Category Archives: everything else

This category means, “I didn’t know where to put this post.”

Our Embarrassing Colonial History

So there’s this “Make America Great Again” meme, and it’s all about keeping out immigrants, and the irony of the descendants of European immigrants wanting to stop immigration is largely lost in the crossfire, but there’s another problem with the “Make America Great Again” meme, which is this: when was America great?

We do have a lovely little story about American history, appropriate maybe for kids six and under, in which the American colonists wanted religious freedom and so we hopped onto the Mayflower and set up a free country.

But the reality is that a large percentage of our immigrants, white and nonwhite alike, were transported here forcibly.

According to Anthony Vaver, author of Bound With an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America:

From the time of the first settlers to the American Revolution, close to three quarters of all immigrants to the thirteen American colonies arrived on American shores without their freedom, coming over as slaves, convicts, or indentured servants. Even during the seventeenth century only 33 percent of immigrants to America were free. The vast majority of immigrants who arrived without their freedom were African slaves, accounting for a full 47 percent of all immigrants during the eighteenth century. About 150,000 immigrants, or 27 percent of the total, arrived as convicts or indentured servants during the same time.

British convicts formed a significant proportion of immigrants to early America. One quarter of all British immigrants arriving in the American colonies in the eighteenth century were transported convicts, most of them ending up in the labor-hungry colonies of Maryland and Virginia.

So the actual history is this: Before 1775, a fair number of our ancestors came as convicts dumped from British prisons and as vagrant children scooped off the streets, where they were pressed into four or five or seven or eight years of slavery, with more years tacked on for women if they got pregnant. Life expectancy was low for both groups. Then, when the revolution of 1775 hit, Britain was no longer allowed to send convicts or political prisoners to the US, and the plantation owners who needed cheap, disposable labor were out of luck. Except of course they weren’t out of luck, because by then laws were being passed to make slavery lifelong and heritable, for black people only. As for Britain, it kept on sending convicts–but to Australia instead.

Here’s an excerpt from an article written in 1896 about convict labor, “British Convicts Shipped to American Colonies,” J.D. Butler, American Historical Review
Vol. 2 No. 1 (Oct. 1896), pp 12‑33.

In 1769 Dr. Johnson, speaking of Americans, said to a friend, “Sir, they are a race of convicts and ought to be content with anything we may allow them short of hanging.” In the latest edition of Boswell, who chronicled this saying, it is explained by the following footnote: “Convicts were sent to nine of the American settlements. According to one estimate, about 2000 had been sent for many years annually. Dr. Lang, after comparing various estimates, concludes that the number sent might be about 50,000 altogether.”1

This history was suppressed, denied, or ignored, immediately after the Revolutionary War. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson (a slaveowner) expressed his opinion that “The Malefactors sent to America were not sufficient in number to merit enumeration. . .  I do not think the whole number sent would amount to 2000 & being principally men eaten up with disease, they married seldom & propagated little.” (From The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume IX, p 254.)

Back to J.D. Butler, writing in 1896:

Bancroft, in 1887, conversing with the present writer, freely admitted that, when speaking of felons among our settlers, he had been very economical in dispensing the truths he had discovered. Having a handful, he had opened only his little finger. He wrote too early to expect that American eyes could bear the light of full disclosures.

(George Bancroft was a prolific and influentual historian who also, by the way, helped start the Mexican War.)

More than a hundred years after the forcible transportation of convicts to the U.S. was “too early” to tell this history? Is it still too early?

It’s never too early to stop lying to ourselves.

America was never “great.”

Americans are not better than the immigrants who want to come in. By choice, this time!

We’re all just people. It’s high time we start treating ourselves as such.

Further reading

The website “Early American Crime” has a section on convict transportation.

The Gettysburg College website “Atlantic Migration” also has a section on forced migration, including convicts from Portugal, France, and England.




When croquet goes wrong

(This is from my collection of Doctor Who dollhouse photos.)

Croquet Gone Wrong -

Croquet Gone Wrong –

Doctor Who: Invasion of the Ant People

From my collection of dollhouse pictures, I bring you . . .

Picture of dollhouse living room invaded by ants

A living room full of ants. Because . . .

Picture of an ant invasion featuring a Dalek and the Jon Pertwee Doctor.

The Third Doctor dropped a bag of flour, and apparently his Dalek housemate didn’t notice.

Tisk, tisk.


Hate speech not welcome

At my kid’s school, there’s an assembly every Monday morning. A student is given the honor of reading the school expectations, which are posted conspicuously:

I use respectful language. I am in the right place at the right time. I keep my body in my personal space. I move safely on school grounds. I care for school property in a responsible way. I am considerate and respectful of others.

And there’s a sign (from the Safe Schools Coalition) that I see when I walk in the door of the school. It says,

“Degrading racial, ethnic, sexist or homophobic remarks not welcome here. RESPECT the differences.”

The message simple and clear. Our community tries hard to follow it. The call for consideration and respect protects everybody. The sign on the door makes a call out to groups that are protected from hate speech because of historic and continuing oppression. We don’t do a perfect job, but when something goes awry, we are much better equipped to handle the situation because we are all on the same page.

There is broad-based agreement at our school that these are legitimate social expectations, for practical reasons. None of us want our kids to come in from recess with bloody noses and scraped knees.

Until recently, I would have thought there was broad-based agreement within the science fiction and fantasy community as well. However, recent dramas have shown this is not so. There are a sizable number of people who think it’s perfectly fine to make degrading racial, ethnic, sexist or homophobic remarks — but that it’s not okay for a community to try to stop them. There is also a backlash against people the extreme right wing are calling “Social Justice Warriors.”

This by itself is not so surprising to me. What’s surprising is that middle-of-the-road people seem to be going along with them to some extent. Why?

Well, for one thing, the phrase “political correctness” has made a comeback. That phrase is vague and muddles the conversation about what is okay to say and what isn’t. (In a recent post, I suggested there was a reason for that: the millions of dollars that conservative philanthropies have thrown into think tanks and other propaganda efforts.)

The phrase “political correctness” also hides a critical distinction between the kinds of people who use it and the reasons they use it. Some people use it maliciously and nefariously, to cover up or defend hate speech. Others use it sincerely, out of frustration that they don’t feel free to express opinions that do not rise to the level of harrassing, discriminatory, or hate speech.

There’s a need for the science fiction and fantasy community to come up with clear expectations for speech and fair consequences if they are violated. And these expectations should treat hate speech differently than other kinds. I’m not talking censorship here. I’m talking about a community setting standards for itself.

What happens if we don’t? Well, at the moment, somebody’s job is at stake (Irene Gallo) over some comments that she made. Here are the comments:

There are two extreme right-wing to neo-nazi groups, called the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies respectively, that are calling for the end of social justice in science fiction and fantasy. They are unrepentantly racist, misogynist, and homophobic. A noisy few but they’ve been able to gather some Gamergate folks around them and elect a slate of bad-to-reprehensible works on this year’s Hugo ballot.

Her employer, the major SF/F publisher Tor, is being financially threatened by a boycott if she is not fired. The reasoning behind the call for firing is that conservatives have been fired for their public comments, so she should too.

But what’s not mentioned is that some of the firings conservatives are complaining about involved degrading racial, ethnic, sexist or homophobic remarks. If that’s not even mentioned, then as a community how can we possibly set consequences that most people think are fair?

We’re now in a situation that’s bad for everyone, including Tor. If she’s fired, Tor will face a boycott from the left. If she’s not fired, Tor will face a boycott from the extreme right.

Tor’s response was perhaps the best they could do under the circumstances to appease both groups. But there’s something that bugs me. A lot.

In short, we seek out and publish a diverse and wide ranging group of books. We are in the business of finding great stories and promoting literature and are not about promoting a political agenda

There’s that little political correctness complaint again. What political agenda is he talking about? Gallo criticized the Puppies for being openly racist, misogynist, and homophobic. So her political agenda is what?

More important, though, the political agenda of the Puppies is off limits for discussion here. I kind of get that Tor would want to avoid a discussion that would alienate many of its customers. But the discussion needs to happen somewhere, or rather, in as many venues as possible. And it needs to include an acknowledgement that hate speech is not welcome.

As a community, science fiction and fantasy authors, readers, and editors can and should set standards for discourse. The work on that has already begun, but it looks like there’s a long way to go.

For Further Reading 

A balanced post about complaints of political correctness by blogger and cartoonist Amptoons, “Chait Criticizes Exactly The Kind Of Speech We Should Want More Of”.) This post also has an excellent list of links at the end.

From blogger Julian Sanchez, a post from a leftist about the mistakes the left is making when it comes to political correctness, “Chait Speech.”

From the ADA Initiative website, a post about anti-harassment speech that is being done, “Conference anti-harassment work in SF&F, 2014 edition: N. K. Jemisin’s speech, Hugo battles, Frenkel saga & more”.

A blog post by Laura “Tegan” Gjovaag about the Puppies, “The ongoing Hugo mess comes to haunt me again. . .” This is coming from a fan perspective and is written in lively prose.

Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) anti-harassment policies and social media policies on discriminatory speech.

And finally, the Safe Schools Coalition, which created the “Respect the Differences” Sign.



Getting to the ending

Well, it’s been a year since I started my project on documenting the fanfiction workshop I taught in my son’s fourth/fifth grade class. I got distracted by the end of the school year and never came back to it.

There’s a lovely irony in the place I got stuck: “Getting to the ending.” Endings are, apparently, difficult.

The main thing I told the kids is that there are no hard and fast rules, but people have an intuitive sense of when something is ended or not. The main question to ask is, “Does it feel finished?”

I gave them three general options:

  1. Solve the problem or mystery or find the treasure
  2. Have the character fail to solve the problem or mystery
  3. Leave the solving of the problem or finding of the mystery to the future, but add a resolution

I also provided some examples by reading ending sentences out of various books and asking the kids why they felt a sense of completion.

From that small amount of guidance, most students were able to generate an ending. Some were stuck, and we worked with them individually, offering suggestions if needed. But in keeping with the rest of the course, I kept adult visions of “the proper story” out of it.  Once they felt the story had a sense of completion, it was done.

Next up: revision!

Learning the actual history of the U.S. colonies

I’ve been interested in genealogy and family history for a while now. I like to learn more than the names and dates — I like their stories, and the “why” of where they moved, what religion they were, etc. And there is a LOT of information online. I can trace some branches of the family back to the 1600s. (One problem with that is there are “non-parental events” — that is, kids who have been assigned by history to the wrong parents, whether by adultery or adoption or who knows what all. Errors are bound to multiply as you go back in time. All the same, I feel attached to these ancestors.)

Anyway, about a month ago I got interested in some of the names in my family tree. In one set of great-great-great grandparents and their ancestors, I saw names like Zenos or Zenas, Electa, Hannibal, Sylvanus, Israel, Abraham, Sarah, Tryphena . . . there are Hebrew names, Greek names, New Testament names, names of emporers, and even full names of two U.S. Presidents. How on earth did these names get in my family tree?

I was able to trace some of those families back by their paternal lines to arrival in the early U.S. colonies. Then I looked up the history of their churches and the towns they lived in, and ultimately the history of Protestant sects from 1630 to 1840.

Found out some fascinating tidbits! I’ll list a couple of them here, with the caveat that I learned all this from surfing the Web, which is notoriously unreliable. Most of this came from Wikipedia and the rest from random places.

1. The first two Puritan colonies were very different. The Mayflower Pilgrims were separatists — they wanted to break completely with the Church of England. The Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted to reform it instead. Both established theocracies, which survived at first only because there was a civil war distracting the King of England. Power and influence of these two colonies waned as England settled its civil war and took a greater role in colony governance, more Europeans moved to the U.S. (giving people a chance to flee the Puritan colonies), and  ultimately England revoked the charter of one or the other or both.

2. Puritans had Hebrew names and modeled their theocracies after laws in the Hebrew Bible. They identified strongly with the persecution of the Jews, since they had been persecuted as well.

3. Puritans were from the beginning very invested in democracy — that is, of the male members of the church.

4. By the 1690s, the influence of the Puritans had waned, but a lot of the beliefs and traditions carried on in other religions until at least the 1840s. This is where it gets super interesting, though — there were no less than three revival movements, called “Great Awakenings,” where everything got turned on its head. They took place in approximately the 1730s, the 1790s, and the 1820s (give or take a couple of decades).

With that context in mind, here are a couple family stories.

John Mathew Noah came to the U.S. in colonial times as an indentured servant and eventually worked his way up to being fairly wealthy. He left Massachusetts for Ohio in the early 1800s, where he participated in the founding of a church called Bethesda.

Like Puritan churches, it had covenants to enforce church attendance and personal behavior. A decade or so later, the church was rocked by the Third Great Awakening and a schism developed. Some members wanted to keep the covenants, and some, including John Noah, wanted to throw them out entirely.

The notes of church meetings were kept, so I got to read an account of the schism, which was fascinating! There were a series of votes that kept getting overturned, and eventually, John Noah and ten to seventeen others were excluded from the church. He went on to help found a second church in another town. Meanwhile . . .

. . . his daughter, Margaret Haynes Noah, and her husband joined the Mormon Church, along with several other members of the Bethesda church. Her husband was . . .

. . .  Charles Hulet, a descendent of Puritans, including the Hathorne family, and a distant relation of the leader of the Salem Witch Trials and of Nathaniel Hawthorne. His father, Sylvanus Hulet, had fought in the Revolutionary War, then disappeared from historical records for seven years and emerged married to . . .

. . .  Mary Ann Lewis, whose parentage has not been traced, aside from a family story that her grandmother was a Native American named Running Deer and her grandfather was a white man referred to as Charles Sq**man (that’s a derogatory term that was used for whites who married Native Americans). This history, connected to the fact that the LDS church had a focus on converting Native Americans, adds up to something, but I can’t for the life of me tell what!

Here are the names that Charles Hulet and Margaret Ann Noah, my great-great-great-great grandparents (if I counted right!) gave their children: Anna Maria, Melvina, Catherine, Electa Fidelia, Sylvanus Cyrus, Elizabeth, Jane, Sarah, Dorcus, Tabitha, and Warren.

I see so many recurring patterns. Idealism, the desire to throw out all the old rules, restlessness, the willingness to pick up and move your entire family for the sake of religion, and interest in new forms of government. The desire for theocracy and the desire for its opposite.

That’s just one small segment of my family. This is the family of my great-great-great grandparent and beyond, and she (Catherine Hulet) is only one of thirty-two great-great-great grandparents. (If I counted right!) It contains so much drama and so many different kinds of people!

Folks, the history of the U.S. is so much stranger and more complicated than we could ever imagine.

Skeptical about “Skeptic” this month

Every month we get Scientific American in the mail and I devour it. This month’s has three intriguing articles: one on meditation, one on a human-powered helicopter (!!!!!), and one about the relationship between democracy and peace.

That third article, “Can democracy lead to perpetual peace?” is part of the magazine’s regular “Skeptic” column. Its focus is “Viewing the world with a rational eye” and I usually see it debunking pseudo-science. This month the author, Michael Shermer, is covering a scientific theory that democracies might be less warlike. He goes over various ins and outs and studies and articles, including the Polity Project and a recent article by political scientist Havard Hegre, and then gives his own theory:

“I propose human nature itself and our propensity to prefer the elements of democracy. Peace is a pleasant by-product.”

But something’s missing from this analysis, related to one of the most important scientific concepts: correlation is not causation. Shermer covers the possibility that  greater democracy leads to more peace and the possibility that there is a third factor, but doesn’t consider the possibility that peace leads to democracy, and war leads to authoritarian forms of governments.

That’s my personal theory, after looking at ancient Mesopotamia. It turns out that democracy didn’t begin with the Greeks — decisions were once made by an assembly on a town and city level. The secular leader of a town and city gradually took on more and more power, until that leader became a king, and then a god-in-the-flesh. This happened over thousands of years. And what prompted this increase of power?

I theorize that it was war. There’s an interesting story in the Enuma Elish, a creation myth from the city of Babylon in the 18th century BCE. The goddess Tiamat incites a civil war among the gods, and a young god, Marduk, is asked to fight her. The price? Supremacy over the assembly of gods.

Here is an excerpt from the Enuma Elish, adapted from a translation in The Babylonian Genesis by Alexander Heidel (pp 31-32).

Tiamat, our bearer, hates us. She held a meeting and raged furiously. All the gods went over to her. . . They had a meeting and planned the conflict . . . I sent Anu, but he could not face her. Nudimmud also was afraid and turned back. Then Marduk, the wisest of the gods, your son, came forward. His heart prompted him to face Tiamat. He opened his mouth and said to me: “If I am indeed to be your avenger, to vanquish Tiamat and to keep you alive, convene the assembly and proclaim my lot supreme.

Marduk’s rise to power  has striking parallels in the actual political situation of around the same time: Hammurabi became king of Babylon, was drawn into some defensive wars, and then went on the offense, eventually conquering and uniting all of Mesopotamia under one rule.

That looks to me like a clear example of war leading to authoritarian rule. Another, more recent example, might be the Patriot Act passed toward the beginning of the Iraq war. It limits our constitutional freedoms to such a degree that only war could have made it possible.

I don’t know if my theory is right or not. But I am surprised to see it omitted from the column. Maybe it’s because U.S. citizens have been so inundated with the concept that the U.S., as a democratic entity, can export its democracy and thereby bring peace throughout the world. (Never mind that we are becoming less democratic and bringing more war than peace.)  Maybe that kind of thinking is creating a blind spot even for the skeptical columnist who views the world with a rational eye.

I do love the title, though. Perpetual peace. That would be nice.

happy sumerian couple