Last week on a flight to Florida, I re-read for the third time a book I first read in 2000, David E Stewart’s “Anasazi America”. My fascination with Southwest Indian history began at the tail end of my epic 3-month cross-country drive in the summer of 1989 whence I stumbled into the Four Corners area of the Southwest and discovered Chaco Canyon. Before then, I had never known that there are great ancient ruins right here in the United States, no less ancient ruins as remarkable as Machu Pichu in Peru.
I like to re-read books to see how they hold up over time and usually notice things I had missed in earlier readings. Like re-reading Paul Johnson’s “The Birth of the Modern” after the 9/11 attack and discovering that the first jihad was declared in 1818 against the Russians by the Muslims in Chechniya. That flew right by me the first time but why would I remember that anyway? The World Trade Center attack changed that. But I digress.
Stewart wrote “Anasazi America” to draw parallels between the rise and fall of that civilization and our own situation in 2000 America. His point in 2000 was that we are living in an America that is making the very same mistakes that the Chacoans made which ended in their demise. The author makes no attempt to be political even going out of his way to caution those who are tempted to read politics into it.
Most of us like to quote the famous saying about those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But then, without adequately explaining exactly what mistake we are protesting, we propose an alternative classic mistake which apparently is fine if only because it is not the same one the “other” political party is advocating.
This is a pivotal problem in today’s America. Nothing can be discussed without first establishing whether we are Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives. We don’t talk to “the others” because they are “low information voters” or “evil” or “delusional” or something else. So we imprison ourselves in our own private echo chambers reinforcing our delusions while getting more and more agitated in frustration. We comfort ourselves in our exclusive and privileged “circles of the enlightened”. “Anasazi America” speaks loudly to such follies.
“Anasazi America” is a forensic accounting of how archaeological findings are dissected and analyzed to establish who lived there, how they lived, what exactly happened and when. It’s a serious archaeological work so readers may find it dry and ponderous reading if they don’t have a strong interest in the subject. Dry and ponderous, that is, until the author bursts through with an unexpected flourish of first-rate prose expressing in clear language what he believes happened and why it is important. This inspired flourish of brilliance is found on pages 121 to 124 and reprinted below.
Past and Present
If ever there was archaeological evidence for the short-term power but ultimate futility of psychological denial and social myopia, it can be found in the late-eleventh century great houses of Chaco Canyon.
Parts of Chacoan society were already in deep trouble after A.D. 1050 as health and living conditions progressively eroded in the southern districts’ open farming communities. The small farmers in the south had first created reliable surpluses to be stored in the great houses. Ultimately, it was the increasingly terrible living conditions of those farmers, the people who grew the corn, that had made Chacoan society so fatally vulnerable. They simply got too little back from their efforts to carry on.
We should worry about this. Did you know that in 1998 there were 300,000 fewer farmers in the United States than there were in 1979? Did you know that 94 percent of American farms are still small, family farms, but family farmers receive only 41 percent of all farm income? Our farmers are walking away too. Why? They aren’t getting enough to carry on, either. Is urban America any more aware of this than were the village elites in Chaco’s great houses? Many of us are not.
Still, the great-house dwellers didn’t merely sit on their hands. As some farms failed, they used farm labor to expand roads, rituals, and great houses. This prehistoric version of a Keynesian growth model apparently alleviated enough of the stresses and strains to sustain growth through the 1070s. Then came the waning rainfall of the 1080s, followed by drought in the 1090s.
Circumstances in the farming communities worsened quickly and dramatically with this drought; the very survival of many was at stake. The great-house elites at Chaco Canyon apparently responded with even more roads, rituals, and great houses. This was actually a period of great-house and road infrastructure “in-fill”, both in and near established open communities. In a few years, the rains returned. This could not help but powerfully reinforce the elites’ now well-established , formulaic response to problems.
But roads, rituals, and great houses simply did not do enough for the hungry farmers who produced corn and pottery. As the eleventh century drew to a close, even though the rains had come again, they walked away, further eroding the surpluses that had fueled the system. Imagine it: the elites must have believed the situation was saved, even as more farmers gave up in despair. Inexplicably, they never “exported” the modest irrigation system that had caught and diverted midsummer runoff from the mesa tops at Chaco Canyon and made local fields more productive. Instead, once again the elites responded with the sacred formula – more roads, more rituals, more great houses.
Nonetheless, by the 1100s the roads, like the West Virginia turnpike, – a “make-work” project that was the butt of jokes 40 years ago – began to go “nowhere”. Other roads (like the one to Salmon) were never completed, and though some great houses were clearly built to move some of the elites out of an increasingly tense and impoverished core area, others were just erected in the middle of nowhere at the end of a new road, then never continuously used. This is all rather like the wave of unneeded savings-and-loan towers so scandalously built in America by deregulated bankers in the 1980s and ultimately paid for by the taxpayers.
The unbelievable explosion in kivas about A.D. 1100 points to a ritual life that had stopped nurturing open communities and had grown increasingly demanding and obsessive. We can see this phenomena at work in American society today in what the news magazines have termed our “culture wars”. In our modern version of this behavior, a narrow sector of society designates itself the “chosen one” and attempts to regulate the values, morals, even politics of the rest. The explanation for every problem that besets us – recessions, crime, drug trafficking, teen pregnancies, and many more – becomes our nation’s declining moral values and secularization. In the end, this type of behavior blames the victim: one is poor in America because one is morally and ethically defective. No matter what you, the reader, think about such behavior – whether you embrace it or reject it – either way, it feeds no babies, makes no young mother strong, and sends no child to school. The same was true of Chacoan elites’s rituals: however base or pure their motives at the time, ritual alone did not feed the babies or create new food-producing enterprises to sustain farming families over the longer haul. Failure to address this problem destroyed Chacoan society.
I also find it ironic that the greatest Chacoan building projects were, like many of the CCC and WPA projects of our own Great Depression, the desperate economic reactions of a frightened and fragile society. In fact, most such projects support displaced people only in the short-term, rather than address the production and distribution of basic necessities. Nonetheless, their projects, like ours, tend to be viewed as grand achievements, reflecting the pinnacles of power. We are as myopic as they were, because such projects are often proof of a hollow shell. In Chacoan times, that hollow shell may have hidden the misery and hopelessness of the small farmers just as our make-work projects of the 1930s did. The great houses may even now hide those facts from the many tourists who visit Chaco Canyon and go away as impressed as Lieutenant Simpson was in 1849. But grandiosity cannot hide the essential facts from the field archaeologists who have excavated countless small houses in the last 25 years.
At the bitter end of the Chacoan era, many elites remained in their great houses, probably trying to hold onto the past, rather like Scarlett O’Hara trying to hold onto Tara in “Gone with the Wind”. But the farmers who had brought in the corn harvests were long departed, like the black slaves who had supported Tara before the Civil War. Chacoan society collapsed, the farming pillar of its once great productivity shattered. The beleaguered Chacoan farmers had buried their babies one last time. Then they abandoned Chaco Canyon and most of its outlying great houses.
Most archaeologists know what happened to the elites who survived in the great houses. Some stayed. Others moved on to the high country at Mesa Verde, the Chuskas, and, eventually, the Pajarito Plateau surrounding Bandelier National Monument, northwest of Santa Fe. What happened to the farmers? That story is the subject of the next chapter.
And what did the Chaco Anasazi learn from all of this? That investment in the infrastructure which produces no food is not the way to fend off starvation. That in a stratified society there can be no cooperation between the “haves” and “have nots” if the daily needs of the humble producers are not sustained. That the larger and more complex a society, the less capable it is of carrying on after losing even a moderate percentage of its critical resources. This recalls the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s. The United States lost 5 percent of its total petroleum supply and went into economic gridlock.
And finally, the Chacoans learned that at the end of the day, formal religion and the religious values that go with it, no matter how powerful and integrating, can withstand only a finite number of deserted farms, broken dreams, and haunting memories. How many lonely young men who worked on the last of the road crews do you suppose carried the burden of having prepared a child’s fresh grave, followed by another for his young bride, as the final memory of an abandoned farm? One more yucca mat and one more bowl.
This is a novelist’s view of the end. The economist’s view would be that it had taken both constant expansion in the farmed land – the contribution of the farmers – and constant trade and redistribution – the contribution of the great-house elites – to make the open communities work. As resources of all kinds declined, the two groups’ interests no longer converged, so each went its own way in a massive logistical and social “disconnect” that spelled the end of Chacoan society.
At least the Chacoans had an excuse: they had never in 8,000 years dealt with a society so large, so complex, or so fragile. Their greatest invention was not the roads, the great houses, or the rituals. It was the expansive, open farming communities that had once traded with one another. But in spite of its ecological elegance, that invention died because the society’s obsessive, formulaic response – roads, rituals and great houses – was of no practical use to the farmers after the drought of 1090. The Chacoans simply could no longer keep their farmers on the land – a problem of defining moment.
We moderns have seen some of these same things in the United States, and we have read history. Most of our forebears washed up on these shores after similar failures in other lands. Most of us are the direct descendants of people who once walked away from societies that could not or would not sustain them. We do know how it works. But have we yet learned the lesson?
This is the Chacoan example of how virtually all civilizations throughout history keep making the same mistakes over and over again often believing that they are different and will not suffer the same fate. “We have better technology”, “we are smarter and wiser than our ancestors”, “it can’t happen here” and so on. They are wrong every time yet we Americans choose to believe that this time is different. There are eternal rules that must not be violated. The Bible is full of them. Religion may provide an avenue of salvation through atonement for crimes and misdemeanors. But there is no salvation for the end of a civilization.
So what does that have to do with the title of this entry? “A New Language for Winning”? The fastest growing party in America is the “none of the above” party populated by former Democrats and former Republicans who both continue to talk and think like Democrats or Republicans. Although we are in agreement about most of the big issues including our own version of the Chacoan “great disconnect” between the elites and the rest of us, we just can’t seem find a way to talk to each other because of the language barrier. So we are presented the same ink blots but interpret them differently. We could combine our forces to bring our interests to bear on the one-party political establishment were we to start talking and thinking in a language that unites us around our common principles. The excerpt above is an ink blot I present as an example for how we can start talking to each other in a common language.
After you have read the excerpt above, click on the book title link that will take you to Amazon (don’t be afraid to buy the book, it’s worth every penny). Then read the comments. Does it look like any of them have even read the book? No. Liberals, those “new age” enlightened spiritualists who reject all things modern including religion, have co-opted the meaning of the book as “proof” that the “noble savages” had it right and so evil America needs to be taken back by the noble savages. Is that how you interpreted the excerpt?
From the way I read it, it screams of our founding principles, those expressed in our founding documents. I could give a review of the many important points Mr. Stewart makes in his book, particularly about the more innovative and aggressive but less efficient power-based societies versus the more efficient but stagnant passive societies but you will have to read the book. However, the America defined by our Founding Fathers and best articulated in Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” leaned away from power in favor of a stable peaceful life afforded by a government small enough to maintain the well-being of a moral and productive society but always looming as the biggest threat to freedom. We are now experiencing first hand what they feared as the government “of the people” has been co-opted by elites or as the author writes, by “…a narrow sector of society designates itself the “chosen one” and attempts to regulate the values, morals, even politics of the rest”
So let’s drop the Democrat/Republican, liberal/conservative nonsense. I consider myself a proud “1776 Liberal” and am prepared to adopt the language our founding fathers used. I speak to liberals every day and have very little doubt that I could say what I just said to you and have them read the excerpt above and we would be in agreement. So long as we discuss principles and not politics. We need a language of principles. And we need to drop the brain-dead and divisive partisan languages we seem hopelessly trapped in. If you can’t talk to your friends, family or neighbors because of politics, you are probably part of the problem. I don’t live politics. I live principles. So do my “liberal” friends.
I don’t care anymore whether my friends are Democrats or Republicans. I only care that they are good people who share my concerns and principles. It is proven to be relatively easy for me to persuade my friends to register away from their party of habit be it Democrat or Republican. It is the partisan nonsense that divides us. Our principles unite us. And with Republican registrations down to 23% as of 2010 and Democrats down to around 31-2%, we are close to outnumbering everyone else combined. It means we can prevail over the corrupt elites without destroying our civilization by walking away as the Chacoans, Incans, Aztecs and Europeans did.
How about we give that a try.