a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

America is waiting for a message of some sort or another

Posted by Thomas Nephew on July 1st, 2007

While I’m thinking about what and whether to write, here’s some cool stuff I’ve run across on the Internet and elsewhere lately:

The Civil War in Four Minutes — A video on YouTube showing how the area controlled by the Union and the Confederacy ebbed and flowed during the Civil War. It’s really quite satisfying when Sherman marches to the sea. Yay, Sherman! You go, boy.
UPDATE: Aw shoot, the guy had to pull it. Maybe the Abraham Lincoln Museum will put up a link sometime.

enoweb lyrics : My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. — By “cool stuff,” I mean of course “cool for me,” not necessarily “cool for you.” That said, I’m not alone in thinking this Brian Eno/David Byrne album is simply one of the best ever, period, full stop. The “lyrics” are actually snatches of recorded voices of radio talk show hosts, preachers, politicians, folk singers, and oh, yes, an exorcist.In the spirit of Jose Isaza’s annotations: we recently acquired a car with — gasp — a multi-CD player, with this album now ensconced in the #4 slot. So Maddie’s listened to it now to where she likes it even better than “Remain in Light” (#1) — and was observed declaiming “no will whatsoever… no WILL whatsoever… I mean what you gonna do?” to herself the other day.

Hunting around, I’ve discovered there’s now a “Bush of Ghosts” web site about a re-release of the album, with an essay by David Byrne about the making of the album, and even more intriguingly, a site where you can re-mix tracks from two of the… songs, recordings, whatever, “A Secret Life” and “Help me, somebody”:

In keeping with the spirit of the original album, Brian Eno and David Byrne are offering for download all of the multitracks on two of the songs. Through signing up to the user license, and in line with Creative Commons licenses, you are free to edit, remix, sample and mutilate these tracks however you like. Add them to your own song or create a new one. This is the first time complete and total access to original tracks with remix and sampling possibilities have been officially offfered on line. Visitors are welcome to post their mixes or songs that incorporate these audio files on the site for others to hear and rate.

“Once” — I confess I was reluctant to see this movie, but I found out last night I was wrong. Shot on a shoestring budget in Ireland, it features Glen Hansard (turns out he was also in “The Commitments” a while back) and an equally impressive 19! year old Czech musical prodigy Marketa Irglova. He’s a street performer pining for an old flame, she’s a young mom who wants little more from life than a chance to make music. What’s very cool about this movie is how good and heartfelt and believable the music they make is, and how well it fits the story that goes with it. Justly called a new kind of musical, it’s well worth your time.

Our favorite bookstore, Politics and Prose, just got better: many of the book readings and the subsequent Q&A sessions there can now be viewed online at “”, among them Robert Dallek (“Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power”), Fritz Stern (“Five Germanies I Have Known”), and Christopher Hitchens (“God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”).

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles Mann. The title might as well have added “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” You get a good sense of the book in an Atlantic Monthly article by Mann; I got interested after a glowing description by Teresa Nielsen Hayden (“Making Light”) last year, which you should read both for its own sake and for the comments by her anthropologist, sociologist, ecologist, and etceterologist readers.Mann says two main things in this book. First, there were many more people living in the Americas before Columbus than had been suspected. Second, they had civilizations that were much, much more advanced than had been suspected (by me, at least) — the largest cities on Earth, some of the healthiest people, civil engineering and scientific feats to rival the Old World’s. Check out particularly the stories about Tisquantum (a.k.a. Squanto of Thanksgiving memory), the stuff about khipu, a three (and, including color, four-)dimensional knot-language “like the coding systems used in modern-day computer language,” the story of maize (a prodigious feat of plant breeding), the possible real significance of the huge passenger pigeon flocks of the 1800s, and the bequest of the Haudenosaunee to the ideals America struggles to live up to.The archaeologists, linguists, and anthropologists Mann writes about — and Mann himself — are resurrecting the memory of a huge swath of mankind that was very nearly forgotten or at best given short shrift. This is quite simply the best book I’ve run across in the last couple of years — it’s that interesting, well written, and horizon expanding.

4 Responses to “America is waiting for a message of some sort or another”

  1. Paul Says:

    I read that book and it didn’t really do much to excite me about pre-Columbian America. You get these kind of fads in the soft sciences, with the pendulum swinging one way or the other, and this book seems to fall into that faddish category.
    For all those people accomplished, it never changes the fact that they were stone age people. They had no concept of metallurgy, which placed a limit on how far they could develop and grow.
    They’re amazing in that they demonstrated just how much a stone age civilization could accomplish, but that’s about it. After you get past the big buildings and agricultural improvements, it’s all rather boring and speculative.
    Having said that, the book is informative and he writes in an easy to read style.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    I don’t have the book handy, but it seemed to me Mann suggested Peruvian/Andean metallurgy was fairly advanced in its own way, albeit for decorative purposes. The places with agricultures(/fisheries) that could sustain big civilizations — Mexico, the western South American coastline — and the kind of specialization that comes with it didn’t have the iron deposits you’d need for European/Asian style metallurgy, though obviously there was a lot of copper in present-day Chile.
    It seems to me the real message from the book — and I should have emphasized that better — was the horrific disease die-off that resulted from the Columbian contact, 1492+, arguably worse than the Black Death in Europe. Without that, American Indians — South and North — might have been able to shape the contact to their benefit better than otherwise; it might have been more like what happened in India with the British, or maybe even, here and there, like what the Japanese were able to accomplish: autonomy, co-equality, a modern destiny more fully of their own making.

  3. Paul Says:

    was the horrific disease die-off that resulted from the Columbian contact, 1492+, arguably worse than the Black Death in Europe.
    Oh yeah, most definitely. Although one of the main mysteries to me is how the South American tribes managed to build successive civilizations, yet the North American tribes were still largely hunter-gatherer types or extremely primitive village dwellers.
    Other than the Mississippian culture, there never seems to have been anything approaching what the South Americans accomplished. Ironic, considering the complete flip-flop of fortunes of their European replacements.
    Without that, American Indians — South and North — might have been able to shape the contact to their benefit better than otherwise; it might have been more like what happened in India with the British, or maybe even, here and there, like what the Japanese were able to accomplish
    Nah, I seriously doubt that. They were, after all, primitive stone age peoples — a Greek phalanx would’ve bowled them over.
    They were doomed the moment the European powers figured out they had abundant riches. Besides, even after dealing with Europeans for a couple hundred years, they were still unable to maintain an effective guerrilla campaign against the Americans. They failed to adapt culturally and mentally and even if disease hadn’t decimated them, that critical defect would’ve still resulted in the same outcome.
    The Indians and Japanese enjoyed long, intertwined histories with their neighbors, as well as the trading of goods and information with Europe and Africa. They were merely caught at a bad time, so to speak, instead of being culturally and technologically stunted for thousands of years.

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Well, that last part (Japan, India) was purely my own speculation, nothing Mann said. Also, the “without the disease die-off” is maybe illogical in its own way; when a founders effect population explodes in splendid isolation from the Old World with its domesticated animals (disease vectors) and intermingling populations, maybe the kind of 95% mortality was a foregone conclusion once contact happened.

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