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Category: General

Book Review, Christopher Morris, The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina

[ 14 ] November 9, 2014 |

Now that one book is in the can and the other is under review, I have time to read again. So I will review the recent books I get through here on the blog, as I used to do.

Christopher Morris’ environmental history of the lower Mississippi Valley takes readers from the sixteenth century to the present. His central point is that Europeans entered a landscape where wet and dry coexisted, with an ecological balance that supported Native American civilizations, and strove to separate the wet from dry with ever greater technological inputs. In doing so, the French and then the Americans not only rapidly changed the lower Mississippi ecosystem, but also ended up severely degrading one of the most fertile and rich parts of the world.

For both the French and Americans, living in a wet land seemed uncivilized. The constant, if usually low-level, flooding, was akin to savagery and in order to maintain Frenchness or Americanness, separation from nature was required. This led, very quickly, to the building of levees and concerted attempts to dry out the land behind them. For the French, rice culture worked to tame this land and while the Americans continued growing rice, cotton became the economic basis for the ever more vigilance protection of the fields from the river.

But what Europeans found was that water cannot be fully controlled. Damming it, diverting it, channeling it–all of this provided short-term solutions to the water problem, but a force with the power of the Mississippi River strikes back. And when it does, if the pressure is built up because its natural release is taken away by the levees, the damage can be amazing. The most famous flood was in 1927, but the Mississippi has shown Europeans’ efforts to control it futile time and time again. But from the 17th century forward, Europeans sought to engineer the river so that its people could live on dry land without even thinking about the water. This normalized Louisiana and the Mississippi delta as dry land, making floods seem unnatural.

Morris spends most of the book describing these processes. The Mississippi is a young river, having only flowed in its present path for several hundred years. In that time, the river was the home of a tremendous amount of flora and fauna. He details how Native Americans survived in this marshy world, building enormous mounds that remind us of their presence today and thriving off the region’s rich natural resources. They shaped the landscape as well, but lacked the technological ability or capitalist culture to see the river as something that needed taming. After early Spanish and French failures to establish themselves on the lower Mississippi, the French finally succeeded when New Orleans was established in 1718 by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville landed at Biloxi and walked east rather than get lost in the Mississippi delta as his predecessors had done. The French slowly began changing the valley, a process continued by the Spanish during their brief occupation of the area after 1763.

The real changes came with the Americans. The expansion of cotton meant turning as much of the South as possible to its production. This came at a widespread environmental cost throughout the region, with erosion, gullying, and exhausted soils clear problems by the time of the Civil War. On the Mississippi River, floods could replenish that soil, but the ever-more intensive growth of the levee system determined to keep that land dry meant that replenishing rarely occurred, only when flood events broke through the technologies built up to protect the cotton.

This landscape was of course highly racialized, both before and after the Civil War. Morris discusses how slaves lived on the margins of this wet and dry world. For slaves, the marshes provided some level of relative freedom and independence; the ability to hunt for food gave some slaves a bit of control over their own lives. Some slaves hunted full time for their masters, others killed raccoons, opossums, and birds for their own dinners. But those declining marshes meant disappearing wildlife too. Morris closes one chapter by discussing Theodore Roosevelt’s 1902 bear hunt in southern Louisiana, which led to the capture of a single scraggly bear attacked by dogs that did little more than disgust Roosevelt. That story, the basis for Faulkner’s “The Bear,” says much about the degraded nature of the lower Mississippi by the early twentieth century.

For general readers, Morris’ last three chapters will be of the greatest interest. Here, he rapidly moves into the twentieth century and what he calls a “pathological landscape.” Three centuries of trying to separate wet and dry had created a landscape where tremendous inputs of pesticides and fertilizers were necessary in one of the most fertile spaces on the planet. Mosquito-borne illnesses became worse through this regime, not better, as standing water made malaria and yellow fever plagues common in Louisiana through the 19th century. Chemicals like DDT and 2,4D became crutches for policy makers to avoid the environmental consequences of centuries of river policy. Coastal erosion became a problem before 1900 as the Mississippi River was channeled to the sea, and as the people of New Orleans discovered during Katrina, this can have devastating consequences.

Yet unlike many environmental histories, there is a bit of hope here. Morris steadfastly believes that humans can live along the Mississippi in a relatively sustainable way. Looking at crawfish farming as an ecologically sustainable way forward, Morris shows how it mimics the river’s natural processes, which means more marshes and more wildlife, as opposed to catfish farming or cotton that have caused great problems within the ecosystem. The crawfish farmers also grow rice in this wet landscape, which builds connections between land and water. Rice fields and catfish farms can become water storage areas that help the region manage the floods in a more ecologically sound and sustainable way than higher levees.

Morris also compares New Orleans to Venice, St. Petersburg, and Rotterdam to note that cities and water can coexist if people see the water as natural and plan for it, rather than view it as an enemy to tame. But New Orleans has not moved significantly in this direction since Hurricane Katrina, nor has the federal government. In a state as devoted to capitalism as the U.S., the short-term economic and political gains of levees means that remains the answer to the threat of water. Yet even in New Orleans, new homes on stilts are coming up, a recognition that this landscape can and flood. Even recognizing that is a positive step toward a more sustainable relationship with the river.

But outside of New Orleans, a somewhat different equation exists because declining populations along the delta has reduced the region’s political power and led to real victories for a more ecologically healthy management regime that has included some natural flooding and rejection of some water technology projects. People are beginning to realize the water is necessary and positive steps have begun to happen. Again, the region’s depopulation has played a role; even in post-Katrina New Orleans, nature is taking back parts of the city, with snakes and alligators in brush replacing people and parking lots.

I suppose some readers might want more on the modern Mississippi, focusing on the oil industry and canals that have received a great deal attention in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But this history provides a deep background on one of the nation’s most important land management and urban planning problems today. Overall, this is an excellent environmental history with important things to say about modern policy choices.

Feels Like An Arby’s Night!

[ 25 ] November 9, 2014 |

I guess this only works as a first date if it’s the WORLD’S BIGGEST ARBY’S.

I Was a Liberal until Kennedy Drowned Journalistic Ethics

[ 128 ] November 8, 2014 |

My name is bspencer and I’m a dirty liar. A few days back I wrote a florid post saying I was taking a break from #GamerGate because it was taking its toll on my psyche. That was true. And I did take a break. But it was a short one, and after a couple of days I was back at the hashtag, getting my fix like some huffer who’d just stumbled upon an unattended pile of metallic Krylon.

The truth is I can’t quit #GamerGate. 

A couple weeks ago my son and I were watching a series about reptiles. It was hosted by David Attenborough. During the intro, there’s a quick cut of Attenborough watching two huge tortoises mating. It’s weird. You wonder how he’s feeling. Like…does he feel awkward? Is he stifling a laugh? And thinking about that cut made me think about #GamerGate. Watching #GamerGate is like watching reptiles awkwardly mate–you don’t know whether to laugh or be disgusted. You don’t know if you want to keep watching or turn away. But somewhere along the way, I decided to be GG’s David Attenborough: I decided to stay and watch.

I’ve combed through that hashtag searching for signs that I am even 1% wrong about its inhabitants. But I’m not. I’m 1000% right. It’s a movement based entirely on driving feminist women and feminist allies out of gaming and shutting up feminist women who critique games and game culture.

The best thing about GG’s longevity is that its supporters–who are an incredibly unwieldy lot–have given up the pretense that’s about “ethics in journalism.”  On any given day, every other tweet says in language even GGer’s can understand that the goal is to drive feminists and “Social Justice Warriors” out of gaming and gaming criticism.

Everyone knows it’s a cesspool. Everyone outside its bubble sees it the way I do: as a daycare gone rogue with toddlers running around smearing the walls with poop. Everyone who’s cool hates #GamerGate. Everyone who matters hates #GamerGate. But like many toddlers GGer’s think any attention is good attention, so the daycare continues to teem with excitable, poo-smearing toddlers. I think it may be time for that to stop. I think that we all need to just stop paying attention to GG. Because if we do, soon it will just be a room full of toddlers sending nasty emails to Gawker babbling to each other and proudly showing off  their baffling Microsoft Paint graphics poop-drawings.

I promise this time I’ll go first. I promise I’ll stop giving it attention. Then maybe the toddlers of GG will finally get tired and go down for their naps. Boy, do they need one.

Nobody Expects the Starr Inquisition!

[ 11 ] November 8, 2014 |

When an institution is as indefensible and morally bankrupt as the NCAA, the list of people who can defend it and maintain any trace of self-respect must be rather small.  Small, but not a null set!

Kenneth W. Starr stepped onto Baylor’s football field before a game last month wearing a track suit. He looked in better shape — less paunchy, less stressed — than he did more than 15 years ago, when he became famous for investigating a sitting president.


In August, as the N.C.A.A. prepared to approve greater autonomy for five major conferences, Mr. Starr argued on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that universities were reforming themselves. In May, on Capitol Hill, he testified against unionization in a hearing that took on a partisan color.

To tweak Atrios’s joke slightly, apparently Lanny Davis is too busy defending Dan Snyder to participate at the present time.

World Cup Labor

[ 41 ] November 8, 2014 |

That Qatar World Cup is really setting a new standard for labor rights:

Thousands of migrant labourers from North Korea are toiling for years on construction sites in Qatar for virtually no pay – including on the vast new metropolis that is the centrepiece of the World Cup – in what may amount to “state-sponsored slavery”.

According to testimonies from workers and defectors, labourers from the reclusive state said they receive almost no salaries in person while in the Gulf emirate during the three years they typically spend there.

They work in the expectation they will collect their earnings when they return to North Korea, but according to a series of testimonies from defectors and experts, workers receive as little as 10% of their salaries when they go home, and some may receive nothing. One North Korean worker at a construction site in central Doha told the Guardian: “We are here to earn foreign currency for our nation.”

Shouldn’t there be some sort of international boycott of the event if it relies on slave labor. Obviously, FIFA doesn’t care, nor Qatar, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t raise a stink.

Area Pundit Confuses Mitch McConnell With Everett Dirksen

[ 88 ] November 8, 2014 |

This assessment of the current relationship between Congress and the president is so remarkable it might surpass anything in the oeuvre of Ron Fournier himself:

Progressives have long said that Obama made a mistake in 2010 by admitting he took a “shellacking” in those midterms, and by retrenching rather than pushing harder and louder with a bold progressive message. Those people now seem to have the ear of the president. After naming some unobjectionable items he hoped to get through in the current session, such as fighting Ebola and curbing ISIS, he offered incoming Republicans the chance to work with him on a higher minimum wage and other longstanding Obama agenda items.

Most notably, of course, he said he would take executive action on immigration by year’s end unless Republicans passed a bill. It’s certainly a bold negotiating tactic: You can do what I want, or I’ll go ahead and do what I want anyway. This is how you “negotiate” with a seven-year old, not a Senate Majority Leader.

I’m not sure that isn’t what Obama thinks he’s doing, and I’m sure many of my left-leaning readers are chuckling right now at the comparison. But Mitch McConnell is not a seven year old; he’s an adult, and he just won an election in which voters repudiated Obama and his party. (Temporarily, I am sure, but just the same: As someone once said, “Elections have consequences.”) McConnell is not the proverbial Tea Party extremist who won’t negotiate; he’s an establishment guy, known as a strategist and a tactician, not an ideologue (which is why the Tea Party isn’t that fond of him). In short, he’s someone who can make deals. Responding to McConnell’s rather gracious remarks about finding common goals by announcing that you know what the American public wants, and you’re going to give it to them no matter what their elected representatives say, seems curiously brash. It might chill the atmosphere today when he sits down with congressional leaders.

I…just can’t even. Yes, it’s perfectly true that Mitch McConnell is more of a tactician and strategist than ideologue. This doesn’t mean what McArdle seems to think it does, because his strategic goal is to deny Obama any legislative accomplishments. This can be easily inferred from his tactics, but in case there was any doubt he is entirely upfont about it. The argument stands reality on its head. An ideologue you can potentially negotiate with, but someone who’s opposed in principle to making a deal with you is a different story. The idea that McConnell is going to suddenly drop his blanket opposition to giving Obama any legislative accomplishments now that he’s the majority leader is absurd. And even if Mitch McConnell suddenly turned into a 60s Republican minority leader, the chances that Boehner could deliver the votes for any significant non-budget legislation acceptable to Obama are less than nothing.

Obama’s negotiating posture doesn’t reflect him kowtowing to progressives so much as elementary game theory. When your attempts at cooperation end up with the other side defecting, you don’t keep playing the sucker. If you want to call that like negotiating with a 7-year-old, fine, but it’s also the only rational response. Executive action is Obama’s one and only source of leverage; he’s going to use it. Attempts by pundits to preemptively excuse Republicans for not passing anything by blaming Obama aren’t going to fly.

Nor is this the first time McArdle has made this basic error (via Roy):

If there is one thing that Obama should regret most deeply, it was this fateful quote: “Elections have consequences,” he said. “I won.” Republican intransigence has stymied the president for four years. But the seeds of that revolution were laid in the first two years of Obama’s term, when giddy Democrats decided that he was the second coming of FDR, and Republicans would just have to go along with the Democratic agenda or get left behind. “Bipartisanship” involved gracious offers to let them fiddle with minor details of various plans — the policy equivalent of being allowed to choose the drapes for your maiden cruise on the Titanic. And when Republicans protested, they were bluntly told that their input wasn’t necessary, thankyouverymuchandgoodbye.

His presidency has never recovered from that mistake. The Tea Party Republicans who unnecessarily brought the government to a halt, and double-unnecessarily cost their own party many key elections, have much to answer for. But the Democrats who helped create them have some accountability, too. Democrats who try to attribute all the backlash to Republican racism are fooling themselves, setting themselves up for future repeats of these mistakes.

This argument has not improved with time. The claim about “offers to let them fiddle with minor details of various plans” is rather strange, given that Republicans had lost the White House and both houses of Congress. “Bipartisanship” means that a decisively repudiated minority party should not only be given some influence over the shape of legislation but…control over the legislative agenda or at least the core features of legislation?  I think I can see why Democrats didn’t consider this attractive.

In addition to this, the timeline makes no sense. McConnell’s intransigence was clear during the entire process of passing the ACA; it wasn’t a result of it. Given the moderate and conservative Senate Democrats who were desperate for bipartisan cover and wasted a lot of time trying to get it, this isn’t a difficult counterfactual; there was nothing Democrats could have done to get Republican support without abandoning any significant health care reform altogether. In addition, the Tea Party was of course not a direct response to the ACA. The Rick Santelli rant that was the crucial catalyst was 1)about proposals to help struggling homeowners, not the ACA, and 1)was more than a year before the passage of the ACA. The ACA might have somewhat intensified the Tea Party but it certainly didn’t create it.  (The implicit assumptions have the some problem here as all backlash arguments; you can sometimes reduce backlash by just not winning policy victories, but what’s the point of trying to win elections at all?)  And, needless to say, the idea that not passing the ACA would have been worth the 50 seats the Democrats would have needed to maintain control of the House is absurd.

So, in other words, McArdle is suggesting that Democrats should have foregone trying to pass any substantive legislative agenda in order to 1)prevent two midterm election losses that would have happened anyway (we can quibble about magnitude, but not control of the respective houses) and 2)to secure Republican cooperation that had no chance of coming under any circumstances. It’s a real puzzle that Obama didn’t take this advice!

A Word for Student Activist Groups

[ 6 ] November 8, 2014 |

This little piece on the United Students Against Sweatshops chapter at the University of Washington reminded of the importance of these student groups in fostering young activists against the systems of exploitation that dominate our world today. There are fewer groups like this on college campuses than you’d think–I’ve seen not one iota of left activism at URI in my 3+ years there and while something could be happening that I don’t know about, I’ve not seen a flyer, chalking, or any other evidence. Yet these groups really can spawn lifelong commitment to positive change. The group I was involved at the University of Tennessee back in the 90s today consists of union organizers, community organizers, and whatever it is that I do. These groups are really important and deserve our attention and support when we can give it.

The Happiest Place on Earth

[ 89 ] November 8, 2014 |

They say that Orange County is home to the Happiest Place on Earth. For most people, that’s Disneyland. For a cynical left-wing historian, it is the Nixon Library. When I visited Orange County last month, it was my top priority to visit, way more than the beach (which was nice too). I was not disappointed.

Presidential libraries occupy a weird space. They are operated in association with the National Archives, but the museum section is usually put together by some sort of private group. That means that there is a real tendency for hagiography, especially with recent presidents. The downside and the upside is exactly the same–eyerollingly ridiculous interpretation of controversial events. Although opened in 1990, the Nixon Library is still mostly in the hagiographic phase, with Nixon’s partisans talking about how great he was. There is one exception here. The historians have taken over the Watergate section so that whereas I understand that section actually stuck to the claim that the 18 1/2 deleted minutes of tape was totally an accident, today, it says that Nixon was really wrong. It is however so detailed and confusing that there’s almost no way any regular visitor is coming out of it with a good understanding of just what happened.

For the sake of learning about history, let’s hope the rest of the Nixon Library follows into more professional interpretation. But I am glad to visit before it did. Because it is amazing. Now it’s time for a photo tour. Here’s the first thing I saw when I went into the bookstore.


The blue ones read “Silent Majority: Tanned, Rested, and Ready”. I was sorely tempted to buy one, but you just can’t wear that ironically. I did however get a “What Would Nixon Do?” bumper sticker for my office. My friend bought some Nixon Library hand sanitizer as well. It was very exciting.

The books available for sale? Only the finest in politics and history:


Prominently displayed is also the book by the next president of the United States, Dr. Ben Carson. Rick Perlstein? What are you a commie? Of course that’s not for sale. I’m also curious about that secret plot to make Ted Kennedy president. Was that the 1980 Democratic primary?

The museum’s presentation of policy is uniformly horrible, combining cheap and ancient yellowing displays, way too much text that no one is going to read, and right-wing talking points. Nixon was the true environmental president because he signed legislation that passed the House 372-15. He was the true civil rights president because Jackie Robinson voted for him or something. I won’t even bother with most of it, except to say that the My Lai section was “under renovation.” Yeah, I’ll bet. If I have to sum up the policy displays in 1 image, this discussion of Miranda rights will suffice:


I’m not sure the museum staff, who were obvious Nixon partisans, appreciated my friends and I openly mocking this stuff.

One thing presidential libraries often feature is the gifts presidents receive from other heads of state. So it was just natural to display the maté set given to Nixon by Augusto Pinochet.


Gifts from other really nice leaders like the Shah, Suharto, and Ferdinand Marcos are also there for you to see. As are weird things that people gave Nixon. Like this, possibly the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen displayed in a museum.


“Dear Dick,

I was hiking around my ranch and I saw this rock that looks like your head. I thought you would enjoy it.



Finally, there is the greatest thing ever. Out back is the helicopter Nixon took from the White House to Camp David when he resigned. And you can go inside! Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures inside, but if you could you would see the amazing shag carpet that is preserved in the cockpit. However, you can imitate Nixon’s wave goodbye to the nation when he got on the helicopter. I don’t know that anyone had ever done that before; certainly the tour guide was taken aback by my sheer joy at this opportunity. This was really one of the greatest moments of my life.


My wave was so vigorous that my shirt got out of whack. I guess that’s my version of Nixon sweating during the 1960 debate. That’s OK, I can own it. Because I got to imitate Nixon’s wave. If I ever get kicked off this blog, my last line is “You won’t have Loomis to kick around anymore!” I’ve always wanted to use that.

After seeing this, as well as the bed where Nixon was birthed (look at this cute little baby!) we were on the way out when we realized that a wedding was about to begin. Yes, someone had rented out the Nixon Library for their wedding. Where the couple was going to take their vows was about 20 feet from Nixon’s grave. Now, I think we’ve all wanted to play a little Dick and Pat on our wedding night, but this was a bit ridiculous. This was the least romantic spot for a wedding ever. Although I hope I am invited to an irony-themed wedding there in the future.

Obviously, if you are ever near Yorba Linda, you need to experience this joy for yourself.

Gilded Age Cocktails for the New Gilded Age

[ 37 ] November 7, 2014 |

If we are returning to the Gilded Age, we might as well be drinking their cocktails too, which have become all the rage. That’s mostly a good thing as the austerity cocktails of the post-Prohibition Era have their place (I love a good martini of course) but do not explore the real possibilities of mixology (or cocktology as my brother thinks it should be called). Here’s a few interesting and simple ones. Note, this is the kind of thing you get when you have a Google Alert for “Gilded Age.”

The 43 Students

[ 44 ] November 7, 2014 |

As you have may have heard, in September, the municipal police of a town in Guerrero, Mexico where the mayor and his wife had close ties with the cartels kidnapped 43 protesting students from a poor teachers’ college. The fate of the missing 43 is basically known in that everyone knows they are dead, but not only the families but the entire nation is demanding that the bodies be found and perpetrators brought to justice. One body was found and the way of killing the kid is too graphic to be repeated here. Searches have not discovered the missing students–but have uncovered 40 other unknown bodies, reinforcing the terrible situation in Guerrero especially.

As Alma Guillermoprieto reports, the response has the feeling of the moment where Mexicans stand up and say enough to the violence of the cartels and the indifference of the government. Whether they can do anything about it is a whole other thing, but it has forced Peña Nieto to respond publicly, a pretty rare thing for a Mexican president. Terrible, horrifying story but maybe it will lead to something better in the long run.

Supreme Court To Almost Certainly Deny Millions of People Health Insurance

[ 189 ] November 7, 2014 |

It’s not every day that the Roberts Court can be worse than even I expect, but here we are: the Court is about to rule that the Moops invaded Spain. It’s not 100% that King v. Burwell will be overruled, I guess, but I don’t know why else they would preempt the Halbig en banc hearing otherwise.

I will have a piece on this coming out Monday, but it’s hard to overstate how evil and insidious this is. The Roberts Court stops both key components of the ACA from functioning in red states, based on farcial ad hoc legal arguments, without a single high-profile ruling that the law is unconstitutional.

People with strong stomachs can look at Johnathan Adler, in his palpable excitement about millions of people about to be stripped of their health insurance, claiming that this case is about…deferring to Congress. The fact that not a single member of Congress involved in passing the ACA has believed at any time that the subsidies were not available on federally established exchanges and the interpretation of the statute saying otherwise is nonsensical on its face renders this rather dark comedy indeed.

The Influence of 1994

[ 43 ] November 7, 2014 |

Ben Railton has an intriguing post about the influence of the 1994 elections on today. Outside of the obvious Gingrich and Contract with America stuff, he comes up with three:

1) Oliver North: True, former Reagan aide and Iran Contra figure North lost his Virginia Senate bid (to incumbent Charles Robb). But it’s far from a coincidence that North has gone on to become a Fox News star—every aspect of his campaign, from his emphasis on his born-again Christianity to his unrelenting attack ads on Robb, has become integral to the 21st century right-wing media world of which he’s now a part.

2) Bill Frist: One of the most surprising 1994 victors was Frist, a heart surgeon with no prior political experience who defeated three-term incumbent Tennessee Senator Jim Sasser. One of 1994’s most lasting influences has been the value placed on “outsiders,” not just to Washington but to the political realm itself; and no candidate fit that mold better than Frist, who would go on to become the ultimate insider as Senate Majority Leader.

3) Rick Santorum: Among the many GOP triumphs in 1994, relatively little attention was paid to Pennsylvania Congressman Rick Santorum’s victory over incumbent Senator Harris Wofford (in part because Wofford had been appointed after John Heinz’s tragic 1991 death, so was far from an established incumbent). Yet Santorum’s victory was hugely significant, and not only because he has gone on to be a perennial presidential candidate. It marked the growing presence and power of Christian Conservatives, a trend that would culminate in the election and presidency of George W. Bush six years later.

I have one to add, which is Tom Foley. His defeat marked the end of liberal Democrats being viable candidates in the rural West and the culmination of aggressively right-wing politicians in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and other areas that once had progressive representation (Mike Mansfield, Frank Church, etc). I guess Foley’s loss is more the end of that process than the beginning but was a pretty significant moment since he was Speaker of the House.

What else do you all have?

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