This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Jean-Léon Gérôme: The Snake Charmer, 1870.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From five myths about globalization in the American Midwest to Orientalism then and now, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Five myths about the Midwest

Kristin L. Hoganson
Washington Post

As Democratic presidential candidates start popping up in Iowa and President Trump holds forth at rallies in Wisconsin, attention is again gravitating toward the heartland because of its pivotal role in our electoral future. To make sense of this symbolically loaded region, outsiders can turn to newly launched magazinesMidwestern studies programs, the Midwestern History Association and even an interpretive encyclopedia of the Midwest. Nevertheless, the country’s geographic core — and especially the rural Midwest — remains distorted by the filter of myth. Here are five lasting misconceptions.

MYTH NO. 1 Globalization hurts the Midwest. Many urbanites assume that the Midwest is “getting its collective butt kicked by globalization,”as one critic wrote in a review of Richard Longworth’s book “Caught in the Middle.” The president has described the impact of freer trade in terms of “scars” and “empty buildings” in the region. It’s true, of course, that blue-collar workers have been hurt by the race to the bottom in wages and working conditions as once well-paid union jobs have been off-shored and foreign competitors have gained market share. [continue reading]

The Mobile Resistance: Rumor and Revolution in Julius Scott’s black Atlantic

Manisha Sinha
New Yorker

At long last, The Common Wind, Julius Scott’s classic in African-American history and studies of resistance, has found a publisher in Verso. The volume, which began as his 1986 dissertation and went unpublished because of Scott’s perfectionism and ill health, has acquired a cult following over the years. Modeled after Fernand Braudel’s masterpiece on the Mediterranean, The Common Wind started out as a history of the Caribbean and the informal communication networks that emerged among people of African descent during the Age of Revolution. But the project ended up doing so much more: Through traditional archival work and innovative interpretation, Scott—who is now an emeritus historian at the University of Michigan—unearthed an entire underground world.

Along with the popularity of the subaltern school in South Asian history, recent peasant studies in Latin American history, and James C. Scott’s much-cited works on the “weapons of the weak” and the everyday politics of the oppressed, The Common Wind redefined for many historians how we write “history from below.” Drawing on Georges Lefebvre’s study of the role of rumor in the French Revolution, Scott brought Lefebvre’s techniques into the world of black revolutionaries. Tracking the currents of the ocean and the well-traversed routes of trade, war, and rebellion, Scott showed how ideas of black resistance flowed among the slave colonies of various European nations and helped inspire new visions of freedom among the enslaved. [continue reading]

Scientists Discover Atomic-Forged Glass on Hiroshima’s Beaches

Matthew Gault

Tiny aerodynamic glass particles found on the beaches of Hiroshima were likely formed in the fires of an atomic blast, says a new study. According to the study, published in Anthropocene on Monday, the particles could only have been forged in extreme heats above 3,300 degrees Fahrenheit. “Little Boy”—the Bomb America dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945—vaporized the city, unleashed a fireball that reached 17 million degrees Fahrenheit.

Retired geologist Mario Wannier was sifting through the sand on a beach on Japan’s Motoujina Peninsula when he noticed the strange glass. Wannier’s trained eye can identify various minerals in a bucket of sand at sight—but the small glass beads he found puzzled him. “They are generally aerodynamic, glassy, rounded—these particles immediately reminded me of some [rounded] particles I had seen in sediment samples from the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary,” Wannier said in an interview with UC Berkeley. [continue reading]

Chagos Islands: isolated UK and US face thrashing in UN vote on ownership

Julian Borger and Owen Bowcott

The UK and US are facing a diplomatic rout at the United Nations on Wednesday when the general assembly is expected to vote overwhelmingly to demand Britain relinquish hold of one of the last vestiges of empire in the Indian Ocean. Both countries have lobbied intensely at the UN to avoid support for Britain dropping to single figures among the UN’s 193 member states on the issue of its continued possession of the Chagos Islands, known as the British Indian Ocean Territory.

The archipelago is the site of the US military base in Diego Garcia, used by bombers on long-range missions and, in the past, for rendition flights carrying terrorism suspects. The general assembly vote follows an advisory opinion issued by the international court of justice (ICJ) in February that UK should hand over control to Mauritius, which claims sovereignty over the islands. London and Washington are trying to persuade allies to at least abstain, so as to prevent support for Mauritius reaching triple figures. The Mauritian mission to the UN believes it has reached that threshold, winning pledges of backing from more than 100 member states. [continue reading]

‘Orientalism,’ Then and Now

Adam Shatz
New York Review of Books

Edward Said’s Orientalism is one of the most influential works of intellectual history of the postwar era. It is also one of the most misunderstood. Perhaps the most common misunderstanding is that it is “about” the Middle East; on the contrary, it is a study of Western representations of the Arab-Islamic world—of what Said called “mind-forg’d manacles,” after William Blake. The book’s conservative critics misread it as a nativist denunciation of Western scholarship, ignoring its praise for Louis Massignon, Jacques Berque, and Clifford Geertz, while some Islamists praised the book on the basis of the same misunderstanding, overlooking Said’s commitment to secular politics.

Since the book’s first publication in 1978, “Orientalism” has become one of those words that shuts down conversation on liberal campuses, where no one wants to be accused of being “Orientalist” any more than they want to be called racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic. That “Orientalist” is now a commonly applied epithet is a tribute to the power of Said’s account, but also to its vulgarization. With Orientalism, Said wanted to open a discussion about the way the Arab-Islamic world had been imagined by the West—not to prevent a clear-eyed reckoning with the region’s problems, of which he was all too painfully aware. [continue reading]