There are no secret histories

I loved my Penguin Classics paperback of Procopius’ Secret History as an undergraduate. I still have the book in a box in my office, though I haven’t had cause to take it out recently. Procopius of Caesarea lived in the age of Justinian (r. 527–565 CE), earning a living as secretary and historian for the emperor’s talented general Belisarius. He wrote numerous official histories that detailed Belisarius’ campaigns as part of Justinian’s wars of reconquest, but is better known for the other thing he wrote. That other thing is the Secret History.

In the Secret History, Procopius goes full Alex Jones of the sixth century CE. He accuses the emperor of being a devil stalking the halls of the palace and bringing a devastating plague to the world. These pages reveal a special hatred for women. He accuses Belisarius’ wife of cuckolding her husband with their adopted son, and dedicates long passages to the behavior of Empress Theodora, describing her (alleged) sexual appetites in lurid, pornographic detail. But for all that Procopius reveals about social controversies of his age, the Secret History reads more like a bitter screed than a careful history debunking the official version of events. And for good reason. Published now as the Secret History it was known in the Byzantine Suda as the Anecdota (Ἀνἐκδοτα) or “Unpublished” works.

Procopius is a special case, but I have been thinking about this book recently in conjunction with the genre of popular history book touting to reveal the history your teachers never taught you in school. Between the extremes of conspiracy theory, there is a spectrum of media united in the claim to reveal the truth about the past. Done well, this manifests as, for instance, the 99 Percent Invisible podcast that explores aspects of things that aren’t secret, but also aren’t immediately evident. Frequently, though, they are marketed more explosively as secret histories or under a title promising to reveal arcana guarded by the implacable sentry that is the history textbook.

I love history because it is big and weird—so big, in fact, that the science-oriented Randall Munroe  sarcastically proposed axing all odd or even years.  I say something to this effect to my students at the outset of nearly every course. The rhetorical move made by media marketing itself as “what professors didn’t tell you” is that teaching history requires selection. People who teach US history, as I did last semester, lament the impossibility of covering 150 years or so with any degree of depth, and the problem grows exponentially when the geographical and chronological scope swells to, say, everything in World History before 1500––or even before 1969 as in a course I took in college. Leaving aside the issue of sources, expertise, and political pressures to censor out most scandal, finite class time necessarily leads to superficial and spotty coverage. 

Most history exists beyond the walls of the classroom. Books patiently sit on dusty shelves waiting for a curious mind to challenge the tyranny of the textbook.

(I also believe that history as a discipline undercuts its own authority by introducing students to the field through big, broad courses rather than narrower, idiosyncratic courses. Inverting this structure would start students off with classes that deal with material on a human level, with the specificity of storytelling and enough engagement to arm students with tools before concluding with surveys that tie together the specific material with discussion of broad themes after students were invested enough to appreciate the big picture. In other words, history is taught backward even if reversing course is nigh on impossible.)

Spotty coverage does not a secret history make. I stress in my courses that history is a process, both in doing history and in how it unfolds. Touting something a secret history is at best a marketing gimmick and at worst something more sinister, both of which devalue the process.

There are no secret histories, only history not yet written. Individual documents may be restricted and authorities may push a particular narrative, and in this sense HISTORY is incomplete—and will always be.

Narratives Matter

An excerpt of a new book appearedin Salon this week, provocatively titled “Why Most Narrative History is Wrong. The book is similarly provocative, alleging in the subtitle to reveal “the neuroscience of our addiction to stories.” Naturally this caused a series of knee-jerk reactions that spawned long Twitter threads. I had a similarly impulsive response to the chapter, but also wanted to response to it in good faith before returning to a point the author and I actually agree on, that narratives—the stories we tell ourselves—are fundamental to human societies, because my distaste with this piece emerges from the consequences of this point.

below the jump

1491 – Charles Mann

The companion to Mann’s other book named after a year in the late 15th century, 1493, 1491 is a history of the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans, reporting on the best consensus of recent scholarship. Although he drying states at one point that his thesis is merely that this topic is worthy of more than seven pages, I think his argument is a good deal more sophisticated, namely that despite the popular myth that the Americas consisted of vast stretches of unspoiled nature, these continents were in effect vast gardens that had been shaped by millions of native inhabitants.

As was also true in 1493, Mann should be lauded for his lucid explanation of long-standing academic schisms. One of the problems with a book of this sort, as Mann notes, is that there are times when there is no consensus, in part because there are times when the sources are, shall we say, speculative. For instance, the chapter “Pleistocene Wars” is dedicated to wars between scholars over what happened during the Pleistocene, rather than wars that took place then. This is the chapter Mann gives to populating the Americas, the so-called Clovis Culture, and the possibility of multiple waves of migration. In this example, Mann delves into the controversies over dating the scattered bits of evidence, but in others he acknowledges more sinister problems with the evidence, such as how the European colonists eliminated the knowledge bases of the cultures they encountered.

You will note that I have not mentioned a single specific native group. Mann goes through many, though certainly not all, in some detail, but the themes are the same again and again. Native Americans (the collective term I still reflexively use, though Mann has an appendix dedicated to the problems with it) were technologically, mathematically, and agriculturally sophisticated in ways that are not often appreciated by people accustomed to European land-use patterns and intellectual culture, or who are deceived by giving priority to the empirical evidence of native culture that dates to generations after European contact.

The hemisphere described by Mann was teeming with human life in 1491, so densely populated that the colonists found themselves unable to stay. Within a few decades most of those people were killed by European diseases, which allowed laughably small numbers of men to conquer enormous swathes of territory with the help of native allies, particularly in South America, and allowed previously-controlled species like the bison and carrier pigeons to undergo explosive population growth—ironically shooting past the carrying capacity only to become associated with the natural bounty of the Americas. Mann also offers a welcome correction to the noble savage myth that Native Americans were endowed with a preternatural connection with the land, arguing instead that their ability to steward the environment developed from past failures and a willingness to develop sustainable practices.

In sum, I enjoyed 1491 a hair more than 1493, but they work in tandem to ask and answer some big questions about the history of the world.

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I had never given any thought to reading Philip Roth’s books until hearing people talk about his work after he passed away this summer and thinking that they sounded up my alley. I’m just now starting that process, with his alternate history The Plot Against America.

AP World History (Ancient)

The College Board received push back a couple of weeks ago when it announced changes to the AP World History curriculum, making the course begin in 1450. Critics online gnashed their teeth about a number of things, raising the legitimate concern that this would further marginalize the pre-modern world and that the chosen date, such that it meant anything, would default to a Euro-centric world view. The board responded this week by announcing that the new date is 1200, not 1450. Critics gnashed their teeth, albeit also in befuddlement at the seemingly arbitrary date.

(For what it is worth, the College Board’s stated explanation for the date, that it will allow “a study of the civilizations in Africa, the Americas, and Asia,” does check out. Now Genghis Khan, Mansa Musa, and the rise of the Aztecs all fall within the range. 1200 starts the course in media res, but that was inevitable when you put a start-date on a course.)

Reading the College Board’s announcement about the changes, I am of two minds. First, I am sympathetic when they say, based on the feedback from teachers that the current model is unsustainable because they are trying to do too much.

The current AP World History course and exam attempt to cover 10,000 years of human history—from the Paleolithic Era to the present. In contrast, colleges manage the unique breadth of world history by spreading the content across multiple courses.

The announcement is a little misleading when it says what college courses do and do not do—I did have a World History from the beginning of time to 1960 course in college—but, from the other side of the table, these broad strokes courses are incredibly hard to teach. Even “just” teaching a world history or Western Civilization before 1500 is covering a laughably enormous swathe of time, which is also the reason I have no pity for the US history professors who complain that there needs to be another mitotic division of their survey sequence, taking it from two to three courses. It has, however, been my position for a while that if I were made Grand Poobah of History Curriculum, I would invert the current paradigm and only teach the survey courses after students had been exposed to historical methods in specialized courses. The idea here is that by going from the specific to the general rather than the reverse, the students are better prepared to appreciate historiographical arguments and big themes.

The problem with this approach is that it is not scale-able as part of a standard test scheme meant to grant college credit. The situation the College Board finds itself in is quite the bind. It needs a single survey course to stand as a substitute for a college course because fragmenting the courses would neuter its ability to be a standard test and therefore undermine credibility. At the same time, the enormity of the course makes it difficult to teach the material in such a way that prepares the students to succeed at the work asked of them on the test. I don’t love this incentive structure with regard to student testing, but given the incentive structure in college courses I at least understand it. Moreover, in looking at old sample questions, the test itself isn’t bad in terms of the skills it is designed to measure. But it is also a lot. Obviously something needs to change.

This does not, however, mean that I agree with the changes the College Board made. My main issue is the decision to prioritize modernity, particularly because the AP European History, which starts in 1450, has already done the same thing. At this point I could start declaiming, ridiculing the absurdity of teaching a world history course that takes for granted the miracle that is agriculture, that conveniently forgets that Rome laid the groundwork for modern Europe, or that doesn’t bother trying to understand the founding and development of *any* of the world’s major religions. Yes, there are a couple of things that happened after 1200 (or 1400) that are important, but these are all built on precedents and developments that came before.

The college board has put out that it is open to creating a second AP World History (Ancient) course, which, despite the awkwardness of the name (congratulations, Richard I of England, you’re an ancient king!), is a fine ambition. But here is the thing: I am skeptical of how quickly yet another AP course can be developed and instituted, let alone how widely it would be picked up. Things have changed since I was in high school, but when I was coming up I didn’t even have access to one AP World History course, let alone two. I got my start with classes on all things ancient through my Latin teacher. Now I am fortunate enough to teach ancient history to college students and am consistently impressed with how many students from all sorts of disciplines come out to take my classes.

Maybe I am wrong and this interest will prompt dedicated high school teachers to make the second course come to fruition, but in the meantime I cannot help but think of this as a missed opportunity on the part of the College Board. There had to be a change to the AP World History course, but instead of even temporarily erasing antiquity, it should have kept the earlier portions, perhaps as an AP World History (Foundations), and developed (Modern) as the secondary offering.

Ghost Wars – Steve Coll

Two events on successive days in September 2001 changed the trajectory of modern Afghanistan. On the 11th, terrorists hijacked four planes in the United States, crashing two into the Twin Towers in New York and one into the Pentagon in Washington DC. On the 10th, suicide bombers posing as reporters assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, the leading Afghan leader opposing the Taliban. Coll’s book tries to explain what led to these two events.

The story in “Ghost Wars” begins in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Afghan government was in effect a client state of the Soviet Union, but plagued by civil war and insurrection, leading to a stream of military aid, which grew to a flood and finally a full-fledged invasion. As part of its Cold War strategy, the US worked in tandem with Pakistan’s ISI and the Saudi intelligence services to funnel resources to Afghan rebels.

The rebels were not a united front and aid was not distributed evenly. Pashtun mujahideen in the southern part of the country received the lion’s share, for a number of reasons. They were close by Pakistan and so easy to supply, as well as being the preferred allies or clients of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. At the same time, devout Christians saw fundamentalist Muslims as natural allies—fellow religionists in the fight against Communism.

Ahmed Shah Massoud, the independent Tajik leader in the northern Panjshir Valley received the short portion, being harder to supply, attached to illegal opium smuggling, and not as fanatical in his religion. In years to come this choice would prove costly. The actions of the CIA, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in the last years of the Cold War kicked off a transnational, radical Islamist movement of which Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda was just one particularly virulent strain.

Coll tackles the monumental task of mapping the shifting currents of Afghan politics, including the rival alliances during the 1980s, the rise of the Taliban after 1994, and how these developments were related to the other political developments in the Middle East, but it is made even greater still by also charting how American interest in the region waxed and waned throughout the region. The result is both the story of the situation in Afghanistan and an enormously frustrating one of bureaucratic and political calculus in America. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 1990s when the US administrations declared the Cold War won and Afghanistan a lost cause that was not worth engaging with. The result was that the US had effectively no presence in the region for years, until after the threat from terrorists trained in Afghan bases originally supported by the United States was beyond dispute.

There is too much in Ghost Wars to do a summary justice, but several themes stand out. One is the wide the blind spots of many US policy makers. These included the decision to cultivate militant religious fanaticism and to abandon the region after the end of the Cold War, both of which smacked of short-term thinking with little long-term planning. But equally frustrating were those issues that the US policy makers were concerned with. In the 1990s this meant a focus state-sponsored terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, to the exclusion of transnational actors and conventional attacks. The deliberations in Coll’s recounting, moreover, seemed to register too little awareness that the agendas of even American allies would not necessarily align with the best interests of the United States. The confluence, then, went to explaining how the United States lost touch with, let alone control over, this powerful movement it had helped set into motion.

A second, related, theme is the deep divisions between Afghan and Arab. Coll makes clear that the Arabs were outsiders in Afghanistan, sometimes tolerated, but never really accepted, which added a second level of complexity to the situation. Moreover, it was in this somewhat fragile situation where Osama bin Laden began his slow rise—tolerated because of his wealth, but a relatively minor player until the United States made him the face of transnational Islamic terrorism.

Ghost Wars is a deeply frustrating book to read, by turns making the reader feel for for the Afghans, the CIA, and becoming infuriated by the seemingly-obvious mistakes out of blindness, short-term thinking, and a host of other considerations. But it is also a compelling look at developments that continue to affect the world today even as it seems that US administrations (not simply the one in office today) continue to make some of the same mistakes of policy and rhetoric that characterized the US interactions with Afghanistan from 1979 until 2001. Radical Islamic terrorism is not a phenomenon that developed in a vacuum and the United States is complicit in its rise.

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I am now reading Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem and so far I’m finding it as good as it is touted to be.

Inventing Ethan Allen – John J. Duffy & H. Nicholas Muller III

Fiction resists fact to persist as heritage – David Lowenthal (as an inscription at the start of a chapter)

“[The founders of the Vermont Historical Society] thought that the robust growth in the state’s formative years and the bold assertions of its independence held lessons that would help the state deal with what they deemed as its declining prospects….[Henry Stevens] set out to sculpt Ethan Allen as a figure of such stature to inspire and guide Vermont through the vicissitudes of change he and his colleagues largely regarded as negative.”

As a child obsessed with history growing up in Vermont, it was inevitable that I collected the stories of Ethan Allen, considering with pride his “noble” defense of Vermont against the predatory New Yorkers and his “heroic” capture of Ticonderoga from the British. (The fact that he got captured in a foolish and impetuous invasion of Canada just meant that he was human.) Ethan Allen was obviously a great man, the founder of a state that I was, and am, proud of.

If pushed as a somewhat more developed historian, I would have obviously pushed back on these stories as foundation myths. I might have even admitted that Allen was a terrorist against the New Yorkers, who probably deserved it (more on this in a minute). That much is abundantly clear, but I didn’t have evidence for the formation of the myth or even for much about Allen’s life.

On a recent road trip, however, I visited Fort Ticonderoga and picked up Inventing Ethan Allen, which attempts to explain exactly that.

Duffy and Muller’s central thesis is deceptively simple: the Ethan Allen of legend was not the historical Ethan Allen, but a figure that was developed first by Allen’s brother Ira and later by the State Historical Society in order to give the small state a prominent past, particularly during the 19th century when Vermont was suffering from a deep economic slump.

The historical Ethan Allen is a shadowy figure, such that none of the statues allegedly bearing his features was based on his likeness. Born in Connecticut in 1738, Allen’s early years were filled with failed business ventures such as mining, before getting a break as a land speculator in the contested space between New Hampshire and New York. This territory was, in effect, sold twice, once to Allen, his family, and some other speculators, and once by New York. When challenged on the land, Allen’s cohort consolidated their claim to the Champlain Valley in the form of the Onion River Company, terrorizing the New Yorkers who moved in, and ending up with a bounty on his head. The Revolutionary War provided Allen new opportunities, and he touted his victory over the score of British soldiers at Ticonderoga even though he outnumbered them by more than four to one, before a series of blunders cost him leadership of the Green Mountain Boys. Nevertheless, he emerged from the war with more land than ever, both through a dowry brought by a second marriage and through legal machinations that stripped “traitors” of their land.

The portrait of Allen painted by Duffy and Muller is, by and large, unflattering. He is bombastic, arrogant, and self-serving, even while largely blundering about. Instead of a defender of freedom for small farmers, he was as ruthlessly exploitative as the New Yorkers, just better at waging the war of pamphlets. Instead of a valiant patriot who won a stunning blow at Ticonderoga, the fort was in disrepair and the Allen brothers (along with Governor Chittenden) entered into negotiations with Frederick Haldimand about bringing Vermont back into the British Empire as a province. Instead of a philosophical thinker who published tracts on ideas of liberty, he was a plagiarist who took credit for his teacher’s work. And adding to these complications, Duffy and Muller argue, was that Vermont’s early ban on slavery actually provided cover for men like, and probably including, Allen to own slaves.

When Allen died his image and legacy ceased to be his own. This could have gone poorly for Allen given his shady reputation and numerous enemies, but it turned out to be a blessing. Allen’s record as an arch-patriot was taken up, burnished, and expanded in the succeeding years by a series of historians who took it upon themselves to give Vermont a past equivalent to Massachusetts or Virginia. The first of these writers was Ethan’s brother Ira, who was probably central to downplaying the Haldimand negotiations in the first histories since they likewise implicated him, but it was the foundation of the State Historical and Antiquarian Society in 1838 that breathed new life into the legend. This society was founded by four upper-middle class, non-farming, anti-slavery elites who thought that Vermont in the 1830s suffered from economic and moral decay that could be restored only through a careful retelling of the state’s history. Allen, the enlightened patriot and hero of Ticonderoga was the cornerstone of that project.

Through these efforts and the nature of stories, Allen went from a hard-drinking, narcissistic bombast to a larger-than-life exemplar of backwoods and populist virtue, a trickster straight out of a folktale.

Inventing Ethan Allen is an achievement that balances the historical Ethan Allen, with the more complicated story of memory and the formation of cultural mythology. I say this both as a born Vermonter, where the discussion about the economic struggles of 19th century Vermont struck close to home, and as a historian interested in memory, where the discussion of Allen resonated with my recent reading of Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash. The combination of these things and that Ethan Allen was a larger-than-life character made this a fascinating read. I may still have an instinctual mistrust of New York, but I can concede that the origins of Vermont are much more complicated than appears in the white-washed tradition. But then, that is usually the case.

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I’ve recently finished two novels, The Company She Kept, a Joe Gunther mystery by Archer Mayer, and Robin Hobb’s The Assassin’s Quest. I have thoughts on both, but neither is the first book in a series, so I am undecided on whether I will write about them.

White Trash – Nancy Isenberg

[Redneck] had become part of the cultural lingua franca, a means of sizing up public men, and a strangely mutated gender and class identity.

White Trash starts from a provocative thesis: all (or nearly all) developments in American history can be traced to the underlying tension between “the American Dream” on the one hand and what to do about the *white* people who don’t measure up. Isenberg examines how these tensions are articulated, repurposed, exploited, and weaponized as America went from a country where land was plentiful to one that was heavily urbanized, and as notions of science, eugenics, and racial uplift changed.

America’s tortured history with non-white people, Isenberg suggests, are painful consequences of this other, innate conflict.

Isenberg begins her story in Britain, showing how the only reason many of the early white settlers left was that they were “waste people” in England, discarded to North America to turn their lives around or just not be around anymore. Once in America, though, the question of what to do with these people remained. Many of the colonial elite wanted to avoid interbreeding with people they saw as lesser than themselves, and there was an open question whether giving them land (where squatters were often already living) would allow for racial uplift. Then came the Civil War, a hybrid class-race war, the age of Eugenics where the idea was to stop poor whites along with African Americans from breeding, and finally the emergent “Cult of the Country Boy” in the 1950s.

White Trash has something of a teleological progression toward the final two chapters of the book, a section called “The White Trash Makeover.” Her argument holds water. The terms change and the widespread cultural cache that the lifestyle currently holds is a modern phenomenon, but “white trash” has been a persistent part of the American landscape for centuries. The change, Isenberg posits, is that what was once explicitly marginal is now mainstream, albeit in a way that still consciously frames itself as marginalized.

The story in White Trash is distinctly uncomfortable, particularly as someone whose hometown Isenberg might as well have been writing about. This same discomfort makes it all the more important. Certain aspects of redneck culture have been commercialized and accepted, but it is notable that in the latest iteration of the electoral victory for this class of people, the people filling the executive branch are overwhelmingly not representative of them. This seems to me not an accident, the latest iteration of the same issues that shaped the debates around squatters in the 1700s.

In a classroom, I would want to build from Isenberg’s book to make more explicit the horrific consequences of these class conflicts for people of color and other minorities, and not simply in that they are treated as a lower class. Overall, though, I found White Trash to be an effective frame through which to think about American history, one that recognizes the aspirations of the American dream, but also recognizes the ways in which that dream is dangerous as an exclusionary club with which to bludgeon anyone who doesn’t measure up in terms of breeding, education, culture, or wealth. There are ways to quibble with White Trash, but the overall product is a powerful message that demands consideration.

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I’ve been in the end of semester crunch the past few weeks, with a conference thrown in to boot, and have also finished two short novel/novellas, Stefan Zweig’s Journey into the Past and Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. With the semester coming to an end, I hope to start writing here with some more frequency, but, at the moment, I’m mostly just tired.

The Wisdom of the Greek City States

In the Federalist Papers, our Founding Fathers consulted the wisdom of the Ancient Greek city-states when writing our own Constitution. They learned a lot. They knew what they were doing.

This comes from the transcript of President Trump’s comments during a commemoration of Greek Independence day at at the White House last Thursday (3/22). After only a short delay ancient historians jumped on the comments to point out the deeply troubling, if still persistent notion that Greece is the origin of Western Civilization. It is easy to chalk this up to this specific audience since Ancient Greece would be the appropriate topic for this setting, but doing so forgives a vision of Greece that not only diminishes the contributions of Asia and Africa, but also skips directly from the “wisdom of the ancients” to the Greek War of Independence in the 19th century when they could again be cast as the heroic resisters of oriental despotism.

Greece is only the origin of Western Civilization when it is convenient.

This is not meant as an attack on President Trump specifically, but a general observation about the ways in which political addresses reinforce pernicious historical myths, regardless of whether the line is deliberate or a careless addition. The nature of “Western Civilization” and clash of civilizations are among the worst offenders of this rhetoric, but they are hardly alone.

The line that jumped out to me most, however, was the one quoted above, that the founding fathers looked to the wisdom of Ancient Greece in the Federalist Papers, leading to a scattered and ad hoc Twitter thread, collected and expanded upon here.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 9:

It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy

Hamilton, in Federalist 6:

The celebrated Pericles, in compliance with the resentment of a prostitute, at the expense of much of the blood and treasure of his countrymen, attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the SAMNIANS. The same man, stimulated by private pique against the MEGARENSIANS, another nation of Greece, or to avoid a prosecution with which he was threatened as an accomplice of a supposed theft of the statuary Phidias, or to get rid of the accusations prepared to be brought against him for dissipating the funds of the state in the purchase of popularity, or from a combination of all these causes, was the primitive author of that famous and fatal war, distinguished in the Grecian annals by the name of the PELOPONNESIAN war; which, after various vicissitudes, intermissions, and renewals, terminated in the ruin of the Athenian commonwealth…

…Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them, Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet were they as often engaged in wars, offensive and defensive, as the neighboring monarchies of the same times. Sparta was little better than a wellregulated camp; and Rome was never sated of carnage and conquest.

Hamilton and James Madison are more charitable to Greece in Federalist 18, where they look at the Delphic Amphictyony as a parallel to the Confederation of American States. The Amphictyony, they say, preserved the independence of the Greek states while offering them a means to provide common defense.

Very different, nevertheless, was the experiment from the theory. The powers, like those of the present Congress, were administered by deputies appointed wholly by the cities in their political capacities; and exercised over them in the same capacities. Hence the weakness, the disorders, and finally the destruction of the confederacy. The more powerful members, instead of being kept in awe and subordination, tyrannized successively over all the rest. Athens, as we learn from Demosthenes, was the arbiter of Greece seventy-three years. The Lacedaemonians next governed it twenty-nine years; at a subsequent period, after the battle of Leuctra, the Thebans had their turn of domination.

It happened but too often, according to Plutarch, that the deputies of the strongest cities awed and corrupted those of the weaker; and that judgment went in favor of the most powerful party.

Even in the midst of defensive and dangerous wars with Persia and Macedon, the members never acted in concert, and were, more or fewer of them, eternally the dupes or the hirelings of the common enemy. The intervals of foreign war were filled up by domestic vicissitudes convulsions, and carnage.

After the conclusion of the war with Xerxes, it appears that the Lacedaemonians required that a number of the cities should be turned out of the confederacy for the unfaithful part they had acted. The Athenians, finding that the Lacedaemonians would lose fewer partisans by such a measure than themselves, and would become masters of the public deliberations, vigorously opposed and defeated the attempt. This piece of history proves at once the inefficiency of the union, the ambition and jealousy of its most powerful members, and the dependent and degraded condition of the rest. The smaller members, though entitled by the theory of their system to revolve in equal pride and majesty around the common center, had become, in fact, satellites of the orbs of primary magnitude.

Thus, they conclude: “Had Greece, says a judicious observer on her fate, been united by a stricter confederation, and persevered in her union, she would never have worn the chains of Macedon; and might have proved a barrier to the vast projects of Rome.”

A cursory glance at the Federalist papers shows an engagement with Greece, but only as a flashing warning sign for what not to do. So much for the wisdom of the Greek city states.

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1493 – Charles Mann

I have a mixed relationship with reading non-fiction, and particularly with reading history books. On the one hand, I enjoy it and there are lots of interesting stories that I want to read about; on the other hand, it is work-adjacent and I have a little voice nagging me that if I have time to read this history, why don’t I have time to read the latest scholarship. This and other issues explain why 1493, a book recommended to me by a friend who teaches high school history, sat on my to-read shelf for so many months. But here in 2018 I am trying to read more non-fiction and I decided that it was work-adjacent enough that I finally picked it up.

Mann’s thesis in 1493 is fairly simple: although it is fashionable to forget, condemn, or otherwise disregard European explorers such as Christopher Columbus (Colón, as Mann calls him), they collectively initiated a process that resulted in the development of the “homogenocene”—a sub-epoch of the holocene that unified the global ecosystem. In other words, we are living in a world that is linked to an unprecedented degree. What makes 1493 worth reading is the evidence he marshals to support this thesis.

1493 starts and ends in Mann’s garden, contemplating the fruits, vegetables, and tubers that found their way from all over the world into this patch of ground. Between weeding his tomatoes, Mann treks all over the world, looking at in turn tobacco, malaria, silk and silver, rice, potatoes, rubber, human trafficking, and all of the other organisms that went along with these goods back and forth across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Woven in are elements of environmental determinism and the ways people have tried to change their fates, how the global Columbian Exchange resulted in millions of people dying from illness, but saved millions more by introducing crops like the potato that can thrive in otherwise marginal land.

Mann is an engaging writer and while he is more comfortable entertaining speculation where there is at best circumstantial evidence than I like, he builds his argument by bringing academic research to life. This strength comes to light, for instance, when Mann talks immigration to the Americas. There is discussion of the slave trade, but he also discusses the rise and fall of Maroon (fugitive slave and native) communities and the influx of Asian populations in Central and South America. Mann embraces the complexity, explaining in lucid terms the push-pull factors that lay behind the population movements, how the demographic changes led to changes in the economic structures and goods, and, above all, how the cultures constructed their social hierarchies. Memory and its opposite, which are central to cultural memory, serve as a recurrent through-line as the tomato and sweet potato became embedded in cultural self-fashioning and many of the people who introduced these crops were, for better or worse, forgotten.

This is not a deep dive, but that is the tradeoff for its truly global scope. In the end, I appreciated 1493 and can envision using some chapters for a World History course. Mann’s basic thesis about the Columbian Exchange is shown beyond question, and it is hard not to be caught up in Mann’s sense of wonder at the immense changes. There are moments when that enthusiasm seems to walk the line with admiration for the human agents of the changes, irrespective of their outcomes. Of course the irony here is that despite Mann’s stated aim of restoring Columbus to this global narrative, these men were in the long run forgotten by the world they played an incidental role in helping to create.

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I am currently reading Omer El Akkad’s debut novel American War, which is a story set during the bleak future of the second American Civil War.