kottke.org posts about history
Corey Robin is a political scientist whose expertise is the history of conservative movements and the politics of fear. Sounds like the perfect person to predict whether reactionary strongmen are about to swoop in and destroy the democratic institutions we’ve all enjoyed, right?
It’s a little more complicated. We are more complicated.
The worst, most terrible things that the United States has done have almost never happened through an assault on American institutions; they’ve always happened through American institutions and practices. These are the elements of the American polity that have offered especially potent tools and instruments of intimidation and coercion: federalism, the separation of powers, social pluralism, and the rule of law. All the elements of the American experience that liberals and conservatives have so cherished as bulwarks of American freedom have also been sources and instruments of political fear. In all the cases I looked at, coercion, intimidation, repression, and violence were leveraged through these mechanisms, not in spite of them.
Genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, imperialism, internment camps, crushing unions, mass surveillance, torture, lynching, indefinite detention, extrajudicial murder, and on, and on — Americans have inflicted all of this on other Americans and on the rest of the world, not in the distant past, not as an original sin, but right up to the present day.
Which is not so unusual, for great powers of the world, or even most of the smaller ones. What is exceptional about America, if anything, is we have done all of this without once needing a strongman to do it. As Robin says, it’s been done “through lawyers, genteel men of the Senate with their august traditions and practices, and the Supreme Court.”
This is why people like SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch seem almost comforting next to Trump and his inner circle. They seem so familiar.
This is what the “resilience of American institutions” means.
When it comes to the most terrible kinds of repression and violence, Fear, American Style has worked because it has given so many players a piece of the pie.
The storm is called progress.
The truth of the matter is that Trump and Bannon could get most if not all of what they want—in terms of the revanchism of race, gender, and class, the white Christian nation that they seem to wish for—without strongman politics. American institutions offer more than enough resources for revanchism. That they seem not to know this—that they are willing to make opponents of the military and the security establishment, that they are willing to arouse into opposition and conjure enemies out of potential friends—may be their biggest weakness of all. Or, if they do know this, but seek strongman politics anyway, perhaps because it is a surplus, then they’re willing to put strongman politics above and beyond the project of social revanchism that their base seeks. Which may be their other biggest weakness of all.
In my experience with abusers — and the best working explanation I have found for most of Trump’s behavior is not any exotic psychological disorder or espionage-related intrigue, but that he is a self-confessed, well-documented serial abuser — getting what they want is secondary. The abuse itself, the bullying exercise of power, the maintenance of dominance, is the point. Which is the other way in which all of this feels way too familiar.
Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG has written a terrific riff on historian John R. Gillis’s new book The Human Shore: Seacoasts In History. After a phrase from Steve Mentz, it’s called “Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks”:
“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for…
We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.
Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.
The Hebrew Bible famously begins human history with a garden, followed by agriculture, then a flood, then cities, then wandering in exodus — but that story’s probably completely inverted. (The fact that the story’s written in a script likely borrowed by seafaring merchants is a tell.)
Even after agricultural urban civilization settles in, there are continued raids from “sea peoples”, Vikings, Mongols, and the British Empire — wanderers over land and sea who periodically crash into the farmers’ cities and make them their own, through trade and/or plunder.
Robert Graves thought all Greek mythology (and maybe all mythologies) dramatized the conflict between new and old gods, particularly the matriarchal gods of agriculture with the patriarchal gods of the sky and sea. In all the stories, he thought, you could find a trace of the suppressed gods, a counter-narrative that was never completely erased.
Here, too, we get our opposing views of nature: the regular, settled rhythms of Hades and Demeter, and the inhuman danger of Zeus and Poseidon — Walden vs. Moby-Dick.
Maybe the most successful myths are the ones that reconcile the two strands, legitimizing the victorious shipwrecked wanderers by explaining that the gardens they conquered were always theirs to begin with — that they had brought civilization and enlightenment to the farmers, whose songs their children sung, without knowing where they had come from.
(Top image from D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths)
This is from Walter Benjamin’s essay “On the Concept of History,” but I’m going to use the old translation back when it was called “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” and mess with the line breaks a little. If you’ve read this a million times, forgive me; it’s always worth reading again.
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.
The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.
But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.
This storm is what we call progress.
Benjamin wrote this in 1940, in Paris; he’d left Germany shortly before the Nazis seized power. After the Nazis invaded France, he fled to Spain, with a precious travel visa to the United States. Spain’s government then cancelled all transit papers. The police told Benjamin and all the other Jewish refugees in his group would be returned to France. He killed himself.
His friend Hannah Arendt later made it across the border safely; she had the manuscript of this essay. Which is why it exists.
Why is this useful?
These are chaotic times. But to the angel of history, it’s not a sudden eruption of chaos, but a manifestation of an ongoing vortex of chaos that stretches back indefinitely, without any unique origin. When we’re thrust into danger, in a flash we get a more truthful glimpse of history than the simple narratives that suffice in moments of safety. As Benjamin puts it, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”
Global refugees, the stubborn pervasiveness of white supremacy, the arbitrary power of the state, the fragility of national and international institutions — we’ve been here for some time now, haven’t we? One day, you stir, and there you are — right where you’ve always been. With nothing under your feet, and ghosts pausing for breath next to your cheek.
This is not normal — and yet it’s the same as it’s always been. Because there is no normal. Not really. Just a series of accidents, a trick of the light, a collective hallucination we’ve all worked to diligently maintain.
Even now, most of us are working to impose an order on the world, to see a plan at work, to sort the chaos into “distractions” and “reality,” whether it’s “real news,” uncovering the secret aims of an unseen puppet master, or articulating the one true politics that can Fix Everything. We can’t help it; it’s what we do.
Remembering the angel helps ameliorate that impulse. Yes, there are opportunists everywhere, and real losses and victories, but the perfect theory that links events into beautiful chains of causality is elusive enough to be a dream for a fallen people. “Only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past — which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.” For now, it’s all part of the storm; we’re all going to have to improvise.
For all his pessimism, rooted in a contempt and longing for a safety he couldn’t enjoy, Benjamin (I think) really did believe in the possibility of a Messiah, who would appear at a moment of great danger. It was a Jewish and a Marxist belief for someone who had great difficulty believing in either Judaism or Marxism in any of their existing forms.
There are a lot of people, on the left and the right, who share a version of this idea as a matter of dogma, without anything like the Kierkegaardian leap of faith Benjamin took in order to suspend his disbelief in it. Better to knock everything down, to build something new to replace it; heighten the stakes, so we have no choice but to take drastic steps to build paradise. I’m a lot less sure. I know what it took to build those things, and the emergencies that forced us to build them. It’s not an algebra problem to me, a clever lecture, a witty conjecture. I like those. Those are fun. This is not fun. This is blood and bones and broken things that do not come back. It would be nice to have a political or religious framework in which all those things can be mended or redeemed. It’s not available to me, except in its absence.
But for all that, I think I do believe in something smaller, more limited:
- I believe that moments of emergency are shot through with new possibilities;
- I believe there are more of us and there is more to us than we know;
- I think that we are always becoming something new;
- and this is because we don’t have a choice in the matter.
I think James Baldwin is right (Baldwin, like Benjamin, is somehow always right) when he writes in “Stranger in the Village” that while so many “American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black [and brown] men [and women] do not exist,” that
This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world — which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white — owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us — very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will— that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.
The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.
In short, I believe in the future — not a paradise, not a tranquil place, not a reward, but in all its mundane possibility and broken uncertainty. I choose to believe in the future, simply because we have nowhere else to go.
Emmett Till, 14, was murdered and mutilated for flirting with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, 21, in August 1955. Some reports say Till whistled at Bryant; others that he said “bye, baby” when leaving her store. Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped, tortured, and killed Till, then dumped his body in the river. Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury that September. Till’s lynching and the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision the year before mark the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in the United States.
There are two new books about Emmett Till — or rather, partly about Till and partly about the world around him, which is not so far from ours as we might like. Timothy B. Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till includes interviews with Carolyn Bryant Donham, now 82, where she recants much of her testimony in the Till case, including her claim that Till made verbal or physical advances on her.
Clearly, he observed, she had been altered by the social and legal advances that had overtaken the South in the intervening half century. “She was glad things had changed [and she] thought the old system of white supremacy was wrong, though she had more or less taken it as normal at the time.” She didn’t officially repent; she was not the type to join any racial reconciliation groups or to make an appearance at the new Emmett Till Interpretive Center, which attempts to promote understanding of the past and point a way forward.
But as Carolyn became reflective in Timothy Tyson’s presence, wistfully volunteering, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
John Edgar Wideman’s Writing to Save A Life takes up the story of Till’s father Louis, who beat his wife, left the family destitute, chose the army over prison, then was court-martialed and hanged in Italy during World War 2 on thinly substantiated rape charges. When it comes to sex and race, the lines we might draw between legal and extralegal punishment, rough familial revenge and precise military bureaucracy, gets blurrier and blurrier. What Wideman finds instead in both Till cases, father and son, is a “crime of being.”
I had never once thought of nor seen Louis Till before Wideman painted him so exquisitely, and now I have to acknowledge that he is all around me. Walter Scott? He’s Louis Till; so is Eric Garner. Michael Brown, unsympathetic as he appears on that convenience-store video — I can no longer see him without conjuring Emmett’s father. Seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald, wandering through the Chicago night until his body jumps and jerks from 16 shots? Louis (Saint) Till. Poor Philando Castile — pulled over at least 49 times in 13 years before the final and fatal interaction that left him bleeding in front of his girlfriend and her daughter and all the rest of us on Facebook Live — is a high-tech Louis Till. Ditto Alton Sterling down in Baton Rouge, Freddie Gray up in Baltimore and “bad dude” Terence Crutcher out in Tulsa: all these men are Louis Tills. Trayvon Martin and 12-year-old Tamir Rice are something else altogether, heart-rending combinations of both Tills, père and fils, doomed man-children in the fretful, trigger-happy imagination of American vigilantes and law enforcement. Whatever other crimes may or may not have been committed, may or may not have potentially been on the brink of being committed, these were all crimes of being before they were anything else.
It may be too hard to hold all of this in our heads — the elderly woman making gestures of repentance but still complicit in that horrible, racist crime, and the mysterious, violent man ground to dust by racist military machinery — and also recognize that this is still living memory: that Emmett Till and so many others should still be here to tell the stories of their lives, not have others speak for them. At the same time, when the horrors of World War 2 and Jim Crow suddenly in some ways feel closer than ever, how can we not strain to hear whatever they have to tell us?
Yale history professor Timothy Snyder took to Facebook to share some lessons from 20th century about how to protect our liberal democracy from fascism and authoritarianism. Snyder has given his permission to republish the list, so I’ve reproduced it in its entirety here in case something happens to the original.
Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.
1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.
2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.
3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.
4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.
5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.
6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by V’aclav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.
7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.
10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.
11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.
12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.
13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.
14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.
15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.
16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.
17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.
18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)
19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.
20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.
A great thought-provoking list. “Corporeal politics”…I like that phrase. And I’ve seen many references to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in recent weeks.
See also Five Steps to Tyranny and The 14 Features of Eternal Fascism.
Note: Illustration by the awesome Chris Piascik.
Ooh, this looks good: Medieval Europe is Oxford historian Chris Wickham’s “spirited and thought-provoking history of the vast changes that transformed Europe during the 1,000-year span of the Middle Ages”.
Tracking the entire sweep of the Middle Ages across Europe, Wickham focuses on important changes century by century, including such pivotal crises and moments as the fall of the western Roman Empire, Charlemagne’s reforms, the feudal revolution, the challenge of heresy, the destruction of the Byzantine Empire, the rebuilding of late medieval states, and the appalling devastation of the Black Death. He provides illuminating vignettes that underscore how shifting social, economic, and political circumstances affected individual lives and international events.
Here’s a short excerpt on the Yale University Press blog.
The Middle Ages get short shrift in tellings of European history (as evidenced by the term “Dark Ages”…and even “Middle” implies something moving between two better eras), but recently historians have been working on filling out the story and rehabilitating that period. I really enjoyed Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome, so I’m looking forward to digging into this when it comes out in November.
Drawing upon the work of colleagues, historian Michael Todd Landis proposes new language for talking about slavery and the Civil War. In addition to favoring “labor camps” over the more romantic “plantations”, he suggests retiring the concept of the Union vs the Confederacy.
Specifically, let us drop the word “Union” when describing the United States side of the conflagration, as in “Union troops” versus “Confederate troops.” Instead of “Union,” we should say “United States.” By employing “Union” instead of “United States,” we are indirectly supporting the Confederate view of secession wherein the nation of the United States collapsed, having been built on a “sandy foundation” (according to rebel Vice President Alexander Stephens). In reality, however, the United States never ceased to exist. The Constitution continued to operate normally; elections were held; Congress, the presidency, and the courts functioned; diplomacy was conducted; taxes were collected; crimes were punished; etc. Yes, there was a massive, murderous rebellion in at least a dozen states, but that did not mean that the United States disappeared.
Whoa, Histography is a super-cool interactive timeline of historical events pulled from Wikipedia, from the Big Bang to the present day. The site was built by Matan Stauber as his final project at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. This is really fun to play with and I love the style.
I have previously explored the question of the earliest born person ever to be photographed, which is probably cobbler John Adams, born in 1745. Motion pictures were invented sometime after photography, so the people filmed don’t stretch quite so far back.
Ben Beck lists the earliest born person to be filmed as Rebecca Clark, who was born in 1804. She was filmed in 1912 when she was 108. But there may have been an older person caught on the very first film shot in the Balkans. The Manakis brothers bought a Bioscope camera in London in 1905 and after bringing it back home to what is now Greece, they filmed their 114-year-old grandmother Despina weaving:
Being 114 in 1905 would place Despina’s year of birth at around 1791, only a few years after the formation of the United States. There’s no independent confirmation of her age outside of the film’s original title and Milton Manaki’s memoirs (published in Romanian), but even if she were only 102 at the time, she would best Clark’s 1804 birth year. (via @KyleOrl)
Get ready to update the OED. There’s a new attestation of English’s most colorful and versatile word, from the year 1310.
Dr Paul Booth of Keele University spotted the name in ‘Roger Fuckebythenavele’ in the [Cheshire] county court plea rolls beginning on December 8, 1310. The man was being named three times part of a process to be outlawed, with the final mention coming on September 28, 1311.
Dr Booth believes that “this surname is presumably a nickname. I suggest it could either mean an actual attempt at copulation by an inexperienced youth, later reported by a rejected girlfriend, or an equivalent of the word ‘dimwit’ i.e. a man who might think that that was the correct way to go about it.”
We’ve doubtlessly been using the word “fuck” in English for a lot longer; this is just an unusual set of conditions that’s led it to be preserved in the written record. Like an animal falling into a tar pit.
From Petapixel, a list of photographic firsts, including the first photograph (1826), the first digital photograph (1957), the first photo of the Sun (1845), and the first photograph of a US President (1843).
John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States, was the first president to have his photograph taken. The daguerreotype was shot in 1843, a good number of years after Adams left office in 1829. The first to have his picture taken in office was James Polk, the 11th President, who was photographed in 1849.
Adams was born in 1767, which got me thinking about a long-standing interest of mine: who was the earliest born person ever photographed? The Maine Historical Society believes Revolutionary War vet Conrad Heyer was the earliest born. Born in 1749, he crossed the Delaware with Washington before sitting for this portrait in 1852.
But according to the Susquehanna County Historical Society, John Adams (no apparent relation to the above Adams) was born in 1745 and was photographed at some point before he died in 1849. Other contenders with unverified ages include Revolutionary War vet Baltus Stone (born somewhere between 1744 and 1754 according to various sources) and a former slave named Caesar, photographed in 1851 at the alleged age of 114, which would mean he was born around 1737.
Still, that’s photographs of at least two people who were born in the 1740s, at least five years before the start of the French and Indian War. As children, it’s possible they could have interacted with people who lived through England’s Glorious Revolution in 1688 or even the English Civil War (1642-1651). The Great Span lives on.
It’s 2015. Stuff that happened in the 80s and 90s is getting to be positively ancient. Allow Tim Urban to make you feel old. I want to quote the whole thing, but I’ll make do with just a few snippets:
These movies came out closer to World War II than to today: The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, Airplane, Caddyshack.
There are millions of people alive today who will live well into the 22nd century.
How about 1980? It’s closer to FDR, Churchill and Hitler fighting each other than it is to 2015.
As you know, I love this sort of thing. Part of it is nostalgia and the whole “fuck I’m old” lament. I like it for the shift in perspective; it’s cheap time travel.
Update: And whoa, somehow I missed Urban’s post on Putting Time in Perspective. Wow.
This timeline of the history of information has some outstanding rabbit-holes: multiple entries on the history of magnetic card readers, Plimpton 322 (a cuneiform tablet called “the most famous original document of Babylonian mathematics”), and a whole series on crimes, forgeries, and hoaxes. The most developed entries and companion essays are on books and the book trade (the proprietor is an antiquarian bookseller), and the whole thing has got a noticeably Western Civ slant, but there’s something here for everyone.
Ran across one of my favorite little pieces of writing the other day: Sixty Men from Ur by Mark Sumner. It’s about how short recorded human history really is. The piece starts out by asking you to imagine if you view the history of life as the Empire State Building, all of human history is a dime on top.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., one the United States’ great historians, is less than two lifetimes removed from a world where the United States did not exist. Through Mr. Schlesinger, you’re no more than three away yourself. That’s how short the history of our nation really is.
Not impressed? It’s only two more life spans to William Shakespeare. Two more beyond that, and the only Europeans to see America are those who sailed from Greenland. You’re ten lifetimes from the occupation of Damietta during the fifth crusade. Twenty from the founding of Great Zimbabwe and the Visigoth sack of Rome. Make it forty, and Theseus, king of Athens, is held captive on Crete by King Minos, the Olmecs are building the first cities in Mexico, and the New Kingdom collapses in Egypt.
Sixty life times ago, a man named Abram left Ur of the Chaldees and took his family into Canaan. Abram is claimed as the founder of three great religions. A few lifetimes before that, and you’ve come out the bottom of that dime. You’re that close to it.
See also human wormholes and the Great Span, unlikely simultaneous historical events, and timeline twins.
Update: From Wired last year, Sam Arbesman writes about Kevin Kelly’s concept of touch generations.
I was recently listening to a lecture by Kevin Kelly where he introduces the concept of touch generations, the idea of a list of people based on when one person died and when the next was born: one person is in the next touch generation of someone else if they were born when the other person died. So Galileo and Newton, while unrelated, are in successive touch generations because Newton was born the year that Galileo died. Essentially, it’s a way of connecting lifetimes across the years.
A poster on Reddit asks: What are two events that took place in the same time in history but don’t seem like they would have? A few of my favorite answers (from this thread and a previous one):
When pilgrims were landing on Plymouth Rock, you could already visit what is now Santa Fe, New Mexico to stay at a hotel, eat at a restaurant and buy Native American silver.
Prisoners began to arrive to Auschwitz a few days after McDonald’s was founded.
The first wagon train of the Oregon Trail heads out the same year the fax machine is invented.
Nintendo was founded in 1888. Jack the Ripper was on the loose in 1888.
1912 saw the maiden voyage of the Titanic as well as the birth of vitamins, x-ray crystallography, and MDMA.
1971: The year in which America drove a lunar buggy on the moon and Switzerland gave women the vote.
NASA’s Gemini program was winding down at the same time as plate tectonics, as we know it today, was becoming refined and accepted by the scientific community.
Spain was still a fascist dictatorship when Microsoft was founded.
There were no classes in calculus in Harvard’s curriculum for the first few years because calculus hadn’t been discovered yet.
Two empires [Roman & Ottoman] spanned the entire gap from Jesus to Babe Ruth.
When the pyramids were being built, there were still woolly mammoths.
The last use of the guillotine was in France the same year Star Wars came out.
Oxford University was over 300 years old when the Aztec Empire was founded.
Related: true facts that sound made up, timeline twins, and the Great Span.
For the Journal of the American Revolution, Todd Andrlik compiled a list of the ages of the key participants in the Revolutionary War as of July 4, 1776. Many of them were surprisingly young:
Marquis de Lafayette, 18
James Monroe, 18
Gilbert Stuart, 20
Aaron Burr, 20
Alexander Hamilton, 21
Betsy Ross, 24
James Madison, 25
This is kind of blowing my mind…because of the compression of history, I’d always assumed all these people were around the same age. But in thinking about it, all startups need young people…Hamilton, Lafayette, and Burr were perhaps the Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg of the War. Some more ages, just for reference:
Thomas Jefferson, 33
John Adams, 40
Paul Revere, 41
George Washington, 44
Samuel Adams, 53
The oldest prominent participant in the Revolution, by a wide margin, was Benjamin Franklin, who was 70 years old on July 4, 1776. Franklin was a full two generations removed from the likes of Madison and Hamilton. But the oldest participant in the war was Samuel Whittemore, who fought in an early skirmish at the age of 80. I’ll let Wikipedia take it from here:
Whittemore was in his fields when he spotted an approaching British relief brigade under Earl Percy, sent to assist the retreat. Whittemore loaded his musket and ambushed the British from behind a nearby stone wall, killing one soldier. He then drew his dueling pistols and killed a grenadier and mortally wounded a second. By the time Whittemore had fired his third shot, a British detachment reached his position; Whittemore drew his sword and attacked. He was shot in the face, bayoneted thirteen times, and left for dead in a pool of blood. He was found alive, trying to load his musket to fight again. He was taken to Dr. Cotton Tufts of Medford, who perceived no hope for his survival. However, Whittemore lived another 18 years until dying of natural causes at the age of 98.
Perez Hamilton is a site covering American history through the lens of gossip blogger Perez Hilton. It’s up to the 1690s now…here’s an account of Leisler’s Rebellion from 1691:
During all the drama between the Boston revolt, New England and New France going to war and King James II being overthrown, German-American Jacob Leisler seized control of New York and ruled it against the wishes of the new King William III. In response, KWIII sent a new governor to NY, but he didn’t get there for a couple years because he was
lazy delayed by bad weather.
After an awkward stand-off resulting in words along the lines of, “You’re not governor, I am!” and, “No, bitch, NY is mine!” Jacob Leisler was finally arrested by the REAL governor and sentenced to death.
This is riDICKulous. You can’t just steal New York and expect to get away with it!!!!
If it was THAT easy, don’t you think we’d have stolen it loooong ago?? Where else can you get the best food and fashion in America??!
At the end of last week’s post about John Tyler’s grandsons still being alive (and indeed, NY Mag did an interview with one of them), I provided a couple of other examples of living persons bridging distant historical periods and asked:
Someone needs to come up with a term for this sort of thing (history bridges? no.)
On Twitter, David Galbraith suggested “timebenders”. After more thought, I came up with “human wormholes” but that’s not quite right either. Tony Hiss, in a book about his father Alger (the accused Soviet spy), said that Alger had a term for stories kind of like these: the Great Span.
My father himself even had a name for a kind of ongoing closeness between people in which death is sometimes only an irrelevance. He called it “the Great Span,” a sort of bucket brigade or relay race across time, a way for adjacent generations to let ideas and goals move intact from one mind to another across a couple of hundred years or more.
Hiss cites a pair of stories involving Alger (who died in 1996) and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who Alger clerked for and also figured in one of my earlier examples. In one story, Holmes told Alger about his experience fighting in the Civil War. The other story reaches back even further:
In the Holmes story Alger treasured above all others, the Justice told him that when he had been very young, his grandmother, a woman he revered, had shared her memories of the day at the beginning of the American Revolution when she was five and had stood in her father’s front window on Beacon Hill in Boston and watched rank after rank of Redcoats marching through town.
Another instance of the Great Span are the three Civil War widows (Maudie Hopkins, Alberta Martin, and Gertrude Janeway) who lived into the 2000s, two of them collecting their husbands’ pensions until their deaths. (thx, mike & @ithinkihaveacat)
That’s right, two exclamation points because this blows my mind. John Tyler was the 10th President of the United States. He was born in 1790 and took office in 1841. His son, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, was born in 1853, when Tyler was 63 years old1. Lyon had six children with two different wives2, two of whom were Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. (born 1924 when Lyon Sr. was 71) and Harrison Ruffin Tyler (born 1928 when Lyon Sr. was 75). They are reportedly both still living in their 80s.
Someone needs to come up with a term for this sort of thing (history bridges? no.). There’s also this 1956 game show appearance of a Lincoln assassination eyewitness and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) shaking hands during his lifetime with both John Quincy Adams (b 1767) and John F Kennedy (d 1963), one man spanning 200 years of American history. (via ★mattbucher)
 Tyler actually had two children after Lyon…Robert was born when he was 65 and Pearl followed at 70. ↩
 Lyon’s second wife was 36 years his junior and actually younger than each of his three previous children. ↩
The Onion A/V Club has put together a short, alphabetical guide to obscure, semi-obscure, and I-forget-that-other-people-might-find-that-obscure references/allusions in the music of The Beastie Boys.
It’s called “‘Electric Like Dick Hyman’: 170 Beastie Boys references explained.” Here’s a representative entry:
Drakoulias, George (“Stop That Train” from “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” Paul’s Boutique)
Def Jam A&R man George Drakoulias helped discover the Beastie Boys for Rick Rubin, and later became a producer for Rubin’s American Recordings, working on albums by The Black Crowes, The Jayhawks, and Tom Petty. There’s no record of him ever working at an Orange Julius.
I obsessed over this stuff as a kid, especially with Paul’s Boutique: I was nine years old, living in Detroit’s 8 Mile-esque suburbs, not New York, hadn’t seen any cult movies from the 70s not titled Star Wars, and had no internet to consult. I was literally pulling down encyclopedias from the shelf and asking my parents (who generally likewise had no clue) obnoxious questions to try to figure out what the heck they were talking about.
In a post I wrote here last summer, I said that hip-hop’s culture of musical sampling and what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “digging in the crates” for old records helped ensure that a significant chunk of my generation would be into history.
But it was definitely the references, too. Whether silly or serious, you couldn’t listen to The Beastie Boys or Public Enemy or Boogie Down Productions and not try to sort through these casually dropped names, memes, and places and try to reconstruct the worlds where they came from.
Stanley Kubrick’s unfinished Napoleon project was supposed to be (in Kubrick’s words) “the greatest film ever made.” At the meticulous-yet-epic scale Kubrick imagined it — think 30,000 real troops (from Romanian and Lithuanian Cold-War-armies) in authentic costume on location as extras for the battle scenes — it was unfilmable.
So instead of the film, we have Kubrick’s gigantic preproduction archive of notes and drawings and photographs, which (on top of the complete screenplay and drafts for the movie) is one of the largest scholarship-grade Napoleonic archives in the world.
Two years ago, Taschen put out a ten-volume de luxe edition of this material that cost $1500, which was by all accounts definitely awesome, but so expensive and unwieldy I don’t think even Kubrick superfan John Gruber bought it.
Now there’s a one-volume, 1100-page edition that lists at $70 but is running for $44 at Amazon. Brainiac’s Josh Rothman breaks it down:
The book, in a deliberate echo of the film, is rough around the edges. Rather than providing a seamless, synthesized account of Kubrick’s vision, the editor, Alison Castle, has focused on the raw materials: the photographs, clippings, letters, and notes that Kubrick kept in binders and a huge, library-style card catalog. There are interviews with Kubrick, and a complete draft of the screenplay, with many marked-up pages from earlier drafts. Here and there you’ll find introductory essays by Kubrick experts, or a historian’s response to Kubrick’s screenplay — but the emphasis is on the small gestures, as in the collection of underlined passages and marginal notes that Castle compiles from Kubrick’s personal library of books about the emperor. A special ‘key card’ included with the book gives you access to a huge online library of images.
While I was wondering how/if we’d remember Kubrick differently if the Napoleon movie had come together, I came across this snappy transition from Kubrick’s Wikipedia page:
After 2001, Kubrick initially attempted to make a film about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. When financing fell through, Kubrick went looking for a project that he could film quickly on a small budget. He eventually settled on A Clockwork Orange (1971).
You give it a year and YouTube Time Machine will show you videos of events from that year. For instance: 1894, 1943, and 1991. A super idea. (thx, alice)
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a journalist for the Atlantic who blogs mostly about contemporary cultural issues, hip-hop, politics, nerd culture, race relations, video games, journalism, and the American Civil War. (I’m guessing, no statistical averages here.)
How does that work? I think TNC actually explains it in this post. First he responds to Andy Rooney’s “I don’t know who Lady Gaga is, and kids today probably don’t know who Ella Fitzgerald was. Maybe we should call it even” with “I suspect that he gives himself too much credit.”
When I was a kid at Howard, I used to go into Ben’s Chili Bowl and hit the jukebox. I always played Otis Redding, The JBs, or Sam and Dave. I knew this music for two reasons: 1.) It was what my parents played, and on long road trips their music, not mine, was the soundtrack. It’s like being black in America—I knew that part of their world in a way that they could not know mine. 2.) Hip-Hop created a culture of Digging In The Crates. The notion was that digging through crates and crates of records to find a gem was something to be prized.
Whatever you think of the music, no self-respecting hip-hop head, at that time, could ever get away with saying, “Man, I don’t be listening to no Ella Fitzgerald!” Your friends would have looked at you like you were crazy. Knowledge—not the kind of ignorance Rooney evinces here—was prized. I remember going into Ben’s and the old heads looking over and going, “Son, what you know about that?”
Here’s what I knew—when me and Kenyatta took long drives through Maryland, I knew to play Otis Redding, not H-Town. I learned that digging through the crates. I learned that from my parents. But I never said that of course. I just laughed because it was cool and it was funny. But it was also instructional, and here I must apply what I’ve learned. Perhaps my generation had a monopoly on that kind of knowledge. Maybe young people today really don’t know who Ella Fitzgerald is. I don’t really know.
Electro-acoustic sample wizards The Books have a new album out, and they have a Tumblr that annotates each track. “A Wonderful Phrase By Gandhi” includes a sample of the Mahatma’s voice from a 1931 gramophone recording.
Mostly I think of this track as a P.S.A. Everyone should know what Gandhi’s voice sounds like; it’s timbre communicates so much regardless of what he’s saying, if we can help spread it in our small way it seems worth the 18 seconds.
Nick Zammuto goes on to compare Gandhi’s voice to Einstein’s, whose voice graces a track on the band’s second album. This comparison, and the scarcity of fair-quality recordings of Gandhi’s voice, made me realize how important our memory of an historical figure’s voice can become. Try to imagine FDR, Martin Luther King Jr, or Hitler without thinking of their voice. Yet we don’t know what Lincoln sounded like, or Napoleon, let alone Confucius or Cicero.
Cordoba is a city in southern Spain that was capital of the Umayyad caliphate of the same name during the Middle Ages. In the tenth century, it passed Baghdad the largest city in Islam and may have been the largest in the world.
Cordoba House is the name of a proposed complex on Park Place in Lower Manhattan, two blocks from the World Trade Center site, sometimes called the “ground-zero mosque.”
Newt Gingrich thinks the name is “a deliberately insulting term” that tests “the historic ignorance of American elites.” In particular, he cites transformation of a church in Cordoba into a mosque as “a symbol of Islamic conquest” over Christian Spain.
Carl Pyrdum, a graduate student who blogs at Got Medieval, wrote a long, well-footnoted post detailing the problems with Newt’s history.
Notice how carefully he’s phrased his claim to give the impression that during the medieval conquest of Spain the Muslims charged into Cordoba and declared it the capital of a new Muslim empire, and in order to add insult to injury seized control of a Christian church and built the biggest mosque they could, right there in front of the Christians they’d just conquered, a big Muslim middle finger in the heart of medieval Christendom. Essentially, they’ve done it before, they’ll do it again, right there at Ground Zero, if all good Christians don’t band together to stop them.
The problem is, in order to give that impression of immediacy, Newt elides three hundred years of Christian and Muslim history. Three hundred years. The Muslims conquered Cordoba in 712. The Christian church that was later transformed into the Great Mosque of Cordoba apparently continued hosting Christian worship for at least a generation after that. Work on the Mosque didn’t actually begin until seventy-odd years later in 784, and the mosque only became “the world’s third-largest” late in the tenth century, after a series of expansions by much later rulers, probably around 987 or so.
The Great Mosque was actually built to commemorate the defeat of the Abbasids, the Umayyad’s rivals for control of Andalusia. Joint worship emphasized the legitimacy of the Cordoban caliphate and its superiority to the rowdy Abbasids. “Far from ‘symboliz[ing] their victory’,” Pyrdum writes, “the Mosque was held up by Muslim historians a symbol of peaceful coexistence with the Christians—however messier the actual relations of Christians and Muslims were at the time.” Before the Christians, the site hosted ruins of a Roman pagan temple.
Pyrdum’s post was picked up by Crooked Timber, the Huffington Post, Andrew Sullivan, and other popular sites and worked its way up from there. On Twitter, David Weinberger wrote: “It’s why we have blogs, people.”
Imagine a newspaper or television station reporting on this story twenty years ago; if they had thought to fact-check Newt’s talking point, they would have either sent a researcher to the library or phoned an historical or Islamic studies expert for comment. Then it may have been cut for space or time. That’s not how things work any more. Knowledge floats.
Update:Michael Berube notes that the name “Cordoba” in Cordoba House is a known reference to the deliberately insulting interior of a 1975 Chrysler.
The US National Archives have added a number of photos to the Flickr Commons project. Flickr is quietly building the greatest collection of historical documents on the web.
I feel like I’ve linked to this before but in case I haven’t: the BBC and The British Museum are collaborating on a radio series (and more) called A History of the World.
At the heart of the project is the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 objects. 100 programmes, written and narrated by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, and focusing on 100 objects from the British Museum’s collection. The programmes will travel through two million years from the earliest object in the collection to retell the history of humanity through the objects we have made. Each week will be tied to a particular theme, such as ‘after the ice age’ or ‘the beginning of science and literature’.
Seven myths about the history of the American Revolutionary War, including “Great Britain Could Never Have Won The War” and “General Washington Was A Brilliant Tactician And Strategist”.
Washington also failed to see the potential of a campaign against the British in Virginia in 1780 and 1781, prompting Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French Army in America, to write despairingly that the American general “did not conceive the affair of the south to be such urgency.” Indeed, Rochambeau, who took action without Washington’s knowledge, conceived the Virginia campaign that resulted in the war’s decisive encounter, the siege of Yorktown in the autumn of 1781.
Loosely based on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, The People Speak is a show that features well-known actors reading famous speeches and letters from American history.
Using dramatic and musical performances of the letters, diaries and speeches of everyday Americans, The People Speak gives voice to those who spoke up for social change throughout U.S. history, forging a nation from the bottom up with their insistence on equality and justice.
The show starts airing this Sunday but many of the performances are already available online.