17 September 2023

If pigs could fly

A list from Katie Couric Media, “10 American History Books Every Citizen Should Read” (26 June 2023) caught my attention when it was shared last month on Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s Facebook Page. I had read three of the ten, and had a fourth on my shelf. I quickly added a fourth I had read: Ijeoma Oluo, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (2020). It is a good book worth recommending, but I think it could have gone much further unpacking unmerited privilege and its consequences. Oluo does an excellent job of bringing forth example of oppression through compelling anecdotes well-written.

Other books on the list that I had read previously are Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (1980); James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995); and Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005). I bought with intentions to read another, but then my teaching schedule became busier than expected and sent my reading in other directions. Now, however, I may find the time to read Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016). Zinn, of course, is part of the initial focus of Patriots and Peoples (see “Patriots' and Peoples' Histories”). I have referenced Mann several times.

Last week, I started into the Kindle sample of Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018). The sample had been sitting idle in my app for two years. Early in the book was an egregious error that gave me considerable doubts about reading further.

In a paragraph that begins, “In 1492,” Lepore wrote:
…most people in the Americas lived in smaller settlements [Tenochtitlán is mentioned as having at least a quarter-million] and gathered and hunted for their food. A good number were farmers who grew squash and corn and beans, hunted and fished. They kept pigs and chickens but not bigger animals. (8)
They did not keep pigs. Lepore should know this. If she does not, perhaps there is a great deal about the Columbian Exchange that she is missing as well (see “The Columbian Exchange”). In the same paragraph is a confident assertion that the population of the Americas in 1492 was 75 million. It is a plausible number and within the range of what I consider likely, but should have been presented with more nuance. We do not know. All figures for the aboriginal population of the Americas are speculative, but some are far better estimates than others. There is a footnote, but the sample does not offer access. Now that I have the book, I can find the reference is to Mann, 1491. I would prefer a reference to scholarship by a specialist in the field of American Indian studies.

Chickens, too, came to America via the Columbian Exchange, although turkeys originated in the Americas. 

Even so, I pressed on through the sample. As I was doing so, I kept musing about how pigs, originally from Eurasia, made it to the Americas ahead of Columbus. Maybe they had wings and could fly.

A few pages later, Lepore begins to describe the Columbian Exchange, albeit without deploying the term (it is absent from the index, as well). She correctly credits Columbus with introducing pigs:
When Columbus made a second voyage across the ocean in 1493, he commanded a fleet of seventeen ships carrying twelve hundred men, and another kind of army, too: seeds and cuttings of wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, greens, grapevines, and sugar cane, and horses, pigs, cattle, chickens, sheep, and goats, male and female, two by two. Hidden among the men and plants and the animals were stowaways, seeds stuck to animal skins or clinging to the folds of cloaks and blankets, in clods of mud. (18)
The process of ecological transformation that was fundamental to the European conquest is described well as this paragraph continues, including the astounding destructive success of eight pigs who quickly became thousands, spreading well ahead of Europeans. That paragraph rescued the book from its earlier error and I placed the order. Having the book in hand, I can also confirm the paragraph’s footnote offers Alfred Crosby’s two vital books on the subject: Columbian Exchange (1972) and Ecological Imperialism (1986).

Lepore's focus in the book concerns the political ideals expressed during the American Revolution and in the Constitution. Small errors about pigs arriving ahead of Columbus are a minor distraction.

31 March 2023

The Allure of History

I am a child of the 1960s born at the tail-end of the post World war II "Baby Boom". It is strange to consider myself part of that generation because my parents were still children at the end of the war, only entering adulthood in the 1950s. They married young and my life began less than a year later. After my birth, but prior to entering kindergarten, my world was filled with books that I would use for good and for ill through college.

These book sets were purchased thorough direct sales on an installment plan. Among the sets were the 1962 edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, the entire 54-volume set of Great Books of the Western World, and a much smaller set of encyclopedias. This smaller set required one-third of the shelf space required by Encyclopædia Britannica, had larger print, and shorter articles. It was my first source in innumerable school projects from elementary school through high school. The volumes were tattered from use by the time my youngest brother graduated high school.

Reading more of the Great Books would have helped my education. I struggled to read Euclid when I was taking Geometry in high school, but spent too little time to get far. Likewise, I started but did not finish Darwin's Origin of Species. At my father's insistence, I read Richard henry Dana, Jr. Two Years Before the Mast. My father always insisted that it was a more realistic account of life at sea than Moby-Dick.

Another, much smaller set of books set me on my life's course. It was a sixteen volume set containing illustrated essays and photo essays from the pages of American Heritage. Countless hours were spent looking at these images. More time was invested reading many of the articles.

09 March 2021

A Method of War

Smith threatens Opechancanough

The first Anglo-Powhatan war (1609-1614) was a brutal affair. Most British immigrants to the Jamestown Colony perished through the course of the first seven years, a great many in battle or due to conditions create by a siege of the fort (see "Death in Jamestown"). On the other side, entire Powhatan villages were destroyed.

09 November 2020

What is Ignorance?

As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.
Josh Billings

I am reflecting on a statement I recall from the Reagan years while watching friends and acquaintances broadcast what they "know" about why Donald Trump should or should not concede that Joe Biden will be the next President. 

Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn't so.
Ronald Reagan, "A Time for Choosing

Reagan's words were deployed against him in the presidential debate with Walter Mondale in October 1984.

Well, I guess I'm reminded a little bit of what Will Rogers once said about Hoover. He said, "It's not what he doesn't know that bothers me, it's what he knows for sure that just ain't so."
Walter Mondale, Presidential Debate

The New York Times attempted to source the quote, determining that it did not emanate from Will Rogers.

More often, the quote gets attributed to Mark Twain, such as in the epigraph to The Big Short (2015), a film about the 2008 financial crisis. The Center for Mark Twain Studies has a short article about it, "The Apocryphal Twain: 'Things we Know that Just Ain't So'". They note Al Gore's frequent attribution of the idea to Twain.

It is a remarkable concept that resonates in our age of misinformation. Garson O'Toole, Quote Investigator has chased down the origins at least twice: "It Is Better to Know Nothing than to Know What Ain’t So" (May 2015) and "It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You Into Trouble. It’s What You Know for Sure That Just Ain’t So" (November 2018). In both cases, Josh Billings seems to be the leading candidate for introducing the phrase to American discourse.

In the 2015 article. O'Toole locates the precursor in vol. 11 of An Universal History: From the Earliest Account of Time (1747) by John Swinton and others. He highlights the expression, "it is better to know nothing, than to apprehend we know what we know not." A digital version of the pages of the book is available from the University of Michigan, accessible via HathiTrust.

I offer a screenshot of the relevant paragraph on the right.

How do my friends "know" that Trump should not concede? They do not trust the mass media, which is too liberal. One conservative friend even told me that FOX News is not conservative enough. Where do they get their news, then? 

Certainly there are legal challenges in the courts, some of which were dismissed last week. But, even if they all succeed, will it be enough to turn the election Trump's way? The Wall Street Journal does not appear to think so. See "Election 2020: What are the Trump Legal Claims?" (8 November 2020).

Elections are not final until certified, and the next President is selected when the Electoral College meets in mid-December. In the meantime, every major news outlet has declared former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris the projected President and Vice President. Even after Biden and Harris are inaugurated in January, the divisions in this nation remain deep. Those divisions are fueled by significant disagreement concerning the nature of credible information. How much do we know that is not so?

Most of us can see ignorance in those with whom we disagree, but rarely note it in ourselves. It has been the mission of Patriots and Peoples (clicking on the banner takes you to the home screen--the latest article) from the beginning to look to original sources, to determine their credibility using the methods developed since the nineteenth century for the practice of history. Fact checkers utilize similar methods when evaluating claims by politicians. Mondale and Gore got it wrong when they sourced their quote. 

01 June 2020

Crowd Sourcing vs. Expertise

For so long as opinions are counted, not weighed, the better part had often to be overcome by the greater.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2

A student paper that I was grading about 2007 put me onto a source that was new to me. The student was making a claim that I had seen in dozens of college papers over the previous two decades, and that was discussed and dismissed in several books on my shelf. The student sourced the claim. I went to the source and found it there. I found other errors in the source.

Within the hour, or perhaps five minutes later, or maybe the next day, I discovered that I could correct the error. The "source" was the Wikipedia entry on the Nez Perce. It repeated a common myth that Chief Joseph was a military genius who led Nez Perce warriors in battle. Lucullus V. McWhorter (1860-1944) addressed this myth in two books that were the culmination of decades of interviews with survivors of the Nez Perce War of 1877, but it was still being pushed in documentaries about the war in the 1970s. Wikipedia also asserted that Nez Perce should have an accent mark. I corrected both errors.

Over the next few days or weeks, I repeatedly corrected these errors. I was quickly joined by a librarian at Washington State University,* where McWhorter's papers are housed in the archives. I had to join Wikipedia as a registered user in order to stop bots from automatically reverting my corrections back to the errors that preceded them. But, even as a registered user, it was a battle to remove the accent mark. Through reason, evidence, and persistence, the librarian and I ultimately won the battle and the Nez Perce entry has offered the correct spelling of Nez Perce for 13 years. The Chief Joseph myth, too, has been largely absent from the entry. Other users made other edits, and the article became a credible encyclopedia entry.

During my first months as a registered user of Wikipedia, I made many contributions. Another battle with other users ensued when I attempted to correct agreement with Ronald Reagan's faulty memory (or lies) about his student days. I did not then have access to the not yet published The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014) by Rick Perlstein, but offered some of the work of Lou Cannon refuting Reagan's claims. The battle between Reagan partisans, on the one hand, and partisans for accurate history, on the other, grew so fierce that eventually the entire section was removed from the article. Then, a few years later, Reagan's lie reappeared in the article in another briefer section with a footnote to Cannon's book that refutes the claim.

When students ask about Wikipedia as a source for the past few years, I have told them about the Nez Perce spelling war and the dangers of correcting the memory of a President who died of Alzheimer's. Sometimes they would ask whether I might try to correct the error in the Reagan article again. It should not be too difficult to recover my password, or create a new one. In December 2019, I restored Reagan's "leadership" of student protests his freshman year to his "participation". My previous Wikipedia edits had been in 2014. The truth about Reagan's participation still stands today. How long before a mob tears it down again?

My own memory could be faulty, however, or at least short on details.** A search through my own Wikipedia edits this morning confirms that I added Lou Cannon, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power (2003) on 12 March 2007, but the context appears to be the narrative about him making up facts during his broadcasts of baseball games, not his false claims about student leadership. I also added Garry Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home (1987) that day, and many other small edits.

For a few months in spring 2007, I made many edits to articles about US history and literature, and to chess, as well as a few other topics. At least once, I was corrected for adding what appeared to be original research. The insights of experts on a topic are welcome only insofar as they accord with general knowledge. Sometimes that will favor error when truth is elusive.

Wikipedia editing proved to be a form of social media with its own network of personal relationships and friendships with people I have never met. In spring 2007, a new chess website came online and I joined that fall. It had active forums that helped pull me away from Wikipedia. For a time, at least, the truth of checkmate offered better grounding for arguments than the evidence of primary sources that counter the memories of a dead president. If I am not mistaken, I also joined Facebook about that time. In fall 2007, I started Patriots and Peoples.

*The Nez Perce talk page shows that she had made edits two years before I joined.
**I may have made a lot of edits while not logged in, and then logged in to try to protect these edits from bots and well-meaning fools.

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