Discordant Visions

The Wizard and the Prophet : Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

I listened to the Audible edition, which was read with a great effort to sound dramatic and to pronounce every foreign name or word with a perfect accent, both of which I found distracting.

What is the right term for the series of issues that came to public attention in the last half of the 20th century? That is, those that involved the increasing human population, economic growth and intensive exploitation of the natural world, climate change, pollution, etc? Collectively, they can be characterized as “environmental,” but to say this was the era of environmentalism doesn’t exactly fit. Many of those involved would reject the label, “environmentalist,” seeing themselves as biologists, economists, social scientists, or ecologists in the narrow, scientific sense. The older label, “conservationist,” would fit some, but not all those involved. I don’t have an answer to the problem of saying in a word what this book is about.

Mann tries to sum up the tensions and perplexities of this broad historical phenomenon by following the lives and careers of William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. The first was a conservationist in the old sense, involved with groups like Audubon and author of an influential book in the late 1940s, Road to Survival, a neo-Malthusian polemic on population growth exceeding the carrying capacity of the Earth. He was a major influence on Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring, the book often cited as the major impetus behind Earth Day 1970. The second was a midwestern born and educated plant breeder who developed wheat resistant to stem rust and then added further improvements that greatly increased yields. First in Mexico, then in other developing countries, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, this work became the basis of the green revolution, and Borlaug received a Nobel prize.

Mann treats these contrasting stories as exemplars of the familiar dilemma: can science and technology allow us to keep expanding human demand, or do we need to reduce demand, primarily by stopping population growth and cutting our per capita consumption? He considers this in relation to four domains that he labels earth, air, fire and water, that is, food and agriculture, climate change, energy generation and water supply. For each he describes the “wizard,” approach – Borlaug – and the “prophet,” approach – Vogt. He takes us through technological solutions being developed by modern day wizards, and then tells us the views of modern day prophets, who say these solutions won’t work and who propose “greener,” more “sustainable” solutions of their own. At the end, he attempts a synthesis, but it is not clear whether there is a way to reconcile such starkly contrasted views. What I found interesting was not so much the contrast as the similarity between their conceptions of the way through the difficulties, or even catastrophes, they envisioned. Both saw the critical decisions as coming from the top, through national or international governing bodies, staffed by experts, although the experts in the two cases would be applying very different principles.

The trouble with this is that such solutions quickly lose sight of human values like equity and freedom. The green revolution greatly increased food supplies, but also largely destroyed small farmers’ lives and led to the growth of the developing world’s mega cities, with their sprawling shanty towns. Attempts to rein in growth often seem to place the heaviest burdens on the poorest people, while protecting the lifestyles of the already well off. At best, affluent folk get a steady bombardment of guilt-inducing environmental propaganda, along with promotions for exotic ecotourism destinations.

Economic liberalism and the global market economy have no use for restraint, so if there are limits to growth, it’s hard to see how the free market society can avoid hitting up against them. If there aren’t any limits, as many still insist, at least in the immediate future, does that mean we should continue to allow things to develop? In an earlier post, Climate Change, Equity and Security, I considered how a sustainable future might be possible, if more attention were given to equity in development, through the imposition of clear and simple limits (on speed, on emissions, etc.) to restrain the growth of inequity and waste, while leaving room for individual freedom and innovation. Likewise, efforts to constrain the growth of economic inequality could also ease some of the current threats to the global environment. Poverty seems to me to be a major driver of population growth, because it delays the demographic transition that rich countries have gone through.

People certainly need the vision, knowledge and advice of scientists like Borlaug and Vogt, but I’m not sure that they alone can offer solutions to the complicated collection of problems that result from human flourishing on Earth. The economic miracle of the green revolution, coupled with humanity’s incredible endurance, has enabled us to escape the catastrophe that Vogt foresaw, but it seems very clear to me that sooner or later we will exhaust nature’s resilience and human patience. Whether it is grain, meat, cars or human souls, more can’t always be better. We need to think more deeply about what we really need from the Earth and how, as free people, we can sustain our life together.

Despite the limitations of his either/or framework, Mann makes the stories of these two men interesting enough for a good read. You can enjoy those parts of the book, and skip the earth, air, fire and water, if you like.

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Worst Camping Trip Ever?

Endurance. An Epic of Polar Adventure by F.A. Worsley. W.W. Norton and Co. New York. 1931. (With an Introduction by Patrick O’Brien, 1999)

 Worsley was in command of Endurance, the ship that carried Earnest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to cross Antarctica. Caught in the pack ice in the Weddell Sea, from February to November 1915 the Endurance drifted until she was crushed and sunk. From then until April, the twenty-eight men camped on the ice in thin canvas tents, without floors, on limited rations. They made several attempts to march north, an exhausting job over the rough and broken ice, until they were finally able to launch their three lifeboats to cross to Elephant Island, one of the last bits of land off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Here, most of them camped under the shelter of two overturned boats, while Shackleton, Worsley and four others made a dangerous sixteen-day trip in the third boat to South Georgia. That they arrived there and did not simply sail on into the endless South Atlantic to sink or starve is testimony to the nearly legendary navigational skill of Worsley, who learned the craft traveling to remote islands while working for the British South Pacific Service. To cap this remarkable feat, Shackleton, Worsley and a third man had to cross the island to reach the whaling station on the south shore. This they did during the only window of weather for months when it was possible to struggle over the mountains and glaciers with any chance of surviving.

 Having found help and picked up the other three men, they headed straight for Elephant Island, but the pack ice blocked the way. Only on the fourth try, in their fourth borrowed ship, starting from Punta Arenas, Chile, near Tierra del Fuego, did they reach the stranded crew on August 30, 1916. All twenty-eight of Shackleton’s men had survived. Ironically, several soon perished while serving in the First World War, which had been going on the entire time they were away. Before they returned to England, however, they were honored by the Chileans of Punta Arenas with a banquet. The Chilean guests rose one by one to drink a glass of wine with the Brits, resulting in each hero having to consume multiple glasses while their hosts remained relatively sober. Shackleton, who drank little, was permitted to withdraw, but when the rest tried to follow a bit later, they were sent back at bayonet point by Chilean soldiers, who were under orders to allow no sober English, nor even any not sufficiently drunk, to pass.

Afterwards, Worsley served in the Royal Naval Reserve, commanding an anti-submarine ship. He sank a German U-boat by ramming it. He was also in the British Northern Russia Expedition against the Red army. After the war, he knocked around, leading several difficult trips to the Arctic but usually ending up in financial difficulties. Finally, in 1922, Shackleton took him on again for another Antarctic expedition, but Shackleton died on the trip south. After one more arctic voyage and an unsuccessful treasure hunt on Cocos Island, Costa Rica, Worsley spent the interwar years writing and lecturing. He lied about his age to secure a command in the Merchant Navy in 1941, but he was soon found out and put to work as a training officer on shore. He died in 1943 of lung cancer.

All I can say is that, as far as putting up with cold, hunger and strenuous exercise, even more than the early Mount Everest climbers, those guys were tough. Furthermore, the men in charge of the different parties were good at maintaining discipline and morale, keeping up a routine that included regular musical performances as well as hunting expeditions. In more than two years, there seems to have been only a single hint of mutiny: at one point, the ship’s carpenter, claiming (like Steven Hopkins – see my earlier post on the Sea Venture) that the loss of the Endurance set them free from Shackleton’s command, refused to go on. Shackleton stood firm and convinced him to stick. The other factor in the crew’s favor was that unlike the early English voyages to places like America, there were neither indigenous people to antagonize nor much in the way of infectious diseases to contend with. One man lost a foot to gangrene following frostbite, but there were two doctors in the party and an anesthetic, so it went well. They also got enough fresh meat to keep scurvy at bay. A final minor miracle of the trip was that a large number of their photographic negatives survived, giving us an amazing visual record of what they endured.

 Worsley is a good writer; the book is the sort to read in a few big chunks with much satisfaction and amazement.

Nearctic Travels: Shipwreck and Shakespeare

A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Hobson Woodward. New York. Viking Press. 2009.

[Image from A young people’s history of Virginia and Virginians. 1896 by D.H. Maury]

 Woodward tells the story of the Sea Venture, the flagship of the 1609 supply fleet sent by the Virginia Company to support its colony at Jamestown. Caught in a hurricane and run aground on Bermuda, Sea Venture’s crew and passengers survived and spent nearly a year on the islands, until they could construct two new ships to complete the trip to Virginia. Among the passengers was William Strachey, a down on his luck gentleman, who aspired to literary fame. He was made secretary to successive governors of the Jamestown Colony and sent an official report and a private letter describing the events of the voyage. Woodward believes, largely on the basis of textual similarities, that the private letter was a major source for The Tempest.

The first part of the book covers the experiences of the Sea Venture castaways from England to Bermuda and Virginia and back to England, using Strachey and other historical sources. The second part deals more speculatively with how Shakespeare composed The Tempest, drawing out in detail similarities and coincidences between Strachey’s letter and the plot, characters and language of the play. Woodward has little to go on here, but he at least makes a plausible case for Shakespeare having read a copy of Strachey’s account.

 My interest in this very readable book was sparked by its references to another passenger on the Sea Venture, Steven Hopkins. Described as a “shopkeeper from Hampshire” who knew the Scriptures well enough to become clerk to the minister aboard ship, he is notable for having attempted to organize a mutiny on Bermuda. His goal was apparently to remain on the island and not be taken to Virginia, on the grounds that the passengers’ contract with the company was voided by the shipwreck. He was informed on to the military commander of the expedition, Thomas Gates, who put him on trial for his life. According to Strachey, Hopkins was so eloquent in pleading that his wife and children back in Hampshire would be ruined if he were hanged that most of the gentlemen in the group argued for leniency. Gates relented, and Hopkins survived his time in Bermuda and Virginia and returned to England. He later joined the Mayflower, with his second wife and children. Though not a member of the Pilgrims’ sect, he was taken on as someone who knew the land and native people of Virginia, which is where the Mayflower was supposed to be going. Hopkins’s wife gave birth while at sea, and his family was one of only two not to lose anyone on the voyage. In Plymouth, he helped negotiate a treaty with the natives that remained unbroken for the life of the signers and also ran the settlement’s first tavern. His female descendants married into some of the leading families of Massachusetts. I find it amazing that this man was part of three of the most remarkable English ventures in North America, especially since I may be distantly related through a female ancestor from one of those New England families. I’m currently learning more about him, because whether or not we are related, his story deserves to be more widely known.

A Brave Vessel is well worth reading for a sea story, as gripping as Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, and as a look at the struggles of the English to establish a foothold in America. Woodward describes all the suffering that followed from the conflicts between colonizers and natives as well as within the English society attempting to transplant itself across the ocean. He also touches on the ecological and climatological factors that helped and hindered their efforts. The severe drought that bracketed the early years of the Virginia colony greatly increased the stress on both natives and colonists and led to the “starving time” in the winter of 1609-1610, which the arrival of the ships from Bermuda helped relieve. During those same months on Bermuda, the castaways lived well on fish, nesting seabirds and their eggs, green sea turtles, and the introduced pigs, left by earlier Spanish seafarers. The native plants, including palmetto and Bermuda cedar furnished food and drink as well as timber for building the two ships, Deliverance and Patience. The plenitude and mild climate of the islands undoubtedly were factors in Steven Hopkins near fatal desire to remain there.

 Bermuda became an English colony and suffered great ecological changes, including the near extinction of its endemic cedars and the cahow or Bermuda petrel, whose strange nocturnal calls helped give the islands their early reputation as haunted by devils. Bermuda’s roles in supporting the earliest ventures of England into North America and in inspiring one of the greatest English plays remain points of local pride. I wonder if Steven Hopkins dreamed of Bermuda during the dreary New England winters.

Playful Explorations

Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange (And Impossibly Small) World of Particle Physics by Jon Butterworth. The Experiment. New York. 2018.

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2017.

Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts. Bloomsbury USA. 2015.

 These three books form a progression from the most concrete to the most abstract or, taking a different point of view, from the most serious to the most playful. At the same time all three are in different ways, highly imaginative.

The first is an account of particle physics, framed as a voyage into the unknown waters of the atomic and subatomic scales in the natural world, accompanied by charts at the beginning of each section that map physicists’ increasing knowledge as they probe matter at ever higher energies. The classes of particles recognized by current theory are shown as islands, while the forces that link them are shown as connections – electromagnetism as bridges traversed by cars, the strong force as sea lanes crossed by boats and the weak force as airplane routes. Butterworth describes the steps by which these waters were charted, from the development of the atomic theory of matter to the Standard Model, which culminated recently with the finding of the Higgs boson, using the Large Hadron Collider.

This model is a triumph of the partnership between theoretical and experimental physics, relying on both advanced mathematics and powerful machines, such as particle colliders  for achieving high energy at incredibly tiny scales and sophisticated detectors for examining the resulting products. Both the mathematical calculations and the engineering are among the most challenging being carried out anywhere in the world, and it is an open question how much deeper we can push these explorations.

Butterworth concludes by describing some of the conjectures and hints of what lies beyond (at even higher energies) cast in the form of sailors’ tales of the prodigies and monsters found in uncharted waters, like dark matter and energy, super symmetry and string theories. His account spares his reader all but the most basic mathematics and yet provides a very helpful overview of the current theory of our physical universe as well as an enjoyable tale.

The second book is a biography of the pioneer of communications theory, Claude Shannon, mathematician and engineer, whose work helped provide the basis for today’s digital computers and the entire structure of information technology built on their power. Shannon is a man who loved both thinking and tinkering and who was fortunate to be brilliant enough to be allowed to make those activities his career, without having to worry too much about where it all led. His most influential work, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, changed the way communications engineers thought about their work by eliminating the focus on the mechanism (telegraph, telephone, radio, television) and instead considering the fundamental logic of information. Among his key contributions were a focus on probability and his demonstration that all messages can be reduced to simple binary codes, consisting of “bits.” His basic measure of information is familiar to me from my days as an ecology graduate student, because it can be repurposed as a way of measuring species diversity in samples of organisms. This was one of my first experiences with the idea that information is a property of more than just human communications. The authors discuss the way in which the concept of information ( especially its conceptualization as uncertainty or randomness) pervades many aspects of modern science. They warn that this may prove just another version of the old “clockwork universe,” an example of the tendency to imagine nature in terms of our own inventions. Still, there is no doubting the extent of Shannon’s influence.

Despite his reputation, and despite being associated with many of the greatest minds of the twentieth century at Bell Labs and MIT, Shannon preferred his private family life and his playful activities, from robot building to unicycle riding, over fame and influence. He and his mathematician wife, Betty, spent much time devising toys and games, some quite sophisticated, including one of the earliest chess playing computers. He could accomplish amazing results with erector sets and a few switches and relays, like a juggling robot, dressed to look like W.C. Fields. He had earned, in the eyes of his employers, the right to pursue these activities by his amazing early achievements. Perhaps as robots and IT gradually take away the need for so many to spend lives in repetitive toil, more of us will be able to enjoy such a playful existence.

The last book suggests what a life of pure play might look like. I heard and saw John Conway at my institution many years ago giving a talk and demonstration on knots. It was a virtuoso performance, culminating it a dance in which a group of volunteers from the audience followed his directions to turn themselves into an amazingly elaborate pattern while joined together by a web of pieces of rope. I don’t recall the final result except that it was quite astonishing. Conway is widely known as the inventor of Conway’s Game of Life and of surreal numbers, among the numerous mathematical subjects that have engaged his attention over the years. The game of life has become a staple among computer pastimes, both because of the fascinating and sometimes beautiful patterns it generates and because of the way it models self replication and the universal Turing machine (the mathematical essence of computers). Indeed, as the Wikipedia article on the game notes, with those two properties, it can be thought of as modeling life itself, at least as mathematically defined.

Conway is in Roberts’ account perpetually at play, and like a heedless child, he leaves messes everywhere he lights. His offices at various venerable centers of mathematical research have been famous for the nearly impenetrable heaps of toys, games and paper constructions he accumulates. Conway loves games (he sees every game as a number, indeed games for him seem to underlie numbers, and provide a basic way to conceive of his surreal numbers). His method of solving problems is frequently to construct something or use a game as a model. His play leads to real mathematical discoveries, however, and other mathematicians, including some far more serious in demeanor than Conway, have been eager to collaborate with him on major projects.

Roberts biography is interspersed with accounts of her interactions with Conway during the time she was gathering material from and about him. Someone referred to the book as “metabiography,” since its making is part of the story, and it certainly manages to convey some of the strangeness of a life so dedicated to play. Mathematics, like tinkering, is one of the most primal forms play can take. When our educators come to understand that learning is about how to live and not just how to earn a living, they will have new and even better reasons to be sure everyone learns the fundamentals. We all need math to open up the horizons of beauty and pleasure.

 I know I’m going to keep rereading these books and also plunge into the colder waters of Wikipedia to try to better understand some of the concepts presented, but for now, I will post these impressions.

Palearctic travelers

The Horse, the Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony, Princeton University Press, 2007.

 This very rich and fascinating book details the development of our understanding of the history of the Indo European family of languages, from the latest common set of dialects spoken by people living in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian seas in southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia. David Anthony covers the time from the earliest diffusion of agriculture and domesticated animals out of Mesopotamia into southeastern Europe and the subsequent gradual spread out into the steppes. His key thesis is that the domestication of the wild horses of the steppes and their subsequent use as mounts, followed by the introduction of the wagon and the war chariot gave steppe tribes a mobility that enabled them to move long distances, eventually into central Europe and the Indian subcontinent, creating a bridge across cultural regions that by the late bronze age extended as far as China. Thus their language became the dominant family of languages over a vast geographic area.

 To begin with, Anthony, an archaeologist, provides an account of the linguistic evidence for a common ancestral language. The history was derived from careful analysis of phonetic and morphological changes among closely and distantly related languages. This work has been going on since the 18th century, when Europeans first began to suspect that their languages and those of India were akin to one another. This process is very much like reconstructing a biological lineage from genetic and morphological data on living or fossil specimens. It is always only the best hypothesis to explain the data at hand, but lots of work gradually leads to trustworthy results. Interestingly, linguists and evolutionary biologists employ many of the same computer programs. Anthony argues that with the predictive capacity of these explanations and the help of inscriptions dating to some of the earliest writing, we can be reasonably certain that we know some 1500 root words of Proto Indo European as well as many more terms derived from them.

 In a long series of chapters, he goes through the archaeological evidence to reconstruct the culture and characteristics of the speakers of Proto Indo European as well as how they came to be capable of leaving their steppe home and spreading out so far. Technological change is a key factor: the period covered extends from the late Neolithic to the Bronze Age. Tools, weapons, household goods and prestige items were all important. So was the domestication of the horse and the new kinds of both herding and livestock raiding that riding horses made possible. Climate change was another key factor: cold, dry periods favored herding over farming and led to wars that destroyed thriving agricultural settlements on the edges of the steppes. Cultural change was evident all along as settlement patterns, burial styles and material goods changed, indicating, according to Anthony, the rise of more male centered and hierarchical societies on the steppes – in other words the rise of the chieftain and possibly the priest, as had also happened in the city states of Mesopotamia. At some point the wheel spread into the steppe from the south.

 In the steppe, horseback riding and the wagon facilitated an mobile style of herding that also could be accompanied by cattle raiding, looting and trading, which in turn led some to accumulate greater wealth in herds and goods, including copper and bronze weapons and ornaments. Harsher climates also contributed to this increase in social inequality. Anthony argues from linguistic evidence that the speakers of Proto Indo European developed two key social systems that enabled them to dominate the cultures that they encountered in their expansion out of the steppe: patron-client and guest-host. The former stabilized and solidified the pattern of social inequality; the latter made possible firm alliances among groups from both similar and different cultures on the basis of reciprocal obligation (the Indo European root for “guest” and “host” is the same). These, plus the ability of mobile herders to make long distance migrations and easily establish themselves wherever pasture could be found, profoundly shaped the future history of Eurasia. Sometimes raiding and warfare must have been involved in the spread of these peoples, but not the sorts of mobile armies (think of the Mongol hordes) seen in the iron ages and Medieval times; those were a much later development. The primary way the Indo European culture spread, according to Anthony, was incremental. A few powerful chiefs established themselves in new territory, either as patrons or as guest/hosts, and their superior wealth, culture and technology gradually won over the locals. Horseback riding and chariots (possibly invented in the steppe) were rapidly adopted in Europe, the Middle East and China, while the Indo European language evolved into multiple major branches, eventually extending from the British Isles to India.

 Since the publication of this book, genetic studies of ancient Europeans have been published that are consistent with the overall picture given here. About the time suggested by Anthony for the initial spread of Indo European dialects into Eastern Europe, there was an significant spread of DNA, especially that of males, from the steppes north of the Black Sea into Europe. News reports from Science in 2015 and 2017 describes these studies as does a recent news article in Scientific American. The evidence, however, raises many questions. For instance, there are also significant indications that European genes spread into the steppes. This could be explained if long distance trading or raiding, involving wives or children brought back by returning parties were significant, as well as children fathered by the migrants/visitors in Europe. It doesn’t rule out long distance migration and colonization by steppe peoples as well, but it suggests that the picture was complicated. Genes, culture and language spread together, with or without large-scale migration, in Anthony’s scenario.

What makes Anthony’s account particularly cogent, and better than any of the news stories, is his attention to detail, particularly in laying out the linguistic and archeological evidence. It’s a lot to take in, but we can be grateful for his scholarship and willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries.

JOURNEYS TOWARDS FREEDOM AND EQUALITY

A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809 – 1849 by Sidney Blumenthal. Simon and Schuster. 2016.

The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics by Sean Wilentz. W.W. Norton & Co. 2017.

Two excellent books, the first minutely detailed, the second done in broad strokes of the historian’s brush, but illustrated with telling specifics. Both show how the struggle for freedom and equality in the United States has succeeded when idealists have found a successful political leader, with the skill to get things done through government action.

Blumenthal traces the process by which Abraham Lincoln went from poor white settler on the western frontier to well established lawyer and politician, on the cusp of turning his conviction that slavery was unjust and should be confined to the states where it already existed, into full blown opposition to slavery everywhere. Blumenthal’s second volume, Wrestling with his Angel, covers the years 1849-1856, when this conviction became more firmly set, and Lincoln joined the nascent Republican Party.

Part of the pleasure of this book is the details of Lincoln’s political activity during the ferment of the 1830s and 40s, the age of the Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs. I wrote about some of this earlier, in my post about Joshua Gidding’s The Exiles of Florida. In those days local party-affiliated newspapers provided outlet for the kinds of extravagant political commentary that thrives today on Facebook, and the partisanship was, if anything, even more violent, with dueling still sometimes practiced and plenty of plain old brawling. Lincoln was no simple country lawyer, telling homely stories about widows and lost horses, but an accomplished political satirist with a knack for vicious caricature, much of it printed anonymously. He had some fights, though he seems to have generally avoided them.

One of the most interesting sections for me was the account of the Mormons in Illinois and Missouri during this period, just before the migration to Utah. Their penchant for violence, even if cast as self defense, and the methods used to gain and keep adherents, make all but the nastiest of today’s cults seem not so bad. Lincoln and Illinois politicians both courted and feared these fanatics, eventually turning against Joseph Smith and accepting his murder with little indignation. This sort of mob violence became more common as politics became more polarized, leading up to the destruction of anti-slavery newspaper offices and, in one famous case, the murder of the editor.

Lincoln’s experience with politics up to 1848 was mostly in party caucuses and the Illinois legislature, with a single term in the House of Representatives. There, he was an active supporter of efforts to counter what was beginning to emerge as the Slave Power, the unified southern bloc that was determined to expand slavery as far as possible. Unlike many of the founding generation, who at least paid lip service to the idea that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, these men argued that it was a positive good and that southern society was morally superior to that of the North. Lincoln estimated that he had voted at least fifty times in the House for the Wilmott Proviso, an amendment that would have banned slavery in the new territory acquired in the Mexican War.

I’m looking forward to reading the next volume.

Wilentz’s book covers the same history as Blumenthal’s book in essays on Lincoln, Andrew Jackson and Frederick Douglas. There’s also one on John Brown. Besides these, he writes about Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. He briefly touches on many others who can be classified as either egalitarian idealists or politicians who fought for freedom and equality. Throughout, his central point is that idealism by itself accomplishes nothing: only when joined to astute political manipulation can it take concrete form. Besides this, he challenges specific authors who have seen in men like Lincoln and Johnson sudden epiphanies that led them to do great and good things despite their basically rotten political nature. He argues strenuously that these men’s core beliefs in freedom and equality grew up naturally as they matured and rose to power, often at odds with other ideas and attitudes, but never appearing by magic at the singular moment.

Wilentz thinks that a deep seated American distrust of party politics, from the early founders like Washington and John Adams to the vast numbers of citizens who today claim to be independents, is fundamentally wrong headed. He thinks that partisanship, even as parties form and dissolve and change their spots, like the modern GOP, are essential to the progress that we have made since 1787. From 1860s and 70s Republicans, to the 1960s and 70s Democrats, he cites the ways powerful party leaders were able to pass such vital legislation as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, the wage and hour laws, the progressive income tax, Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. These are the changes that make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people, and we ought to be alarmed when politicians and judges begin to chip away at their protections, but we can only resist effectively by petitioning and protesting in ways that lead to concrete political action. Wilentz uses John Brown to argue that violent protest is generally counter-productive in American politics. The Homestead Strike is another example he gives to show how reactionary forces take any hint of violence (in that case, threats by anarchists) as a pretext for even more violent repression, to the great loss of those trying to achieve real gains.

Reading Wilentz’s broad depiction of the sweep of the American struggle for freedom and equality makes me want to go even deeper into these causes. I have loved Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson, despite his bias against the man, and as a high schooler I enjoyed delving into labor history, including one of my idealist heroes, Clarence Darrow, through such books as his own Attorney for the Damned (1957). I need to learn more about  periods such as Reconstruction and about areas Wilentz does not discuss, like women’s rights. There is no lack of fascinating and inspiring history along these many and various paths.

Global Voyager

Maya Jasanoff. Dawn Watch. Joseph Conrad in a Global World. Penguin Press. 2017.

Jasanoff’s biography is both an appraisal of Conrad’s career as an author and the influences on his life and work of the rapid global expansion of commerce and imperial ambition in the second half of the nineteenth century. She describes his childhood in partitioned and occupied Poland, where his father was a idealistic revolutionary, exiled for much of his life. Conrad was inspired to go to sea at age sixteen after reading, among other works, the seafaring novels of James Fenimore Cooper, which I did not realize the author of Leatherstocking Tales had written. He eventually made his way to England, at that time the country most open to expatriates and the greatest maritime power.

 Rising through the ranks of the merchant navy to become a licensed master, he voyaged across the globe, but mostly to Australia and Southeast Asia, mostly on sailing ships or the lesser steamers, rarely having the opportunity to serve on the better classes of fast passenger ships. When he began to write and publish his own stories, they were set in the locales familiar to him, aboard ships at sea or in the ports and backwater towns and villages of the great Asian archipelago. He focused on sailors and on the various exiles, dreamers of wealth or those escaping the past, who found their way into the remote places where they encountered indigenous rulers and other adventurers in constant conflict, much of it driven by the outside forces of expanding trade and European imperialism. His one trip on the Congo provided the framework for his most famous and controversial work, The Heart of Darkness. There he saw firsthand how the unbridled force of European greed brought out the savage potential of nearly everyone who became involved in the enterprise.

 Conrad did not like to be thought of as a writer of sea stories, although he certainly wrote vivid and hair raising tales of the struggles of ships and crews, Typhoon being one of my personal favorites. He thought of himself as writing about the struggles of human beings, mostly, but not exclusively, men, caught up in the web of impersonal forces, both natural and societal that he saw driving the history of his times: oppression and the revolutionary impulse, personal ambition and political intrigue and the “material interests,” which he associated most powerfully with the United States.

 Jasanoff does an excellent job of drawing out the threads that connect Conrad to our own day, arguing that more than any other author of his time, he saw and made his readers see the historical forces at work that we would now call “globalization.” Much has changed, as she is careful to describe from personal experience, both in material circumstances and our perspectives, but the seeds were present and can be perceived clearly in Conrad’s work. She herself, to gain first hand experience, made a river journey down the Congo, following the route of Conrad and his fictional Captain Marlowe, but she saw none of the darkness that they did, only poor but very enterprising people, making their way in a complex world, where bushmeat sellers from villages of bamboo houses buy toothpaste and batteries and watch satellite television showing European football matches. Some things she says, do not change much: the camaraderie of a long sea voyage (for her, on a giant container ship, following the long established route from Hong Kong to England) and the ravishing beauty of the dawn over a smooth sea.

 Jasanoff sees Conrad as deeply pessimistic about human beings, carried along by winds and currents of history. Although we can master the literal forces of nature by our machines, we unleash consequences we cannot control, and the forces within ourselves are even less manageable. But, she says, Conrad does show us those times when however precariously, we can make choices that alter the course of ours and others’ lives. I find Conrad himself a clear case in point: in choosing to go to sea, the Polish boy, Konrad Korzeniowski became Joseph Conrad, master mariner and one of the greatest English novelists.