Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Turtle Crawls On

My new blog for H-AMINDIAN, the Turtle Island Examiner, has kept to a regular publishing schedule these past two months. Posts there since my last update include:

Prandial Diplomacy: Negotiation often begins and ends at the dinner table, and its outcome can prove favorable if everyone can actually digest their victuals.

Labors of Sovereignty: Yr. Hbl. Narrator's report on the 2015 American Society for Ethnohistory conference in Las Vegas. The construction of sovereignty was an important theme this year.

The Power of Space, Language, & Communication: Bryan Rindfleisch's report on the 2015 ASE conference. Ethnohistory, he concludes, is a thriving discipline.

Philanthropy as Politics: Why did the deeply-impoverished, post-Removal Cherokees and Choctaws contribute hundreds of dollars to Irish famine relief?

More to come in a couple of months, including my latest post on the Norse and the Inuit in Greenland.

(Photo of ceramic Catawba turtle by the author.)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Mad King Ludwig

Last month my petite amie and I had the privilege of visiting the two refuges that Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-86) built for himself in the German Alps,  Linderhof Castle and Neuschwanstein. Linderhof, a vest-pocket version of Versailles, glistened with gilded furnishings, garish chandeliers, and expensive glass work. One of the other Americans in our group commented on Ludwig’s lack of taste, though Susan and I, who love kitsch, did not concur. Neuschwanstein, meanwhile, perfectly combined the sublime and the ridiculous. We admired its snow-white walls and soaring turrets, and its commanding view of the lakes and landscape below. However, I found the castle’s interior, its masculine dark-wood facings and huge Romantic paintings, more a subject of psychological curiosity than admiration. The stories with which Ludwig illustrated his famous retreat all came from Wagnerian operas, like Parzifal and Tannhauser, in which chaste blonde warriors fought evil and avoided (for the most part) romantic entanglements with the opposite sex. I know nothing of Ludwig's sexual orientation, but I got the strong impression that he did not much like women.

The Bavarian government hated Ludwig's extravagance, though soon after his deposition and death (some say murder) the state opened both of the "Mad King's" castles to tourists. Officials recognized, I think, that both Linderhof and Neuschwanstein were ideal tourist sites, in that both sought to transport visitors into a semi-imaginary past. As time machines to a fake past, they tell us more about the mindset of their 19th-century builder than about the eras that inspired them. Linderhof, which Ludwig built in emulation of Louis XIV, celebrated a time when monarchs ruled absolutely and by divine right. The generation before Ludwig's, the Congress of Vienna crowd, had wanted to bring that era back, but their children learned that the French and Industrial Revolutions had destroyed it. The guillotine and Napoleon* killed the divine right of kings, and industrialization, without which a modern state could neither prosper nor defend itself, required an educated populace who wanted a say in their own governance. Ludwig wanted the respect and power of a Sun King, but his parliament and ministers wouldn't allow him these courtesies. In any case, the Bavarian king couldn't follow Louis's example, because his French predecessor kept his rivals in check by binding them in the elaborate rituals of Versailles. Ludwig was too shy to dominate Bavaria's political class; he built Linderhof to get away from the royal court, not to create a new one.

Neuschwanstein, the more famous of Ludwig's castles, evokes a more intriguing and dangerous historical fantasy. Despite its telephones and central heating, New Swan Stone's builder clearly meant to evoke the mythologized medieval past that charmed the disaffected elites of nineteenth-century Europe. Wagner's operas, Walter Scott's novels, the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, and similar media allowed the haute bourgeoisie and marginal aristos to distance themselves from the awful present, with its sooty cities and grubby, grasping commoners, in favor of a pseudo-reality characterized by chastity, cleanliness, simplicity, aristocracy, and masculine courage.

As Corey Robin has observed, this retreat into an imagined medieval past inspired a new generation of industrial-age reactionaries. King Ludwig merely wanted to retreat into his castles and his fantasies, but these elitists wanted to drag the rest of society with them into a new medieval era. They valorized inequality, worshiped a tiny elite, denigrated the proletarian majority whose labor sustained them, and marginalized and infantilized women. Friedrich Nietzsche and his followers belonged to this group, as did English intellectuals like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. Ludwig was not a reactionary in practice, but he drank from the same poisoned cup as other reactionaries and proto-fascists, and one is glad that, as a mere king, he never acquired sufficient power to put a Wagnerian** agenda into practice.

(Above photos are by the author.)

* While Napoleon did make himself emperor, his reshuffling and deposition of so many European monarchs demonstrated quite clearly that there were earthly powers superior to kings.

** Although Wagner himself, at least in his youth, was a liberal revolutionary and got into considerable trouble for it.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Anti-Presidents Day: Woodrow Wilson

The reputation of Woodrow Wilson, whom American historians once ranked among the greatest of U.S. presidents, has taken in the past year a well-deserved beating. Students at Princeton have requested the removal of Wilson's name from university buildings, and the New York Times published an op ed by Gordon Davis about his grandfather, an African-American civil servant broken and impoverished by Wilson's imposition of Jim Crow on of the executive branch. Wilson's anti-black racism seems beyond dispute. His pronounced admiration for Birth of a Nation, after all, stemmed not from his appreciation of D.W. Griffith's directorial skill but from Wilson's agreement with the movie's historical premise, that whites should not permit blacks to enjoy peace and equality. 

That Wilson also had little respect for non-Europeans living outside of the United States also deserves remembrance. The 28th president twice sent U.S. troops into Mexico and initiated the long and brutal American occupation of Haiti. And, while Wilson coined the phrase "self-determination" and urged the Allies in the First World War to extend it to Eastern European peoples*, he balked at proposing independence for Asians and Africans. Wilson instead persuaded Britain and France to place the dismembered Ottoman and German Empires under League of Nations mandates, ostensibly to "civilize" their subject peoples, in practice to permit their subordination and exploitation for thirty to fifty more years. 

The war that dismembered those empires, meanwhile, allowed Wilson and his officials to demonstrate how little they valued democracy at home, as they blanketed the nation in propaganda and jailed government critics like Eugene Debs. Indeed, the Wilson administration continued to curtail domestic civil liberties (e.g. the Palmer Raids) after the armistice, though it's hard to tell whether the stroked-out Wilson was fully aware of postwar developments. It's also hard to imagine Wilson's political rival Theodore Roosevelt, a pronounced critic of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, embracing so authoritarian a policy. Nor can I easily imagine Roosevelt or Taft (who needed northern blacks' votes) turfing out African-American civil servants and praising the Ku Klux Klan. Arguably the country would have been better off if one of Wilson's adversaries had won the 1912 election. Having passed the centennial of his election, and having gained enough of a collective social conscience to recognize the more repugnant features of his presidency, we would do well to stop praising Woodrow the Racist. 

* The Allies did grant independence to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia after the war, but I would argue democratic self-determination was only a minor motive. Britain and France also wanted to punish the Central Powers and erect a cordon sanitaire between Central Europe and Bolshevik Russia. Wilson may have been a sincere friend of Poles and Czechs, but they were among a very few aspirants for national independence he supported.