Thursday, December 24, 2015

2015: My Year in Reading

Reading seems a solitary pastime, but most readers find they can improve the experience by sharing their literary explorations with others, turning their silent dialogue with the author into a more extended conversation. Your Humble Narrator confines most of his book talk to Goodreads, and has not composed an end-of-year superlatives list in many years. Bearing in mind, though, the pleasure of reading more communally (so to speak), I realized my blog readers might enjoy hearing about some of the more memorable books I read this past year, and perhaps share their own discoveries (and warnings). Here, then, is a summary of the high, low, and weird notes struck by the 140-plus books I read in 2015:

Most Overrated: The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. I read the original version of this, and Saint Augustine both told a better story and took less time to come to the point.
Famous Author of Whose Works I Read Several and Forgot Nearly All: Agatha Christie
One Exception to the Above: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Work I Was Obliged to Read for a Public Address and Found Surprisingly Entertaining: True Grit, by Charles Portis. If you haven't read it, do yourself the favor.

Favorite Non-Genre Novel: An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine

Works that Allegedly Treated of Bureaucratic Institutions but Actually Had More to Do with Superheroes: The Utopia of Rules, by David Graeber

Other Non-Fiction That Left An Impression: Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden; Missoula, by Jon Krakauer; The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert; Between the Moon and Timbuktu, by Nina Sovich

Works of History That Made Me Feel, in Contrast to Their Very Talented Authors, Like a Fast-Aging Mediocrity: Real Native Genius, by Angela Hudson; Gathering Together, by Sami Lakomaki

"This Year," the Disembodied Voice in My Head Declared, "You Must Read Two Monographs on the Delaware Indians, And They Shall Be:" A Nation of Women, by Gunlog Fur; Lenape Country, by Jean Soderlund

Primary Source I Was Pleased to Find at Half-Price Books: The Shipwrecked Men, by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

Best History I Read This Year: Black Earth, by Timothy Snyder   

Genre Author of Whose Works I Read Entirely Too Many, Perhaps Driven by Compulsion: Eric Flint

Weirdest Novel of the Year: Sign of the Labrys, by Margaret St. Clair

Books That, after I Read them, Made me Feel Like Every Page Dripped Slime: Victoria, by Thomas Hobbes, a reactionary screed masquerading as a post-Collapse novel, whose heroes cosplay Prussian aristocrats and Constantinian legionnaires, refer to African-Americans as "orcs," and massacre college professors. Like you do.

Sci-Fi Novels That I Actually Enjoyed: A Darkling Sea, by James Cambias; The Red: First Light, by Linda Nagata; Windswept, by Adam Rakunas; Chasing the Phoenix, by Michael Swanwick; The Martian, by Andy Weir; Implied Spaces, by Walter Jon Williams

SF-related Non-Fiction Book Good Enough That I Was Willing to Spend $18 for the Ebook: Hot Earth Dreams, by Frank Landis

Monday, November 30, 2015

Alexander McGillivray Strikes a Pose

Midway through my graduate studies, the editors of American National Biography commissioned me to write two entries on early American congressmen. Both of my subjects, William Loughton Smith and William Vans Murray, shared a common regional and party identity, apropos of which my adviser Lance Banning said I would soon become an expert on obscure Southern Federalists. Not a terribly marketable specialty, I had to admit. Fortunately, Lance's prediction did not come to pass, and the assignment instead brought me more tangible benefits: one of my first professional writing credits, a modest but welcome paycheck, and some useful bits of research.

Of the two congressmen Smith proved the less likable. He struck me as a typical spoiled conservative rich kid: born into money in South Carolina, educated abroad, lukewarm about the American Revolution but keen to draw a salary from the new national government it created, and supportive of Alexander Hamilton's elitist national economic program. After his few mildly consequential terms in Congress, W.L.S. became the United States' minister to Portugal, a suitably obscure last chapter to an obscure public career. The men with whom Smith worked, however, were often quite famous, and one particularly intriguing acquaintance became directly relevant to my dissertation and first book.

In 1790 William Smith attended the formal signing of the United States' first treaty with the Creek Indian confederacy, the Treaty of New York. After the main event, Smith exchanged a few pleasantries with the most famous Creek man at the conference, Alexander McGillivray. Since the end of the Revolutionary War, the biracial warlord had harried Southern white frontiersmen and perturbed American officials. Now assuming a more pacific and magnanimous posture, McGillivray told the congressman that “his Nation [the Creeks] had been always much pleased with the conduct of South Carolina and had been well treated by us.” By contrast, he continued, the white inhabitants of neighboring Georgia “thought too highly of their own power and too meanly of that of his [McGillivray's] nation.” The new treaty gave Georgia “a line more favorable than they had any right to expect” - an allusion to the Creeks' recent raiding campaigns against that state's frontier, the military power they had displayed, and Creek chiefs' subsequent willingness to give Georgians some of the Creek lands they demanded. Smith closed by noting that George Washington and his secretary of war, Henry Knox, had been competing with one another in expressions of courtesy and hospitality toward the Creeks. Their solicitousness may have contributed to McGillivray's good humor, but probably had no bearing on the outcome of the treaty itself. 

Indeed, McGillivray displayed rather more hauteur in his conversation with Smith than one would expect from a southeastern Indian leader, especially one on a diplomatic mission. His arrogant posture toward Georgia, I suspect, was just that, a pose. Native American diplomatic conferences were always stagy and dramatic events, though they differed in one significant way from stage plays: the Indian "actors" usually got to write their own parts. McG had apparently, in this exchange at least, decided to adopt the role and dialogue of a triumphant but magnanimous general. Perhaps he modeled his part on some of the reading he had done while he was a boy, attending school with white colonists' children in Smith's own hometown of Charleston, back in South Carolina. The cultural distance between nabob and warlord wasn't always as great as one might assume.

Sources: George Rogers Jr., ed., "Letters of William Loughton Smith to Edward Rutledge" (8 Aug. 1790), South Carolina Historical Magazine 69: 135; Michael D. Green, "Alexander McGillivray," in R. David Edmunds, ed., American Indian Leaders: Studies in Diversity (Lincoln, 1980), 41-63.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Introducing the Turtle Island Examiner

Your Humble Narrator announces with pleasure that he has launched a new weblog at H-AMINDIAN, titled “The Turtle Island Examiner.” The blog will focus on Native American history, generally (though not exclusively) pre-twentieth century, and I intend to update it twice per month. Here are links to, and summaries of, the first four posts:

Introduction: An explanation of the blog's purpose and title

Who Your People Are: An introduction to YHN and his people, going several centuries back

Extinction Event: Dating the Anthropocene, and how post-Columbian depopulation changed the planet

Devourer of Towns: How Washington got his famous alias, for an event that happened 57 years before his own birth.

I still plan to blog here once or twice a month, though I will most likely concentrate on non-Native American history, current events, and the occasional bit of snarkiness. I hope some of my readers will also join me over at TIE, but if not I'll periodically post aggregated updates and links to Examiner posts here at Stranger Things.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Age of Foundlings

On a recent trip to England, Your Humble Narrator managed a visit to the Foundling Museum, recommended to him several years ago by veteran travelers Theda Perdue and Michael Green. The museum stands on the site of London's first home for orphaned and fostered children, which philanthropist Thomas Coram founded in 1739, and which over the next two centuries housed over 25,000 boys and girls. Its exhibits include a history of the Foundling Hospital, with displays of inmates' clothing and beds and photos of foundlings who “graduated” in the twentieth century. One case contained a unique selection of artifacts: “tokens” left by children's parents to identify them if they wanted to redeem their offspring. These consisted of commemorative medals, passes to locales like Vauxhall Gardens, coins (sometimes clipped or punched), padlocks, penknife handles, and scraps of cloth. All silently symbolized the ragged and reduced circumstances that had obliged mothers and fathers to abandon their children.

Other galleries tend toward opulence, rather than pathos. A sitting room, decorated in rococo style, pays tribute to the institution's wealthier patrons. A display room celebrates the life and work of composer George Handel, who helped finance the Foundling Hospital. A selection of paintings and prints by William Hogarth (another patron), including the original version of “March of the Guards to Finchley,” adorns another hall. Taken as a whole, the museum offers a cross-sectional view of London society in the eighteenth century: the refinement available to the wealthy, the satirical worldliness of a professional middle-class artist like Hogarth, and the wretchedness of the impoverished majority, for whom even a spartan life in a charity hospital seemed an improvement.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Voyagers to the East: An Index

From 2006 to 2009 I wrote a series of posts on this blog about Native Americans who, voluntarily or otherwise (usually involuntarily, often as slaves), traveled from the Americas to Europe. The travelers included Greenland Inuit, Miq'maqs, Carolina Algonquians, Tainos, and Tupi-Guarani; their years of travel ranged from 1493 to the mid-seventeenth century; their destinations included at least seven modern western European countries. I have just completed an index to this series, which appears below, and hope to restart my research into these voyagers and their lives in the not-too-distant future.   

Part I: Columbus and the Taino Emissaries

Part II: Columbus the Slaver

Part III: Where Labrador ("Laborer") Gets Its Name

Part IV: The First Indians in England and France

Part V: Francisco de Chicora and Verrazzano's Boy

Part VI: Gomes's Abortive Slave Sale and Cartier's Abductees

Part VII: Brazilian Kings and Elusive Inuit

Part VIII: Une Joyeuse Entree (or, Sometimes a Guarani is Just a Frenchman)

Part IX: Captured from Meta Incognita

A Preliminary Census: The First Six Hundred

Part IX Redux: The First Inuit in Europe

Part X: Luis de Velasco Takes His Revenge

Part XI: Wally Raleigh and His Algonquian Interlocutors

Part XII: Cayowaraco Leaves Guiana Behind

Part XIII: Vespucci's Unpleasantness

Part XIV: Red Gold: the Early Brazilian Slave Trade

Part XV: The Donatories' Slave Trade, or Lack Thereof

Part XVI: Binot de Gonneville and the Queen's Godchildren

An Updated Census: How Many Is a Brazilian? or, Then There Were Two Thousand

Part XVII: Cortes and Pizarro's Companions

Part XVIII: Messamoet's Journey, from Acadia to France and Back Again

Part XIX: Assacomoet and Company in the Land of the Mistigoches

Part XX: Inuit Captives in Denmark

Part XXI: Indians and Unicorns

Part XXII: Native Americans in France, 1505-1613: An Overview

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Junipero Serra, Saint or Colonialist?

Earlier this week Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who, between 1769 and 1784, established the first Catholic missions in California. Serra and his successors baptized over 80,000 California Indians, a colonial North American record, during the half century of Spanish rule. Father Junipero's elevation to sainthood generated some controversy, however, as many modern Native Californians see him as a pioneer of colonialism and cultural imperialism. Louise Ramirez, chair of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, observed that her people primarily associated Franciscans with corporal punishment and servitude, while Deborah Miranda, an American Indian university professor, identified Serra as an“impose[r]” upon, rather than a contributor to, California's indigenes.

The historical account of California's mission Indians, while slightly more complex than the one provided by Serra's latter-day critics, generally confirms their charges. Stephen Hackel, author of Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis (2005), observes that California Indians did indeed come to the missions involuntarily, but what drove them was not the soldier's bayonet but the specter of starvation. When the Spanish came to Alta California they brought with them their livestock and weeds, which so ravaged the indigenous ecology that many Indians had to resort to the missions for food and shelter. Within those missions, the Franciscan priests imposed a strict discipline upon converts: they had to wear Spanish peasants' clothes, spend their days at labor, live in gender-segregated dormitories, and marry only spouses whom the missionaries approved. As in New Mexico a century earlier, the Franciscans flogged Indian converts guilty of sexual misconduct or apostasy, a practice secular Spanish colonists considered barbaric.

Jean Francois de la Perouse, visiting Monterey in 1786 during his attempted circumnavigation of the globe, reported that the missions reminded him of the slave plantations in the West Indies (Life in a California Mission [Santa Clara, 1989], p. 81). Perouse's comparison wasn't entirely fair: mission inmates enjoyed more autonomy than slaves, with more freedom to travel beyond the mission walls and some political power. (Spanish officials appointed Christian Indians' leaders to secular offices like alcalde.) However, one might note a similarity between sugar plantations and California missions that escaped Perouse's attention: both proved deadly places to live. Diphtheria, measles, and venereal diseases scythed through the conversos' ranks, killing or sterilizing them. 75 percent of children born in the missions died before their fifteenth birthdays, and few inmates lived past the age of 60. Caught between a subsistence crisis outside the mission walls and an epidemiological one within, California's Native American population declined sharply, from 300,000 people in 1769 to 200,000 in 1821.

Prof. Robert Senkewicz, in an article by Emma Green, argued that Pope Francis isn't, in fact, trying to justify mass death, torture, and cultural imperialism with the canonization. He values Junipero Serra as a brother Franciscan, and as an advocate of the evangelism that his pontifical predecessor (who sought to conserve the existing Church rather than increase its ranks) did not emphasize. Moreover, Latin American Catholics view missionaries in a different light from North American ones: in South America, missions often served as refuges for Indians trying to escape forced labor.

And, while we shouldn't downplay Francis's obvious concern for the secular needs of the poor, his Church has historically concerned itself more with the salvation of souls than the preservation of bodies, more with unearthly than earthly priorities. Serra probably would have disliked the high death rate in his missions, but he wouldn't necessarily have deplored it – after all, the deceased would spend eternity in heaven. Francis doubtless prefers to think there isn't much cultural distance between himself and Saint Junipero, but that's because he is a prelate, not a historian, less interested in the “past-ness” of the past and its people than in institutional continuity. One must leave it to modern scholars, and modern Indian leaders, to remind the public of the importance of those differences, of the Native cultures that Franciscan missionaries sought to efface, and the tragic impact of the California missions on Indians' physical lives.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Vikings in Greenland: Ivory and Profits at the Edge of the World

 I find the traditional account of the Norse settlement of Greenland, of farmers and herdsmen coming to the island on the advice of Erik the Red, struggling to make a living, and gradually declining over the centuries, strangely appealing. It is a tragic story of deception, fighting against the odds, and the ultimate triumph of nature over man. On reflection, though, the account doesn't match what most historians (and, I think, most people) know about overseas colonization: people rarely undertake something so dangerous, certainly not for hundreds of years at a time, without the promise of profitable returns.

Archaeologists have long known, thanks to Norse artifacts found in Native American sites, that the Greenlanders weren't just isolated farmers. They certainly traded with their Inuit neighbors and had at least one post on Helluland (Baffin Island) in the fourteenth century. Thomas McGovern now argues that the Norse came to Greenland for commercial reasons – specifically, to harvest walrus tusks, one of medieval Europe's primary sources of ivory. Walrus proved hard to come by: it took a month of hard rowing to reach and return from the prime breeding grounds in Disko Bay (latitude 69 degrees N). But significant rewards came to those who made the effort: 520 tusks, extracted from 260 rotting walrus heads, “had the same value as 780 cows or 60 tons of fish.”*

McGovern also believes economic change, not climate change, killed the colony in the fourteenth century. Ivory belonged to Europe's elite, “prestige-good” economy, but around 1250 CE Europe's merchants began shifting from prestige goods to staple goods, like food and wool. Prices for ivory fell, and then plummeted when the Black Death (1346-50) killed off the Greenlanders' customers. Perhaps the Norse colony might have recovered later, but the Little Ice Age made Disko Bay increasingly inaccessible to small craft. Between 1364 and 1409 the surviving Norse abandoned their settlements as unprofitable, and left Greenland to the people who had actually come there to settle permanently: the Inuit.

* I've not been able to find current equivalents for these, but during the second half of the eighteenth century, colonial American merchants charged 15-20 GBP per ton of fish. (James Lydon, "Fish and Flour for Gold," Program in Early American Economy and Society, Library Co. of Philadelphia [2008], p. 79.)

(Above image, of Disko Bay, courtesy of Algkalv and Wikimedia Commons.)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Power Shopping

Anticipating an official inquiry into the mounting expenses of Chickasaw removal, which despite that nation's small size would eventually exceed one million dollars, federal agent A.M. Upshaw sought to deflect blame from himself and his contractors. In an 1838 letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Carey Harris, Upshaw argued that his cost overruns originated with the demands of the Chickasaws, whom the Treaty of Pontotoc (1832) authorized to pay for and supervise their own emigration. Chickasaw leaders wanted to assemble emigrants at Memphis and take them to Indian Territory by water, which obliged Upshaw both to hire steamboats and pay demurrage fees while they awaited their passengers. Then, after a steamboat accident killed 300 Creek emigrants and alarmed their Chickasaw counterparts, many of the latter decided to move by land, a slower and more expensive process.

Overland travel proved costly because, Upshaw noted, the Chickasaws brought a huge quantity of baggage. Many families brought at least one wagonload (half a ton or more), some took three or four fully loaded wagons, and one had eight of them. The first few emigrant parties also brought 7,000 horses and ponies, packed high with luggage, “and [Indians] can pack more on a horse than any other people I ever saw.” Individual heads of household spent up to $1,000 on merchandise before Removal, and “in fact, sir” (Upshaw wrote) “I saw two women purchase seven hundred dollars' worth of goods in the course of two hours.” This was the modern equivalent of somewhere between $4,000 and $8,500 per hour.

This might sound like prudent, if frantic, preparation for an arduous journey, except that little of what the Chickasaws bought was food. They planned to draw government rations during their emigration, or hunt for their meals en route. According to another official, the Chickasaws had instead loaded their horses and wagons with “many heavy articles of comfort as well as convenience.” None of the Removal agents recorded Chickasaw men and women's precise purchases, but based on the goods they bought at their trading factory two decades earlier, and based on the records of an Alabama merchant who traded with Chickasaw customers in the late '30s, Your Humble Narrator suspects their Removal inventory included plaid and calico cloth, finished clothing (like shawls and hats), hardware, ammunition, furniture, and scarce consumables like coffee, sugar, and whiskey.

The money for this spree almost certainly came from the sale of the Chickasaws' land reserves, which federal commissioners and Chickasaw leaders had recently allotted to each adult member of the nation. Under the treaties of Pontotoc and Washington (1834), each man and woman received one square mile of land in the old Chickasaw nation; each head of household received three additional square-mile tracts, or four if he owned slaves; and bonus sections went to a dozen or so national leaders. The treaties authorized the emigrants to sell their reserves on the open market, at a minimum price of $800 per square mile. Despite price-fixing efforts by white land speculators, who formed semi-monopolistic land companies, many sellers cleared more than the minimum price for their land; some, generally biracial Chickasaws with large improvements, sold their reserves for several thousand dollars. The proceeds then went to buy wagons, horses – though the Chickasaws already had large herds of them before Removal – the aforementioned “articles of comfort [and] convenience,” and, more opprobriously, African-American slaves, several hundred of whom accompanied the first emigrants westward.

In one sense, Removal presented the Chickasaws with a terrible loss: their homes and their familiar country, with all the memories and collective history embedded in its features.* In another sense, the Chickasaws did not so much lose their land as transmute it, under duress to be sure, into different forms: slave laborers, transport, a surplus of the manufactured goods on which they had come to rely, and, from the remaining portion of their old homeland that the U.S. government sold, funds to purchase a new homeland in the west and sustain the emigrants for their first few years there.

One final point: the Chickasaws' heavy pre-Removal investment in consumer goods, hardware, livestock, and slaves certainly helps explain their initial decision to settle among the Choctaws in southeastern Oklahoma rather than on their national reserve in the south-central part of that territory. The new Chickasaw national domain fronted the Texas borderlands and Comancheria, and the Indian inhabitants of both regions periodically plundered their neighbors' horses, cattle, and possessions, and captured (or offered refuge to) runaway slaves. Moving to that domain would put the Chickasaws' property, whose cost had been so high, at risk. In 1841, the U.S. Army established a post at Fort Washita to guard the Chickasaw-Texas frontier, and within a couple of years many of the Chickasaws were moving to their new homeland to establish farms and rebuild their old lives.


1 Aug. 1838, Upshaw to Harris, Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, NARA Microfilm M-234, Reel 143: 692-94; J.A. Phillips to Harris, 4 May 1838, ibid, 143: 614; List of Goods Wanted for the Indian Trade for the Years 1816-17, Miscellaneous Accounts of the Chickasaw Bluffs Factory, Records of the Office of Indian Trade (National Archives Records Group 75, Washington, DC), Entry 39, Folder 5; John Allen to Thomas McKenney, 7 Feb. 1830, Letters Received, M-234, 136: 17-18; Account Book of William Otey, Folder 64, Wyche-Otey Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina; Barbara Krauthamer, Black Slaves, Indian Masters (Chapel Hill, NC, 2013), 39-44; Dan G. [last name illegible] to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 12 Dec. 1841, ibid, 144: 193-194; Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for 1838, 510-511; Arrell Gibson, The Chickasaws (Norman, OK, 1971).

* Not to mention the five hundred men and women who lost their lives to a smallpox outbreak in Arkansas as they moved to Indian Territory in 1838.

Above image of Tishomingo from

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Nagasaki: Day Zero

Seventy years ago today, an American B-29 bomber dropped a 21-kiloton nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. In her new book, Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War, Susan Southard describes what happened next:

“The thermal heat of the bomb ignited a fireball with an internal temperature of over 540,000 degrees Fahrenheit...Within three seconds, the ground below reached an estimated 5,400 to 7,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Directly beneath the bomb, infrared heat rays instantly carbonized human and animal flesh and vaporized internal organs.

“Where the northern half of Nagasaki had existed only an hour before, a low heavy cloud of smoke and dust hovered over a vast plain of rubble. Nothing remained of the dozens of neighborhoods except tangled electrical wires and an occasional lone chimney. The huge factories that had lined the river near Nagasaki Station were crumpled into masses of steel frames and wooden beams, and the streetcar rails were, in one survivor’s words, 'curled up like strands of taffy.'”

The article, and (I strongly suspect) the book from which it is excerpted, are worth reading in full, courtesy of Tom Dispatch and

(My thanks to Shana Dennis for bringing this piece to my attention.)

(Above image via

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Syriza Unfortunate Events

Readers of Stranger Things may recall my post on the victory of Syriza, a party dominated by left-wing college professors, in the Greek parliamentary elections. Since January I have periodically followed their efforts to renegotiate the terms of Greece's bailout agreements with the EU. The talks collapsed in late June, as the “Troika” (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) refused to accept the Greek government's proposed budgetary concessions, and Prime Minister Alex Tsipras withdrew from the talks. David Attewell summarized the negotiations on Lawyers, Guns & Money:

1) In February Syriza and the Troika reached a preliminary agreement: Syriza could set its own fiscal policies if they achieved the Troika's budget-surplus targets.

2) In June, after the Greek government delayed a loan payment, Greeks began a “slow-motion bank run.”

3) The Troika used the crisis to take a much harder line: it rejected Syriza's proposed mixture of tax increases and pension reforms, and demanded higher VAT (value-added taxes) and deeper pension and defense cuts. Most would disproportionately burden the poor and middle class.

I agree with Attewell's conclusion about the Troika's ultimatum: “It's difficult to escape the conclusion that the creditors'...proposals were about regime change more than economics.” The Commission, ECB, and IMF wanted to crush Syriza and force the Greek electorate to vote in a more agreeable group of center-right technocrats.

Euclid Tsalakotos, a Syriza party official and scholar, observed that the EU and ECB consist primarily of bureaucrats and financiers who despise everything about academics. According to an interview with one of Tsalakotos' colleagues, when Tsalakotos went to Brussels in 2013, he wanted to argue and reason with EU officials, as professors prefer to do. However, they merely “recited rules and procedures” and expected their Greek subordinates to fall into line. Granted, Syriza's officials have employed some inflammatory rhetoric since they won the elections, but they did so in the context of negotiating and arguing with European officials. The officials, however, prefer ultimata to negotiation.

I suspect Alex Tsipras pulled out of the negotiations with the Troika because he understood that the European Commission and ECB had made his government an offer it could not accept – not without collapsing. Calling a referendum on the Troika's proposal may have been Tsipras's attempt to demonstrate this point. The results of that referendum, held on July 5, surprised even Syriza: over 60 percent of voters said “No,” including most young and working-class Greeks. With considerable cluelessness, Le Monde wondered “how these young people who had grown up with the Euro, Erasmus program, and European Union are turning against it.” Reported Strathis Kouvelakis of the Syriza Left Platform, “the response from all of those interviewed was simple: we have seen what Europe is about, and Europe is about austerity, Europe is about blackmailing democratic governments, Europe is about destroying our future.”

Europe's heads of state and the wealthy financiers they service have little interest in the young, and even less in democratic referenda. The ECB had on June 30 tightened the screws by ending “liquidity support” to Greece's banks, forcing the government to close them and introduce capital controls. (David Attewell observes that by this action the European Central Bank abrogated its core role, which is “to stop bank runs.”) After the referendum, German officials proposed a five-year exclusion of Greece from the Euro – which would have become permanent, since European leaders would not allow Greece back into the Eurozone if its economy crashed as a result. Paul Krugman argued that Greece should simply drop the Euro and deflate its new currency. However, in the short and medium term this would cause much hardship. Greece depends on imports of food and medicine and has few exports beyond tourism.

Tsipras and his government decided that repudiating the referendum and capitulating constituted their least-worst option. The Greek parliament accepted on July 16 a new deal exchanging 86 billion Euros in bailout funds for tougher austerity measures and the forced sale of 50 billion Euros of state property. Thereby they surrendered much of Greece's sovereignty to the unelected Eurogroup. Former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said as much, calling the agreement the modern equivalent of the Versailles Treaty. If I recall correctly, that treaty ultimately made its primary victim, Germany, a threat to the rest of the continent. But then, Europe's bankers and conservative elites rather liked Hitler, didn't they?

On the moral implications of the whole imbroglio, finally, this essay on Interfluidity takes the best tack. Author Steve Waldman admits that Greece's government had deep and persistent problems, including systemic cronyism and widespread tax evasion. European banks lent it money anyway, assuming that Greece's membership in the EU would protect their investments. When Greece got into trouble in 2010, European leaders decided to bail out its creditors and impose harsh costs on the Greek people (not just the government). There was plenty of blame to go around for Greece's financial problems, but since 2010 Europe's officials and bankers have crafted a morality play in which Greeks belong to an irresponsible and evil nationality, and other Europeans remain lily-white. This “betrays the ideals of European integration,” and subverts the fundamental purposes of the EU and the Euro: to replace nationalism with international cooperation and prevent another World War. The Union's current political leaders would rather line their pockets, grind down the remnant working class and young people, and let their successors deal with the consequent political explosions.

Speaking as an American, though, from a country that has curtailed voting rights, saddled its young people with crippling debts, bailed out bankers, and reintroduced debtors' prisons, I suppose I shouldn't throw stones.

(And, yes, I stole the title for this post from someone else. Wish I remembered who it was.)

The above photo is by Yannis Kolesids, via Jacobin Magazine.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Chickasaw Country

Oklahoma, the eventual homeland of more than a dozen Indian nations expelled from the eastern United States, has formed a part of Your Humble Narrator's mental landscape since he first became interested in Native American history, over 25 years ago, Not until earlier this month, however, did I visit the Sooner State for the first time. I've always assumed Oklahoma resembled the opening scenes in The Wizard of Oz: a featureless grassland under a flat and boundless sky. Driving to the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, I discovered the great inaccuracy of my preconceptions. The territory of the Chickasaw Nation actually overlaps the Cross Timbers country, a rolling, sandy-soiled prairie criss-crossed by rivers and crowned with oak and pine forests. The region is prone to periodic extremes of weather: hard winters, drought, and floods, such as those that partially inundated the district just before my visit. The soil is fertile but not very suitable for demanding crops like cotton, the Chickasaws' chief cash crop in the nineteenth century; this probably helps explain why most Chickasaw emigrants initially settled in the richer bottom lands on the district's eastern edge. However, Chickasaw country is no wasteland, and it has sustained ample herds of livestock, one of the Chickasaws' other sources of wealth, since the mid-nineteenth century. (It still does. Driving south and east from Norman, my partner and I saw hundreds of cattle, horses, goats, even some bison.)

As Jace Weaver observed in Episode 3 of We Shall Remain, Removal was hugely traumatic, but the southern Indians did not have to contend with the shock of relocating to a purely alien landscape. Their new homeland bore enough similarities to the old that the survivors could adapt and, eventually, even prosper.*

* We shouldn't attribute this to the wisdom of the U.S. War Department. The Chickasaws sent a surveying party to their prospective reserve in the late 1820s, and carefully negotiated the boundaries of their new territory with its initial owners, the Choctaws.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Man Knew His Micah

Your humble narrator recently received an invitation from alma mater (the graduate one) to say a few words about his doctoral director, Lance G. Banning (1942-2006). Unfortunately, a vicious case of stomach flu kept me from going to Kentucky to deliver my talk. Fortunately, I wasn't the main speaker at the event, and a member of the U.K. History Department, Tracy Campbell, read my remarks for me. (Thank heavens for email.) It occurred to me, though, that while I've written a memorial or two on this blog before, I haven't yet said anything on behalf of Lance, who as my chief graduate adviser played a big role in my intellectual development. To remedy, however partially, this omission, I present herewith my words from last week's event:


We have heard of Lance Banning's many accomplishments as a scholar. I'd like to take a few minutes to discuss his merits as a mentor. These merits grew out of one of Professor Banning's personal virtues: his appreciation for the blessings of private life. Lance had studied with J.G.A. Pocock and may have been one of the few people to understand that turgid Kiwi, but I think he found little appeal in Pocock's account of the ideal of the vita activa, the active political life. What Lance most appreciated, I think, was the modest but fruitful life of a gentleman scholar: time with his books, particularly the belles lettres of his heroes Jefferson and Madison; time to write, which he did so masterfully; time to exchange ideas with fellow seekers of truth, like the professors and attorneys he gathered at so many Liberty Fund conferences; and time for recreation, for a softball game or one of his morally indefensible bowls of popcorn.* Lance was fond of Richard Matthews's book The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson. Discussing that monograph with him I realized that Dr. Banning agreed with Matthews's Jefferson about the essence of the good life: everyone under his own vine and fig tree, free from fear and free to pursue happiness.

These genteel aspirations informed Lance's attitude toward his students. His main undertaking as a graduate instructor was to give his charges the tools to pursue their own intellectual interests. He taught us to critique methodologically diverse scholarship, to read primary sources - I spent one semester with him reading all of Madison's notes on the Philadelphia convention, along with large swaths of the Federalist - and, above all, to write clearly and effectively. Beyond that, Lance preferred to let students find their own interests and pursue them wherever they led, knowing this would reinforce the focus and drive they needed to finish a dissertation. When I discovered a bizarre story about paranoid arch-Federalist Timothy Pickering's diplomatic missions to the Iroquois, and wanted to follow it up with a research paper, Lance didn't tell me that the subject of early U.S. Indian policy had been done to death. Instead, he asked probing questions, read and edited a dozen of my drafts, and offered praise and encouragement all the way to the dissertation that grew from this project. Lance didn't see the publication of Red Gentlemen and White Savages, but in his final email to me he mentioned its progression through the editorial gauntlet, as well as Todd Estes's book (then in press) and new or forthcoming works by two more of his students. "You guys are doing me proud," he declared.

Lance had no academic axe to grind or agenda to push, other than helping create other intellectuals. The diversity of careers that his students have followed - leading Liberty Fund events, managing Congressional staff, military history, ethnohistory, ecological and local history, academic administration, writing a two-century overview of slavery and empire - demonstrates Lance's understanding that everyone pursues happiness and intellectual fulfillment in different ways. That we have done so successfully, that we have each cultivated our own vine and fig tree, is an important part of his legacy.

* I've never actually seen one of these, but apparently Lance would pop a medium-sized bowl, then pour an entire melted stick of butter on top, then cover the soggy mass with a blizzard of salt.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Post-Racing and Vote-Wasting

The United Kingdom held its national elections last week, and the bad guys won. By that, I mean victory went to the pro-Tory newspapers and their multimillionaire owners. The Conservatives picked up enough seats to form a majority government, while the Labour Party lost Scotland to the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the Liberal Democrats lost nearly 90 percent of their seats in Parliament and their place in the country's governing coalition. One may attribute the Tories' victory to Britain's gradual economic recovery, a poorly-run Labour campaign, or any number of other causes. But asking why Labour lost and the Conservatives won is the less interesting question. In this election, millions of Britons voted for third parties, not just the LibDems and the Scottish Nationals but the Greens and the fast-growing UKIP (U.K. Independence Party). Yet outside of Scotland, only a handful of seats in Parliament went to third-party candidates. Why?

The explanation lies in the mechanics of British elections, which use the same “First Past the Post” (FPTP) system as elections in India, the United States, and forty other countries. In FPTP, whichever candidate gets a plurality of votes in a given constituency wins the election. The political scientist Maurice Duverger has observed that FPTP almost always produces a two-party duopoly. Voters in a First-Past-the Post system, recognizing that whichever candidate gets a plurality of votes wins 100 percent of the election, prefer not to back politicians whom they think will only place or show, as this will “waste” their vote. (Second- and third-place winners get zero percent of the stakes.) Collectively they align themselves behind two parties whom they believe equally likely to win. Sometimes they pick fewer than that, when one party has overwhelming local popularity or an apparent lock on the machinery of voting – for example, in the American South during the era of Democratic-Party rule (1877-1964).

When voters do back third-party candidates, the geographic structure of FPTP elections works against them. Many third parties are insurgent movements with diffused national support, while established duopoly parties have built up limited but reliable pluralities in specific regions. In Britain, Labour and the Tories, with their reliable urban and suburban constituencies, only had to “pay” 30-40,000 votes for each Parliamentary seat they won, because they had decades to assemble pluralities in several hundred voting districts. The more diffused Greens “paid” over one million votes for each MP they elected, and UKIP paid 4,000,000 votes for its one Member of Parliament. Parties with a national, rather than a localized, focus pay a huge penalty when voting is regional and regional plurality-winners take everything. That the recent UK election represented a triumph for local over national politics becomes clear when one considers the big third-party winners: the Scottish Nationals, a regional party by definition. Ideologically, I am more on the side of the SNP than UKIP, but I recognize the basic iniquity behind the two parties' lopsided election performance: all 56 of the winning SNP candidates collectively received only half as many votes as UKIP did.

There are certainly alternatives to First-Past-the-Post. The most widespread of these, globally speaking, is proportional voting, in which each party receives a share of legislators apportioned to their share of the national vote. This would have produced a Tory plurality in the current British Parliament, but also would have given UKIP enough seats to leverage a coalition with the Conservatives. Alternative Voting, in which voters rank-order candidates, is another possibility. It is used in Australia and some American cities, and is a more practical alternate voting system for countries like Britain or the U.S. which vote by geographical districts. Britain held a referendum on AV in 2011, a Tory concession to their LibDem coalition partner, but the Conservatives gave it little support and it flopped with voters. It is unlikely that the new British government, which wants to reduce the size of Parliament – and, I suspect, redraw the constituency map in its own favor – will repeat that concession. An independent Scotland could do so in the future, however, and so too could American cities and states. AV voting won't significantly challenge party duopolies in countries that have them, but it will oblige all successful candidates for office to have majority support (even if it's composed of a mixture of first- and second-choice votes), and will make fewer voters feel that they wasted their ballots. There are few things more demoralizing to the citizens of a democratic republic than hearing, in election after election, "You wasted your vote." And surely major political parties and the wealthy interest groups who back them don't want voters demoralized and unwilling to come to the polls, do they?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Putin is the Sober, Shirtless Yeltsin

Recently my university hosted the journalist, author, and proud expellee (from Russia) David Satter, who provided his lively and engaged audience with historical perspective on the Russian campaign in Ukraine. Satter attributed Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea and subsequent false-flag operations in the Donetsk region to political opportunism. Faced, Satter observed, with calls for reform in Russia, and worried about a spillover effect from the 2014 uprising in Kiev, Vladimir Putin chose to divert Russian public attention with a war, which he probably expected to prove a short and successful one like the 2008 conflict with Georgia.
In pursuing this line of policy, Putin demonstrated deep continuity between current Russian politics and those of the 1990s. In the ill-informed view of many contemporary Americans, Russia in this decade was a developing democracy under the buffoonish but harmless leadership of Boris Yeltsin. Actually, Satter reminded us, Russia in the 1990s was a grim, decrepit dystopia, still suffering the aftershocks of the Soviet collapse. GDP contracted 50%, excess deaths from disease and alcoholism (among other causes) topped six million, and contract murder reached epidemic proportions. Meanwhile, a handful of old apparatchiks and Yeltsin cronies plundered the nation’s resources. By 1999, with social pathology reaching a peak, many Russians of Satter’s acquaintance speculated that Yeltsin would cancel the upcoming presidential elections. Instead, following several bombings in Russian cities, Yeltsin declared that the nation was under attack by Chechen terrorists, and launched a punitive war against Chechnya. This provided cover for Yeltsin to resign at the end of 1999 in favor of his prime minister, Putin, who pardoned his predecessor, ended the Chechen war, and handily won the 2000 election.

Putin had also been director of Russia's Federal Security Bureau, successor to the old KGB, and it is not entirely surprising that journalists like Satter found evidence that the FSB had set the bombs which Yeltsin blamed on Chechen terrorists. (The bureau was persuasively linked to a botched bombing attempt the same year.) That Russia has no monopoly on this kind of skullduggery is a point Mr. Satter chose not to make, but an American historian could: in the 1960s the CIA used a bombing campaign to undermine a left-wing government in Greece, and one might argue that George W. Bush used the Iraq War, and the ginned-up and misinterpreted evidence that justified it, to bolster his popular support the year before the 2004 election.

Satter concluded that Putin may have unleashed nationalist forces he cannot control, a wave of "chauvinistic euphoria" that will push him to further foreign adventurism in the Baltic states or Central Asia. For my part, I suspect Putin has become adept at managing the reactionaries in his own country, and at using Russia's armed forces to appease them by provoking (or counter-provoking) other nations but not actually starting wars with them. The campaign in Ukraine will end, I suspect, when it no longer generates political capital for the Russian regime, or when the president decides Russia's army can no longer logistically sustain it - in either case, on a timetable more of Mssr. Putin's choosing than anyone else's. 


Image One: Boris Yeltsin dancing, 1996, Associated Press:
 Image Two: Yeltsin with Putin, Dec. 1999, via

Friday, March 27, 2015

Three Hundred Dollars

One would think I had learned enough, in a decade and a half of teaching, not to assign survey-level students a reading assignment over spring break, but this year hope triumphed over experience, and I found myself on the Monday after break facing fifty undergraduates who had not (with a few exceptions) bothered with the reading for our class discussion. Most of them didn't even bring their books to class. Facing the need to conduct a reading discussion under these unfavorable circumstances, I took the expedient of carefully reading aloud several passages from our assignment, the opening chapters of Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and inviting the class to consider several narrow but interrelated questions.

The reading concerned Harriet Jacobs's grandmother, Molly Horniblow, the slave of a hotel owner in early nineteenth-century North Carolina. Like many other urban masters, Horniblow's owner allowed her to earn money in her spare time, in her case by baking and selling crackers to townspeople. Provided she bought her children's clothing from the proceeds, Jacobs's grandmother was permitted to keep the rest of her baking profits, which she saved to buy her children's freedom. Having put aside three hundred dollars, probably the result of several years of “midnight bakings,” Horniblow was prevailed upon to loan her savings to her mistress, who promised to repay the loan but died before making good. Jacobs's grandmother applied to her mistress's son-in-law, Dr. Norcom (whom Jacobs called “Doctor Flint”), for payment. He, having spent the money on “silver candelabra” for his home, told Horniblow the estate was insolvent. Then Dr. Flint, as executor and Horniblow's new owner, sold his creditor at auction.

I asked my students to reflect on where that three hundred dollars came from, and what it turned into, and what it represented. Three hundred dollars probably represented more than six hundred nightly bakings: tens of thousands of crackers, thousands of hours of labor. It constituted a down payment on the freedom of Horniblow's children. And later, in the hands of an unscrupulous executor, it turned into an expensive adornment of a genteel house, a badge of irresponsible aristocracy. People in the antebellum South could turn their labor into food or money or other people's bodies; they could also, if they were white and had preferential access to the courts, turn that labor into luxuries for themselves and continued enslavement for those who trusted them. Capitalism can sustain remarkable acts of alchemy, but in the end those with the right connections or the socially correct skin color choose the final form that raw materials, capital, and lives will take.

The story ended, incidentally, not entirely unhappily. Horniblow's white customers flocked to the auction block on the day of her sale, and arranged for her purchase and subsequent freeing in a no-bid auction. Horniblow had earned more than cash with her midnight bakings – she had also earned the goodwill of the white community, who called her “Aunt Marthy.” As a free woman she became one of Dr. Flint's nemeses, feared by him for her physical courage and sharp tongue, and a source of protection for her teenage granddaughter Harriet when Flint decided to start playing Dangerous Liaisons. Money is but one form of credit in a capitalist society, and not always the most creditable one.


(The photo above is of Harriet Jacobs, not her grandmother, though the two probably resembled one another.)