Note: After drafting this at home all day, I’m posting it in the cold outside a closed library. I usually do a lot of revisions when blogging something I’ve written offline. So if it has more than the usual amount of typos, poor editing, or rambling passages, please forgive it. It’s been snowing and I’m not staying out here in the car much longer to give it the usual polishing.
Reflections on two recent books and a tragic ancient history whose spirit is rising again
I’m reading two books right now that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But because of threads running through my own mind (threads certainly not intended by either book author), I’m finding them a provocative pair.
The first (and for this blog, most important) of the two is Marooned: Jamestown, Shipwreck, and a New History of America’s Origin by Joseph Kelly. This book came out late last year and Commentariat member Pat immediately gave me a heads-up on it. It took the library several months to get it into my hands, but it was well worth the wait. Kelly takes the position that the common men and women who first settled the disastrous Jamestown colony in Virginia — the people who’ve gone down in history as idlers, layabouts, traitors, deserters, mutineers, and general all ’round troublemakers — are the real progenitors of American freedom.
The second (and for this blog, lesser) of the two books is Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, which aims to teach a generation of young “knowledge workers” how to appreciate, perform, and profit from the kind of activity that can only be done in long, focused stretches of time uninterrupted by email, Twitter, F*c*b**k, texts, and miscellaneous corporate and personal distractions.
I’ll come back to Deep Work later. But I caution you that the two books are really not connected except in my mind. So, as Mark Twain said, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
Okay, not exactly. But I don’t expect anyone else to see the connection I perceive.
I’m betting almost every American reading this (with the exception of some raised in the South) learned that the Pilgrims, who landed in Massachusetts in 1620, were the country’s founding colonists. In school, we all cut Pilgrim hats out of construction paper and drew Thanksgiving turkeys around our outstretched hands. We heard stories of how the Indian Squanto (whose name was probably more like Tisquantum) help save the colonists from starvation by teaching them to put fertilizing fish into holes where they planted their crops. We heard thrilling stories about the storm-tossed Mayflower. We learned with hushed breath about the great, important, almost sacred Mayflower Compact — though oddly enough we were probably never told what was in it, why it was written, or what effect it had in governing the nascent Plymouth colony.
Above all, we were taught that the Pilgrims were men and women of one mind and one mission — to plant the shining City on a Hill in the New World, to be a beacon of freedom for all.
Most of us now realize the Puritans who made up the bulk of those Mayflower passengers were as least as interested in preventing freedom of religion for others as they were in practicing it for themselves. Theocrats to the core, those folks. Very unlike us in their love of rigid, authoritarian, conformity-enforcing government. Yet, to this day, even with Calvinism and Calvin’s strict god having gone out of fashion, the Pilgrims still bear the proud, noble image of European America’s founders. Think of the first English settlers setting foot on the Atlantic shore, and it’s an image of those storm-tossed, freezing, but resolute Puritans you likely see.
Oh yes, even back in grade school, our teachers couldn’t help but mention that another group of Englishmen had reached the shores of Virginia and established a colony there — 13 years earlier. But … “Oh, Jamestown didn’t work out too well; so moving right along …”
You’d think a colony with more than a decade’s seniority over the Pilgrims might have been worth more than an embarrassed mention. And perhaps for you Southerners, it was. But aside from romantic tales about John Smith and Pocahontas, not so much for the rest of us. As an inspiring foundational narrative, Jamestown didn’t cut it.
For two centuries, Jamestown had held a premier place in U.S. colonial history. But beginning with the War Between the States, several factors pushed the Pilgrims to the fore. The Exodus story of the virtuous, mission-driven Pilgrims cemented itself in the American mind. Kelly goes into how this happened, and it’s an intriguing look at how propaganda and changing values replace old truths. But back to Jamestown …
It was a slave-labor camp, says Kelly (making his case in 427 highly readable, though somewhat non-linear, pages). The “common” colonists, who were also shareholders in the venture, boarded ships fully expecting to maintain their traditional English rights and privileges. Instead they found themselves treated as soldiers or medieval serfs. They were not only subject to strict orders — and subject to being sadistically executed for any disobedience — but found themselves ruled by a series of shockingly incompetent commanders. Commanders who ruled solely by virtue of aristocratic connections and/or the military officerships that commonly went non-titled members of aristocratic families in those days.
Although I’m far from being an expert in American history, I’ve long known that Jamestown was a dumping ground for lesser sons of British aristocracy. You know the old story: send the untitled excess males off to seek their fortunes in a foreign land. What I never knew was that, unlike their adventurous nineteenth century counterparts who headed into the American West, this batch of the Great Entitled expected to be kowtowed to, and certainly not to have to involve themselves in anything as dirty as manual labor. Although they varied in degrees of entitlement and idiocy (and a couple of the colony’s leaders were worse than I can describe here), they basically knew and cared nothing about minor matters like growing food. OTOH, they knew a lot about things about pomp and privilege — not to mention the quixotic quest for gold and silver (to be mined, of course, by the “lesser” people for the benefit of their betters).
In the book, John Smith comes across as about the only leader who understood that the colonists had to adapt to entirely unfamiliar frontier conditions — and that they had to start growing their own food to supplement what they got in trade (or extortion) from the natives.
Adapt Smith did. Whatever else he was, Smith (born a commoner and elevated by his early adventures) was a man of personal courage, intelligence, practicality, diplomacy, and good sense. He was, however, as much a dictator as any of the lordlings who constantly sought to depose him. He was just the kind of dictator who kept the colonists from descending into starvation and cannibalism — unlike his successors.
Those “common” colonists rebelled against aristocratic misrule. Some slipped away to join the Indians. Some plotted mutinies. Some refused to work. Some just wanted to go out on their own to fend for themselves. Some were too sick (probably with then-unknown nutritional diseases like pellagra) to perform their assigned functions, which made them look apathetic and rebellious when they were simply ill.
Because every, single eye-witness account of the early Jamestown years was written by someone within the leadership circle, the common colonists have gone into history labeled idlers, layabouts, thieves, traitors, etc. Kelly notes that even most modern historians look sniffily down their noses at those lesser folk, unconsciously crediting the snobbish prejudices of the powerful men who mismanaged the Jamestown venture then blamed those who tried to get out from under their deadly thumbs.
But Kelly identifies these “traitors” with a more accurate description. The rebels were men (mostly men) who, long before Jefferson and Mason and Madison, had strong ideas about living self-determined lives and organizing according to mutual will, without considerations of class. The general name Kelly gives those who chose to “go native” or organize into groups outside Virginia Company control is “maroons” (for which he also provides fascinating history, going back to Sir Francis Drake in Panama). They understood that the company had shattered all its promises to them; and in return they owed it no allegiance. They refused to play their nicely subservient role in a slave colony operated by the uppercrust — even if rebellion was likely to kill them.
Here’s Kelly on one of many rebellions — this one among voyagers who got shipwrecked on their way to Jamestown and decided they’d rather stay in Bermuda, where they washed up (another fascinating chapter in the book):
The maroons sketched out a petition. Strachey [chief scribe to an inner circle of colonial despots] said they became outlaws “by mutual consent,” a formulaic term that seventeenth-century writers used to denigrate the democratic nature of mutinies, as if “mutual consent” (as opposed to assuming one’s subservient place in a hierarchy) were ipso facto outlawry. Formula or not, the concept of mutual consent, typically engaged by mutineers and castaways, is important, and we might presume that this petition itself invoked the concept, that it opened with some language to this effect, though probably without the eloquence of the U.S. Constitution’ Preamble. More than likely, the formula would have been something prosaic: By mutual consent, we the undersigned … Some of the fugitives actually signed the document, an effective sort of declaration of their independence, while the illiterates affixed their signs. However pedestrian its wording, the petition demonstrates that those whom Strachey called “outlaws” had formed a community and had devised a means by which that community could make decisions.
Something that sounds absolutely tame to us was an outright assault on the fixed social hierarchy of England. And the various admirals, captains, presidents, and younger brothers of famous earls weren’t having that.
Literally, what comes across in Marooned is that elitists’ contempt for the common people was so overwhelming that they would rather see the entire colony die in anguish than admit that the perks and privileges of the aristocracy weren’t serving any useful purpose. Rather than adapt, they’d bring about utter destruction — then blame their victims. And too many historians have agreed.
Marooned is a terrific book, filled with color and insight. It’s well worth reading. Thanks, Pat, for turning me on to it.
And not for nothing does Kelly wryly refer to those status-blinded aristocrats as England’s “2 percent” — mimicking the infamous “1 percent” of the present day. The parallels are striking.
I think that’s why my mind makes a connection between Marooned and Deep Work even when any connection is tenuous and unlikely. In Deep Work, Newport is speaking to the young tech elite. His aim seems innocent enough: to teach them to be more successful and innovative by using intensive, uninterrupted, highly focused time.
It’s the kind of deep thought we associate with people who change the world — who make great scientific discoveries or create profound works of art. It’s jarring to see Newport recommending it for people who aim to create the next Twitter or build an AI to better detect the thoughtcrimes of We the Peasants (and not incidentally get rich and more powerful by doing so).
Not long ago, techies were out there at the fringes of society (unsurprisingly, a lot of readers of this blog are or were that kind of tech worker). And who could begrudge them any well-earned success?
Now, too often, the younger versions of those formerly ill-regarded tech folk are not only in the 1 percent, economically, but are joining the class of those who, along with politicians and crony capitalists, increasingly feel entitled to rule. They may rule (or empower the rulers) by creating more sophisticated surveillance tech or behavior-prediction systems, or by perverting so-called “free markets” to do their own surveillance or covertly attempt to shape the political opinions of We the Lesser People.
So even though I thought a lot of Newport’s advice was very good, I kept thinking he was urging his intended audience of young “knowledge workers” to use excellent technique for ultimately despotic and destructive purposes.
In one way, that’s not new. Elitists were ruling long before Jamestown. Even in the days when the U.S. was arguably a free country, men like Hearst and Pulitzer were using the media to manipulate readers’ minds.
Their moral and political descendants are just able to do it a lot less obviously now. Somehow, this is once again bringing out the worst in the people holding, or newly gaining, economic, academic, and political control.
The rigid, deadly elitism of seventeenth century England once seemed like ancient history to freewheeling Americans. We had a glorious eighteenth century and left the crumbling, unmourned relics of Divine Right of Kings and aristocracy behind. Or so we believed.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we cherished the myth of the value of the common man. Never mind that to some extent it was always just that — a myth. It meant that the lowliest farmer, factory worker, or homemaker felt — and in some ways was — valued as a crucial part of the nation’s make-up. Even if the illusion wasn’t quite true, it made a difference to people when they felt like they were the salt of the earth, the upstanding citizens, the ultimate protectors of a freedom that was their and their childrens’ hard-won legacy.
Secretly, politicians and American aristocrats may have looked down their noses at our mothers, fathers, and grandparents. But they had to pay at least a semi-sincere lip service to the millions of working people they supposedly served. And those “little people” rose to their mythic status with honor. One of the things I remember most vividly about my mother and her passion for politics is that she fervently believed her party (the Democrats, of course) was “the party of the working man.” She spoke with such fierce pride in that. Her lifelong citizen activism, it was always clear, was her way of paying back the government she perceived valued and supported her. This humble West Virginia hillbilly scorned any would-be elite. She taught her children that, rising out of the working class, we were as good as anyone else on earth. We had every right and reason to stand up for ourselves against anybody who foolishly imagined themselves to be our betters.
Now, once again as in the dreadful seventeenth century, we’re seeing an elite class that no longer even bothers to honor We the Peasants with lip service. We are simply The Deplorables. The bitter clingers. The obstinant obstacle in their path to absolute power. Salt of the earth? Forget it. We are now all racists (even when we’re not), sexists (even when we’re not), homophobic (even when we’re not), violent (even when we’re not), ignorant (even when we’re not), and utterly disposable.
When things go wrong, the aristocracy hastens to blame the peasants — and makes sure to do so in terms that brook no argument. When you’ve labeled someone an idler or traitor (seventeenth-century style) or a deplorable or a bitter clinger (twenty-first-century style), you’ve stated nothing that can be reasoned against. You’ve simply dismissed the humanity of an entire segment of the population. What more is there to say?
We the Peasants can speak out. For now, we’re still allowed to exercise that right. But we will never be heard by the “better sort” of people because speaking in our own defense or the defense of individual freedom and self-determination is an act akin to lèse-majesté against the new variety of arrogant fools who imagine themselves to be our betters and our rightful rulers.
Does it matter if they hear us? In one sense, no. We are who we are, and we may be better off going our own way despite their prejudices. In another sense, it does matter. Because by re-asserting our humanity, our sense of justice, and our eternal equality as human beings We the Peasants might — if they could hear — save both the willfully blind New Aristocracy and ourselves from the fatal divide now developing.