America Exposed: Greg Grandin’s “The End of the Myth”

Of all the lies America officially tells itself, one of the strangest is that “We have never occupied conquered territory.” The story goes that since the US didn’t occupy Germany after either of the wars, nor did we take any Japanese territory, there is a nobleness to our cause.

Needless to say, that’s absolute bunkum. There is not a single region of this country that wasn’t taken from Natives. Yes, the Louisiana Purchase was from France, but of course, it wasn’t filled with Frenchmen who immediately left: it was filled with Natives who were promptly extirpated.

Of course, if any action gives immediate lie to that notion, it is the occupation and annexation of enormous amounts of Mexican territory following the brutal and phony war of 1846-1848. The occupied and stolen territory gave America its western bulk; it made destiny manifest.

“It was actually Old Mexico, you dinks” -Mexico, probably

One thing that America does very well is rapidly internalizing our myths. It doesn’t matter that the war was pushed by southern slave interests hoping to create an empire of chattel. It doesn’t matter that the secession of Texas was a reaction to Mexico outlawing slavery. While a mere 20 years later slavery was defeated, the idea that this territory was anything but given to the US by God was not even entertained.

The idea of these stories, and how they have shaped the American character, is the focus of Greg Grandin’s sweeping The End of the Myth, an electrifying read which takes you from the Cumberland Gap to Gettysburg to Martin Luther King’s radicalism to the perfidy of NAFTA, all with a unifying theme.

That theme is that of the frontier, specifically, the frontier as famously articulated by Frederick Jackson Turner. The nut of the thesis, developed by the then little-known Wisconsin academic in 1893, is that “(t)he existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.”

It’s complicated, but basically that the waves of expansion (which are neither steady nor consistent) are what drives the American spirit. People come out, fight and die, scratch out an existence, fall back, push forward, etc. The land is tamed, capital moves in, people get itchy, and go to the next frontier. Violence, horror, success, railroads, and so on.

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I should be quibbling with the pristine idealness of this depiction, but really, I’m just wondering if her and Paul Bunyan ever hooked up

Now, you can (and should!) quibble with the idea that the land was “free”; the need for violence in the form of the US Army disproves that myth instantly. But the land was, I suppose, gettable. It could be got if you knew the right people (i.e. the US Army).

Grandin doesn’t so much deflate this myth as expose it for what it has always been: a pernicious way to both foment and excuse violence and expropriation while running a constant scam against the idea of freedom itself.

To back this, Grandin paraphrases Martin Luther King, who argued that the ideal “fed into multiple reinforcing pathologies: into racism, a violent masculinity, and a moralism that celebrates the rich and punishes the poor.”

This is all true, and it plays itself off as a sort of devil’s bargain. As Grandin explains:

There is a lot to unpack in the argument that over the long course of US history, endless expansion, either over land or through markets and militarism, deflects domestic extremism. How, for example, might historical traumas and resentments, myths and symbols, be passed down the centuries from one generation to another? Did the United States objectively nned to expand in order to secure foreign resources and open markets for domestic production? Or did the country’s leaders just believe they had to expand. Whatever the answers to those questions, the United States, since its dounding, pushed outward and justified that push in moral terms, as beneficial equally for the people within and beyond the frontier.

The frontier was a constant regeneration, taking the traumas of conflict and using them to start another battle, another front. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book talks is the section on the Spanish-American war, a conflict so ginned up it made the Mexican-American war look honest.

In our accepted history, the Spanish American war is a completely different era than the Civil War. That’s just how history is often taught; separate eras split by thick black lines and different quizzes. But of course, it was barely 30 years after that conflict ended. Most of its veterans were still alive. This was also barely 20 years after Reconstruction came to an ignoble and murdered end, unleashing a wave of democratic suppression and racist terror that persisted for 100 years.

And, as Grandin explains, basically no one was more excited about the Spanish-American war, and the colonial occupations that followed, than ex-Confederates. This, for them, was a way to be welcomed fully back into the American population, to prove themselves as fighters, and to kill non-whites. The Confederate flag flew over Cuba, and the Rebel Yell was heard in the Philippines.

Why does this matter? Because it was another expansion of the frontier. It was a way to regenerate the American myth after the Civil War and (maybe just as importantly) after Reconstruction. Grandin skillfully weaves the betrayal of Reconstruction with the dark decades of Jim Crow, Martin Luther King, Vietnam, and more.

This makes sense, when you start to look at American history as a continuous thing, and not something that actually happens in waves. The war for Mexican territory was fought to expand slavery. It was fought to create an American empire across the continent. The stories that we told about it- pablum about freedom, the brave men of the Alamo, standing up to an oppressive Mexican government who hated freedom so much that they outlawed slavery- was part of the same story we told ourselves of the Lost Cause, the noble South, the valiant Lee: stories that still exist.

And that, ultimately, is the lesson here. These stories are still being told, but there is nowhere left to go. The frontier has reverberated. Grandin takes us back again and again to the border, as it becomes militarized, filled with swaggering racists, both in real uniforms and in the jackal armament of vigilante militias. He brings us to a border suddenly filled with factories and economic refugees. He brings us to a border where people fleeing American-led violence in Central America end up. He brings us to a border whose fences, a cynical bargain made to pass NAFTA, trap people on both sides and make crossing a mortal threat.

In short, he brings us to today.

Trump and the End of the Myth

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This man is shaping US history

If you were to say one good thing about Donald Trump- and Christ, you really shouldn’t- it is that by being so openly vulgar, with such id-driven racism, and supplemented by such cowardly sycophants, he has forced us to recognize the cruelty that has always driven much of American policy.

Whether it is in Guantanamo Bay or when trying to gut health care or when locking up children in cages, performative, sincere cruelty (or, making a huge show of how sincerely cruel you are) is the Republican default position. Indifference to that cruelty has driven much of the so-called opposition, as well.

Reading Grandin, this makes sense. The frontier has always allowed us to push that cruelty outward, to find newer enemies, and to believe in regeneration. But now there is nowhere to go. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and everywhere else) are dim echoes of empire, grinding distant slogs only remembered with the faintest pantomimes of covered-heart “gratitude.” Global capitalism is seen as a dumb joke played on all of us, with the benefit that it is also destroying the present. The frontier, long-rumored to be dead, is officially gone.

That’s why Trump’s wall is the true end of the myth, as Grandin’s subtitle implies. We’ve been heading that way. It could easily be argued that violence against Mexico is just as much a part of the American character as slavery and genocide. It has been a centuries-long preoccupation (and real occupation). And now it has found its post-Polk apotheosis, at a time when everything seems to be crumbing.

Trump’s wall is the closing of the frontier, a sealing off of even a hypocritical American dream. And we have, just today, entered a new phase.

The firing/resignation/who cares of Kirstjen Neilsen is concentrating power in the hands of Trump and the wiry evil of anti-immigrant fanatic Stephen Miller. Today was a purge, as Mark Joseph Stern explained.

After firing Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen on Sunday, President Donald Trump purged the agency’s senior management on Monday. According to CBS News, Trump secured the resignation of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Cissna, DHS Undersecretary for Management Claire Grady, and DHS General Counsel John Mitnick. He also fired U.S. Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles. Trump adviser Stephen Miller, an immigration hard-liner, reportedly masterminded the DHS purge as part of an effort to crack down on immigration at the southern border.

So what does that mean? Well:

Trump didn’t want Grady; he wanted Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. It’s easy to see why. Under McAleenan’s leadership, CBP repeatedly broke the law to implement Trump’s first travel ban, earning a rebuke from DHS’ Office of Inspector General. McAleenan is a strong proponent of a border wall as well as new laws to curb asylum-seekers’ entry into the country. He infamously failed to inform Congress that a 7-year-old girl died in CBP custody when he testified before the Senate just three days after her death.

In other words, the real hardliners are taking over. I don’t know if Nielsen was a true believer or just a spineless sycophant, and she deserves a lifetime of scorn and opprobrium either way, but apparently there were lines even she wouldn’t cross. With this purge, the Trump people are looking for people who don’t believe in lines.

We’re living in an era of a hyperactive Border Patrol who are setting up Constitution-free zones in 75% of America’s populated areas. It’s an era where ICE is given full reign to destroy people. These are the spears of the new America, and they are being molded in Trump’s lawless image.

There might be pushback (apparently, some CBP officials didn’t like Trump telling officers they didn’t have to follow the law). Trump wants us to believe that “the country is full”, which is of course laughable, except he doesn’t mean it literally. He means that we have enough brown people, and we don’t want anymore.

And that’s the heart of the wall, and the heart of the frontier, and the heart of the American myth. That this is a land destined for white people, who can do no wrong. It’s why we believe that we don’t occupy territory when the whole country is occupied. It’s why we believe that land taken from Mexico has always been American, and why were are insanely resentful that anyone could question that. It’s why we take natural migration patterns as an affront to our sacred ideals.

The wall isn’t the antithesis of the frontier, it is its howling echo. It is its fulfillment. It is the promise of white nationalism with nowhere else to go, caged and furious. It is standing athwart history and pretending it didn’t happen. It is the stupidity of Trump and the cupidity of his enablers made concrete. It is the railroad and it is Pickett’s Charge; it is Custer and Andrew Jackson; it is James Earl Ray, and it is everyone who built their life around cheap consumer goods made by broken hands in child-filled maquiladoras.

The wall is the American Dream. It’s a reality from which we need to awake.

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Is War With Iran Coming?

You probably saw this yesterday.

If you spent any time online yesterday, you probably saw that it became a meme. Everyone was doing mocking tweets of it, for petty grievances or incredibly specific references to their particular profession. Here’s Uproxx calling it an “incredible meme“, which, immediately, seems to be a fairly blithe and stupid and of-the-moment self-reflective response, a product of our warped media age, to the President of the United States sounding like a maddened incel about nuclear war.

Of course, it also could be self-protection, a layer of irony to shield ourselves from the horror of the day, from the fact that this half-bright toddler, made dumb and cruel by wealth, could kills hundreds of thousands, if not more, without anyone legally able to stop him. Maybe making jokes about everything perpetuates our false and woozy times as much as it protects us from it, but if we’re already in that terrible loop, it’s hard to get out.

Or maybe the reaction of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif summed it up.

He doesn’t take Trump very seriously. He sees this as bluster, the same kind that led to the North Korean “talks”, in which NK didn’t change their position at all and the US gave up its biggest bargaining chip. More likely, he understands that Trump is seen as weak after clearly kowtowing to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, and needs to rally Republicans that are more than ready to circle the wagons for him.

I think that’s dangerous though. It is dangerous to draw parallels between North Korean bloviating and threatening Iran. For one thing, inasmuch as there is a Middle East strategy in Trump’s empty toothpaste tube of a mind, it is to side with a coalition os the rich Gulf states (minus Qatar) and Israel against Iran. There are obviously a million problems with that plan, and I think even in a moral vacuum it is ultimately unworkable, but I can at least make the case that there is a strategy (again, with the caveat that this team isn’t able to pull it off).

For another thing, as hawkish as some of his team was on North Korea, that was small beer compared to their warboy attitude toward Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Christianist bigot, doesn’t really believe Iran has a right to exist as an independent, non-colonized state. He thinks it should be a vassal to the West and have no say in its own destiny.

General Mattis is more rational and not driven by bigotry, but he (to a large degree correctly) sees Iran as the main driver of conflict with the US in the region, particularly in Iraq. He knows that Iran is responsible for chaos and the death of US soldiers in the region. One could argue that there shouldn’t have been US soldiers in Iraq, but that doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) matter to Mattis. His job was to fight for the US, and so his overall Middle East perception is that Iran is the enemy. He is, after all, a general, with the good and bad that brings.

And John Bolton? Do you even have to ask?

It’s not just Bolton. The entire GOP and most of the Democratic Party has seen Iran as the primary villain in the world since the moment the last primary villain, Saddam Hussein, had his statues toppled. There is actual weight behind this push to war.

It’s important to ask why. If you want, you could trace the last 40 years since the revolution and the hostage crisis, or go back to 1953 when the CIA helped overthrow the elected government and reinstitute the decadent and almost louche cruelty of the Shah’s regime.

But this is about more than just specific events. It is Great Power competition, as the US, the last vanguard of the West in the Middle East, tries to maintain its dominance of the last 150 years. US actions in Iran must be analyzed by the individual players and the truth of recent history, but they also have to be seen through the prism of colonialist appetites and the reemergence of a historic power, partly due to a reaction to said colonialism.

That’s what Zarif meant in his tweet. Iran, in one form or another, has been around since Europeans were living in huts along muddy rivers. It has continuity, and even though Europeans have dominated recently, that’s a historical blip. Trump is just fighting a rearguard war.

He’s also assuming that this is just bluster, and is playing the role of statesman, almost laughing at Trump, rolling his eyes. “Yes yes- oh, is he yelling again? Goodness, how frightening!”  I think that’s his primary goal here, taking advantage of the broken Western coalition, and showing that he is more reliable than Trump. And, thanks to Trump’s actions, that’s not a bad plan.

This is very bad. For one thing, Trump’s peak idiocy, exemplified by violating the JCPOA, strengthens the hand of Russia and China in the region, mostly the latter, and weakens any US attempt to bring a modicum of stability.

For another, it somehow makes Iran look like a reasonable power. It’s not! The regime is as cruel as the Shah as even more oppressive, corrupt to the bone, and stifling to generations of Iranians. It exports war and terror around the region. Even if you agree that Iran should, or at least absolutely will, reassert itself as a regional power, there is no way to argue that the current regime is doing so responsibly or is a force for good.

That’s not a call for violent regime change. That would be another generational disaster, would lead to ridiculous chaos and suffering, and could break the US military or force it to reinstitute the draft. But given the weight of the two countries, and Trump’s need to show strength, we could drift toward war.

Even if you think Trump is blustering in order to sound tough and repeat what he sees as his huge success with North Korea, these things can have a momentum. Given the teams in place, it is far from impossible.

In the long run, this is a common story. A fallen empire, made weak and soft and stupid, is dominated by outsiders, who eventually get weak and soft and stupid themselves. At the trough of their decline, they are led by the very worst, and have one last desperate attempt to reclaim what is “theirs”. A generation of violence and upheaval follows, and the newer empire fades into infighting and irrelevance.

In the long run, that’s a common story. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the long run. We live in the present, which has become mirrored and refracting, an endless series of impulses and truthless narratives and escapes. But no matter how many memes are made, the forces of history have a way of imposing reality. America in the 21st century is not immune to that. That we ever thought ourselves inoculated have made us impossibly sick.

In Asking About Washington and Jefferson, Trump Stumbles Onto One Interesting Point

 

Image result for george washington statue

“Great guy. Owned slaves. Doesn’t bother me. I’m more Presidential than him”

 

I don’t think there is much more to say about Trump’s raving belligerence, his hideous instincts, and his incoherent tirade against decency yesterday. As Pierce pointed out, he was a guy who was clearly angry about having to release a second statement on whether or not Nazis and racists are bad, and stewed about it for 24 hours, then let the world know how he really felt. To say it was un-Presidential is to pretend that this guy is a real President.

But he did inadvertently stumble onto a good point, albeit from the wrong direction and with the wrong intent. He brought up a normal right-wing Confederate talking point, bringing up the fact that many of the Founding Fathers were indeed slave owners.

“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Mr. Trump said. “So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down.”…

“George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? …Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? OK, good. Are we going to take down his statue, because he was a major slave owner. Now we’re going to take down his statue. So you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history, you’re changing culture, and you had people — and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally — but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”

Obviously, the “there were a lot of good people carrying torches alongside the Nazis and white supremacists!” line that has people talking. But the Washington/Jefferson part is really interesting. This is a common sneer among the right, an unlettered attempt at logic, and, to them, an attempt to get us to consider how much we’re “changing” history.

There are a few obvious rebuttals here. The first is the easiest, which is: we’re not changing history, you dolt, we’re just not honoring terrible people anymore. The second is related, which is: sure, we have a complicated history, but maybe we’ll draw the line at honoring people who committed treason against the United States in order to defend slavery.

That one is worth unpacking. We can point out the obvious hypocrisy in the idea that the right wing is telling us that some Founding Fathers were bad, as an excuse for maybe worse behavior by CSA leaders. When the left points that out we hate America, remember. But I think we should actually happily accept those terms.

One of the worst parts of this country, and one of the wells from which a lot of contemporary poison is drawn, is Founding Father worship. We do tend to deify these man, and the end result is really pernicious.

For one thing, it has partly led to the contemporary cult of the Presidency. After all, of all the Founding Fathers who are worshipped, most were Presidents. Franklin is really the only non-President who is deified, until Hamilton the last couple of years. Men like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine are more known than understood, and tend to get lumped together, even though they were remarkably different men with remarkably different ideas.

And that’s sort of the point. The Fathers were a fractious bunch with a hell of a lot of competing ideas, and barely worked out a compromise to set up the government. That’s a good thing. The problem is that their ideas, and indeed their lives, have been dipped in a sort of amber. The differences are smoothed out. And they are lumped together into a sort of cult.

Really, the fact that not capitalizing “founding fathers” looks sort of weird is a tell. They are almost gods, and that is really pernicious. It is literally undemocratic, and it has infected our politics. We parse the text of the 2nd Amendment to see if it is ok for you to carry a bazooka to a Nazi rally. We ask what the Fathers would have thought of internet pornography (Franklin: Thumbs up). We try to imagine what 18th-century farmers would have done today.

That’s really antithetical to their whole project. The people who created this country believed in common law and progress. They didn’t intend for their word to be Gospel. This isn’t just an argument against “originalism”, which is an obvious intellectual fraud, but against the whole idea that we should be beholden to a bunch of flawed dudes from 240 years ago.

And so maybe we should look at our history. Maybe we should say “Oh yeah- George Washington would have been super weirded out at civil rights, and just seeing an airplane would have fucking blown his heart up. Let’s not look at them as gods. In fact, let’s examine the whole history of this country, and not pretend it was uniquely moral. Let’s not pretend that the slavery was an aberration. Let’s not pretend that we didn’t literally wiped out hundreds of nations in order to colonize the continent. Let’s not pretend that the monuments to men like Lee weren’t to honor soldiers, and not put up by Jim Crow politicians to remind blacks of their place. Let’s not pretend about anything, and maybe we can fulfill the promise inherent in our creeds.”

This obviously isn’t what Trump meant. In his mind, and the mind of his Confederate-loving Nazi-humping Lowes-shopping patio-torch-wielding white supremacist jackass buddies, Washington isn’t bad because Lee is, but rather Lee should be fine because Washington is great, and they are both great because they are both white. So why question their greatness?

But just because that isn’t what our idiot President meant doesn’t mean we shouldn’t run with this in another direction. I argued yesterday morning that maybe Trump will inadvertently help tear down the cult of the Presidency. I didn’t know he’d do it that afternoon.

Russia’s Caspian Problem: Weird News Update About the Workings of the World

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Every day, there are millions of stories that don’t make the headlines, and don’t get written up in the papers, but that reflect the slow and grinding way the world really works. They reflect the tiny changes in policies, the historical patterns that ebb and flow but are never really absent, the way that past actions impact present decisions, and the way that political abstractions like “countries” and “borders” crash against the real world.

All of these factors are interesting, and I think especially so to Americans, a nation which is nearly unique in trying to ignore history, the ramifications of decisions, and geopolitical realities. But all that is catching up.

I bring this up due to a neat little story by Paul Goble in Jamestown’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, called “Collapse of Russian Shipping in Caspian Put’s Moscow’s Regional Strategy at Risk.” Even though shipping in the inland sea is booming, Russian ports, a key part of both its North-South and East-West regional strategies, is drying up. It’s about how the other Caspian nations are essentially colluding against Russia to starve its seaports, creating new regional alliances based on both underwater rights and the laws that govern surface territory, all hinging on the question: is the Caspian more like a lake or like an ocean?

What then is going on?  The answer can be found in the complicated politics of the Caspian region, the continuing difficulties the littoral states have in demarcating the seabed, as well as growing tensions among some of these states with Russia. And because that is the case, the decline of freight traffic at Russia’s Caspian ports in the first quarter of 2017 is even more significant than might appear at first glance.

In Soviet times, Moscow and Tehran divided the Caspian into two unequal zones, a division that even then had important implications because of the oil and natural gas reserves discovered on the seafloor as well as due to the rising trade between the Soviet Union and Iran. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the number of littoral states increased from two to five: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan thus become involved in talks about delimitation and trade on the Caspian alongside the Russian Federation and Iran.

For 25 years, these five littoral states have been unable to reach an agreement on the division of the seabed, something Moscow has exploited to block many pipeline projects that would not have involved Russia. Yet, at the same time, that deadlock has led to expanded contacts between other pairs of littoral states and increased shipping between and among them—again to the exclusion of the Russian Federation (Abo.net, April 18, 2016; Natural Gas World, May 6, 2017). Now, Moscow’s policies have returned like a boomerang to limit its future role in the region.

Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan call for treating the Caspian as a lake rather than an ocean, an arrangement that would divide the seabed among the countries but leave surface commerce open to all. Whereas, Turkmenistan and Iran want it to be treated as a sea and be divided totally into five sectors. Despite suggestions at a January 2017 ministerial in Baku that the five Caspian littoral states would sign an agreement overcoming the divergence of positions (see EDM, May 8), the participating foreign ministers could not even say when such a meeting would occur this year, an indication that they remain far apart (Mfa.gov.az, Azernews.az, January 25).

This isn’t a headline story, and nor should it be. Could you imagine if you got a buzz on your phone signifying a news alert and it was this? “Russia, Turkmenistan Remain Deadlocked on Oceanographic Nomenclature!” Holy shit, you’d be furious.

But that’s a reflection of how, regardless of the way time feels right now, the world doesn’t work in headlines. People come and go, and the decisions they make are momentous, but slow patterns of geography and history grind underneath their feet, constraining and shaping their actions.

Moscow’s centuries of expansion, whether as Russia or the Soviet Union, influence its relations with its former vassal states, as well as Iran, not to mention the ethnic federal entities that actually border the Caspian (most notably restless Dagestan, whose port revenues were seen as a guarantor of some stability). Russia also has no non-arctic  oceanic sea ports; it is a continental power. That’s why it is so aggressive in the Caspian and Black seas, as a way to control the Eurasian sphere.

But its aggression can often backfire, as we see here, when its oppressive thumb led other states to pair with each other and Iran, bypassing Russia, and perhaps putting its regional goals in check. This gives more lie to the “Putin is a flawless puppet master” myth. I still think Russia will rue their cruel Middle East adventures. He just got lucky with America and Trump.

But then, what choice did Putin have, with the Caspian? He was dealing with the legacy of an empire that rushed from the colds of northern Europe to the sunbaked sea, colliding with Iran and with other ancient Muslim nations, having to bloodily hack their way through the Caucuses to get there.

The sea is what mattered to Russia, as an easier way to get across the continent. And then, after WWI, for its insane abundance of oil and natural gas. This was heightened in WWII, when Hitler diverted a good chunk of his invading army south to secure the oil fields near Baku. And certainly, after the fall of the USSR, Russia fought to hang on to it Caucus territories both to stay by the sea, and to avoid letting the rest of its hard-fought empire, which we take for cartographical permanence, from spiraling away.

These things matter. History matters. Geography matters. America, whose long racial history is catching up with it, which is seeing the impact that its centuries of continental aggression and century of global aggression have wrought, and who is slowly learning the real lessons of geography, needs to understand that. Russia does. Iran does. The butchers of the ISIS and al Qaeda do. It’s time we do, too.

Baseball History For People Who Like Baseball History

 

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This is the Zapruder film for Angels fans

 

A couple of weeks ago I was watching a White Sox game (note: I don’t know why, either) and, as it will, a third strike was dropped. The catcher easily threw out the batter/runner, as they do. Maybe this one was slightly closer than usual, or maybe it was just because the game was boring and whatever I was reading wasn’t holding my attention, but I started to wonder about the dropped third strike. It’s a strange rule, giving new and unfair life to the batter. Now, as the beneficiary of one of the oddest (and honestly, dumbest) dropped third strikes in recent memory, it shouldn’t bother me, but it did. I vowed to find out why this rule existed, and what in baseball history caused it to be there.

And then promptly forgot about it, probably by the next pitch.

However! There are people who are much better than me, and coincidentally, my great and good friend Brett Kaufman took a break from aiding and abetting terrorism and sent an article from the invaluable people at the SABR Society. It’s from last year, but it pretty timeless, in the same way baseball is. Apparently, the dropped third strike has its roots in a form of German protobaseball.

The story begins in an unexpected source: a German book of children’s games published in 1796 titled Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden (“Games for the exercise and recreation and body and spirit for the youth and his educator and all friends in innocent joys of youth”) by Johann Christoph Friedrich Gutsmuths.2 Gutsmuths was an early advocate of physical education. He is best known today, outside the rarified field of baseball origins, for his promotion of gymnastics. In 1793 he published the first gymnastics textbook, Gymnastik für die Jugend (“Gymnastics for Youth”). His 1796 work extended the scope to additional games. These include a chapter Ball mit Freystäten—oder das Englische Base-ball (“Ball with Free Station—or English Base-ball”).

Gutsmuths wanted people to run, as Germans do, and to exercise, even if they couldn’t hit a loftily-tossed ball (think beer league softball). Through the literal centuries, through the wild and murky past of baseball forming in cities and towns across the nation, as different rules were enforced differently, this idea came and went, and finally stuck. It’s now part of the unquestioned canon.

That’s one of the coolest things about baseball. We know exactly when James Naismith founded basketball. The history of football is pretty understood. But baseball has all these weird quirks, these little foggy twists in time. Researchers are always finding stories about a group of Norweigan tree-fellers in Wisconsin playing a recognizable game in the 1820s, or something (that’s made up, but you know). We keep learning more about it, like it’s some ancient civilization that’s continually being dug up. It’s so cool to see how it influences even what’s happening at Guaranteed Rate Stadium.

This is Neat: Early Lake Ontario Shipwreck Discovered

 

 

Starboard side of Lady Washington. Image from Roger Pawlowski

 

A team of amateur- but still really damn good- underwater archeologists have discovered the incredibly-intact remains of an 1803 shipwreck in Lake Ontario, one of the earliest shipwrecks in the vast lake system. From their website:

Oswego, NY –  A rare 18th century built sloop, Washington (also known as Lady Washington), has been discovered in Lake Ontario off the shores of Oswego, New York by a team of shipwreck explorers.   Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski, and Roland Stevens located the sloop in late June utilizing high resolution side scan sonar equipment.

The sloop was enroute from Kingston, Ontario to Niagara, Ontario, Canada with a full cargo when it foundered during a gale on Lake Ontario in 1803.  The Washington is believed to be the oldest confirmed commercial sailing ship to exist in the Great Lakes.  It was the first sloop built on Lake Erie and the first to sail in both Lakes Erie and Ontario.  Sloops only existed for a limited period of time on the Great Lakes as they were replaced by schooners which had two or more masts and were much more efficient to operate.

It’s a thrilling find on a historical level. It’s also incredible to think about the enormous differences a scant 200 years can make. For settlers, in 1803, Erie and Ontario were on the edge of the West, that teeter-point between a barely-born nation that had just pushed itself away from the coast into the fearful forests and the wild lands outside. (The story was a little different for the natives, of course.) The fur trade, while declining, was still incredibly important, and a continuous link to the early days of colonization and exploitation, a direct line between the toddling American nation and the days of trappers and Jesuits.

And the Lakes were wild and fearsome beasts, capable of rising up and swallowing a ship whole, never to be seen again. It’s only in the last few decades, really, that we’ve gotten to the point where a Great Lakes shipwreck would be due to massive error, rather than the cruel and unforgiving coldness and brutality of the whipping winds and exploding waves.

But you can still see it when you walk past any of them, on a summer storm or during a winter gale. You can see the contained fury stir up into a frenzy, and from a safe and warm window you can imagine being out there, in a creaking wooden ship, eeking out a living bringing the dissected remnants of nature back to the cities in exchange for the meagerest goods of survival, and know the fear that must have gripped them when this implacable and wild land struck back. When Ontario, the smallest of the Lakes, but still terrifyingly larger than three of the original 13 states, roared up, and swallowed you whole, your bones never to wash up, lost forever, lost in the country, lost in the water, lost in a new America. You can still feel that vastness, sometimes, a chill up your spine, as you wonder what we’ve gained, and think of all that was lost doing so.