Tag Archives: history

I thought I might attempt to delegate my brain work and see if anyone can help me out with a critique of a recent article by Ross Douthat that appeared in The New York Times last week.

It starts with what Douthat finds to be an interesting discussion on the website the Edge, “Death is Optional,” between Yuval Noah Harari, author of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Daniel Kahneman, a noted academic and psychologist. It’s an interesting conversation that covers a lot of ground speculating on what changes in technology might mean for human society. Douthat, however latches onto one thing that they say that Douthat says he found “provoking.”

In the original conversation, in trying to speculate on what might happen in the future, Harari talked about the industrial revolution and how society responded to that.

What I can say is that maybe we are again in analogous position to the world in 1800. When the Industrial Revolution begins, you see the emergence of new classes of people. You see the emergence of a new class of the urban proletariat, which is a new social and political phenomenon. Nobody knows what to do with it. There are immense problems. And it took a century and more of revolutions and wars for people to even start coming up with ideas what to do with the new classes of people.

What is certain is that the old answers were irrelevant. Today, everybody is talking about ISIS, and the Islamic fundamentalism, and the Christian revival, and things like that. There are new problems, and people go back to the ancient texts, and think that there is an answer in the Sharia, in the Qur’an, in the Bible. We also had the same thing in the 19th century. You had the Industrial Revolution. You had huge sociopolitical problems all over the world, as a result of industrialization, of modernization. You got lots of people thinking that the answer is in the Bible or in the Qur’an. You had religious movements all over the world.

In the Sudan, for example, you have the Mahdi establishing Muslim theocracy according to the Sharia. An Anglo-Egyptian army comes to suppress the rebellion, and they are defeated. They behead General Charles Gordon. Basically, this is the same thing that you’re now seeing with ISIS. Nobody remembers the Mahdi today because the answers that he found in the Qur’an and the Sharia to the problem of industrialization didn’t work.

This was the part that provoked Douthat. In response, Douthat writes:

New ideas, rooted in scientific understanding, did help bring societies through the turbulence of industrialization. But the reformers who made the biggest differences — the ones who worked in the slums and with the displaced, attacked cruelties and pushed for social reforms, rebuilt community after it melted into air — often blended innovations with very old moral and religious commitments.

When technological progress helped entrench slavery, the religious radicalism of abolitionists helped destroy it. When industrial development rent the fabric of everyday life, religious awakenings helped reknit it. When history’s arc bent toward eugenics, religious humanists helped keep the idea of equality alive.

I don’t have the necessary depth of historical knowledge to refute this completely, but I do have to wonder how accurate his version is. It seems to me, writing off the top of my head, that well over a millenium and a half of Christianity did nothing to wear away the institution of slavery and it was only with the arrival of the Enlightenment that individual became more valuable than the community and institutions like slavery could be drawn into question. Slavery in France was ended with the Revolution. Many of the prominent freethinkers in the U.S. in the decades before the Civil War, like Robert Ingersoll, Ernestine Rose, Elizur Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, were abolitionists, as well as being active in other social movements like feminism.

The reformers who worked in the slums have a somewhat checkered record and many of them supported eugenics themselves. I don’t know much about the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century reform movements, although I see monuments to that period about the city. A quick look turned up a book titled Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. From the synopsis of the book:

Many religious leaders embraced eugenics, often arriving at their support through their involvement with other social reform movements, including campaigns to sterilize the “feebleminded” in the states; new efforts by the state to regulate marriage; the birth control movement; efforts to combat “social evils” such as venereal disease; and the movement to restrict immigration.

Although much of the left in the United States traces its heritage to the Progressive Movement, I know embarrassingly little about the period. However, one of the major educational reformers of period was John Dewey, an atheist and humanist.

I don’t want to go to the other extreme and deny the work of religious people during this period, but I’m not willing to accept the statement that the “reformers who made the biggest difference” were those who were religious and the agnostics, freethinkers, Humanists, and atheists were irrelevant.

So, I would love a little help from my friends here. I should add that I’ve been fixating on the U.S., but that is only because I know the history better. Harari was most certainly talking about historical trends that will affect the entire world. Douthat writes:

As the developing world has converged in prosperity with Europe and America, old religious ideas that have been given new life — Christianity in China, Hinduism in India, Pentecostalism in Latin America and Africa — are playing as important a social role as any secular or scientific perspective.

Take a look at Douthat’s column and let me know what you think.

As I mentioned the other day, I picked up in the bookstore a book by Colin Woodard entitled American Nations: A history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America. After finishing Chapter 2, “The Founding of New France,” I wondered if it was worth my while to continue. While I was in Quebec, I desperately wanted to assimilate successfully and one way to doing that was by trying to learn as much as possible about what I assumed at that time would be my adopted homeland. My ex was a Quebecois separatist who told me many times that his ancestor had come over with Champlain and that he was “pure laine” and “Quebecois de souche.”

Woodard refers to Francis Parkman’s famous sentence: “Spanish civilization crushed the Indian; English civilization scorned and neglected him; French civilization embraced and cherished him.”

What is important about this phrase is an unstated assumption, one that I suspect most readers make as well, that Spanish civilization in North America is represented by Mexico, English by the colonies that became the United States, and France by Quebec. When we consider that each of these three groups settled multiple areas and we consider the history in light of the finer detail that provides, the statement appears gravely in need of qualification. The economic conditions in each of what eventually became Quebec, Mexico and the United States differed vastly. If we examine regions where the environmental, and therefore economic, situation holds true, a different pattern emerges, one in which the three empires behaved in similar ways.

There were colonies from all three Empires located on islands in the Caribbean.  Spain was the first to arrive in the region and settled the islands we now know as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, the Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat, Guadalupe, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and Trinidad. France established colonies on the islands of Saint Kitts in 1625,  on Guadeloupe and in 1635, and on Saint Lucia in 1650, and on the island of Hispaniola they established Saint-Domingue, today known as Haiti, in 1664. The British settled the Bahamas, Bermuda, the British Leeward Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the British Windward Islands, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos Islands. Many of these islands, such as Saint Kitts, were claimed alternately by each empire, while others, such as Hispaniola, were shared.

On the Caribbean islands, all three empires did their best to massacre or expel the native inhabitants. (I’ve come to dislike the use of the word “extinct” when applied to human communities. Many people appear to make an analogy with animal extinctions in which no living member of that species remains and assume that the “extinction” of a tribe means that every last man and woman died without any offspring. In fact, it means that the group no longer exists as a political entity. Frequently, descendents remain. The majority of contemporary Puerto Ricans are descended from the Taino. Actually, as I was looking for a link for that, I saw that even academics are confused about the different uses of the word. Perhaps, I should do an entire post on this.) All three empires imported slaves from west Africa, whose descendants became the majority of the population on many of the islands. If we want to compare how cultural factors affected the treatment of native peoples under different European empires, we would do better to compare the empires under similar environmental conditions.

Similarly, where both the French and the English profited from the beaver trade, the native tribes were treated as trading partners. It was only after the collapse of the fur trade that European interests in the northern areas of North America turned from trade to settlement and the change in treatment of the native tribes changed accordingly. By this time, however, the English had defeated the French in Quebec and it is not possible to tell if the French policies would have changed as well.

Perhaps we should not even say that “the English defeated the French” so much as the Iroquois defeated the Huron. What we in the U.S. call the French and Indian War was, in many ways, the Indian and Indian War. Woodard makes much of the French settlers’ “cultural openness” citing alliances with the Huron and others. However, the British Empire allied themselves with the Iroquois. In fact, I have often quipped that the French chose the wrong Indians. The Iroquois are not a tribe, but a confederacy of several tribes, six today and five at the time of the French and Indian War, and were far more numerous and powerful as a group than the culturally and linguistically similar Hurons.

I don’t mean to imply that cultural factors have no bearing on historical events, but we need a much more balanced view than Woodard is giving us. I’ll deal with numerous errors he makes in recounting the settlement of New France in a separate post. It’s very disturbing to see because we don’t have many good books in English on the subject. Woodard appears to lean heavily on David Hackett Fischer’s book Champlain’s Dream, which I haven’t read.

A decade or more ago, I developed some idle curiosity about a bit of early American colonial history and I took myself down to the local library to do some casual reading that only barely would qualify for the word “research.” I looked up in the electronic catalogue some titles on the subject and, as I had done since high school, jotted down the call numbers and went to the appropriate stacks. I’ve never like closed stack libraries because accident has been as important as intent in the self-administered portion of my education. I don’t look for a specific book so much as I look for a region. The books I once looked up in card catalogues, and now look up in electronic records, are used more as lodestones to guide me in a general direction than of ends in themselves. Armed with a call number, I guided myself to the region where a certain category of information can be found and I examine many books in that locale, not simply the ones whose addresses I know.

Thus it was that I picked up a general book of American history off the shelf of a small public library in a small town, the sort of place no less remarkable for its commonness. The blue cloth binding, faded in places, the size, the shape, the gilt lettering, all gave the immediate impression of an older book. However, the sharpness of the corners and the whiteness of the pages indicated that it had rarely been read. I sat down in a carrel with it. I turned to the title page to look for a date. The copyright was accompanied by a date in the early years of this century. It was published, like most American books of that era, like most American books I have ever read, in New York.

I read the introduction. In the sonorous, authoritative tones that history no longer uses, the introduction gave a general outline of the past. It spoke of Progress with an antiquated admiration and archaic confidence. It did not so much as explained to the reader as inform him of how civilization had risen up from “oriental despotism” to the enlightened world we have today.

Incongruously, I was put in mind of the first page of Harvey Kurtzman’s The Jungle Book, which mocks exactly this ideal of progress. “Up from the apes – and right back down again.” In the copy I own, which is a reprint published by Kitchen Sink Press in the eighties or nineties, there is an introduction by Art Spiegleman. In it, he quotes a conservative observer of society whom he saw interviewed and whose name I forget. The conservative spoke of how everything had gone wrong with society starting in the sixties because kids had been taught to make fun of society. The interviewer asked if he mean things like Mad magazine, co-founded by Kurtzman. The conservative responded, “That’s exactly what I mean.”

However it was clear in the introduction that the author of the history book, a man with faith in progress, was no conservative. Neither, one would guess, was Kurtzman. Yet they held nearly diametrically opposed views. There are days that I wonder what opinions we hold with confidence today will seem naive and outmoded tomorrow.