Wednesday, March 07, 2012

America: Origins of an Empire

To understand the decline and approaching fall of the American empire, it’s necessary to understand how that empire came into being. That’s a complex issue, as all historical questions are these days, and a grasp of the tangled role of history in today’s political discourse may make it a little easier to avoid certain common but unhelpful habits of thought as we proceed.

Until the 18th century, in the Western world as elsewhere around the planet, the core language of political rhetoric came from religion. From monarchs who based their claims to legitimacy on theories of the divine right of kings, straight across the spectrum to revolutionaries who borrowed the rhetoric of Old Testament prophets to call for the slaughter of the rich, political argument drew primarily on theology’s vision of an eternal order imperfectly reflected in the material cosmos. Conservatives argued that the existing structure of society more or less mirrored God’s order, or would do so if the liberals would only shut up and behave; liberals argued that the existing structure of society was moving toward a more perfect reflection of God’s order, and would get there more quickly if the conservatives would only stop dragging their heels; and radicals argued that the existing structure of society was in utter conflict with God’s order, and had to be terminated with extreme prejudice (along, often enough, with the liberals and the conservatives) so that a new and perfect world can come into being.

The displacement of religion by secular ideologies in the 18th century left all three of these basic political viewpoints in place, but levered them neatly off their theological foundations, leaving their adherents floundering for new justifications. The standard response at the time, and ever since, was to force history to play theology’s role, by mapping theological ideas of good and evil onto the complexities of the past. Whenever a political question comes up for debate, accordingly, it’s a safe bet to assume that all sides will immediately drag in canned historical narratives that have been stretched and lopped to fit whatever simplistic moral dualism their ideology requires, so that they can tar their opponents by associating them with history’s villains (to the contemporary American right, socialists; to the contemporary American left, fascists) and wrap themselves in the mantle of history’s good guys.

Thus it’s vanishingly rare to see any public discussion of historical events these days that doesn’t fixate, often to the extent of caricature, on distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys—and when this is attempted, the first reaction of a great many listeners or readers is to figure out how to cram what’s been said into that same simplistic moral dualism. While there’s a point to applying ethical philosophy to history (and vice versa), though, there are entire realms of understanding that can’t be reached so long as the center of discussion is who was right and who was wrong. Over the next few weeks, I plan on talking about the rise of America’s current empire as a historical phenomenon and not a morality play, and leave my readers free to make their own moral judgments if they find those useful.

The use of history as moral ammunition in contemporary politics, mind you, accounts for only part of the complexity of the subject we’ll be discussing. Another part, a crucial one, comes from the intricate history of America’s empire itself; that, in turn, comes from the fact that the United States of America may be a single political unit but it has never been a single culture or, really, a single country; and the fault lines along which America has split repeatedly for more than three centuries can be traced right back to the European settlement of the continent’s eastern seaboard. We can start there.

When the first waves of colonists from western and central Europe arrived on the Atlantic shores of North America in the 17th century, none of them seem to have realized that they were the beneficiaries of a cataclysm. Around the periphery of the Old World, the European voyages of discovery found crowded nations with no spare territory for migrants, but the Americas and Australasia seemed all but empty. The native peoples of all three continents have reasonably enough objected to this description—after all, they were there—but the perception of empty space wasn’t simply propaganda. It reflected the aftermath of the most appalling demographic disaster in recorded history.

The accident of plate tectonics that opened oceanic barriers between the Old and New Worlds had an impact on disease that wasn’t clearly understood until quite recently. Most of the world’s serious human pathogens came to our species from domestic livestock, and nearly all of that happened in the Old World, because Eurasia happened to have many more species suitable for domestication than the New World did. One at a time, over the tens of millennia between the closing of the Bering land bridge and the voyages of Columbus, pathogens found their way from animal vectors into the human population, epidemics swept the Old World, and the survivors gradually picked up a certain level of resistance. Those pathogens didn’t cross the ocean to the New World until the first European ships began to arrive, but when they did, they hit the native people of the Americas all at once. Within a century of 1492, as a result, native populations collapsed to 10% or less of their precontact levels.

The scale of the dieoff can be measured by a simple fact still rarely mentioned outside of the specialist literature: in 1500 the Amazon jungle as we now know it did not exist. At that time, and for many centuries before, the Amazon basin was a thickly settled agricultural region full of sizeable cities and towns with thriving local and long distance trade. The first Spanish explorers to travel down the Amazon described it in these terms, which were dismissed as fables by later writers who knew only the “green hell” of the postcollapse Amazon. Only in the last two decades or so have sophisticated archeological studies shown that the conquistadors were right and their critics wrong.

The same collapse swept the eastern seaboard of North America, where settled farming villages were established by 2000 BCE, and complex agricultural societies with rich political, cultural and religious traditions thrived for many centuries before 1492. (A thousand years before the founding of Jamestown, the level of cultural sophistication in the Chesapeake Bay tribes was arguably higher than that found among the inhabitants of Dark Age England.) After a century of dieoff, the survivors were scattered in small communities across a mostly vacant landscape. That was what the first waves of European colonists encountered. They told themselves they were settling in a wilderness, but they were quite wrong: they were arriving in a land that had been settled and farmed for countless generations before their time, and benefited immensely from the legacies of the peoples whose surviving descendants they elbowed out of the way.

Compared to cramped and crowded Europe, the eastern seaboard of North America seemed almost unimaginably vast—the distance between the two early colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth is greater than the entire length of England from the cliffs of Dover to the border with Scotland—and the sheer impact of space, together with sharp differences in climate and even sharper differences in the people who came to settle, drove the newly founded colonies in radically different directions. In what would become New England, English religious minorities made up much of the first wave of arrivals, and the society they built replicated 17th century English rural society as closely as the new environment would permit. The result proved impossible to transplant further into the country, which is why rural New England remains something of a world unto itself, but it wasn’t accidental that the Industrial Revolution got started in New England not much later than it did in the English Midlands: the same cultural forms that drove industrialization at home did much the same thing in the transplanted society, and the industrial society that emerged out of the transformation spread westwards as the country did.

Far to the south, in the band of settlement that started at Jamestown, matters were different. The settlers in what became the tidewater South weren’t religious minorities fleeing discrimination, by and large, but the employees of English magnates who simply wanted, like their masters, to make as much money as possible. From Chesapeake Bay south, the climate was suited to grow tobacco, and like most drugs, this was a hugely lucrative cash crop; after a few generations, cotton joined tobacco, and the basic pattern of antebellum Southern life was set. Sprawling plantations worked first by indentured servants shipped over from Britain and Ireland, and then by slaves shipped over from Africa, became the defining land use pattern along the southern half of the coast, and spread inland wherever climate and topography allowed.

Between New England and the tidewater South lay a poorly defined intermediate zone, a scattering of small colonies—New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland—and one very large one, Pennsylvania. Maryland and Delaware were mostly tidewater and might have gone the Southern path, Pennsylvania and New Jersey weren’t and might have gone the New England path, but Pennsylvania and Maryland both enacted religious liberty statutes early on and welcomed all comers, so the middle zone got dealt a couple of wild cards that ended up transforming the entire colonial enterprise: a torrent of religious and political refugees from central Europe, who fled the aftermath of the Thirty Years War, and a torrent of economic and political refugees from northern Ireland, who fled England’s tightening grip on her first and most thoroughly looted imperial colony. West of Chesapeake Bay lay the Potomac valley, one of the few easy routes into the mountains, and it’s likely that somewhere up that way—by the nature of the thing, nobody will ever know when or where—German and Scots-Irish traditions blended with scraps of a dozen other ethnic heritages to create the first draft of American frontier culture. Think log cabins and long rifles, homespun cloth and home-brewed liquor, a fierce habit of local independence and an equally fierce disdain for the cultures of the coast, and all the rest: that’s where it came from, and it spread westward along a wide front from the Great Lakes to the middle South.

All this ought to be part of any basic education in American history, though as often as not it gets lost in the teach-to-the-sound-bites frenzy that passes for education in America these days. What doesn’t get in even in those rare schools that teach history worth the name, though, is that these three nascent American cultures—call them New England, Tidewater, and Frontier, if you like—also define three modes of expansion, two imperial and one much less so.

The first mode is the New England industrial model, which spread west to the Great Lakes early on and trickled gradually southward from there. It’s one of the shibboleths of modern thought that industrial systems create wealth, but as Alf Hornborg points out usefully in The Power of the Machine, their main function is actually to concentrate wealth; the wealth that would have gone to a large number of small proprietors and skilled craftspeople in a nonindustrial society goes instead to the very small minority with the money and political connections to build and run factories, control access to raw materials and energy resources, and the like. That’s why every nation on Earth that has ever built an industrial economy within a free market system has ended up polarized between vast fortunes on the one hand and an even vaster number of hopelessly impoverished workers on the other. That’s the New England model—it was also the English model, but that will be relevant a bit later on—and it drives a very specific kind of imperial expansion, in which sources of raw materials, on the one hand, and markets where industrial products can be exported, on the other, are the central targets of empire.

The second mode is the Southern plantation model, which spread due west from the tidewater country until it ran up against certain hard political realities we’ll discuss next week. The plantation model started out as a straightforward export economy, but found itself drawn into the orbit of the rising industrial system; cotton from Southern plantations was eagerly sought by the textile mills of the English Midlands, and the political economy of the cotton belt morphed into a pattern that ought to be profoundly familiar to Americans today, though it’s generally not: it’s the pattern found today in Third World nations under American or European domination, in which raw materials for industry overseas are produced under harsh conditions by a vast and impoverished labor force, while a small upper class is well rewarded for keeping the system running smoothly. That’s the Southern model, and it drives a very different mode of imperial expansion, in which arable land and cheap labor are the central targets of empire.

The Frontier model is something else again. It also had a powerful expansionist dynamic, but it was egalitarian rather than hierarchical, and didn’t provide anybody with a convenient place to hook up a wealth pump. What Frontier culture craved from expansion was simply real estate, where people could build a cabin, break the sod, plant crops, and make a life for themselves. Over time, as the model ripened and values shifted, it gave rise to a vision of American expansion in which an entire continent would be seeded first with frontier homesteads, then with prosperous farms and nascent towns, and replicate political and economic democracy straight across to the Pacific. What would happen once that limit was reached was a question very few Americans asked themselves.

Before that point was reached, though, these three cultures were going to have to sort out their relative strength and influence on the new American nation. We’ll talk about that next week.

End of the World of the Week #12

Hegel, whose personal contribution to the history of false prophecy was the subject of last week’s End of the World of the Week, was one of dozens of 19th century intellectuals who were convinced that their careers marked a great turning point in human history. Unlike his competitors, though, Hegel proved to be a major inspiration to future generations. Most of the ideological follies of the 19th and 20th centuries drew on Hegel in one way or another; Marx was only the most successful of the people who fell under the enchantment of Hegelian dialectic and spouted prophecies that turned out to be just as wrong as Hegel’s had been.

Still, a special place belongs to Francis Fukuyama. A US State Department policy wonk turned neo-Hegelian academic, Fukuyama got his fifteen minutes of fame in 1989 by proclaiming, in a widely read essay and a book, that history was over. His argument, a sort of pop Hegelianism reduced to the lowest common denominator, was that history is a Darwinian struggle among different systems of political economy, in which whichever one crushes the competition is by definition the best; that the defeat of Communism showed that “liberal democracy”—that is, the country club Republicanism of George Bush senior—was the winner of the great contest; and that, just as soon as the last stragglers got with the program, humanity would henceforth bask in peace and prosperity forever.

What made all this a masterpiece of unintended irony is that almost identical claims were retailed by the Marxist regimes whose collapse Fukuyama’s essay was intended to celebrate. Not that long before, in fact, the American conservative movement was notable for its skepticism of Hegelian handwaving and grand theories of history’s march to perfection, while the Marxists they opposed spent their time proclaiming that history was on their side and everybody else simply had to get with the program. By Fukuyama’s time, that skepticism had given way to blatant imitation—compare the official US arguments for the invasion of Iraq with articles in Pravda justifying the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan sometime, and see if you can find a significant difference—and the neoconservative movement, which was heavily influenced by Fukuyama’s work for a time, proceeded to launch itself along the same track to history’s dustbin that the Marxist regimes they loathed had followed before them.

—story from Apocalypse Not


John Michael Greer said...

I'll have limited email access for the next few days -- if you don't see your comments up promptly, that's why. Don't worry, I'll get 'em through moderation when I have the chance!

Robo said...

The recent book titled "1491" was a real revelation for me about pre-Columbian America.

Even in your introductory sketch here, we see how the flow of population across the continent has been steered by geography and topography in ways that fossil-fueled and electronically-linked moderns are not particularly sensitive to.

DeAnander said...

Hip hip hooray, I love it when anyone quotes Hornborg -- whom I consider essential reading, but so few people seem to have even heard of him! Interesting way of looking at US colonial patterns/cultures -- I am eager for the next installment! BTW, aside from '1491' which I read a couple of summers ago (and had the greatest of difficulty putting down), what are other best sources on the mind-boggling calamity of those first contacts between Eurolanders and the Americas?

It is still hard to wrap my head around the scale of the tragedy: a 90 percent die-off on two continents. I've seen some of the wreckage in person (in Haida Gwaii): the last funerary poles carved by artists who themselves were dying (of smallpox and TB). All the old village sites in the archipelagoes of BC -- some inhabited for 10,000 years prior to the arrival of Eurolanders and their "guns, germs, and steel." Now just middens with sometimes the contours of earthworks, house pits, a fish trap, a canoe beach, modified (bark-stripped) cedars, a clam garden -- maybe, rarely, the rotted remains of the last poles. The NW climate doesn't leave us much in the way of relics.

The Americas are a haunted landscape; OK, I guess all the world's inhabited landscapes are pretty well blood-soaked and haunted, but there is something about this particular holocaust -- its speed? its blundering semi-intentionality? the tremendous lies, denials, and misconceptions it fostered? the juggernaut of (first) Spanish gold and (next) American power that it enabled and unleashed -- that keeps making my brain stumble.

PhilJ said...

My how I wish I had known this stuff when I was 20!!!! I could not have sat still at a desk knowing what I know now, thanks to people like you and John Perkins.

Aidan said...

eThanks JMG, for a most intriguing post. I was aware that European diseases had wreaked havoc in native populations in the Americas, but what you're essentially saying is that the ideas we commonly have of - at least - native tribal life in what became the US reflects essentially a post-collapse society? Who would you recommend by way of reading up on this? And on that note, would you recommend the Power of the Machine? Thanks

phil harris said...

I like particularly this week's offering. I learn some stuff every time.
My very late comment on last week's discussion was a crit of BBC series 'Empire', part 2, and of the approach adopted by writer/presenter Jeremy Paxman.
Quote from my own comment:
"Paxman seemed to hang all his questions from the same peg: "Was it a 'good thing' or a ‘bad thing'?"
Well, some said ‘good’ and some said ‘bad’. I don't think I learned much this week [on BBC]."

BTW Talking about introductions from widely separated ecological zones, (you do); from an old career in Plant Quarantine I remember these are the most significant threats for forests and crops as well as for the fauna. Globalization has huge risks and downsides
Phil H

Edde said...

Greetings John Michael,

A happy Women's Day and Worm Full Moon, too.

Can you give us an idea how long you've held your view of USA's development, as well as your critique of Hegel?

Can you identify how you came about that understanding? A book list would be useful...


Best regards,

John D. Wheeler said...

If weaponized bird flu is ever used, we may see a cataclysm similar to what the Native Americans experienced. At least the Amazonian civilization actually improved the soil with biochar.

I also am amused to see myself in the Frontier model. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, that does make sense.

Jason said...

This is shaping up to be a really fascinating and magisterial tale since my American history has never been good. Love the intercontinental germ warfare and the geography that results from settlement which as a Brit I have sensed at this distance without seeing the source of it.

I don’t know, JMG, if you saw my request last week for religion in the discussion, but thanks for including some in the conservatives/liberals/radicals description. I’ve always been interested in your own “conservatism” which doesn’t fit the description you give here. You’re no liberal either of course, since nature and history do not suggest automatic movement towards ‘something better’, nor a radical since destructive acts against society don’t improve matters.

So I’m coming to see you as a conservative on the scale of Nature, as befits a Druid. To you the natural system not only reflects the divine but immanently reveals it; civilised patterns intertwine with this wider revelation but not necessarily with any elegance, and may err badly in their understanding of the relationship -- as with Spengler’s descriptions of the late civilisation, and Vico’s of its increasing abstraction (idealisation). So that interface is a part of your conserving. Your awareness of how history rolls across geography seems to work off that perspective too.

Also, not trying to derail you but the definition of conservatism made wonder about your perspective on China. It seems to me that a great deal of what made China historically more conservative (and better at conserving culture and avoiding dark ages) was the ability to accept imperfection which stemmed from the fact that Tao is not claimed to be transcendently good and is not seen as separate from nature, but on the contrary as constantly present and fulfilling it. There may be less of ‘abstraction problem’ in that case since people are not expecting society to be inherently perfect just by conformance with Heaven.

Of course they then suddenly fell for a historical perfection when they took up Communism, which is out of character with their genius (or physiognomy) and was such a disaster. I wonder how that will play in to their future. Any thoughts?

Mister Roboto said...

The "Frontier" subculture and its fierce independence may be the reason why the homosexual freedom movement ("gay lib" in the lingo of the late Seventies/ early Eighties) got its start in the unlikely locale of the hyper-religious USA. In the most remote of the frontier-outposts, available women were often few and far between, so it became common for men to form homosexual relationships with one another. The story-template of the movie Brokeback Mountain goes much further back than many people entirely realize. Of course, the fierce personal independence fostered by these environments made these men not at all predisposed to think of these relationships as something of which they should be ashamed, even if they didn't necessarily publicize them.

If this was fairly common, then it was something that likely to be fairly well-known, even if the social conventions of the era made frontier male homosexuality something about which people only spoke in whispers in the New England and southern Tidewater subcultures. The result of all this was both the peculiar American disdain for male homosexuality and the quest to legitimize homosexual attractions and relationships. In my personal opinion, it's a crying shame that the homosexual subculture that emerged from "gay lib" turned into its own form of conformity and repression. But all that you have taught your readers about social, political, and philosophical history over the past few years leads me to think that such bitter ironies are far from uncommon.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Another factor in the north/south divide was malaria. A weaker form of malaria used to be present well into the north, but the far more serious and deadly strain was limited to the south. Charles C. Mann's "1493" goes into this in detail. African slaves were brought in on a mass scale only after it was realized that they were much more resistant to malaria than Europeans or Indians. It's no coincidence that the Mason-dixon line corresponds pretty closely to the northern edge of where the virulent strain of malaria was able to survive.

Richard Larson said...

Industrialization concentrating wealth, instead of creating wealth, is a different perspective. They then can never be considered as a cog in the free market system. They are monopolies controlling resources. The most glaring of which are the utilities that sell energy!

Considering the input to factories, it All relies on finite resources anyway.

One way, but more than likely the other, they will break up. A good thing then. The idea of spreading around the wealth to individuals is worthy.

It is funny that the Republicans have embraced Hegel. Kinda like describing a warmongering fascist as a conserver/conservative/conservationist. Ha!

You did peg me on the political independent statement. I do have this idea of the Dems and Reps gathered on opposite sides of some table top farm field and given enough powder and ball to take care of the problem.

Hey, this, at least, is one step above the dualism political system in place...

Now to consider a fourth political idea!

Brien said...

Thank you for another excellent post! You have a gift for synthesis. I knew that epidemics had rendered the New England aborigines in no position to maintain or defend their land, but I had no idea of the full extent of the damage. The Amazon basin example was particularly illuminating.

I'd always wondered why even the various plains tribes seemed so few in number and had put it up to their hunter-gatherer way of life requiring low population density.

One question, though. I'm less familiar with the rural New England life and culture - I spent my formative years in the frontier-decended mountain west, and have recently moved to midwest Ohio - so I'm curious: what about New England life, culture, and industrialisation made it difficult to expand further?

flute said...

Alf Hornborg is well worth reading and has some very interesting points, though I find him a bit dogmatic at times.
I recently got around to reading his latest book, with the Swedish title "Myten om maskinen", which is not yet available in an English translation.
Hornborg is definitely heavy reading, but worth it once you get your way through it.

Maria said...

I suppose I should be used to it by now, but your essays continue to illuminate the things I'm thinking about, both in the big picture and the personal one.

Also, it seems as though every book I pick up, and every movie that rises to the top of my Netflix queue when I'm not paying attention to it, sheds some light.

From the rants I see on Facebook about who is and is not deserving of quality medical care (the poor are not, apparently) to a conversation with my sister, who is much younger and grew up in an entirely different enviroment than I did (and therefore had opportunities I never dreamt of), to watching the BBC series Cranford I've been noticing some things.

One is that they don't call where I live "New England" for nothing, and that the social reality of where I grew up has more to do with Victorian English ideals of a stratified society and "not getting ideas above your station" than the "classless society" and "land of opportunity" I was a taught about in public school in the 1970s.

The other is that people here are still quite Puritanical, and tend to assume that if you're struggling, or sick, or have had some misfortune befall you, it's your own fault.

Even those who claim to be more liberal still "use every interaction as an opportunity to demonstrate their self-defined superiority" (a phrase I stole from you and use all the time; sometimes I even give you credit). A sort of Puritanism Lite, if you will.

At the moment this has left me with more questions than answers, but I think I'm finally asking the right kind of questions.

Roy Smith said...

John, I have generally considered myself at least reasonably well versed in American history (at least compared to the average U.S. citizen, which admittedly is not a high bar), but this post was very educational and I am looking forward to your future posts on this topic to be as well.

Do you have any reading recommendations on this topic that can shed further light on the subjects you are discussing?

William Hunter Duncan said...

My 11th grade American History teacher was also the football coach. We spent the year studying the presidents, George Washington-George H.W. Bush. He would project a list of presidential highlights on a screen, and then read them, and we copied them, and sometimes he said something funny or cynical. Otherwise, we turned in our lists, and he graded them, and we took tests and pop quizzes on what we "learned". I think the football team won one game, my last two years in High School.

prack45 said...

“All this ought to be part of any basic education in American history” Maybe if we are lucky in the next several hundred years what is left of civilizations will hand me down an Empire 101 consisting of this type of discussion/text in their religion, Tao, camp fire discussions, etc. IMHO as it pertains to Western Civilization, it seems empire infatuation has persisted for now thousands of years with added layers of complexity and is peaking around now as many resources on a planetary scale become scarce. I asked a question last week wondering if “empire” is in our genes and your current post indirectly jarred a thought I have had floating around for awhile. After living in all 3 regions that pertain to your model and currently residing in the south (tidewater) region your post hits home.

It appears just looking at US census statistics that folks more reminiscent of the indigenous cultures of the America continent climate seem to be making a comeback especially here in the US. States on the Mexican border and also Florida have gone from around 10% to over 30% (some 40%) from 1970 until now. Folks of Hispanic and African descent appear to have a much easier go of it when it comes to doing many of the more laborious tasks especially in the southern regions. Also looking at early tidewater colony history it appears that there is some correlation with when colonist struggles started to ease, the slave population started increasing fairly rapid. Most folks who I have observed of European descent (which I am part of) struggle when it comes to them having to perform laborious tasks in this region, many of which may be of necessity in our future. I consider myself in good shape (gym, walk, bike) however as of the last few years I have put the shovel to where my thoughts are and I am in the process of converting my lawn areas to food production along with the needed passive irrigation and it is a humdinger.

I am not stating all this to be insulting but just want to be honest in my observations and put it out there for feedback on what this might entail for the future of this region. Will the tidewater region along with other parts of the US revert back to more indigenous cultures as it appears to be? Will those cultures have less of the empire gene?

Mike said...

Concerning the Frontier model, there is an excellent museum not far from where you live, JMG. It's the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, VA. It describes how those who "came to America during the 1600s and 1700s from communities in the hinterlands of England, Germany, Ireland, and West Africa" blended into what we now think of as Appalachian culture.

rakesprogress said...

Great post. The perspective you take on American expansion dovetails nicely with the superb discussion of frontier mythology in Wendell Berry's 1977 collection of essays called The Unsettling of America.

Thanks also for tackling the "wealth creation" trope. When people talk of creating wealth it really gets on my nerves. Wealth is kind of like energy according to the first law of thermodynamics: neither created nor destroyed. What creating wealth really means is that wealth is being collected FROM people and places the narrator doesn't care about TO the narrator or his pet power structure. Back in the days before globalism, this viewpoint could be considered rational if mercenary. But now, with communities and economies interconnected globally, it is like saying you make money by transfering funds from your savings account into your checking account. That this reasoning is used to justify public policy is one of the most acute of our present afflictions.

LewisLucanBooks said...

I recently read a book called "Island at the Center of the World" which is mostly about the Dutch period of New York history. It is a study based on a recently translated trove of Dutch documents.

There is quit a bit of information about the tensions and differences between New York and New England. And how those tensions and differences echo down to the present day.

On a slightly different topic, when I was in school (in the 50s) when it came to American history, all we every heard about was the Pilgrims. Because of my interest in archaeology, I read (as a young adult) the work of William Kelso in regards to Jamestown, Williamsburg and Martin's Hundred.

I remember being stunned that all this "stuff" was going on at the same time, or earlier than when the Pilgrims were doing what they were doing up in New England. And we never heard much about it.

Stu from Rutherford said...

I've put "1491" on order from my local library system. One of the many valuable services rendered by your blog is the discovery of reading material which is recommended by trustworthy sources.

Thijs Goverde said...

Wow. I didn't know that about the Amazon Basin. Consider me thoroughly flabbergasted. I am definitely going to read up on that.

Very much looking forward to next week's post - mostly wondering how you are going to avoid falling into the 'good guys/bad guys in history'-trap you describe. The non-imperial Frontier culture seems more or less set up to play the role of good guys (I have a strong feeling many of your readers will identify with that one - self-sufficient homesteaders, neh?) but your plan is to avoid a morality play, so...

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

This week's essay strikes me as especially well written.

If more Americans were aware of what JMG says in the second paragraph, perhaps they would be less judgmental about the political rhetoric coming out of parts of the world where secularization hasn't spread beyond an educated minority.

I pretty much buy the epidemic narrative, but I wonder whether the bio-historians have an explanation about why the die-off didn't start centuries earlier with the Vinland colony. Not enough interaction?

Brien, I believe that the indigenous population of the Great Plains actually went up after the Spaniards arrived, because they brought horses. The bows that the Indians had weren't powerful enough for successful buffalo hunting on foot in an environment where the herd can see predators a long way away. Once they got hold of this fabulous new animal, their cultures changed rapidly. Also, some tribes that had originally been settled, not nomadic, farther to the east were shoved onto the plains by other tribes which had been pushed out of their original territories by European settlers.

Unknown said...

On the "frontier" aspect of early American life -

What's remarkable to me, anyway, as a 21st Century American, is how effectively the homesteaders of the West actually wielded real political power in early America, despite being generally dirt poor. They even got one of their own elected to the Presidency in the man of one Andrew Jackson - one of the most important figures in United States history. Yeah, a lot of these guys had some views that are extremely distasteful to us - "Indian Haters", as Melville put it, and ardent defenders of slavery to boot - but they were still examples of the genuinely poor holding their own against the interests of the elites. This contrasts quite markedly with the narratives of powerlessness our host has done such a great job of anatomizing on this blog.

--Mark H.

P.S. It's funny looking at old pictures of, say, Daniel Webster. One realizes that the "comb-over" is not a modern invention at all!

GreenGoth said...

Greetings, all -- long-time lurker here, who felt I couldn't add much to these amazing and illuminating discussions until now!

There's quite a bit of the pre- and post-European history and archaeology of the Amazon region that was certainly news to me in Albert Bates' "The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change". [Many of you may be familiar with it and other books on the biochar topic.]

Despite years of history classes and reading widely on my own, I'd never heard about the vast advanced agricultural cultures in that whole region and the mystery of their rich, black "terra preta" soils until my personal studies on sustainable agriculture and coping with climate change brought me to the biochar debate.

Well worth a read; as one reviewer said, parts of it read "like a detective story" as the beginning of the book follows Father Gaspar de Carvajal and conquistador Francisco de Orellana - "the South American equivalent of Lewis and Clark" - on their journey along the Amazon River in the 16th century.

Bates proposes that, properly used, biochar has the potential to help turn back the tide of global warming while restoring the health of depleted and abused soils. He even theorizes that, when these cultures died out and the jungles took over their lands, so much carbon was sequestered that it had global effects on the climate -- Europe experienced a period of much colder climate. (Even if that's true, the industrial revolution took care of that big-time.)

It's an interesting vision, though it provokes concerns about this particular carbon sequestration idea being taken over to ill effects by "industrial biochar" much as tearing up sensitive lands to "grow fuel" has done.

Phil LaCombe said...

For anyone who's interested in reading more on this topic, I recommend David Hackett Fischer's book, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. I was very fortunate to learn from Professor Fischer in college. He's also the author of Washington's Crossing, if you know that one.

Description from Library Journal:
"This cultural history explains the European settlement of the United States as voluntary migrations from four English cultural centers. Families of zealous, literate Puritan yeomen and artisans from urbanized East Anglia established a religious community in Massachusetts (1629-40); royalist cavaliers headed by Sir William Berkeley and young, male indentured servants from the south and west of England built a highly stratified agrarian way of life in Virginia (1640-70); egalitarian Quakers of modest social standing from the North Midlands resettled in the Delaware Valley and promoted a social pluralism (1675-1715); and, in by far the largest migration (1717-75), poor borderland families of English, Scots, and Irish fled a violent environment to seek a better life in a similarly uncertain American backcountry."

Odin's Raven said...

Here's someone who discerns not just three but eleven regional cultures or nations within North America.

sgage said...

@ Maria,

I was born and raised in a New England town that was founded in 1639 by the Church. By my time, this founding Church was very liberal, sort of Unitarian in a way.

I've lived in several different parts of New England (with interludes in Arizona, and California). I've been in New Hampshire for the last 20 years.

I've never sensed the Calvinistic "if something bad befalls you it's your fault" thing, Nor the "don't rise above your class" thing. Certainly no more than any other part of the country I've been in.

I think you will find these patterns that you are calling "Victorian" and "Puritan" and what have you just about anywhere in this country. I believe you are confusing present-day "Conservatism" with New England Puritanism.

I have a good friend who moved up here from Texas, and he is amazed at what he calls the utter lack of class consciousness here. He said that back home, our circle of friends, with people from all walks of life and socio-economic classes, would simply never happen. He says people are much more worried about that sort of thing back in TX.

Where in New England are you - Boston? :-)

Rio Grande said...

When the Columbian exchange happened the disease and plagues spread so fast and so far from the initial Conquistador contact point that native populations were wiped out at the distant corners of the continent 50 years before the fist Spanish colonists arrived in the area.

oji said...

What you describe, three cultural hearths in the colonial U.S., has been standard fare in Human Geography courses for many a year. They are typically designated as "New England", "Midland," and "Chesapeake Bay", though "Tidewater" is sometimes used. One can see the diffusion of these cultures in the landscape itself, even today, for example, in architectural styles and urban planning (in older settlements especially). Anyone out there interested could pick up any old edition of a university textbook for a couple dollars.

I suspect the whole textbook would interest most here, as it would include chapters on migration, diffusion, demography, cultural landscapes, the geography of religion, politics, economic development, and, not least, early civilization (domestication). Plenty of archaeology, history, economics, government, and even physical science.

oneotaBill said...

I really, really am fascinated by this series. I am eager to learn what happened to the Tidewater culture and the roots of our current industrial agriculture. Did it arise from the Frontier culture in imitation of the industrial model? Even large farmers seem rooted in the individualist model, but they have aspects of plantation (Tidewater) in their operation. It seems that the New England industrialization spread westward following the Frontier culture. I read 1491 18 months ago, and I found it fascinating. Here in the Driftless Region of SW WI, NE IA, and SW MN, we have small farms reminiscent of the Frontier culture. Can't wait for next week!

John Michael Greer said...

Robo, exactly. 1491 was an interesting summary of research that hadn't previously made it out into the public conversation.

DeAnander, good question. I got most of my data by following up citations in the archeological and ecological literature, which may be a bit technical for most people.

Phil, that's why you didn't get this sort of thing when you were 20; a lot of people wanted you to sit still at that desk.

Aidan, that's a good way of summarizing the situation; see my comment to DeAnander; and yes.

Phil, diversity is the strength of every ecosystem; that's one of the main arguments against globalization.

Edde, my take on all these issues is in a constant state of development; my specific analysis of the development of US empire is a recent set of ideas based on ecological principles I learned back in the early 80s; the critique of Hegel I find most useful dates from the early 90s, when I worked my way through Karl Popper's writings.

John, rural Pennsylvania -- I hear a lot of people refer to it as "Pennsyltucky" -- still retains a lot of attitudes and cultural traits from its time as one of the heartlands of the Frontier culture, so it's not surprising!

Jason, it would take me three or four posts to respond to all of that, and they'd be off topic for the current sequence -- well, except for the last. We'll be talking about China quite a bit down the road a little further. As for the rest, I'll consider those for a future sequence.

Mister R., I wasn't aware of that at all. Many thanks for the data.

Ozark, there are literally dozens of factors involved -- but yes, malaria was one of them. (Yellow fever was another.)

Richard, the Republicans were doomed to adopt Hegel once they became more fixated on being against Marxism than on being for anything in particular. What you contemplate, you imitate...

Brien, heck of a good question. All I know for sure is that the distinctive rural cultures of New England, with their town meetings and other standard social forms, never spread far.

John Michael Greer said...

Flute, yes, he's got a dogmatic streak, but he's still well worth reading. I hope somebody will get his latest into English soon!

Maria, I hear that from a lot of current and ex-New Englanders.

Roy, as you'll have noticed, a lot of people want a reading list! The problem I have here is that most of the data I'm using is taken from the specialist literature, not from books that provide a good general survey for the lay reader. There's a huge disconnect between the two just now. I'll see what I can find as time permits; I may eventually have to write some broader books myself, for that matter.

William, I recall history teachers who weren't football coaches who didn't do much more.

Prack, that's one of those hot button questions for which there's basically no good answer at all, so I'll pass.

Mike, since my travel is limited to train, public transit, and foot, I don't know how soon I'll be able to get there, but thanks for the suggestion!

Rake, nicely summarized! You get tonight's gold star.

Lewis, the Pilgrims play a much larger role in American historical mythology, largely because of who won the Civil War. (History is always written by the victors.) The origins of American society are much more complex than usually portrayed!

Stu, glad to hear it.

Thijs, the Frontier culture wasn't particularly virtuous, either -- it just didn't tend to support the particular habit of empire. (It had its own pathologies.) We'll get to that as we proceed.

Unknown Deborah, the Vinlanders had next to no contact with the native people, and their colony failed within a couple of years. Those two factors prevented an earlier transfer of at least some of the same pathogens. Recall also that the Vinland colonists came from Greenland, which was an isolated backwater, while Columbus' crew came from a major nation with trade links over much of western Eurasia.

Unknown Mark, we'll get into that. The power of the Frontier culture had one of its most important roots in the role of the frontier states in the struggle between New England and the South.

John Michael Greer said...

Goth, I'm not a great fan of Bates' book -- I'd have preferred something that addresses the downsides of the biochar technique, and references some experimental evidence for its usefulness in temperate climates -- a highly disputed issue. Still, it raises some interesting possibilities.

Phil, I'll look that up. I've read Washington's Crossing, and thought it was very good.

Raven, of course there are more cultures now. The question I'm discussing is how many there were in, say, 1700.

Rio, true enough.

Oji, well, where did you think I learned it?

Bill, we'll get to that!

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, one of the predictable results of my comments about the limited use of good guy-bad guy analyses of history was that a bunch of people tried to post comments or links to essays purveying extreme good guy-bad guy analyses of American history, most of them along the lines of "Look how horrible the US has always been!!!" Yes, I've heard that rhetoric before, at vast length. If you want to discuss it there are countless other sites where you can do so. 'Nuf said.

Unknown said...

@ Brien

If I may hazard a guess about the non-transportability of New England rural culture...

It seems to me that one of the things that both is dependent on and fosters (nice feedback loop, that!) is a sense of stability and continuity. It did fine in New England, whose six states were settled by a relatively culturally homogeneous group of Europeans over the course of centuries. I mean, people go on about the U.S. being a "young country", but the complete English settlement of New England took much longer than, in Europe, the complete Magyar settlement of Hungary back in the Middle Ages! But after 1783, the U.S.'s population leapt westward very quickly, and immigrants from all sort of cultural groups mixed together in the Western frontier. There was not nearly enough cultural stability in the constantly changing frontier for the New England-style culture to last long, even in the places where settlers from New England weren't beat by ones from the South, from Appalachia, or from Europe.

Just my $0.02!

--Mark H.

Maria said...


I'm in Newport, Rhode Island. I can only speak to my own experience. Your mileage may vary.

John D. Wheeler said...

@rakesprogress -- I disagree wholeheartedly. Wealth IS created and destroyed. Especially when it is transferred forcibly, the one taking it gets less than what the other loses. If you mug me and take my wallet, my sense of security is lost in the process. In that sense wealth acts more like the second law of thermodynamics.

I'm guessing that you are equating wealth with material goods. But who is more wealthy: the person who lives in a safe neighborhood where he doesn't have to worry about his security, or the person who has bodyguards, wall safes, and sophisticated alarm systems around his house? I say the person in the safe neighborhood. He doesn't need to spend his money on all those other things.

Ultimately wealth is based on human values. Your zero-sum thinking is very unhelpful. We need solutions that enrich each other and other life on the planet.

escapefromwisconsin said...

A terrific tour of "hidden" American history, and one reason why people who are aware of these fundamental historical divisions often foresee a political breakup of the United States. At a fundamental level, the U.S. is composed of different visions of how society should be run, and those divisions are becoming increasingly irreconcilable. Add in the fact that highly productive "blue" states send more revenue to the federal government than they get back, while antigovernment "red" states are, in fact, welfare sponges. Finally, factor in that there are secession movements already afoot (Vermont, Texas, Alaska), which are minor, but may gain in popularity as conditions deteriorate. Maybe we'll se an independent Cascadia in our lifetime, like in Ecotopia.

Here's a summary of the eleven division theory from Miller-McCune: Mapping the (11) Divisions in American Society In addition to Charles Mann's excellent 1491, I'd also recommend Alfred Crosby's books. Mann also published 1493 - a sequel of sorts - last year.

Morris Berman also says some interesting things about New England being a "fragment" culture - transplanting the entrepreneurial, capitalist, "hustling" element of English culture without all the other more "humane" elements of the culture. In this he sees the origins of America's obsession with aquisition and expansion in oppostion to all other human values. He believes this is essentially "baked in" to American culture, and that the seeds of America's decline are essentially sewn by historical circumstance. Interestingly, he sees the antebellum South as the major historical opposition to the Yankee "hustling" lifestyle, and its destruction in the Civil War as assuring the primacy of the former over the direction of the nation.

Industrial systems and technology also concentrate power too, which is why I wonder why people are so enthusiastic about a future full of cell-phone implants, smart grids, autonomous robots, self-driving cars, and social media. They're already tracking you via cell phones, monitoring social media and developing autonomous killer drones. How much worse would this get if there really were some sort of "singularity" on the horizon?

The connection between the religious and political world views, especially with regard to the Neocons is illustrated in this classic Ron Suskind piece from 2004. I've included the famous quote from the article below:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

escapefromwisconsin said...

And speaking of Berman, here's a quote about technology from his blog:

This is something I deal with in Chapter 3 of Why America Failed, devoted to the history of American technology. One can of course argue that there are good and bad technologies, or good and bad uses of technology; this is the conventional wisdom on the subject. But the truth is that technology is never neutral, never value-free: as Marshall McLuhan (among others) argued decades ago, any particular technology carries a value system with it, and introduced into a culture it will change the nature of that culture quite profoundly. In short order, thanks to Jobs & Co., we've gone from a literate culture that had a human depth, and a sense of self, to a screen culture that has neither. All that remains is the flickering image of the moment—not exactly the stuff of revolution, or even serious protest. Really, what could be more congenial to the American corporate state? If I could get myself appointed Dictator of America (benevolent, of course), my first order of business would be to require that (a) everyone own a cell phone, and be using it almost constantly; (b) everyone be signed up on Facebook and Twitter; and (c) everyone be taking Prozac or Zoloft on a daily basis. I would reign in perpetuity, no doubt about it.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

The lie of terra nullius is at the core of European expansion and it was certainly proclaimed (loudly) to be the case here in Australia. Yet the sad truth was that it was only possible to make this claim because of the spread of infectious diseases had wiped out up to 90% of the Aboriginal population in the south of the country within a decade or two of the Europeans arrival.

Permanent settlements weren't often the first contact either in the south. Sealers and whalers were often the first contact in remote locations along the coast.

The remaining populations were often removed to missions. Taking away language and contact with their country was an effective method of destroying their culture and knowledge.

The Aboriginals to the north and north west of the continent were far less susceptible to the diseases that decimated the southern tribes. The reasons behind this are another sticky historical issue for people of European descent that is often glossed over.

It is believed that there was trade / contact between the people of the Indonesian islands and the mainland of Australia. Dingo's are one of the outcomes of this contact. Until fairly recently Thylacines ranged the Australian continent and dingo's have replaced them and fulfil the same ecological niche.

Also it is believed that the stands of bamboo and strangler figs found on the north coastline of the continent were planted by mariner / explorers of Chinese descent far earlier than the Europeans and their expeditions.

Fascinating stuff.

By the way, the English had the whole system down pat by the time they settled the Australian continent. They exported their surplus population not as indentured labour, but as convicts! Nice work really. Anyway, the convicts were a source of cheap and expendable labour for the government and free settlers, until the gold rush made the entire activity pointless. Why send the unwanted population somewhere at government expense, where they would otherwise pay for themselves to go?

PS: As an interesting question about the US from an outsider, given that there is a relatively large prison population in the US, I'm surprised that you never seem to hear about those prisoners paying their way almost like an indentured worker?



SophieGale said...

I'll second Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. It's a dense, doorstop of a book (900 pages in trade paperback). I intended to read it while I was snowed in this winter, but a) we got no snow worth mentioning, and b)I kept running to the library to pick up other books listed here.

So I need to finish up the stack of library books and put Albion back in the kitchen. (I usually have a "kitchen" book, "bathroom" and "purse" book.)

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I just remembered too. Another of the lies told about the Aboriginals here is that they had no settled villages and were hunter gatherers only. The thinking goes that: as such they had no ownership claim to the land in the sense that the Europeans think.

Yet in the south west of the state that I live, historically there were a massively intricate series of fish traps, ponds and huts that indicated a settled culture.

If 90% of the population died in a major city now, I'm unsure how much evidence would be left in 100 years time and we build poorly with pretty sturdy materials too.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Greengoth,

Like the name. I've mucked around with biochar for a bit here and I'm in a cool temperate environment. The results haven't been that exciting compared to applications of compost, manures, mulches and worm teas.

The other methods appear to work better at creating a more stable soil ecology than bio char. The reason for this (and it's only my opinion based on reading and observation) is that the charcoal provides some energy and a lot of available housing for the soil flora and fauna.

The other mthods described above provide the actual soil flora and fauna plus they provide energy and housing so they seem to be a more holistic addition to the soil.

People are looking for a silver bullet when there really isn't one.

Tropical soils are quickly leached which is why adding lots of stable carbon to the soil has such a great outcome. It makes the soil more resilient. Other less extreme environments don't tend to suffer this problem so don't require such a quick fix.

Still think I'm talking garbage? I dug a hole and took a photo for an article I'm writing on soil at the moment and measured 200mm of top soil, where 7 years ago there was pure clay!

Anyway, it doesn't matter really because our industrial agricultural practices are such, and our desire to dig and turn soil (think grain crops) would quickly lose what ever carbon we got back into the top soil anyway!



Abelardsnazz said...

Thanks for another thought provoking and informative post JMG. One thing that puzzled me was your saying that the Frontier model wasn't imperial. Surely the rugged, individualist frontiersmen and women were actively encouraged by the government to spread west into the "empty" heartland. The net effect was that they accreted a vast area on to the USA, thus doing a great deal of empire building. Also, did the native Americans they met on the way regard the Frontier people as egalitarian?

sgage said...

For those interested in the "1491" thing, here is a lengthy article by the author of that book in the Atlantic:

An interview with the author is at:

(you have to scroll down a bit to get to the actual interview)

Compound F said...

I find it fascinating that you are ten steps beyond where I am going.

Pardon my gushing, but this series on empire, the series on "magic," even, are incredible appetizers.

I came to this joint from Ian Welsh's joint. All I can say is that I am grateful for your insight, as in looking forward to further perambulations on history and philosphy. Well, psychology included, for that matter, since you brought up the "magic" thing first. In that respect, Edwin Ray Guthrie would have said, "Don't evoke the bad reaction," and then you won't get one in return, or upon remembrance.

Jim Brewster said...

I know Howard Zinn's name has come up here. As long as you keep aware of its limitations, A People's History of the United States is still a great counterweight to the flag-waving version of history.

He pointed out very well how the merchant elites, both North and South, effectively used the frontier folk as a buffer against the Native Americans, encouraging them to push westward while taxing them heavily on their produce (wealth pump in action).

When they aimed their frustrations back East (see Shay's Rebellion and Whiskey Rebellion), they were dealt with quite harshly.

Andrew Jackson rose to power because, as an effective demagogue and military leader, he was an effective tool for expansion. As much as he horrified the ruling class at the time, they couldn't deny his skill as a politician and a general, or the benefits his activities brought them.

Jim Brewster said...

Of course I didn't mean the last comment as a good guy-bad guy analysis. And as easy as it is to read Zinn that way, I'm not sure it was really his intention either, though he clear picked sides.

Acknowledging that there are power dynamics and that ordinary people have reasons for preserving them, or resisting them, does not have to descend into demonization.

I'd also like to announce that I've started a new blog devoted to civil discussion of the end of our civilization at Think of it as a mycorrhyzal extention of the ADR tree, with room for some topics that may be tangential to JMG's main thrust. Between diapers and gardening I hope to keep it active. Stop by and help me get the discussion rolling!

John Michael Greer said...

Escape, that quote from the Bush aide is a favorite of mine; as exhibit A in any working definition of hubris, it's hard to beat. That last Berman bit is good -- clearly I need to revisit his work.

Cherokee, American ideology doesn't permit public discussion of the fact that we've got a larger fraction of our population behind bars than any other nation on the planet. Yes, a lot of them are a labor force -- there are a lot of for-profit prison corporations in the US, which run prisons for states and hire out the convicts.

Sophie, doorstops are good. Most of my favorite books are either doorstops or sprawling multivolume works.

Aberlarsnazz, you seem to think that "imperial" and "egalitarian" are the only two options, which is more of the moral dualism I'm trying to get past. A group of people can be violent, racist, and expansionist without being into the specific form of wealth extraction that defines an empire. The Frontier culture is a good example of this. Of course their egalitarianism only extended to members of their own culture -- most egalitarian systems have that limit built overtly or covertly into them, you know.

Sgage, thanks for the links!

Compound F, glad you're enjoying the conversation.

Jim, congrats for the new blog. I'm not a great fan of Zinn, but I know a lot of people who enjoy his book.

Richard said...

John, this isn't really on topic, but I was wondering why the AODA website had its account suspended. I went looking to see if you wrote anything on the site about polytheism and found that the site was down.

Guardian said...

Thank you for a most illuminating post. After doing some cursory on-line research I discovered that some developers and loggers are already using the 'Amazon was not always virgin forest' argument to justify more forest clearance. Naturally they're not using the lesson of the Mayan decline as a reason for sustainable growth. It never ceases to amaze me how self-interest and short-termism can make people so blinkered.

Ric said...

oji: What you describe, three cultural hearths in the colonial U.S., has been standard fare in Human Geography courses for many a year.

One of the things I love about this place is that I learn something every day. I'd never heard of Human Geography before reading this. Fortunately, has a large selection of Human Geography textbooks in the $3-4 range w/ free shipping. More for the to-be-read pile. Is it OK to grab anything or are there specific authors, publishers or years of publication that should be sought out/avoided?

Thanks for the lead, Oji!

And it cannot be said enough: Thanks JMG for all the time and effort you put into this site.

Kieran O'Neill said...

A good place to end for the week -- I guess the beginnings of American adventures outside of what is now the continental US started around the time when the land to expand into ran out.

I wonder how this parallels with other historical empires? The British had been stuck on their islands for quite some time before becoming established as a naval power. Perhaps being an island nation helped with that, but it took quite a bit longer than in the US. The Romans had a similar expansionist drive, although theirs was one of (overt) military conquest, and once they reached the limit of their expansion, they stopped. Perhaps the Mongolians? Again, though, they engaged in overt and rather nasty military conquest rather than the American frontier-drive.

Glenn in Maine said...

I'd add two things about New England from a lifetime studying the history of my native region. (I speak as a 10th generation Yankee and identify myself as a New Englander before an American). One is that our cultural homogeneity owes much to the fact that the Puritan Great Migration lasted just 10 years (1630-1640), after which it was abruptly shut off once the English Civil War commenced. The 21,000 emigrants who came over during that period were all from a very narrow range of English society who then grew organically from within over the next 150 years, absorbing virtually no immigrants whatsoever, and in those generations created what we know as Yankee culture. The other is our geographic isolation from the rest of North America. New York City outgrew Boston in importance once the Erie Canal opened and we were cut off from the western trade which resulted (Hudson Valley to the Great Lakes). The north-south barrier of the Litchfield Hills, Berkshire and Green Mountain ranges prevents easy east-west communication (all our major rivers run north/south not east/west). To this day there are only a handful of connection points between New England and New York overland, and this includes all infrastructure such as road, rail, power, pipelines and communications. I am convinced that the reality of our geographic isolation will become significant again as the fossil fuel age winds down.

Another good book not mentioned yet is DW Meinig’s “Atlantic America” which traces the cultural hearths and their impact on North American settlement:

Brien said...

@ Unknown Deborah
I'd forgotten about the effects of the introduction of horses; thank you for reminding me. It propelled me to do a bit of research, and the history is fascinating:

American tribes such as the Mandan, Shawnee and others lived in the plains for milennia and hunted bison by herding and stampeding them into traps or corrals made beforehand, killing entire herds at a time. It seems that there were fewer bison then - none reported by Hernando de Soto in the Southwest area in 1540. The "hills black with buffalo" arising later may have been an effect of decreased human predation.

They bloomed just in time to support the much greater numbers moving into the plains as the European settlement continued. Horses allowed individual hunters to take just enough to feed families and villages, though they actually had to shorten the bows to make them useful on horseback.

@ Unknown Mark H.
Ah, that would do it. The cultural homgenity of New England is something you wouldn't get as you moved farther. By the time of Industrialisation, different cultural forces were prompting the westward expansion.

Thank you all, both for the food-for-thought and for the courtesy. It was a warm welcome for a long-time reader, first-time poster!

Edward said...

JMG, hopefully you can tolerate an off topic throwback to an earlier post.

I came across a nice example of thaumaturgy described in Colin Wells' slim volume "The Roman Empire"

(The emperor Augustus, in his memoirs, Res Gestae Divi Augusti, stated that he)".. sucessfully championed the liberty of the republic when it was oppressed by the tyranny of a faction." (Wells notes that) "'liberty' and faction' are stock words of the political vocabulary: I am always for liberty, you are always a faction. Like 'democracy' today, 'liberty' could mean anything you wanted it to mean and nobody was ever against it."

It's funny, my boss at work uses 'professionalism' in the same way. If he can skillfully define an issue as an issue of professionalism, it becomes impossible to oppose him. I have rapidly caught on, though, and if I can get to the 'P word' before him, the tables can be turned.

rakesprogress said...

@ John D. Wheeler, You have a point. I envision wealth in relation to health, kind of yin and yang. Maybe wealth is the material resources required for life, and health is the integrity of systems at various levels such as cellular, organism, family, and community.

I'm not sure how far we can take the thermodynamics metaphor, but I bet it's pretty far if we work at it. Certainly your point about entropy is well taken, and perhaps we can say wellness can be converted (with some loss, as always) between wealth and health forms without it leaving the system in question.


ando said...


To we organic gardeners, the "1491"
Atlantic article to which ssage sent the link is interesting in that it discusses the dark soil terra preta that the brazilian farmers developed.

This is the link to the wikipedia article which seems to be fairly well researched and cited.

This week's blog is elegant, informative, and non-dual, as usual, which is a plus to we advaitans.



jollyreaper said...

One question I have is why things always break down into an owner/tenant or management/worker model in societies. There have been attempts at cooperatives where the means of production are jointly owned but they haven't really caught on.

I know that land in general becomes concentrated because of human nature. Take a patchwork of small farmers, one will be just a little more successful, buy out a neighbor, then someone else will have bad luck and have to sell at a bad price, someone else cashes out and gets a good price, after a few generations you have latifundias.

The point you were getting at about culture and empire and how a culture can survive the fall of an empire usually... What made the Indian civilizations more successful or at least more stable?

The great theory of explaining Europe vs. the rest of the world was that geographic barriers made defense very easy and offense very hard so multiple strong, viable, competing cultures could coexist in in close proximity. Elsewhere in the world there weren't the natural barriers so dominant cultures would sweep across the land forming empires, weaken and be swept away by another dominant culture.

The problem with the big theories is that a proponent might not be willfully deceitful but genuinely mistaken. He's not trying to shade the truth or massage the facts to fit a thesis, he's putting forward the most honest theory he can but he just happens to be wrong.

I will admit that my own biases are towards finding the greatest good for the greatest number. I think the liberal sin could be defined as "well-intentioned mistakes than only make the problem worse" and the conservative sin, to paraphrase Galbraith, is looking for little more than a "superior moral justification for selfishness." Usually the liberal is trying to make up for the sins of the father, the legacy of earlier conservative actions.

It's all a big, ugly, thorny mess and it's difficult to tell the difference between people who have the straight dope and are seeing clearly, people who are genuine and just happen to be very wrong, and people who are telling self-serving lies to advance a secret agenda.

jollyreaper said...

One other thought. Trying to strip politics back to the most basic point, Lasswell said "Politics is who gets what, when, and how." That seems pretty elemental.

In terms of political conflict, it usually seems to boil down to a status quo: some have it good, some have it rotten. Those who have it good will be conservative because they don't want a good thing to change. Those who want reform are taking it in the shorts. They will be the liberals or reformers.

It seems to go against human nature to allow for a square deal, for all parties to negotiate as equals and come out of an exchange mutually enriched. According to theory trade and commerce should be about exactly that. Party A and Party B are this wealthy on their own, are this much more wealthy with trade. Seems fine in the textbook. But it always seems to turn into exploitation in the end.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

In California, low security prisoners are paid to do government jobs such as picking up litter along highways and fighting forest fires. There are pilot programs to train younger inmates to be personal attendants for a swelling population of elderly inmates who suffer from dementia. In addition, prisoners have always had jobs in the prison laundries, kitchens and so forth. So far, labor unions with some backing from NGOs have blocked attempts to hire out prisoners to private enterprises in California.

Most of the lower security prisoners with shorter sentences are now being transferred to county jails as a cost cutting move and to relieve overcrowding. Concern has been expressed that the state is too broke to fight wildfires without their cheap labor.

Some California inmates have been transferred to prisons in other states to relieve overcrowding. I don't know how much, if at all, California makes use of for-profit prisons. In some rural counties, prisons are major employers for the free population.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Ah, everything old is new again!

Virtually free labour (convicts) and unexploited native grasslands were the mainstay of the Australian economy between 1788 and 1850.

The problem is though that the core problem from Europe was never resolved. Probably it is because it is a predicament rather than a problem.

PS: Google accounts sent me a message that my account has been hacked, so if anyone gets any strange messages - it's not me but some nefarious individuals.



Candace said...

@ Cherokee,

Ashvin (occasional commenter here) wrote an interesting series of posts on The Automatic Earth about slavery, debt and convict, that you might find interesting.

I don't know how to post links, but they are fairly recent and should be easy to find.


oji said...


Harm de Blij is sort of the "Big Cheese" in American Geography, but I've found his textbooks have tended to lag developments more than in previous years, but you could do a lot worse than to start with his books on geography as a field of study. He does, however, tend to offer up a very conventional, almost 1955, view of the world, in terms of his economic and social perspective-- 'growth is the cure for most every ill, and those people would be better off if they were more like 'us', etc...

Malinowski is better, and tends to offer a somewhat less fermented viewpoint.

For some icons of cultural (landscape) geography, Yi Fu Tuan was always as interesting read (to me). Also, expect to run into Foucault if you read up on cultural, and expect a lot of "deconstructionist" perspective.

Gotta run. Will try to write more later.

Alice Y. said...

News from the breakup of the USA empire, thought you all might want to know if you've not already heard: Lakota formally declare sovereignty - that's all I know about it but doubtless some are better informed.

phil harris said...

I have been prompted by this week's take on the history of the Americas to look for a few updates on original studies. Indeed, follow the diseases!

The recent ability to examine DNA produces interesting results, including lineages of 'introduced' infections.

But first here for me is an interesting date from a review of a meeting covering this approach to the last 70Kya!
Human faeces (coprolites) from the Paisley Caves in Oregon were used by them [Eske Willerslev et al] to recalibrate the timing of the peopling of North America to 14 000 ya. I guess that means at least 14Kya.

A quote from another source comments on anthrax in N America:
Disease introduction into the New World during colonial expansion is well documented and had a major impact on indigenous populations; however, few diseases have been associated with early human migrations into North America. During the late Pleistocene epoch, Asia and North America were joined by the Beringian Steppe ecosystem which allowed animals and humans to freely cross what would become a water barrier in the Holocene. ... Continent-wide dispersal of WNA B. anthracis likely required movement by later European colonizers, but the continent's first inhabitants may have seeded the initial North American populations.

From here, I see that TB in Canadian Native Peoples has an interesting history with bacterial lineage sourced in the French fur trade.

[ One aside. There were successive rise and fall of empires across S. America well before 1492 and the colonial disease catastrophes, were there not? The mechanisms of Empire indeed seem ancient as there are numerous cases of their parallel evolution. It does not seem a recent habit!]

shtove said...

The only thing this proves is that a blog post can be TOO interesting.

You made me miss the first half of the Wales v Italy rugby match.

Thanks alot!

ps. The frontiersmen are up later - Ireland v Scotland.

SLClaire said...

My family ran into the divisions between different parts of the U.S. in 1971, when we moved from our native Michigan to Raleigh, North Carolina. Naturally we'd learned the victor's view of the Civil War back home and didn't question it. My sister was in 7th and 8th grades during our time in Raleigh, so she got to go through the history of the Civil War in school again, this time from the Southern perspective. She told us that her classmates would cheer every one of the South's victories. All she could do was slink down into her chair and try to be invisible. What I learned from it is despite what we'd been taught, the divisions John speaks of were alive and well. It was a good lesson, one I haven't forgotten.

Unknown said...

Coincidentally I recently finished reading Woodard's book "American Nations" (and starting on a second reading after I steal it back from my wife), and I was pleased to see the direction of this series of posts tying in so neatly with it. Woodard's project of mapping American cultural areas reminded me strongly of Joel Garreau's book "The Nine Nations of North America", which I read in the 80s. Interestingly, though, rather than taking a snapshot of current cultural divides, Woodard's approach focuses on the geographic origins and unique cultures of the original colonists in each area, and the subsequent historical development and interactions of the resulting "nations". He is clearly building on David Hackett Fischer's work on the cultural geography of the English and French colonies in "Albion's Seed" and "Champlain's Dream".

Woodard does break down the eastern seaboard more finely than the Yankee/Midland/Tidewater groups. In the mid-Atlantic colonies he distinguishes between the moderate, Midlands (with Quaker and German origins), the Appalachian backcountry (dominated by Scots Irish Borderlanders), and the New York area (which he argues still draws its commercial and multicultural character from its origins as New Netherland). In the South, he also distinguishes the Tidewater area around Virginia from the Deep South, which was more fundamentally a slave society from its outset (many of the original Charleston colonists having migrated directly from Barbados) and eventually became dominant over Tidewater in the Confederacy. In addition he discusses the French and Spanish colonial presence; briefly mentions the recent resurgence of Inuit and American Indian nations in Canada, Greenland, and Alaska; and argues that two new cultural nations have more recently developed along climatic lines in the Far West and Left Coast (see – Ecotopia).

My own background being mainly from Alaska and Oregon, the dynamics on the eastern seaboard sometimes seem to have been long ago and in a different country – which I suppose is his point – but it was fascinating reading and gave an interesting perspective on how political alliances, not to mention perspectives of various family members, are influenced today by cultural history. Certainly there is a real border between the east and west sides of the Cascades, which is at least as significant as the boundary between Washington and Oregon.

- Grant Canterbury

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, it was down for server maintenance for a couple of days -- I don't have any idea why it came up as "account suspended." It's up again now.

Guardian, unfortunately people who have a vested interest in something can use almost anything as raw material for arguments supporting it.

Kieran, we'll get to that in due time. It was a bit more complex...

Glenn, many thanks for the info and the book suggestion.

Edward, those are classic examples! Thank you. "Efficiency" is my favorite thaumaturgic buzzword just at the moment -- notice how it dodges the question "efficient at what?"

Ando, glad to hear it.

Reaper, good question. Human beings seem to fall into hierarchical patterns pretty consistently, and those patterns become welded into place in any society with enough complexity to allow resource concentration. You're right, too, that attempts to abolish hierarchy don't seem to work very well, but I'd point out that efforts to regulate, limit, and domesticate it -- while still flawed -- have tended toward better results.

Unknown Deborah, in some states the prisons are run as for-profit enterprises by private contractors. California's behind the times a bit.

Cherokee, true enough. It's the shortage of grasslands rather than of convicts that puts a limit on the process these days.

Alice, well, we'll see how far they get.

Phil, exactly. Empires rise and fall for reasons unconnected with disease; as I discussed in an earlier post, the problem with a wealth pump is that you can pump the available reservoirs dry.

Shtove, apologies!

SLClaire, it's a standard American habit for the winners to forget that there was ever a war. The losing side rarely has that luxury.

Unknown Grant, of course you can break it down more finely. The point of the threefold division I've offered here, though, is that it turned out to be fundamental to the very complex process by which the American empire evolved. More on this shortly.

oji said...

Paul Gilding tries to get the word out:

The Earth is Full

phil harris said...

I am reminded of the parable of the Widow's mite.
Something for a deep future?
Phil H

Hal said...

Language artifacts can be instructive. Back in the 19th century, when American Empire was both more publicly acknowledged and limited to the continent, New York was dubbed the "Empire State." Later commemorated by a building.

The point made was that, though Washington may have been the political capitol, the commercial and population expansion that eventually filled the continent flowed through NY, which I guess was thought of as a city-state. Do you consider NY more New England, or Frontier? the industrialism of the former was certainly part of the export, but it seems to have had a more mercenary nature.

Much of the flow bypassed the American hearths and moved straight from Europe through the port of NY and to the Midwest. I guess you could call it the "soddy shack" culture. At any rate, their progeny, along with Yankee farm boys and more recent Irish immigrants made up much of the cannon-fodder that was instrumental in the decisive struggle to consolidate the nascent empire under a dominant regime.

Growing up in the South, it always seemed strange to me, and must have been truly bewildering to my ancestors, that these disparate groups could work up so much zeal for something that didn't seem to really be any of their business. To undergo the hardships and losses they did for four long years and to put in such superhuman endurance and effort (only exceeded by the defenders) so as to win a war that had no apparent benefit to them. My readings over the years has convinced me that the desire to secure the empire was indeed the motivating force for Lincoln, but that the soldiers who did the fighting were about equally divided between those who fought for the abstract "union" and those who had been preached at about the evils of slavery from the pulpits of the North and who genuinely fought to free the slaves. And, of course, a lot of draftees and adventurers, as always.

Anyway, I don't know if this is getting ahead of the story or not, but if the war was fought between the empire paradigms of the North and the South, the winner is clear, but which North are we talking about? On the one hand, you seem to be saying New England didn't reach beyond it's home turf, and on the other, Frontier wasn't really imperialistic. Something pretty serious put a whuppin' on the South.

Hal said...

And while I'm thinking about it, it seems that there were different frontier routes, I'm guessing with somewhat different cultures. In addition to the ones that moved across NY and PA to the Midwest, there were those who crossed the Cumberland Gap and moved into Tennessee. D. Boone et al. While some of them, like my g-gparents on my mother's side, went south into the Mississippi Delta and took up the plantation culture, others moved into the hill country of Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, or Mississippi, or crossed the wild lands of Arkansas and ended up in Texas. (Hence we get "T for Texas, T for Tennessee.")

They also, though they had little to gain by upholding the plantation culture, provided most of the cannon-fodder for the South.

Oddly enough, now this Scots-Irish culture has a dominant role in one of our major political parties, formerly referred to as the "Party of Lincoln."

Jennifer D Riley said...

The Jamestown colonials were sent by their English masters to look for gold. Almost too late, they finally realized the gold was the land underneath their feet. I've read London and southern England had grown so crowded that if the New World hadn't been discovered, millions would have simply died in poverty in England.

Thomas Jefferson's vision for Americans were for them to be farmers and help each other, excluding himself and Washington, plantation owners. Farmers are extremely vulnerable to agriculture disasters--weather, drought, pests, and that was the rise of tobacco as a cash crop. Tobacco strips the soil of nutrients, unlike cereal grains, so that Jefferson was only the third US president but sent Lewis and Clark to the west to look for land--for growing tobacco. Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, again, land for growing.

The biggest mistake Jefferson made is in not recognizing the slave population of the south were exactly suited for being American farmers, according to his original vision. Slaves had the most experience at--farming. Jefferson focused on weak-wittedness, as evidenced by one of his ads for a runaway slave. Jefferson was disastrously myopic on this one point. Permitting slaves to transition to farmers might have side-tracked the Civil War. However, it would have been disastrous for the Industrial Revolution. Maybe American history will be seen as the continuing choice between competing evils? Someone always has to lose?

The colonies' debts incurred during the American Revolution (farmer became soldiers and crops disappeared for at time) meant the creation of the Federal Bank in New York, allowing states to transfer their debts to the fledgling US federal government, another mis- step. Soldiers just had to return home and return to farming, but they were rewarded "war pensions." My ancestor who fought in the American Revolution was granted 5,000 acres in southeastern Kentucky. I have no idea who or how "5,000 acres" was arrived at as the correct compensation, how the 5,000 acres were surveyed, or anything else. It would be fascinating to find out the thinking behind the American Revolution pensions. At the time, Kentucky was just an extension of Virginia, and given Virginia "belonged" to the King of England, after the American Revolution it belonged to the new Unites States.

My ancestor continued his primary career of building water powered sawmills. He didn't claim his 5,000 acres until he was 76 years old, when he moved to Kentucky along with his closest friends and built a sawmill and a home.

Rita said...

Another interesting book about American culture areas is _Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South_ by Grady McWhiney. He claims that many of the folkways noted by Northern and foreign visitors, such as horse racing, gambling, dueling, herding of cattle and pigs vs. mixed agriculture, etc. were a legacy of the Celtic origins of much of the population.

Things may have changed, but about 20 years ago I had an acquaintance in the California prison system who complained of the difficulty of getting a job. There were only a few clerical positions, much competed for. In the 50s and 60s the prison industries included dairies, orchards, canneries and furniture factories that provided much of the food consumed by the prisons, mental hospitals and other state institutions. I know the dairy and orchards at Folsom are gone, I don't know what remains (other than licence plates) of the manufacturing--office furniture was still being produced in the early 90s. Unions pressure was responsible for laws restricting sales of prison products outside of state agencies.

Early colonists were aware that disease had cleared their way--John Winthorp's journal records that "the small pox was gone as far as any Indian plantation was known to the west, and much people dead of it, by reason whereof they could have no trade. At Naragansett . . . there died seven hundred." I think there is also a passage in Gov. Bradford's account of sending exploratory groups out from Plymouth, who found many deserted villages, abanodoned fields and full graneries, which they looted. The Pilgrims saw this as God's work in clearing away their enemies.

A literay movement of the South, known as the Agrarians, opposed indultrialization and stood up for regional cultures. Unfortunately, opposition to Northern interference was often tied to racist sentiments. The persistance of the Civil War in Southern consciousness is an important theme for William Faulkner, one of the Agrarians. His declining gentry, poor whites and patient Negroes are often portrayed in opposition to Yankee hustlers, New York Jews and other representatives of the North.

The 27th Comrade said...

Hello, JMG;

You once said: “These changes won’t take place overnight, though. Hubbert’s peak occurs when approximately half the world’s accessible petroleum has been pumped out, and so the slope down from it will more than likely parallel the slope up to it.”
But you forget, I think, that the rate of usage—of depletion—on the downward end of Hubbert’s hill will countenance with a much-increased base of users and uses for fossil fuels, thereby precipitating a higher extraction rate that was found on the way up the peak. More-importantly, the methods of extraction are today several times more-efficient than before, meaning that the bite of reduced availability of oil will take longer to be felt than it would have, if we were using methods that do not scrape the bottom of the barrel quite so well.

Not long ago, in the Economist ( there was a piece that somehow celebrated the increased efficiency of extraction, even as it grimly noted that “Production is certainly past its peak, however. Since 1999, when Britain was the world’s sixth-largest oil and gas producer, yields have fallen by an average of 6.2% a year, reckons Oil & Gas UK, a trade body (see chart); the country now ranks 18th. But the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) forecasts that over the next 30 years another 14 billion-24 billion barrels of the black stuff will be recovered. … There may yet be new finds … But much of the remaining British oil is hard and expensive to extract,”

The former Prime Minister of France said some days ago that peak oil was three years away.
And even in all that, of course, he said France should go nuclear like there is no tomorrow, because how else to maintain the cushy comforts without oil? Nobody is ready for smaller living; it will kill too many people, before a generation is born that thinks of smaller living as normal and nice.

Danogenes said...

John. Might I suggest to you DH Fischer's "Albion's Seed". It is a look at the 4 cultures which settled coastal America. I you put your geographical analysis together with Fischer's cultural analysis you can get a good picture of why we are where we are now. I'm guessing that we cannot abide the cultural divide of the moment much longer. What do you think?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Jennifer and Rita,

Both of your comments have the uncomfortable sound of truth to them.

Hi 27th comrade,

Yeah and the technology and tools that we have today can't be easily scaled back to a low energy availability state either. But food is the really scary one. We don't have the soils, the know-how, the people or the systems in place to be able to transition back to a low energy state. Simply not possible given the current trajectory of society and population expectations. Check out this video if you get a chance:

Theres no tomorrow video

Hi Candace,

Thanks for the link. It's fascinating stuff and I'll check it out. You might not know it but the majority of Chinese that came out to Australia during the period 1850 to 1890 for the gold rush were sent out as indentured labourers too. Hard life. It wasn't just the UK convicts here. Must be an old game.

You can post a weblink by doing this html command as part of your comment:

(a href="URL you want to insert")words you want highlighted(/a)

Just change ( for < and ) for >
There are four of them to change. URL you want to insert is the actual web address. Keep the "" quotes too.

Hi Croatoan 117, Jason and Adrian,

Thanks for checking out the link. The title is a mental blocker as you said. Doomers is also a negative word that doesn't translate well. How about pragmatist? A mate calls me a brutal realist, but I'm unsure this was meant as a compliment. Oh well, at least he didn't name a chook after me. I know of a lady whose neighbour named one of her cows after her! Names have power.

Glad you enjoyed the photos Adrian.

Hi Deborah,

Sure, neither Queen Victoria or any of her subjects had air conditioning, but the point is that people confuse energy usage and technological innovation. Yeah, I don't dine in those circles and when I have - usually with someone else paying - I've felt guilty. The Hotel Windsor is a lovely old Victorian era building which is quite appropriate! For that money I could eat for a month, easy.



jollyreaper said...

I'd point out that efforts to regulate, limit, and domesticate it -- while still flawed -- have tended toward better results.

That's the way I always understood it as taught way back in school. We had no centralized bureaucracy telling factories how many paperclips to make, allocating to other businesses. Anyone who wanted to make paperclips could do so. Anyone who wanted to buy paperclips knew where to go. The cost of mistakes in estimating demand or poor management would be carried by the manufacturer. If they did poorly, they would go out of business and a new competitor would step in.

In this model, the government's involvement was solely limited to setting regulations standards for safety and the courts for ensuring that contracts could be trusted to have teeth.

By contrast, the communist countries were ridiculed for being impossibly top-down in organization, trying to centrally control things that they were ignorant of and could only make worse with meddling. And as a matter of prestige, the state could allow no institution to fail. And it was impossible for good people to rise to the top because of cronyism and nepotism.

I find it fascinating how we've gone exactly the same route. Every single flaw of the Soviet model is being reinterpreted with a red, white and blue patina. Too big to fail, corruption, cronyism, military adventurism, ridiculously overextended war budget, it's all there.

Jim Brewster said...

Growing up in the Southern Tier of New York gave me an interesting perspective. It was the Erie Canal that built the Empire State, with New York City and the corridor of industry from Albany through Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester to Buffalo on Lake Erie. From there one could navigate the upper Great Lakes, and it was relatively trivial to connect to the Mississippi Basin through the saddle point of Chicago.

On the other hand, the Southern Tier lies in the Allegheny Plateau, with winding river valleys less amenable to development. It remains more Appalachian in character to this day.

Most of the early settlers were Yankees from Connecticut (which claimed lands to the west all the way to the Ohio territory) and Germans and Scots-Irish who followed the Susquehanna Valley from Pennsylvania. I guess that makes the underlying culture kind of a hybrid, with an overlay of immigrants over the ensuing decades.

RainbowShadow said...

I think perhaps the reason you're getting a lot of America is evil comments is because American propaganda and brainwashing runs in the opposite extreme.

There are entire parts of the country where if you bring even remotely any criticism of American behavior to bear, even John Michael Greer's sympathetic criticism, you're either called a fuddy-duddy old timer (if you're elderly) or a whiny little brat (if you're young).

Our national narrative is "AMERICA IS THE GREATEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD HOW DARE YOU DISAGREE YOU COMMUNIST!!!" even though a great deal of evidence suggests that we lag behind other countries in a lot of areas, such as health care and public education.

Let me give you an example. A while back, James Cameron released a movie called Avatar. I won't take up space with the plot, but suffice it to say the American Earth people in the movie behaved in a fashion that was greedy and violent: they burned down the innocent aliens' homes and slaughtered innocent people in order to get the Unobtainium material.

But the point of this example isn't the movie itself, it was the reaction to it.

Americans hated how they were portrayed in the movie, but instead of hating being stereotyped, they hated the movie because it dared to suggest that indiscriminate violence and cruelty was WRONG!

In other words, when Americans get into a rage about being criticized, they don't get upset because they think the charges are wrong, they get upset because they think America can literally do whatever it wants with no concern for how it impacts other nations.

Glenn in Maine said...

Hi Hal: New York and New England are culturally miles apart. The standard anecdote is that a New Yorker boasts about how expensive a car he has while a New Englander brags about how many miles his has on it. Doubtless it has to do with the commercial vs religious origins of the two colonies, and the fact that the whole ‘melting pot of huddled masses’ business simply doesn’t apply to NE like it does to the rest of the US. And while I’m aware that to the rest of the world a ‘Yank’ is any American, and to a southerner a ‘Yankee’ is any northerner, the proper definition of a Yankee is someone native to the six New England states, full stop. It’s along the same lines of how every Englishman is British but not every Briton is an Englishman.

Jim Brewster said...

Glenn, to be clear Yankees did move west, as my own family history can attest. They just left behind some of their "Yankee-ness" and intermarried with the other white Protestants. Yet they left their mark across NY, PA, OH, MI and points beyond. Maybe this process of emigration from New England selected for more entrenched "Yankee-ness" in those that stayed behind, while diluting it in the "Yankee diaspora."

MPL said...

I am learning a lot here. Thank you for your educational efforts and intellectual honesty.