Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 13, 2006
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Water bottles, Mayflower, and Hitler and Stalin
I think it's time we started taking notice of a grave threat to the environment.
The consumption of bottled water in this country has grown in the past twenty-five years from less than a million bottles a year to more than a billion per
It is estimated that about one-fifth of these bottles are thrown away with the
top screwed tightly down and an average of one ounce of water remaining
Given that these plastic bottles are airtight, nonbiodegradable containers, this
means that the water contained inside is withdrawn from the planet's
hydrosystem for the next ten million years.
If present trends continue, it is estimated that within the next four hundred
thousand years, not only will all the planet's carbon be tied up in the plastic of
these discarded water bottles, but also the entirety of the world's oceans will be
locked up inside these bottles.
The result is that humans of that future era will spend their lives swimming
through an ocean of plastic water bottles, continually opening bottles to
scavenge water, one ounce at a time.
There are those who consider this to be a deft water conservation plan, but as
everyone knows water, like money, is more useful to us when it is in circulation
rather than locked up and hidden away.
Since the timeframe of the emergency is so far removed from the present
political cycle, it is unrealistic for us to expect our politicians to take action.
But each of us can do our part to prevent this catastrophe by making sure to
empty water bottles before discarding them, thus releasing their water into the
Whether you pour out your water bottle over a thirsty plant or simply dump it
onto asphalt or concrete, it will eventually evaporate and rejoin the rest of the
planet's hydrosystem. Thus you will be helping, an ounce at a time, to stave off
And if you make sure to deposit your empty bottles into the recycling system,
you will truly have done your part to prevent unthinkable calamity.
With his book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War,
Nathaniel Philbrick joins the ranks of the great historians.
As sheer entertainment, the story he tells is fascinating -- and so clearly and
fluently written that it is painless to read. Yet he weighs the evidence for his
story so transparently that he earns our trust in his conclusions, while leaving
us room to understand where he might be wrong.
This is what masterful history writing looks like.
The story he tells, however, is not one that we can regard dispassionately or
disinterestedly. The Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth Colony, now the
southeastern corner of Massachusetts, have been used for different
propaganda purposes in every generation since they arrived here.
For a time they are the founders of our tradition of religious freedom; then they
are the cruel oppressors of those whose beliefs are not in line with their
For a time they are heroic venturers into a new world; then they are the
helpless dependents of noble natives, whom they then turn on and destroy.
What a relief it is to have a reliable and remarkably detailed account of what
the Pilgrims really were: A mixed colony of religious refugees and land-hungry
pioneers, who settled among an equally mixed system of native tribes.
On both sides were acts of generosity and barbarism, of wisdom and
foolishness, and in the end the tribe most essential to the survival of the
Pilgrims started a brutal war that ended with its own destruction, though with
a few different turns of the wheel, the war might have been avoided entirely --
or might have ended very differently for the Europeans in what became British
Pilgrims as Victims
The Pilgrims did not finance their own expedition; already refugees in Leiden,
they had the money to buy one small boat, but not to provision and transport
an entire colony.
The story of the boat they purchased is typical of their persistence in the face of
ill fortune. The Speedwell was intended to cross the Atlantic, but not return
permanently to England. Instead, it would be the Pilgrims' means of trading
with other colonies and outposts up and down the American coast and, when
needed, make trips back to England for resupply.
However, the boat, which had seemed so seaworthy when they paid an
enormous portion of their collected money to buy it, proved to be so leaky on
the trip from Leiden to Plymouth that the Pilgrims decided not to bring it to
America after all.
What Philbrick points out is that the Pilgrims, unaware of how wooden sailing
ships worked, recorded without realizing it the fraud that the captain of the
vessel perpetrated on them. He put on a new and larger mast before leaving
Leiden. The mast is rooted to the keel of the ship and, as the wind pushes on
the sails, stresses the wood of the ship right at the bottom.
If the mast is kept in proportion to the ship, all well and good; but if the ship is
"overmasted," it torques the wood of the hull so that seams open and water is
let in. The ship actually remains quite seaworthy -- all you have to do is
change back to a proportionate mast. But the naive Pilgrims did not know how
they were being deceived -- so the captain had the Pilgrims' money and his
In addition, the financiers who were backing the Pilgrims' expedition were all
about money -- they wanted the Pilgrims to send back furs and other trade
goods and so drew up first one rapacious contract and then another even more
exploitative, so that the Pilgrims would have been required to labor exclusively
for the owners until the entire cost of the expedition had been repaid and
Fortunately, because of chaos among the backers and the hard work of the
colonists, a few of the colony's leaders were eventually able to buy back the
contract themselves. But as they Pilgrims set out, late in the season, with
fewer people, fewer boats, and fewer supplies than they had originally planned,
they did so with the real prospect of being virtual bondservants in the new
Nevertheless, since their goal was not personal wealth, it was enough for them
to imagine a haven in the New World where they could establish a community
that lived by the rules they believed God required of them.
Pilgrims as Oppressors
At no time did they have religious tolerance as a goal, not because they wished
to impose their faith on others -- they wanted others to adopt their rules only
of their own free will -- but because they could not live their law in isolation.
They needed a community with shared faith and values. The New World was a
large place. They wished only to be left alone.
Thus propagandists like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who despised his Pilgrim
ancestors, made a big deal about how oppressive they were toward the anti-Pilgrim establishment near modern Braintree, dubbed "Merrymount" by its
founder, Thomas Morton. He deliberately set it up to be the antithesis of the
Pilgrims' piety -- he took delight in flaunting his sabbath-breaking, dancing,
drinking, gaming, and singing establishment as a place of debauchery (by
Pilgrim standards) right under their noses.
On the one hand, one can appreciate Morton's puckish tweaking of Pilgrim
asceticism; on the other hand, the Pilgrims had gone to a lot of trouble and risk
to get away from the evils of the world, and it was just as intolerant of Morton
to insist on setting up so close to them as it was of them to insist that he
respect their rules when he wasn't actually a member of their community.
Besides, Morton posed a danger: He sold guns to the Indians. There was
bound to be trouble, and suffice it to say that Merrymount did not last.
Pilgrims and Indians
But the heart and soul of this book is about the relations between the Pilgrims
and the Indians. It is here that the myth-making has been most intense --
both for and against the Pilgrims. When they arrived in New England they first
tried to go farther south -- any idiot could see that this land was inhospitably
cold, and the Pilgrims were quite aware of their lack of supply.
They were also plagued with disease on the ship, and in the first weeks as they
were moored in the bays of Cape Cod, they lost an astonishing number of
people. Hardly a family was untouched by death, and some were utterly wiped
Thus it was with desperation that they made their first contact with Indians.
And the Indians of Cape Cod were not friendly at all. They had had bitter
contact with perfidious Europeans from previous voyages, and reacted
accordingly -- it was war at first sight.
It didn't help that the Pilgrims, upon finding buried corn, stole it -- thus wiping
out an Indian family's winter food supply. But, to be fair, there was thought (at
first) of trying to find the owners and buy the food (not that it would have been
for sale), and in due course, years later, restitution was made to the owners of
For this is the great misconception of later generations -- that there were all
these named Pilgrims, individual people who had stories of their own, while the
Indians were a sort of soup, a crowd without individual distinctions. The
Pilgrims had no such delusions -- they recognized that each Indian was an
individual and to a degree that might astonish those who have demonized all
Europeans who settled in America, the Pilgrims for some time respected both
the group and individual rights of the Indians that were their neighbors.
During those first weeks, as the Pilgrims sent out small expeditions in the
ship's boats, they moved around the coast to an area where the natives had
been drastically reduced in number by epidemic -- the lands of the Pokanoket
tribe, and most particularly the homeland of a particular Indian of ambition,
resourcefulness, and deceit -- a con man and entrepreneur named Squanto.
It was Squanto, whose immediate family had been wiped out by plague during
a time when he was a captive of Europeans, who had learned enough English
-- and English culture -- to know just what to say to them to get them to
behave as he wanted. He saw in their arrival an opportunity to raise himself to
a position of leadership and wealth among the Indians. All he had to do was
manipulate the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets -- which, as long as he was their
sole interpreter, was relatively easy to do.
You have to admire Squanto even as you are shocked by his perfidy; even
though his machinations ended up costing him his life and nearly got the
Pilgrims wiped out, during the first year he was vital to their survival.
The hero of the story, though, is Massasoit, the chief of the Pokanokets, who,
with his people decimated by plague, seized upon the arrival of (and alliance
with) the Pilgrims as his way of fending off the powerful Narragansett tribe, the
ancient rivals of his people.
And, for a generation, it worked, more or less. The Pilgrims, despite the fact
that their military leader, Miles Standish, was already too careless of Indian
lives and of fine moral distinctions -- he too quickly regarded whole tribes as
their enemies rather than isolating the individuals who were causing problems
-- came to know their neighbors and dealt with them fairly ... by their
The Wages of Greed
That was the source of the problems that eventually led to war. These
Englishmen brought English property laws with them, which had nothing to do
with the way Indians dealt with land. The Indians absolutely understood
private ownership, but they also acted altruistically and cooperatively within
the tribe and shared the resources of the land as a group.
The Indians built their lives around preparation, during the growing season, for
the hard winter and spring to come. They grew maize in profusion and stored
it up efficiently; they knew how to scavenge from the land.
But the Europeans cleared the scavengeable lands and planted on them. And
as their holdings increased, the amount of land that could feed the wide-ranging tribes through hard winters shrank.
The Pilgrims bought every scrap of land they settled on. But like good free
marketers always do, they set up a monopoly on trade and fixed the prices. It
was true that they negotiated with Massasoit to set those prices -- but they
knew, or should have known, that they were paying Massasoit in consumables
for permanent ownership of land.
The result was that they were enriched, as their land holdings increased, while
the Indians were impoverished, as they used up whatever trade goods the
Pilgrims had given them and needed more.
The house of cards lasted until Massasoit's death. It was his son, called "King
Phillip" by the Europeans, who reaped the whirlwind.
He found himself living on shrunken lands; he found the English united in
their unwillingness to make the Indians more equal trading partners. The
tribes of Cape Cod, once hostile to the English, had now mostly converted to
Christianity and were becoming more and more assimilated into European
ways. He did not want to follow that route.
And so he began to prepare for war. To get the guns and powder he needed, he
sold off virtually all of his remaining land, guaranteeing that if he did not go to
war, his people would starve. The die was cast.
Was war inevitable? In one sense, yes, given the cultural differences, the
inability of either side to restrain their worst impulses -- greed, really, on both
sides, though the English were better at it.
But in another sense, no. What Philbrick chronicles is a tragedy of missed
opportunities, every step of the way. Not just opportunities for peace, but also
opportunities for victory, for shortening the war, for ending it with a settlement
both sides could live with.
There are myriad lessons to be learned from this tragic tale, especially if we
eschew propaganda and focus on what actually happened.
The Indians were not united, despite Philip's efforts to unite them. The
English, on the other hand, were far more prone to act cooperatively among the
colonies -- even colonies founded on divisions among the English, like Rhode
Most of the English, however, persisted in the foolish, ignorant assumption
that because the Pokanokets were planning war, all the local Indians were
enemies. Thus the English quite needlessly provoked the great Narragansett
The English also assumed at first that the "praying Indians" -- the Christian
converts from Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard -- could not be trusted. Thus
they suffered several massacres of which they had been given plenty of warning
by Praying Indians -- some of whom had exposed themselves to great risk to
give those warnings.
But the English were not the only ones to make foolish mistakes. King Philip,
on the verge of the great coup of enlisting the vast tribe of the Mohawks, part of
the Iroquois civilization centered in New York, on his side. It is quite possible
that if this had happened, the English colonies would have been destroyed, or
at least forced to abandon all their outlying settlements, turning Boston,
Plymouth, and a few other centers into little more than outposts, not colonies
King Philip, incredibly and tragically, thought that the only way to achieve his
goal was to murder some Mohawks in a way that would appear to the rest of
the tribe as the work of Englishmen. He did not realize that the Mohawk
hunting party he murdered had one member that they never saw, who was able
to make his way to the Mohawk leaders and tell the truth. Now, instead of
allies, the Mohawks became his mortal enemies.
Meanwhile, the Mohegans also cooperated with the English, remaining loyal to
them throughout the war. So even though the English needlessly widened the
war by attacking the Narragansetts, most Indians still remained outside the
war or actively helped the English.
Why Should We Care?
There are lessons to be learned from this story. One of them is military: Know
your enemy and know your friends. It was not until cooler heads prevailed
among the English and they began to trust the Praying Indians and other allied
tribes that they finally began to win victories. It is the strategy that we are at
least attempting to follow in the war against Islamo-fascist terrorism -- our
Special Ops soldiers, at least, absolutely depend on close relationships with
local groups who know both the land and their own ancient enemies.
Another lesson is equity. If the Pilgrim leadership had taken far greater care to
help teach King Philip how to bargain sensibly and understand English land
law, there need not have been a war at all. But each time King Philip offered
land in exchange for consumables, greed triumphed over equity. It was like
cheating children, and they knew it at the time; they paid in blood, later, for
their greed. In the long run they got all the land. In the process, though, they
destroyed the people whose friendship, however complicated it was, had
allowed their forebears to survive when they first arrived.
In this sad story there are heroes and villains, fools and cheats and ignorant
twits aplenty, good guys and bad guys on every side. There are missed
opportunities and bold victories. And the scale is small -- the actions of
individuals made a crucial difference many times.
So Mayflower functions, not just as the large story of the conflict between
Indians and Europeans that is one of the two core stories of American history
(the other being the treatment of Africans who were imported as slaves), but
also as the story of many individuals whose choices led to private sagas every
bit as fascinating as the national epic they helped shape.
I experienced Mayflower on cd, read aloud -- brilliantly -- by George Guidall. I
cannot imagine a better production. So if you don't think you have time to sit
down and read a nice thick history book, spend a little more and get this great
performance. I listened to it in bits and snatches while running errands in my
car, and still was able to follow the story and remain emotionally involved in it.
In this review I have hardly been able to touch on the powerful stories
contained within it -- the woman who was captured by Indians and had to
watch her wounded baby die in her arms; the frontier settler who knew and
liked the Indians and precisely because of that became the mot effective of
Indian fighters, and many others who will come to life for you as you read -- or
listen to -- this book.
It's not often that a mere book does such a splendid job of telling us who we
are, not just as human beings, but also, quite particularly, as Americans.
Bull-headed, ignorant, stubborn, heartless, but also generous, brave, wise, and
open-hearted -- depending on which group prevails at any given moment.
John Lukacs's slim book June 1941: Hitler and Stalin does not pretend to
be an exhaustive treatment of these two men, who set aside ideology long
enough to divide Poland and begin World War II as allies, only to end it by
slugging it out in the bloodiest war ever fought on this planet.
But the book does pretend to offer us some kind of understanding of why and
how they worked together. The best we get, however, is a glimpse; alas, I
wished for more.
Still, the book has value. It reminds us of the fact that while great forces
influence events, so do powerful, hard-driving individuals like Hitler and Stalin,
who killed millions in pursuit of their own ambitions. Both men consciously
played to history; both are remembered, correctly, as monsters. They
recognized each other's similarities, and at various times each expressed some
degree of respect for the other.
If Stalin's vision had prevailed, and they had continued to cooperate until they
divided the world between them, it would be safe to say that our present lives
would be relatively hellish. Thank God that Hitler was even more ambitious
and less able to brook rivals than Stalin was. They are the epitome of the
struggle between alpha males, only the tribe they fought to rule was the entire
population of Europe and Asia, and the weapons they used, and used up
careless, were the lives of other people.
Oddly, though, Lukacs takes for granted the magnitude of their negative
achievements. What he concentrates on are the minutiae of debate about what
happened when, and why. Yet it is out of such small controversies that big
pictures emerge. I'm glad I read the book. But I'm glad I also already knew the
lives of both men and the course of the war they fought, because I fear that if
this book had been my only source, I would have been confused and
Think of it as a discussion with the professor after you have finished a course
entitled "Hitler, Stalin, and World War II," in which the professors settles a few
nagging questions that remain after you have learned all the main points.