Pushin’ Back the Date

From NBC News (hat tip: Funk Heritage Center):

David Bustos heard about the “ghost tracks” when he first went to White Sands National Park in New Mexico to work as a wildlife scientist in 2005. When the ground was wet enough at certain times of the year, the ghostly footprints would appear on the otherwise blank earth, only to disappear again when it dried out.

It wasn’t until over 10 years later, in 2016, that scientists confirmed that the ghost tracks had been made by real people — and it’s only now that some of the ancient footprints at White Sands have been dated as the earliest in North America.

“We’d been suspicious of the age for a while, and so now we finally have that it’s really exciting,” Bustos said. “One of the neat things is that you can see mammoth prints in the layers a meter or so above the human footprints, so that just helps to confirm the whole story.”

The footprints at White Sands were dated by examining the seeds of an aquatic plant that once thrived along the shores of the dried-up lake, Ruppia cirrhosa, commonly known as ditchgrass. According to research published Thursday in the journal Science and co-authored by Bustos, the ancient ditchgrass seeds were found in layers of hard earth both above and below the many human footprints at the site, and they were radiocarbon-dated to determine their age.

The tracks at one location have been revealed as both the earliest known footprints and the oldest firm evidence of humans anywhere in the Americas, showing that people lived there 21,000 to 23,000 years ago — several thousand years earlier than scientists once believed.

More at the link

The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet

Hobby Lobby is a chain of big-box craft stores in the United States, privately held by David Green. Green is a committed Christian: he is a major donor to evangelical causes and keeps Hobby Lobby closed on Sundays. This stance earned him a certain notoriety back in 2014, when he successfully sued the government to be exempt from the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. He was not against contraception as such, just the obligation to fund “Plan B” drugs and IUDs, which prevent fertilized embryos from implanting themselves in the uterine wall, and thus constitute baby-killing, as far as he is concerned. A lot of people were upset about this – but not the sort of people who tend to shop at Hobby Lobby, so the chain abides.

Green’s major vanity project is the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. I certainly think that such an important book is worthy of a museum, although how it is presented will of course be controversial (“It’s not really a museum of the Bible, it’s a museum of American Protestantism” – Biblical scholar Candida Moss). An even bigger problem with the place has been how it acquires its material. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Arab Spring in 2011, there has been a great deal of instability in the Middle East, and thus a thriving black market for antiquities, which the Museum of the Bible has participated in – even, perhaps, funding ISIS in doing so! In 2018, the Museum returned some 5500 artifacts to Iraq, and agreed to pay a $3 million fine as punishment for illegally importing them. The latest news that the Museum has been stripped of the so-called Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a clay tablet measuring five by six inches and inscribed in Sumerian cuneiform, which will also go back to its country of origin. This one actually disappeared in the wake of the first Iraq War in 1991, and was purchased at auction at Christie’s in London in 2014, so the Museum is not entirely at fault here. Nonetheless, it would be nice if they applied the same scrupulosity to their acquisitions that Mr. Green does towards contraception.

Banned Books, Again

My observation is that we’re all hypocrites about freedom of speech. When it comes to speech we agree with, of course we’re in favor of it. When it comes to speech we disagree with, we have all sorts of rationalizations at our disposal about why we shouldn’t have to listen; indeed, why that speech (now designated “misinformation”) should be “deplatformed” or censored, or its speakers punished. I assume that, given the opportunity, everyone would act on this principle, but of course I am most familiar with its operation in academia, where speech from the left is cherished, and speech from the right condemned. ‘Twas ever thus, and I think of it again during the fatuous Banned Books Week, which is upon us once again. Here is a Facebook graphic for this event:

From a Facebook friend: 

News you can use, from Snead Hearn. Guess what? Most threatened books these days are not about rebellious white men! With one exception they’re books by and about LGBTQ people that challenge gender and sexual (hetero) norms.  

From Snead Hearn: 

My genuine thanks to someone on my feed for giving me a reason to talk about something relevant and political that means a lot to me.

It IS Banned Books Week, that’s true. And that’s important! But if you see this graphic (the original, without the red cross-out and note I’ve added) being shared around… it’s wrong. And I think it’s wrong in a kind of deliberately gross way that we need to talk about.

This picture of stacked books didn’t actually come from Banned Books Week. I know that because these are not actually the top 10 most banned books anymore. THESE books haven’t been the most banned for many years. Many of you probably remember them fondly from your youth – I do too, but it was OUR youth when they were being routinely challenged. I suspect they’re being trotted out falsely as current because the current political climate makes it easy to pretend that “woke liberals” are trying to get old classics pulled off the shelves for not being with the times, buuuuuuuut (1) they aren’t, and (2) when these books WERE being banned, it wasn’t the left doing it, it was people upset by Huckleberry Finn discussing American racism, or who thought that 1984 was “pro communist”. In short: it’s never been “the libs” banning these books, y’all. (Psst: they’re usually the librarians fighting to keep the books on the shelves.)

“So which books are actually being banned *now*? Here’s the current top 10, and the reasons why, and you can read more about Banned Books Week at the link

– #1: George by Alex Gino

Reasons: challenged, banned, restricted, and hidden to avoid controversy; for LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character; because schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion”; for sexual references; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint and “traditional family structure”

– #2: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin

Reasons: challenged for LGBTQIA+ content, for “its effect on any young people who would read it,” and for concerns that it was sexually explicit and biased

– #3: A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EG Keller

Reasons: Challenged and vandalized for LGBTQIA+ content and political viewpoints, for concerns that it is “designed to pollute the morals of its readers,” and for not including a content warning

– #4: Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth

Reasons: Challenged, banned, and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content; for discussing gender identity and sex education; and for concerns that the title and illustrations were “inappropriate”

– #5: Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis

Reasons: Challenged and restricted for featuring a gay marriage and LGBTQIA+ content; for being “a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children” with the potential to cause confusion, curiosity, and gender dysphoria; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint

– #6: I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas

Reasons: Challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content, for a transgender character, and for confronting a topic that is “sensitive, controversial, and politically charged”

– #7: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity and for “vulgarity and sexual overtones”

– #8: Drama written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier

Reasons: Challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and for concerns that it goes against “family values/morals”

– #9: Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

Reasons: Banned and forbidden from discussion for referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use “nefarious means” to attain goals

– #10: And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson illustrated by Henry Cole

Reason: Challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content

That’s the ACTUAL list. Maybe you’ll notice a theme.

There are exceptions, but speaking by the numbers (“most banned” is the name of the meme, after all) it isn’t folks on the left who ban books in America. It’s a GOOD thing to care about, but caring means actually knowing what you’re talking about.

And if you *agree* with *these* bans, the ones actually happening now… maybe think about that a minute.

For even more information, here’s the top 100 most banned books of the decade 2010-2019.

Most of the books pictured in the graphic aren’t even in the Top 100 anymore, and none of them is in the Top 10. Which is great! People aren’t banning these anymore. But we should be upset about what they *are* banning *now*. So feel free to use this post and these links to challenge misinformation and support some books that are actually, currently under threat.

I refer you to an earlier post of mine about Banned Books week, and my criticism still stands: what does it mean for a book to be “banned”? Forbidden by federal law like meth? Or just removed from the shelves of your local public library?* Oh dear – I guess we’ll have to order it from Amazon then! Thankfully, all of these books are available on Amazon (I checked), so even if the squares in your town have succeeded in getting My Princess Boy pulled from the shelves of the library, you can still buy it over the Internet for the price of two packs of smokes or five Monster energy drinks. 

But you know what you can’t buy on Amazon? F. Roger Devlin’s Sexual Utopia in Power, Roosh V’s Game, or Colin Flaherty’s Don’t Make the Black Kids Angry. All of these were available, and then all of a sudden they weren’t (and something tells me that you won’t be able to find them at the local library either). Now, you could say that they’ve been removed for a good reason – to which I reply, maybe so, but I don’t want to hear anything from you about “banned books.” Just come clean and say yeah, we’ve taken a side. A poignant coming-of-age YA novel about a transgendered teen is simply better than a “red-pill” book about the allegedly true nature of women, according to this standard. One deserves protection and promotion, the other condemnation and erasure.** That’s fine, but don’t complain about “the left” being unfairly tarnished as “book banners.” If anything, it’s the left that desires the removal of Huckleberry Finn on account of That Word, the left that does not like 1984 on account of its bleak portrayal of Communism, and the left that wants the removal of Harry Potter, not on account of witchcraft and spells, but because of J.K. Rowling thinks that trans women aren’t really women.

* And what does it mean for a book to be “challenged”? A request that it be removed from the shelves for reasons of content? Whoa… that’s serious!

** I realize that my original argument now applies to me: these books have not been “banned,” and if you can’t buy them from Amazon, then buy them somewhere else. This is true, although I can’t help but notice places selling this sort of thing tend to get their ability to process credit card payments yanked, which is indeed getting pretty close to “banning.” 

Dr. Seuss

This post isn’t all that topical anymore, but a recent visit to the University of Minnesota’s Children’s Literature Research Collection has helped to answer a longstanding question that I had.

In March of this year, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the organization that owns the rights to the works of Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), a.k.a. beloved children’s author “Dr. Seuss,” announced that they would cease publishing six of his books. After “working with a panel of experts, including educators,” DSE determined that these six books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong”: 

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937)
McElligot’s Pool (1947)
If I Ran the Zoo (1950)
Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953)
On Beyond Zebra! (1955)
The Cat’s Quizzer (1976)
 

At the time, DSE did not elucidate exactly how these books’ contents were “hurtful and wrong.” This is the usual quandary – you want people to know that that an offense has been committed, but you don’t want to draw attention to the details, lest you end up amplifying the offense. But I’ve always believed the Faber College motto that “Knowledge is Good,” and that ordinary people deserve to know what’s going on. So, courtesy the Children’s Literature Research Collection, in particular its Kerlan Collection, First Floor Tarpley presents the apparently problematic details of these works (two of the books weren’t available at UMN, but I found them online).

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Summary: Walking home from school, a boy named Marco sees a horse and wagon on Mulberry Street. Dissatisfied with such an ordinary sight, Marco keeps inventing and adding details to it, such that by the time he gets home he has “seen” a great parade of exotic people and creatures. 

Problems:

• The couplet “Say—anyone could think of that,/ Jack or Fred or Joe or Nat—/ Say, even Jane could think of that” can be read as sexist: four boys are alike in mediocrity, while the one girl is even worse.

• One of the things that Marco invents is an elephant bearing a “Rajah,” perhaps truckling in Orientalist stereotypes.

Kerlan Collection.

• Another thing that Marco invents is “a Chinaman who eats with sticks.” 

Kerlan Collection

“Chinaman,” as a term, is “often pejorative,” and his bright yellow skin tone, slanted eye, conical hat, and Qing-era queue are stereotypical as well. The geta shoes that he wears are actually Japanese. With the popularization of Chinese food in the United States, “eating with sticks” is no longer remarkable. 

McElligot’s Pool (1947). Summary: Marco reappears, this time fishing in McElligot’s Pool – a fool’s errand, according to a passerby, since the pool has no fish, but lots of junk that people have thrown into it. But Marco imagines that the pool might be connected to an underground river that eventually leads to the sea, which would allow him to catch all kinds of exotic fish from all over the world.

Problems:

• One species of exotic fish is the Eskimo Fish from beyond Hudson Bay.

BooksVooks.

“Eskimo” is now somewhat pejorative (“Inuit” has been prescribed as an alternative name for some time in Canada, and the Edmonton Eskimos CFL team recently became the Edmonton Elks). The fur parkas the fish wear might be seen as stereotypical. 

• Another fish, from “the world’s highest river in Tibet,” has an odd-looking Tibetan watching it.

BooksVooks.

If I Ran the Zoo (1950). Summary: A boy imagines running the zoo. If he did, he would release all the “ordinary” animals like lions, giraffes, and zebras, and find fantastic ones as substitutes, such as the It-Kutch, the Preep, and the the Fizza-ma-Wizza-ma-Dill.

Problems:

• To capture a bird called a Bustard, and a beast called a Flustard, the narrator must travel to the desert of Zomba-ma-Tant, “with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant.”

Kerlan Collection.

Kerlan Collection.

These creatures may not be real, but real people do have “slanted” eyes (actually: upper eyelids with epicanthic folds) and one generally does not make a big deal about this fact. 

• The “scraggle foot Mulligatawny” may be found in the “Desert of Zind.” The “brave chieftain” who rides him may be parallel to the “Rajah” above.  

Kerlan Collection.

• The “tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurka” from the “African Island of Yerka” is carried by two natives of rather stereotypical appearance. 

Kerlan Collection.

• Our narrator has designs on “A Gusset, a Gherkin, a Gasket, and also a Gootch from the wilds of Nantasket.” 

Kerlan Collection.

These creatures would be carried by “eight Persian princes,” characters not unlike the Rajah or the brave chieftain.

Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953). Summary: Peter T. Hooper, tired of the same old scrambled eggs from a hen, goes hunting rare and exotic eggs from various creatures, like the Rufflenecked Salamagoox or the Tizzle-topped Grouse.

Problems:

• Peter T. Hooper explains his project to his little sister, looking like a pickup artist in a bar.

Kerlan Collection.

• The book includes an exotic character named Ali, another Orientalist caricature.

Kerlan Collection.

Kerlan Collection.

• Other creatures in the book are “Wogs” (“the world’s sweetest frogs,” but also a pejorative name for an East Asian) and the “Kwigger” (a name uncomfortably close to a certain other word). 

On Beyond Zebra! (1955). Summary: A boy has mastered the alphabet, and invents further letters after Z, like Yuzz, Wum, or Snee. These letters are used to begin the names of various exotic creatures. If Z begins Zebra, then Yuzz can begin Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz (pictured).

Kerlan Collection.

Kerlan Collection.

Problems:

• Not only is a letter called “SPAZZ” (in my day, a diminutive of “spastic” and an insult), it is used to spell “Spazzim, a beast who belongs to the Nazzim of Bazzim.” These Nazzim of Bazzim are seemingly Orientalist caricatures.

Kerlan Collection.

• The player of a “kind of hunting horn called the o’Grunth” (to attract a Flunnel, a creature beginning with the letter FLUNN) also looks somewhat Orientalist.

Kerlan Collection.

The Cat’s Quizzer (1976). Summary: This book has no plot as such, but instead challenges the reader to answer a series of questions, some simple, some difficult, and some just absurd. 

Problems:

• On one spread, the reader is asked how old one has to be to be Japanese. The Japanese is shown wearing a stereotypically conical hat. 

Internet Archive.

Internet Archive.

• The caption got cut off with this one, but the original reads, “Which is Taller? A Tall Pigmy or a Short Giant?”

Internet Archive.

“Pigmy” (or more commonly “pygmy”) as a byword for a phenotypically short person is “sometimes considered pejorative.”

(The answers given at the back of the book: “All Japanese are Japanese the minute they are born” and “I know that a short pigmy is never taller than a tall giant. And a tall giant is never shorter than a short pigmy. But about the tall pigmy and the short giant – I give up on that one.”)

So it seems that a lot of Dr. Seuss books feature a plot in which the narrator turns away from the mundane to an imaginative world of the fantastic and bizarre. Unfortunately, one of the ways that Seuss marks for “fantastic” or “bizarre” are actual details from non-Western cultures, which by contrast casts white North Americans as “normal.” This is not how we try to think anymore. 

Once the DSE made the announcement in March prices of the discontinued books shot up on Ebay. Here is a screenshot I took at the time.

Ebay, March 2021.

But the e-commerce site quickly announced that it would not be party to such trade and banned it. One currently searches in vain there for any of the discontinued titles. I seem to remember Amazon making a similar announcement, although its banning was not as absolute as Ebay’s, as you can still find some used copies on Amazon at inflated prices.

Amazon, September 2021.

Amazon, September 2021.

Amazon, September 2021.

The real question is: what was DSE thinking in making the announcement? Dr. Seuss really is beloved, and a lot of people were scandalized that the guardians of his legacy were apparently turning against him. Whether these books are really all that offensive (I make no comment on this, although I wonder if DSE actually consulted any Asians and Africans about them), why did DSE feel the need to tell everyone that it was withdrawing them from publication for political reasons? Books go out of print all the time, and when people enquire about them, the usual answer is that they weren’t making enough money. Against this there is no argument, so why not just do that?

Alternately, why not quietly bowdlerize the books, something else that happens all the time? Richard Scarry was a pioneer on this front. Dr. Seuss’s works themselves have occasionally undergone this treatment: witness a key difference between the original Cat in the Hat (1957), featuring an unnamed narrator and his sister Sally…

Andrew Kay and Associates, Pty Ltd.

…and the PBS cartoon show The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! (2010-18), in which the original narrator is replaced by Nick, Sally’s neighbor, for reasons of diversity.

kpbs.org.

In a similar way, the “Chinaman” on Mulberry Street at one point became a “Chinese man,” and had his skin lightened and his queue lopped off. 

Jake Beal’s Next Step.

One can think of any number of ways that these Seuss books could be modified to keep them in accord with the current mores, either by changing the text, changing the illustrations, or even just omitting a page or two. (No, I’m not going to draw a comparison to the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 – as long as editorial changes are acknowledged, and the originals available in places like the Kerlan Collection, I’m fine with children not getting the impression that Asians, Inuit, or Africans are somehow exotic or bizarre.)

So why did DSE do what it did? The simplest answer is that like most people right now in academia, publishing, government, the nonprofit sector, or even corporate America, they’re beholden to a certain ideology, and they get points in the eyes of their colleagues for acting in accord with it. They never think that they might be alienating everyone else, and potentially hurting their bottom line, but if they are, it’s a price they’re gladly willing to pay (viz. the recent behavior of the NFL, NASCAR, Dick’s Sporting Goods, etc.). As John McWhorter puts it in another context: this operation might “function as it were to make [DSE] feel noble, and look noble to one another. They were doing their duty as religious parishioners displaying their faith.”

A more complex answer is that the announced discontinuation might be a manufactured scandal. It is better to be talked about than not talked about, as Trump has repeatedly shown, and there is no such thing as negative publicity. DSE is making money on the books they’re still selling (perhaps because people are buying them out of fear that they too will soon be withdrawn?), and they might be making money on the books that they’ve stopped publishing, by selling them at inflated prices through third parties. If so, it’s a cynical and brilliant ploy. 

An answer between these two poles is that DSE is sacrificing some of the obscure titles to protect the popular ones, like Horton Hears a Who! (1954), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957), Green Eggs and Ham (1960), The Lorax (1971), Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (1990), and the most famous of them all, The Cat in the Hat (which some people consider to be a racist portrayal of a blackface minstrel performer). The current mores dictate that one’s entire career can be ruined by a single slip-up, and Dr. Seuss is certainly in danger of this, on account of some of his early work on Madison Avenue and the anti-Japanese cartoons he did for PM magazine during World War II (plus, he’s just an old white guy anyway). So DSE decided to throw the “slip-ups” under the bus, while keeping the less objectionable (and more lucrative) stuff. But if this is true, DSE is playing a dangerous game! Any acknowledged association between “Dr. Seuss” and “racism” will come back to haunt them. 

Without knowing the people involved in making this decision I have no idea which one of these answers is true, although Occam’s Razor suggests the first.

September 11

I wrote the piece below on the second anniversary of the attacks in 2003, at which time my wife and I were graduate students at the University of Minnesota. The attacks were fresh enough in my mind that I think it can count as a primary source, and I repost it here for the twentieth anniversary for interest’s sake. If there is any modification to be made at this point, it sure looks like Iraq was a huge waste of lives and money and that not all people “yearn for freedom” the way we like to think they do. The recent debacle in Afghanistan has also revealed the limits of Wilsonian world-building. 

Note the changes in technology: dial-up Internet, television over the airwaves, photocopying documents to send them in the mail, etc.

****

I missed September 11. Anne awoke early to go into the university to teach, and I slept in until about 9:00 a.m. When I got up, instead of going onto the Internet as I often do, I finished off my lecture (I was teaching my own class on Tuesday evenings). I also wrote a letter to American Airlines: we had just returned from our honeymoon to South Africa and I was wondering if I could get the frequent flyer points for the entire trip and not just the officially American Airlines leg, i.e. Minneapolis to Chicago. I walked in to school around noon, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary, either on the way in or when I got to the library to make photocopies of the boarding passes for the letter. I mailed it, and went up to the history department. As I got off the elevator I ran into the graduate secretary who told me that classes had just been cancelled for the rest of the day. I asked why. “Because of the World Trade Center coming down,” she replied. “What?” I said. “They blew up the World Trade Center.” “What are you talking about?!” “Oh, just go down to the lounge,” she said.

The lounge is a small room at the end of the hall with couches, a couple of bookcases full of books no one wants, a typewriter, and a small rabbit-eared television with a “Kill Your Television” bumper sticker on the top. I didn’t think that it actually worked, but apparently it did: a small crowd was gathered around, and it was showing again and again not just airplanes hitting the two towers of World Trade Center but the towers actually falling down. Falling down! Incredible! There’s no more World Trade Center! My friend Troy was there, and I asked him what the hell was happening. He filled me in: two planes were flown in to the World Trade Center, another plane had hit the Pentagon, and a fourth had gone down in Pennsylvania. Also, a car bomb had gone off in front of the State Department. He thought that it was probably the same type of people who had bombed the WTC in 1993. I was stunned. I watched the TV for a bit, and then went down to the computer lab to look on the Internet. Every single news site was full of information about the attacks. As many as 50,000 people could have been killed. The president was under heavy guard at an air force base somewhere. Fighter jets had been scrambled. All commercial flights had been grounded. Muslims were bracing for a backlash. Everyone was braced for further attacks. An email announced that an interfaith prayer rally in memory of the victims, and urging calm on survivors, was to take place on the Mall.

I went up a floor to see Anne. On the way I heard one professor saying that we shouldn’t cancel classes, but that we should use them to discuss the issue. I heard another saying, “This is big. This is Pearl Harbor.” I saw Anne, who was going to the prayer meeting with her advisor. I elected not to go: I had a suspicion that it would turn into an anti-backlash rally before any sort of backlash was apparent, which would have simply annoyed me. Instead, I just walked home. At this point I did notice the lack of airplanes in the sky, which is a novelty for Minneapolis since the airport is quite close to the downtown and planes are constantly flying overhead. Once home I turned on the television and sat hypnotized. I still wasn’t quite sure what exactly was going on, and that’s what I remember most about the day: the sheer novelty of it, how it didn’t seem to relate to anything that had ever happened before. Sure, there was the Oklahoma City bombing, but this seemed to be different in kind as well as degree. Such a reaction was shared by others: because no one knew quite what to think, an eerie calm seemed to pervade the reactions of people on the television. There was an interview with one guy who had been in the WTC and had gotten out, and who was matter-of-factly describing hearing the announcement, and simply walking down the stairs and out into the street. How much different from the Columbine massacre of two years previous: everyone knew then what a “school shooting” was, even if that was a particularly egregious one, so we had the usual images of teenagers hugging each other, soccer moms overjoyed to discover their offspring safe, grief counselors telling you that it’s OK to talk about your feelings, and almost instantaneous squabbling over whether it was caused by lack of gun control or whether it was caused by violent movies and video games. Mark Steyn wrote later that “it is very, very rare for the media to be caught so off-guard by an event that they lose control of their ability to determine its meaning,” and that was certainly true on the day.

Of course we all know now what “September eleventh” (complete with its assonance and amphibrachic rhythm) means. The attacks were the work of al-Qaeda, the same people who had bombed the USS Cole and the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Their operatives, armed with nothing more than boxcutters, hijacked four airplanes and used them as guided bombs against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and would have hit some fourth place had not the passengers of United Airlines flight 93 risen up against them and brought the plane down. Otherwise there was no bomb outside the State Department, only 3000 people were killed, and the anti-Muslim backlash was remarkably subdued. The only follow-up attacks consisted of anthrax in the mail to the likes of Senator Daschle and the National Enquirer, if these were connected to Sept. 11 at all.

And US foreign policy has revolved around it ever since. President Bush declared a “war on terror,” and since the Taliban regime of Afghanistan refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, he ordered it toppled, which the military did in fairly short order. After months of negotiations with the UN, it did the same to the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, on the ostensible principle that Saddam had chemical weapons which he might share with terrorists, but also because he had never really fulfilled the cease-fire conditions of the first Gulf War, that Iraq could potentially serve as a model for a secular, liberal Arab state, thereby striking at one of the root causes of terrorism, and that he was a plain old fashioned tyrant whom the world is better off without. Whether this will work or not remains to be seen. I supported the war, and I still have confidence that what will come ahead will be better than what existed before, but I can’t help but feeling that time is not on our side.

Otherwise September 11 made me even more of a news junkie, and a conservative, than I already was. All attempts to portray the attack as blowback for the past misadventures of American foreign policy or the injustice of the world economic system struck me as hollow, something that would appear to be true if you were deeply invested in leftist ideology but which simply didn’t fit the facts. The airplanes were not piloted by the families of the Chilean disappeared or the survivors of a Contra massacre, nor by anyone who expressed solidarity even with the Palestinians. They weren’t poor, either: bin Laden is quite wealthy, and the hijackers were apparently well-off, with other life options available to them. No, to me the event blew the lid off the polite fiction, pervasive in academia, that all cultures are equal, and no one is ever really to blame, but if someone must be blamed, it should probably be the US. Robert Fulford wrote that the event

challenged the gentle and self-deluded way we have thought about human relations…. We try desperately to be agreeable and to deny that ugly differences among us exist. In this milieu, the atrocity of Sept. 11 was a foreign object, hard as anthracite. Perhaps we can identify it with an ancient word, evil. That term frightens us: liberalism decided long ago that “evil” should not, if one follows liberal thinking, exist.

And Christopher Hitchens, no conservative, famously wrote that

What the terrorists abominate about “the West” is not what Western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific enquiry, its separation of religion from the state.

To express solidarity with or even to make excuses for al-Qaeda seemed to me to be a great moral and strategic blunder. The US, even when headed by George Bush, is not always wrong.

All quotes above, by the way, have been culled from my file of Sept. 11 material that I started to keep and which I have open before me. Some of the commentary was first-rate, and some of it was fatuous drivel, because the pain-feelers and concern-sharers eventually did arrive. There was a “message of support and recommendation from the International Students’ Office,” including:

Some of you may feel that you have not really faced harassment, but that you have experienced a change in attitudes or an unfriendly climate in your department or work place. Even though you may feel that there are no concrete incidents that you consider harassment, we are interested in hearing about your experience and want to discuss strategies you or we can take feel safe and comfortable during your studies here.

And there was this message from the MacArthur fellows:

On Friday, Sept. 28, a group of MacArthur students and faculty met to discuss how our community could respond to the events of Sept. 11. The clear consensus was that we have a responsibility to draw from the MacArthur program’s intellectual skills and resources to stimulate critical reflection on several issues — in particular, the ongoing anti-Arab and anti-Moslem violence and racial profiling; new challenges to our political and civil liberties; the militarization of the US state; and more.

Note the smug elision between “we’re smart” and “we hold the correct opinions.” How about using your superior brainpower to come up with ways to prevent this sort of thing from happening again? As for the International Students Office, the theme of that message was clearly: “Please make us feel important! Please justify our jobs!” I wanted to tell them that although I was shocked by the attacks, I was very pleased that something good had come out of them, namely that the “climate” in America had changed vastly for the better: the country was united as I had never seen it before, and all the petty crap that normally fills its consciousness (that summer: Gary Condit, Chandra Levy, Britney Spears, ’N Sync, and Survivor) was placed firmly in perspective if not entirely forgotten, and finally that their patronizing and intrusive concern about the state of our emotions was not helping. Fuck off, you wankers!*

But I dare say Sept. 11 has been forgotten, in its way. Mark Steyn is fond of designating obsolete or trivial things as “so Sept. 10,” but in its way Sept. 11 has become Sept. 10. Time marches on, of course, and the first anniversary placed a natural moratorium on expressions of grief. But it seems to me that the Iraq war was more important in this respect. A few people protested the Afghan war, but many, many more people protested the war on Iraq, on the principle that it wasn’t retaliatory but “preemptive,” therefore ushering in a dangerous new era in American foreign policy. That the administration decided to seek UN approval for this adventure gave plenty of time for the anti-war movement to organize itself, and its failure to get that approval looked particularly bad. Furthermore, the controversy over the war shattered the unity that we had in the fall of 2001, and completely overshadowed any sympathy the US may have won abroad. If for a brief while it was cool to be American that moment has long passed, because the US has reverted to type: no longer the victim, it is once again the bully. Thus it has traded good will for “results,” in much the same way that the Jews, in founding the state of Israel, decided that they weren’t going to be nice anymore, and are quite unapologetic about killing their enemies.

Was it a good trade? I admit that it’s nice to be liked. Do you remember U2’s performance in memory of 9/11 at the Superbowl in 2002? Last summer my wife and I were visiting my parents in Canada, and we had a rental car with Minnesota plates. We had gone downtown to do some shopping and parked on the street; when we returned to the car we discovered that we had a ticket, only it wasn’t a ticket at all but a free parking pass issued by the Chamber of Commerce, on which the meter maid had written, “God bless America!” I’m not even American and I got choked up at this, but I wonder if anyone gets this treatment anymore. I personally don’t ever want to see another attack on the order of Sept. 11, and I am gladly willing to forego the good will of others to do so. The question, of course, is whether the war on Iraq and the other facets of the “War on Terror” have made another attack not less, but more, likely. Frankly I think there’s a lot to be said for the notion that we have crippled al-Qaeda and that they have been reduced to fighting in the Middle East only — we’ve taken the fight to them. But can we afford to stay there? Who knows? Americans are a can-do people and this project may just work… or it may not.

Meanwhile, on cue, Americans are back to their usual self-absorption. With the victory in Iraq things are back to “normal,” and so they have retreated to Plato’s cave and the comfort of stories about Laci Peterson, Kobe Bryant, and Ashton Kutcher & Demi Moore. Sigh.

Allow me to say, in closing, that I’m quite embarrassed actually to have sent a letter to American Airlines asking for frequent flyer points, dated on a day that they had far, far more important things to worry about. (The reply, I’m relieved to say, came about two weeks later and was polite: they could give me points for the transatlantic flight, but not the London-Cape Town flight.)

* Of course I think that anti-Muslim prejudice is stupid and ugly, and if expressed physically met with the sternest possible punishment. It’s just that the assumption that most ordinary white Americans are latent racists, just waiting for an excuse to act on their hatred, is a gross libel. And longtime readers will know that I don’t care much for aggressive victimhood, either. Dirty looks and name-calling may be hurtful to schoolchildren, but adults should know how to ignore them.

Addendum

Recently spotted in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota: a memorial to 9/11, in particular to Tom Burnett, a native of Bloomington and leader of the Flight 93 revolt. 

Talk by Ken Wheeler

From the weekly Reinhardt Eagle:

Dr. Kenneth Wheeler to speak at the Funk Heritage Center

During the Funk’s October Events, Dr. Kenneth Wheeler will discuss his book, Modern Cronies: Southern Industrialism from Gold Rush to Convict Labor, 1829-1894, which details the ways the Gold Rush in the South affected the Etowah River Valley area.

Call 770.720.5967 for more information.

The Vinland Map is Fake

From YaleNews (hat tip: Dan Franke): 

The Vinland Map, once hailed as the earliest depiction of the New World, is awash in 20th-century ink. A team of conservators and conservation scientists at Yale has found compelling new evidence for this conclusion through the most thorough analysis yet performed on the infamous parchment map.

Acquired by Yale in the mid-1960s, the purported 15th-century map depicts a pre-Columbian “Vinlanda Insula,” a section of North America’s coastline southwest of Greenland. While earlier studies had detected evidence of modern inks at various points on the map, the new Yale analysis examined the entire document’s elemental composition using state-of-the-art tools and techniques that were previously unavailable.

The analysis revealed that a titanium compound used in inks first produced in the 1920s pervades the map’s lines and text.

The Vinland Map is a fake,” said Raymond Clemens, curator of early books and manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which houses the map. “There is no reasonable doubt here. This new analysis should put the matter to rest.”

The new study also uncovered evidence that the map deception was intentional. A Latin inscription on its back, possibly a bookbinder’s note guiding the assembly of the Speculum Historiale — an authentic medieval volume and the likely source of the map’s calfskin parchment — is overwritten with modern ink to appear like instructions for binding the map within the genuine 15th-century manuscript.

The altered inscription certainly seems like an attempt to make people believe the map was created at the same time as the Speculum Historiale,” Clemens said. “It’s powerful evidence that this is a forgery, not an innocent creation by a third party that was co-opted by someone else, although it doesn’t tell us who perpetrated the deception.”

Yale created a sensation in 1965 when it announced the Vinland Map’s existence and published a scholarly book about it by Yale librarians and curators at the British Museum in London. Its discovery seemed to demonstrate that Norsemen were the first Europeans to reach the New World, landing in the Americas well before Columbus’ first voyage. (Archeological discoveries at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland during the 1960s confirmed that the Vikings had built settlements in the Americas long before Columbus sailed.)

From the beginning, however, scholars began to question the map’s authenticity. And over time an overwhelming consensus has emerged that it is indeed a 20th-century forgery.

More at the link.

Herbert Hoover

One final presidential site for this summer: the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, just west of Iowa City. We stopped in while en route from Minneapolis to St. Louis. To my annoyance the management has reinstated limited opening hours on account of the latest COVID surge (as though this will actually do anything to prevent the spread of the disease), so we only got a half hour to look at it. They did let us in free, though.

Hoover was a remarkable individual. He was born into a Quaker family in West Branch, but moved to Oregon at age ten to live with an uncle after the death of both of his parents. He worked throughout his teens but took enough night school courses that he was accepted as a member of the inaugural class of Stanford University. There he worked numerous jobs, acted as class treasurer among other activities, and studied geology, in pretty much that order. However, he did eventually land a job with Bewick Moreing, a mining company active in the gold fields of Western Australia, where he was astoundingly successful at discovering new sources of ore and negotiating with the company’s workers. Stints in China and elsewhere followed, although he sold his shares in the company in 1908 and went into business for himself in London as a mining consultant and financier.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Hoover created and chaired a committee to repatriate thousands of Americans trapped in Europe, and then organized the Commission for the Relief of Belgium to provide food for the citizens of that occupied country. When America declared war on the Axis powers in 1917, President Wilson appointed Hoover to lead the U.S. Food Administration, which shipped millions of tons of food to the allies in Europe. Following the war, the Food Administration became the American Relief Administration and continued to send aid to Europe, including former enemies like Germany and Bolshevik Russia, and after public funding ran out for the ARA, Hoover continued its work by soliciting private donations! This competent and energetic activity earned him a position as Secretary of Commerce in the cabinets of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and even though Coolidge was a firm believer in a minimalist government and laissez-faire economics, Hoover had enough latitude to continue his essentially Progressive program of technocratic intervention in regulating such things as traffic safety, commercial air travel, product standardization, and radio communication. All this set him up for a successful run for the presidency in 1928.

But starting in October of 1929, it all went awry. The big question with Hoover is: why was he unable to deal with the Great Depression effectively? He was no Coolidge, sitting back and waiting for economic problems to work themselves out (which is not necessarily a bad thing, although the Great Depression was likely too great a problem to be ignored in this way). Hoover had no problem with an activist government, and he tried various things like lowering interest rates, establishing the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and sponsoring the Emergency Relief and Construction Act. Yet it is Hoover’s successor Franklin Roosevelt who gets credit for the New Deal, and whose campaign propaganda that Hoover “did nothing” is still with us. 

Hoover did approve the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which famously dampened international trade at a time when it desperately needed stimulating. He also refused to abandon the gold standard to the same effect. He called out federal troops against the Bonus Army, which did not go over well. Most important, Hoover retained a belief in volunteerism and in state-level or local efforts to alleviate the Depression, and that “the Dole was a cure worse than the disease.” A majority of voters in 1932 disagreed, and Hoover lost his bid for reelection. 

Hoover lived until 1964 and had an active post-presidency, during which time, as usually happens, his reputation improved somewhat, although it never reached the heights that he enjoyed in the 1920s. 

Museums in St. Louis

In addition to the Civil War Museum, enjoyed a couple of other interesting ones:

• The World Chess Hall of Fame in the Central West End. It’s not a history museum as such, but it’s very well done. At the time of our visit, the first floor housed a display of historic and exotic chess sets, the second a temporary exhibit on “Chess Dining and Decor,” and the third a feature on child chess prodigies. The “Hall of Fame” as such was simply a large touch screen that allowed a visitor to look up all the big names, like Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky, Garry Kasparov, or José Raúl Capablanca. The museum is also marked from the outside by the “world’s biggest chess piece.” 

This chess piece is a king, of course (although whether it is “white” or “black” seems ambiguous). It is in the standard “Staunton” form, designed in the mid-nineteenth century and named for the English chess master Howard Staunton. The vast majority of chess sets sold today are Staunton sets, but there is no reason why you can’t mix things up a bit if you want! Here are some of the more interesting ones on display at the WCHOF:

An Austrian chess set, carved c. 1953 and representing a medieval court. 

A Ramayana-themed chess set from India from the early twentieth century.

A Chinese chess set from the mid-twentieth century. This one was most interesting – each piece was elaborately carved, and no two were alike. The rooks, knights, bishops, and all pawns took different forms, and the two sides didn’t even mirror each other (i.e. there were four different forms of rook, knight, and bishop, and sixteen different forms of pawn). 

A “safari” chess set from Kenya (early 21st century). 

A papier-mâché set from Mexico (1978). 

A Minoan-themed chess set by artist Christoforos Sklavenitis (1975). 

On the second floor: a “diner” chess set…

…and some chess-themed large-format magazine advertisements from the mid-twentieth century. Apparently chess was quite popular with middle and even working-class America back then. Who knew?

• The St. Louis Art Museum, currently featuring an exhibit on ancient Nubia, which was up the Nile River from Egypt and unsurprisingly shared much in common with it. But the precise relationship between these two cultural centers is a matter of debate, and inevitably informed by racial politics. That is, Nubians were much more phenotypically sub-Saharan than Egyptians were, which meant that Western archaeologists historically dismissed Nubian culture, seeing it as entirely derivative. In reaction, contemporary scholars have emphasized Nubian creativity and power, such as during the Bronze Age Kerma Period (Egyptian artifacts found at Kerma are likely the result of a Nubian raid into Upper Egypt, not because the Egyptians had established an outpost there) or during the Napatan period (eighth-seventh centuries BC) when Nubia actually ruled Egypt as the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty.

Some other distinctions:

Shawabtis (votive figurines buried with the dead) were indeed borrowed from Egypt, as you can see, but in Nubia they were reserved for royal use, and grew quite large in size and number. Some Nubian kings had collections bordering on the scale of Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army. 

Wikipedia.

Apparently there are more extant pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt, particularly from the Meroitic Period (sixth century BC-fourth century AD). They are generally smaller in size and more acute in shape than their Egyptian counterparts.

Napatan rulers had a fondness for horses, and buried them adorned with faience trappings. 

The Kerma period produced a distinctive style of pottery. 

Sudan is now on my bucket list!

The Civil War in Missouri

Missouri was a slave state, but never an actual member of the Confederacy. Two factions claimed to represent Missouri’s legitimate government, but only the Unionist one retained control of it. With war looming in 1860, Governor Robert Marcellus Stewart adopted a policy of “armed neutrality” – Missouri would stay in the Union, but send aid to neither side, and resist any attempts at invasion. Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson, who took office in January 1861, reaffirmed that policy – but as it turns out, Jackson had Southern leanings and, despite a constitutional convention that voted overwhelmingly to stay in the Union, started plotting to seize the federal arsenal at St. Louis as a prelude to secession. But troops guarding the arsenal, under the command of Captain Nathaniel Lyon, ambushed the Missouri Volunteer Militia as it was maneuvering at Camp Jackson near St. Louis. Lyon’s troops paraded the captured militiamen through St. Louis, to the disapproval of the locals; at one point a shot rang out, prompting a response from Lyon’s troops that left 28 people dead. The next day the Missouri General Assembly authorized the creation of the Missouri State Guard allegedly to resist invasion, but in reality to keep Federal troops locked up in St. Louis; after about a month Lyon, now commander of the Department of the West, ended up chasing Jackson and his legislative supporters out of the state capital at Jefferson City. They reassembled in Neosho, Missouri and enacted an Ordinance of Secession in late October, and a month later the state was admitted to the Confederate States of America. But all this was notional: Jackson’s government may have been legitimate on one level, but back in Jefferson City the reconvened constitutional convention declared that the governorship was vacant, and appointed Hamilton Rowan Gamble, a former Missouri Supreme Court Justice, to the position. Hamilton’s government retained hold of the machinery of state, and began recruiting troops for the Union. Ultimately some 447 regiments fought for it. For its part, Jackson’s government eventually retreated to Marshall, Texas, where it did not do much but did send representatives to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. 

Thirty-five-star US flag, in use 1863-1865, with reflection of the photographer in the glass.

But that didn’t mean that pro-Confederates went away gently. Few formal Civil War battles were fought in Missouri. Instead, the state’s Civil War experience was largely characterized by guerrilla warfare, of a savage and brutal nature. Pro-slavery “Bushwackers” (including William C. Quantrill, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, and a young Jesse James) attacked anyone suspected of sympathizing with the Union cause; in return, Kansas-based anti-slavery “Jayhawkers” did the same thing. In some ways this was a continuation of “Bleeding Kansas” of the 1850s – and such activity continued after the war’s formal conclusion in 1865. It’s really quite amazing how horrible it all was. 

Missouri Civil War Museum, Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Mo.

All of this and more is well presented at the Missouri Civil War Museum at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri, which I highly recommend. It was funded entirely by local fundraising and has a great bookstore to boot. 

Confederate currency notes.