is already long.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Ghastly Asshat

In the penultimate chapter of Civilization: You Kids Today Make Me Sick, Niall C.D.E. Ferguson identifies the sixth "killer app" of Western civilization as "work," but uses the term primarily as a shorthand for "God." Here at last Niall-o bares his stern but sexy Presbyterian soul, the better to impress his more religious fans and drive the rest of us sinners to our knees. Max Weber, argues Professor Ferg, was correct about the Protestant work ethic.  Protestant Christianity, with its asceticism and emphasis on the believer's worldly vocation, obliged its adherents to "work…save and read" (264), which had a buoyant effect on education, productivity, and investment in northern Europe. This ethic apparently did not extend to the benighted Papists, who by 1940 were 40 percent worse off than Protestant European nations. (I'm not sure what this means, and Ferguson cites only one source, a 2009 "working paper" by a Princeton prof, that may or may not be any good.) While the Protestant work ethic is now declining in the West, it is spreading to other parts of the world, and particularly to southern China, thanks to the modern revival and spread of Christianity in the region. The Christian faith, according to Our Man Niall's informants – who are, needless to say, Christian Chinese businessmen – promotes "thrift and industry" (277), creates a network of customers and creditors who can trust one another (283-285), and provides capitalism with the moral grounding it otherwise lacks. Jesus would gag on this idea, but many American evangelicals would approve.

The American Christian Right would not, however, enjoy Ferguson's critique of their modern brand of Protestantism, which he calls "just another leisure pursuit," a source of entertainment and counseling rather than moral education (276). Niall-o reserves the bulk of his contempt in this chapter, however, for the de-Christianized youth of the post-1960 West, who abandoned God and hard work for Freud and moral relativism. Young people now preoccupy themselves with pornography, violent videogames, and the manifold indulgences of "a vacuous consumer society and a culture of relativism" (288). Robert Bork couldn't have said it better, though he probably would not have directed as much bile against Cynthia Plaster Caster, whom Ferg presents as the symbol of Freud and Eros triumphant (274). (The Good Professor's anger may stem from Ms. Plaster Caster's rumored refusal to sculpt his own wedding tackle, on the grounds that there wasn't enough plaster in the world to contain Niall Ferguson's Tremendous Tory Tonker. But I digress.)

It is nice to see Professor Ferg returning here to the shallow and foolish intellectual style that characterizes his earlier chapters and his Newsweek articles. I say shallow because many of his arguments are based on sketchy or anecdotal evidence, and foolish because most of them are wrong. East Asians' work ethic, as Our Man Niall well knows, predates the recent spread of Christianity in southern China and Korea and is quite strongly expressed in Japan, a country that killed all of its Christians in the seventeenth century. (I'm old enough to remember scolds like David Halberstam telling us we all needed to be as thrifty and hard-working as the Japanese, who were about to buy the entire planet.) Chinese Christians who believe their faith will create networks of trustworthy customers and debtors may be correct, but while reading about them I cannot help but remember the phrase "affinity scam." Ferg's denunciation of the lazy and hedonistic West, meanwhile, is anecdotal and badly dated.  While I can't speak for Europe, Americans, at least, were quite productive and hard working until the start of the recent financial meltdown in 2008. If Americans were less likely to save than their Chinese counterparts, this is due more to flat wages and the presence of social insurance for the elderly than Americans' desire to consume. And if These Kids Today aren't working, it's because most Western economies are in or close to recession and middle-aged posers like me aren't ready to give up our jobs. 
Perhaps Ferguson, who fancies himself a cool cat and a guru to young people, believes he can attract younger fans by telling them to give up their sexting and their videogames, cut their hair, get a (non-existent) job, and go to church. Let me know how that works out for you, Niall.