Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christopher Columbus

"From here one might send, in the name of the Holy Trinity, as many slaves as could be sold, ... If the information I have is correct it appears that we could sell four thousand slaves, who might be worth twenty million and more"

- Christopher Columbus, Journal Entry for September 1498

"For it's the end of history
Its caged and frozen still
There is no other pill to take
So swallow the one
That made you ill
The Nina The Pinta The Santa Maria
The noose and the rapist
The fields overseer
The agents of orange
The priests of Hiroshima
The cost of my desire
Sleep now in the fire"

- Rage Against the Machine, "Sleep Now in the Fire"

Who the heck WAS Christopher Columbus?
I've heard hero, I've heard monster, I've heard a product of his time, I've heard explorer, I've heard businessman, I've heard it all. I always struggle with this, at an early age, I was taught that he was a hero. He discovered America, he found it, no one knew it was here until he landed here. People told him he'd sail off the edge of the world, and barked back "screw you! I'm looking for a continent that might not exist!" It was romantic, it was epic, he was an adventurer in an uncharted frontier, he was Captain Kirk!
Then, roundabout middle school or so, people began to not like the smell of the bull that was being fed to them. Now wait, if he discovered America, what about all the people who were here first? you know them, they're called the Indians! But wait a second, this isn't India! Where did that name come from? Oh! Columbus wasn't out to "discover" America, he was looking for a secret passageway to India, and he did this by traveling WAST, even though India is to the EAST! So he landed (crashed) in America by accident, right? No wait, he actually crashed in Cuba, and the Bahamas, not technically part of America, granted it's off the coast of the South American continent, but it has nothing to do with the United States! So why all this patriotic attachment to Columbus? He didn't discover a thing, at least nothing attached to us! What's worse is that when he got here, he totally brutalized the population! Some claim that stories of him being such a huge bastard are greatly exaggerated, but it's very well documented in his own journals of his expeditions!
Why would Columbus talk so freely about such violence? And so nonchalantly for that matter? He was able to articulate his disgusting plans, his nefarious deeds, all with utter dis-attachment to the reality of his crimes. Some might hear this and call it the modus operandi of a sociopath, but I see something else, something that is simultaneously far more, and far less terrifying.
I read this and I see a man who is a product of his time. The reason he could slaughter these people en masse, rob them and bring the survivors back as slaves, is because to him, these people were not human whatsoever. You can't enslave people, that's a given, that's a basic human right! But these aren't humans, and it's okay. They shouldn't be wearing all these fancy stones and metals anyway, it's shameful! They should be adoring the greatly appointed garments of the monarchs! This wasn't a hard decision for Chris, because it was his way of life to begin with. It's awful, because it almost robs him of credibility and accountability. We know now, being the 21st Century Schizoid Men that we are, that this is deplorable behavior, and Columbus, his men, and the corrupt system that hired him should be reviled and hated, his holiday should be stricken form the record! But the sheer reality of this, the reality that makes this jagged little pill even tougher to swallow than it ALREADY IS, is that this was not a war crime, this was not a nefarious plan set forth by history's greatest villains, this was just... business as usual! Was Columbus a bad man? HE certainly didn't think so! His royal investors certainly didn't either. Columbus had done what no Spanish man had done, and he had brought back the goods to prove it, rich resources, precious stones and metals, and sub human slaves! If somewhere down the line, the world somehow adopts vegetarianism as a universally accepted truth, and way of life, will the dreadful butcher Oscar Meyer become a reviled and hated figure in history? Will Chef Boy Are Dee become public enemy number one? Don't even get me started on Ronald McDonald! My point is, are these characters inherently wicked, and vile? They represent a business, and that's what they do, they kill animals so we can eat them. From our perspective, this is not a crime, it's not even a thing that should be considered a crime. But if over the next 600 or so years, if our perspective changes drastically, then could it be possible that Wendy's founder Dave Thomas might suffer the same wrath of history that Christopher Columbus has? do these two people even deserve to be compared? Let's hope not.

Thomas Morton and William Bradford. Pilgrims and Puritans.

Morton and Bradford as almost as alike as they are different, which is what makes them so interesting. In a way, their dynamic is not unlike that of Batman and the Joker in that they sort of lived only to be one another's adversary.
It all starts with Morton, in a way, since he sort of consciously decided to settle near Plymouth, almost as if he was trying to be a bother. There, he set up Merrymount, a mere 30 miles away from the puritans, where he flaunted his flashy, sinful lifestyle, of business, and dancing! The hilarity ensues when the pilgrims go after him with full force, in a lovingly portrayed, age old style of hypocrisy that would come to define this land. The pilgrims, who fled their homeland of England in search of religious tolerance could not STAND that the guys next door had a May Pole up! It almost reads out like a farce.
Morton set up shop, and even good relations with the native Algonquin tribe, who Morton quipped, were far more pleasant allies than his "intolerant European neighbors". This whole scene brings to mind catty women lobbing underhanded insult s at one another at the salon.
The Pilgrims resented Morton's fun and fancy free lifestyle, and so, lead by Bradford, pooled every ounce of clout that had to try and get Morton arrested for unlawful sale of firearms to the surrounding native tribes. In defense of the Pilgrims, selling guns to the Indians WAS technically illegal, but it was about as illegal as downloading MP3's is today. The Pilgrims had Morton carted away, sailed across the damn ocean, and imprisoned, and while he was gone they BURNED DOWN HIS HOUSE! Because what he was doing was so awful, and so terrible, a message had to be sent!
The flip side to this, however, is comparing Morton to the puritans. The puritans thought Morton's May Pole is intolerable! However, what IS acceptable is this constant and looming belief that you were either damned... or A-OK! If you were damned, you were damned, your life and action suddenly become meaningless, you are going to hell, no questions asked. If you were NOT damned... well, well, well! You STILL might be screwed! It doesn't take much to open up those floodgates! God does not like you, he never wanted you, in all probability, he HATES you. This was the reality these people lived with every day, they raised their children to believe this. If I had to chose whose house to burn down, I might be to quick to rush over to Morton's place. Morton was not only a legitimate businessman, but an intellectual, and also an important pioneer in race relations in the newly settles/invaded frontier of the new world.
The text seems to want to argue that puritan life was not so dire and tragic, but it's really hard to imagine it any other way, but that's only coming form my 21st century, pop culture junkie loudmouth perspective.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thomas Morton

"America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between."

- Oscar Wilde

"Many threatening speeches were given out both against his person and his habitation, which they divulged should be consumed by fire."

- Thomas Morton

Thomas Morton was not exactly an outspoken proponent of decadence, but he was an avid practitioner of it. In the view of Oscar Wilde, a man like Morton might have been that all too important dividing line in between America’s barbarism and decadence, but in the eyes of the pilgrims, he was the rising tide that loomed over their precious little lives, and represented everything that was wrong, and bad and evil. He was so reviled that they framed him as a traitor to the crown, and had him sent to prison … overseas! Morton was a victim of the Puritan’s intolerance on several occasions, and had to dodge their legal actions upon him many times, twice being sent to prison. On the second time, they burnt his plantation to the ground while he was gone, as if to drive home the point that he was not welcome. To me, however, this only symbolized a massive hypocrisy on the parts of the pilgrims, since they themselves fled to the new world in a desperate vie for religious tolerance. It really is too bad they learned nothing at all from that experience. Alas, they did not, and as a result, an intellect as alive as Morton's was not allowed to thrive, let alone survive, in the shadow of the crushing reality of colonial America. If Tom had lived a mere three centuries later, he could have possibly seen the decadent world that Oscar Wilde foresaw, and embraced. Since I enjoy the concept of novel crossovers, I can’t help but imagine what it might have been like if these two could have rubbed shoulders. Who would be the master, and who would be the mentor? I imagine a grizzled Thomas Morton taking young Oscar Wilde under his wing, and imparting all his knowledge of life worth living unto him, and as young Wilde grows and matures, taking the concept and totally running with it. I have no idea why this amuses me so.

Thomas Morton's "New English Canaan"

I like Thomas Morton, he almost reminds me of a prototype Oscar Wilde, just 275 years tamer, but the character is still there. He rubbed the pilgrims the wrong way, and I think that's another reason I love him so much. "New American Canaan" really brings out the "Bacchanalian" spirit of Morton's leanings. Decoding his poetry was by far the best part. Poetry as an art form is something I myself have barely scratched the surface of, but despite that, I can really appreciate the message laden passages, which make all kinds of colourful references to the Greek mythology, like Oedipus, and Hymen. He even make Biblical references, he invokes the name of Job in "The Poem", and even makes obscure gestures to English history, when he mentions Scogan's Choice.
Aside from the various overtures to history and mythology, the poetry's structure itself is rather pleasing. It's obvious iambic pentameter, which is actually really helpful when I get to words I've no idea how to pronounce, like "Charybdis", which interestingly enough does not have a footnote in the text (Charybdis is a sea monster, by the way).
There is only one break in the pentameter, and it occurs in lines 11 and 12. not only does "paramour" and "patient" not rhyme, but line 12 only has 9 syllables, breaking from the uniform 10 of pentameter. Why chose to break uniform here? I can't be sure, I am not a poetry expert, but to me, it seems like simple laziness. It serves no purpose, and breaks the rhythm of the piece.
"The Song" is very different, and harder to read, specifically because I am certain there is a melody that goes along with it, and not knowing it, it's hard to imagine the rhythm. There is a pretty nifty rhyme scheme going on that I really like, and a catchy little repetitive callback in the chorus. The whole thing has a very old English ring to it, and really reminds me of songs you hear sung at the Dickens Festival, and in that way, becomes a mirror for the time and the culture.
His poetry also serves as an insight to why the puritans hated him so, so bad! The very first line of "The Song" says it all, "Drink and be merry, merry, merry boys", that in and of itself is kind of the very antithesis of the entire puritan philosophy. I don't know if the puritans even had poems, or songs. To the puritans, things like songs and poetry, or anything that inspired a merry temperament were probably considered hell worthy trespasses!
In either case, Morton is a historical bad ass, and it saddened me to read of his bum deal and his sad ending.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

William Bradford

"What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say "Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity."

"(William Bradford is) a forerunner of literature"
Charles F. Richardson

The book "Of Plymouth Colony" is too often misappropriated as a journal, or as an even dryer connotation, as a history book. While it is both of these things, it is also a great deal more. William Bradford's epic work is not only the single most authoritative look into the lives of the pilgrims of Plymouth colony, but one of the earliest forms literary non-fiction. Reading it, it does not read like a journal, not as bland as "today I woke up, brushed my teeth, ate some breakfast, swept the porch..." nor does it carry the sizable weight of a historical text, which often will read as "on the date of September 7th, 1616, the Pilgrims did THIS...". William Bradford breathes such life into this place, and its people. This is not only because he lived there (although that's a big part of it). He also cared about these events and these people, which even still, on its own, doesn't seem to be the mitigating factor in why this work carried so well. Bradford lived these times, had a very real stake in them, and on top of all of that, cared a great deal about the art and craft of writing. This is made even more poignant in knowing that Bradford was a self taught individual, whose family never sent him to university. He did not have the benefit of having been taught the craft, and having his skills honed among his writing peers. On the contrary, William lived a life of relative isolation from the outside world. He was outcasted for his family situation, and then again by his family for his religious views. In this way, Bradford almost lived in a bubble. Yet despite having lived so apart from the rest of society at large, proved himself a talented and capable writer. His passages have not only taught countless generations what it was like to have lived in those days, but they paint such a detailed and specific picture of it, that to this day, these images are firmly implanted in our collective subconscious, and have taken deep roots in our culture. In this way, William Bradford really puts me in mind of Mark Twain, in that he was that generation's equivalent. Twain mustered up all of his literary bravado to write epics like "Old Times on the Mississippi", "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" which do so well to encapsulate the times they represent. In this same way, Bradford captures 27 years worth of life, very vividly depicting not only the life and times, but the drama, and the reason, and the context for this place, this time period, and these people. Wholly authentic. The times and the language have changed, but the heart of the writing remains pure, and makes the passages still highly readable, and relatable to this day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Jon Edwards

"Eve was to be the mother of that Seed that was to bruise the head of the serpent, the grand enemy of mankind that had brought death upon them, and had the power of death, and so was to be the author of life to all that should live, i.e. all that should escape death. So Eve was the mother of all living, as all that have spiritual and eternal life are Christ's, and so the woman's Seed, because Christ was of the woman."

-Jonathan Edwards: Notes on the Bible

"Edwards’s surprisingly positive treatment of Eve in these sources reveals his willingness to deviate from the ideological background with which he has become synonymous and a theological innovator whose praise of Eve anticipates that of modern feminist theologians."

-Zachary Hutchins: Edwards and Eve: Finding Feminist Strains in the Great Awakening's Patriarch

Religious writing has little to no effect on me. When I was a boy, I was already very much disillusioned by Christianity, and most of what it and the other major religions had to offer. In effect, I had a similarly jaded outlook towards this particular period of American and European history, where Christianity held sway, in a big, big way. It influenced the decisions and outlook of most of history's major players, while at the same time, was also used as a shield of justification for their greatest crimes and mistakes. With this in mind, I slogged through the pages with Jonathan Edwards with a pithy and passing interest. I think he's actually a pretty excellent writer, I particularly liked "Images or Shadows of Divine Things", where I think his language becomes the most colourful and interesting. Despite all this, I could not get past his subject matter. I am always brought to mind of that scene from "Forrest Gump", when Forrest find his old army Lieutenant living crippled and alone in a trashy apartment in New York, and he rants and raves about the annoying people he meets in church. "Jesus this... and Jesus that! Have you found Jesus yet?" I have a similar reaction to Edwards' writing, and many other similar authors of the time. Despite his wonderfully crafted, and expert use of the language, even "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" make him out to be a caricature, all of the hilarious stereotypes you think of when you imagine the fire and brimstone preacher. It wasn't until after I had dropped the book in disgust that I retreated to the internet, to see if I could dig up anything more interesting on this author. To my surprise I found something wholly unexpected. Modern religious scholars are of the opinion that Edwards may have been one of the earliest proto-feminists, because of his pretty extreme and unique views on Eve, and other women of the Bible. My immediate thought was "since this whole class seems to be structured around progressive thinkers in history, why on Earth were his proto-feminist writings not the main focus of this section?" To me, a hyper religious white man who thinks of women with any ounce of respect other than being the dutiful wife, subject entirely to her husband is revolutionary to me. The more I read of Edwards after this, the more I began to pick up on his language and the direction of his writing pointing towards this mindset. Was I just seeing what I wanted to see at this point? Who can say? According to Wikipedia, the two writings which seem to showcase this proto-feminist view the most are "Miscellanies" and "Notes on the Bible". After much searching, I was able to find an obscure link to a Google Books page, in a 23 volume collection of Edward's writings. Why these two volumes were not made available in our text is beyond me, because they so perfectly illustrate Edwards reverence not only for Eve as a Biblical figure, but for women in general. If I could leave this class with but one suggestion, it would be to restructure this section on Edwards, because I think he has a lot more to say than just what's selected for him in our books.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Summary of Thomas Jefferson's Autobiography

Most of what I know about our founding fathers come from the Broadway musical "1776". Having read this excerpt from the actual autobiography of Thomas Jefferson, I am sorely disappointed with the severe lack of musical numbers. In no way does the real thing measure up to the dramatization, but I will try to make do anyhow. The section begins as Jefferson recalls the forming of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, which he describes in all of it's gruesome and dramatic detail. I suppose deep in my heart of hearts, I always kind of knew, instinctively, that writings on governments and politics were mind numbingly boring, but Jefferson's second for second account of appointing committees, motions, and delegates is a far cry from the fun historical musical I grew up with. It's not usually my temperament to complain about assigned text, but when Jefferson wrote this, I can't help but wonder what target audience he had in mind who'd sit through all of this monotonous detail.

Back to the text, Jefferson goes on to describe what the representatives of each colony had to say about the draft, he even goes as far as to describe the actual document being laid upon the table, my god, are you serious? The biggest dramatic turn of events? New York asked to be withdrawn from the committee, because they drew up their plans for this negotiation a year prior to the actual meeting, when reconciliation with Great Britain was still being thought of as a viable option. Alas, at the actual committee, the option was no longer on the table. At first, I thought New York maybe wimped out a little bit, a very far cry from the New York of today, not afraid of being tough and in your face. Then I remember that these were politicians, and that wimping out was kind of their business, so I kept reading.

Oh man, the question of whether the House would agree to the resolution of the committee was postponed until the next day? My heart is going a mile a minute here. I remember in the musical, there was a really cool scene here, where John Addams, played by William Daniels of "Boy Meet World" fame stood pensively looking at the unfinished board, where the votes were being tabulated from each colony's representatives. It was looking grim, it seemed like Adams' and Jefferson's countrymen were not quite on board for their radical idea of rebelling against the motherland, in a desperate vie for freedom. As he stood in the empty hall, his face mired in the evening shadows, as well as the severe, and equally darkening doubt that hung over his head, the New York representative quietly entered the office from behind him. In one of the film's few non-musical sequences, Adams makes one final desperate plea to the New Yorker to reconsider his position on the vote. He paces dramatically back and forth, and then gives a very moving speech about how hearing the words of the soon to be founding fathers have moved him so, that the battle for independence seems like it's becoming more inevitable every day. He says something awesome like "I want to make sure that when war comes, that I'm on the side of righteousness!" He takes his walking stick, and slaps the board where the still yet to be tabulated votes hang. He moves New York's placard from the "Nay" side to the "Aye" side. He then walks away, but before exiting, has another great line of dialogue, like "you'll have your revolution it seems, Mr. Adams. Don't let the colonies down!"

Jefferson is often called the poet laureate of American History, but how is it that a silly little musical from the 60's so poignantly captures the drama of these trying and turbulent times, when an actual person who was not only there, but instrumental in the events themselves cannot describe it without a mind numbing play by play of the non stop thrills and chills of bureaucracy?

Attempting to summarize this literally hurts my brain, the short version is that there was an assembly to discuss the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, some people disagreed, but then later they agreed (except for Mr. Dickinson of Pennsylvania, no reason is given). A small amount of talk about slavery ensues, but nothing to really comment about. Since it is well known that Jefferson owned many slaves, it seems he'd rather end this discussion as quickly as possible. After that, the Declaration itself is reproduced, word for word to the best of my recollection.

My bottom line, this is really great, for the purpose of preserving history and whatnot, but it does not make for interesting literature. This is interesting to me, because the concept of political unrest, and trans-Atlantic war between an Empire and her colonies SHOULD make for interesting literature, but in this case, it does not. Mr. Jefferson, I thank you deeply from the bottom of my heart for helping to found a nation that is so great that I can get away with saying that you're a dreadfully boring writer. God Bless America.

(Fun Fact! William Daniels who played John Addams in "1776" would later go on to player Mr. Feeny in "Boy Meets World." The school that Mr. Feeny taught at was John Addams High. To me, THIS is interesting!)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tom Paine

"Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man."

- Tom Paine

"We're the renegades, we're the people
With our own philosophies
We change the course of history
Everyday people like you and me"

- Afrika Bambaataa

In his song "The Renegades of Funk", Afrika Bambaataa name drops Tom Paine along side other figures in history, including Chief Sitting Bull, Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X. On the surface, this list of people seems like it might appear on a Sesame Street segment of "One of These Things is Not Like the Other", but there is a very specific reason he is included. It is true that Tom Paine is included among the ranks of the "founding fathers", the stuffiest of stuffy white men in American History. It is also true that modern day American public has become increasingly disillusioned with the once illustrious image of the founding fathers. They've gone from a group of heroes that fought tooth and nail to form this nation to a group of slave owning aristocrats who didn't want to pay their taxes. Some of these stereotypes are deserved, some are not. Tom Paine, despite his association with these pigeonholes, stands out as a true renegade, well deserving of a place in Bambaataa's list, immortalized in song.
Who was Paine, and why was he different? Perhaps the first and most important distinction was his marked distance from the nobility. Paine was born into a fairly working class family, which in 18th Century England pretty much meant he was poor. This is an important distinction for Paine, life didn't really give him anything, everything Paine is, is self made. This lends him an air of credibility when he goes on to talk about radically changing the government. These are words that come not from someone who's in the ivory tower looking down, but from someone who has lived the rough times, and knows from firsthand experience how miserable the system can get. Self made also means self schooled, Tom attended school as early as 7 years old, when education was not mandatory for children. This means that Tom was of the unwashed masses, very much aware of the askew cogs in the system, and made a point to educate himself in order to really articulate these thoughts to others. But how was a man with such radical ideals supposed to flourish in an environment such as this? Paine really found his voice during the precursors to the American revolution. I think a part of his saw the changes about to take place, and wanted to make sure he was on the right side when it all went down. Not only did his intensely eloquent ideology help form the new American government as it took shape, but he was also among the first abolitionist writers' knowing full well way before the fact that slavery in America couldn't possibly have a happy ending.
It is for all these reasons why Thomas Paine is more than just your average American hero, and it is for these very reasons that his place in Bambaataa's song is well secure.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Olaudah Equiano

"I was still more astonished to see people on horseback. I did not know what this could mean; and, indeed, I thought these people were full of nothing but magical arts."

- Olaudah Equiano

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

- Arthur C. Clarke

I admit with no small amount of apprehension that my familiarity with the early American slave writings is slim to nil. I spent a fair amount of time studying the events in various history classes, but the literature was always lost on me.
Until recently, I never really knew I was missing that much, I either discounted it, or otherwise never thought about it. It wasn't until a year or so ago that my opinions on such matters was drastically altered, by the very wise words of one of my greatest mentors in life. He told me that "you can figure out almost anything about any culture just by looking at their popular media", and it is in reading this account of the life of Olaudah Equiano that these words ring particularly true for me. Before reading this, my only other exposure to the writings of slaves came from people who were born into slavery, like Frederick Douglas and Harriet Ann Jacobs.
Equiano tells the story from the perspective of someone who grew used to life in Africa, and was taken, and while the validity of this story to this day is still a matter of controversy, that isn't the story that I myself am trying to tell. The point is, Olaudah is forcefully taken form his home and family, traded around among different people and different territories, some familiar and some not, treated kindly, treated poorly, given many different names, and finally forced into American society. The culture shock that this little boy endures at this point is palpable. My mind never really fathomed the depths of the intense changes these people were forced to cope with during their servitude. I think in many ways, my perception of this point in history was very painted by the perception of Americans from that time as well. when they carted boatload after boatload of screaming, sobbing slaves onto American shores for the first time, they were perceived as savages, sub human, and bereft of the intellect needed to exist in modern culture, and hence was the justification for enslaving them. This sadly is the very same perception I was left with, having known little to nothing about African culture prior to enslavement, the thought of boatloads of slaves being dumped into an unfamiliar civilization where they can't even communicate left nothing but an image of blank, scared faces. This reading tells a different tale, of a young mind reeling to make connections from their various cultures and lore to reconcile what is happening to them. From his culture, stories of magical beings and spirits were not unfamiliar, but when confronted with the insane wonders of this new world was tantamount to coming face to face with these fables. As Arthur C. Clark so eloquently put it, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." To put it another way, if you remove someone so far from what's familiar to them, their psyche will grasp at any straw it can to make sense of it all. The concept of Magic isn't a strictly African story, it's been all around the world for millennium upon millennium. So it would stand to reason that if you show someone something that they in all of their practical knowledge of the world cannot explain, chances are, their mind will wander towards magical thinking, or in this day and age, towards government conspiracy.
Nowadays, to think of the white man of the 1700's as a magic race is laughable. We were primitive and cruel, the only thing that really distinguished us from the rest of the cruel and primitive people of the world is that we utilized our cruelty through technology a little better than most had been able to.