Sunday, July 18, 2010

Face to Face with the Past

In March of 2005, I hopped in a van with a group of my college buds and went on my first trip to New Orleans. My first impression with the city was that it was dirty. And all there was to do was to drink and party.

Later that year, Katrina struck with all of its fury. You know the rest of the story.

I visited again in 2008 and once again in 2009 without thinking much about the effects of the hurricane. We saw traces of some of the damage, but not much more thought was given.

Today, nearly 5 years after the devastation first occurred, I visited the Lower 9th Ward. You might recall earlier this year when I posted some things about Hurricane Katrina and about Eric Dyson's book. I knew that this trip to New Orleans would be different than my previous ones. For starters, I refused to step foot on Bourbon Street. I've done that enough. Instead, my good friend Austin drove Kurt and me around the city, looking at schools, houses, and businesses that still show signs of disaster.

I could have read all of the books on Katrina, and I still would not have been prepared for the Lower 9th. It was heartbreaking. Here I am, heartbroken.

The good news and the odd news is that Brad Pitt is helping to build some houses in the Lower 9th. They are very strange and not entirely efficient, but it looks like a good idea.

There were so many houses just left to the wild. Down the side roads there were empty plots of land where houses once stood. The X's spray painted on the front of buildings were an eerie reminder of the ones who had left, either in the tide of the water that overtook the levees, or in the mass exodus that followed. Written on one building was, "Home. This Used to be Home." It was very hard to watch the families who were trying to rebuild, who sat on their porches across the street from hollowed out houses that whispered horrible secrets of what went on five years ago. On the way out, there was a school that had sat untouched with a sign that read, "Classes will resume August 29, 2005." A place that had been discarded by its country is putting back together the pieces of their lives, trusting in each other and billowing with pride.

I did not cry until we passed a group of children riding their bikes on the way into St. Bernard Parish. And I thought of the stories I had heard about white people barricading the bridges so that they black people couldn't get out. And I thought about how disastrous the Louisiana school system had been before the hurricane and how much worse it must have gotten in the years that followed.

I am glad that I visited the Lower 9th Ward, even if it was difficult to look at what happened. That's what being a historian is all about: facing the horrors of the past and trying to understand them.

New Orleans is still dirty. Probably filthier than ever. It is not a city that I particularly enjoy. But it has such a unique personality that most other cities cannot obtain. And it takes pride in that, whether for good or for bad. And in the wake of disaster, people stubbornly stay put to build a life, even in the Lower 9th Ward where they had been tossed aside and forgotten. It is a beautiful and heart-breaking place, and I'm very glad that I was able to see something beyond the booze-soaked streets of Bourbon Street, even if it was difficult to take in.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hralf Kraki!

History Fans,

I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that I finished The Saga of Hralf Kraki on the way to and from the Grand Canyon, which was really neat to see, even though I was very scared and whimpered like a child.

The bad news is that I've been sucked back into a life of reading fiction. I know, I know. But I promise they have been good books. So, call this a little vacation. I promise that after I am done I will be ready to continue my scholastic life.

As for Hralf Kraki, the saga itself was fun to read (plus his name is extremely fun to say). The story went more in depth about Beserkers and Champions. It also further illuminated the masculine society and how women push stories forward yet are often the cause of problems. But I am very excited to get back to Jesse Byock's book that I was reading earlier.

So, hang in there, History Fans. I'll be back to my regular self before too long.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

I Blame Everything on Geography

Greetings from Los Angeles!

Yesterday I finished Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. And it was very fitting that I reached the finale in California.

You see, Jared Diamond's theory is that there is no scale to which human beings are measured. There are no components that some human beings possess that others do not. What does this mean? It means that Europeans did not take over the globe because they worshiped the right God or because they had some inherited gift that Native Americans or Aboriginal Australians did not. His theory is that geography caused it, along with a few other factors. But it mainly rests on the lay of the land.

I explained in my last post about the important of axises. This is one of factors. Diffusion of technology and ideas spread much faster on Eurasia's east-west axis than it did of Africa's or the America's north-south axises. The other factors, as I may have discussed previously, include the amount of plants and animals on each continent that could be domesticated, as well as the geographical blue prints, amount of food production, and central organization. It was harder for technology to spread across Africa's Sahara Desert and tropical rain forests, while Eurasia offered few disruptions on that east-west axis.

I believe very much in Jared Diamond's theory. When the Europeans encountered the Native Americans in 1492 and thereafter, they weren't meeting a community of people who were a step below on the evolutionary chain. No. Instead, they were meeting a community of people who lived with what they had. North America had no large mammals suitable for domestication. It wasn't until Europeans arrived that the Native Americans adopted horses. Without the those large mammals, the Native Americans lacked both energy and fertilizer that would have boosted their food production. Neither did North America produce very many crops that could be domesticated. It took a very long time for corn to be transformed into the edible crop we know today. It took a very long time for beans to travel from Central America to the pockets of civilizations across North America. Because of these factors, Native Americans in North America did not develop villages or technologies like Europeans did.

Europeans had the advantage of having many crops and large mammals that could be domesticated. And they had a longer time to develop them. When Asians crossed the Bering Strait in during the Ice Age, Europeans had already started the process of domesticating their sheep and cows and figuring out what's good to eat. When the Native Americans had time to settle into the New World and figure out what's good to eat, they were already many years behind the Europeans. But that's where the comparisons stop. From there, the Native Americans lived their lives as mostly hunter-gatherers because that's the type of land the geography gave them. The same is true with Aboriginal Australians, but of course, they get to add isolation to their list of withouts.

And since the Europeans had large mammals, they got the large mammals' germs and developed diseases. Their large food production also meant that they could settle into villages and raise an army. You see, when you are a hunter-gatherer, most of your efforts go into finding food. But when you are able to create a large enough surplus of food, that gives people extra time. Extra time to raise an army, to invent things, etc. But it comes with a price. More food means more people means more differing opinions. So because of these factors, the Europeans eventually said so long to their tribal ways and made their way to a chiefdom and eventually states. The Native Americans, because they lacked those first few crucial elements of crops and mammals, stayed with their tribes, except, of course, the Aztecs and the Incas.

Why the Aztecs and the Incas did not develop along the same lines as the Europeans is somewhat of a mystery. Again, they didn't have mammals or very many crops that could be domesticated, but they had more than the North Americans. And the truth is that they could have given the Europeans a run for their money. But as the European diseases preceded their guns and steel, the Native Americans died off by the millions.

The biggest question that Jared Diamond brings up is addressed in the Afterword. Why Europe and not China? China was unified in 221 B.C. and had domesticated their animals and crops around the same time as the Europeans. And it's true that many Southern Chinese expanded into the Pacific and their ancestors now inhabit those tropical areas of Southeast Asia. But why didn't they come to the New World and take over the globe? Diamond blames that event back in 221 B.C.: unification. Diamond says that because Europe stayed fragmented over the years, they maintained a competitive drive. That competition led to many inventions, innovations, and explorations. China had been unified and were isolated from any other advanced societies. The rest of Asia were hunter-gatherers. And because of their unification and isolation, there was no competition to develop new technologies or to beat someone else to the new world.

This last part, I'm not so sure about. Diamond takes an extremely capitalist view of the world. The more competition, the better. That may be true. And he may be talking about life in general rather than economics. Whether or not I agree with it does not mean it is not a good explanation for why Europe took the reins of the Earth instead of China.

And here I am in California, marveling at the geography of the state. In the Redwood Forest, it was cool and moist. In Eureka, it was warm. San Francisco was pretty warm, while Monterrey was freezing! Lancaster was super dry in the desert and Santa Monica was perfect. The mountains, the desert, the ocean. My own little class on geography and what that means to the people within it.

I highly recommend this book. Jared Diamond knows his stuff, and proposes a monumental idea: that we are equal, but by geographical accidents, some were given the means to overtake others.
How romantic!