Creatures of empire

51DjhOABnhL._SX367_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been reading Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, a well-argued history of America’s “lost century” — the 17th century. Colonists were here for 150 years, a very long time, before there was actually an American Revolution. The standard histories tell us that colonists simply elbowed Native Americans out of the way. Not only were Native Americans not elbowed out for many decades, but Virginia DeJohn Anderson reminds us that a good deal of this elbow-work was accomplished by… pigs, sheep and especially cattle.

The standard histories also tell us that the Native Americans of the Northeast and Virginia simply melted away without a fight, which is why if you ask people to name the first major war for English colonists in America, King Philip’s War (1675-78) usually doesn’t come up. Far from being disorganized wimps who were awestruck by the colonists’ superior firepower and numbers, Native Americans in the Northeast were pretty adaptable to their new neighbors (if not always happy about them), learning to use guns (bought off the English) quickly, organizing both passive and active resistance to English encroachments, and trying to peacefully live with but also defend their crops against free-ranging colonist livestock – which were all strange animals they had never encountered before, animals with no fear of humans, and with a tremendous appetite for everyone’s crops — Natives and colonists alike.

The shocking thing is how incredibly incompetent the English were at being colonists, especially in the early days at Jamestown, where nobody planned on actually doing any real farming (expecting to be supplied food from England) because that would get their gentlemanly hands dirty. Then, as the original Jamestowners began starving to death, more colonists came over and couldn’t be fed either. Duh. When they finally started bringing over their cattle and pigs, they proved to be equally incompetent at keeping track of them in the vast landscape. Although the Massachusetts Bay colonists were less inept at running communities, they also couldn’t deal with the massive logistics of clearing land, building fences, and simply controlling the beasts — after all, this wasn’t England, where fences had already been built and control of livestock and rangelands were all securely tied up in laws and acts decreed by the aristocracy anyway.

Yet, despite the fact that they were doing a lousy job of keeping their valuable livestock from running amok, the English colonists everywhere were eager to lecture the Indians on how good, civilized and holy it was to even HAVE livestock — animals as property, a concept completely unknown to the native peoples. (For an interesting, if somewhat controversial look on Native American attitudes toward animals and food before European contact, see Keepers of the Game by Calvin Martin.) And –

All right. Wuuuuurrrp. You knew this really wasn’t about animals and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Some years ago I used to try to make the point that working-class people (well, pretty much all people who didn’t share in the spoils of the widening prosperity gap) in central New York ought to start realizing that they and the local Native Americans were increasingly having a lot in common. I don’t know how well that went over because, you know, Native Americans are supposed to be victims and dying out, “the poor things,” and how could that possibly be relevant to our robust, thriving whiteness? Well, I still think it’s very relevant; and furthermore, may lead to conclusions which might be grim and possibly offensive to all.

An unimaginable meeting of cultures took place on this continent in the early 1600s. Creatures of Empire deals with some of that, but also sheds light on how it went down, and on how something that could have turned out much better (Native-colonist relations) didn’t.

Today we are once again living through the consequences of incredible demographic, economic and cultural change on this continent. The number one sore point of Trump voters seems to be, “We are being overrun by strange immigrants, and they are eating us out of house and home, running out of control, and wrecking everything.” That is simply THE issue that got Trump elected. I’m not defending their opinion or saying “gee, they’ve got a point.” Just trying to distill their position down to its essence.

Whereas, the rising generation of Americans would say — the college-educated ones, the ones who work for the big foreign companies, the ones who have culturally little in common with the Trump voters — “Immigrants add value; we need them to survive; no, they don’t just add value, they are indubitably, unquestionably, spiritually necessary to have for the very life of the national ideal.”

There is much discussion in Creatures of Empire of how the English saw their animals — and used them — and how the Indians saw animals, and also used them in their way traditionally. The English didn’t just see animal husbandry as the way to prosperity — their Christian religion told them that the relationship between animals and humans had to be a certain way, that it was the only right way, that it was Godly. In the early days, Native Americans were curious, reticent, resentful of the new arrivals — but they also took advantage of the presence of these new animals, too (some Native Americans started keeping them). It’s not as if any destructive conflict was absolutely foreordained. And Indians were not being starved off their lands by the new livestock or English farming practices. American history in regard to colonists and Natives could have been different.

But as it turned out, the political climate in 1670s Massachusetts — that is to say, Indian-colonist politics — was tenuous. As it happened, something having nothing to do with “the issues” (rampant livestock, religion, etc) set off King Philip’s War, which raged for three years, killed many on both sides, and finally had to be ended by treaty. During those war years, a lot of cruelty was committed on either side. One of the forms the cruelty took was that some of the Native Americans began mutilating the colonist’s farm animals. There is intelligent and compassionate speculation as to why *some* natives felt they needed to do things like that. (As always, the victors write the histories, so we can’t be sure how often that happened, only that it sometimes did.)

After the war ended, peace was repaired, but trust never was, and it was from that time forward that things changed forever between colonists and Indians, at least in New England (and Virginia, the other theater of conflict explored in the book).

I hesitated to write this post because the central conceit seems to be comparing today’s immigrant populations to yesterday’s farm animals. Maybe Trump supporters would crudely cheer this comparison. But in truth, the whole reason why these immigrants are “unimportant” or “important” to either side of today’s uneasy situation, is because they either “add value” to our economy or society or “don’t.” I think both sides run the risk, sometimes, of viewing the immigrant as either an unwanted animal who (somehow) wrecks everything, or an exotic magical creature who (somehow) is vital to the American religion. Neither view fully takes into account the realities on the ground.

Lastly, as for Trump, maybe he is Hitler or Stalin, or maybe he is just Metacomet. If the latter, then what that means for the future really probably depends on whether history actually repeats, or if it just rhymes.

Ten ideas about the next 30 years

Rather than inflict these thoughts on my non-political Facebook friends, I have dumped there here on the old blog (so that they might be bookmarked and laughed at when they fail to come true… if there still IS an Internet in 30 years, bwa ha ha hah).

These are some very general observations. I wouldn’t call them “predictions” so much as possibilities, or symptoms we may see develop over time. They aren’t really based on a close reading of any one line of thinking, although I admit that among other articles I’ve read lately, the “How Stable Are Democracies?” piece in the New York Times was a good read.

My only guiding principle for items such as these, is simply that “The future will not resemble the present.” I have roughly organized them in order of “more likely” to “less likely.”

Internal cultural and historical faultlines, previously ignored or minimized, will come to the fore as democracies destabilize, including in the U.S.

Some tools previously used to reliably effect internal and external power moves by Western democracies, will be suddenly discovered to have grown rusty and useless. This will temporarily produce shock, panic and impulsive reactions by those who are used to using these tools.

Regional government figures, particularly those governing regions that lie along internal fault lines, will test their local powers under more political cover than they previously might have enjoyed. (There will be less focus on running for president and more focus on adding power and authority to their own offices.)

Lands, waters, railways, highways, ports, border frontiers, military and police bases and other civilian and on-the-ground military infrastructure will regain a more pressing domestic political importance in U.S. politics than in the past. (U.S. international strategies for controlling territory will be increasingly turned toward its domestic issues.)

As big business figures are named to high government posts, the possibility of explicit assassination attempts will increase against members of the government previously not subjected to such attempts, and violent overtures against much lower-ranking government figures and business/banking figures will generally increase. If these attempts are (let’s hope not) successful, a downward spiral of violent incidents along a “class war” front may temporarily develop in at-risk Western democracies.

At-risk Western democracies, including the U.S., may fluctuate wildly between rightwing autocracy and radical socialism, before things settle out again for most of these democracies, probably with foreign assistance.

At the end of the wider international crisis period, some national capitals may have effectively or actually physically moved, possibly including that of the U.S.

One new mainstream American political party will come into existence, born from either the Republican or Democratic parties (one of these parties will cease to exist).

America will likely retain a two-party system throughout the next century, but not necessarily a one-national-government system. (The combatants will remain the same, but the political prizes may change.)

At some point in the next thirty years, some parts of the U.S. could possibly be physically, politically or economically occupied/controlled by one or more foreign powers (as a democratically restored client state or states) although how long this might continue is unclear. (It could be very brief, or it could last decades.)

A quick primer on the New York State seal

Many years ago on Daily Kos, there once erupted a long and rip-roaring free-association thread on state symbolism. A good chunk of it was taken up with wondering just what the heck the symbolism in New York’s flag means. The only flag I feel like flying right now is my home flag, so here’s a quick gloss on the symbolism (actually, New York’s coat of arms):

According to Joseph Gavit in New York History, Volume XXXI, the seal symbolizes the following:
In the center, a shield reveals the sun rising behind Mount Beacon over the Hudson River. “The shield symbolizes in the full sun the name and idea of Old York and the old world; the mountains, river and meadow, with the ships, convey the name and idea of New York in the new world.”
To the right, Justice is ready to fight tyranny with her sword held high.
Liberty on the left, holds her foot on the overthrown English Crown. “This New York is supported by Justice and Liberty, and discards monarchy.”
The world globe is displayed above the shield. “By exhibiting the eastern and western continents on the globe, the old and new are brought together;”
Above the world globe soars the eagle. “while the eagle on the crest proclaims,” Westward the course of empire takes its way.”
The bottom ribbon exclaims “Excelsior,” which means “still higher” or “ever upward.”

Fun fact: This is considered by vexillologists to be only the 19th-ugliest heraldic design in North America. Me, I personally like the “women with poles and sharp edges” thing going on, although I’d prefer a big pine tree in place of the globe.

NYT visits Erie Canal

Is this thing on? Testing, 1, 2, 3…

Just a quick note that the New York Times has a nice article in its Sunday magazine about canoeing through the ruins of the Erie Canal in the Mohawk Valley. I don’t consider the Beech-Nut factory in Canajoharie a “ruin” – it’s still too recently the workplace of a bunch of people – but the article is respectful and appreciative of the area.

I was on the Thruway passing next to the Beech-Nut factory just yesterday, after a quick trip downstate. I keep forgetting how “real” the I-90 portion of the Thruway is compared to many other interstates in New York, which have been carved through convenient corridors of nothing. Lots of trees and rocky outcrops with drill bit traces to look at — evidence of human habitation, not so much. But as the NYT article notes, the I-90 Thruway is just another overlay on two centuries’ worth of travel. As dead as it may be economically, at least you can be sure there are still some people around.

What does “indigenous” mean?

I have blogged a lot here in the past about our local indigenous people, the Haudenosaunee. But I’ve also been interested in considering “indigenousness” as it relates to other peoples living in the same space – Central New York, or upstate New York as a whole – and how people see or don’t see that concept applying to themselves or to other people. Many native peoples around the world who are called “indigenous” have not actually “always” been there (have migrated from other regions in the distant past, and so on). So, when and how do people become part of the land (indigenous) — with the implication that there are “other people” who are not?

This article about a fight between a local landowner and the Adirondack Park Agency caught my eye because the landowner used the term “indigenous” to refer to himself and his own interests. The first impulse may be to scoff at the guy for cynically co-opting the term. But while he may not be willing to go even further and identify himself as a member of an “indigenous group” living among other indigenous groups who have been here longer, I feel he is probably applying the term to himself sincerely, albeit unthinkingly.

During the NYRI controversy a couple years ago, I saw the proposed power line represented a sort of land grab directed against the land and its people, who were a different people than the downstate people who needed the power line. (Or at least, the corporate types who stood to profit from it). The people living along the proposed line – in my view – were discovering what other indigenous people discovered 200 years ago: that they were now invisible people, part of the landscape to be exploited.

People who self-identify as “indigenous” typically have difficulty communicating to the “non-indigenous” that indeed they do consider themselves part of the landscape in a way that most Americans probably don’t really grasp. Whereas Americans, particularly those living within the dominant culture, tend to see the land as being something they own or deal in. It is something that can be traded away without it affecting their sense of self. This is the tension that causes so many problems when eminent domain is invoked. Eminent domain assumes that land has no meaning or value beyond its economic value. You should be able to exchange it for fair market value without suffering any real loss. Why should you want to save that sad little house or Main Street along the power line? Just take the money, move away and place yourself and your values in some other congenial but interchangeable landscape…

I actually don’t know if the gentleman up in the Adirondack Park really feels on a gut-level that he is “indigenous” to the land beyond all conventional economic consideration. Still, the unprompted use of the word by a white man is intriguing; especially in a time when many people feel economically and socially that they have their backs up against a wall. Our portable American values are supposed to overcome any squeamishness we may have about moving elsewhere, even if coerced to move elsewhere by eminent domain. In America, you’re not supposed to have values, or a state of being, that is not portable.

So, what is an indigenous state of being, and can you become that way? Or, if you can’t “become” indigenous, can new indigenous peoples be born from older, colonizing ones? We’re used to hearing the term applied to native American tribes, but can it be plausibly applied to other groups of people as well? And is the growth of new senses of “peoplehood” (or a return to old senses) a good or bad thing?

As for my own opinion, I’m not sure that such an evolution in personal identification in America, necessarily means strife and bigotry. It could also mean the formation of new and mutually beneficial alliances between peoples who are newly realizing that they are not who they used to think they were.

A Fair day…

The State Fair has been taking its share of lumps in recent weeks — from investigations of both how Peter Cappuccilli and Dan O’Hara have been running things, to an infestation of Justin Bieber fans. My Fairgoing has become spotty over the last few years, mainly because there always seems to be something crazy happening around this time lately. But I made it there today (and what a beautiful day it was) and thoroughly enjoyed myself, and also got to finally see some of the recent changes in action.

The good:

-It seems as if purveyors of tacky goods and services have been sent packing from many of the main Fair buildings, including the Center of Progress and International Pavilion. I think they’ve been shooed down to tents near Restaurant Row. The Center of Progress building seems easier to navigate now and features more New Yorky type stuff — booths for different counties and communities trying to sell themselves, and more historical societies — not just pols bragging about their good deeds.

-The International Pavilion has gotten a pretty fab interior re-do (shame about the restaurant fire there this year though). I never had a problem with it before, but it was so hard to navigate the food court area and find seating. Now there are attractive round wooden tables with benches, and elevated seating areas including a wine and beer area. This is probably the biggest actual facelift the Fair has seen in quite some time.

-Llamas every day now.

-The horse shows in the Coliseum seem to run better and move along more quickly, with pleasant music to accompany all the cantering and trotting. I don’t know about you, but plopping down in the Coliseum for a midday snack break to watch a random horse show is one of my personal Fair traditions. (I still wish they’d bring back the jumping competitions to the main venue, but possibly there were safety reasons for that.)

-Wine flowing a bit more freely at the restaurants. I didn’t have any today, but bought a bottle like a good patriotic New Yorker.

The bad:

-Chevy Court (I still can’t stop calling it Miller Court, which severely dates me) used to be a pretty laid-back venue, but is now a deadly serious musical happening. That’s not “bad,” but I’m not sure how I feel about all acts only doing one show a day now — the wildly popular Peter Noone could have packed in a second show on Senior Day, for example. I walked through the empty Court this morning and saw crowd control gates. Whoa.

-Centro’s shuttle buses insist on traveling on 690 and slowly plowing their way through main drag traffic when they could just quickly pop over there through Solvay. (I guess Solvay is having none of it.)

-Nobody is stepping up to make the Energy building (or whatever that place is now called – where the big corporations like Time Warner hang out) very interesting. Years ago, Niagara Mohawk packed in the crowds with annual documentary presentations on their weather emergency heroics like the North Country ice storm and the Labor Day Storm. Not any more. Snooze.

-Did I see $10 parking?!?

The Fair has definitely changed since I used to go every year… and I think mostly for the better. It’s a good sign when you can’t get to the main gate at the end of the day because a huge and lively crowd has gathered around a lone juggler.

Maybe the Fair-runners should keep that in mind when they are pondering their million-dollar concert bookings. It really doesn’t take much to amuse most people.

“Because we can…”

Paging Barbara Kopple (director of Harlan County USA and American Dream)… why not come to Wayne County and make it an even trilogy?

In Mott’s Strike, More Than Paychecks at Stake

The story in a nutshell: Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, the company that owns the Mott’s apple juice plant in Williamson, says that their unionized workers make too much, even though the company is enjoying record profits this year. Apparently, Mott’s workers are supposed to be embarrassed that they’re not being paid like peasants, like the rest of their working-class brethren in harder-hit industries. (This attitude can also be found among bitterly unemployed master’s-degree holders as well, I’ve noticed.)

Kopple’s first film, Harlan County USA, was about labor struggles in an industry where the workers had yet to partake of the pay and security that other American workers enjoyed in the 1960s and ’70s. Her second film, American Dream, was about the confused Hormel plant strike where American workers began to lose their grip on what they’d won. This would make a great final chapter: the Mott’s workers as the last men standing, the tall poppies, with no one in America left to cheer them on in a clear fight that the coal miners in the first film would have well understood.

Dr Pepper Snapple has vigorously defended its stance. “The union contends that a profitable company shouldn’t seek concessions from its workers,” the company said in a statement. “This argument ignores the fact that as a public company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group has a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the best interests of all its constituents, recognizing that a profitable business attracts investment, generates jobs and builds communities.”

It would be interesting to parse what this corporation really means about “generating jobs” (are they saying they will be generating more, but lower-paying jobs for the community? Highly doubtful – they just want to pay the same amount of workers less) and “building community” (maybe they’re talking about building a company store).

However, Dr Pepper Snapple is, on another level, being honest. It is the duty of a profitable corporation to screw its workers over as much as possible. And it is the duty of a union to resist a blatant and open screwing. If you can get more than $14 an hour (or one billion dollars) for whatever work you do, it is self-evident that you are worth that much to someone powerful enough to pay it. It’s a fact of life that many Americans (despite their college educations) still don’t understand: you don’t get to be adequately paid just because you possess a piece of paper that says you’re in the club. If you must rely on a piece of paper, rely on a contract – and even then, not too much.

This is war, and it always was, despite many decades of niceties that are now past. Whose side are you on?

FailFaire CNY

I think Central New York needs one of these maybe more than it needs Forty Below, Biz Buzz or other such gatherings!


FAILFaire features projects using mobiles and ICTs in international development that have, to put it simply, been a #FAIL. Busted, kaputt. Tongue firmly in cheek, we take a close look at what didn’t work and why the projects failed amidst the ICT4D hype we all are subjected to (and sometimes contributors to). We believe that only if we understand what DOESN’T WORK in this field and stop pushing our failures under the rug, can we collectively learn and get better, more effective, and have greater impact as we go forward.

See more at this NYT article about the most recent FailFest.

Instead of technology failures, FailFaire CNY could be an honest, open hashing-out of failed local initiatives and redevelopment schemes. (I suppose in order to avoid hurt feelings, there would have to be a moratorium on discussing any projects that failed less than ten years ago.) Syracuse B4 could be our keynote speaker!

Seriously, I’m not just trying to be snarky. Why should these discussions just be kept on the blogs?