28 August 2008


The Grateful Dead in concert at Radio City Music Hall, 23 October 1980. Concert audio is available at the Internet Archive as well as YouTube.

26 August 2008

Importing Theory: Europeans and Indians

In her classic bestseller, Patterns in Culture (1946 [1934]), Ruth Benedict draws upon Greek myth to construct two categories of cultural practice. She states,
Like most of the American Indians, except those of the Southwest puebloes, the tribes of the Northwest Coast were Dionysian. In their religious ceremonies the final thing they strove for was ecstasy. The chief dancer, at least at the high point of his performance, should lose normal control of himself and be rapt into another state of existence. He should froth at the mouth, tremble violently and abnormally, do deeds which would be terrible in a normal state. (158)
In her chapter on the Pueblos, which she calls Apollonian, Benedict explains that these contrasting approaches to "the value of human existence" were "named and described by [Frederich] Nietzsche in his studies of Greek tragedy" (79).

She summarizes Nietzsche's analysis,
The desire of the Dionysian, in personal experience or in ritual, is to press through it toward a certain psychological state, to achieve excess. The closest anaology to the emotions he seeks is drunkenness, and he values the illuminations of frenzy. With [William] Blake, he believes "the path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." The Apollonian distrusts all this, and has often little idea of the nature of such experiences. He finds means to outlaw them from his conscious life. He "knows but one law, measure in the Hellenic sense." He keeps the middle of the road, stays within the known map, does not meddle with disruptive psychological states. (79)
This scheme for analyzing the rituals and spiritual practices of American indigenes, and perhaps also their secular practices, might suggest interesting research questions. But it might also get in the way of perception. This scheme may well filter out all observations that undermine the effort to apply an alien theory of existence to cultural study.

Benedict's expression of these categories has always provoked frustration--indeed I experience a passionate, negative emotional response, even thinking of tossing the book towards the garbage--each time I encounter them. Although I've been reading Patterns in Culture since the late 1980s, I cannot state with any assurance that I've read the whole book.

My resistance to Benedict's categories for analysis of North American tribal cultures stems from the sense that it is an inappropriate importation of alien culture theory, rather than the effort to discover and articulate indigenous theory. It violates a cardinal principle of the historian, and of the anthropologist, that peoples must be understood first on their own terms. Then, and only then, can we make comparisons to other peoples.

Benedict's scheme causes me to think of one of the clearest and most insightful statements I have heard from Russell Means: "Marxism is as alien to my culture as capitalism and Christianity" (Means, "The Same Old Song," 33).* In this essay, Means makes his case against Marxism.
Revolutionary Marxism, as with industrial society in other forms, seeks to "rationalize" all people in relation to industry, maximum industry, maximum production. It is a meterialist doctrine which despises the American Indian spiritual tradition, our cultures, our lifeways. Marx himself called us "precapitalists" and "primitive". Precapitalist simply means that, in his view, we would eventually discover capitalism and become capitalists; we have always been economically retarded in Marxist terms. (26)
Means argues that Marxism is steeped in European industrial values, and its revolutionary vision is rooted in an understanding of the needs of Europe. For an Oglala Lakota patriot, as Means describes himself, the importation of Marxist revoltionary theory does not offer relief from the destruction of Native lands by American industrial capitalism. Marxism wishes only to change the ownership of the industry, not embrace a more spiritual way of being.

Whether the theory stems from Nietzsche's analysis of Greek myth, or the economic analysis of capitalism by Marx an Engels, it represents the importation of alien ways of thinking. It produces bias that might interfere with perception.

*Russell Means, "The Same Old Song," in Marxism and Native Americans, edited by Ward Churchill, 19-33 (Boston: South End Press, 1983).

22 August 2008

Thinking Historically

Some notes from part of a history lecture:

What is history?
Why study it?

The past helps us understand how we came to be the way we are.

The past shows us alternative ways of living to contrast our own.
• The cost of petroleum was of no interest to Captain James Cook.
Scurvy, which Cook reduced among his crew, is not a significant health problem today.*

Historians . . .
Respect our subjects
o Avoid thinking of people in the past as backward and ignorant because they didn’t understand vitamin C or the relative differences between T-mobile and Verizon.

Carefully limit our generalizations
o Avoid putting all people of a particular place and time into a single box. For instance, consider the statement, “Seventeenth century sailors were horny and spread syphilis.” Even though that statement contains a kernel of truth, it does more to create and perpetuate stereotypes than to shed light on the lifestyles, culture, and health risks of seventeenth century sailors.

Avoid anachronisms
o McCoy on Star Trek (set a few centuries in the future) called twentieth century surgeons “butchers” because they used scalpels; likewise eighteenth century bloodletting was often condemned by these same butchers. These criticisms assess behaviors of historic individuals by standards unknown to them.

Are aware of our own biases
o We attempt to judge people in the past by their own terms, not ours.
o We might go on to note, and even celebrate, the changes in mores, but we begin by considering people according to the standards of their time.

Work from evidence
o Our statements about the past must be supported through artifacts (usually primary texts) from the past.

Focus on
o Continuity and change
o Cause and effect
o Significance

*“Recurring nutritional deficiency diseases, including rickets, scurvy, beri-beri, and pellagra were thought to be infectious diseases. By 1900, biochemists and physiologists had identified protein, fat, and carbohydrates as the basic nutrients in food.” “Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (October 15, 1999), 906.

02 August 2008

My Journey to Medieval Spain

When I began reading A Patriot’s History of the United States eight months ago, perusing the footnotes quickly carried me astray. I’ve mentioned repeatedly that a long footnote embedded as a two and one-half page sidebar was the critical prompt the motivated my purchase of this text and the beginning of this blogging project (See especially “Patriot’s and People’s Histories” and “Depopulation and Demography”). Footnotes are central to my focus, but the text itself also beckons. I’ve been neglecting the text during my blogging holiday, but have been reading.

This morning’s coffee went down with a narrative lauding the intellectual contributions of Moses Maimonides, Ibn Tufayl, and Ibn Rushd (known in European literature as Averroes). Wikipedia describes Ibn Rushd as “the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe.” I’m reading a celebration of the development of Western secular thought in a book written by a former Jesuit seminarian whose book on Medieval Spain has much of prescriptive value for the twenty-first century: Chris Lowney, A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Earlier in this book Lowney delves into two classic European texts, Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland) c.1100 and Poema de Mio Cid (Poem of My Cid, or commonly called El Cid) c.1201-1207. Lowney writes, “the confrontation between Christianity and Islam forms a overriding preoccupation of both these semi-legendary tales” (119). His narrative offers brief summaries of these texts, including discussion of how their legends square with history. His chief concern through this section, however, highlights the complexity of El Cid in contrast to the simplistic ideology of Roland.
Roland painted a global struggle between Christian right and Muslim wrong as Charlemagne squared off against Baligant, emir of Babylon. Roland’s universal struggle between good and evil contrasts with El Cid’s personalized study of the noble person. What makes the Cid, or anyone, honorable is neither station in life nor religious beliefs but deeds. … In Roland, honor includes religious creed. Some of Roland’s Christian characters may fail the standards expected of honorable men, but all Muslims fail the same standard simply by virtue of their pagan beliefs. … El Cid’s very different outlook is personified in the Muslim Abengalbón, El Cid’s vassal and friend. In a remarkable gesture, the Cid confides his daughters to this Muslim’s care as they journey through Spain’s frontier. Abengalbón serves the Cid’s family “for the love he bore to the Campeador.” In the Cid’s world, so profound a bond as love can even bind Muslim to Christian.
Lowney, A Vanished World, 137.
The more nuanced relationship between Christians and Muslims in El Cid, Lowney argues, reflects the realities of multicultural Spain. But he warns against oversimplification of this point.
It is gross oversimplification to pluck Barbastro and Toledo from the Reconquest’s long history as Exhibit A demonstrating that El Cid offers a more enlightened vision of a multifaith Spain because its authors hailed from Spain, whereas Roland reflects the outsider’s harsher viewpoint. A century separates the epics and three centuries the historical events on which they are based; both bear many authorial fingerprints, from chroniclers determined to advance particular religious or political views to entertainers determined only to tell a good story.
Lowney, A Vanished World, 141.
He goes on to note some practical realities of our world today vis-à-vis Charlemagne’s perspective as depicted in Roland. The notion of a Frankish king invading Spain, driving out the Muslims, and then returning home “is an elegantly simple worldview,” but not one embraced by twelfth- or thirteenth century Spanish monarchs. Yet, “Ferdinand and Isabella’s counselors would goad them into just such a policy and devise ways to make it eminently (if tragically) practical by banishing Jews and Muslims who refused to embrace Christianity” (141).
One is tempted to think that Lowney had the current American adventures in Iraq in mind as he crafted those sentences, and this presumption is borne out on the next page.
[One cannot] forcibly reorder another community’s lives and affairs, then assume, as Charlemagne did, that it will be possible to separate oneself from the consequences and repercussions. To assume the posture of the outsider is as naïve as to imagine that Muslims, Christians, and Jews can today carve out completely separate futures in a world that will continue to grow smaller with each passing generation.
Lowney, A Vanished World, 142.

The Route to Spain from A Patriot’s History

Schweikart and Allen’s A Patriot’s History relies upon Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture for its account of the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish. Hanson’s depiction of Cortés’s Spain as exemplar of Western Reason was the source for Schweikart and Allen’s image of Spanish proto-republicans. Their views caught me by surprise, which led to my preliminary assessment in “Sixteenth Century Spain: Contrasting Images.” There I noted that my own knowledge of Spanish history was shamefully deficient, and I alleged that such deficiency was characteristic of Americanist historians as a group with a handful of exceptions. A Patriot’s History drove me to Hanson; Hanson drove me to Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico and other texts, including Lowney’s A Vanished World. I’ve mentioned a few tidbits from Thomas, including his demythologizing of the story that Cortés burned his boats. Lowney adds a piece of information that further contextualizes this legend. The Muslim conqueror of Spain in 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad, allegedly burned his boats after landing at Gibraltar—a rock named for him, Jabal Tariq, Tariq’s Mountain.
Chroniclers credit Tariq with the gutsy gesture of burning his ships on the spot and weaving his soldiers’ resulting dilemma into a stirring oratorical exhortation: “Whither can you fly,—the enemy is in your front, the sea at your back. By Allah! There is no salvation for you but in your courage and perseverance.”
Lowney, A Vanished World, 30.

The legend of Cortés in Mexico reveals his debt to legends of the Muslim conquest of his native Spain eight centuries earlier. This legacy is not surprising when we contemplate the degree to which Renaissance Europe, and all that is civilized on that continent, to the extent that it can be traced to the ancient Greeks and Romans, also must be traced through Muslim civilization. During the so-called Dark Ages of Europe, science and reason continued its development in Muslim society. It may be simplistic to assert that Europe’s Crusaders that sought to wrest the Holy Land from Muslims brought home the seeds of the Renaissance, but it is far closer to the truth than to assert that Petrarch reinvented classic learning from sources wholly European.

Roland’s Patriots

In response to my “The Sixties: A Patriot’s History,” Historiann quipped regarding Schweikart and Allen, “They want to mislead their readers into believing that Democrats are all bad, and Republicans are all (or mostly) good (if they are "true conservatives," anyway.)” As she understands A Patriot’s History—and I suspect she’s close to the mark, if not right on,—Schweikart and Allen’s narrative resembles a modern day Chanson de Roland. Paraphrasing Lowney, some of Schweikart and Allen’s Republican characters may fail the standards expected of honorable men, but all Democrats fail the same standard simply by virtue of their misguided beliefs. Their simplistic moral tale that distinguishes the true Republicans—Reagan and Bush—from the fallen ones—Nixon and McCain, and all Republicans from Democrats, who can never be right is less nuanced than even that of some of their ideologically driven sources. Hanson, for example, was once a Democrat, and may still be so on paper.
All I can tell you is I'm still a registered Democrat. I have a liberal twin brother who disagrees with everything I write. And I have a far more liberal older brother who not only disagrees with what I write, but I imagine is really bothered by it. I had two conservative Democratic parents who were in the Populist tradition of farmers, sort of William Jennings Bryan types.
Interview with Victor Davis Hanson, The Naval Institute: Proceedings

I will show in blog entries still to come how some of the nuances of Hanson’s history in Carnage and Culture morph into something far more simplistic in the hands of Schweikart and Allen.

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