Tag Archives: history

Tarantino’s “Paranoid”

About halfway through The Hateful Eight, bounty hunter John Ruth is starting to worry that the people at Minnie’s Haberdashery aren’t who they say they are, or at least “one of them fellas (meaning Bob or Joe or Oswaldo or Chris) is not what he says he is.” John Ruth and Major Marquis Warren (and for that matter everyone at Minnie’s) will soon learn the hard way that these suspicions are well founded; but at this point in the story, John Ruth might just be imagining things, so Major Warren asks:

Are you sure you’re not just being paranoid?

The rest of the dialogue in this scene was lost on me, because I was taken out of the film and left wondering how or why Tarantino (and, for that matter, all the people who read the screenplay for Hateful Eight) had let this glaring anachronism stand.

The first known use of “paranoid,” according to Merriam Webster, is 1904, probably in connection with the introduction of paranoia as a clinical variety of dementia praecox by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin; the screenplay sets the action of The Hateful Eight “six or eight or twelve years after the Civil War,” roughly in the 1870s. The term paranoia was around before Kraepelin, having been first introduced into English in 1857, but it didn’t come into use among English-language medical writers until the 1890s, and even then, the word in this more pristine form would not have been available except to medical specialists.

Major Warren’s casual and colloquial use of “paranoid” might have been possible as early as the 1950s, when psychoanalytic parlance became more widespread. I suspect the actual provenance of the Major’s “being paranoid” lies somewhere in the haze of late 60s and early 70s drug culture, a full century after the action of The Hateful Eight. Or maybe even later than that: “Almost Cut My Hair,” recorded in 1970, opts for “increases my paranoia” — casting paranoia as a constant affliction of varying intensity — as opposed to the Major’s use of the present continuous “being paranoid,” which suggests only a momentary lapse.

Not that Tarantino is trying, at all, to be strict about these things. His story might be set in the nineteenth century but his characters belong to the twenty first, and this is hardly the only anachronism in the language of the screenplay. (To take just one instance, O.B. proposes that he and Chris set out a line to the outhouse, because no matter how bad the blizzard gets, the people gathered at Minnie’s will have to “take a squat from time to time.”) To characterize these as slips or oversights — like the anachronisms I wrote about in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis — would be to miss the ways in which Tarantino is playing self-consciously with anachronism throughout The Hateful Eight, from the opening Sergio Leone Close Up of the snow-covered crucifix to the mix of Ennio Morricone with Roy Orbison. We’re invited at nearly every turn to appreciate this directorial self-consciousness and to revel in this film’s constant references to other films, other stories and other times.

What strikes me about “being paranoid,” however, is how telling it is. The Hateful Eight presents a world in which everything (proper names, stories, letters, a song, coffee, the stew, the table, the floor, a peppermint stick, the gang in Red Rock, history itself) is contrivance. The most brutal, bloody violence is conventional and contrived, and artifice will either kill you or put you at risk of death. Even the act of dying can be wildly theatrical (like the deaths of John Smithers, John Ruth and Daisy Domergue) or one final act of deception, and there is no way out of deceit and contrivance except death. So it’s only fitting that Chris and Major Warren die together at the end of the film sharing and appreciating the finer points of Major Warren’s forgery. This is a world in which everyone is always plotting and everything is a plot. You’d be crazy not to be paranoid.

Save the Wild UP December Gala Keynote Address

This is the text I prepared for my remarks at the Save The Wild UP December Gala. My talk deals with the ethics of Lake Superior mining, connecting it with climate change, the loss of the wild and the dawn of the Anthropocene. It’s also a reflection on human ingenuity and human responsibility. The half-hour keynote makes for a long blog post, but I hope readers will find something here worth sharing and discussing.  

1

When you invited me to speak tonight, I tried almost immediately to come up with names of people who might be better suited to the task. In this crowd, I ought to be listening and trying to catch up.

I’m an outsider, and a latecomer to boot. Some of you were here when Kennecott and Rio Tinto first staked their claim to the Yellow Dog Plains. I didn’t fully appreciate the extent of the new mining activity in this area and all around Lake Superior until about 2012. That was right after Ken Ross and I had finished making 1913 Massacre, our documentary about the Italian Hall disaster.

I was so caught up in the story our film tells that I was under the impression that copper mining — sulfide mining — was a thing of the past in the Upper Peninsula.

Very near the end of 1913 Massacre, there’s an interview with an Army veteran who’s sitting at the counter of the Evergreen Diner, drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette. He says that after the copper mines closed in 1968, attempts to re-open them failed because people were “bitching about the environment and all that shit and the water and the runoff.” The camera, meanwhile, is exploring the industrial damage left behind by the mining operation.

This is the one moment in the film where we had to bleep out some bad language before Minnesota Public Television would air 1913 Massacre on Labor Day in 2013. The only time anyone in our film curses is when the subject turns to protecting the water and the environment.

That these two things — a destroyed, toxic landscape and a hostility toward people who care about the environment — exist side by side; that people can watch a mining company leave a place in ruins, poison its waters, damage it to the point that it’s now a Superfund site, with high levels of stomach cancer and fish that can’t be eaten, and direct their anger and curses at people trying to prevent it from happening again: our film presents all that as part of what we’ve come to call “mining’s toxic legacy.”

The Army veteran went on to say — this part didn’t make it into the film — that people who bitch about the environment are “people from out of town.” He wasn’t complaining about environmental regulation or about big government; he was complaining instead about out-of-towners, strangers who make it tough for regular guys to make a living.

Strangers can be people from faraway, or just people from whom you feel estranged: people who don’t share your ways or speak your language; and it would be possible to talk at some length about the way the mining operations in the Keweenaw estranged people from each other and from the place they live.

Everywhere it goes, it seems, mining divides and displaces people. It’s never just about extracting ore from the ground. Mining is development and the power to direct it.

When strangers come to town or when people feel estranged, we need translators, guides and mediators. This is one reason why it’s so important to have a local, grassroots organization dedicated to the shared interests people have in the nature and culture of the Upper Peninsula.

You might look like the underdog right now. But I think you’ll agree that there’s a pressing need for a more responsible, inclusive and respectful conversation about development in this place. Save the Wild UP is in a great position to lead it.

2

Back home in Brooklyn, I have a fig tree. I planted it last spring. I just finished wrapping it for the winter. I love the work the fig tree involves — the care it involves — because it connects me to the memory of my grandfather and the fig tree he kept. My tree connects me to my family tree (my roots), to history, and in my imagination the tree belongs as much to history as it does to nature. The life of my tree depends almost entirely on my care. I sometimes wonder if there is anything wild about it.

There is a wild fig. The ancient Greeks even had a special word for it: φήληξ. They seem to have derived its name from another word (φῆλος) meaning “deceitful,” because the wild fig seemed ripe when it was not really so. The ancient world knew that wildness is tricky. It can deceive and elude us, or challenge our powers of discernment.

Nature, we claim, is our dominion, as if it (naturally, somehow) belonged to history, the world of human activity. Our economy organizes nature to produce natural resources. But the wild represents a living world apart from history and another order of value altogether.

We can’t assimilate the wild into an engineered and technical environment: it will cease to be wild the instant we try. The wild begins where engineering and ingenuity stop, at the limits of human authority and command. So “wild” is sometimes used to mean beyond the reach of authority, out of control.

But what’s wild is not alien. Sometimes the wild calls out to us, usually to ward us off. The wild is almost always in flight from us, leaving tracks and traces for us to read. It always responds to us, as wild rice and stoneflies respond to the slightest change in water quality, offering guidance if we are attentive and humble enough to take it.

The wild marks the limits of our powers, our ingenuity and ambition, and before it we ought to go gently.

We have not.

The headlines tell us that our carbon-intensive civilization, which brought us so many material advantages, is now hastening its own demise. We are entering an entirely new era of human life on earth. Some scientists and philosophers talk about the end of the Holocene and the beginning of the Anthropocene — the dawn of a new geological epoch of our making.

The story beneath the headlines is a record of loss. A map of the terrestrial biosphere shows that today only a quarter remains “wild” — that is, “without human settlements or substantial land use” — and even less is in a semi-natural state. Data from the Mauna Loa Observatory tell us that this year was the last time “anyone now alive on planet Earth will ever see” CO2 concentrations lower than 400 parts per million. Those levels started rising in the 1700s with the industrial revolution, spiked dramatically in the postwar period and have climbed steadily higher. Since 1970, the populations of vertebrate animals have dropped by 52 percent. The same report by the World Wildlife Fund tells us that freshwater animal species have declined by 76 percent since 1970.

That precipitous drop in freshwater species should set off alarm bells, especially here, on the shores of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. Since the 1970s, Lake Superior surface-water temperatures have risen and ice cover has dramatically reduced. Walleye can now live in more areas of the lake than ever before. There’s an earlier onset of summer stratification. By mid-century, according to the National Wildlife Federation, Lake Superior may be mostly ice-free in a typical winter.

Now I know it’s the holiday season and these aren’t exactly tidings of comfort and joy, but they are tidings all the same. And what they announce is this: we are responsible. We’re responsible for all this destruction of the wild — of the whole web of life — and for the changes sweeping over us. Denial will not let us off the hook.

Responsibility is not just about being held accountable for the damage you’ve done; it’s also about taking steps to limit damage, repair the broken world, reclaim it and make things better. We have that responsibility to ourselves and to future generations.

“Loss belongs to history,” writes the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, “while politics and life are about what is still to be done.” But, he’s careful to remind us, loss still has a strong claim on the way we live now and on our future plans. The loss of the wild gives us a new responsibility that should inform our politics and our lives at every turn, direct the investments we make and the activities we sanction, and give rise to new conversations about what to do.

Saving the wild is now bound up, inextricably, with saving the human world — for ourselves and for future generations. We can appreciate in a new way Thoreau’s famous statement: “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”

3

Knowing all this, why don’t we act? Why haven’t we acted?

One answer to this question has to do with the word “we,” and our underdeveloped capacity for coordinated, collective action.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, suggested another good answer in a speech he gave back in September to a group of insurance industry executives. Not exactly a bunch of tree huggers, but actuaries, people interested in accounting for risks and costs.

Carney talked about the future in terms of horizons, near versus long term. When we focus only on the near term, we don’t account for the true cost of our activities. That’s why for Carney, climate change is a “tragedy of the horizon,” or the tragic consequence of our inability to see and plan and take steps beyond the near term. Since “the catastrophic effects of climate change will be felt beyond our immediate horizons” — beyond the business cycle and the quarterly earnings reports, beyond the political cycle and the current election — we have deferred the cost of fixing the problem to future generations.

We’ve organized things — markets, politics, institutions — so that near-term interests win out over longer-term well-being and more sustainable arrangements.

Nowadays, if you look out at the Lake Superior horizon, you might see all the way to China. An unsustainable scheme of Chinese urbanization and economic growth fueled much of the new mining activity around the lake, and especially the exploration and exploitation of copper-rich deposits. Over the last decade or so, copper was used not just to build and wire new Chinese cities, many of which today stand empty; it was used mainly for collateral on loans. As much as 80 percent of the copper China imported was used to back loans. Today, as China unravels and the price of copper plunges, commodities investors are expressing remorse. Nickel’s down, too. The rush for Lake Superior minerals now seems to have been reckless — part of a larger market failure, with unforeseen risks and costs current and future generations are likely to incur.

Or look at the Polymet project in Minnesota. It’s an exaggerated case of not accounting for the long-term costs of mining. Currently, the Polymet Environmental Impact Statement says that water treatment will go on “indefinitely” at a cost of 3-6 million dollars a year. There is no way, so far as I know, to multiply 3 or 6 million dollars by a factor of indefinitely; and even the company’s most concrete prediction is 500 years of water treatment. Just to put that in perspective, the state of Minnesota has only been around since 1858: 157 years.

How is it possible that a proposal like this can be taken seriously? They promise jobs, a fix to a near-term problem; but there’s something else at work here as well: technology or, rather, misplaced faith in technology and human ingenuity. We make technology a proxy for human responsibility.

But technological advances that create efficiencies or solve problems for mining companies can carry hidden social and environmental costs: for example, a study done after the Mount Polley spill last year concludes that “new technologies, deployed in the absence of robust regulation” have fostered a “disturbing trend of more severe tailings failures.” Recent events in Brazil underline the point.

Great machinery, even full automation, will never amount to responsible stewardship. New technologies can have unintended consequences, distancing us from each other and from our responsibilities. Things corrode, repairs are made or not, entities dissolve, contracts are broken, obligations are forgotten, empires decline and fall, even within definite time horizons.

The industrial development that mining brings distorts horizons in another way. One theme of Tom Power’s research on the economics of the Lake Superior region and on what he calls wilderness economics is that “protecting the quality of the living environment…lays the base for future, diversified economic development.” Over-reliance on mining — and mining that damages or threatens the living environment — hinders economic diversification and makes the economy less resilient. It also requires us to discount the value of water and land it puts at risk, a value that is only going to increase over the long term, as freshwater becomes ever more scarce and as carbon capture afforded by peatlands and forests becomes more critical.

To allow that calculation for the nonce is not to concede that the market value of these wild places is their true value. The living world, creation and generation, is more than a bundle of ecosystem services, a tap and a sink for human activity. That way of thinking won’t save the wild; it is bound to open the door to the very forces that have already destroyed so much of it.

4

Let’s not lose sight of the larger point: if you take the long view, looking forward into the future and out across the horizon, protecting the land and water in this region actually looks like a more attractive investment than extracting all the ore from the ground.

That makes the capture of government by mining and extractive industry — from Marquette County to the state and federal levels — all the more troubling and deplorable. It directs investment and development down these risky and unsustainable paths, where short-term interests of multinational corporate actors are paramount and enjoy the full protection of law. The coercive power of the state, which ought to place constraints on corporate actors, is used mainly to benefit them. When things go south, society ends up bearing the cost.

This grassroots effort challenges that whole topsy-turvy arrangement. We have to continue to challenge it, at every opportunity, in every forum, recognizing that the results we’re looking for probably aren’t going to come on a quarterly basis or anytime soon. We have to lengthen our horizons.

At the same time, we have to re-open the conversation about how we are going to organize ourselves in this place, so that what remains of the wild UP can flourish and the people living here can thrive.

It’s imperative, too, that Save the Wild UP stay connected with other groups around the lake facing similar challenges. To take just one example: Kathleen’s recent Op Ed in the Star Tribune about Governor Dayton’s visit to the Eagle Mine. That made a difference to people in Minnesota: it was widely shared and talked about. People connected with it.

I have to believe that there’s power even in these little connections — and in conversation, cooperation and community. There is power where we come together, when we are no longer strangers and no longer estranged from each other. There would be power in an international congress where people from all around Lake Superior gathered to talk about responsible development. This isn’t the power the mining companies and the state can wield; it’s another kind of power, coordinated, collective, non-coercive, one we as a society have not done enough to realize.

We’re going to need that power to meet this current set of challenges.

Now you may have noticed that I keep using the word “we,” and I’m conscious that by including myself here I might be overstepping and intruding. But maybe that’s why I keep coming back to the UP: deep down, I know this is not a faraway or a strange place but a familiar place, where I have a stake in things — where we all have a stake.

The “wild UP” that we are organized to save is not just wilderness, waterfalls, wolves and warblers. It is the stage of humanity’s tragic predicament. It marks a boundary that we cross at our great peril. It can be a vital source of economic and social renewal.

Ultimately, saving the wild UP is about realizing the power and political authority we all have, everyone in this room, people across the UP and around the lake, to govern ourselves and make decisions about the future we want. What do we see on the horizon? What do we want for our children, grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and so on down the line? What do future generations require of us? What do we owe them?

That’s a conversation we need to keep having. And that’s why this organization deserves all the support we can give it, because Save the Wild UP connects us and shows us that we can be both powerful and responsible at the same time.

Thanks for listening so patiently, and thanks again for inviting me to the Gala.

delivered 5 December 2015

Social License in a Less Exuberant Climate

The things I’ve written on the new mining around Lake Superior — most of which are gathered here — might amount to nothing more than a series of postscripts to my film 1913 Massacre. P.S., then P.P.S, and so on, a long envoi or send off, I suppose, or maybe a recognition that the story we told in our film never really ended, or is about to be repeated — first time tragedy, second time: it’s still too early to say. In any case, I’ve often been struck by the ways that the new mining appeals to the very history (or what people in the UP call their mining “heritage”) Ken and I encountered while making our film, in order to claim social license.

While I’ve focused on developments around Eagle Mine, which is situated on the Yellow Dog Plains just outside the city of Marquette, Michigan, I’ve also been trying to keep track of mining activity all around the lake — the Polymet and Twin Metals projects in Minnesota, the failed Gogebic Taconite project in Wisconsin, uranium exploration on the Eastern shore, and so on; and I’ve tried to emphasize here and when talking about the subject that Eagle along with those other projects constitute the first phase of a Lake Superior mining boom.

With no effective international oversight of the lake — one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world — the mining companies have moved in, facing down what opposition local groups can muster, promising jobs and economic development, exploiting loopholes in state laws, and buying state politicians (as Gogebic bought Scott Walker) or enlisting the services of other lackeys and lickspittles in local and regional government (as, e.g., Eagle seems to have enlisted the services of the Marquette County Road Commission).

A larger commodities boom (or pricing bubble) ushered in this Lake Superior mining boom, and that bigger boom has started to go bust, as Chinese demand for stainless steel, copper and other metals — one of the main drivers of the boom — slows. So the story ripples out way beyond the lake, to developing economies on the other side of the world, and to a larger arena of commodity markets, over which huge commodity traders like Glencore and Trafigura preside, and where the metals mined around Lake Superior are not actually used to make things the world needs (as mining companies want us to believe), but warehoused by the London Metal Exchange and financialized in complex instruments like ETFs or simply as collateral.

It’s unlikely we’ll witness the great unraveling of this global complex that some doomsayers predicted, but the slowdown has already left some miners stranded and made some projects founder or at least become riskier to undertake. Shareholders are already feeling the pain and pressures on companies to streamline operations, discard assets or service their debt will continue to mount. On the ground, these troubles should occasion some reflection on just how closely mining, global financial markets and development are now intertwined; and that volatile combination is likely to make the future for communities around the Lake even more uncertain. How committed are these companies? Whose interests do they really represent, and to whom do they answer? How resilient are they? What happens when things fall apart?

Maybe in this less exuberant climate, all the confident assertions about future prosperity, tributes to mining heritage, promises of responsible stewardship, and bids for social license to undertake mining projects will receive closer scrutiny.

Postscript: after a response from Eagle Mine’s Dan Blondeau, I’ve updated this post with a link to our exchange over my remarks here on the Marquette County Road Commission. The Michigan DNR’s green-lighting on Thursday of Graymont’s proposal to develop 10,000 acres of public forest lands into an open pit and underground limestone quarry is yet another example of Michigan public officials eagerly serving mining companies — or doing their bidding, sometimes without having been explicitly bidden.

Would Llewyn Davis Ever “Kick Back”?

ILD
About two-thirds of the way through the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn returns to his sister Joy’s house, in Queens, to collect his Master Mates and Pilots License. He’s just been to visit his nearly catatonic father at Landfall, a sailor’s retirement home. He plans to give up folk music and ship out.

Llewyn discovers Joy in the kitchen with her son Danny, who’s eating a bowl of cereal.

“How is he?” asks Joy.

Llewyn
He’s great. Good to see what I have to look forward to.

Joy
What. Llewyn.

Llewyn
No I’m not kiddin. I’ve got it all figured out now.  Put in some hard years, yeah, but eventually ya get to kick back, get your food brought to ya, don’t even have to get up to shit.

Joy
Llewyn! Danny is sitting right here.

Joy may be appalled by Llewyn’s use of profanity in front of her six-year-old son, but she should also be thrown by his anachronistic use of “kick back.” I was, so much so that it took me a while to find my way back into the film, which up to that point had me in its spell.  I half expected Joy to ask her brother what “kick back” means, or is supposed to mean.

It’s 1961 when Llewyn walks into his sister’s kitchen in Queens. Merriam-Webster’s can find no instance of the expression “kick back” before 1972. (Even then, I’ll wager, it wasn’t in wide use.) The expression carries with it the breezy attitudes and hedonistic aspirations of 1970s California, not the earnest commitments of Gaslight folkies.

Is this just nitpicking? I’m of two minds on that question.

On the one hand, in a film of such obvious artistic merit, there ought to be someone combing through the dialogue for anachronisms and other false notes, so that audiences can stay with the picture.

The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane had even bigger problems suspending his disbelief: while he admires the “gleefully precise” ways in which production designer Jess Gonchor recreates 1961 Greenwich Village, he concludes that “something in the movie fails to grip”: Llewyn never looks “very down at the heel”; and the beauty of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography “hazes over the shabby desperation that…should plague the struggling artist.” Even Al Cody’s apartment, which he describes as a “dump…looks pretty neat and clean.”

Terri Thal, the ex-wife of Dave Van Ronk, the West Village folk icon whose biography inspired the Coen Brothers’ film, also notes that “the apartments are remarkably clean: No one I knew could keep soot out of apartments.” She wanted to see “roaches” and “fallen plaster.” (The American movie industry never seems willing or able to go there.) On a more serious note, Thal also finds it beyond any measure of credibility that Llewyn can sit down with a “respectable” doctor and casually discuss an illegal abortion: the only woman Dave Van Ronk impregnated, she writes, “rode a bike down several flights of stairs to get rid of his fetus.” Her situation was that desperate.

On the other hand, holding Inside Llewyn Davis to strict standards of historical authenticity will only end up limiting our experience of the film, which is as much a re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey as a hard-luck story from the early 1960s. Part of the film’s magic lies in the way it discovers one of the Western world’s most ancient and most persistent narratives in Llewyn’s lonesome wanderings. This gives the film a magical-realist grace that neo-realist grit could never provide.

llewynsubwayA cat named Ulysses guides Llewyn to an underworld and seems, at one point, to offer a real chance at redemption. But Llewyn doesn’t take it. There’s no direction home, and no chance our hero will ever have the leisure or the luxury of just kicking back.

David Bromberg, who played with Van Ronk, put it simply: you’ve got to suffer if you want to sing the blues.

Darwall and the Emperors’ New Clothes – A Reading Note

I’ve been nodding my head enthusiastically as I make my way through Stephen Darwall’s account of the second-personal character of moral obligation. The Second Person Standpoint anticipates and articulates questions I have to address when it comes to what I’ve been calling the power of asking. It’s as if someone has drawn a clear a map of a path I am preparing to walk. But the other day I came across the following passage about the Edict of Milan that threw me and still has me puzzled. It reads like a costume drama, with characters from the 4th century garbed in 20th century philosophical robes: wardrobe by Austin (“felicity conditions”), Strawson (“resented… and blamed”) and Falk (“guiding… not goading”).

Consider the demands a king or an emperor makes of his subjects, for example, the Edict of Milan, which the Roman emperors Constantine and Licinius promulgated to stop Christian persecution in the Roman Empire. If Constantine and Licinius resented violations of this demand and blamed violators when they lacked adequate excuse, then in interpreting them as addressing (and so guiding) their subjects by second-personal reasons and not goading them, even by rational coercion, we must see them as having been committed thereby to regarding their subjects as capable of recognizing the edict’s (de jure) authoritative backing and of guiding themselves by it. The normative felicity conditions of a command that can generate genuine second-personal reasons include the addressees’ capacity for such a practically effective recognition. Qua second-personal address, the edict presupposed subjects’ aptitude for this second-personal relation, specifically, their capacity for reciprocal recognition and acceptance of their responsibilities to the emperor and, as well, their capacity to discharge their responsibility through this recognition.

Notice the way Darwall carefully stages this example and hedges the history here with a conditional (“if Constantine and Licinius”) and such carefully wrought turns of phrase as “in interpreting them as addressing” and “we must see them as having been committed.” If we remove all that apparatus, I wonder, does this amount to anything more than saying that in issuing an edict, Constantine assumed his subjects would be able to recognize its authority and follow it? I supposed it’s fair to say Constantine expected compliance, and Darwall is just getting at what’s behind that expectation. But then what makes the Edict of Milan different from any other edict or law promulgated and enforced by any ruler or regime? Why single it out?

I see the point about Constantine committing himself to his subjects’ “capability to recognize the edict’s (de jure) authoritative backing”. We are asked to believe that issuing the edict carried “presuppositions of second-personality” that would have committed Constantine to the “the equal dignity of persons and to morality as of a form of mutual accountability” — had they only been “fully worked clear.”

I’m just not sure there’s much historical specificity to the historical example here; and the anachronistic language makes matters worse. I don’t think Darwall would want to argue that the “aptitude for second-personal relation” somehow became particularly prominent or recognizable in 313 (the year the edict was issued). Nor does he seem to suggest that that aptitude – or the presupposition (if not the explicit recognition) of that aptitude on Constantine’s part – has any historical specificity at all.

Just a few moments before this, Darwall has admitted that “for most of human history, it has seemed to people that any justified order is quite incompatible with the kind of moral equality that many readers of this book, at least, might be willing to take for granted.” But for Darwall people in all historical periods seem to enjoy equal moral standing; you and I and a 4th century peasant, soldier or the Emperor Constantine himself. This is admirably egalitarian, but I am not so sure it makes for very good history. At the very least it suggests that Darwall doesn’t seem to regard the dignified stature of mutually accountable second-persons itself as a historical construct – something that emerged, let’s say, with the modern subject or early modern ideas of subjectivity, or something that could pass away with certain institutions or practices.

Darwall wants to argue that we have this dignified stature (in part, at least) because we are capable of recognizing ourselves as second persons within a moral community. Apparently we have always been so capable (and, I take it, always will be). For most of human history, we just haven’t fully known it or taken appropriate measures to demonstrate it, or, at least, we haven’t realized and reflected our mutual dignity and equal accountability in political institutions or a social order.

In the next chapter, Darwall will identify “tensions within early modern voluntarism” – in the work of Locke, Pufendorf and Suarez – “that lead in the direction of morality as equal accountability.” It seems philosophy will change and take new directions but human beings qua moral beings don’t, or don’t have to. We already are members of the moral community. We may not come into the world fully clothed in our dignity, but the world gives it to us. The moral community of free and rational persons, equal and mutually accountable, populates history in all periods, in the 4th century as well as the 21st, even though for most of human history there were no “justified relations of authority,” institutions or political order that explicitly recognized, supported or protected it.

As I say, I’m puzzled by this, and not sure exactly where it’s heading, or if Darwall will work the problem out in this book. History here appears to trace an arc of gradual enlightenment, with the moral community of equally dignified and mutually accountable persons finally coming into its own and creating appropriate institutions, philosophical constructs and orders – from the Edict of Milan right up to the present, I guess, when things are almost fully worked clear.

Moses Called The First Strike

Cross-posted from my blog at 1913 Massacre:

People from all parts of Europe made their way to Calumet at the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth centuries. The copper-mining town attracted so many immigrants — Germans, Italians, Croatians, Slovenians, Cornish, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians — that it’s sometimes jokingly referred to as “the smelting pot.” Finns would eventually outnumber them all.

Many who came here from Finland to work in the mines and start a new life also brought with them, or quickly became versed in, dangerous ideas. In 1913, Finns were known as agitators, radicals, socialists. They organized in Keweenaw mining communities and in Hancock they published a newspaper called Tyomies, or The Workingman. Even their preachers espoused the social gospel, railing from the pulpit against the unfair treatment and indignities the miners endured, and advocating a more just ordering of society.

Most of the men, women and children killed at Italian Hall on Christmas Eve, 1913 were Finnish-Americans. They were not all agitators and strikers or strikers’ wives and children; in fact, we interviewed people whose families were firmly against the strike and wanted the Western Federation of Miners run out of town, but nevertheless lost children in the mayhem at the Hall. The tragedy cut across the divisions of the strike even as it deepened some of them and created new ones.

A wreath-laying ceremony in Calumet yesterday to honor the Italian Hall dead included a delegation from Finland. The ceremony was part of this year’s FinnFest, an annual celebration of Finnish-American heritage and culture. (1913 Massacre is screening twice at FinnFest.) The Turun Metsankavijat Wind Band played the Finnish and American national anthems along with other, solemn music.

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Before the wreaths were laid by David Geisler, Calumet Village President, and Pertti Torstila, Finland’s Secretary of State in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Reverend Robert Langseth delivered an invocation.

Langseth began quietly. He acknowledged each official on stage, then talked about the Finnish preacher who had led his parish during the strike of 1913-1914. After a pause, he thundered out the words of a sermon delivered a century ago:

MOSES called the first strike! Against the Pharoah.

Then he began to elaborate on his social gospel theme. Langseth cited the book of Micah —

What does The Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.

— and he spoke eloquently and passionately about justice and the need for reconciliation. It was beautiful. People in the crowd were visibly moved and weeping. The ceremony had invited us to mourn and honor the dead. Reverend Langseth was asking us to do even more: to respect and honor each other.

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On the Reference I Made the Other Day to ‘The Middle Ground’

In a previous post, I said that asking creates a kind of “middle ground” where power – and everything else – is up for grabs. The concept of the middle ground is one I borrowed from a wonderful book, Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. It was a passing reference, and it may have been a little careless, I now concede. Here I want to talk a little about the concept as White develops it, and try to connect it with what I had to say about the power of asking in my earlier post.

In White’s book, the middle ground is both a real place – the pays d’en haut or “Upper Country” of the Great Lakes Region – and a complex human terrain where the French and the Indians created “an elaborate network of economic, political, cultural and social ties to meet the demands of a particular historical situation.” For Europeans and Indians in the pays d’en haut, the middle ground described a place of mutual agreement, exchange and concession, to conduct everything from judicial proceedings to the regulation of sexual mores to the fur trade. White calls the middle ground “the place in between: in between cultures, peoples, and in between empires and the nonstate world of villages.”

In this place, Indians and Europeans staged a creative, cross-cultural, ad hoc exchange of words, forms, rituals and practices. This conversation accomplished what force or violence could not. Or, to put it more precisely, the middle ground emerged at the limits of coercive power and violence. The Europeans in the Upper Country “could neither dictate to the Indians nor ignore them,” White writes; and where they could not conquer, command or go it alone they had to yield, concede and share. That went both ways.

The middle ground depended on the inability of both sides to gain their ends through force. The middle ground grew according to the need of people to find a means, other than force, to gain the cooperation and consent of foreigners. To succeed, those who operated on the middle ground had, of necessity, to attempt to understand the world and the reasoning of others and to assimilate enough of that reasoning to put it to their own purposes.

Understanding and assimilating the world and the reasoning of others: another word for that is translation. And that’s how White sometimes describes it: the middle ground was a place made up of “creative, but often expedient misunderstandings” – fictions – that allowed the Indians and the Europeans first to see each other as human beings, then to construct “a common, mutually comprehensible world.” They forged a new language, new meaning and a new world together: “the older worlds of the Algonquians and of various Europeans overlapped, and their mixture created new systems of meaning and exchange.” Gift-giving, calumets, the covering of the dead – all these Algonquian rituals were brought into play, but it wasn’t simply a matter of carrying old forms across languages or cultures; in the middle ground, they were transformed into something new.

It would be a mistake to think that the French and the Indians somehow deliberately set out to create this middle ground after first encountering one another. The middle ground did not emerge because both sides had dedicated themselves to a spirit of cooperation – hardly! — or because some “magical affinity” (as White puts it) or mist of peace, love and understanding hung over the pays d’en haut in the 18th century. Short-lived, fragile, often unique and irreproducible adaptations and improvisations made up the middle ground; in White’s account, it emerges and disappears then re-emerges while the French are the primary European presence in the pays d’en haut. They abandon it from time to time, resorting to force and violence (as do the Algonquians). After the defeats of the Iroquois and the French in the Seven Years war, and the ascendency of the English as a power in the Upper Country, the middle ground is all but lost.

While some readers of The Middle Ground talk about the way White’s work unravels and disassembles the concept of the frontier, I find myself moving in an entirely different direction. I tend to think of pays d’en haut as White describes it in his book almost as an Atlantis, a world residing somewhere between myth and history; or, better, as a historical world created by mythmaking. It exercises a hold over my imagination as few places have — except, maybe, the city of Naples, which is, for me, also a place both real and imagined and to which I return in my mind over and over again.

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On the one hand, it’s easy to see why the French Upper Country has a hold on me: here the history of the Great Lakes region (which I discovered in the course of my work on 1913 Massacre) comes together with my interest in non-coercive forms of power. So it’s not surprising that I should have made a passing reference to White in my previous post about the power of asking; in fact, it’s much more surprising to me that I didn’t go on more about it, as I have here.

On the other hand, I recognize that this is all very problematic. White is a historian, describing as meticulously and carefully as he can the cultural politics of the Great Lakes region in the 18th century; I’m reader of history, and I tend to take what I read and start imagining things. I’m familiar with Philip J. DeLoria’s warnings against “oversimplification” of White’s work, and his worry about misreadings that make White’s middle ground “analytically portable” to the point where it becomes “simply a trope for human give and take.” But there is, there has to be, something portable in everything that one reads; the act of reading is itself a carrying back and forth, an exchange, an importing and exporting. It’s an act of give and take, as DeLoria himself wryly admits.

This is not just to say that White’s study of the middle ground echoes themes found in, say, James C. Scott’s work on the Upland peoples of Southeast Asia, or Pierre Clastres’ work on the Indians of South America, and that there’s some common trope that all these books describe. It might be to say that reading itself is an exercise of non-coercive power, an act that involves transference, translation, transmutation and creation of new meaning, a kind of dialogue between author and reader, the practicing historian and the images we make of history.

Not much new in that thought: for the moment, I simply want to offer that I seem to have carried my interests, imagination, intellectual habits and stories into White’s work, assimilated it, and now I seem to be putting it to my own purposes, as an illustration of what can be accomplished through the exercise of non-coercive power. It remains to be seen how that illustration will help advance or complicate my thinking on this point. But I guess it’s pretty clear that all this situates the act of reading in the territory of cultural production White describes in The Middle Ground.  I say that knowing full well that I am probably going to be accused of misreading.

Henry Hitchings and the Patron Saint of Asking

Henry Hitchings must be holding out on us. He claims in a New York Times Opinionator blog that the verb ask “has been used as a noun for a thousand years,” but he doesn’t provide a single illustration to support his claim. Puzzled, I went back to the OED, where, I recalled, I’d found only a single medieval instance of ask used as a noun over the past thousand years. It turns out I was wrong: the OED offers three examples – one from the year 1000, and two from the early 13th century. This makes the nominative ask “obsolete” in the view of the OED editors; and obsolescence doesn’t help Hitchings’s historical case. In fact, the literary evidence offered by the OED creates a whole host of problems for the argument Hitchings tries to advance in his Times blog – especially his effort to reduce questions of grammar to “aesthetic judgment” and “aesthetics.”

Let me focus on one medieval instance from the OED – the only one I remembered when I first commented on Hitchings’s article – to illustrate the point. This is from a medieval life of Saint Juliana called Þe Liflade of St. Juliana or Seyn Julian preserved in two manuscripts from the year 1230. There’s good reason I remembered it, because in many ways Seyn Julian is a text about a subject in which I have a growing interest — namely, the power of asking.

Juliana’s story is set in Nicomedia (now the Turkish city of Izmit) in the early fourth century AD, during the last years of Diocletian’s reign. In those days, Maximianus ruled as Augustus, Diocletian having concluded that the empire was too vast for one Caesar to rule. Throughout the empire, Christians are being persecuted – tortured, put to death, and, in one notable case, in Nicomedia, burned alive in the very church where they gathered to pray. According to Seyn Julian, Maximianus was determined to put “alle” Christians to death: “Alle cristenemen he dude to deþe.”

Juliana comes from one of Nicomedia’s ruling families, but she is (unbeknown to her parents) a Christian convert. So when a government official named Eleusius makes arrangements with Juliana’s father and mother to take her as his wife, things start to fall apart.

When Eleusius proposes to Juliana herself, she at first equivocates, saying that it would be better if he were a man of “more power.” Determined to win her hand, Eleusius makes the necessary gifts and supplications to the Emperor, and Maximianus elevates him to the position of “Justice.” (In other accounts he is made governor of Nicomedia.) He now has it in his “power” – the text repeats the word here and in several other places; “power” is really the subject of Seyn Julian, as it is of so many martyrs’ lives– to do what he will (“wat he wolde”).

What he will is not what he ought, of course, and it turns out that power, or at least the kind of official power Justice Eleusius has, is not enough to win Juliana’s hand. He proposes to her again, but fails:

ȝÞis Justice wende to Juliane. þo is power was.
And wende hire habbe as is spouse ac he failede of is as.

There’s that rare nominative usage – “failed of is as” (his ask), set playfully in the line against “habbe as is spouse”; the nominative form here rhymes with “was.” But Eleusius’ “as” – his bid for Juliana’s hand – is doomed to fail, the poem suggests, because it’s an assertion of his own will, or power, against a greater power at work in Juliana’s life: he may be a powerful agent of the Emperor’s law, but (as she finally confesses) she is a “Cristene woman.” Juliana wants to be of “one lawe” with Eleusius and she answers Eleusius’ request for her hand with a request of her own: “Bicome cristene for my loue”.

What follows is probably best described as a power failure: the world around Juliana goes very dark. When, after more cajoling, Juliana won’t come around, her father hands her over to Eleusius to do “wat he wolde.”  Humiliated, angry, determined to assert his power over this stubborn girl, Eleusius has Juliana stripped and subject to horrid tortures – whipped, stabbed, scalded and covered with molten “brass” (other accounts make it molten lead); she’s thrown into a dank prison cell and, after being tested by Satan and suffering fresh torments, she is finally beheaded and her body is set out for wild beasts to savage.

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Juliana of Nicomedia, whose association with the Sybil’s cave at Cumae almost makes her the Patron Saint of Asking.

It’s a grisly tale, but the detailed and exaggerated account of Juliana’s torments only highlights the extent to which Eleusius has “failed of his as”: he resorts to violence, to coercive power, but that power cannot win love or obedience; it can merely kill. Juliana dies, a martyr for the asking, as it were. The tradition that associates her with the Sybil’s cave at Cumae almost makes her the patron saint of asking.

Seeing in Juliana’s story the limits of violence – the limits of the power that depends on violence or coercion – should help illustrate the point I touched on in an earlier post about asking: asking is not about subjecting another person to our will or power. It’s a non-coercive power arrangement between petitioner and respondent. The respondent always reserves the right to refuse or say no, and if the petitioner doesn’t recognize and respect that right, then nothing is being asked: instead, someone is issuing a command in the guise of a request.

Of course there are gray areas here. But for the time being I want to state the difference between asking and commanding starkly, because to my mind, this is one important aspect of the trouble with “the ask”: it converts a non-coercive request to a command, a form of coercion. It relies on what Hitchings – approvingly — calls a “distancing effect”; he thinks it makes asking “less personal” and that, in turn, “may improve our chances of eliciting a more objective response.” But what would an “objective response” be, if not one in which both parties, the petitioner and respondent, were fully constituted as subjects and recognized one another as equals? Where is this objective world, and why does Hitchings seem to think it is exempt from the very power relations — the human relationships — that constitute it?

Invoking objectivity, Hitchings skirts the very issue Seyn Julian raises – the question of power, and how power works when someone asks someone else to do something. It’s here that political and moral – and not just aesthetic — considerations enter the discussion. “Sometimes,” Hitchings admits, “we need to do things that are aesthetically unpleasant in order to achieve other effects, be they polemical or diplomatic.” That’s tantamount to arguing that the ends justify the means.

In Seyn Julian or in the corporate boardroom, “the ask” turns a request into a foregone conclusion, a command. It becomes not a request but a statement about the objective world, about some requirement in the world that needs satisfying. Hitchings suggests the effect is largely psychological; “it focuses me on what’s at stake,” but the focus “the ask” achieves is the unwavering and unquestioning focus that obedient subordinates give to a superior’s command. It is not a request that one can meet with a yes or no. “The ask” already begins to limit the autonomy and the choices of the respondent; it aligns the petitioner’s will with the objective world. You’re not asking me anything; you’re ordering me about because that’s the way things are. Or so you say, Eleusius.

People’s History is Alive

Cross-posted from 1913 Massacre.
I love this tweet:

This is from the Twitter account of Voices of a People’s History.

I suspect it was posted partly in response to David Greenberg’s vituperative account of Howard Zinn’s life and work in The New Republic. Greenberg portrays Zinn as a deeply flawed, philandering charlatan, who didn’t keep pace with work in his own field, and kept “aloof from the intellectual ferment of the seminar rooms, journal offices, and conferences where radical history was being born.” As for Zinn’s best-selling A People’s History of the United States, Greenberg dismisses it as “a pretty lousy piece of work.”

Zinn has always had his detractors and defenders, and plenty of people have risen to his defense. (Clement Lime wrote one of the stronger responses to Greenberg, I think.) It’s interesting to think that our film might have a place in the conversation.

But that’s not what I like so much about this tweet. If there’s one thing we discovered about “people’s history” in the course of making our film, it’s that people’s history is alive. History lives and breathes in people; their memories, the stories they tell, the songs they sing, the photographs they cherish — all those things aren’t just artifacts or objects of study, even if historians say they are.

History is at work in everything people do — and in a place like Calumet, where past troubles were never really laid to rest, history can work in mysterious ways. People talk about the past in order to talk about the present; and if they do not want to talk about the past it will find a way to assert itself in the present. People may see in the past some faint image of ourselves and our lives, but more importantly we carry the past with us; it’s our constant companion. It comforts us and causes us pain; it can be a source of pride or shame, pleasure or remorse. It can entrap us and enrich us.

People’s history is alive not because there are historians who study it, but because, like it or not, deny it or embrace it, study it or try to forget it, it’s our story.

“The Resistance Was Eliminated”

My great uncle Giuseppe used to like to tell stories about life during the Second World War: brushes with death, visits he and his friend made to prostitutes in the Veneto, the way the Germans looked when they marched, and the measures people in the small towns of the Italian Campania took to cope during and after the war. When the Germans came through, people met the convoys in the streets and leaned out the windows, cheering and waving. Then when the Americans arrived a short while later, people met the convoys in the streets and leaned out the windows, cheering and waving American flags. The story was told to give the impression that Giuseppe and his townsmen were cunning, clever, furbi, that they knew how to survive and outsmart both their captors and putative liberators and that, in their hearts, they were having none of what either power had to offer. Maybe they saw both sides as occupiers, neither as legitimate.

I was reminded of these stories and the way Giuseppe used to tell them just the other day, when I came across this passage (from a 2005 interview with Noam Chomsky):

It’s worth remembering; when the US, Britain and Russia occupied Europe, the main thing they wanted to do was to destroy the resistance. So, one of their first tasks was to destroy the antifascist resistance. That’s the first chapter of the post-war period. Actually in the case of US and Britain, it started in 1943: when they moved into Italy from the south, the first thing they did was restore the old fascist order, and crush the partisans and the fascist resistance, which was a very strong thing. In Italy, the partisans had pretty much driven the Germans out of Northern Italy. When the American and British forces came in, they had to liberate Italy from its own people, from the partisans. And the partisans had what they called ‘communist’… But they weren’t particularly that, they were radical democratic; they had worker-controlled industry and radical democratic programs, which the US and Britain wouldn’t tolerate. So they destroyed them, and restored something like the traditional fascist order. And they did the same in Germany and in France.
What happened after the war was that something like the traditional order was restored: traditional conservative business-run order with some variation, and the resistance was eliminated. In history, the resistance was eliminated. Very few people know the history of the partisans. The new right that’s coming now is an extreme version of the real fascists coming back but the actual history of the liberation of Europe by its own people was mostly suppressed.