Monday, April 22, 2013

Through the 18th-Century Midwest with Mister Sabrevois, Part Four

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

The Illini are a very large collegiate drinking team that occasionally watches team sports and goes to a few classes.  They derive their name from the Illinois or Illiniwek Indians, who in the 17th century were one of the largest Native confederations in the Great Lakes region.  They were still a powerful nation in 1718 when Sabrevois wrote his survey of midwestern Indians, and thus he devotes several pages of his memoir to them and to their kinsmen, the Miamis (of whom more in the next and last post of this series).  

Sabrevois takes us southward along the west bank of Lake Michigan, passing the Mascouten and Kickapoo towns "on the bank of a river whose name I have forgotten" (I assume it's the Milwaukee), en route to the Saint Joseph River.  The lieutenant mentions in passing that the Mascoutens' and Kickapoos' customs are similar to the Mesquakies - not surprisingly, they were often military allies of the Fox Indians – though he adds that they still use bows and arrows to hunt and that some of their hunters can "run down the stag afoot" (372).  Arriving at the Saint Joseph River, which he claims was abandoned by its Indian inhabitants during the Fox War – only temporarily, if so – he notes the valley's excellent soil, abundant wild birds, and wild grapes.  "It is the best region in all that country." (373)  Sabrevois does not suggest that the French colonize the region, instead advising his superiors to induce the Miamis to return there.


Sabrevois then hops a short distance westward to the towns of the Illiniwek on the Illinois River, near the French post of La Roche.  They have about "400 men," translating to 1600-2000 people overall, in these settlements, and retain many of their old material customs: they use bows and arrows, wear deerskin clothes and bison robes (as well as garments woven from bison hair), and adorn themselves with elaborate tattoos – "all sorts of figures and designs" (374).  The lieutenant does mention that they make excellent "powder horns," indicating they do have gunpowder and, presumably, firearms, obtained in trade with the French.  

Further down the Illinois River are the Illiniwek communities of Pimitoui and Cahokia, 50 leagues from La Roche; 30 leagues further still is Kaskaskia, the "most prosperous nation among all the savages," whose people are numerous and "industrious."  The Illiniwek in these communities, or some of them at least, have adopted French customs: they raise French melons and wheat, as well as cattle, pigs, and chickens; have constructed three mills, one of them horse-driven, to produce flour; and many in Kaskaskia have become Christians. Sabrevois is uninterested in Native American women, so we must rely on Sophie White's Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians (U. of Pennsylvania, 2012) and Susan Sleeper-Smith's "Women, Kin, and Catholicism" (Ethnohistory 47 [Spring 2000]: 423-52) to inform us that most of these cultural converts were women married to French traders.  It was they who became Christian converts, in many cases to join themselves to new religious kinship networks (i.e., godparents), and they who raised the crops and livestock, allowing their French husbands to trade, hunt, smoke, and behave, in short, like Illinois Indian men.  Given that Illinois women also wore French textiles and dressed according to a modified European style, we may conclude that photos of University of Illinois women posing as "Princess Illiniwek" while wearing stereotypical Plains Indian garb are perhaps not 100% historically accurate.

**

The above image, "Princess Illiniwek (Idelle Stith, Oct. 26, 1943)" is courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives and is used with their kind permission.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Letter to the Class of 1988, from One of Your Future Selves

My high school class is holding its twenty-fifth reunion this summer, and unfortunately, due to a conflict with a professional conference, I will probably not be able to attend.  I thought instead I might reflect on the extent to which the world has changed - and not changed - since 1988, and to put my reflections into the form of a letter, slightly snarky and occasionally vague (though easily deciphered by 2013 observers), from my 43-year-old self to all of the seniors with whom I graduated.  What mostly emerges from these reflections is a reminder that it is very difficult to predict the future, particularly when it comes to politics.  (Technological changes are a little easier to predict.)  As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., asked some years ago, "Who in 1940 would have guessed that the next three presidents after FDR would be an obscure back-bench Missouri senator, a lieutenant colonel in the army, and a Harvard undergraduate?"

Anyway, here's the letter:

**


Dear Students of the Class of 1988:

Hello there.  It's one of your classmates, reporting, in a virtual-time-traveling/wishful-thinking sort of way, on the changes that have occurred in the world since your graduation a quarter-century ago.   While I can't be too precise about the events of the last 25 years (that would spoil all the surprises for you), I can say that most of what happened in the world in the 1990s and 2000s was beyond the power of all but the craziest futurologists to predict.

1) No, we haven't had a nuclear war, nor have we been conquered by the Soviet Union.  Actually, we call it "Russia" now, and it's smaller than it was in your day.

2) As you might have guessed if you have been following Mr. Gorbachev's career for the past few years, the Cold War is over.  The bankers won.

3) Our current Worldwide Existential Threat is global warming, which many of you are going to hear about for the first time this summer (1988).  Some people deny it exists.  Let me note that summer temperatures in Australia now reach the 110s and 120s (Fahrenheit), and the Arctic Ocean is nearly ice-free for part of the year.

4) Japan has not become the world's leading economy.  China is going to be taking that role, unless they poison all of their air and water first.

5) Sub-Saharan Africa was pretty messy in the 1990s, with a frightening genocide in one country and a war in another country that has killed over 3 million people.  Currently, though, the continent is experiencing 5% annual economic growth, and there's a big amateur film industry in Nigeria, of all places.

6) Also, South Africa has changed somewhat since 1988.  Mostly peacefully, mostly for the better.

7) There is still no cure for AIDS, but we have drugs that make the disease manageable, and there are subsidies to provide them to poor people.

8) There is also no cure for cancer, though we have a vaccine against one common form of it.

9) The American manned space program is dormant at the moment.  There is an International Space Station but it receives its supply and crew via Russian space craft.   On the other hand, we have several robot cars on Mars.

10) Speaking of outer space, Pluto isn't a planet anymore (astronomers have relabeled it a "Kuiper object.")  To replace it, we have discovered over 100 planets orbiting other stars.  None are Earth-like, but we'll keep looking.

11) Futurologists predicted that one day every American would have in their home a machine that played TV programs, movies, music, and games, and acted as a videophone.  We now have such machines – we call them "computers."  Perhaps you've heard of them?

12) Okay, maybe you need more explanation. Many if not most Americans use a communications technology called the "Internet" to download entertainment and send messages and video images from their computers.  Also from their "wireless devices."  Also from their "phones."  (There are phones today that have 100 times as much computing power as your home computers.)

13) We don't call them "videophones," by the way; we call them "Skype," after the Estonian technology company that developed the software.  Yes, Estonia is a real country.

14) You can probably guess who the next president after Ronald Reagan is going to be.  After him, the next three presidents will be a) the governor of a Southern state, who will be impeached for having oral sex in the White House, b) a man who will start a war with a Middle Eastern country because of daddy issues, c) a 27-year-old who's going to start law school this fall.

15) Ronald Reagan is no longer alive, which should come as no surprise because he's already 135 years old.  Perhaps his most lasting legacy is economic inequality: in 2010, the top 1% of the U.S. population had six times as much wealth as the bottom 80%.

16) Elvis is still dead.  So is his son-in-law, Michael Jackson.  No, I'm not making that up.

17) The top-grossing movie of the 1990s will be a film about the Titanic by a man who currently directs sci-fi action movies.  The top-grossing movie of the 2000s will be a sci-fi action movie about giant blue people, directed by the same guy.

18) Assuming you're reading this in June 1988, the top-selling music album in the United States today is by a British pop singer who is currently one month old.

19) As for our class, we're all (I think) still alive, out of jail, mostly employed, mostly content.  Life goes on.

**

Monday, April 01, 2013

Debt: The First 5,000 Years: Conclusions

(For my summary of David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years, see here.)

Perhaps the most important general theme in Graeber's book is the historic interrelationship between debt, religious obligation, and violence. Graeber describes a very old, if complicated, relationship between violence and debt: indebtedness frequently led to enslavement, the breakup of families, and the redefining of people as things, and indebted merchant-adventurers engaged in violent or morally opprobrious pursuits in order to keep ahead of their own interest payments. Public debt, while it is not much older than the modern nation-state, is similarly linked to state violence: the nation-state created public debt to finance its war machine, and the modern state that cannot cheaply borrow money is one which cannot defend itself.  Conversely, however, the modern state with lots of military bases and nuclear weapons can usually “persuade” its creditors to keep the money spigot open.*

The relationship between debt and moral obligation, however, has changed repeatedly in the last 5,000 years; as recently as the Medieval era, several of the world's largest religions (Buddhists, Muslims, Christians) either stigmatized debt or downplayed it as a distraction from one's religious debts. It is only in the more materialistic early modern era that we (by which I mean “Westerners and their 20th-century imitators”) have come to see human beings as mere bundles of rationalized economic capacities and interests, and debt and compound interest as engines of positive progress. The notion that an individual, particularly a wage laborer, can free him/herself of debt, is even more recent: Graeber argues it only became possible for large numbers of workers when the governments of industrializing countries enlarged their money supply in the 1800s.**  Westerners subsequently began to assume that individuals could free themselves of debt through hard work and thrift, and that therefore debtors must be lazy, profligate, and immoral. Since 1970, however, as wages stagnated and as governments around the world dismantled progressive tax codes and social safety nets, this idea has become much harder to sustain. (One of my colleagues continues to defend thriftiness, of a sort, by distinguishing between “bad” debt, like consumer debt, and “good debt,” like student loans and mortgages. The collapse of the Western housing market in 2008 and the explosion of high-interest student loans in the United States makes even this ideological crutch a rickety one.)

It is past time, Graeber concludes, to change the way Westerners and other industrializing societies view private debt. The notion that debtors are immoral rather than unlucky is quite a recent one, and therefore subject to change. State-sponsored debt relief is an old and morally well-grounded institution, practiced by governments both ancient (Sumerian city-states, Egyptian pharaohs) and modern (American state governments in the 1780s), and justified by several world religions' traditions, like the Jewish practice of jubilee. It is also a good economic policy: people crippled by debts they cannot avoid incurring, like medical debt or student loan debt (which American students can only avoid if they accept the likelihood of long-term unemployment), cannot become good customers for American businesses.

Perhaps, though, we need to take an even more radical approach, and question not only the legitimacy of debt, but the legitimacy of capitalist values. Modern capitalism, Graeber observes, mandates continual productive growth in order to allow investors (and workers) to stay ahead of their debts. In practice, this now means that workers need to slave away at multiple jobs just to stay financially afloat, societies need to promote the continual expansion of consumer demand and consumer debt, and businesses need to exploit their workers and destroy the environment. Some of us, I think, assume toil, debt, and consumerism are worthwhile social goods, insofar as they keep the rabble under control. People who are exhausted by mindless work, held down by debt, and drugged by television and junk food are less likely to cause trouble for the ruling class. (George Orwell made these observations, substituting radio for television, in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.) But not all of us agree with this, and even if we did we cannot allow businesses to keep damaging the environment unless we aim at collective suicide.

We must, Graeber argues, no longer promote hard work as our highest socioeconomic good. Graeber says he'd like us to stop criticizing the “undeserving poor,” those who produce little but don't do their neighbors much harm.  He also argues that it is much more humane, and much more typical of human societies until very recently, to value leisure and collective celebration over one's “career.” My own experience is that there are some people in capitalist countries, like teachers and airline pilots, who really do like their jobs, but for the vast majority of workers there is nothing to be gained from extra effort. Since the 1970s gains in worker productivity have all gone to the top decile of salary-earners, and even losing one's job has had much more to do with stupid corporate managerial decisions than with one's own ineptitude. We should be placing more value on our relationships and our hobbies, shifting away from a consumerist lifestyle that turns people into hoarders, and making “I resolve to do less” a more common workplace slogan.  "Better living through laziness" may not have the same ring as "Workers of the world, unite!", but it's likelier to appeal to those of us in the slacker generation, and less likely to kill the planet than 7 billion people living by the code of "Root, hog, or die."

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* I'm not sure how valid this argument is. The Soviet Union had a huge army and thousands of nuclear weapons in the 1980s, and yet this didn't stop European banks from threatening to cut off its credit if Gorbachev tried to suppress the Eastern European revolt in 1989. The United States' ability to borrow money cheaply, which Graeber attributes to our being armed to the teeth, actually has more to do with our large, relatively secure tax base and the federal government's disinclination, until quite recently, to default.

** Graeber is incorrect when he attributes industrial-era inflation to deliberate government policy. Eric Hobsbawm observed (in The Age of Capital, 1848-1875) that this was instead due to the huge 19th-century gold strikes in California, Australia, and South Africa. Otherwise the general tendency in industrializing countries was toward deflation, which would have made life more difficult for debtors and workers.

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(Above image via StrikeDebt Chicago and StrikeDebt Tucson.)