SCOLD THE ELECTORATE WELL: "A boundless sea of novel ideas!"

MONDAY, DECEMBER 9, 2019

Charles Mann versus The Scolds:
Thanksgiving Day arrives in this country virtually every year.

Along with the four-day weekend and the football games, we now get the work of the scolds.

Quite a few of the scolds haven't been overwhelmingly bright in recent years, at least in their performance of this Turkey Day assignment. They complain that Mommy and Daddy didn't tell them the truth about the so-called first Thanksgiving when they were in first grade.

In response, they construct long lists of "legends and lies," not missing such turkeys as these:

The Pilgrims didn't even refer to themselves as Pilgrims! And the first Thanksgiving wasn't a true "thanksgiving" at all—it was just a harvest celebration!

The Pilgrims—and remember, they didn't call themselves Pilgrims—(allegedly) didn't even bring the bulk of the food!

These scolds today! They compose nonsensical work for Fortune magazine—and two years later, the New York Times reprints the passage, failing to notice the awkward fact that it makes no sense on its face:
BLOW (11/28/19: As Grace Donnelly wrote in a 2017 piece for Fortune:

The celebration in 1621 did not mark a friendly turning point and did not become an annual event. Relations between the Wampanoag and the settlers deteriorated, leading to the Pequot War. In 1637, in retaliation for the murder of a man the settlers believed the Wampanoags killed, they burned a nearby village, killing as many as 500 men, women, and children. Following the massacre, William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth, wrote that for “the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”

Just 16 years after the Wampanoag shared that meal, they were massacred.
We're sorry, but no. Sensibly enough, the Pequot War was waged against the Pequots, not against the Wampanoags. And obviously, Governor Bradford, one of the original Plymouth settlers, never made a statement describing what occurred "for the next hundred years" after the Pequot War, a period extending through 1757.

That passage made no sense, on its face, when it appeared in Fortune. But given the way modern "journalism" works, it was close enough for inclusion in a Turkey Day takedown there—and two years later, it was close enough for the Times' Charles Blow to republish.

At even less accomplished sites, journalists have been capable of seeming to think that the Wampanoags had once built a settlement right on Plymouth Rock! In this and a hundred other ways, the spectacular dumbnification of American culture proceeds apace in this, the age of Trump.

Into this wilderness, two Thursday ago, wandered Professor Silverman. He too was concerned about "Americans’ grade school Thanksgiving pageants." But to our ear, he highlighted dogmatic ideological scolding over the simpler pleasures of dumbness alone. Headline included, his column started like this:
SILVERMAN (11/28/19): The Vicious Reality Behind the Thanksgiving Myth

Generations of Americans have told themselves a patriotic story of the supposed first Thanksgiving
that misrepresents colonization as consensual and bloodless.

The story goes like this: English Pilgrims cram aboard the Mayflower and brave the stormy Atlantic to seek religious freedom in America. They disembark at Plymouth Rock and enter the howling wilderness equipped with their proto-Constitution, the Mayflower Compact, and the confidence that they are God’s chosen people. Yet sickness and starvation halve their population during the first winter and challenges their faith.

Meanwhile, the neighboring Indians (rarely identified by tribe), with whom the English desperately wish to trade for food, keep a wary distance. Just when Plymouth seems destined to become another lost colony, miraculously, the Natives make contact through the interpreters Samoset and Squanto (the story sidesteps how these figures learned English, nor does it explain why the Indians suddenly became so friendly). The sachem (or chief), Ousamequin (whom the English know, from his title, as “Massasoit”), even agrees to a treaty of alliance with Plymouth.

Over the spring and summer, the Indians feed the Pilgrims and teach them how to plant corn; the colony begins to thrive. In the fall, the two parties seal their friendship with the first Thanksgiving. The subsequent 50-year peace allows colonial New England and, by extension, the United States to become a citadel of freedom, democracy, Christianity and plenty.

As for what happens to the Indians next, this story has nothing to say. The Indians’ legacy is to present America as a gift to white people—or in other words, to concede to colonialism...
According to the professor, what was wrong with that "patriotic story" about the supposed first Thanksgiving? It didn't include an account of what happened fifty years later!

The professor's sarcastic tone is evident from the start. In his rendering, the dumbness belongs to those "generations of Americans" who told themselves that "patriotic story" of the supposed first Thanksgiving without even identifying the Indians at the first Thanksgiving by the name of their tribe!

The professor performs side-eye with respect to traditional themes of the search for religious freedom, even at the traditional idea that these settlers could be seen as "brave" in some possible way. And their peace treaty only lasted fifty years! For the record, that's how long wars were running in the Europe they abandoned at that benighted point in time.(According to the leading authority, the Pilgrims decided to leave Holland, in part, because "the truce was faltering in the Eighty Years' War, and there was fear over what the attitudes of Spain might be toward them.")

In Silverman's column, we get to roll our eyes at the Pilgrims' laughable 17th century religious understandings which we, in our astonishing brightness, have moved so far beyond. Good liberals will also know that we're rolling our eyes at the idea that the subsequent nation, the United States, emerged as "a citadel of freedom, democracy, Christianity and plenty," a silly set of popular understandings our tribe has moved far past.

These elements of the column involve the professor's capacity for tedious, tired old snark. The dogma emerges with his scolding remarks about colonialism.

Just to be perfectly honest, colonialism wasn't fully explained in most second grade pageants. As part of his amazing erudition, Professor Silverman knows more about this unfortunate topic than generations of Americans were willing to tell second-graders.

That said, no one advocates colonialism today. Everyone understands the fact that, to borrow from Frost, "the deed of gift was many deeds of war" as English settlement of this "new world" proceeded.

Everybody understands the problems with the conduct which followed that first Thanksgiving, both in New England and elsewhere. But uh-oh! Thanks to the tiresome scolding of higher-fallutin' people like Silverman, voters decide that the liberal world really is too dogmatic in its "political correctness." They stand in line to vote for Trump, who recently declared his brave opposition to the unfolding war of Thanksgiving which he finds so vile.

Silverman's column is almost as childish as the story which was told at those second-grade pageants. This is a shame, because the history of the Americas before and after contact with Europe is a deeply fascinating story, featuring a mountain of material everyone doesn't already know.

Silverman scolds, but Charles Mann dreams, imagines, admires, ruminates, instructs. His rumination on these topics received its first full airing in his widely acclaimed 2005 book, 1491: New Revelations of The Americas Before Columbus.

Mass was a journalist at that time, not a professor. He was a bit of a "Katherine Boo type;" he was working on the most intelligent levels of American journalism before his acclaimed book appeared.

His cover report from the March 2002 Atlantic gave an inkling of the book to come. The report appeared beneath this partial synopsis:
1491
Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought—an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe...
Unfortunately, that sub-headline suggests that Mann will be engaging in invidious comparisons designed to tilt our sentiments against the Europe, and the Europeans, of those thankfully distant years.

Such childish comparisons are the stuff of our modern, flamboyantly flailing pseudo-progressive project. Mann's book takes us to a more remarkable, more intelligent place.

What was the nature of Mann's book? It placed a vast amount of erudition at the service of admiration and regret. In his review of the book for Salon, Steve Kettman lapsed fairly quickly into the inviting culture of invidious comparison. But before he did, Kettmann described the volume's vast sweep, and its power:
KETTMAN (9/29/05): As he explains in a useful preface to "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus," Mann had been waiting, at least since the early 1990s, for someone to publish a book pulling together the wealth of research conducted in recent years to redefine radically how we think of our continent's history. But no one did. He finally decided that he was going to have to write the book himself. "1491" is less a self-contained work per se and more an induction ceremony into what, for many readers, promises to be a lifelong obsession with the startling new perspective slowly opening up on this prehistory.

What's most shocking about "1491" is the feeling it induces of waking up from a long dream and slowly realizing just how thoroughly one has been duped.
We all knew there were problems with the old narrative of brave European settlers crossing the Atlantic to find an empty continent, but it's jarring to discover, as Mann tells us, that in 1491 there were almost certainly more people living in the Americas than in Europe—and that, in many ways, American civilizations of the time were as advanced as anything across the ocean.
With his complaint that we've all been "duped," Kettmann starts buying in to the realm of complaints about Mommy and Daddy, and those past second-graders, who just wouldn't tell us the truth. That really isn't Mann's game.

Mann's book is the most remarkable volume we've read in the years we've been at this site. If we were to pull one passage from his remarkable tome, it would be this one, in which Mann describes the vast cultural wealth which was lost after encounter with Europe—lost, in large part, to the savage sweep of epidemics which no one understood at the time:
MANN (page 137-138): Having grown separately for millennia, the Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all the other products of the mind. Few things are more sublime or characteristically human than the cross-fertilization of cultures. The simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectual ferment. How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies had survived in full splendor!

Here and there we see clues to what might have been... [Examples follow]

Think of the fruitful impact on Europe and its descendants from contacting Asia. Imagine the effect on these places and people from a second Asia. Along with the unparalleled loss of life, that is what vanished when smallpox came ashore.
As noted above, Mann's book describes a Western Hemisphere which "was vastly more populous and sophisticated," at the time of first encounter, "than has been thought." Even now, we'd guess that this would qualify as (potentially inspiring) new information for almost everyone. Also new would be the astonishing role played by epidemic disease in what happened next.

Yes, there was "colonialism," and there were murderous "deeds of war." Impressively, Professor Silverman has seen through this way of life, along with virtually everyone else over the age of three.

But there also was the repetitive wave of epidemics which decimated native populations all through the Americas, North and South. These epidemics took whole populations and whole advanced civilizations down even before European soldiers could hope to accomplish such tasks.

The story is astonishing in a wide array of ways. In his column for the Times, Professor Silverman briefly mentions the epidemic which "took a staggering toll on [the Wampanoags'] population" from 1616 through 1619, just before the Pilgrims arrived.

To our ear, the professor floats the suggestion that this may have been deliberate on Europeans' part. Our childish tribe likes to play it in such waya. Mann describes the astonishing history of that particular epidemic in devastating detail:
MANN (page 60): Based on accounts of the symptoms, the epidemic was probably of viral hepatitis, according to a study by Arthur E. Spiess, of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and Bruce D. Spiess, of the Medical College of Virginia. (In their view, the strain was, like hepatitis A, probably spread by contaminated food, rather than by sexual contact, like hepatitis B or C.) Whatever the cause, the results were ruinous. The Indians “died in heapes as they lay in their houses,” the merchant Thomas Morton observed. In their panic, the healthy fled from the sick, carrying the disease with them to neighboring communities. Behind them remained the dying, “left for crows, kites, and vermin to prey upon.” Beginning in 1616, the pestilence took at least three years to exhaust itself and killed as much as 90 percent of the people in coastal New England.
Theories about the specific nature of that epidemic may have advanced since Mann's book appeared. At any rate, this devastation preceded the Pilgrims' arrival on the scene.

According to Mann, Ousamequin/Massasoit's immediate community was reduced from several thousand people to just sixty during this three-year plague. The larger confederation he ruled dropped from twenty thousand to fewer than one. Such stories played out all through the Americas, North and South, as European microbes actually moved ahead faster than explorers or soldiers could march.

Part of the unending surprise of Mann's book—of those "new revelations of the Americas before Columbus" which he reported as an extremely high-end journalist—involve what Europeans found as they encountered existing American civilizations. Tenochtitl├ín, today's Mexico City, was the center of the Aztec Empire. In Mann's account, this is what the Spaniards saw as they arrived on the scene:
MANN (page 140): Tenochtitl├ín dazzled its invaders—it was bigger than Paris, Europe's greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gaped like yokels at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away...Long aqueducts conveyed water from the distant mountains across the lake and into the city. Even more astounding than the great temples and immense banners and colorful promenades were the botanical gardens–none existed in Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that kept the crowded streets immaculate. (Streets that weren't ankle-deep in sewage! The conquistadors had never conceived of such a thing.)
Again, a passage like this may seem to involve Mann in invidious comparison of the "Europe bad, Americas good" school. That isn't the tone of the book.

Did the English settlers consider themselves to be "God's chosen people?" Possibly, but Mann describes the crackpot religious beliefs and behaviors which obtained in some of these pre-encounter American societies.

When he describes the possibly unfortunate human sacrifices practiced by the Aztecs, he compares the conduct to the widespread public executions being conducted in Europe at that time. In this way, he suggests the non-childish understanding that we humans had a long way to go, all over the world, at this particular point in time.

Back to New England! What did English settlers find when they landed on those shores?

They didn't find great cities like Tenochtitlan. They did find Indian populations whose housing they envied and admired as perhaps superior to the standard housing technology in England at the time.

Among survivors of the 1616 epidemic, they found people whose diet was more nutritious than the typical European diet. (Coastal Indian diets "averaged almost 2,500 calories a day, better than those usual in famine-racked Europe.")

They found people who were larger and healthier than the typical English settler. ("Time and again Europeans described the [coastal Indian groups] as strikingly healthy specimens.")

According to Mann, "Pilgrim writers universally reported that Wampanoag families were close and loving—more so than English families, some thought." But no, it wasn't all sweetness and light. Our human race had a long way to go at that time, as it does today:
MANN (page 46): Armed conflict was frequent but brief and mild by European standards. The casus belli was usually the desire to avenge an insult or gain status, not the wish for conquest. Most battles consisted of lightning guerrilla raids by ad hoc companies in the forest...Women and children were rarely killed, though they were sometimes kidnapped and forced to join the winning group. Captured men were often tortured (they were admired, though not necessarily spared, if they endured the pain seriously). Now and then, as a sign of victory, slain foes were scalped, much as British skirmishes with the Irish sometimes finished with a parade of Irish heads on pikes. In especially large clashes, adversariess might meet in the open, as in European battlefields, though the results, Roger Williams noted, were "farre less bloudy, and devouring then the cruell Warres of Europe." Nevertheless, by Tisquantum's time defensive palisades were increasingly common, especially in the river valleys.
If you don't count the kidnappings, the torture and the scalpings, these coastal Americans were the very good people and the Pilgrims, who didn't even call themselves Pilgrims, were the very bad.

It's impossible to capture the full range of the history offered in Mann's densely-written book. But what you find in Mann's book is admiration for the civilizations which existed in the Americas before first encounter with Europeans, combined with deep regret in the face of all that was lost through the astonishing epidemics and all the "deeds of war."

Mann offers ruminations which are extremely intelligent. AS almost anyone can see, "Who brought more food to the first Thanksgiving" is just stupendously dumb. But so is the silly scolding robotically dispensed by the know-it-all professors who stand opposed to colonialism and all the word conveys.

Everybody agrees on that, and many people agree about this. Our tribe is extremely hard to like, and seems eager to re-elect Donald J. Trump, defender of Thanksgiving tradition and all other popular holidays.

Material to dream on: Here's Mann, in 2005, on the nature of "the new scholarship:"
MANN (page 29): One way to sum up the new scholarship is to say that it has begun, at last, to fill in one of the biggest blanks in history: the Western Hemisphere before 1492. It was, in the current view, a thriving, stunning diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture, a region where tens of millions of people loved and hated and worshipped as people do everywhere. Much of this world vanished after Columbus, swept away by disease and subjugation. So thorough was the erasure that within a few generations neither conqueror nor conquered knew that this world had existed. Now, though, it is returning to view. It seems incumbent on us to take a look.
It seems incumbent on us to take a look.

Or we can complain about who brought more of the food to that remarkable three-day feast in Plymouth. Because such questions are stupendously dumb, they are rushed into the New York Times as Stephen Miller cheers.

16 comments:

  1. "That said, no one advocates colonialism today"

    Meh. Settler-colonialism, very similar to what Mr Mann describes, has been practiced in Palestine, for example, in the last 80 years or so.

    And everyone loves it. Mr Mann probably loves it too.

    It's much, much safer to do virtue-signaling denouncing evil white men of the times long passed. They are all long dead, and thus 100% harmless.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Ain't no such thing as a Palestinian. But hey, you knew that.

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  2. Somerby has read about a history book and discovered that it is full of interesting information. Imagine if he had taken a history class at Harvard and discovered this stuff sooner!

    There is no harm in trying to incude Indian experience in our holiday traditions. Nitpicking who killed who on what date is ridiculous, but it is not ridiculous to remember that colonization was neither consensual nor bloodless (as Silverman notes).

    Historians argue the details and that is their job. Journalists do not do that, except with respect to current events. Instead, they try to widen our perspective on a day when children are being taught rituals that exclude part of our population.

    Democrats are for inclusion and against the myths that relegate Indians to the past and to irrelevancy. Conservatives and Republicans insist that the Thanksgiving myths be enacted each year, just as when they were kids.

    Which side does Somerby attach himself in this series of essays. Well, he doesn't seem to be sympathetic to any of the myth-busting articles and he is gleeful when their details are challenged, but extolling the virtues of Mann, a historian who wrote a book that few people will know anything about while celebrating Turkey day, doesn't get him off the hook for rejecting the efforts at inclusion and focus on nitpicks instead of seeing the larger point about not glossing the realities of our relations with those we subjugated in order to build our nation.

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  3. Somerby can’t find any factual issues with Professor Silverman’s editorial, (even after associating it by juxtaposition in his readers’ minds with Blow’s errors), so he resorts to accusing Silverman of being sarcastic.

    Silverman didn’t acknowledge the bravery of the Pilgrims, according to Somerby. Ok. But the conquistadors, such as Cortes, whom Somerby drags in here as well, could also be called “brave”, even though that supposedly positive quality is mitigated by the arrogance and cruelty of the Spaniards in Central and South America.

    Somerby also criticizes the professor for his “scolding” remarks about colonialism, even though he himself acknowledges that colonialism was bad: “Everyone understands the fact that, to borrow from Frost, "the deed of gift was many deeds of war" as English settlement of this "new world" proceeded.”

    Somerby mocks the idea that “we”, including grade-school kids, should really need to know certain things, like the name of the tribe at that first Thanksgiving. I was never taught this in school. And the fascinating story of Squanto was disappeared, as was the decimation of the native population due to previous contacts with Europeans. But why should these things go unmentioned? They deserve to be told.

    The two most astonishing things from Somerby are:
    “Everybody understands the problems with the conduct which followed that first Thanksgiving, both in New England and elsewhere. “

    I suggest that that is patently false. And the fact that it is false is troubling.

    And, second:

    “Good liberals will also know that we're rolling our eyes at the idea that the subsequent nation, the United States, emerged as "a citadel of freedom, democracy, Christianity and plenty," a silly set of popular understandings our tribe has moved far past.”

    What is this but political correctness? Somerby thinks that an editorial debunking or filling in some of the gaps in our understanding of “Thanksgiving” must acknowledge things like the bravery of the Pilgrims, and that the US is “a citadel of freedom, democracy, Christianity and plenty.”

    Good grief.

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  4. “Good liberals will also know that we're rolling our eyes at the idea that the subsequent nation, the United States, emerged as "a citadel of freedom, democracy, Christianity and plenty," a silly set of popular understandings our tribe has moved far past.”

    Only Republicans get to question America’s reputation:

    "Putin’s a killer," O'Reilly said in the interview.
    "There are a lot of killers," Trump responded. "Got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country's so innocent?"

    Trump also attacked Bush for the Iraq War. Meanwhile, the GOP is still fuming about how the hippies and liberals opposed the Vietnam War.

    Ditto the GOP stance on Russia, a former almost unanimous criticism to today’s cozying up, including adoption of their talking points and failure to take election interference seriously.

    The gaslighting is really the point now.

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  5. "Along with the unparalleled loss of life ..."

    I take some issue with that phrase. I am not sure what is new in estimates of American population pre 1492. The best estimate I have is from Thornton in the 1990s showing about 5 million in 1492 which had dropped to about 2 million by 1650.

    Suppose the population was 4 times higher than he estimated and that it dropped from 20 million to 2 million in 200 years? That would be 18 million people.

    That's a lot of death, but is it 'unparalleled'? Here are a few parallels.

    10 million Germans died in the 30 years war 1618-48.
    about 30 million died in the influenza pandemic of 1919
    50 million died in the cholera pandemic of the 1830s
    20-30 million died in the Taiping rebellion 1850-64
    75-200 million died during the Black Plague
    estimated that cholera killed 4.5 million people in the US between 1830 and 1860.

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  6. “If you don't count the kidnappings, the torture and the scalpings, these coastal Americans were the very good people and the Pilgrims, who didn't even call themselves Pilgrims, were the very bad.”

    Where does Somerby get this reductionist view? Not from Silverman. Not even from Blow. It is Somerby’s own reaction to critical commentary about Thanksgiving, and it is a window into the kind of mind that makes this kind of judgment after reading these kinds of op-eds.

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  7. I just missed the First Thanksgiving Dinner. I really don't care to hear about what it was "really" like. It is what it is today. So what?

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  8. Fabulous post. 1491 is in my kindle.

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  9. Having a hard time understanding why a blog that's about denouncing novelized tales takes issue with people denouncing one of the most persistent novelized tales in our culture.

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  10. Very good, I think I found the knowledge I needed five nights at freddy's unblocked. I will see and refer some information in your post. thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Is Bob still going on about Thanksgiving?

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