I like to watch the historical videos by James John Townsend. He is easygoing and always informative. The channel’s focus is on early America. Many of the videos are about food, but he also talks about how people lived. Some of my favorites are when he references the accounts described in travel journals.
In one video I just watched (the first below), Townsend talks about backwoods hospitality. It was expected that travelers would be welcome at almost any house or cabin, for food and shelter. An extra setting might be placed at the dinner table, just in case someone stopped by. Visits were common, whether from strangers or neighbors, friends, and family. Townsend mentions that a large part of their lives was filled with socializing. And it didn’t matter how poor the household. Almost anyone would be made to feel welcome, sometimes including local or traveling Native Americans.
Some of this custom may even have been learned or modeled after the lifestyle of Native Americans who were in the habit of coming and going as they pleased. There was often an open door policy on the frontier, a detail I’ve come across in reading history books. Even as villages formed, this friendly attitude was maintained. It was expected that what happened in your home was of relevance to the entire community. This nosiness could even be rather imposing, sometimes to the point of being oppressive. Neighbors might come right in, if they thought you were having affair. A bit too ‘friendly’ at times.
The idea of a home as a place of utmost privacy is a rather recent invention, as are locks on doors (when I was a kid, my family never locked the door except when we went on vacations). What is interesting is that some of the commenters point out that their own grandparents used to maintain similar practices of hospitality. For example, keeping a candle in the window was a way of signalling that visitors were welcome. Something similar was done with lamps to signal refuge for Jews escaping the Nazis. Likewise, candles and lamps were used as a signal on the Underground Railroad. In some parts of the world, especially in rural areas, welcoming strangers and those in need remains a living tradition.
That exemplifies how much the modern world has changed in industrialized societies. The kind of hospitality that would have existed for millennia, would have been the norm under most circumstances, that has faded from living memory for most of us Westerners. Something has been lost, a sense of community and common humanity, of interdependence and basic kindness, and we don’t usually even think about what has been lost, if we ever notice it’s missing.
This isn’t to romanticize the past, as Townsend also points out that the frontier was a dangerous place where not everyone was friendly. Still, it was a far friendlier place than the world we live in today. People had to be open and welcome in relation to others because survival depended upon it. Isolation wasn’t a choice. Yet the daily lived experience of community doesn’t exist for many people at this point, much less the attitude of hospitality toward strangers. We go about our lives as if we don’t really need anyone else.
I’ve known family members complain when others in the family stopped by unannounced. On the other hand, my mother remembers her family getting in the car on a weekly basis to make random visits to friends and family, and they were always welcome, often with a massive meal being prepared on the spot with no advanced notice. That was probably a carryover from my mother’s family having lived in what was the frontier not many generations before.
Francis Fukuyama’s ideological change, from neocon to neoliberal, signaled among the intellectual class a similar but dissimilar change that was happening in the broader population. The two are parallel tracks down which history like a train came barreling and rumbling, the end not in sight.
The difference between them is that the larger shift was ignored, until Donald Trump revealed the charade to be a charade, as it always was. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, this populist moment. A new mood has been in the air that resonates with an old mood that some thought was lost in the past, the supposed end of history. It has been developing for a long while now. And when reform is denied, much worse comes along.
On that unhappy note, there is a reason why Trump used old school rhetoric of progressivism and fascism (with the underlying corporatism to both ideologies). Just as there is a reason Steve Bannon, while calling himself a Leninist, gave voice to his hope that the present would be as exciting as the 1930s. Back in the early aughts, Fukuyma gave a warning about the dark turn of events, imperialistic ambition turned to hubris. No doubt he hoped to prevent the worse. But not many in the ruling class cared to listen. So here we are.
Whatever you think of him and his views, you have to give Fukuyama credit for the simple capacity of changing his mind and, to some extent, admitting he was wrong. He is a technocratic elitist with anti-populist animosity and paternalistic aspirations. But at the very least his motivations are sincere. One journalist, Andrew O’Hehir, described him this way:
“He even renounced the neoconservative movement after the Iraq war turned into an unmitigated disaster — although he had initially been among its biggest intellectual cheerleaders — and morphed into something like a middle-road Obama-Clinton Democrat. Today we might call him a neoliberal, meaning that not as leftist hate speech but an accurate descriptor.”
Not exactly a compliment. Many neocons and former neocons, when faced with the changes of the Republican Party, found the Clinton Democrats more attractive. For most of them, this conversion only happened with Trump’s campaign. Fukuyama stands out for being one of the early trendsetters on the right in turning against Cold War neoconservatism before it was popular to do so (athough did Fukuyama really change or did he simply look to a softer form of neoconservatism).
For good or ill, the Clinton Democrats, in the mainstream mind, now stand for the sane center, the moderate middle. To those like Fukuyama fearing a populist uprising, Trump marks the far right and Sanders the far left. That leaves the battleground between them that of a milquetoast DNC establishment, holding onto power by its loosening fingertips. Fukuyama doesn’t necessarily offer us much in the way of grand insight or of practical use (here is a harsher critique). It’s still interesting to hear someone like him make such an about face, though — if only in political rhetoric and not in fundamental principles. And for whatever its worth, he so far has been right about Trump’s weakness as a strongman.
It’s also appreciated that those like Francis Fukuyama and Charles Murray bring attention to the dangers of inequality and the failures of capitalism, no matter that I oppose the ideological bent of their respective conclusions. So, even as they disagree with populism as a response, like Teddy Roosevelt, they do take seriously the gut-level assessment of what is being responded to. It’s all the more interesting that these are views coming from respectable figures who once represented the political right, much more stimulating rhetoric than anything coming out of the professional liberal class.
Fukuyama, who studied political philosophy under Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, at Cornell University, initially identified with the neoconservative movement: he was mentored by Paul Wolfowitz while a government official during the Reagan-Bush years. But by late 2003, Fukuyama had recanted his support for the Iraq war, which he now regards as a defining error alongside financial deregulation and the euro’s inept creation. “These are all elite-driven policies that turned out to be pretty disastrous, there’s some reason for ordinary people to be upset.”
The End of History was a rebuke to Marxists who regarded communism as humanity’s final ideological stage. How, I asked Fukuyama, did he view the resurgence of the socialist left in the UK and the US? “It all depends on what you mean by socialism. Ownership of the means of production – except in areas where it’s clearly called for, like public utilities – I don’t think that’s going to work.
“If you mean redistributive programmes that try to redress this big imbalance in both incomes and wealth that has emerged then, yes, I think not only can it come back, it ought to come back. This extended period, which started with Reagan and Thatcher, in which a certain set of ideas about the benefits of unregulated markets took hold, in many ways it’s had a disastrous effect.
“In social equality, it’s led to a weakening of labour unions, of the bargaining power of ordinary workers, the rise of an oligarchic class almost everywhere that then exerts undue political power. In terms of the role of finance, if there’s anything we learned from the financial crisis it’s that you’ve got to regulate the sector like hell because they’ll make everyone else pay. That whole ideology became very deeply embedded within the Eurozone, the austerity that Germany imposed on southern Europe has been disastrous.”
Fukuyama added, to my surprise: “At this juncture, it seems to me that certain things Karl Marx said are turning out to be true. He talked about the crisis of overproduction… that workers would be impoverished and there would be insufficient demand.”
There is criticism and disagreement, some of it quite strongly held, although mostly about minor details. An example is which person came up with using powder mix for milkshakes and when that happened. But the overall story about the business appears to be accurate. One of the few major points of contention is whether or not there ever was a royalty agreement based on a handshake, as the two sides told different versions. So, it partly depends on which side one considers more credible and trustworthy. Though some claims can be verified from documents, much of what the film is based on comes from various personal accounts.
Other debates are more philosophical, such as the meaning of being a founder. The McDonald brothers founded the business model and franchised it before Kroc partnered with them. They had gone so far as to have already sold franchise rights in Kroc’s hometown, which Kroc had to buy out. What Kroc founded was a real estate empire in owning the land upon which franchises were located, this having been the source of wealth behind McDonald’s becoming an international megacorporation.
So is the film true-to-life? Well, that’s debatable upon who you ask. Kroc and the McDonald brothers had, shall we say, disagreements about whose idea it was to franchise and use the now-infamous golden arches. Kroc also claims that after he officially took over the franchise, he ran the McDonalds brothers out of business at their original location (which they maintained per their agreement) by opening a brand new McDonald’s across the street — a fact which the McDonald brothers vehemently disagree with.
But the bare bones of the story seem to be accurate. As for the details, it looks like the movie is following Kroc’s account of the events, which makes sense since we’re guessing The Founder had to get certain permissions from the fast food restaurant in order to use his name, etc.
[P]retty much everything biographical about Kroc is true. […]
Other details in the film aren’t quite accurate, though. For example, though the film indicates that Kroc himself came up with the idea of franchising McDonald’s, in fact the McDonald’s brothers had already begun franchising the restaurant before they met Kroc. Money reports that they had about six locations by 1954. And while the film suggests Kroc also gave the brothers the idea of the iconic “golden arches,” Business Insider notes that the brothers had architect Stanley Clark Meston design them in 1952. […]
One thing that had to be accurate in The Founder, though, was any representation of McDonald’s, including branding, iconography, and restaurant designs. That’s because, as the New York Times explains, the makers of The Founder were allowed to use McDonald’s iconography as long as it was accurate and did not misrepresent the company. So, production designer Michael Corenblith was meticulous about the set design, using “old photographs, blueprints and other archival material” as well as “under the radar” visits to older McDonald’s restaurants to get exact measurements. The final representations, including two full-sized working McDonald’s restaurants maintained “absolute high fidelity.”
You can rest assured that The Founder is a film whose crazy story is in fact pretty darn accurate.
The movie starts with the message, “Based on a true story.” How close to the real thing was this?
Very close. The one thing you should know is that every single movie that comes out today that is a true story, historical, is going to say “based on a true story,” for legal reasons. Because, for instance, I’ve got Michael Keaton playing Ray Kroc; I don’t have Ray Kroc playing Ray Kroc. And there are certain scenes where there was no stenographer in the room, so you’re making up dialogue. So, from the legal standpoint, they always say “based on a true story.”
[The Founder, though, was very close to what happened]. The most harrowing lines that come out of Kroc’s mouth are his actual lines: ‘If a competitor was drowning, stick a hose down his throat.’ ‘Business is war.’ ‘Dog eat dog, rat eat rat.’ Those are actual quotes.
Did Ray Kroc renege on his handshake deal to pay the McDonald brothers a percentage of the revenue from the franchises?
Yes. After the brothers refused to give Kroc the original restaurant, he supposedly cheated the brothers out of the 0.5 percent royalty agreement they had been getting, which would have been valued at $15 million a year by 1977 and as high as $305 million a year by 2012 (according to one estimate). In his book, Kroc wrote, “If they [the brothers] had played their cards right, that 0.5 percent would have made them unbelievably wealthy.” Relatives of Richard and Maurice McDonald say that Maurice (Mac) was so distraught that it attributed to his eventual death from heart failure a decade later. -Daily Mail Online
Did Ray Kroc really credit himself with being the founder of McDonald’s?
Yes. After the McDonald brothers sold the company to Ray Kroc in 1961 for $2.7 million, he began to take credit for its birth. “Suddenly, after we sold, my golly, he elevated himself to the founder,” said Richard McDonald in a 1991 interview (Sun Journal). Kroc reinforced his claim of being the founder in his 1977 biography, Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s, in which he largely traces McDonald’s origins to his own first McDonald’s restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois (it was actually the ninth restaurant overall). However, he does include Dick and Mac and their original restaurant in his book. Kroc didn’t open his Des Plaines restaurant until April 15, 1955, roughly seven years after the McDonald brothers opened the original San Bernardino location in 1948 (The New York Times).
The sale left Kroc bitterly angry with the McDonald brothers for keeping the original location. He opened a McDonald’s location across the street from the brothers’ original restaurant, forcing them to rename the original burger joint, which didn’t stay in business much longer.
“I ran ’em out of business,” he gleefully told TIME.
That was an angle with which Dick McDonald didn’t exactly agree: “Ray Kroc stated that he forced McDonald Bros, to remove the name McDonald’s from the unit we retained in San Bernardino, Calif. The facts are that we took the name off the building and removed the arches immediately upon the closing of the sale of our company to Kroc and associates in December 1961,” he stated in a letter to the editor that ran several weeks later. “Kroc must have been kidding when he told your reporter that we renamed our unit Mac’s Place. The name we used was The Big M. Ray was also being facetious when he told your reporter that he drove us out of business. My brother and I had retired two years previous to the sale, and were living in Santa Barbara, Calif. We had turned the operation of the San Bernardino unit over to a couple of longtime employees of ours who operated the drive-in for seven years. Ray Kroc was always a great prankster and probably couldn’t resist the temptation to needle me.”
Nevertheless, Kroc proclaimed himself McDonald’s founder. Indeed, the company honored him on its Founder’s Day (and wouldn’t include the McDonald brothers until 1991).
Kroc’s version of the story upset the McDonald brothers after the publication of his 1992 autobiography Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonald’s. In the book, he named the first franchise he opened—in Des Plaines, Ill.—as the first McDonald’s restaurant ever opened.
“Up until the time we sold, there was no mention of Kroc being the founder,” Dick McDonald told the Wall Street Journal in 1991. ”If we had heard about it, he would be back selling milkshake machines.”
Jason McDonald French takes pride in what his grandfather created. He reflected on the nostalgic quality of the San Bernardino McDonald’s, and what it means to him: “It’s something that my grandfather over tireless years came up with.”
But there’s something the family rarely talked about: the handshake deal in which Ray Kroc promised the McDonald brothers a half-percent royalty on all future McDonalds proceeds.
The family says he never paid them a cent.
“I think it’s worth, yeah, $100 million a year,” said French. “Yeah, pretty crazy.”
“Is there bitterness about that in your family?”
“No, No. My grandfather was never bitter over it. Why would we be bitter over something that my grandfather wasn’t bitter over?”
“Well, there’s 100 million reasons you could be!” said Tracy.
“Yeah,” French smiled.
For French, seeing his family’s story told on the big screen is its own form of payback.
“We were overjoyed with the fact that the story’s being told the right way and that it’s being historically accurate,” he said. “They did create fast food. They started that from the beginning, and I don’t think they get enough credit for what they actually created.”
In doing genealogy research, I’ve made many connections to American history, some of it quite dark and much of it not that far back in time. It is something that has been bothering me for a while. I had a longer series of posts I was writing about it, but I got bogged down with the topic. It’s overwhelming and hard to grapple with. So, let me keep this post simple and to the point.
Possibly the earliest line of my family that came to America was the Peebles. They were Scottish and, maybe for siding with the king, they arrived in the Virginia colony (1649 or 1650) during the English Civil War. David Peebles, the patriarch, came with some help (either indentured servants or slaves) and built a plantation. Later generations of the Peebles were definitely slave owners and they fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
The family across the generations drifted further South and West, ending up in Texas. That is where my paternal grandmother was born in 1912, well within living memory of slavery and the Civil War. The last Civil War veterans died in the 1950s, the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States died in the 1930s, the last American born into slavery died in the 1970s — the latter happening just a few years before I was born and about a decade before my grandmother died. None of this is ancient history. It’s possible that if my grandmother had bothered to ask that there were people in the family who still remembered owning slaves.
Also, the early twentieth century was a time of the last of the Indian Wars. There were major battles that happened in that part of the country when my grandmother was a child. The last significant altercation in the United States happened in 1924 when she was twelve years old and that is the age when kids begin to gain awareness of the larger world. But there were Indian holdouts who kept fighting in Mexico and weren’t defeated until nine years later in 1933. My grandmother was twenty-one years old at that point and so this was part of the world she was entering into.
David Peebles himself had been an Indian fighter, a captain in the Virginia militia. He was a well respected man. As reward, he had been given a Native American captive and I’m sure that person was treated as a slave. It’s assumed that David Peebles received an injury from fighting and he slowly disappeared from the records. Between those first Peebles in America and my grandmother, I’m sure there were numerous Indian fighters in my ancestry. After all, that part of my family was involved in the push Westward, as Native Americans retreated or were forcibly removed. And then they ended up in the region of the last battles with the last free natives.
All of this national history is intimately intertwined with my family history. And much of it was still living memory into my grandmothers childhood and even into her adulthood (in some cases, even into my parents’ adulthood). More importantly, it was an ongoing history. The struggles of blacks didn’t end with the Civil War any more than the struggles of Native Americans ended with the Indian Wars. I could understand how much of this history was hidden at the time, even as the suffering and oppression continued. Native Americans, after all, were forced onto reservations that made their plight practically invisible to the rest of the country. It was a problem that wasn’t seen and so didn’t need to be thought about. But the problems facing blacks would have been impossible to ignore for those living in the South and also in the North.
In the South my grandmother grew up in, Jim Crow was in full force and blacks had for decades faced re-enslavement through chain gang labor. My grandmother was a few years old when the Second Klan was founded. The Klan was a growing force during her childhood and was at its height in her teenage years: “At its peak in the mid-1920s, the organization claimed to include about 15% of the nation’s eligible population, approximately 4–5 million men” (Wikipedia). I have no doubt that many generations and many lines of my family were involved in the various incarnations of the Klan, along with other violently racist organizations and activities; but there is no family stories about any of this, as it’s one of those things that people don’t talk about.
When my grandmother was eight years old, a short distance from her childhood home the Tulsa race riots occurred where white mobs rioted and terrorized the black population. It was an actual battle with whites and blacks fighting in the streets (many of them WWI veterans, including black veterans who took their military weapons home with them), snipers were positioned in buildings shooting at people below, airplanes firebombed the wealthiest black community in America at the time (Black Wall Street), and belatedly troops were sent in to restore order. Hundreds of blacks were killed, hundreds more ended up in the hospital, 6,000 black residents were arrested and detained, and in the detention centers blacks were forced to do labor. In the aftermath, most of the black population became refugees who had lost everything and thousands of white residents in Tulsa joined the Klan.
It was one of the most violent and destructive events in American history. Yet it was erased from public awareness almost instantly, as if it had never happened. “The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Blacks and whites alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place” (A.G. Sulzberger, “As Survivors Dwindle, Tulsa Confronts Past“, NYT).
This was just one of many race riots and other acts of mass racial violence that occurred in the decades before and following what happened in Tulsa. Violence like this, including lynchings, would have been common events for the first two-thirds of her life. After her family left Oklahoma, they moved to a part of Mississippi that was a major center of the Second Klan. Then as an adult in 1940, she moved her own young family to Indiana, the headquarters and epicenter of the Second Klan, during a time when the last vestiges of the organization were still to be seen. It was in the 1950s and 1960s when a splintered KKK reasserted itself in fighting the Civil Rights Movement.
Indiana is close to the South and not just geographically. It’s been culturally and economically connected to Kentucky from early on. This area is sometimes referred to as Kentuckiana. Much of Indiana’s population originally came from Kentucky and that has made Indiana the most Southern state in the Midwest (my maternal ancestry includes Indian fighters who came to Kentucky shortly after the American Revolution). A generation after my mother’s family left the border region of Kentucky and Indiana, she grew up in a large industrial city in central Indiana and yet she maintained a Southern accent well into her twenties.
Indiana was a destination of many white Southerners looking for work. Yet Southern blacks knew to mostly avoid Indiana, except for Northern parts of the state closer to Chicago. This wasn’t just a vague notion that blacks had about Indiana. The local white population, Klan and otherwise, made it overtly clear they weren’t welcome in most parts of the state.
My father was born in small town Indiana and then moved to another nearby small town. They were both in an area of much racism, but the second town where he spent most of his early life was a sundown town. When my father and his family moved there, a sign warning blacks to stay away was still visible on a major road into town. My father would have been too young to understand, my Southern grandmother could not have missed something so obvious. They had to have known they moved into a sundown town. Did my father know about this? No. Did his mother, my grandmother, ever talk about it? No. It wasn’t talked about. As my grandfather was the town minister, he could have challenged this racism from the pulpit. Did he? Apparently not. The reason for this is that my grandfather had some racist inclinations, according to my father, although like many he softened his prejudiced views later in life. Still, that doesn’t change the moral failure.
My paternal grandmother was always a religious and spiritual person, moreso than my grandfather despite his being a minister. She grew up in that old time religion, Southern Baptist church. When she moved to the West Coast, she became quite liberal and joined extremely liberal churches, such as Unity Church and Science of Mind. It was because of my grandmother that I was raised in the same kind of liberal churches. This led me to become the liberal I am today. Even so, my grandmother never spoke of our family’s ancestral sin of racial oppression, even though she had spent so much of her life right in the middle of it.
My father went off to college at Purdue. The city, Lafayette, had been a sundown town at one point. The systemic racism was lessening there by the time my parents attended, but the black population remained low. While they were at college, the Civil Rights Movement was growing and violence was happening. Professors and college students from Purdue even joined in some of the major events of that time. The world was changing all around my parents, but they apparently were oblivious to it all. When I’ve asked them, they had only slight memory of what was happening at the time, other than some brief news stories that they paid little attention to. It didn’t seem all that important to them, as white conservatives in a white conservative state with a hopeful future before them.
Systemic and institutional racism continued in some parts of the country long after the death of MLK. Blacks were still fighting for basic rights and demanding that laws against racism be enforced, well into my own lifetime (in fact, the struggle for justice continues to this day). For my parents, living in Ohio after college, that was a happy time of their life. As their children were born, protests and riots were going on around the country (including nearby), but it all seemed distant and insignificant, maybe a bit incomprehensible. After that, during the 1980s, our family moved to Deerfield, Illinois — a Chicago suburb with a history of keeping blacks out, something my parents were also unaware of. Then we headed to Iowa, which at the time was a demographic bubble of whiteness.
In my own childhood, I don’t recall my parents or other adults talking about race and racism. I also was oblivious to it all, until we moved to South Carolina when I was thirteen years old. It was a shock to my system. I didn’t grow up with that world and so I saw it with fresh eyes in a way someone wouldn’t have if they had grown up with it. Even then, amidst obvious racism and an overt racial social order, few people talked about it. I saw blacks at school, but no blacks lived in my neighborhood or went to my church. Black kids didn’t come home with me nor did I go home with them.
I was facing generations of denial in my own family. No one gave me any tools to deal with any of it. If not for genealogy research, I might never have realized how close to home all of this comes. Even now, I live in a liberal college town where at an earlier point in time a racist mob chased out of town the radical abolitionist John Brown, shortly before his execution. And a muted form of that old racism lingers still.
How do we deal with the legacy of centuries of oppression when it’s almost impossible to even publicly acknowledge what has happened within living memory? How do we come to terms with the fact that the legacy continues with systemic and institutional racism? How do we open up dialogue? How do we move forward? If more people simply dug into their own family histories, what might they find? And if they put that into context of the larger national history, what understandings might they come to?
My eternal refrain: Then what?
I’ve gained this knowledge and it was no easy task, as I had to find it for myself through decades of obsessive research and intense study. Generations of my own family have avoided this knowledge, built on centuries of ignorance and denial, supported by a vast social order designed to maintain the status quo. So, here we are. Many others like me are looking at these hidden truths now brought to light. What are we supposed to do with it all? How does a society come to terms with collective guilt?
William Faulkner spent most of his life a few counties away from my great grandmother’s home in Mississippi, the last place my grandmother lived before adulthood and the area she returned to after college to work a teaching job for a couple of years, around 1935. That is where my father would visit as a child and where he saw his first “colored” water fountain. Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun was set in that part of Mississippi, as were other of his novels. The events in the story were fictionally placed in the years immediately following my grandmother’s departure. The world that Faulkner described was the world that shaped my grandmother, a world she couldn’t leave behind because she carried it with her.
One of Faulkner’s best known lines comes from that novel. He wrote:
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
My grandmother was an educated woman, a teacher in fact. I wonder. Did she ever read those words? And if so, what did she think of them? Did she ever look to the past, her own past and that of her family? Or was she trying to escape the past by getting as far away as possible, ending up in the Northwest? It’s ironic that she spent the last years of her life in Oregon, the only state in the Union that was once fully sundown, excluding blacks entirely.
From what I gather, my grandmother was a kindhearted woman, but that could be said of many people. Few white Americans are overtly mean-spirited. People simply try to live their lives, and yet their lives exist along a moral arc bending from the past into the future. How often do any of us consider our place in the larger scheme of things and wonder about what future generations will think of us?
I often discuss the historical period beginning with the Enlightenment thinkers and ending with the early modern revolutions. There are many obvious reasons for this focus, as in many ways it is the origins of the world we live in. But for the same reason, it was also the end of the world that came before.
That is what makes it so fascinating to read the words of those who were alive then. They were well aware of what was being lost. It was still within living memory, such as the last remnants of feudalism still holding on even as revolutions were remaking society. The costs of change were clearly understood and many thought it necessary to compensate in some way for what was being lost (e.g., Paine’s citizen’s dividend) or at the very least to acknowledge its passing.
That is different today. We live in a world fully changed. There is little if any living memory of what came before, although isolated traces linger in some remote places. This relates to the disconnection I see among so many people today, across the political spectrum, but it stands out most for me among liberals I observe. Liberalism has embraced modernity and so forgotten its roots, the historical development and radical thought that made it possible. Blindness to the past makes for a lack of vision in the present.
All of this was brought to mind because of something I just read. It is a Jacobin article by Alex Gourevitch, in response to Mark Lilla’s review of Corey Robin’s 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind. Gourevitch writes that,
“[I]f liberalism were really committed to the view that the individual is “metaphysically” prior to society, that would almost single-handedly eliminate the French liberal tradition, from the proto-liberalism of Montesquieu, to the sociological liberalism of Benjamin Constant, to the holist liberalism of Emile Durkheim. Constant’s famous speech in 1819 distinguishing the liberty of the moderns from that of the ancients was explicitly based on an appreciation of the social origins of modern individualism. “Ancient peoples,” wrote Constant, “could neither feel the need for [modern liberty], nor appreciate its advantages. Their social organization led them to desire an entirely different freedom from the one which this system grants to us.” Social organization “leads” and systems “grant.” No “metaphysical” priority of the individual there.”
Benjamin Constant was of French ancestry. His family had fled religious persecution and so he was born in Switzerland, but he returned to France as an adult. He was one of the first people to identify as a liberal and he was involved in the revolutionary fervor of the times, although he sought moderation. What interests me here is that it was the French Revolution that led to the abolition of feudalism in that country. Feudalism was still a major force at the time, although it was on the wane across Europe. When Constant wrote of the ancient world, he surely was speaking from the firsthand experience of the persisting ancient social order in the world around him.
Many thinkers of that era wrote about the past, specifically of Western history. They were literally and experientially closer to the past than we are now. Feudalism, for example, had developed from the landholding tradition of the Roman Empire. The influence of the ancient world was much more apparent at the time and so they could speak of the ancient world with a familiarity that we cannot. For us, that earlier social order is simply gone and at best we could read about it in history books, not that many will ever bother to do so. It’s not a living reality to us and so doesn’t compel our interest, certainly not our moral imaginations.
1819- Supreme Court declares a corporate charter is a contract in Dartmouth College v. Woodward (17 U.S. 518), protected by the Contracts Clause of the Constitution
The New Hampshire legislature wished to convert the private Dartmouth College into a public university by changing its charter, or license, which had been originally issued by the King of England. The legislature believed that education was too important to be left to private interests; thus, the school needed to become publicly accountable. The Supreme Court sided with the College’s trustees, stating a corporate charter is a contract, not to be altered under the Constitution’s Contracts Clause.
The word “corporation” does not appear in the Constitution. The Court’s decision transformed a corporate charter issued by a government as a mere privilege into a contract that a government cannot alter. The ruling gave corporations standing in the Constitution. Governments had greater difficulty controlling corporations. States began to include specific limitations into charters they granted.
1924 – Death of Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States
“Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.” Source: http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2014/09/usa-sponsored-terrorism-mid-east-since-least-1948.html
[Note: Wilson asserts the power of corporations and “the market” dictate national policies, including military policies.
1887 – Formation of the first regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) – a “sheep in wolf’s clothing”
The ICC was designed in response to public demands for fair rates and to prevent rate discrimination by railroad corporations. It and subsequent regulatory agencies, however, were established chiefly to protect corporations from the public.
Prominent RR barons supported the ICC’s creation. Charles F. Adams (later President of the Union Pacific Railroad Co.) stated, “What is desired…is something having a good sound, but quite harmless [purpose], which will impress the popular mind with the idea that a great deal is being done, when, in reality, very little is intended to be done.”
So rather than have the public fundamentally control and define corporate actions via charters and/or create or expand public ownership of basic services, regulatory agencies were established. They have become the major target/distraction of activist opposition to corporate actions.
I noticed that one of my older posts was linked to at another blog, U.S. History Ideas for Teachers. The author is Lauren Schreiber Brown and her piece was both detailed and thoughtful. The link in question is the second in this paragraph (from The 7 Things All Good Lessons Have in Common):
And realistically, that’s what a lot of us do. We know what we did last year, and yesterday, and so what comes next is comparing the North and South. But we should–every year–ask ourselves why do students need to know about the similarities and differences between the North and South? What is the point? How does this understanding help us better comprehend both the onset of the Civil War as well as its outcome? Do any of these differences still exist? In what way(s) does studying this topic improve the quality of our students’ lives?
I wanted to respond. But my response was too long for the character count at that blog. Plus, even the shorter comment I left there was never approved or else disappeared into the internet purgatory. So, I’ll make it a post, as I think it’s a worthy topic.
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I’m not a teacher, but I found this post interesting. I like how much thought you are putting into this. Education is important and teaching is a tough job. I’m glad to know teachers like you are out there are considering these kinds of issues and questions.
I noticed you linked to my blog, the post comparing the North and South. I spent my own grade school education initially in the Midwest and later in the Deep South. I never liked history, I must admit. I can’t say I had bad teachers, but they never quite found a way to make history seem to matter in my experience. In particular, I didn’t learn anything about the differences between the North and South.
I don’t even remember what I was taught in any history class. None of it ever stuck. I didn’t even know I enjoyed learning about history until I was well into adulthood. In recent years, I’ve taken history more seriously and have become fascinated about it, and not just about American history either.
I’m constantly coming across new data. It amazes me all the things I didn’t learn in school. History, if taught well, should be one of the most engaging topics for students. Yet so many people similar to me were bored silly by history classes. Why is that?
Early America was an interesting place. But before I started studying on my own, I didn’t realize that was the case. Most Americans, for example, are unaware that several colonies had non-British majorities. I was reminded again of this diversity recently:
At that post, I share a passage from The World in 1776 by Marshall B. Davidson. The part that most stood out to me is where he points out that, “One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants.” I never knew that.
That multicultural reality was a central point that Thomas Paine made in arguing for independence. He wrote that, “Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”
I realize that is just info. But a good teacher should be able to make it relevant by connecting the diversity of the past to the diversity of the present. It’s not as if America only became an immigrant country in the 20th century. We are living in a continuity of what came before. An effective teacher would bring history alive and get students excited through the teacher’s own engagement with the subject matter.
I know one thing that helped for me was doing genealogical research. That made it personally real. But that goes off into a different kind of learning experience.
Contrast that to how I was taught history when I was younger. I remember in one class that I took 20 pages of notes for a single test. The teacher wasn’t horrible and he did try to get us to think about what we were learning, but I remember just feeling swamped by endless factoids. I wasn’t able to assimilate the info and no one taught me how to do so. That is the biggest failure of school in my experience, the lack of teaching students how to learn which goes hand in hand with teaching the love of learning.
I was a fairly smart kid. I had a learning disability and that made it difficult, but I was able to learn when I felt engaged enough. Still, the way I was so often taught made me hate school. It felt like a pointless struggle. In a sink or swim education system, I usually found myself sinking.
I had to learn how to learn mostly on my own and mostly as an adult. And I doubt I’m alone in that experience. That is a problem for the education system, and it isn’t a problem that can easily be dealt with by individual teachers. I imagine teachers are too busy just trying to teach to the test that anything more involved than the basics is asking for the near impossible.
It makes me sad that teachers get blamed. Teachers don’t have the time and resources to be effective. To focus on one thing means to sacrifice everything else. I couldn’t imagine the amount of planning it takes to try to make it all work.
Your emphasis on a conclusion probably is important. More than trying to shove info into students’ heads, a teacher should help them to understand the significance, ideally both in terms of personal relevance and real world application. A conclusion should drive home some central point or issue. What is learned needs to be connected and framed for otherwise it will quickly be forgotten.
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I should point out that some of my favorite classes were also my most demanding.
I had an awesome art teacher. He was a professional artist and taught me some serious skills. But his teaching went way beyond that. He is the only teacher I ever had who taught me how to think on my own.
Of course, art is far different from history. Maybe more similar to history is a topic like English, which was one of my other favorite classes. I had an English teacher who was English and he focused on the classics. He didn’t shy away from teaching difficult works. I suppose it was in 11th grade when I took his class and one book we read was Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, a daunting piece of writing even for an adult. He simply taught me the love of engagement with a text, as it was clear how much he enjoyed what he taught.
It’s hard to know what is the difference that makes a difference. I’m sure there were students who were bored and disengaged even in those classes that I loved so much. Not everything is going to work well for all students. That is the greatest challenge, especially the more students there are in a single class. It’s easy for students to get lost in a teacher’s focus on the entire class.
In the end, I think the most important thing a teacher does is to model a particular attitude and sets of behaviors. Students won’t likely care about what a teacher doesn’t care about. On the other hand, a love of learning can be contagious, even for a subject matter a student normally dislikes. I ultimately think there is no such thing as boring material, even if some subjects are harder to teach than others.
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By the way, I thought I’d share with you some cool facts. Combined, they are an example of how cool facts can help make larger points and show greater connections.
William Penn died in 1718. That was the year Benjamin Franklin was indentured as a printer’s apprentice. Some years later as an older teenager, Franklin made his way to Philadelphia where he began to do his own printing. Pennsylvania was one of those colonies that had a non-British majority, as Penn had traveled in Germany and intentionally invited Germans among others to settle in his colony (it’s interesting to note that more Americans today have German ancestry than any other, especially in the Northern states). Franklin complained about all the Germans for fear they wouldn’t assimilate (sounds familiar?). But as a businessman he was quick to take advantage by printing the first German language newspaper there.
When Franklin was in London, he met Thomas Paine, both having in common their being autodidacts. It was also in London where Paine first saw major political and labor union organizing, along with regular food riots. I might note that it was in London that the Palatine Germans (in the early 1700s) first immigrated before many headed to the American colonies, although these aren’t the same Germans that mostly populated Pennsylvania. This particular influx of Germans did happen in Franklin’s childhood and so it was a major social issue at the time. Anyway, by way of Franklin, Paine made his way to the American colonies and he ended up in Philadelphia, which is the location of Germantown where among the Germans the abolition movement began, and also where Paine helped found the first American abolition society. It was in Philadelphia that Paine first experienced the diversity of the American colonies and so was inspired to see them as something more than a mere extension of England.
It is interesting that the British used so many Hessian soldiers. This was related to Great Britain having alliances with German states. King George III being the Elector of Hanover (ethnically German and the first in his line to speak English as his first language). In the American Revolution, there were Germans fighting on both sides. Many of the descendants of those Germans would also fight each other in the world wars, although then with Americans and the Britains as allies.
Thomas Paine died in 1809. That was the year Abraham Lincolon was born. Lincoln, of course, was famous for ending slavery (after Lincoln’s winning the presidency with the support of German-Americans, the Civil War was partly won because of the mass immigrations to the North, including the often idealistic and socially liberal German Forty-Eighters, refugees of a failed revolution). Less well known is that Lincoln was influenced by Paine’s writings and, like Paine, wrote a deist tract (the only copy of which was burned up by a friend who thought it threatened LIncoln’s political career).
About a half century later, Theodore Roosevelt would call Paine “that dirty little atheist.” That is interesting when one considers that Roosevelt, like Lincoln before him, helped to promote Paine’s progressive vision of America. Teddy’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would push that progressivism to yet another level. Although in a different party from Lincoln, FDR also was heavily inspired by Paine. As a side note, the Roosevelt family’s ancestry goes back to the Dutch settlers of the Dutch colony that would become New York, yet another part of early American diversity, and also the place where young Franklin first ran away to and where Paine would spend his last years.
Let me shift back to Lincoln’s lifetime. Karl Marx, who was born in Germany and saw firsthand the social unrest that led to the revolutions of 1848, was forced to flee to England. From there, he later wrote a letter to Lincoln to show his support for the Union’s cause in fighting slave power. Marx probably felt an affinity because Lincoln, early on as president, openly argued that “Labor is the superior of capital.” Charles Dana was a socialist Republican who, before becoming Lincoln’s Undersecretary of War, was the managing editor of the New York Tribune where he published Marx’s writings. Lincoln regularly read that newspaper and Dana had introduced him Marx’s ideas on a labour theory of value.
Marx’s ideas would then be a major inspiration for the ideological conflict that erupted into the Cold War. There was always an ethnic element to this as well, whether the enemy was Germans or Russians, but Germans unlike Russians were always seen as a greater threat since that ancestry was so large in America. German-Americans were always mistrusted, from the colonial era to the world wars. Early twentieth century saw the cultural genocide and forced assimilation of German-Americans, which saw many being sent to internment camps. Until that time, German-Americans had continually maintained their own culture with newspapers written and even public schools taught in the German language. German-American culture was wiped from the collective memory and this heritage was lost for so many.
All of that then leads up to where we are now. The world wars sent even more Germans to the US. Waves of German immigrants have regularly occurred throughout American history. That is why there are today so many Americans of German ancestry, including many students who are not being taught this history about their own ancestors. Sadly, most Americans have forgotten or else never learned about both the early diversity of America and the early radicalism of the likes of Paine.
There ya go. From colonial era to revolution to civil war to the present. That is how one makes history interesting and it was accomplished in only about a page of text. But why this can never be taught is because it is neither politically correct nor ideologically neutral, even though it is all entirely true.
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I had some thoughts about the example of cool facts that I offered.
There are several reasons why it demonstrates effective communication of history. Besides offering cool facts, multiple connections are offered, a larger framing is made to give context, the development of issues and ideas is shown over time, and a conclusion is offered that explains the relevance. All of that is accomplished in a few paragraphs.
My brain works that way. I make connections and I look for the big picture. That is part of my “learning disability.” What doesn’t work for me is factoid rote learning. Then again, that is true for most people, even if more extremely true for my weirdly operating brain.
So, why don’t teachers teach this way? Because the education system isn’t set for it.
In those paragraphs, I covered material involving multiple countries, multiple centuries, multiple individuals, multiple conflicts, and multiple issues. That doesn’t conform to how students are tested and so the system disincentivizes teaching in a way that would be the most effective. No standardized test will ever have a question that covers such a large territory of knowledge, even though that is precisely what makes interesting history, how it all fits together.
Still, a great teacher would find a way to bring in that style of teaching, if only in those rare moments when time allows.
A runner was the clear winner as he approached the end of the race, but he thought he had already crossed the finishing line and slowed down. The runner a little ways behind him caught up. This other guy could have run past and taken first place. Instead, he chose not to take advantage of the situation. He pointed out the actual finishing line and let the guy in the lead to keep his lead.
That is an unexpected response. Sports, especially in the United States, is typically portrayed as win or lose and that is all that matters. I would have been shocked if he had been an American athlete who put sportsmanship before winning, but that wasn’t the case.
The one in the lead was a Kenyan and the one in second place was a Basque. The Basque people have one of the most interesting histories in Europe. Their home region is in a mountainous region between Spain and France, and this particular Basque was of Spanish nationality. By American standards, at least, the Basque would most likely be labeled white, although they are somewhat genetically unique as a population. The Kenyan, on the other hand was black.
So, from a xenophobic mentality, there was no reason for one of these guys to do a kindness to the other guy. Competitive sports often touch on deep cultural issues. Individuals play sports not just to prove themselves best but also their group the best.
The divide between these two guys was immense. It was simultaneously a divide between competitors, nationalities, ethnicities, and races. However, the Basque runner apparently didn’t see the world in those terms. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with him being Basque. Knowing their proud history of an isolated and independent society, if anything, I might expect a Basque runner to be more competitively tribalistic.
I doubt this story really has much of anything to do with his being Basque, but that was what caught my eye. I’ve been interested in the Basque for years now. I thought I’d take the opportunity to offer some passages from a few books and following that some links to more information. The Basque are a fascinating people.
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Some of Champlain’s best sources were Basque whalers and fishermen— French Basques and Spanish Basques as he called them. Their whaling stations dotted the American coast from Labrador to the Gulf of Maine for many years. They developed the technology of whale hunting and invented the light and graceful whaleboats that would be used for many centuries.
Later, Champlain got to know a Basque named Captain Savalette, a “fine old seaman” who hailed from the French port of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. They first met in 1607, on Savalette’s forty-second voyage to North America. He had been making annual Atlantic crossings for many years—eighty-three of them since 1565, before Champlain was born. Captain Savalette and his crew of sixteen men worked near Canso in what is now Nova Scotia, operating out of a little fishing cove that Champlain later named in his honor. The work was perilous, but highly profitable. In a good year they took home 100,000 big cod , which brought as much as five crowns apiece on the Paris market.
Through the sixteenth century, the Basques also traded with Indians, who wanted iron pots, copper pans, steel knives, metal arrowheads, and woolen textiles such as red blankets from Catalonia.
In return, the Basques wanted furs. So strong was the European demand that the rate of exchange for a fine beaver pelt rose from one knife to eighty knives in the course of Captain Savalette’s career. Europeans also traded for products of the forest: sassafras was valued as a medicinal tea, and ginseng as a sexual restorative. By 1600, Native Americans had become aggressive entrepreneurs. Some Indians got the jump on competitors by acquiring European shallops and meeting European vessels at sea— a maritime equivalent of forestalling the market.
A complex web of cultural relations had developed between Europeans and American Indians long before Champlain came to the new world. The northern coast acquired a unique trading language, a pidgin speech borrowed from many tongues. Much of it was Basque and Algonquian. A startling example is the word Iroquois. Linguists conclude that it was a complex coinage in the pidgin speech of the North American coast— a French understanding of an Algonquian version of two Basque words that meant “killer people.” The term was well established when Champlain became the first to publish it in 1603.
Fischer, David Hackett (2008-10-14). Champlain’s Dream (Kindle Locations 2063-2085). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
By Champlain’s time, Basque whalers in New France had invented the beautiful and very light whaleboat, double-ended with incredibly thin strakes, which oarsmen could send skimming across the water. They were not invented by Nantucket Yankees. French and Spanish Basques developed them from Biscayan shallops, called chalupas in Basque. They were framed from naturally curved oak and planked with very thin oak strakes, clinker-built above the waterline and carvel-built below to reduce drag and increase speed. They could carry a crew of seven or eight. These chalupas were in use on the coast of Labrador and the lower St. Lawrence River by 1600. Maritime archaeologists from Red Bay, Labrador have recovered early examples, remarkably intact.
Fischer, David Hackett (2008-10-14). Champlain’s Dream (Kindle Locations 11994-11999). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
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One observation shines bright from the genetics. The bulk of informative male gene markers among the so-called Atlantic Celts are derived from down in south-west Europe, best represented by people of the Basque Country. What is more, they share this Atlantic coastal link with certain dated expansions of mtDNA gene groups, representing each of the main, archaeologically dated, putative colonization events of the western British Isles. One might expect the original Mesolithic hunter-gatherer colonists of the Atlantic coast, over 10,000 years ago, to have derived from the Ice Age refuges of the western Mediterranean: Spain, south-west France and the Basque Country. And that was indeed the case: shared genetic elements, both in the British Isles and Iberia, did include such Mesolithic mtDNA founding gene lines originating in the Basque region.
Perhaps more surprising and pleasing was the identification, among ‘Atlantic Celts’, of gene lines which arrived later, in the British Neolithic period, deriving ultimately from the very first farming communities in Turkey. The British Neolithic began over 6,000 years ago, but the archaeological and genetic evidence points to two separate arms, or pincer routes, of Neolithic migration into the British Isles from different parts of Europe, each with its own cultural precursors and human genetic trail markers. Most Neolithic migration more culturally than genetically is apparent, but in this instance human migration is supported by genetic evidence.
One of these migrations may have come up the Atlantic coast and into Cornwall, Ireland and Wales, preceded in France by the arrival of a particular pottery type known as Cardial Impressed Ware. Cardial Ware had in turn spread mainly by sea, west along the northern Mediterranean coast via Italy and the Riviera, and then across southern France to arrive near Brittany by around 7,000 years ago. In parallel with this cultural flow, specific gene lines appear to have travelled along the northern Mediterranean coast, round Spain and directly through southern France to the British Isles. In the case of this real Neolithic migration, however, the Basque Country seems to have been partly bypassed. The other Neolithic migration went up the Danube from the Black Sea to Germany and the Netherlands (but more of that later).
Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 353-370). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.
As to who and what were the main British ancestors, we can say they were largely Ice Age hunting families from Spain, Portugal and the south of France. The Basque region still preserves the closest genetic image of the Ice Age refuge community. Obviously, the Basque refuge area has since received intrusions of its own, particularly from the Mediterranean and North Africa, but these still constitute only a small percentage of that region’s present-day gene pool.
Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 2192-2195). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.
In total, around 27%52 of modern British men can claim descent through their fathers from the seven clusters arriving in this early post-LGM period. This is certainly within the bracket of the 25–42% I estimated for maternal descent, but obviously nearer the lower limit of 25%. But even a 30% contribution of Basque Late Upper Palaeolithic male and female ancestors for modern British imposes a completely different balance on our ‘roots’ perspectives.
I shall return to the events taking place after the 13,000-year threshold, but it is likely that this genetic watershed between the initial Late Upper Palaeolithic recolonization period and what came later, during the Mesolithic, is not just a genetic accident. The watershed may reflect the profound climatic reversal that occurred 13,000 years ago, known as the Younger Dryas Event, a short worldwide freeze-up which ended abruptly around 11,500 years ago with another equally dramatic warm-up (see below).
Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 2323-2332). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.
whatever languages those early hunters and gatherers may have spoken it was unlikely to have been celtic or Germanic. In fact, sub-structural linguistic evidence within both these modern branches of Indo-European suggests the oldest language of the British Isles may have been more like Basque.
Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 2469-2472). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.
A less obvious problem is the fixation in all the academic literature on celtic languages to the exclusion of any others. While it is generally accepted that there were other languages, probably non-Indo-European, in the British Isles before celtic, few have speculated as to what these may have been or as to whether there were non-Indo-European influences persisting from before the arrival of celtic in the Isles. Munich-based German linguist Theo Vennemann has addressed all of these issues and although his reconstruction is controversial, there are extraordinary resonances with the genetic picture.110 First, Vennemann argues for an ancient post-glacial European language sub-stratum on the basis of river-names. He calls this language family Vasconic (i.e. linguistically like the Basque and as with their re-expansion, originating in the Basque refuge and spreading north, west and east). This sub-stratum was progressively overlaid from southeast Europe by Indo-European during the Neolithic starting from 7,500 years ago, moving through central Europe and reaching Scandinavia by 6,000 years ago.
Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 3909-3917). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.
The secret fascination of the Indo-European language family for prehistorians is that there are very few extant languages in Europe that belong to other families. The exceptions are famous in that they break the rule. Apart from some European members of the Uralic family (Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian and Saami), Basque is the most widely touted exception since it has no known relatives at all and has a special pride of place for geneticists. The Basque Country is not only one of the central locations of the West European Ice Age refuge, but there are clear genetic and cultural differences between Basques and the surrounding populations. As I have mentioned, these differences have been overstated – the Basques are a genetically representative population for south-west Europe who were conserved and isolated and largely bypassed during the Neolithic. Some linguists even detect substratum evidence of Basque in structural aspects of English and insular celtic languages. However, in Roman times they were not the only linguistic exception: Iberian was another, totally different, non-Indo-European language.
Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 4327-4334). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.
There certainly is a deep genetic division between peoples of the west and east coasts of the British Isles, particularly between the English and the Welsh, but this does not merely reflect the Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman invasions. These were only the most recent of a succession of waves of cultural and genetic influx from north-west Europe, going back to the first farmers and before. Even the first settlers to come up from the Basque Ice Age refuge left different genetic traces on the east and west coasts of Britain. That difference was merely added to by subsequent migrations across the North Sea.
Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 6894-6898). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.
The arrival of celtic languages and associated gene flow could hardly be classed as evidence for the establishment of a Celtic replacement of a former unknown British population on genetic grounds. The highest single rate of Neolithic intrusion from the Mediterranean route in the British Isles was in Abergele at 33%. But in Ireland, such Neolithic intrusion was only around 4%, while it was 2% in Cornwall, 6–9% in the two Welsh peninsulas, and 8–11% in the Channel Islands and southern England (Figures 5.6 and 5.8). For England and the Channel Islands, the Neolithic contribution from the East via the northern route, just across the North Sea, was the same or greater than for the Atlantic coastal source (Figure 5.7).
In other words, Ireland and the Welsh peninsulas – which, on the basis of recent history and language, might be thought to be Celtic bastions – have less evidence of Neolithic genetic intrusions, let alone from the Bronze or Iron Age, than anywhere else in the British Isles. Of course, the flip side of this is that their descendants are truly aboriginal and genetically represent the most conservative parts of the British Isles, retaining respectively 88% and 89% of their pre-Neolithic founding lineages (Figure 11.5a). And where do those founding lineages come from? They come from the same part of Europe, the southwest, but more specifically they match the equally conservative region of the Basque Country.
Ultimately ancestors for the modern Irish population, male and female did come from the same region as those ancient celtic inscriptions, but thousands of years before celtic languages. But then every other sample in the British Isles shows at least 60% retention of those pre-Neolithic aboriginal male founders, reflecting the very conservative nature of the British Isles after the Last Glacial Maximum.
Translating all this back to question the assumption that ‘Celts’, however defined, were the aboriginal peoples of the British Isles, we can see new perspectives, which depend on how that definition is applied. First, if Celts were to be defined by their languages, the small proportion of associated gene flow would make them an invading cultural elite with no stronger claims to aboriginal status than the Anglo-Saxons. If we focused more specifically on those 2–10% of immigrating southern Neolithic, Bronze or Iron Age genes as identifying people rather than language, they would be even less ‘aboriginal’ in Ireland and Wales than in the rest of the British Isles.
I think we should take Cunliffe’s gradualist concept of the Longue Durée of the Atlantic cultural network as a paradigm for the genetics, as Irish geneticists Brian McEvoy and Dan Bradley of Trinity College Dublin, with English colleagues Martin Richards and Peter Forster, have done. Rather than being on the fringe of a celtic-speaking Neolithic revolution, the Atlantic fringe countries of Ireland and peninsular Wales then become the genetic aboriginal strongholds of post-LGM and Mesolithic gene flow from the Iberian glacial refuge, now best represented in south-west Europe by the equally conservative genetic profile of the Basque Country. The rest of Britain and the northern isles off Scotland then become more or less aboriginal with rates varying from 60% to 80% of ‘indigenous’ male markers (Figure 11.5a). In a sense, this is similar to the position taken on the Y gene group markers of ‘the indigenous population of the British Isles’ by geneticist Cristian Capelli (see Chapter 11), only my estimates for indigenous survival are much higher.
Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 6946-6975). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.
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And in truth, the first tentative engagements occurred well before that— at least a thousand years ago, when the Vikings tried to colonize eastern Canada, and the Basques surreptitiously discovered , as early as the fifteenth century, the great cod and whale fisheries off eastern Canada and New England. It’s difficult to say exactly when the tightlipped Basques first arrived; by the time the French and English showed up around 1600, they found Mi’kmaq Indians who were fluent in the Basque trading language and who skillfully sailed Basque-made shallops. One stunned Frenchman saw a Mi’kmaq glide by with an immense red moose painted jauntily on his sail. The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America looks at how these unimaginably different cultures grew steadily more similar through the centuries and yet remained stubbornly, and in the end tragically, estranged.
Weidensaul, Scott (2012-02-08). The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America’ (Kindle Locations 153-159). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
Eventually, though, the skrælings drove the Vikings out of Vinland, although evidence suggests that the Norse continued to make periodic voyages there for perhaps several hundred years more, until cooling climatic conditions drove their Greenland colony into extinction around 1400.% 2 By then, other Europeans were coming regularly to what was referred to as Hy-Brasil, the Seven Cities, or the Isles of Antilla, all names for imagined lands west of Ireland. Dreamers assumed Hy-Brasil was a place of great wealth and opulence; doubters scoffed that it was just a myth . But the Basques knew it was a very real place—the land of bakailao, or cod.
Not that they were telling anyone. Basque fishermen may have been making trips to the northeastern coast of North America as early as the thirteenth or fourteenth century, reaping the unimaginable bounty of the cod-rich fishing banks off Newfoundland and the Maritimes. Certainly by the fifteenth century, they were regularly crossing the North Atlantic for the summer fishing season, landing to salt and dry their catch, then bringing it back to Catholic Europe, required to eat fish half the days of the ecclesiastical year.
Good businessmen , the Basques kept their mouths shut about their sources, but by the 1480s English fishermen from Bristol were seeking the cod grounds as well, and may have found them. When Giovanni Caboto (better known as John Cabot) “discovered” his “New Found Ile Land” in 1497, it was no doubt to the disgust of the Basques, who’d had a pretty good thing going there for centuries. Jacques Cartier, setting out in 1534 on behalf of France, relied on directions from Breton fishermen who had been going there for years. When Cartier sailed into the mouth of the St. Lawrence , he was greeted by so many Mi’kmaqs and Montagnais (Innu), long accustomed to European visitors and waving furs to trade from the shore, that his nerve deserted him and he fired guns to scare them off.
Basque whalers came, too. In 1412 a fleet of 20 whaling ships passed Iceland, heading west. Beginning in the 1530s, as many as 600 men a year came to hunt right and bowhead whales, setting up seasonal camps along the Labrador coast. By the summer of 1578 , more than 350 European vessels were fishing off the coast of Newfoundland, with another 20 or 30 Spanish whalers working the waters between Newfoundland and Labrador. In all, some 20,000 Europeans were employed seasonally in the cod and whale fisheries there. Within two years, the French fleet had grown from 150 to 500 ships.
In 1583 , Sir Humphrey Gilbert found the harbor at St. John’s, Newfoundland , choked with foreign boats— which did not stop him from striding ashore and cutting the thick turf to ceremonially take possession of the land for England, thus formally establishing the English empire. The Basque, Portuguese, and Breton fishermen— never mind the native Beothuk— were unimpressed.
If Ktə̀hαnəto had been able to talk to the Indians of the Southeast coast, he’d have gotten an earful about Europeans, none of it good. When the Spaniard Ponce de León explored Florida in 1513, the Calusa Indians tried to cut his anchor lines from shielded canoes, while carefully keeping out of range of his ships’ cannons and crossbows, suggesting they’d already learned the hard way to be careful around European weaponry. The hostile reception and the lack of rich gold and silver mines like those found in Mesoamerica kept Spanish colonization at bay for decades.
Not that they didn’t try. In 1526, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón and six hundred colonists sailed from Hispaniola up the North American coast, founding the colony of San Miguel de Gualdape . Just where they tried to settle has been placed variously on the Pee Dee River in South Carolina and Sapelo Island in Georgia. Whatever the location, within three months the colony went bust, Ayllón was dead, and fewer than a third of the colonists were able to limp back to Hispaniola.
French Huguenots tried to settle at Fort Caroline (now Jacksonville, Florida) in 1564, and that was enough to prod the Spanish into decisive action. They massacred the French, established St. Augustine the following year, and salted the coasts of Florida and Georgia with forts to protect their treasure fleets and with missions to convert and control the Indians. The Timucua, who had helped the French colonists , dwindled quickly toward extinction. The Guale, who had already tangled with Ayllón, rose up twice against their invaders, as part of a regional revolt in 1576 and again in 1597 in an especially violent insurrection. Both times, the Spanish retaliated by burning Guale towns wholesale. But the microbial assault from the Europeans was far worse. By 1600, diseases introduced by the Spanish had reduced what may have been a pre-contact population of 1.3 million people in the Southeast to less than a sixth that number.
The centuries of contact between northeastern tribes and Europeans also had left their mark. Three years before Waymouth’s voyage, Bartholomew Gosnold was sailing along the Maine coast. To his shock, he encountered a party of six or eight Indians expertly sailing “a Baske-shallop with mast and sails, an iron grapple, and a kettle of copper . . . one of them apparelled with a waistcoat and breeches of black serge, made after our sea-fashion, hose and shoes on his feet .” Onboard Gosnold’s ship, the Indian commander drew a chalk map of the coast and mentioned the Newfoundland fishing harbor of Placentia, whose name came from plazenta, the Basque word for “pleasantness.”
“They spoke divers Christian words, and seemed to understand much more than we,” one of Gosnold’s companions wrote. No doubt the Indians, using the trade pidgin long employed with the Basques, were surprised by the newcomers ’ obtuseness . By the early 1600s, pidgin Basque was the lingua franca of Northeast trade, and the coastal people of the Maritimes were fluent when meeting their adesquides. Mathieu Da Costa— a free black man whose skills as an interpreter commanded a handsome price among Dutch and French traders— was able to make himself understood to the Mi’kmaq and Montagnais in the first years of the seventeenth century, probably using another form of Basque pidgin that had developed on the slave coast of Africa. One early-seventeenth-century visitor to the Maritimes observed that “the language of the coast tribes is half Basque.”
Weidensaul, Scott (2012-02-08). The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America’ (Kindle Locations 541-588). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
And that was the face of the East at the moment when the first regular contacts began between the New World and the Old: the close-mouth Basques trading iron kettles for furs while their catch dried in the sun; the Bristol merchants sniffing along behind them to find the source of the cod ; the trickle of ships that would soon become a colonizing flood.
Weidensaul, Scott (2012-02-08). The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America’ (Kindle Locations 1326-1328). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
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As well as being instrumental in getting Arthur Mourant a job, the Rhesus blood groups were also about to play a central role in what people were thinking about the origins of modern Europeans and in identifying the continent’s most influential genetic population – the fiercely independent Basques of north-west Spain and south-west France. The Basques are unified by their common language, Euskara, which is unique in Europe in that it has no linguistic connection with any other living language. That it survives at all in the face of its modern rivals, Castilian Spanish and French, is remarkable enough. But two thousand years ago, it was only the disruption of imperial Roman administration in that part of the empire that saved Euskara from being completely swamped by Latin, which was the fate of the now extinct Iberian language in eastern Spain and south-east France. The Basques provided us with an invaluable clue to the genetic history of the whole of Europe, as we shall see later in the book, but their elevation to special genetic status only began when Arthur Mourant started to look closely at the Rhesus blood groups.
Most people have heard about the Rhesus blood groups in connection with ‘blue baby syndrome’ or ‘haemolytic disease of the new-born’ to give it its full medical title. This serious and often fatal condition affects the second or subsequent pregnancy of mothers who are ‘Rhesus negative’ – that is, who do not possess the Rhesus antigen on the surface of their red blood cells. What happens is this. When a Rhesus negative mother bears the child of a Rhesus positive father (whose red blood cells do carry the Rhesus antigen), there is a high probability that the foetus will be Rhesus positive. This is not a problem for the first child; but, when it is being born, a few of its red blood cells may get into the mother’s circulation. The mother’s immune system recognizes these cells, with their Rhesus antigen, as foreign, and begins to make antibodies against them. That isn’t a problem for her until she becomes pregnant with her next child. If this foetus is also Rhesus positive then it will be attacked by her anti-Rhesus antibodies as they pass across the placenta. New-born babies affected in this way, who appear blue through lack of oxygen in their blood, could sometimes be rescued by a blood transfusion, but this was a risky procedure. Fortunately, ‘blue baby syndrome’ is no longer a severe clinical problem today. All Rhesus negative mothers are now given an injection of antibodies against Rhesus positive blood cells, so that if any do manage to get into her circulation during the birth of her first child they will be mopped up before her immune system has a chance to find them and start to make antibodies.
The significance of all this to the thinking about European prehistory is that Mourant realized that having two Rhesus blood groups in a single population did not make any evolutionary sense. Even the simplest calculations showed that losing so many babies was not a stable arrangement. There was no problem if everybody had the same Rhesus type. It didn’t matter whether this was Rhesus positive or Rhesus negative, just so long as it was all one or the other. It was only when there were people with different Rhesus types breeding together that these very serious problems arose. In the past, before blood transfusions and before the antibody treatment for Rhesus negative mothers, there must have been a lot of babies dying from haemolytic disease. This is a very heavy evolutionary burden, and the expected result of this unbalanced situation would be that one or other of the Rhesus blood groups would eventually disappear. And this is exactly what has happened – everywhere except in Europe. While the rest of the world is predominantly Rhesus positive, Europe stands out as having a very nearly equal frequency of both types. To Mourant, this was a signal that the population of Europe was a mixture that had not yet had time to settle down and eliminate one or other of the Rhesus types. His explanation was that modern Europe might be a relatively recent hybrid population of Rhesus positive arrivals from the Near East, probably the people who brought farming into Europe beginning about eight thousand years ago, and the descendants of an earlier Rhesus negative hunter-gathering people. But who were the Rhesus negatives?
Mourant came across the work of the French anthropologist H. V. Vallois, who described features of the skeletons of contemporary Basques as having more in common with fossil humans from about twenty thousand years ago than with modern people from other parts of Europe. Though this kind of comparison has since fallen into disrepute, it certainly catalysed Mourant’s thinking. It was already known that Basques had by far the lowest frequency of blood group B of all the population groups in Europe. Could they be the ancient reservoir of Rhesus negative as well? In 1947 Mourant arranged to meet with two Basques who were in London attempting to form a provisional government and were keen to support any attempts to prove their genetic uniqueness. Like most Basques, they were supporters of the French Resistance and totally opposed to the fascist Franco regime in Spain. Both men provided blood samples and both were Rhesus negative. Through these contacts, Mourant typed a panel of French and Spanish Basques who turned out, as he had hoped, to have a very high frequency of Rhesus negatives, in fact the highest in the world. Mourant concluded from this that the Basques were descended from the original inhabitants of Europe, whereas all other Europeans were a mixture of originals and more recent arrivals, which he thought were the first farmers from the Near East.
From that moment, the Basques assumed the status of the population against which all ideas about European genetic prehistory were to be – and to a large extent still are – judged. The fact that they alone of all the west Europeans spoke a language which was unique in Europe, and did not belong to the Indo-European family which embraces all other languages of western Europe, only enhanced their special position.
Sykes, Bryan (2010-12-20). The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry (Kindle Locations 575-619). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
When we applied exactly the same procedure to the clusters in Europe we got a surprise. We had been expecting relatively young dates, though not as young as in Polynesia, because of the overwhelming influence of the agricultural migrations from the Near East in the last ten thousand years that were so prominent a feature in the textbooks. But six out of the seven clusters had genetic ages much older than ten thousand years. According to the version of Europe’s genetic history that we had all been brought up on, a population explosion in the Near East due to agriculture was followed by the slow but unstoppable advance of these same people into Europe, overwhelming the sparse population of hunter–gatherers. Surely, if this were true, the genetic dates for the mitochondrial clusters, or most of them at least, would have to be ten thousand years or less. But only one of the seven clusters fitted this description. The other six were much older. We rechecked our sequences. Had we scored too many mutations? No. We rechecked our calculations. They were fine. This was certainly a puzzle; but still we didn’t question the established dogma – until we looked at the Basques.
For reasons discussed in an earlier chapter, the Basques have long been considered the last survivors of the original hunter–gatherer population of Europe. Speaking a fundamentally different language and living in a part of Europe that was the last to embrace agriculture, the Basques have all the hallmarks of a unique population and they are proud of their distinctiveness. If the rest of Europe traced their ancestry back to the Near Eastern farmers, then surely the Basques, the last survivors of the age of the hunter–gatherers, should have a very different spectrum of mitochondrial sequences. We could expect to find clusters which we saw nowhere else; and we would expect not to find clusters that are common elsewhere. But when we pulled out the sequences from our Basque friends, they were anything but peculiar. They were just like all the other Europeans – with one noticeable exception: while they had representatives of all six of the old clusters, they had none at all of the seventh cluster with the much younger date. We got hold of some more Basque samples. The answer was the same. Rather than having very unusual sequences, the Basques were as European as any other Europeans. This could not be fitted into the scenario in which hunters were swept aside by an incoming tide of Neolithic farmers. If the Basques were the descendants of the original Palaeolithic hunter–gatherers, then so were most of the rest of us.
But what about the cluster that was absent from the Basques – the cluster that was distinguished from the rest by having a much younger date compatible with the Neolithic? When we plotted the places where we found this cluster on a map of Europe, we found a remarkable pattern. The six old clusters were to be found all over the continent, though some were commoner in one place than in others. The young cluster, on the other hand, had a very distinctive distribution. It split into two branches, each with a slightly different set of mutations. One branch headed up from the Balkans across the Hungarian plain and along the river valleys of central Europe to the Baltic Sea. The other was confined to the Mediterranean coast as far as Spain, then could be traced around the coast of Portugal and up the Atlantic coast to western Britain. These two genetic routes were exactly the same as had been followed by the very first farmers, according to the archaeology. Early farming sites in Europe are instantly recognizable by the type of pottery they contain, just as Lapita ceramics identify the early Polynesian sites in the Pacific. The push through central Europe from the Balkans, which began about seven and a half thousand years ago, is recorded by the presence at these early sites of a distinctive decorative style called Linear pottery, in which the vessels are incised with abstract geometric designs cut into the clay. The Linear pottery sites map out a slice of central Europe where, even today, one branch of the young cluster is still concentrated. In the central and western Mediterranean, early farming sites are identified by another style of pottery, called Impressed ware because the clay is marked with the impressions of objects, often shells, which have been pressed into the clay before firing. Once again, the concordant distribution of Impressed ware sites and the other branch of the young cluster stood out. This didn’t look like a coincidence. The two branches of the young mitochondrial cluster seemed to be tracing the footsteps of the very first farmers as they made their way into Europe.
Sykes, Bryan (2010-12-20). The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry (Kindle Locations 1909-1942). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
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What those pre-Celtic languages sounded like may not be entirely a matter of guesswork or even more scholarly reconstruction. Euskera, the Basque language, has survived against all odds in an Atlantic-facing enclave and it certainly not only predates Celtic but also all the other Indo-European languages. Basic Basque words are very different: gizon for ‘man’, andere for ‘lady’, neskaro for ‘girl’ and bihotz for ‘heart’. It may well be that the language has survived because its geography prevented outside influence. Distributed on either side of the Pyrenees, the Basque communities live on a rocky Atlantic coastline in what is now Spain and in France behind a string of sandbars and salt marshes known as the Landes. Traders were perhaps reluctant to put in along that littoral and perhaps they did sail diagonally across Biscay on the open sea, searching for the light burning at the top of the Tower of Hercules.
Moffat, Alistair; Wilson, James (2011-05-01). The Scots: A Genetic Journey (Kindle Locations 1552-1558). Birlinn. Kindle Edition.
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Closely related geographically to Asturias was another group of people never conquered by the Moors, the Basques. A pre-Celtic people, the Basques are possibly the most ancient in Europe. In the eighth century they lived on the Bay Biscay where the coast turns westward, with their territory stretching eastward toward the mid-Pyrenees and south to the upper reaches of the Ebro River. Basque settlement also traversed the Pyrenees into Gascony, a word derived from Vasconia, the original Roman name for the Basque lands. Some Basque territory was absorbed by the kingdom of Asturias, but the Basques remained fiercely independent, as a number of intruders such as Charlemagne would find out at great cost.
Charles Martel and his son Pippin III “the Short” followed up the victory at Poitiers by driving the Moors out of most of southern France. When in 778 Charlemagne was invited into Spain by the dissident Moorish wali (governor) of Barcelona, the emperor-to-be was ensnared in a strategic quagmire, with infighting among his Muslim allies. His troubles increased when the Saxon revolt under Widukind forced him to retreat prematurely. He withdrew back across the Pyrenees, using the mountain pass at Roncevaux. Here the Frankish rear guard was trapped in mid-August 778 by anti-Frankish Basques.
The Basques staged an ambush. Hidden in forests above the 3,470-foot (1,050-meter) pass, they waited until nightfall , then attacked the baggage train and rear guard at the top of the pass. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard reports that they drove the Franks “down into the valley beneath,” where they had no room to maneuver. “The Basques joined battle with them and killed them to the last man,” with the Basques escaping in the darkness. 4 Among those killed was the Paladin (knight) Roland. By the twelfth century the story of Roland’s last stand had taken on epic proportions and this relatively insignificant incident became the subject of the first great poem in Old French, The Song of Roland. A product of the crusading era, it blames the Moors for the slaughter rather than the Basques.
But Charlemagne didn’t give up on Spain. To protect his southern flank, he reestablished the Kingdom of Aquitaine, including Gascony, in 781 and appointed his son Louis the Pious as king there. This opened the way for an exodus of Christian refugees from Spain, including Agobard, later bishop of Lyons. It also gave the Franks a base from which they could reoccupy the region south of the Pyrenees to the east of Asturias and north of the Ebro River, the frontier province that became the Spanish March. But it proved difficult to maintain as a unified whole, and from it the independent kingdom of Pamplona emerged in the mid-ninth century. The majority of the Basque population lived in Pamplona, which also embraced the small county of Aragon.
Collins, Paul (2013-02-12). The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century (Kindle Locations 3401-3422). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.
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The contractualist doctrines built in to Spanish theories of the state allowed for different levels of resistance. The first and most fundamental of these, which was to have a long and important life in the Indies, was articulated in the formula originally deriving from the Basques and subsequently embedded in later medieval Castilian law, of obeying but not complying. An official or an individual receiving a royal order which he considered inappropriate or unjust would symbolically place it on his head while pronouncing the ritual words that he would obey but not comply: se acata (or se obedece) Pero no se cumple. This simultaneously demonstrated respect for the royal authority while asserting the inapplicability of royal orders in this particular instance. Appearances were thus preserved, and time was given to all parties for reflection. This formula, which was to be incorporated into the laws of the Indies in 1528, provided an ideal mechanism for containing dissent, and preventing disputes from turning into open confrontation.54 Hernan Cortes took obedience without compliance one stage further when, on arriving on the coast of Mexico, he ignored the governor of Cuba’s orders that he was to conduct an expedition of reconnaissance rather than conquest. Instead, he denounced him as a `tyrant’, and appealed over his head directly to the monarch.55 The right of appeal was fundamental in this society, as was the right of the vassal to be heard by his prince, and between them they provided an essential device for conflict resolution.
Prof. John H. Elliott FBA. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (Kindle Locations 2376-2384). Kindle Edition.
A steady stream of Spaniards, however, continued to migrate, although apparently it flowed less strongly than in earlier times.27 As with British emigration in the eighteenth century, new tributaries were joining this stream. Just as, as in the eighteenth century, the British periphery was producing a growing share of the total number of white immigrants, so too the Spanish periphery was playing a larger part than before. During the seventeenth century increasing numbers of Basques, in particular, had joined the Castilians, Andalusians and Extremadurans who had preponderated in the first century of colonization. Eighteenth-century emigration saw the increased representation of immigrants from the northern regions of the peninsula – not only Basques but also Galicians, Asturians and Castilians from the mountain region of Cantabria – together with Catalans and Valencians, from the east coast of Spain.21
Prof. John H. Elliott FBA. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (Kindle Locations 4571-4575). Kindle Edition.
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Led by Colonel von Richthofen of the Condor Legion, the German Luftwaffe dropped thermite incendiary bombs on the Basque village of Guernica on 26 April 1937. The attack occurred on market day. Animals and people were slaughtered. It was an urban firestorm, an inferno, anticipating the bombing of Dresden, London, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.
The first vice president of the United States, an improbable observer, helps us to understand the significance of the destruction. As a student of republics, John Adams traveled to the Basque country and was astonished. The Basque have “never known a landless class, either slave or villein.” Well before the regicides of modern European revolutions, “one of the privileges they have most insisted on, is not to have a king,” Adams wrote.” The seamless woolen beret became the symbol of Basque social equality. As a political style, the beret made its way through the Basque refugees to France, from France to the Resistance, from the Resistance to beatniks in the metropolis, to Che Guevara, and to the Black Panthers.
The liberties of the Basques were traditionally renewed at an oak standing on ground in Guernica. The liberties derive from thefueros or charters of the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. They are similar to the Magna Carta-providing jurisdiction, defining customs, delineating tenures, documenting pasturage rights. The Castilian king swore at Guernica that he and his successors would maintain the “fueros, customs, franchises, and liberties” of the land.” The charters began as an orally transmitted code of uses and customs. The details of commoning varied from valley to valley, village to village, but clearly indicated a precommodity regime.19
An episode of covering up Picasso’s Guernica at the United Nations building in New York just prior to the U.S. bombing campaign and invasion of Iraq was emblematic of the state’s anxiety about symbolic production 20 The American secretary of state was not the first to try to cover up the Guernica story. Colonel Richthofen himself tried to hide it. Conservatives of England, Spain, and Germany hoped to hide the story, but the intrepid journalist George Steer revealed the truth, showing that the town was a center of Basque liberties and the location of the oak where local assemblies had met for centuries.21 Picasso began Guernica on May Day 1937 and exhibited it a month later at the Paris World’s Fair.
To cover up his mural, therefore, was more than a deliberate attempt to destroy the memory of civilian bombing; it struck at a location that presented the most durable, actual alternative to monarchy and capitalism found in Europe and, as such, a place of constitutional interest to John Adams as well. Behind Guernica was the commons.
Peter Linebaugh. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (Kindle Locations 1960-1975). Kindle Edition.
“British researchers Iona and Peter Opie spent their lives documenting the games that children play when they are out of doors and out of the purview of parents and teachers. “If the present-day schoolchild was wafted back to any previous century,” said the Opies, “he would probably find himself more at home with the games being played than with any other social custom.” They found English, Scottish, and Welsh schoolchildren still playing games that date back to Roman times.”
Harris, Judith Rich (2011-10-25). The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do (p. 188). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
“For better or worse, the heirs of the rationalist rather than the sentimentalist Enlightenment now dominate both philosophy and social science. Enlightenment sentimentalism has long been underappreciated by comparison with Enlightenment rationalism—as the very notion of the eighteenth century as “the age of reason” will attest. Even philosophers today who are well aware of the centrality of moral sentimentalism to eighteenth-century intellectual life tend to define the Enlightenment in purely rationalist terms. John Rawls, for example, defines “Enlightenment liberalism” as a “comprehensive liberal and often secular doctrine founded on reason,” one capable of supporting political morality through a direct appeal to the rational faculties alone.6 Normative theorists and social scientists who are now rediscovering the importance of emotion in our moral and political lives have thus often been led to believe that they are refuting the philosophy of the Enlightenment, rather than lending support to one popular eighteenth-century view of reflective autonomy over another.”
Frazer, Michael L. (2010-07-21). The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today (Kindle Locations 136-144). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
“Evidently Scotland and France in the eighteenth century were very different from each other, with the former, far more closely than the latter, respecting the ideals of religious and political toleration. But the two countries had this much in common, that they were main players in the European Enlightenment. As this book develops we shall see not only that they shared a host of intellectual interests and concerns, but also that they were in discussion and debate with each other throughout the century of Enlightenment. In preparation for a discussion of the relations between the two countries and cultures, I shall first focus on the fact that these close relations have a long history, and especially on the fact that for many centuries Scots have engaged in several crucial sorts of cultural activity in France. One small indication of the depth of these activities is the fact that by about 1600, at least seventeen Scots were rectors of the University of Paris. There may well have been far more.
“About the time of this David [sc. David I of Scotland] lived Richard of St Victor, a Scot by birth, a religious of the Augustinian order, and he was second to no one of the theologians of his generation; for both in that theology of the schools where distinction is gained as wrestler meets wrestler on the battlefield of letters and in that other where each man lets down his solitary pitcher, he was illustrious.”
“There is rich symbolism in the fact that the earliest known person to have been active in the Scottish philosophical tradition spent a large part of his life in France. He is Richard of St Victor (d. 1173), whose Latin name, which tells us his country of birth, is Ricardus de Sancto Victore Scotus.”
Broadie, Alexander (2012-11-05). Agreeable Connexions: Scottish Enlightenment Links with France (Kindle Locations 189-202). Birlinn. Kindle Edition.
“Scots and Irish left the British Isles in such numbers that three-quarters of that descent now live elsewhere. The effects of this migration within Britain-the voluntary and involuntary exodus of religious dissenters, political radicals, and discontented Celts-bolstered English influence and reinforced the United Kingdom’s internal balance of antirevolutionary sentiment and commercial preoccupation. We can only guess the probable politics of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century parliaments had Britain retained its high Irish and Scottish population ratios. Much less Conservative, certainly. Meanwhile, receiving much of this dispersal made the United States a notably different English-speaking, great world power: more democratic in its politics, more egalitarian in its culture, and more revivalist rather than traditionalist in worship. The new republic became a mecca for discontented populations from Catholic as well as Protestant Europe, a role that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain could never have played. [ . . . ]
“The English pursued a policy of internal colonialism toward Wales, Scotland, and Ireland alike. In each case, London ordered a political union consummated to submerge the Celtic people and culture in question [ . . . ]
“Through all of these devices and circumstances-colonial charters for Protestant dissenters; occasional periods of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish ethnic persecution or flight; gathering of Europe’s Protestant refugees; German recruitment; relentless transportation of felons, debtors, military prisoners, and vagabonds; and a private “emigrant agent” business that ranged from serious recruitment to kidnapping-Britain turned a late entry in New World colonizing into the largest and fastest-growing clump of European settlement in the Western Hemisphere, with remarkably dual success. We have seen how this exodus made the population and culture of the British Isles less Celtic and more English, less revolutionary and antisocial and more deferential. It also positioned the fledgling United States of i82o, with a very different population, and already set on a very different track, to become the preponderant demographic and political force in the new world.”
Kevin Phillips. The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America (p. xxiii-586). Kindle Edition.
“Americans. Grateful, joyful, almost delirious were they as a people in 1783-intoxicated with newly won independence, ecstatic that the colonial yoke of Britain had been thrown off, and delirious with hopes for the future. They set out to establish the world’s first land of liberty, where men, women, and children would be governed not by the capricious decrees of governors and justices, but rather by laws. Laws, enacted by assemblies representing all the people, would enforce the principles most beautifully stated in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Indeed, governments “are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed” to “secure these rights.”
“High purposes. Lofty aims. Welcome promises. Written into poetry and song were these great principles. Recorded in paintings and books were these sweet ideals. Drama, oratory, sermons bristled with liberty, freedom, and equality for one and all. Merchants, captains, planters, yeomen, artificers, and stevedores shared the spirit, lauded this new land of liberty.
“And yet, by 1800, less than a quarter century from the time Americans declared these exalted ideals to the world, they had almost to a person rejected the very principles and ideals of their Revolution. By 1800 not only did most Americans not seek to perpetuate, expound, and practice the principles of the Revolution, they had entered into a process of attempting to supplant the values of the Revolution either with a political process that sucked all meaning out of those principles or with an alternative social and political philosophy that promised liberty-not through greater doses of freedom, but through a careful and meaningful structuring and ordering of the world. So disillusioned were they with the unfulfilled promises of liberty, they underwent a transformation that affected every segment of American society.
So thorough was this transmutation that fledgling attempts to make every American a citizen, to provide equal rights to all, to abolish slavery, and to incorporate women, African Americans, and new immigrants into American society were abandoned. Not only were these once-sacred goals deserted, the words used to describe these goals were also transformed and given new meanings. Liberty itself, once freedom from oppression, came to mean independence within a prescribed system. Freedom, once the absence of restraint, came to mean choice among defined options. Equality mutated from a philosophical description of a condition of nature to a notion of equal opportunity within one’s class or social condition. The vaunted rights of man devolved from a set of natural rights provided by God to a slate of prescribed rights established by men.
“And so went all of the precious symbols of the American Revolution until every word reflected a new meaning and value. Democracy came to connote a right to vote, not a fair division of property or equality of rights and treatment. Party came to describe an electoral machine, no longer a divisive faction subverting government. The republic itself stopped being a government by the people and became instead a government prescribed by a constitution devised precisely to keep the people from governing. But the most telling revision of all was the special new meaning reserved for revolution itself: chaos.
“By 1798 the deed was done. By 1800 what can only be called the American Counterrevolution had reached full tide. Hardly a step had been missed in the transformation from one set of values to another, from one set of aspirations to another, and from one set of rules for human interaction to quite another. So subtle was the shift that almost no one at the time recognized or understood what had taken place. Americans only knew, if they were among the original friends of liberty, that they were no longer welcome in American society; they knew that if they continued to preach the old gospel of liberty, they might be in danger of life and limb.
“If they happened to be proponents of revolution, they soon met threats, taunts, and challenges to settle scores on the field of honor. If they happened to be African Americans, they came to suffer a fate almost equal to imprisonment or death. If slaves, they saw virtually all systems of emancipation-manumission, purchase of freedom, and legislative emancipation or curtailments of enslavement-dry up. If free blacks, they saw in every state and territory of the nation a steady evaporation of rights and the erection of barriers prohibiting individual movement from state to state, as well as an aggressive expansion of inducements either to migrate back to Africa or to be colonized there. If women, they saw in every state and territory the banishment of invitations to seek independence and the issuance of commands to accept, practice, and teach domestic service as matrons of society.
“The abolition of liberty in America far preceded the abolition of slavery; the eradication of freedom much predated the rise of a new individualism that gave personal sovereignty to pursue adventure and wealth with little restraint to a relatively small class of white American men; the abandonment of the idea of natural equality among humans-intellectual or spiritual-far antedated any discussions of universal male suffrage; and all the glorious notions that there was a basic set of rights that should be enjoyed by all men (and, presumably, women) were canceled except for those few Americans-again, mainly white men, who clung to those rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights.”
Larry E. Tise. American Counterrevolution: A Retreat from Liberty, 1783-1800 (Kindle Locations 426-456). Kindle Edition.
“Amongst others that came with him, there was one Mr. Thomas Morton, who, it should seem, had some small adventure of his own or other men’s amongst them, but had little respect, and was slighted by the meanest servants they kept. They having continued some time in New England, and not finding things to answer their expectation, nor profit to arise as they looked for, the said Captain Wollaston takes a great part of the servants and transports them to Virginia, and disposed of them there, and writes back to one Mr. Rasdale, one of his chief partners, (and accounted then merchant,) to bring another part of them to Virginia, likewise intending to put them off there as he had done the rest; and he, with the consent of the said Rasdale, appointed one whose name was Filcher, to be his Lieutenant, and to govern the remainder of the plantation until he or Rasdale should take further order thereabout.
“But the aforesaid Morton, (having more craft than honesty,) having been a petty-fogger35 at Furnival’s Inn, he, in the other’s absence, watches an opportunity, (commons being put hard among them,) and got some strong drink and other junkets, and made them a feast, and after they were merry, he began to tell them he would give them good counsel. `You see,’ he says, `that many of your fellows are carried to Virginia, and if you stay still until Rasdale’s return, you will also be carried away and sold for slaves with the rest. Therefore I would advise you to thrust out Lieutenant Filcher, and I having a part in the plantation, will receive you as my partners, and consociates, so you may be free from service, and we will converse, plant, trade and live together as equals (or to the like effect).’
“This counsel was easily followed; so they took opportunity, and thrust Lieutenant Filcher out of doors, and would not suffer him to come any more amongst them, but forced him to seek bread to eat and other necessaries amongst his neighbors, till he would get passage for England. (See the sad effect of want of good government.)
“After this they fell to great licentiousness of life, in all prophane- ness, and the said Morton became lord of misrule, and maintained (as it were) a school of Atheism, and after they had got some goods into their hands, and got much by trading with the Indians, they spent it as vainly, in quaffing and drinking both wine and strong liquors in great excess, (as some have reported,) ten pounds worth in a morning, setting up a May pole, drinking and dancing about like so many fairies, or furies rather, yea and worse practices, as if they had anew revived and celebrated the feast of the Roman goddess Flora, or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians.”
Thomas Jefferson describing Thomas Morton’s having wrongly and unlawfully saved some men from the fate of slavery
Letter to John Adams, Monticello, December 28, 1812
Bruce Braden. “Ye Will Say I Am No Christian”: The Thomas Jefferson/John Adams Correspondence on Religion, Morals, and Values (Kindle Locations 356-371). Kindle Edition.
“There appears to be such a mixture of real sensibility and fondly cherished romance in your composition, that the present crisis carries you out of yourself; and since you could not be one of the grand movers, the next best thing that dazzled your imagination was to be a conspicuous opposer. Full of yourself, you make as much noise to convince the world that you despise the revolution, as Rousseau did to persuade his contemporaries to let him live in obscurity.
“Reading your Reflections warily over, it has continually and forcibly struck me, that had you been a Frenchman, you would have been, in spite of your respect for rank and antiquity, a violent revolutionist; and deceived, as you now probably are, by the passions that cloud your reason, have termed your romantic enthusiasm an enlightened love of your country, a benevolent respect for the rights of men. Your imagination would have taken fire, and have found arguments, full as ingenious as those you now offer , to prove that the constitution, of which so few pillars remained , that constitution which time had almost obliterated, was not a model sufficiently noble to deserve close adherence. And, for the English constitution, you might not have had such a profound veneration as you have lately acquired; nay, it is not impossible that you might have entertained the same opinion of the English Parliament, that you professed to have during the American war.
“Another observation which, by frequently occurring, has almost grown into a conviction , is simply this, that had the English in general reprobated the French revolution, you would have stood forth alone, and been the avowed Goliath of liberty. But, not liking to see so many brothers near the throne of fame, you have turned the current of your passions , and consequently of your reasoning, an-other way. Had Dr Price’s sermon not lighted some sparks very like envy in your bosom, I shrewdly suspect that he would have been treated with more candour; nor is it charitable to suppose that any thing but personal pique and hurt vanity could have dictated such bitter sarcasms and reiterated expressions of contempt as occur in your Reflections.
“But without fixed principles even goodness of heart is no security from inconsistency, and mild affectionate sensibility only renders a man more ingeniously cruel, when the pangs of hurt vanity are mistaken for virtuous indignation, and the gall of bitterness for the milk of Christian charity.”
Mary Wollstonecraft writing about Edmund Burke’s response to the French Revolution
Wollstonecraft, Mary; Janet Todd (1999-08-19). A Vindication of the Rights of Men; A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution: WITH “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (Oxford World’s Classics) (Kindle Locations 1268-1286). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
What is the relationship between who we used to be and who we became, who we might have been and who we might yet become? What defines who we are as a whole? Is there an essence to our identity, a center to our being? If so, is our ‘character’ destiny, does that center hold? After it is all over, who ultimately judges a life and what it means?
I’ve often contemplated these questions. It seems strange how I ended up where I now find myself, a path that I followed because other ways were blocked or hidden, difficult or treacherous. I really have no clue why I am the way I am, this self that is built on all that came before.
From moment to moment, I’ve acted according to what has made sense or seemed necessary in each given situation. This isn’t to imply there weren’t choices made, but it can feel as if life only offers forced choices. Certainly, I didn’t choose the larger context into which I was born, all the apparently random and incomprehensible variables, the typically unseen constraints upon every thought and action. Nor did I even choose the person I am who does the choosing.
I simply am who I am.
It’s hard for me to imagine myself as being different, but it isn’t entirely beyond my capacity. I sense, even if only in a haze, other possibilities and directions. I try to grasp that sense of unlived lives, potentials that on some level remain in the lived present. It is important not to forget all the choices made and that are continually made. Life is a set of endless choices, even if we don’t like the choices perceived or understand their implications. But choices once made tend to lose their sense of having been chosen.
We look at our personal and collective pasts with bias, most especially the bias of knowing what resulted. The telling of history, our own and that of others, has the air of inevitability. We read the ending into the beginning.
Historians don’t usually talk about what didn’t happen and might have happened, the flukes of circumstance that pushed events one direction rather than another. The same is true for all of us in making sense of the past. We comfort ourselves with the narrative of history as if it offers us an answer for why events happened that way, why people did what they did, why success or failure followed. We judge the individuals and societies of the past with 20/20 hindsight. But as the narrators of their story, we aren’t always reliable.
Before I go further about history, let me return to the present. I was involved in a debate that became slightly heated. The fundamental difference of opinion had to do with how society and human nature is defined and perceived, the specific topic having been victimization.
I mentioned the author Derrick Jensen as he offers the best commentary on victimization that I’ve ever come across. But one person responded that, “Lastly I just can’t have a serious conversation about Derrick Jensen. I’m sorry.” Though they never explained their dismissive comment, I suspect I know what they meant.
The thing about Jensen is that there is a distinction between his earliest writings and his more recent writings. He began as an ordinary guy asking questions and looking at the world with a sense of wonder, considering the panorama of data with a voraciousness that is rare. Then he found an answer and it was all downhill from there. The answer he found was a cynical view of society, in which he hoped for the collapse of civilization. The answer was anarcho-primitivism.
Jensen’s answer is less than satisfying. It is sad he went down that road. He wasn’t always like that. In his early writings, there is a profound sense of beauty and love of humanity, all of humanity. Yes, there was more than a hint of darkness in his first couple of books, but it was only a shadow of doubt, a potential that had not yet fully manifested, that had not yet become untethered from hope. His younger self didn’t dream of destruction.
I knew Jensen’s early writings years before he began his cynical phase. Nothing he could write would negate the worthiness of what he wrote before. But if all you knew were his later writings, it is perfectly understandable that your criticisms might be harsh.
I had the opposite experience in my discovery of George Orwell.
I mostly knew him as a name, having never read his works for myself. I had seen the movie adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four and I’ve come across quotes of his writings in various places. But I knew nothing about Orwell as a man and a writer. He was just another famous dead white guy who said some interesting stuff.
Recently, I decided to lessen my ignorance and read something by him. I randomly chose Homage to Catalonia which had an introduction by Lionel Trilling. At the same time, I did web searches about Orwell, about that particular book, and about Trilling’s intro. This led me to info about Orwell having colluded with the British government when he became an informant. He informed on people in his own social circle and, having been a critic of the British Empire, he had to have known the consequences could have destroyed lives.
That marred any respect I might have had for Orwell, maybe permanently.
So, why could I be so critical of Orwell while being so forgiving of Jensen? Well, for one, Jensen never has colluded with an oppressive government against those who voiced dissent. Plus, it might be the basic reason of my having no personal connection to Orwell’s writings. Jensen’s writings, on the other hand, helped shape my mind at a still tender age when I was looking for answers. I have a sense of knowing Jensen’s experience and worldview, and hence a sense of knowing why he turned to cynicism. But maybe I should also be more forgiving of Orwell and more accepting of his all too human weaknesses, or at least more willing to separate his early writings from his later actions.
My basic sense is that nothing in life is inevitable. As such, it wasn’t inevitable that lives of Jensen and Orwell happened as they did. Almost anything could have intervened at any moment along the way and redirected their lives, forced different choices upon them, allowed them to see new possibilities. And, in the case of Jensen, that is still possible for he remains alive.
Now, for the historical aspect, let me continue on the level of individuals and then shift to a broader perspective.
I’ll use my two favorite examples: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. They are long dead and so that air of inevitability hangs heavy over their respective histories. Whatever they might have become, it would be hard for either to surprise us at this point, unless previously unknown documents were to be found.
Both Burke and Paine began as progressive reformers. There was nothing in their childhoods or even their young adulthoods that would have portended the pathways of their lives, that would have predicted Burke becoming what some have deemed a reactionary conservative, an anti-revolutionary defender of the status quo, and that would have predicted Paine becoming a revolutionary, a radical rabblerouser, and one of the greatest threats to tyranny. Before all of that, they were friends and allies. They wrote letters to one another. Paine even visited Burke at his home. If events hadn’t intervened, they both might have remained partners in seeking progressive reform in Britain and her colonies.
What drove them apart began with the American Revolution and came to its head in the French Revolution. They came to opposite views of the historical forces that were playing out before them. Burke responded in fear and Paine in hope. But these responses were dependent on so many circumstantial factors. Change any single thing and a chain of events would have shifted into a new pattern, a new context.
Like Paine, Burke at one point considered going to America, and yet unlike Paine he never got around to it. His early life didn’t hit any major bumps as Paine’s did. There is no evidence that Paine had seriously considered going to America until all of his other options had been denied. There is nothing inevitable at all about these two lives. It was a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin that sent Paine toward his seeming destiny. And it was the lack of such a similar chance meeting that kept Burke in Britain.
Along these lines, it was a complex web of events and factors that led the two revolutions down divergent paths. The French Revolution wasn’t fated to transform into Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s empire. Likewise, the American Revolution wasn’t fated to end in the further institutionalization of slavery that would lead to a bloody civil war, wasn’t fated to lead to imperial expansion, Indian removal and genocide.
There is no shared character that predetermines a people’s fate. The potential of individual members of a nation are magnified by all of their potential combined, the choices and actions of each affecting those of others, millions of paths intertwining like a flock of birds shifting along unseen currents in the wind. History is a thing of luck and chance, infinite possibilities bounded by necessity and circumstance, an interplay of forces that can’t be controlled or predicted. People act never knowing for sure what may or may not come of it.
People and nations are filled with near infinite potential. None of us knows what might have been or what yet might become. Nothing is inevitable.
The path we seem to be on may change in an instant, may change in ways we can’t even imagine. But, no matter what changes, it will never alter all that came before. The many facets of our lives, individual and shared, offer diverse windows onto the world we see. Even as the past doesn’t change, our relationship to the past does and along with it our understanding, along with it the memories we recollect and the stories we tell. And from understanding, one hopes, comes empathy and compassion.
We are who we are, all the many selves we hold within, all the many identities we have taken. The past and the future, the potential and the manifest meets in the world in which we live. No story is completely told while the actors remain.
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