History of my Times

Grand Expectations: the United States, 1945-1974. The Oxford History of the United States. By James T. Patterson. Narrated by Robert Fass. Audible Edition. Originally published by Oxford University Press 1996.

Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore. The Oxford History of the United States. By James T. Patterson. Narrated by Robert Fass. Audible Edition. Originally published by Oxford University Press 2005.

I’m a baby boomer. These two books encompass the period from just before I was born to the beginning of the Bush II era at the start of the new millennium. For the most part what I learned about from these books was not unfamiliar persons and events. At least from the early fifties on I was aware of the cultural trends and the major political events happening around me. Presidential elections, fears of “the bomb” and the Cuban Missile Crisis, rock ‘n’ roll, the Civil Rights Movement, the Great Society, Vietnam, hippies, Earth Day, Watergate, and more were the stuff of my growing up. My adult life was shaped by the environmental movement, and I experienced the hopes and disappointments of the Carter, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton years. I was interviewed by Al Gore for a placement as a science fellow in his congressional office, and I saw him chairing hearings on the conduct of Reagan’s appointees to the EPA, where I has previously worked for a summer as a fellow.

Many aspects of this period are covered thoroughly and well in these two books: the postwar recovery and economic boom, the Cold War and red scare, the struggles over civil rights, the war on poverty, Vietnam, the environmental movement, Watergate and the numerous scandals that followed, mostly also called “…gate.” What I missed in these books that I felt was present in some of the earlier volumes of the Oxford history was the perspective that time gives. Events seem too fresh to me to assess their significance.

I personally feel that Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” of courting conservative white voters in the Democrat-dominated South by subtle appeals to racial prejudice was one of the most important shifts, perhaps inevitable, given the history of the region, but still much to be regretted. Even more important, I think was Ronald Reagan’s ability to hold the loyalty of conservative whites, while simultaneously attacking the tax structure, labor rights and Federal programs that promoted and protected their economic well being. A mixture of anti-communism, dog whistle racism,  anti-tax, anti-welfare talk, and feel good rhetoric about American exceptionalism counted for more than economic realities.

I know the Democratic Party failed again and again to protect many working Americans’ economic gains, especially under Clinton, who paid lip service to labor and the environment, but who never seemed to get around to doing anything concrete. All along the way, the changes being wrought in Federal programs and an increasingly pro-business Judiciary insured that inequality would rise rapidly after its near miraculous decline in the postwar years (see my post on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century). Coming generations were not going to enjoy the continuing economic growth that had lifted so many people into the middle class and led to those “grand expectations,” from 1945 until the 1970s. Those hard realities fueled the growing, unfocused anger and fear that gives the final volume its title.

Fear, anger and the aging of the Baby Boom generation helped conservative candidates. There has been a sharp turn to the right in Congress, and Republicans have gained control in many state capitals. These gains have been cemented in place by increasingly sophisticated gerrymandering of state and federal election districts and systematic voter suppression, and coupled with the inherently unrepresentative character of the Senate and the Electoral College, have allowed absolute minorities of the electorate to control government at many levels since the 1980s.

I doubt whether the sequel to these volumes will be published in my lifetime, although it will have been another thirty-five years in 2035. Patterson does say a good bit at the end about the threat of terrorism directed at the United States. Still, very few people in January 2001 foresaw the impact of 9-11 or the global conflicts that it led us into. Nobody then, I think, foresaw the great recession of 2008, the rise of Donald Trump and the extremist right and our failure to deal with the clear danger of climate change. Nobody expected we’d be devastated by a pandemic in 2020.  The hope that blossomed when the United States elected its first black President proved evanescent. When the next installment of the Oxford History of the United States comes out, if I’m here to read it, I’m not sure I’ll be able to bear it.

Revolutionary Hopes

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763 -1789. The Oxford History of the United States. By Robert Middlekauff, narrated by Robert Fass. Audible Books. Originally published by Oxford University Press. 1962, 2005 second ed.

Image: The Spirit of ’76 by Archibald MacNeal Willard (source Wikimedia commons)

This volume in the Oxford History of the United States covers the beginnings of the conflict between the American colonies and Great Britain, following the end of the French and Indian Wars, up to the ratification of the Constitution and the beginning of the new government in 1789. The conflicts between Whigs and Torys or Loyalists and Rebels, the Revolutionary War and the struggles over the new government highlight the hopes of Americans for a new beginning.

The men and women caught up in pursuit of the Glorious Cause at first viewed themselves as simply demanding the rights that the people of England were guaranteed and that were supposed to be defended by Parliament. The early political splits largely fell along the lines between those who benefited from English policies towards the colonies and those that did not. If the taxes imposed by Parliament did not impact them too severely, many viewed it as reasonable to pay the cost of administration and defense. Some objected that while the taxes were justified, as subjects of the English Crown, they had the right to decide how those taxes would be applied. However, some began to believe that they would be better off under a government of their own choosing. It is especially interesting to learn that many of these fault lines among the politically engaged citizens long predated the conflict with the mother country. ”All politics is local,” as the saying goes. Each colony with its unique history and different mix of classes, ethnicities and faiths, as well as different economic bases, divided differently. The deeper the original divisions, the more contentious the struggle in most cases. Massachusetts was especially violent, with mob actions directed against the public authorities and those who sided with them, much of it incited and even led by their political opponents. After reading this account, it is a lot easier to understand why soldiers had to be dispatched to Boston to keep order and protect property.

Once the conflict erupted into violence at Lexington and Concord, the choice became more stark: many began to feel that it was victory or death. Still, hope for reconciliation persisted. The most remarkable aspect of the early phases of the war to me was the ability of the separate colonies to organize themselves into an effectively united body, largely through the Continental Congress. The early sessions achieved remarkable things, given that prior to this, the colonies had had little or no formal relationships. In school, I mostly learned about the military campaigns and the Declaration of Independence, but what made these possible was the ability of a representative body to agree on a plan of action, find men to put it into action and to come together to take the fateful step of breaking away from England. Throughout our history, the United States have been fortunate in having effective representative government in times of crisis, like the Civil War and the Great Depression.

The general narrative of the war, the peace and the difficulty of establishing a solid foundation for the future are amply described, and I enjoyed all of it. Likewise the account of the making of the Constitution in 1787 and the successful struggle to have it ratified. These are too well described and also treated in much greater detail in a plethora of other books, that I think I’ll not try top summarize. The book upholds the high standards of the series.

Politics and War

Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856 by Sidney Blumenthal, 2017. Kindle edition.

All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. III, 1856-1860 by Sidney Blumenthal, 2019. Audible edition. 

Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America by Fergus M. Bordewich, Knopf, 2020.

Image: Lincoln Inauguration 1861 (source Wikipedia)

The first two books listed continue the story started in A Self Made Man, which closed with the end of Lincoln’s one term in Congress. They show the development of his political thinking during the tumultuous years described in The Impending Crisis. Lincoln played little direct part in doings on the national scene, but he never withdrew from politics, remaining an active supporter of the Whig Party until its final demise in the mid 1850s. By then his opposition to the expansion of slavery and his desire that it should eventually end because it was incompatible with the basic principles of democracy, were firm. He had seen the overthrow of moderate Whigs in Kentucky, including Henry Clay and several close relations of his wife, Mary Todd, by a conspiracy of slave dealers and others. He had a growing sense that there was no limit to the greed and ambition of the “slave power,” as it came to be called. He expressed opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, but he bowed out of the 1856 race for Senator from Illinois in order to ensure the election of an anti slavery Democrat. 

Lincoln had always opposed the Democrats in Illinois. The challenge he faced was to deal with the three way struggle between the old Whigs, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothings and the nascent Republican Party. The Know Nothings mattered greatly in Illinois, because Chicago had become a huge city, with a large population of German immigrants. Lincoln saw that a party that could capture their support had the best chance of dominating Illinois politics. He joined in formally establishing the Illinois Republican Party and tried to assure that it did not take anti immigrant positions, while still bringing some former Know Nothings to its side.

In 1856 he was mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate but was passed over. He began to attract wide attention with reports of his debates with Stephen Douglas in the Senate race of 1858 and his famous speech at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860. Thanks to strong political organizing in Illinois and his growing reputation as a moderate but firm anti slavery man, he was able to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.

Interlaced with this central narrative is the story of the increasing rancor between north and south and the unraveling of attempts to establish a lasting compromise, as I already described in my post on The Impending Crisis. Here though, there is a much more specific focus on the rise and fall of Stephen Douglas, who was Lincoln’s persistent opponent. Douglas, who saw himself as a pragmatist and a great compromiser like Henry Clay, was as ambitious as Lincoln. He thought he could work with the powerful southerners like Senator Jefferson Davis, heir to John C. Calhoun, to forge an alliance that would propel him to the presidency. He thought his concept of popular sovereignty and his success in forcing through the Kansas-Nebraska Act would assure their support. By then however, the southern Democrats had become determined to expand slavery far beyond the limits northerners could live with. The aristocratic ally minded southerners rejected Douglas, whom they regarded as vulgar as the nominee in 1860. Instead, they chose their own candidate and left Douglas with only northern Democrats to face Lincoln and the Republicans. Defeated, in the end he remained loyal to the Union, but his alcoholism was out of control and he died in 1862.

I picked up Bordewich’s book on Congress in the Civil War partly as a complement to the Lincoln story, partly because I served a year as a Congressional Science Fellow in the House of Representatives during Ronald Reagan’s first term and partly because I saw the movie Lincoln and wanted to know about the real lives and characters of the men depicted in it, like Thaddeus Stevens (memorably played by Tommy Lee Jones)

This is a fascinating account. After the election of Lincoln and Republican majorities in both houses, southern members left as their states seceded. Northern members of the Democratic Party remained. Some were staunchly unionist “war Democrats,” but others favored peace with the succeeded states, even at the cost of splitting the country. These “copperheads” bedeviled the Republicans throughout the Civil War. Bordewich describes vividly the battles that took place within the US Congress to save the Union and then to legally abolish slavery. Many members were accomplished orators, so much of the struggle was verbal, trying to rally colleagues and win public support. But sometimes the struggles turned to violence, though not as terrible as the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by a South Carolina Representative in the 1850s.

Given the enormous problem of winning a civil war that few had expected before 1861, with the unending demands for men and supplies, one might expect congressmen and senators had little time for other things. Members of Congress had no offices or staffs in those days (The Representative’s office I was in in 1982-83 had seven permanent staff, offices in the home district and separate staff for the committees and subcommittees. There were six huge Congressional office buildings, besides the Capitol and the two large buildings that housed the Library of Congress). Nevertheless, members were constantly besieged by men seeking government jobs, contracts, etc. Most got little sleep while in session, particularly in the hectic days before adjournment, except at their desks or on couches in the respective chambers. Many drank heavily, like Douglas.

Despite this, by 1862, the Republican Congress, freed of the obstructionist southerners, had already passed a backlog of bills that would revolutionize the country and the role of the federal government: the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railroad, the Morrill Land grant colleges act and the Department of Agriculture. Together these would lead to the development of the prairies, the spread of science based farming and greatly expand higher education and would tie the west coast more tightly to the rest of the nation. They also, through their efforts to finance the war, put the system of currency and banking on a new national footing. (To get a sense of what happened after, see my post on The Republic for Which it Stands)

The financial aspects were managed by Thaddeus Stevens on the House side and Pitt Fessenden of Maine in the Senate, together with Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and opportunistic financiers like Jay Cooke. There was never a question that there was enough gold and silver in the ground in the western states and territories to eventually restore hard money, but in the immediate emergency, the problem was to have enough cash to pay the costs of the war. Gold and silver coin, the only legal tender, were tightly hoarded as war came, and federal tax revenue, largely from tariffs, was never going to be enough. At first, paper notes redeemable in gold and silver on demand were issued to pay soldiers and contractors, but hundreds of millions more in currency were needed. The first legal tender notes that were not backed by gold or silver were issued in 1862, the “greenbacks.” 

Then Congress passed legislation to establish federally chartered banks that could issue “National Currency,” backed by bonds the banks bought from the Treasury and deposited there. These replaced, eventually, the vast amounts of private bank notes, usually not accepted beyond a local area (and sometimes not at all) with notes that were valid all over the country. Still the price of gold, driven by speculators, fluctuated in relation to the paper notes, especially with the varying fortunes of the war. It took tremendous skill and good fortune on the battlefield to keep the country financially afloat. One smart move was to make the greenbacks not legal tender for tariff duties. This insured a flow of gold and silver to the treasury and kept the redeemable notes in circulation. 

To maintain the flow of funds to the government, a host of new taxes had to be enacted covering a wide range of commodities, legal documents and transactions as well as incomes. These were, naturally, unpopular, and contributed to the Republicans losses to Democrats in 1862. The military draft also fueled popular rage. With the growing impetus behind freeing slaves in the occupied succeeded states and enlisting blacks, including escaped slaves from the south, there was a backlash in the north – not only the well known draft riots in New York, but also violent resistance throughout the Midwest, where racist sentiment was strong. I was astonished by the amount of murder (including many federal marshals) and destruction, some of it abetted by opposition politicians as well as out Confederate sympathizers and agents, especially in states like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. It makes today’s brawls between white supremacists and anti-fa look quite tame, and let’s hope it stays that way. Those were bad old days. 

Lincoln had early on suspended habaeus corpus to enable the military to deal with civil resistance and desertion. Congress eventually passed legislation legalizing this,  but not without strong misgivings. The growth of the surveillance and enforcement powers of the Federal government is one of the equivocal legacies of the crisis.

After Republican losses in the 1862 elections, there was real fear at all levels, up to Lincoln himself, that the “Copperhead” Democrats would win in 1864. The main reasons it didn’t happen seem to have been the improving fortunes of the war and a growing recognition that the free blacks that joined the Union forces, far from being cowardly, lazy, stupid, etc. were as courageous and disciplined as any other men under arms.

For this to have happened took the Herculean efforts of Congress at overseeing the conduct of the war. This fell to Senator Ben Wade, Chair of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, supported by both capable Republicans and some solidly pro war Democrats. Meticulously examining and documenting the successes and glaring failures of the army and its leaders, like George McClellan, was exhausting but invaluable, both to the government and the public. Few recognize how important the oversight functions of Congress are, despite the fact that such investigations invariably have a political tinge, as I saw many times during my year as a House staffer.

The final part of the story covers the struggle to pass the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery through the lame duck Congress in 1864 and the development of a policy on dealing with the defeated south and the freed slaves. In those years the newly elected Congress did not begin meeting until more than a year after the vote. This left many “lame ducks,” defeated members who had nothing to gain from loyalty to their party and often desperately needing help to get on with their lives. Thus, enough Democrats and previously reluctant Republicans could be convinced to support abolition by suitable offers of government jobs, etc. Though the amendment passed, as depicted in the movie Lincoln, the assassination of the president and the inability of the Radical Republicans to overcome northern apathy and southern resistance eventually led to the failure of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow. As my father, a lifelong North Carolinian and a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement, repeatedly told me, the slaves were set free only to be put into bondage again. Much of this, I talked about in my post on The Republic for which it Stands, covering Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. Another book on that topic, which I might post something about, is Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, by Davis Zucchino. This details the only coup d’etat in U.S. history, the 1898 overthrow of the biracially elected government of Wilmington N.C. by white supremacists. 

I’m looking forward now to Blumenthal’s account of Lincoln’s presidency. Even his staunchest Republican supporters in Congress frequently took a dim view of his ability and resolution. I want to know how things looked from the White House.

Trials by Want and Fire

Freedom from Fear: American People in Depression and War, 1932-1945 by David M. Kennedy.  Oxford History of the United States. Oxford University Press. 1999.

I listened to the Audible edition.
Illustrations: Migrant mother by Dorothea Lange; US soldiers on the Baatan “death march.”

This volume begins in the midst of the crisis that arose from the political and economic issues left unsettled after World War One. The international scope of the forces that led to the Great Depression were clear, but almost impossible for the big economic powers to resolve. The gold standard hamstrung efforts to recover. Herbert Hoover, Republican President from 1929-1933, was a progressive by any standard, but fiscal conservatism doomed his efforts to stop the economic meltdown.

 The depth of the Great Depression was far beyond anything in my lifetime. The patience of America’s poor and miserable farmers and unemployed workers was one of the most surprising aspects. Inadequacy of local relief or private charity was obvious to anyone who compared the amount of lost wages to the funds available for relief. Franklin D. Roosevelt came into a nation fearful and on the verge of collapse; in his famous “hundred days,”  he managed to push through the critical reforms needed to save the banking system.  Roosevelt, however, spurned international efforts to shore up global economy, refusing to lend American financial resources to countries in default on WWI debts. The continuation of the Depression in Europe probably contributed to the rise of Fascism.

The New Deal, as it took shape during the first few years of his presidency, was more about key social reforms – unemployment insurance, old age security, disability and the right to unionize than about getting economy going again. Roosevelt did not like deficit spending. The men (like Harry Hopkins and Harold Ickes) and women (like Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member) who drove the effort were an amazing and diverse group of brilliant, quirky human beings. FDR’s hope for  a lasting progressive coalition was dashed, because the Democrats were stuck with extremely conservative southerners as a big part of the party’s base. After a series of unfavorable rulings, Roosevelt tried to push through changes to the US Supreme Court, which was a big mistake. This, with increasing labor unrest and opposition from the southern “barons,” led to electoral defeats for “New Dealers.” No New Deal legislation passed after 1938, although Congress left the crucial social reforms in place.

Meanwhile in Europe, Africa and East Asia, war was already underway. Isolationist sentiment was so strong in America, however, that Roosevelt, who was becoming aware of the danger, could do little to prepare the United States or help the democracies resist fascism. Gradually, Congress allowed him to support England, especially the vital Atlantic convoys.

Americans favored China in its war with Japan, but did very little except apply mild economic pressure. Oil export controls against Japan were enforced more strongly than Roosevelt intended in summer of 1941, but he couldn’t back down once a virtual embargo had been imposed. Kennedy speculates that if Roosevelt had paid more attention to developments in the Pacific, the Japanese might have settled for modest concessions on China and an end to the embargo. Maybe a truly horrendous war, marked by vicious racial hate and massive civilian casulaties could have been avoided  altogether. What would the consequences have been? Germany might have been defeated sooner and a better settlement achieved in Europe than the east-west partition and Cold War? Perhaps the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have given a demonstration of the power of nuclear weapons. Would that have made it easier or harder to prevent their spread?

It was lucky Germany and Italy chose to declare war on the U.S. right after Pearl Harbor, because Congress and the people might have been unwilling to declare war first, preferring the undeclared stalemate in the Atlantic and being full of lust to avenge the US on Japan. Roosevelt and Churchill soon agreed on a strategy of defeating Germany first, while holding Japan at bay. American military preparations went slowly, but the miraculously lucky defeat of Japan’s fleet in the Battle of Midway slowed their momentum and bought the time needed for American industry to begin pouring out war material. In Europe Roosevelt was caught in the struggle between Churchill, who was leery of a direct assault on northwest Europe, and Stalin, who demanded a second front to take the pressure off the Red Army. Two years of campaigning in North Africa and Italy, which Kennedy implies was of little value, preceded the Normandy landings.

In the chapter on the home front, he talks about the ways the war affected groups like Japanese Americans – they were unjustly interned, but that experience broke the grip of traditional ways and allowed succeeding generations to become successful in mainstream society. Roosevelt’s need to have the support of the powerful southern committee chairmen in Congress kept home from doing much for African Americans. Under pressure from A. Philip Randolph and the NAACP, he did produce the first anti-discrimination program since Reconstruction. This allowed many to get jobs outside the South and off the farm as well as beginning to open up the military. Far fewer women actually participated in the defense workforce than the image of Rosie the riveter suggests, and most willingly left after the war. Still, I wonder, didn’t many come to feel life as housewives was a bit dull, especially once the challenges of motherhood began to wear?

Another aspect of the home front was just how good most Americans had it, compared to the Depression and to so many millions in Europe, Asia and Africa. Although Roosevelt and the New Dealers were afraid the economy would slip back again once the war ended, in fact, just the opposite happened. The huge burst of productivity that underlay the enormous output of war material made between 1940 and 1945 just kept going, as postwar consumer bought cars, houses and new products made possible directly or indirectly by scientific and technological advances fueled by war. The GI Bill’s huge investment in education fueled still more productivity growth and upward mobility.

Kennedy concludes by pointing out that the boom years after 1945 represented an astonishing turnaround for a nation that just twelve years earlier many believed was headed for long term stagnation and even decline. This is an excellent historical overview of that critical period. There are many more interesting aspects, including much discussion of the way Hoover and Roosevelt supported in-depth studies of the state of the American people and the way the various artists’ and writers’ projects gave Americans new views of their country and themselves.

Cultural DNA

The Wayfinders. Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis. House of Anansi Press. Toronto. 2009.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Harper Collins. 2001.

The Wayfinders, based on lectures by Davis, forms a counterpoint to Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here. They reveal the “cultural DNA” that binds populations of humans together: language, myths, memories and mental maps of the world. This kind of inheritance is what enabled the ancient Polynesians to spread their DNA across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and allows their descendants to replicate their feats of navigation today. It also tells us that all across the world, those chains of inheritance have been and are being broken, as aggressive societies impose their own language and culture on the populations they conquer, enslave, displace or assimilate. This is much like the way conquerors have spread their genes into new territory. In the end only traces of both the biological and the cultural may remain, to be ferreted out by geneticists or anthropologists. Sometimes, though, survivors stubbornly retain their heritage, like the Basques in Spain and many native peoples around the world.

Great empires often produce great and stable cultures – the art, literature, philosophy and mathematics of China, India, Greece, Rome and the still growing body of European science, etc. These become even richer by mutual appropriation. Among the most enduring exchanges are the earliest: agriculture, animal domestication, wheeled transport, boatbuilding and metallurgy. Like the history of ancient DNA, the history of cultures shows patterns of repeated migration and assimilation or displacement over millennia. It seems though, that the asymmetry of power has at least in recent times, produced even more lopsided results for cultures than what Reich finds for genomes. Male conquerors, as I noted in the previous post, have spread a disproportionate share of their genes in the mixing of populations, but often the dominated population persisted through the maternal line. Only rarely did the invaders utterly eliminate the previous occupants of a territory.

More and more cultures are being completely wiped out by modern empires. Military might, coupled with schools to teach the language of the imperial power and religious conversion, forced or voluntary, can drive out languages and traditions. Within the borders of the parent nation states, local dialects and traditions have given way to a homogenized culture. That makes governance and commerce easier, but it destroys the particularity and richness of the land. The advent of compulsory schooling and of mass advertising pushes homogenization even further. Mass media and entertainment smooth out irregularities and quirks. While some people promote the preservation of local tradition, others decry the lack of common values and beliefs in the nation.

Davis tries to show how much is lost when the past is blotted out. Far from being primitive, he argues, these cultures drew on human capacities for learning and memory far beyond the accomplishments of those with modern education. We rely on the collective power of our culture and its embodiment in writing and technology that we don’t become as skilled and knowledgeable as those who lack such aids. We rarely know much about the natural world around us. Almost no “advanced” culture enables a person to survive on just what the land can provide. However productive our economies are, we leave untapped or simply obliterate most of nature’s variety. Witness the fact that a mere three or four species of domestic animals outweigh by an order of magnitude all the rest of the larger land animals on the planet.

Often the natural products do more for these cultures than nourish the body. They provide pathways into spiritual experiences that deepen connections to both the natural and human worlds. The power of the shaman has been a recurrent preoccupation of Davis, whose early popular works on ethnobotany and especially mind-altering plants, The Serpent and the Rainbowand One River, show how they shaped lives for thousands of years. The most important thing that people who still know the power of sacred plants, animals, rocks and places can remind those of us immersed in a globalizing, dominant culture is that we remain dependent on the earth and the functioning of the natural cycles of land, air, water and life. We disrespect and ignore this wisdom at our peril.

Unfortunately, to sustain itself materially, any meaningful culture needs land. We discovered this problem in the nineteenth century, when the reservations set aside for native Americans came under constant pressure from hunters, miners, loggers and farmers. The same is true today in South America, India, Africa.  The result is bloodshed and displacement. Only places that have no resources that the dominant culture wants are left unclaimed. Even here, proselytizing and poaching remain constant issues. Furthermore, given the often stringent demands of traditional ways, there is a continual drain on the population as its members drift away into the dominant milieu.

Mostly the old can exist only with the protection and support of the newer and more powerful, which is almost always accompanied by condescension or ambivalence. Davis tries hard to show why condescension is unjustified, but without the ability to maintain itself in its own territory, it seems to me that almost any culture will begin to seem simply quaint and curious. We may assimilate some music into our popular culture or convert some sacred plants into recreational drugs, even claim to try to follow the spiritual paths laid out by this or that shamanistic tradition. Only anthropologists are going to really study cultures on their own terms, as best they can.

Of course some cultures like Judaism have become integrated into the economic systems of dominant cultures, but with much the same dangers faced by tribal societies elsewhere. Isn’t that why the state of Israel has such fierce supporters? We see ethnic traditions preserved or revived by people long separated from their homelands. Costumes, folk songs, holidays, parades, fairs and so on remind us that there have been many distinct national and local ways of living. But much of this seems like once a year dress up, not a way of life now. Even religious distinctions are blurring as evangelical churches spread a homogenized, flavorless gospel. Their success is driven in part by politics and economics, aided by mass media. Ancient tradition loses out to a uniform set of wants and means of satisfying them.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods revolves around the slow dying out of the hundreds of local gods brought to the United States by immigrants from all over the world, from 14,000 years ago to the present. In his fantasy, these gods still linger on the fringes of society, fending for themselves as the flow of gifts and sacrifices from humans dries up. They know that if their names are forgotten, they will die. The novel concerns their efforts to recapture some of their old power and of a few humans who become entangled in the mythical struggle. Gaiman is a reader of Davis, I suspect, as well as a serious student of mythic traditions himself. The story, like most of Gaiman’s work, is fast moving, funny, violent and a pleasure to read. I also like the second book in this series, Anansi Boys.

Journeys Written in DNA

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich. Pantheon. 2018.

Image: pixabay.com and pmgimage.com

When I spent a summer on the campus of Saint John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1987, one of the groups meeting there was comprised of researchers working on planning the Human Genome Project. The project, which ran for about fifteen years, starting in 1990, cost several billion dollars and produced a single composite DNA sequence for Homo sapiens. Hard to believe that today, thousands of sequences are run routinely at a cost so low that you can get your own sequence in one to two days for $1000.

David Reich provides an account of the recent developments in studying ancient DNA, which is beginning to provide a picture of the evolution of our genus, Homo, over the last 50-150 thousand years, roughly the time that enough DNA remains in old bones or teeth to allow sequencing. The field is rapidly expanding, as more labs open across the world to explore the accumulated human remains in museums, as well as newly excavated material.

Among the findings he reviews are the discovery that early modern humans did indeed hybridize with the archaic populations of Homo that were already in Europe and Asia when the first Homo sapiens moved out of Africa. These earlier people included the Neanderthals and the newly recognized Denisovans. Another finding is that the spread of Indo-European language and culture was indeed accompanied by a spread of people with steppe genotypes into Europe as far west as the British Isles ( see my post on The Horse, the Wheel and Language) The modern human population of Europe turns out to have been the result of multiple waves of migration, bringing not only cultural innovations like farming, but also new human lineages that displaced or blended with the earlier people.

In fact, everywhere that geneticists examine ancient genomes, they find that multiple migrations have shaped human destiny. In North and South America, the most recent areas of human occupation, at least three different migrations can be seen in the genes, and there is still much more work to be done. Likewise, the Indian subcontinent holds a story of migration of Indo-European speakers from the steppes of Central Asia, displacing and blending with the earlier Dravidian language speakers. East Asia has similar patterns, spilling out into the Pacific. These are truly epic journeys of the human species.

Reich discusses the implications of these findings at length. The chapter on genetics and inequality was particularly interesting. The subject is the differences between and within sexes in numbers of offspring produced, as shown by the frequency of distinct gene sequences from a single ancestor among descendent populations. Because men can produce offspring with very little direct effort compared to women, it is possible for men to have many more children in a lifetime. I recall my world history teacher in high school saying that Augustus the Strong of Saxony, “only had about four hundred children.” Circumstantial evidence suggests that Genghis Kahn, thirteenth century Mongol conqueror is the male ancestor of millions, though this is disputed. Certainly, powerful rulers, if fertile and with access to a succession of willing or unwilling consorts, can father many, many sons and daughters.

Reich cites data that indicate that a number of individuals were the fathers of similarly large numbers of descendants during the period between five thousand and three thousand years ago as Neolithic farming peoples began to feel the effects of new technologies: pastoralism, the horse, the wheel and metalworking. In The Horse the Wheel and Language, David Anthony discusses the idea that the new technologies made it possible for tribal chiefs to accumulate power, wealth and prestige. Such men may have led aggressive expansions into new territory, like Genghis, fathering enough descendants for their distinctive Y-chromosomes to show up in genetic analyses. When peoples mix by this mode of male driven conquest, the result is that Y- chromosomes are from the conquering group, while mitochondrial DNA, which is maternally inherited, is from the original inhabitants.

I heard a similar idea many years ago in a seminar on the shift from mother goddess based religion to male sky god religions. Anthony suggests this too in his account of the steppe peoples whose culture and Indo-European language spread widely in this period. The long ago speaker attributed it to mining for metals de-sanctifying the earth, but I suspect it more likely related to the technologies listed above allowing a subset of males to accumulate power. There are now many other cases, from ancient China to medieval Ireland documented by genetic researchers.

Another point Reich makes is that genomics can become a very touchy issue for contemporary descendants of our diversified ancestors. Ethnocentrism is alive and well, from scientists from India who maintain that there were no migrants from the Asian steppes to Navajo elders who refuse to countenance genetic testing arguing that they already know how the Dine were created. Origins are disputed territory: how many Americans still believe in Adam and Eve? Reich points out the falsity of the politically motivated myths of Aryan origins promulgated by German nationalists and still alive today. These crumble in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the modern inhabitants of Northern Europe originated from an amalgam of previous populations with invaders from Central Asia. Migration and mixing of populations and cultures, as we know only too well, is often seen as a threat.

Reich is sensitive to the ethical issues raised by these powerful technologies. He finally consulted a rabbi on the question of whether it was morally right to disturb the dead to obtain genetic material from bones. The answer: only if the knowledge gained will contribute to human  understanding. On the even more fraught question of what population wide genetic studies may reveal about average differences between identifiable groups of people, Reich says two things: First, the question must be faced with accurate data, lest it become the province of pseudoscientific or politically motivated interpretations. Second, whatever the facts are, we know that all groups contain a wide range of potentialities, all of which deserve a chance to be fully realized. Even if a person is not in the upper percentiles of learning ability or athletic ability, the human capacity for hard work makes it possible to succeed. I think Reich means that while  admire the extreme standouts, the Einsteins and Usain Bolts, the bulk of the useful work in the world gets done by those of us closer to the average.

Finally, Reich discusses individual genetic testing. He is in favor of the study of DNA at the population level for medical reasons and also at the individual level, if this helps reduce the incidence of illness caused by recessive mutations. He doesn’t object to individual testing to discover ancestry, but he is not interested in learning about his own genetic background. He seems to feel that focusing on our own unique genomes distracts us from the heritage we share with everyone else, of which the most important part is non-genetic. The simple fact that we are alive tells us that we come from an unbroken genetic line of survivors. Being able to claim descent from particular populations really doesn’t prove much of anything about your own worthiness. Moreover, making such claims can lead to embarrassment, as Elizabeth Warren has discovered.

Humans have been evolving culturally for much longer than the period for which we can get DNA data. Given how much of our behavior is learned, it is likely that our cultural milieu has been a major part of our environment for a long time. Cultures evolve. In doing so, they change the selective environment for humans and the things that live with them. Cultural change drives natural selection. That is, culture shapes our genes indirectly through natural selection as much as genes shape our culture.

As a social species, cultural traditions matter as much or more than our particular DNA in shaping how we live. Many of us, however, know very little of that tradition, or only slivers of it, dependent on our nationality, ethnicity, religion or profession. Too many people grow up with almost no knowledge of any tradition. Even though he professes no religion now, Reich was raised in a deep cultural tradition, Ashkenazi Judaism. He recognizes that all human populations have come out of similarly rich traditions. Together, they represent the most important heritage of the human species; as much as DNA, they are who we are and how we got here.

The Journeys of Holling C. Holling

Paddle to the Sea. 1941. Tree in the Trail. 1942. Seabird. 1948. Minn of the Mississippi. 1951

Each of these books tells a story about travelers. Paddle to the Sea is a small wood carving of a Native American in a canoe, placed by its maker into the water north of Lake Superior. Paddle finds his way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence after years of travel through each of the Great Lakes in turn. Seabird follows the career of a boy named Ezra on a New Bedford whaler and his son’s on yankee clippers, accompanied by a carving in walrus ivory of an ivory gull. Father and son grow to manhood in the age of sail, but the story ends with Ezra’s great-grandson still carrying the white bird as he pilots airplanes over the ocean.  Minn is a snapping turtle, who hatches in Lake Itasca, headwaters of the Mississippi, and who travels slowly south, ending up as a moss covered ancient in the deep backwaters of the Delta. Only the tree in the trail stays put; it begins as a young cottonwood sapling by a tributary of the Arkansas River near present day Great Bend, Kansas. It is witness to generations of Native American Buffalo hunters, the arrival of the Spanish and then the Americans – trappers, traders, settlers and all along the Santa Fe Trail. After hundreds of years, the dead tree is carved into an ox yoke and travels the Santa Fe trail at last. All the books are filled from beginning to end with the natural and human history of the places the travelers pass through. These books are about journeys, but even more about the passage of time.

As a child, I loved Holling’s illustrations, both the large color ones on nearly every other page and the monochrome drawings that filled the margins – maps and diagrams of everything from whales to ships to arrowheads and rivers. I’ve never had difficulty picturing the outlines of the Great Lakes, because Holling, in Paddle to the Sea, provided an object to fit each shape: A wolf’s head for Superior, a summer squash fruit with leaves for Michigan, a trapper carrying a pack of furs for Huron, a lump of coal for Erie and a carrot for Ontario. The forms connected to the regional economies: trapping in the north woods around Superior and Huron, farming in  the midwest around Lake Michigan and in the lake plain of central New York, heavy industry from  western Pennsylvania through northern Ohio to Michigan. Even Lake St. Clair, by Detroit, had a shape like a heart: that region was at the time Holling wrote and illustrated, the industrial heart of the continent.

His marginal illustrations include beautiful maps, both historical and contemporary of the regions his travelers pass. He shows how glaciation shaped the upper Mississippi and the Great Lakes. Showing the history of Minn’s evolution, he goes back to the age of dinosaurs, and there are numerous geological diagrams. his painting of the 1811 New Madrid Earthquake in Minn of the Mississippi is unforgettable.

He illustrations and drawings take you back in time through the history of the regions he depicts.  He illustrates whaling ships and steamboats and covered wagons, often in great detail, showing the different types and how they were used. There are diagrams, beautifully lettered, showing the parts of tools and machines, plans for corrals, sawmills, river locks and how pearl buttons were cut from mussel shells.

In his scenes of life, whether aboard ships at sea or in the bayou country of Louisiana, Holling illustrates the people with sympathy and an absence of satire or irony (he studied anthropology as well as art).  He draws plants and animals in great detail (he was a taxidermist at the Field Museum in Chicago when he was young) and with the same sympathy as his people. Landscapes, wild, rural or industrial are usually shown from a human perspective, as if one were in the scene, with dramatic effect when he shows storms, floods or wildfires. Much of what he depicts he had seen firsthand; he and his wife and collaborator, Lucille Webster Holling, were great travelers themselves.

The Hollings left a legacy of beautifully illustrated books for children. While in many respects, the world they show has changed tremendously since they were published in the 1930s to 1950s, they are still wonderful. There is a love of the natural and the human  coming through these pages that is impossible to miss.

[Here’s another fascinating bit from Wikipedia: “Holling wrote and illustrated a full-page Sunday comic strip titled The World Museum. Each strip included a diorama, which could be cut out and assembled into a 3-D scene of, for example, a buffalo hunt or an undersea panorama.”]

Note: I first found Holling’s books when I was in grade school in the Mary Bailey Pratt Children’s Library in Chapel Hill NC. The library was housed on the upper floor of the elementary school on Franklin Street. It was there, as well as at home, that my love for books developed, thanks to the librarians, especially Mrs Hardee. I worked for her at least one summer, learning how to care for the books. Books with pictures by great American illustrators from N. C. Wyeth to Doctor Seuss, made up a large part of the collection, and two large, framed watercolors, done years before by a student, hung on the wall opposite the desk. One was of Ichabod Crane, walking down the road, reading a book, the other was of Tom Sawyer, heading off to go fishing. After the old school was demolished in the late 1960s, I wondered what had become of those pictures. Years later, I was delighted to find them hanging in the new Chapel Hill Public Library children’s section.