". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Dariba Diaries

   . . . . Dariba Diaries,  as far as I can determine,

 was a single season series from Epic, a newish Indian television channel that debuted in 2014. Epic's mission is to air
"action, drama, comedy and narrative non-fiction programming with a focus on Indian history, folklore and mythology genre".  

Delhi 1858 before the siege that was part of the 1857 Rebellion against the British

     . . . . Dariba Diaries is an episodic mystery series, set in a vaguely -- extremely so --  Delhi of the 19th century, when the era of the Mughals in Delhi under  Bahadur Shah Zafa is rapidly being replaced by the British. The British presence is a social as well as political destablizing force, thus a rise in crime. Within the series Dariba is a street or area -- I'm not clear about this -- within the walls of old Delhi.

Fortress of Selim Ghur and Imperial Palace, Delhi, 19th century.
"Dariba Kalan (Hindi: दरीबा कलान, English: Street of the Incomparable Pearl), is a 17th-century street in Chandni Chowk area of Old Delhi or Shahjahanbad.[1][2] It lies within the walled city of Delhi, and connects the Chandni Chowk area with Jama Masjid."
It was there the bazaar was located that bought and sold the luxury goods such as silk and jewels for the inhabitants of the palace and other of the fabulously wealthy Mughal administrators and favorites. Today it's internationally known throughout India and the diaspora as the place to buy the expensive gifts and adornments for Indian weddings.

However, what we see on screen doesn’t seem very like anything of the sort beyond the facade of an occasional building. Nor have I yet seen a Brit, which is just fine, of course.  IOW, the show doesn't seem to live up to its billing as an historical drama to my eyes at least.  I took the advice of Indian diapora members in my acquaintance and skipped the first two episodes.  The talking heads were unbearable, they said. So sloooooooooooow.

The highest value element of Dariba Diaries -- and it is very high -- is the Intro / Credit animation – gorgeous and purely Northeastern Indian (Delhi).  The creator, Mahesh Sama, evidently used to work at Disney, which would explain that excellence perhaps, when the rest of the production is pretty low by western standards. The subtitles fly by so swiftly that even very fast readers can't finish reading the 6 - 8 words translating the action (never more).

Dariba Diaries' protagonist, Mirza Jaan Nawaz, old Delhi's own Sherlock Holmes,  played by Sid Makkar, who is well known for other roles such as in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films.
Well, besides the Credit / Intro sequence, there is another exception to the generally low standard production values -- the cast.  Even those who are not lovely always hold the viewer's eyes whenever they are on screen. That is no small thing indeed.

Not to mention how refreshing it always is to see television set entirely outside of the USian mindset and vision, that has emerged from its own culture and history.

Additionally it's a nice, non-intellectual engagement for my currently sick brain.  I can't think anyway so Dariba Diaries and I are perfectly matched.  Also, temps plunging and next week we are under a polar vortex.  We've already been groaning under the yoke of the orange chaos demon, and it will only get worse, far worse.  I feel pretty rotten all together.

Youtube promos for the episodes can be watched here.

Dariba Diaries season 1 is streaming currently on Netflix. And I applaud them for providing it -- and The Magnificent Century.  More, please.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Reading Wednesday Brings Trees

     . . . . Last year (2015)

 the German Random House publishing group issued The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate; Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben.

Eltz Castle, an important trade center  Moselle River, controlling the trade route important in the days of Barbaossa of the Moselle River the Eifel region.

     . . . .Wohllben is a forester, tending the trees of the Hümmel community in the Eifel Mountain range of Western Germany, on the border of Belgium. His book has been translated into many languages and has been bestseller throughout Europe. This year (2016) it got translated into English.  I learned of this book first back in September from an interview on NPR's program, Talking Point. It has been a breakout hit here too, likely appealing to many of the same readers (like me) enthusiastic about Helen Macdonald's 2014 H Is For Hawk.  I say this because many of the same people who reviewed H Is For Hawk have also written as extensively and enthusiastically about The Hidden Life of Trees.

     . . . . A Swedish television interview (both the interviewer and author are speaking in English) can be seen here. As it probably expresses better than I can why this book is so interesting, I've put it here.

     . . . . It's the tragedy of human kind, that in its fatal hubris, while destroying nature and the planet itself never have some of humans written so movingly, so intelligently, with such empathy, about nature, and how its various aspects are itself, and not us.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

El V's First Person Eye-witness Account: Death of Fidel

      . . . El V's first person, eye-witness account of Cuba in the time of the death and mourning for Fidel (the average Cuban's custom is to refer to him as Fidel, not President Castro or anything else) is up on  Billboard here. 

They didn't change what he filed much at all.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Fidel in Albuquerque

   . . . I woke out of my recurrent dreamscape of Albuquerque's North Valley, in which I visited various families . . . in the company of Fidel.  If even I am dreaming of Fidel, imagine the dreams of the Cuban people.

This landscape could be in Cuba, but it's the North Valley

Since that dream I've been remembering how I marveled at my lack of culture shock on my first trip to Cuba.  It was because living in New Mexico, as different as the two places are, had well prepared me.  Though they speak Spanish so differently, it's still Spanish and the place names are Spanish names.  Belén is Belén in both places -- which is how the Spanish name Bethlehem.  There are very many Beléns in both places.

   . . . It rained almost all of yesterday and all of the night too. The morning began bright blue and sunny, but now the clouds are back. So is the wind. Temps are already starting down to the promised night low in the 30's.

It's drizzling in Havana today. But it's still hot so very sticky -- not very comfortable. However el V's's happier though because he keep running into people as he walks around and then interviews them for the Billboard piece. I suggested he donate part of the Sarah Lawrence honorarium for speaking to the class last night to bringing home rum.  Bottles of Cuban rum will be quite useful for the Season.  

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Reading Wednesday - Should I Bring Lee's Northern Invasion?

   . . . It rains, still.  This is good for the botanicals.  However this dark, wet and dismal atmosphere isn't helping with the post-election blues -- nay -- even terrors -- conjured up by the proposed cabinet nominations.  Even el V in sunny Cuba is depressed. The Travelers got off yesterday AM for home.  He'd like to come home too, instead of waiting for his ticketed departure of Sunday. For one thing it's currently too hot for this time of the year.  Climate change wherever one is.  Projections are that Cuba will drown all around the coast and through the middle, breaking it into two much smaller islands. For another the prospect of having the US take away Cuba from him again, just as he's totally at home and feeling seamlessly back in Havana, is very hard for him to bear.  Future prospects at home aren't any better.  Every time the Dems lose the White House we lose our ways of making a living.

Hotel Riviera, built by gangster Mayer Lansky, on the Malecón.  I cannot count the number of times I've had this view.
On the other hand it gives him great comfort to be in Havana, sitting on the Malecón and being able to breathe fully the sea air, seeing friends, and currently having some time to himself to readjust his head, maybe get some writing done.  US publications keep trying to get him to write something bout the monumental event taking place while he was there from the gitgo to witness it. Tonight he addresses a class of Sarah Lawrence students having a fall quarter in residence in Cuba on the history of Cuba and Cuban music. They'll take him out to dinner afterwards.

    . . .The book I'm currently reading struggling with is an anthology of academic articles: African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives (1997), edited by Joe William Trotter Jr. and Eric Ledell Smith, published by Pennsylvania State University.  Whatever the topic of the article, the focus is on quantification.  Thus many charts, graphs and statistics, thus very useful, particularly for me, the article by Leroy T. Hopkins, "No Balm in Gilead: Lancaster's African American Population and the Civil War."

In  the summer of 1863, during the Lee's invasion, Lancaster faced imminent plundering by the Army of Northern Virginia. Buchanan, so much responsible for this war in the first place, sent his family and servants to Harrisburg, which was being threatened by another CSA army, as was York.  He remained in Wheatland, with his loyal housekeeper, surrounded by staunch Masonic friends who entrenched around the estate to defend him to the end.

The invasion was of tremendous concern to the African Americans in Lancaster whether born free or self-emancipated, as the army was grabbing every African American it found for personal gain by sale down south or to be put to work in the army.  Fortunately Union forces -- many local citizen volunteers -- succeeded burning the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge across the Susquehana in time (it was barely possible, and just in time). Lee's army was diverted to Gettysburg as the ground he had not chosen as the best site to battle the Union defending forces.

This is an exciting story that takes place in a gorgeous landscape filled with prosperous farms, towns and small cities.  However, the text of the articles in this book lacks any quality that could remotely be called engaging. But we need our facts, ma'am, and so we persevere, and do so with thanks to those who made the anthology.

    . . . In the meantime, for textual engagement, the latest in Cornwell's Saxon Stories, The Flame Bearer, waiting for me.* Will he ever retake Bebbanburg, his ancestral home, stolen from him by his treacherous uncle?  This postponed, diverted life goal of Uhtred the Protagonist has been dangled in front of we readers for so long I lost interest in this mcguffin many books back.

* For some reason this series keeps getting re-named which for some reason keeps annoying me.  It's It started as the Saxon Chronicles, or the Warrior Chronicles, I think.  It's now also called The Last Kingdom series, after the BBC-Netflix television adaptation. -- which is currently, at least after the first season, my absolute favorite television series.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Thomas Jefferson and Marie Antoinette (and The Neo-Gilded Age)

   . . . I revisited Nancy Isenberg's White Trash: The 400 Year Untold Story of Class in America (2016) a few weeks ago.  I wanted to see if wanted to revise my iniitial judgment that the book was thematically and argumentatively incoherent too often. I listened to the audio download rather than re-reading the book.

While doing that I was struck in a way I hadn't been during the book read by similarities between Jefferson the Agriculture Philosoph's Monticello and Marie Antoinette's faux rustic village of Hameau de la Reine near to the Petit Trianon in the Park of Versailles. There she and her companions played at being peasants as Jefferson impersonated "gentleman farmer." He was such an 18th century aristocratic fellow (though in a mode that was also peculiarily Virginian).

Isenberg didn't notice these similarities herself. As per usual with White Trash, when the author approaches something revelatory, instead of taking the leap over the walls surrounding the Founding Father of the Domestic Slave Trade and White Supremacy -- she pulls up short and turns to a different topic-- leaving unmined the US's systemic legal foundation of 'race' in the constructing of white divisions of class and poverty.

It was an exciting moment during a visit to th British Museum to spy a first edition on the shelves of the Museum's Enlightment Room.

In the Enlightenment Room, British Musuem -- it's enormous!
Isenberg's chooses excellent quotes from various Jefferson documents and his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, to illustrate his disdain for farm work, and his disinterest in farming in general. These chosen words suggest strongly that for Jefferson, "farming" for most of his life, was only so much "philosophy" -- fantasy world building that relaxed and entertained his lively mind, resembling closely the role playing of milk maids at Petit Trianon.

Water color of the grounds of Hameau de la Reine village, near Petit Trianon
It wasn't until Jefferson thought of agriculture in the terms of science experiments that he took any personal concern with 'cultivating.' on his own farms (he was a complete failure at it too). This was a deep contrast with Washington's constant concern with farming and how he managed Mount Vernon. Jefferson's exception to his impractical fantasies were his statements that breeding slave women for their "natural increase" must be encouraged as their babies brought more financial value to the estate than the crops brought in.

Wotton House, Surrey.  This pdf is a good essay on Jefferson's travels in England (John Adams was his companion):
"A Comparative Study of Thomas Jefferson's Travels to England and Their Influences on Monticello"
Jefferson admired the great estates, parks and gardens he visited during his travels in England (786) and in Italy and France (1787). Lacking the economic resources held by aristos to build such impressive showplaces, of course, he relentlessly mortgaged his slaves, and created an lesser imitation at Monticello with lower quality materials. That showplace of Monticello is an impractical facade, like Marie Antoinette's Petite Trianon peasant village -- a folly, as certain edifaces des amusants erected on estates were called in England -- except, of course, at Monticello, the slaves were real people, and truly enslaved by every legal, religious and philosophic dictum possible to invoke, and ultimately sold away from the bankrupted Master of the Mountain's fantasy world that their bodies, fertility and labor had bankrolled.

Isenberg shows Jefferson's philosophy of agriculture was formed by European models that had not a chance of working in North America -- particularly not in Virginia, for all kinds of reasons. Invoking the gentleman farmer, his preferred term for a farmer was cultivator -- not yeoman, though this is the word everyone uses when writing about Jefferson's fantasies of how the huge swathes of the Louisiana territory was to be populated and organized. A cultivator differed as much from a yeoman as Theodore Roosevelt's stockman differed from a cowboy.  Roosevelt compared the stockman to a southern plantation owner and described a stockman's life as the best life to live -- except that of a southern plantation owner in the antebellum era. Unlike the stockman's whose life was filled with satisfactions and comforts, not least seeing his wealth steadily accrue through the natural increase of his herds and the labor of his hands, the cowboy's life was a hard one, and an economic dead end.

Even as his language for the naming of the newly acquired territory's states could have been used in contemporary (bad) fantasy world-building, it was not the language of sturdy small yeoman farmers: Michigania, Illinoia, Saratoga, and Washington, well, OK, but! -- Sylvania, Chersonesus, Assenisipia, Metropotamia, Polypotamia, and Pelisipia? This was an equally preposterous progression of the fantasy feudal slave state of Carolina designed by John Locke and the Eight Lords Proprietors of Carolina to divide territory into palatinates and baronies, organized under a hereditary aristocracy of margraves, landgraves and caciques. Nor should we forget the proposed Margravate of Azilia as a the buffer zone between Carolina and the Spanish Floridas. Instead of happy serfs however, they would have happy African slaves.

Logo of the Royal African Company

Recall that Locke and these Lords Proprietors were original investors in the Stuarts'  Royal African Company, headed by the Duke of York, formed to enslave Africans and sell them in the New World, in order to fill their always empty privy purses.

What does all this have to do with poor whites and class? Isenberg seems not to know, though this history is included in White Trash, it is presented without any connection to the southern colonies' poor white populations, treated as expendable waste by the small, ever increasingly wealthy elite.  As critics other than myself have noted, Isenberg forgets about her central theme most of the time.

Though White Trash's argument is fairly incoherent thematically, pieces of it are informative. It's disappointing that she wasn't able to pull together the history of white poverty and class into a satisfactory explanation of our cultural, economic and political psyche. But since she couldn't or wouldn't examine and / or reconcile the victimization of poor whites with the victimization of slaves -- or that of Native Peoples either, though they get some mentions, ultimately the book, though an interesting read, isn't as useful as the author expected. It really founders when the author attempts to force New England's ways and mores into her theme? argument? (it's unclear). The points that are to be made are obscure -- again because of how slavery operated in the north, and the differences between north and south in how they profited from slavery are ignored and / or presented in a manner that can only be called murky.

Isenberg is a terrific researcher, but apparently wasn't willing to work-up her analytical skills to spin 400 years of history around a central theme without losing sight of the argument and straying off into dead ends. She founders at the wall of black - white, which always comes up central to the history, no matter what era and which issue. So, once again, African American history gets side-barred and made lesser, even as the historian centers the class system of whiteness as American history. It's an distorted dialectic of class and poverty, which forces the argument into a shallow flat shape, lacking scope and grain. The further the book progresses the more it presents as rushed and unthought-through, as up against a deadline the author resents as too close.

Another aspect of White Trash that confuses whatever the argument Isenberg thinks she's making is that she repeats, sometimes even word-for-word, illustrations.  One example of this is the scene from Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Dred: A Tale ofthe Great Dismal Swamp (1856), in which a poor white woman and her children are described -- she uses that same scene word-for-word at least twice -- while missing that the language Stowe has chosen to describe this miserable family is to evoke compassion in the reader, not contempt.

Though written and published before the election, her description of Jackson's political base is the same as that of many descriptions of the orange's political base, and Jackson's braggadocious, impatient, explosive, improvisational character as many describe the orange's character. The politics of resentment come through loud and clear. Though this is of no surprise to anyone who has spent time studying Jackson and the Jacksonian era, it's deeply troubling in its implications for our own immediate future.

Panic of 1837 here we come.   

Then, suddenly, we're past the Civil War, and these same despised people whom the author has claimed did not support either the seccession or the war, and who ere so badly treated by the CSA, are aligned with the planter-political class.

Then we move into the age of eugenics, a/k/a  the Gilded Age, or, as I call it, the Age of Horror, the age that so resembles our own.

She's gone through the Civil War and into this era in which the poor and anyone who isn't male, white and rich are regarded as worthless. Yet, she never explains how and why how these supposed crackers such as James K. Vardeman, whose class is so despised, oppressed and repressed, got wealth, got political power.  In fact they get so much wealth and political power they now run the country.  How did this happen if they are so oppressed? Did the legal system and white supremacy have anything, anything at all, to do with it?

Ultimately the book ignores its own theme and argument.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fidel in North Dakota

     . . . El V called me from Havana last night the moment Fidel's passing was announced to the nation. El V and his Travelers were in La Tropical, dancing to Revé y Su Charangón, when suddenly the band stopped in mid-number.

He wished he had been videoing at that moment.

The announcer came on stage and said (paraphrasing): "fuerza mayor. Tenemos que suspender la actividad. Murió Fidel Castro."

9 days of mourning in Cuba -- all public activities will cease. Fortunately the Travelers feel that being here -- I mean there, I guess-- when this happened is worth more than their last scheduled activities.

It seems events have proceeded at such a pace with Cuba in the last 18 months or that visitors to Cuba get caught in living / dying history. The last tour's Travelers got caught in the vortex of President Obama and his family's visit to Havana.  These Cuban music seminar Travelers are feeling this history profoundly -- feeling privileged from having more context now in which to view this death and understanding it in ways, that, as one Traveler put it, his sister in Miami can't.

Everything in Cuba is very quiet. One sees that Miami is supposedly partying in the streets. The commentary here from everyone starting with the NYT seems pretty clueless, doesn't it.

Publications from Billboard etc, are asking el V to write something. But he can't. He has the Travelers to take care of.  He hasn't the space to even process his own welter of emotions or to analyse in the light of his long experience in Cuba and his deep knowledge of Cuban history what Fidel's death means to him personally, or to the Cubans personally and nationally, or to the world. After the announcement from La Tropical's stage, El V got his Travelers into taxis.  His driver hadn't heard the news.  He broke it to him. The driver said, "no me digas eso.  No me digas eso.  Yo soy fidelista."

Fidel Castro, left; Batista, right. Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar, more commonly known as Fulgencio Batista, was the elected President of Cuba from 1940 to 1944, and dictator from 1952 to 1959, before being overthrown during the Cuban Revolution

   . . . These seminars that tour extensively outside of Havana, during which the Travelers have extensive face-to-face encounters with many, many different Cubans, in the light of the events in our own nation and others, have been leading el V, at least, toward thinking that the Cuban Revolution is more important than ever. The political and economic trends elsewhere are giving the Revolution a new lease on life, when previously it looked likely to topple from its own top-heavy weight. I'm not sure yet what he means by that, as we don't have time to talk it through in such brief phone calls. He doesn't know yet either.

   . . . .Fidel has been in my consciousness all my life, as he's been in el V's and many of yours too. Batista, the Revolution and Fidel were center stage, or so it seems in memory, every week in My Weekly Reader.

This was an odd little publication that every Friday morning, when the bell rang that ordered us be seated at our desks, a copy was waiting for each of us. It included photos, diagrams and maps, with text written for little kids' comprehension. Those Friday mornings we in turns, read, out loud, the stories from the paper that our teacher selected. It wasn't something that the consolidated school's own budget provided.* The pupils in our small school were, with a very few exceptions, children of the district's small family farms. My best partner in crime, Bobby, and I, assumed My Weekly Reader was given to us because our teacher was a sucker for talking current events. Whenever we got bored we would get her going by asking a question about something happening somewhere else in the world.

I realize now the pulp paper weekly provided a heavily propagandized digest of national and world news that the Reader's publishers thought were the best designed to ensure that the up-and-coming boomer generation would think the way they were supposed to think and support the government programs the publisher's backers believed should be supported.**

In my memory Batista, the Revolution and Fidel, Taiwan, Macao, Formosa, Quemoy and the Communist Chinese received column inches and maps every week in My Weekly Reader.

The Cold War, communist threats, both Soviet and Chinese, as I recollect from so many years down the road from then, were primary subjects of the publication.  The communist political threat and nuclear attack was always the subtext.

In my recollection also, every issue had stories about space and Antarctic exploration and stations, jets, missiles and satellites  They were the same thing, we were informed, since Antarctica was the best place to create the protective suits, test the equipment and train for the conditions of being in outer space -- which WE, the United States, had to dominate to prevent THEM the communists from getting there, to keep our country and way of life safe from communist missiles launched from space by commie missile launchers.

There were little quizzes at the back of the Reader that we had to take on those Friday mornings that tested our reading comprehension of the who what when and where of the events.

Ah.  Of course, there's a wikipedia entry for My Weekly Reader.  It was founded in 1928 and suspended publication in -- 2012.

It was through My Weekly Reader I first learned of all those places so far away from the southeastern farmyard corner of North Dakota which I inhabited.  Almost all those places, the space race, the individual figures that were on the world stage, with which the media and the national government was obsessed -- both the U.S. government and the media lost interest in all of them long, long ago. Most of the planet's  people now living have never heard of any of them.

There two exceptions to that, however:  John F. Kennedy and Fidel's Cuban Revolution.



*  Our parents had to drive us into that town of about 300 every morning of the school year and pick us up again at the end of the school day. The town was close but still, even in our hardy community, too far to have the kids walk or bike to, especially in the harsh winters.

**   I have no recollection of any mention whatsoever of the Civil Rights movement which was already underway.  Or that African Americans even existed.

***  The only person who has been able to knock the orange off the top of the front page and in the opening sentence of every talk / news blather has been Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz.

He also did more by far to bring down the old Soviet Union than Reagan did -- while the new so-called USian president is allying himself as fast as he can with the dictator of the new Soviet empire   -- and Cuban - Russian relations are warming again, after the long freeze of the last 20 + years.

Ironies abound, which no one would have appreciated more than Jesuit-trained Fidel.