11 October 2009

Celebrating Death & Destruction:

If you celebrate Columbus Day, you celebrate death and destruction.

I've been saying this for years, but some people
still don't get it.

My argument isn't so much that he paved the way for killing millions of people, or began the transatlantic slave trade; rather, I'm more upset that we celebrate some guy who didn't really do anything.

Along 5th Ave in New York City, the Italian Americans will be holding their annual Heritage fest. I don't knot why Italian Americans choose Columbus as their symbol of pride instead of, say, an Italian who did something useful (Amerigo Vespucci anyone? You know, the guy for whom two continents are named?)

How ridiculous is the celebration of Columbus?

Myth 1: Columbus proved the world was round.

Um, people knew that the world was round for quite some time. It casts a circular shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse, and sailors had always recognized that land disappeared over the horizon when sailing away from it. They didn't think that their loved ones and home cities fell off the planet, only to magically reappear again once the sailors came back home.

Myth 2: Columbus discovered the Americas.

Putting aside the fact that the natives here already knew about themselves, Columbus wasn't the first European. He probably wasn't the second. There are dozens of stories of sailors getting blown off course and coming into contact with unfamiliar lands. Not to mention, archaeologists have found
proof of Viking settlements in Canada. There's also the book entitled 1421 claiming that the Chinese also "discovered" America, but most historians don't really buy it.

Artifacts from Viking settlement L'Anse aux Meadows. Housed at the UNESCO World Heritage Viking Museum.

Myth 3: Columbus set foot on what would later become the United States.

Not until his 3rd voyage did he reach mainland, and even then it wasn't North America. He did land on Puerto Rico – so perhaps if one stretches it, that could be considered landing on U.S. soil. But I won't give him credit for it.

The guy who actually stepped ashore first (after millions of Amerindians): Ponce de Leon, 1513. His descendants still reside in St. Augustine, FL.

I don't mind that Italian Americans celebrate their heritage. But why choose someone who didn't land in this country, who didn't discover anything, who exterminated an entire people (the Arawaks) and who essentially screwed up the whole point of his mission?

Glenn Spagnuolo, an Italian-American, said Columbus' legacy should not be celebrated.

"To honor someone who, by his own writings, was a slave trader, is immoral," he said. "I don't see any of my Italian culture in celebrating the occupation and destruction of native cultures."

The order of people to arrive in the "New World" is the following (and is admittedly ever-changing according to new archaeological evidence):

  • First wave of Amerindians.
  • Second Wave of Amerindians.
  • Possibly the Ainu people of Japan (see Kennewick Man, 9,000 years BP having Caucasoid features) and possibly stone age Europeans, who came across on ice shelves (according to spear point analysis, and DNA analysis of the Ojibwa peoples)
  • Inuit peoples.
  • Vikings, in several voyages.
  • Christopher Columbus in 1492, but he didn't land on any mainlands.
  • Ponce de Leon landed in Florida in 1513. Founded no settlement.

So why do we insist upon naming a day after him?

23 September 2009

Is Revisionist History Real?

"Revisionist History" is a term I don't like. It means that history has been revised, but many (usually Conservatives) believe that it means history has been changed, by liberals, to denigrate known facts or public figures.

First of all, History is a fact. Something either happened, or it didn't. If someone writes about something that happened, and then someone else writes that it didn't happen, one of the two is wrong.

A good example of this is the common misconception that Columbus discovered the New World, and proved the world was round. Some history books as recently as the 1990s still repeat this.* Columbus did neither of those things. But to say that he didn't could qualify as "revisionist history" to some oddly ignorant and tradition-minded people. Again, something either happens or it doesn't. No revision is necessary because it was a lie, and not actually History.

Map of known world, 1456

Unfortunately, even when all parties agree that an event occurred, there are different ways of interpreting the How and Why of the occurrence. This is where revisionist history comes into play.

I feel that the term is misleading because a Revisionist Historian (such as Howard Zinn) doesn't usually revise any history; rather, he simply adds facts to the story, which leads to broader insight into a historical figure's life or the background of an event. In keeping with the Columbus story, we always knew that in 1492 he sailed the ocean blue from Spain with three ships. With additional information, we now know that not only was he a brave and intrepid explorer, but he was also a greedy man, with little regard for the Arawaks whom he decimated (sailors were encouraged to "take women," and seemed to prefer the 9 and 10 yr olds). This information doesn't negate the fact that he was an explorer, but it serves to remind us that he was far from perfect.

Some Revisionist Historians (just a few) get overzealous, such as when they claim that Thomas Jefferson raped black women. There is no evidence of this; hence, it cannot be considered "fact." What they fail to mention is that Jefferson's nephew could have been the one doing it (they would have shared DNA), or that the sex was consensual, as the prevailing theory says.

Some people were unhappy when the whole Jefferson/Hemings issue came to light, as they felt it tarnished Jefferson's reputation. Why? Would it make him less of a great mind? His wife had died years before - why couldn't he have a lady friend? This new information would merely help to more fully realize Jefferson's character, and view a more complete picture.

If anything could ruin his rep, it would be that God-awful fur he's wearing.

Abraham Lincoln, when debating Douglas, stated he had no intention of bringing about the equality of whites and blacks. Does this make the Emancipation of 1863 less of a step in the right direction?

There are some (Journal of the West, 2001) who believe that the Amerindians would have eventually killed off the bison anyway, particularly after the introduction of the horse. Does this make the deliberate slaughter of the animals in the 19th century by whites any better?

Sometimes there are facts that are unpleasant, or that we don't like to hear. We don't like to think that Helen Keller was a staunch socialist, or that highly educated Woodrow Wilson was racist. That doesn't mean that the facts should be omitted. Doing so results in a 1984 version of history, which can no longer be called history.

The proper term would then be "propaganda."

*For a list of those books, I recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen.

TimesOnline Apparently Doesn't Hire History Majors:

I really think writers for the TimesOnline should be required to have a college degree. Or at least have taken a freshman-level World Civilization course or two.

They have decided that the United States and Rome have nothing in common. Now, while I certainly agree with the writer's assertion that the U.S. is not on the cusp of the abyss, I think there are many similarities both today and in our history (conquering the "barbarians", the idea of the Republic, eagle motif, etc).

Really it was the last paragraph which bothered me most.
"When Rome fell, the world went dark for the best part of a millennium."

The world?

As in, the planet?

The powerful and widespread Mayan civilization probably had no idea that Rome fell. I'm pretty sure China was still inventing things (in fact, this is about time of the dawn of Buddism). Then there were those wealthy African kingdoms...

There's even a debate about whether Europe fared all that badly. I mean, books were still written, and some medicines invented/perfected (maggots and leeches are still used today). Even justice wasn't so bad (unless you were Jewish around the time of the plague).

So I guess what I'm complaining about is the writer's semi-informed, poorly educated Eurocentric view of the history of the planet.

The Northern hemisphere isn't the only hemisphere.

Why Are Women So Unhappy?

According to a recent study, women today are less happy than they were 40 years ago, and are less happy than men.
(Who manufactures a Happiness Meter
? The Carebears?)

study by "economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers... indicates that across race, marriage status, economic bracket, and even country, women's subjective experience of being happy has declined both absolutely and in relation to men."

Putting aside the fact that economists decided this, and not someone who is actually trained in handling human emotion, this is sobering news. With all our liberation and freedom, how can the happiness levels of women be less than in the 1960s? And what do men have to be so happy about?

Religious folks will tell you that all this liberation has taken women away from our purpose in life, which is to care for the home and hearth while the man is at work. We should have a couple of babies (more than a couple, if you're Catholic or Southern Baptist), and work hard to raise them. This is what Nature and God intended. To deviate from this path is to bring about our own unhappiness.

In a
New York Times editorial about this same study, the conclusion was a bit different.

"There's no necessary reason why feminists and cultural conservatives can't join forces -- in the same way that they made common cause during the pornography wars of the 1980s -- behind a social revolution that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors as thoroughly as the "fallen women" of a more patriarchal age.

He suggests that it is in fact the fault of Men that Women are so unhappy. Men made out like bandits in this age of sexual liberation. Want regular, socially acceptable sex? Don't get married; just get your girlfriend to move in with you. Bored with your 40 year old wife/mother of your children? Trade her for two twenty-year-olds. Knock a girl up? Don't marry her. Don't get involved in the baby's life. After all, the best form of birth control is not using your real name.

or this.

As much fun as it is to blame men for all female ills, I just can't agree in this instance. Yes, there are men out there who are jerks. To suggest that all women are less happy today because of a few bums is unfair to men. This view is also unfair to women, as it implies that our happiness is dependent upon men. Everyone knows my happiness is dependent upon shoes.

Personally, I believe that our unhappiness is self-imposed.

For the most part, in America women tend to believe that they must do the following in order to be considered a complete and successful woman:

  • I HAVE to get married.
  • I HAVE to have a career.
  • I HAVE to have children.
  • I HAVE to look good while doing it (exercise, eat well, wear the right clothing, keep a nice house).

But it's more than merely what I think about myself. If any woman is lacking in any of the aforementioned departments, then all the other hens sit in judgment.

"Sally and her husband haven't had kids yet. Do you think there's something wrong with her?"

"Omg, Julie has 3 little girls, and all she does is work. What kind of mother leaves her kids at day care for someone else to raise?"

"Honey, you're almost 35 and you're still not married. Are you at least seeing anyone? There's this nice man from church that I want you to meet..."

Supposedly, modern females in this country have "choices." However, I've learned that we put limits on each other without any help from men. I can't tell you how many times I've been told how selfish I am because I don't want kids, or how I'll "change my mind in time." I thought Woman's Rights and the Pill allowed me to have reproductive freedom. I guess not.

What about women who actually want to be housewives? Some women are perfectly happy to care for the home and for their children while their husband works. "Progressives" will say that those women live under a misogynistic husband, and are too weak to stand up for themselves.

"Choice" to some feminists means "Choice as long as you do what I think you should do."

This is why we're unhappy. It is our own fault.

13 September 2009

Even The Government Gets History Wrong: Presidential Photographs

I happened to be at WhiteHouse.gov, and was scanning the History page. Near the bottom, I read that "President James Polk (1845-49) was the first President to have his photograph taken."

I thought to myself, Now that can't be right.

I know I've seen photographs of earlier Presidents.

The website JamesPolk.com says, "James K. Polk was not the first President to be photographed - William Henry Harrison gets that distinction..."

I found the picture of President Polk (one of my least favorite Presidents).

I mean, who conquers Mexico, then gives it back?

The above daguerreotype is from the collections of the Library of Congress, and was taken in February of 1849 by Matthew Brady, who would later become famous for photographing less pleasant aspects of the Civil War.

1849 is admittedly very early for photography in America, but it wasn't the beginning.

I know that George Washington never lived to see photography, so there are no photographs of him.

John Adams nearly lasted to the infancy of photography, but he and Jefferson died on the same July 4th day in 1826; daguerreotypes weren't patented until around 1837.

Poor short Madison (I would have probably liked him) died even before the aforementioned two: 1817. Next was James Monroe, but he too died well before the age of photography. The President of whom I was certain had sat for one or more actual pictures was John Quincy Adams. Like all other Adams (well, not his drunken brother Charles), he lived a long life.

Sure enough, around 1843, John Quincy sat for a photo-op.

John Quincy Adams, Sixth President

This picture can date earlier, but no later than 1848, because that's when he died.

William Henry Harrison served for one month before dying of pneumonia in 1841 (Note: Don't give verbose speeches in the rain). Therefore, this picture must date prior to his death.

Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So we have learned that the earliest President to sit for a photograph was John Quincy Adams (#6), and the first President to be featured in a photograph was possibly also Adams, but probably Harrison (#9).

Another photograph of John Quincy. The Wikipedia entry says this negative was created around 1855. Um, he was dead by then. And I don't know that daguerreotypes had negatives since they ARE negatives.

Perhaps James Polk was the first sitting President to have his photograph taken, though it would appear that Harrison holds that distinction as well.

I think WhiteHouse.gov should take a second to clarify that little issue.

I found a daguerreotype of Lincoln before he was President, dated 1846, taken by Nicholas H. Shepard.

Still earlier than Polk.

To Buy Or Not To Buy (And Why):

In most of my blogs that have dealt with fine art or antiques, I always say that the best investment is to buy what you like. That way, if for some reason you can't sell it, you won't be upset by having it hang on your wall, or sit in your corner indefinitely.

Some people think that only listed artists are valuable, or that only antiques are valuable.

These people are mistaken.

Something is an "antique" if it 100 years old or older. People love to tell me their grandmother's 1940s bed room suite is "antique." It isn't.

It is also a vague term, and has little to do with money. Many antiques are not particularly valuable. I was researching a Victorian ivory handled, silver plated fish service last week that was quite disappointing in its value (and my standards are pretty low).

Conversely, people will pay a lot of money for nearly anything that Andy Warhol touched.

Freeman's sold an Andy Warhol (1928-1987) Grace Kelly for $50,000 last November, which was actually below estimate.

Plenty of unlisted artists do well, depending upon subject matter. An unsigned oil on canvas of a beautiful river scene is never worthless.

But don't feel you should be limited to what hangs on a wall, or a shiny flatware service.

Here is what is sitting out in front of the gallery where I worked in New Jersey:

This could be yours, for the low low price of $325. And it plays the Lone Ranger song. How can you refuse??

I was reading an article, and saw that 1980s Pez dispensers can be worth $125-$150, and some rather bland looking "first generation" Pez dispensers can bring as much as $1,500 (but the article failed to mention if that was an auction value or a retail value - kind of important info).

The important part of buying a vintage or antique piece is to at least know a little something about it.
More than once we've had to appraise fake Dalis and Chagalls. Even on my cruise boat they were selling them - they are everywhere (
Park West is the name of the cruise-ship auction house to be avoided.) People purchase them with the impression that they are investments for the future.

Like all investments, you need to do some research first or hire an expert to work on your behalf. How many of you would spend your life savings in the stock market without speaking with a broker or other qualified consultant? I mean, that's kind of why we antiques appraisers are here.

Even the tiniest fraction of knowledge will help you when spending your money. Is that tea set sterling silver, or just plate? But if it is plate, is it good plate? Is that table a genuine period piece, or nice reproduction? Why is it so cheap?

As for me, my newest interest is to collect post WWII West German pottery. Most of it may be had for less than $100, and even the good stuff is less than $200. If it increases in value, that's great! If it doesn't, that's okay because I will have only bought items I like, and I didn't spend too much.

Happy buying!

Ranked Number 1 in Jobs/Careers on MySpace, 5/19/2009 and 5/20/2009.

Why I Don't Buy Into Anthropogenic Global Warming:

Reposted from MySpace.com.

It is almost July and I saw a girl in ShopRite wearing a coat. A coat. Why? Because it has been cold up here, for some reason.

It has recently come to my attention that any change in the weather is no longer called "Global Warming" (mainly because it isn't all that warm); rather, we now call it Global Climate Change.

whatever. I still don't think it is caused by humans. (And neither does the Wall Street Journal.)

I am a professional historian. I am not a scientist, and while I took plenty of science classes, I'm not qualified to speak on that subject.

The following are only historical facts, from which you may draw your own conclusions.

  • Fact: The weather has been scientifically monitored in the United States for less than 150 years.
  • Fact: The earth is a lot older than 150 years. Granted, England has been keeping records for a little over 300 years, and claimed that 2007 was the warmest year on their records… but it shattered the previous record from 1865. So 2006 wasn't as warm as 1865? I'll let you figure out why that's funny.
  • Fact: When Vikings landed around modern Newfoundland in Canada (which we know from archaeological evidence), they called the area Vinland for all the wild grape vines. There is a reputable source that refutes the claim that this may be used to indicate a "medieval warm period" because there isn't enough information to come up with a scientific measurement of the earth's temperatures. However, the very fact that they admit there isn't enough data discounts their own conclusions, and leads any historian to arrive at the same conclusion they always have – there was a time of warmer temperatures, which we glean from the written documents of the day. No, no one sat down and wrote, Today in the Holy Roman Empire it is 62 degrees with a northwesterly wind. But they did write about events (such as finding grapes) that were directly affected by the climate.
  • Fact: Grapes do not grow in Newfoundland, Canada, today due to the cold. There are those who cite the Domesday Book's (1087 C.E.) indications of several active vineyards throughout England as evidence that England had a warmer clime than centuries later when wine making was virtually nonexistent. To be fair, that conclusion can't really be drawn because other factors (like those pesky plagues, for instance) possibly contributed to the lack of English production. But there's always the argument that Greenland used to be green
  • Fact: The earth was warm during the early Middle Ages, but a small climatic cooling change resulting in crop failure created a starving European populace ripe for the plague. This is an easily verifiable source, but I'll give you an excellent book where I first read about it. Norman F. Cantor, In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death the World It Made, 2002.

  • Fact: Dinosaurs once lived in Antarctica. Antarctica has sat at roughly the same latitude for the past 100 million years. However, during the Cretaceous Period (144 million – 65 million years B.P.), it was "warm and lush" with dinosaurs running about. Again, I'm no scientist, but I associate neither "warm" nor "lush" with snow.
  • Fact: After the 2004 hurricane season in Florida (at which point I lived in St. Augustine), everyone said that 2005 would be worse. Well, it's 2009 and when was the last major hurricane?
I hope my liberal friends do not think that I like the idea of pollution, or that I don't think we have any impact on our environment. This is not the case at all. We should focus on renewable resources. We should concern ourselves with the pollution of our waters, the high mercury levels of seafood, and the poor quality of our cities' air. But when it comes to whether or not I'm going to be wearing shorts in Antarctica, I really think we should scale back the hysteria and look at the big picture… a picture much larger than the past 150 years.

Every Family Has a Story:

Periodically I touch upon genealogy in this blog, usually in the context of some other historical point I'm trying to make.

I've found that some people are really into this subject. Most people, however, are not.

Why do we care about our ancestors? We've never met most of these people, and chances are, none of them have done anything worth mentioning. Sure a couple of people are related to Presidents, or descended from the second cousin of a mass murderer, but why should we care?

Does it affect who we are today? Does it make our mundane life somehow more meaningful?

I like it because I think it's just another part of history, and I like History (in case you lived under a rock, and were previously unaware of that fact). I love to ask people about their family's history, or their ancestral country. It fascinates me to no end.

I've had an ancestor in pretty much every U.S. war. To continue that line of service, my brother is currently in the Navy, and was engaged in combat (technically) with Iran. While my family has just as many stories as everyone else, I will briefly discuss one guy about whom I'm always trying to find out more.

In 1784, after fighting in the Revolutionary War, Thomas Adcock received a Georgia land grant as payment for his service. At some point, he moved west to the new Mississippi territory, and settled in what is today the Tensaw River region of lower Alabama.

When the War of 1812 broke out, the Red Stick Creeks in the area began to indicate that they would attack peaceful Creeks and white settlers. In 1813, the nervous settlers of the area gathered at the house of Samuel Mims. He had erected a crude wooden wall around part of his property, and called it Fort Mims.

When Fort Mims was attacked on August 30, 1813, Thomas Adcock and his wife were among the hundreds who were slaughtered by the Red Stick Creeks.

The one positive of their situation was that their children were not in the fort that day.

Sadly enough, they were related to some of those who participated in the massacre.* Their daughter, Elizabeth, married George Stiggins, and Stiggins was related by the marriage of his sister to Chief Red Eagle (William Weatherford). It was Red Eagle who orchestrated most of these attacks (and who would surrender to General Andrew Jackson not long after).

Stiggins was part of the Mississippi Militia for the War of 1812, was offered the position of Chief of the tribe, and wrote a book about the customs of Creeks and the background of the massacre.

There is much more to the story, but I promised not to bore anyone. :)

*I use the term "massacre," not simply because Amerindians were the victors, but because anytime women and children are murdered on a large scale, I feel the term "massacre" is applicable.

What Makes a Hero?

1. a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
2. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.

Also, a sandwich.

When I lived in New Jersey last year, my father flew up to visit me. Among other things, I drove him to a national park where the Continental Army under George Washington camped for the winters of 1777, and 1778-79. While driving there, we discussed the difficulties facing those men, including lack of pay, food, adequate clothing, and constant fears of how their families back home were faring without them.

"Now that was sacrifice," said my father, pointing his finger for emphasis.

We agreed that those men gave up so much, and that the military today lives a comparatively easy life. In addition to the ease of communication with loved ones, soldiers today get to come home much sooner than they would have in the Rev War, Civil War, or even both World Wars.

Oh, and they get pay and benefits.

I mentioned how I couldn't believe how everyone who signs up for the military these days is considered a "hero," regardless of what they actually do. Boy, did my dad get worked up over that one.

"The term 'hero' is completely overused! Some guy in the army who cooks is now considered a 'hero' for his country. It is unfair to those who really do put their life in danger, or even lose their life, for their fellows in arms."

I couldn't have said it better. Just because some guy holds a gun in Iraq doesn't mean he is a hero. Simply shooting an enemy doesn't make anyone a hero (though that could be categorized under "brave").

Falling on a grenade preserve the life of one's friends DOES a hero make.

My father gets especially irritated because his father earned a Silver Star for heroism, having crashed his plane behind enemy lines in WWII, but first getting as many of his men out as possible. (The other man who remained on board with him died shortly after the crash. Grandpa doesn't talk about that much.)

He also got upset about the "Friday Night Heros" show. Playing football doesn't qualify a person for "hero" status.

Screw it - we're ALL heroes.

Sadly, it seems to make the term less special for the valiant people who truly deserve the title.