Friday, May 10, 2019

Book Review: American Nations

Colin Woodard’s, American Nations, is one of the best books on American history I’ve ever read. It urges you to think of America less as Democrat vs. Republican, urban vs. rural, or liberal vs. conservative. Rather, America, he argues, is made up of eleven distinct nations, including “Yankeedom,” the “Deep South,” “New France,” and “El Norte.” 

Some stray thoughts…

-It is amazing how the early cultural settlements have dictated how history has unfolded. NYC is what it is today because of the Dutch empire’s emphasis on commerce and religious tolerance. The Deep South still contends with the legacy of enslavers, who brought to the American South their notions of white supremacy and their cruel practices from Barbados plantations. The Northeast, despite being exposed to waves of ethnically diverse immigrants, has retained many of the best norms of the Puritans, such as its communitarian focus on the common good. It amazes me that 20th and 21st Century homogenizing forces (radio, TV, the Internet) have not homogenized us into one obvious nation; rather, these old cultural legacies continue to reverberate through time.

-El Norte may be the key to the near-future of American politics. It’s an increasingly powerful American nation, which has historically had progressive leanings that could help turn red parts of the US blue.

-There’s a fascinating section toward the end about how America might break up. El Norte could break off from the US and add chunks of northern Mexico to become it’s own republic. Yankeedom, the Midlands, and New Netherlands could form an alliance. The US might Balkanize or shred apart like the USSR. We see this sort of thing happening peacefully in Spain (over Catalonia) or in the UK, where they’re presently leaving the EU, and where Scotland may someday indeed sever ties with the UK. Quebec got pretty close to moving away from Canada 25 years ago. We have had some states for less than 100 years, and we only fought a Civil War 150 years ago. A separation of some sort is not impossible to imagine, especially when our differences persist. Still, I don’t think any of these possibilities will come to pass, anytime soon at least. There are indeed huge differences between Yankedom and the Deep South, and it’s clear that old legacies live on. But they also fade. Look at Christianity in Europe, for example. A thousand years ago, everyone in Europe was a believer. But Europe is becoming increasingly secular. Just look at how Catholicism has retreated in Ireland, which saw a whopping 6% drop in just 6 years within the 2010s. Change is possible. Big change is possible. And I’d like to think that the big things that divide us: outsized notions of individual liberty, white supremacy, xenophobia, etc. will wane with time.

-Woodard says the South, as a unified political entity, wasn’t really formed until *after* the Civil War, when the Deep South became more unified with Greater Appalachia and Tidewater. This has me wondering what the US might look like if the Confederate forces won. Woodard says the Northern US would, today, look a lot more like Canada.

-In my opinion, if America will continue to lead the world, we will only do so if Yankeedom, and it’s sister nation, the Left Coast, lead the way. Huge challenges like climate change will require a common good-oriented approach. It will require taxation and trust in government. It will require an environment-minded citizenry and government. The theocratic leanings and notions of racial supremacy of the Deep South are of little use to us in the 21st Century and beyond, and the fixations on individual liberty in Greater Appalachia and the Far West will also be of little help, even if this quality, when expressed judiciously, has had its uses and charms. The 21st Century calls for the more progressive nations to lead the way. Interesting, Woodard ends with the Native American “First Nation,” which, though the smallest of the nations in population, may have one of the biggest roles to play:

“First Nation is a highly communalistic society. Most tribal land in the far north is owned in common under a form of title that prevents it from ever being sold to an individual or exploited in such a way that diminishes its value to future generations. In Greenland there is no private property at all: everyone is allowed to responsibly use the people’s shared land, but it is thought the height of absurdity that any one person should “own” it, which would be comparable to someone’s asserting ownership of the wind. Inuit—whether dwelling in Labrador, Nunavut, Greenland, or Alaska—still hunt, fish, and gather a substantial amount of their food, and all of those “home foods” and the implements associated with them are generally regarded as common property as well. If a hunter kills a seal, it’s handed over to whoever needs it. Villages have communal freezers that anyone can access—free of charge or accounting—because food cannot belong to one person. If the tribe engages in an industrial enterprise, the proceeds belong to everyone… Communalistic, environmentally minded, and female-dominated, the people of First Nation will have a very different approach to the global challenges of the twenty-first century from that of the other nations of the continent and the world. And starting in Greenland, First Nation is building a series of nation-states of its own, giving North America’s indigenous peoples a chance to show the rest of the world how they would blend postmodern life with premodern folkways.”

Monday, May 6, 2019

Game of Thrones Reviews

My pal David and I have now done reviews for each episode of the final Game of Thrones season. (We're done with four of six.) Here they are:

Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3
Episode 4

Friday, April 26, 2019

Book Review: Prisoners of Geography

I really enjoyed "Prisoners of Geography" by Tim Marshall. It's a great introduction to modern-day geopolitics, which I was terribly in need of. The overall thesis is that so much of geopolitics comes down to simple geography. 

The good soils, waterways, and climate of France, Germany, and England help to explain their consistent hold on power. The US is not going to decline, as we always feel inclined to say, because we are in just about the most fortunate geographic position a country could ask for. Brazil will never be a major international power, despite its size, because of its jungles, poor soil, and un-ideal waterways. Russia is about to make a big play in the arctic to obtain fossil fuels. This is made possible partly because of technology (ice-breaking ships) and largely because of increasingly navigable waterways due to climate change. The great powers of China and India have long been at peace largely because they're separated by the Himalayas, and the Chinese occupation of Tibet was carried out largely to ensure this. Africa is a mess for a hundred reasons (colonial legacies for starters), but geography may be the central. 

It's not always geography; political systems can hold countries back, too. The author writes that Argentina is blessed with good geography, and Argentinians could have a standard of living on par with Europeans if it wasn’t for lousy politics.

A hypothetical: What are the countries that have been blessed with good geography, but bungled it? On the other hand, which countries did the most with the least?

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Campus Galli in Smithsonian Magazine

Andreas, a carpenter: “I hate pressure. We made a big mistake of the wooden monastery because our preparation was not finished, and then we were stressed. Our work is complicated. [We didn’t have] enough time to concentrate. If you work very concentrated, you have a better work as an end. I will return to the work and work slowly. I like the quality.” 

I have an article out in this month's Smithsonian Magazine, on a strange architectural project called "Campus Galli," a living history open-air museum for which they're using ninth-century tools, methods, and materials. They say Notre Dame will be re-built in 5 years. Think about an architectural project that might take 100.
I volunteered there for about a week, working with the basket-maker, rope-maker, and stonemason.
The longer version of this article would have included a call for a 21st Century revival of craftsmanship, a reflection on all of us whose jobs are going to be made obsolete due to automation, and the need for strong communities and a larger sense of purpose. I only had 1,800 words to work with, but I'd like to think that this tiny article has found a way to hint at all of the above.

Some photos from my stay... 

This woman is an office worker who volunteers as a stonemason at Campus Galli. She told me that at her office desk she begins her day with a stack of papers on one side of her desk, and at the end of the day the papers are on the other side. Dissatisfied with not being able to see the product of her labor at the office, she comes to Campus Galli so she can. Here, she's driving a pole into a stone, which will eventually divide the stone into smaller pieces.

Michael, a carpenter: "It's about respect of the materials. Working with simple tools, not machines and a lot of noise."

Daniel, a carpenter: “For me, it’s mainly the craft. In carpentry today, we set up things a machine builds. Here, I can really work in my craft, think about how to build the things. It's quite a special building site because a monastery is quite complex. Lots of different buildings. Lots of different ways to build them. There’s a connection between the science and the craft.”

Martin, the potter: “We have so many different people from different backgrounds, different motivations. [When] they get their Medieval dress, they all look the same or very similar. You don't know why this person is here. We have volunteers, students, old people, families, craftsmen, or [people who] work in an office. Also, unemployed people who get used to work again. You put your dress on like a monk, and then no one can see whether your parents were noble or slaves.”

Maga, the basketmaker: “In the twenty-first century, people are looking for money. They don’t take care of the community. Here, I like the community, the people in [the] barracks.”

Inside of the church

Lars, the shephard: “I studied computer science and nature science, combining biology and computer science. I noticed I was sitting inside with a computer and not going outside. I have to be outside. I want to try new things.”

Nicole, the vegetable gardener: "[I like] to work in the fresh air, not in the factories."

Julian, a carpenter: "You have a lot more time here to make quality, and to get to know the wood before your eyes. [You can] develop a capacity. In the twenty-first century, you have a lot of different types of machines. It's cool, but I'm not developing a capacity to read the wood, to work with it. I was fascinated by this, and by the community."

Sophie, a carpenter apprentice: “I didn’t want to do textiles. I wanted to be cutting trees. Shaping the beams. I started to tell other female volunteers, you could do that. I really like to learn craft. In other places you can’t really learn so many different crafts. Here, you can make mistakes and everyone is okay with it. You have a master who will tell you the next step. It’s more individual.”

That's me

Jens, a stonemason: "I have worked on many old churches. I like to keep them alive. Make a stone, fit it in. When I’m gone, the stone is still there." 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Backpacker Radio Podcast

Today I'm on Backpacker Radio, talking about my books and the right to roam. A description from their webpage:
In today’s episode of Backpacker Radio, Smiles and I sit down with author Ken Ilgunas. To put it simply, Ken is a guy who marches to the beat of his own drum. We talk at length about his time hiking the length of the Keystone XL Pipeline both where it was developed and supposed to be developed, where had to not only trespass for much of this hike, but knock on complete strangers doors for help on many occasions. He shares his take on public vs. private land, why we should have hiking access on private land, the threats to public land, and how this is handled in other countries. Ken also shares about his time living out of his van, before #vanlife was even a thing. We close out the show with a new thru-hiker of the week, some Trek propaganda, and a new segment, two lies and a truth. This is another juicy show. So strap in.