The Gulf; The Making of An American Sea by Jack Davis.

Congratulations, Jack on winning the Nobel Prize in History 2018

 

The Gulf; The Making of An American Sea by Jack Davis. Liveright, 2017.

Professor Jack Davis covers a relatively short period in the history of the Gulf of Mexico – from the Pleistocene, two million years ago, to the Twenty-First Century AD. The Gulf is an enormous body of water that drains a vast land area, the basins of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and the rivers that deliver freshwater to the Gulf from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. His study of the Gulf is modeled after Alexander Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.

Davis keeps his sense of humor despite the bad news that flows from his word processor. The subject of his history, he laments, has been “a sandbox for the earth-sculpturing [by the] US Army Corps of Engineers.” Their dike building along the Mississippi River is only a small part of the trouble, however. The Gulf has also become a dump for the numerous industries that have clustered around its waterways.

Add to that the more recent discovery of off-shore petroleum deposits and their exploitation. In April 2010 Deepwater Horizon, one of those off-shore oil rigs, blew spewing two hundred million gallons of oil into the Gulf. But that is less, Davis reminds us, than the annual dose of poisons that comes down the Mississippi River from our Midwestern agricultural heartland. Nor was this the first time that the Gulf has been contaminated by discharge from an off-shore oil rig.

Those ‘tarred and feathered” birds that attracted so much attention during the press coverage of the Deepwater Horizon spill should remind us that the Gulf is a major path for migrating birds. Billions of birds cross the Gulf of Mexico twice a year. It is a six-hundred mile trip for many of them, but shorter ­- “as the crow flies” – than any passage over land.

Many of the migratory birds are in their breeding plumage. Look back at photographs of fashionable, turn-of-the-last-century females and you will find their hats decorated with plumage, feathers from egrets, herons, spoonbills, and other mostly wading birds. They were harvested by shooting, hence a rapid reduction in numbers. (Fortunately women’s hat fashion changed during WWI).

Their men folk joined clubs and hunting lodges and, for the sport, aimed their guns at those same migrating birds. For the gentlemen, there were shooting excursions by steam boats up the St. Johns River.

Wading birds may have seemed like ‘small potatoes’ to some hunters, but there were alligators fashioned into ‘big game’. They were an impressive prop in a photograph of the dead animal and its sportsman hunter. Or for fishermen; tarpon were popular fish for the sports fisher, their size, according to Davis, would satisfy the national masculinity zeitgeist.

The hoteliers, Henry Plant and Henry Flagler, were happy to supply these gentlemen and ladies with luxury accommodations. Both were railroad men, presiding over a transition in the Florida tourist trade. From vacationers arriving by rail, many were now traveling to Florida in automobiles. And staying in Plant’s Gulf coast hotel in even larger numbers.

The Gulf of Mexico became a second home near the beach. And that in turn led to the rows of high-rise condominiums. With them more roads, more malls, more fast-food restaurants. And up-rooted mangroves.

Meanwhile the Gulf of Mexico was becoming a major docking facility for container ships. The widening of the Panama Canal resulted in a major transformation of shipping in the Gulf. Huge new machinery, lifts, etc. were necessary to handle these containers.

Sand has always been a tricky foundation for a building of any size. And that became a problem as condo’s etc. were allowed closer and closer to the edge of the water. Moreover, existing regulations, if enforced, have not made allowances for sea level rise and more Hurricanes and tropical storms. The slowly-disappearing beach needed to be armored and nourished.

Gambling. It was decided that the best way to add gambling to the Gulf and keep it more-or-less out of sight was to position it off-shore. That particular gamble however, did not pay off. It didn’t count on an uninvited participant – Hurricane Katrina. The casinos, washed out to sea, were rebuilt. They are now back on land, and paying taxes.

Jack Davis ends The Gulf; The Making of an American Sea on a positive note. When the State of Florida banded gill-netting in 1994, Cedar Key fishers began exploiting a new fishery, clam farming. And the town changed from one where those fishers lived to vacation condominiums for the well-off. Most of the employed population live inland.  So be it.

The War That Forged a Nation; Why the Civil War Still Matters by James McPherson.

The War That Forged a Nation; Why the Civil War Still Matters by James McPherson. Oxford, 2015.

In Charlottesville, Virginia Robert E. Lee’s statue was recently pulled down and partially destroyed. In Gainesville, Florida a statue of a Confederate soldier was given back to the original donor organization to be displayed at a less public venue. It isn’t much of a task to argue as James McPherson does, that the Civil War still matters. But McPherson’s book was published in 2015. Half the chapters are his reviews of books published over the last several decades and before the campaign against Confederate soldiers and leaders go under way.

As a result of the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848), our Nation had acquired new Southwest territory. Would that lead to the expansion of slavery? Would the expansion of a mining industry in the West lead to an exploitation of slave labor? Northern Abolitionists were determined that this would not happen.

McPherson reminds us that dominance of a southern slave-owning elite in the young Republic would need to be reversed. For two-thirds of the years between our independence in 1789 and the Civil War in 1861, the residing U.S. presidents had been slave owners. Moreover the economy of the Southern economy remained dependent upon one cash crop, cotton. The North, on the other hand, was becoming a diversified economy directed by an industrial elite.

One comforting thought for both sides was that they were fighting a jus ad bellum, a just war. The seven states that had withdrawn from the Union were justified in defending themselves in the face of the continuing Northern disruption of their slave economy. They were fighting a jus ad bellum, a just war. The North believed its effort to end that disunity a defensive war and equally just.

In September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation that freed all slaves in territory held by the U.S. army. McPherson contends, however, that the issue for most of the War and its participants was not about slavery but about succession.

It became obvious that the War would not end in a victory for the North – or South – without resorting to “total warfare.” The resources of the Northern economy was eventually harnessed for a total victory. The South “must feel the hard hand of war.” Hence General William Sherman’s “march to the sea”, looting and burning as he proceeded.

One surprise for this reviewer: you might call the spiritual enthusiasm on both sides, a renewal. Many soldiers and their leaders “got religion” on the battlefield; Jefferson Davis received baptism in May 1862! Religion, at least the belief in a hereafter, was, McPherson argues, a comfort to the wounded and dying. The most accepted number who died on both sides in the War was 750,000. How a soldier’s death was dealt with is wonderfully described by Drew Faust in her This Republic of Suffering; Death and the American Civil War. She argues for 6,000,000 if an equivalent proportion of today’s population died in the war.

The American Civil War caused much confusion and hand-wringing on the part Europeans, and particularly the British. Their textile industry was dependent upon cotton from Southern fields. British ship yards were constructing “blockade runners” for the Confederacy. On the other hand, the Brits could not in good conscience embrace a country that embraced slavery. But even after the Emancipation Proclamation, Britain held to a policy of neutrality.

In April 1861 Lincoln’s Administration declared a blockade of all Confederate Ports. That provoked an international incident out of the seizure of a British ship transporting two Confederate envoys to Britain and France. They were removed from the ship as contraband of war. There will always be controversy about how successful the blockade of Southern ports was. It may have kept many small operators from participation.

Contraband was also the term applied to escaping slaves upon their entering Union lines. They were property and hence viewed in the same way that any confiscated property is during wars.

Lincoln observed that these ex-slaves were assisting the Union cause which was increasingly being waged in the name of Slave Emancipation. The Confederacy felt differently about the matter and refused to exchange black POWs for white captives in Federal prisons. There were instances in which these black POWs were executed when captured.

The North had not yet clarified the status of black soldiers now participating in the Civil War. But the growing trouble over the Civil War’s conscription caused Lincoln to think more carefully about black soldiers. Hence the Emancipation Proclamation recognized not only Lincoln’s evolving views about the War’s objectives but also the fact that by 1864 over 109,000 black soldiers had found their way into the battlefield in support of the North.

The Union was unwilling to offer any terms other than unconditional surrender, and so the bitter war continued. It lingers. We have not found a reconciliation of diverging war remembrances.

 

The Other Slavery

The Other Slavery; The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

 

Andrés Reséndez has called our attention to the widespread enslavement of Indians in the American West and Spanish Mexico as early as the sixteenth-century. Indian slavery was different from the African slavery used extensively in the cotton fields of the Southern United States. Indian slavery grew out of the institution of peonage and was more like the involuntary servitude practiced in medieval and early modern Europe. Some historians would argue that the apprenticeship laws in early colonial America were a form of servitude similar to Indian slavery in our Western states.

The silver mines of colonial Spain were labor intensive and Indian slaves were used to dig out the silver and then carry out the heavy loads of tailings. And this demand for slaves for the mines supported a complicated set of exchanges amongst the western Indian tribes. The presence of a steady demand for leather – hence buffalo hides – for the mines and miners gave work to many captive female slaves. And the use of the horse in buffalo hunts increased the kill and the trade in hides.

The author suggests that the first source of Indian slaves in the Southwest was the Island of Espaňola in the Galápagos. The slave-hunting venues multiplied; eventually there were five major slaving areas –Chile, Paraguay and the adjoining provinces of Brazil, the grassland areas of Colombia and Venezuela, the Philippines, and northern Mexico, the last being the focus of The Other Slavery. Many of the western tribes had captured members of other tribes in warfare, for which they demanded ransoms. And often that ransom demand was met with captives who then became slaves.

Andrés Reséndez suggests why the presence of Indian slavery was neglected in histories of North American settlement. For one, there was no abolitionist movement focusing on Indian slavery. Because of the settlement that ended the Mexican War (1846-1848), President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 also applied to the slaves of Indian tribes in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and parts of California. When the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in January 1865, it also abolished Indian slavery as well. But that was almost an afterthought.

Reséndez  reminds us that the Spanish Empire made numerous efforts to reform and eventually abolish Indian slavery long before the nineteenth century, first in Spain and then in Spanish America. In 1542 the New Legal Code of Metropolitan Spain stated that no American Indians could be enslaved under any circumstance. Charles II (1675-1700) and earlier during his mother Mariana’s regency (1665-1675) Spain enacted ordinances limiting slavery and passed them on to its New World colonial governments to enforce. But to no avail. The labor of Indian slaves was needed in the silver mines on which metropolitan Spain depended. Also it was common for Spanish clergy to argue that Indians were better off living in Christian homes and exposed to the true religion than in their own natural state. Never really successful, the strictures against slavery at least gave Native Americans an occasional opportunity to seek justice in Spanish courts.

Spanish Legal Codes, however, had a provision that Indians captured in a designated zone of war could be sold into slavery. So when you needed to acquire Indian slaves either to trade, or to work in your mine or tend your crops, you conducted a military campaign, which justified enslavement.

It is not surprising that Indian slaves offered greater resistance to their enslavement than was the case with African slavery. There were greater opportunities for hiding out and flight than was true in the American South. Even then and given how badly they were treated, there were remarkably few slave uprisings.

The largest uprising in the Southwest was the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680. The plan to have all of the Pueblos arise at the same time was compromised by a lack of co-ordination among the several Pueblos. .  Also by killing friars and destroying church property, the revolt seemed to be an attack on Christianity. The Indians were said to be led by Indian “sorcerers and idolaters.”

Reséndez suggests that part of the unsettled character of the Southwest was a result of conflict between those tribes that were trying to retain their nomadic way of life and competing tribes that had taken up agriculture and a more settled existence. Their allegiances during the rebellion tended to align in this way.

Andrés Reséndez argues that the decline and demographic collapse of Native American populations was primarily due to the Indian slave trade rather than the spread of infectious diseases as is often argued. And the acquisition of horses turned whole tribes, for example, the Comanches, into raiders and slave traders.  Until the nineteenth century, captive males past a certain age were either killed or sent south to the great slave emporium of Parral, in Chihuahua State, Mexico, Never to return. Eventually, however, the younger males were kept around to replenish the many males killed in warfare.

 

 

Stamped from the Beginning; The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Stamped from the Beginning; The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Nations Books, 2016.

Ibram Kendi won the 2016 National Book Award for his Stamped from the Beginning, a history of “long and lingering” racism in America. He is a member of the Department of History, University of Florida. Congratulations Professor Kendi.

Kendi has recreated the conversation between segregationists – those who believed that the races should be kept separate as much as possible, and assimilationists – those who believe that African-Americans should be absorbed into white America. His distinction between antiracist and racist is not so clear-cut, however. Both segregationists and assimilationists, he contends, can hold racist views. Kendi identifies five American intellectuals who have shaped our on-going discourse about race: Cotton Mather (1663-1728), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), and Angela Davis (1944 – ).

Segregationists vs. assimilationists. Segregationists would argue that blacks are inherently different, though this is not a justification for their unequal treatment. Perhaps different but equal. Assimilationists argue that existing inequalities are the result of black misbehavior, which could change and black people could assimilate into white middle-class America. And white Americans should welcome that integration.

Racists vs. antiracists. Racists argue that African-Americans are a biologically distinct species. They take a polygenesist position. In contrast, antiracists are  monogenesists;   they believe in one creation. Differences are only ‘skin deep’ and explained by arguments such as the Biblical curse pronounced on Ham by God in the book of Genesis. Or black racial characteristics may be environmental, for example due to the greater sunlight in the earlier African environment. Monogenesists’ arguments get silly. For example they have attributed the light-skinned African-Americans to a prolonged association with white skins. Proof! Household slaves in the pre-emancipation South tended to be lighter skinned than field slaves. Polygenesists, on the other hand, run into their own wall: genetics!

Did the “all men are created equal” as stated in the Declaration of Independence include Thomas Jefferson’s slaves? In truth, underlying Jefferson’s racist views and those of most of our founding fathers was the fact that the Southern colonies needed the labor of slaves to harvest their cash crops. Kendi describes how important slavery was to Southern agriculture, tobacco and sugar cultivation and after Eli Whitney improved the gin, raw cotton.

William Lloyd Garrison’s advocacy for the cause of abolition is exemplary of the drift of attitudes toward black emancipation. In the 1830s he was a strong advocate of the relocation of slaves to Africa, adhering to anti-assimilationist arguments. He then went on to adopt the assimilationist position, mingled with his fight for women’s political rights. Toward the end of his life, he was an assimilationist, part of the fight for the political rights of freedmen.

Why were slaves so passive in the face of often brutal exploitation? Kendi argues with that premise. Slaves, when given the opportunity, abandoned their masters. During the Civil War, thousands fled to Union lines where they were treated as Contraband.

How might the history of racism been different had Abraham Lincoln presided over Southern Reconstruction? The Fifteenth Amendment as administered by President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, did not bring about the end of servitude. Kendi explains that under Reconstruction, the Southern economic elite created an effective system for controlling black labor and conduct. There were three classes in the post-war South, an economic/political elite, a class of “poor white trash,” and freedmen now eking out an existence with a mule and forty acres. The latter two groups, he argues, were successfully pitted against each other by the Southern elite. Class hatred was fanned by the Black Codes and by violent night riders, the Ku Klux Klan that used terror – lynching – to “keep the niggers in their place.”

In May 1896, much to the despair of assimilationist like W.E.B. Du Bois, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, enshrining the different but equal doctrine. DuBois was also challenged by another prominent African-American spokesman, Booker T. Washington. An assimilationist of a different stripe, Washington argued that blacks should settle for jobs in the lower rungs of the service sector. Steady employment, he argued, was the best opportunity for blacks to participate in American society.

Angela Davis, the last of Kendi’s five intellectuals, has been many things to many causes. She was an author and political activist, interested in feminist issues, in prison reform, economic justice, and an Afro style-setter. But her placement in the talented five is the most tenuous.

Ibram Kendi has used fresh perspectives to discuss the many complexities of American racism. And that appealed to those who awarded him the prestigious National Book Award.

 

 

 

The Seminole Wars; America’s Longest Indian Conflict by John Missall & Mary Lou Missall.

The Seminole Wars; America’s Longest Indian Conflict by John Missall & Mary Lou Missall. University of Florida Press, 2016.

There were three Seminole Wars, extending from 1818 to 1858. Mary Lou Missall and John Missall, authors of this account of the warfare between Florida’s Seminoles and the U.S. government, contend that all three together constitute the longest Indian conflict in our history. They point out that what historians call the First Seminole War involved Spain’s colonial empire, including the Florida Peninsula. During the Second Seminole War (sometimes called The Florida War), Florida was now a territory of the United States. The Third Seminole War was a few skirmishes beginning in 1855. By then Florida had been a state in the American union for a decade. The admission of a southern slave state had been paired with admission of a northern free state; Florida was paired with Iowa.

The Seminole Wars were part of the broader struggle over slavery. Many that fled from slavery in South Carolina and Georgia had escaped to Florida. They had joined the Seminoles and participated in their struggle with the United States army, its navy, and the state militias which had joined in efforts to move the Indian populations in the Southeast to lands west of the Mississippi River.

The Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes had earlier been settled in reservations in the Southeast. But as white settlers moved south into what would become cotton-growing lands, Indian removal to more distant reservations became essential to the South’s growing cotton economy. Their presence and accompanying insecurities discouraged white settlement. These tribes made the decision to move without a fight and were escorted west along the “trail of tears and death.” The Seminoles chose to resist.

There was a considerable sympathy for the Seminoles around the country. Their relentless warfare resembled what would later be called guerilla combat. It involved among other tactics their massacre of an occasional settler family. Retaliation involved sending detachments of the U.S. army out to hunt down and kidnap Seminole women and children. The Missalls argue that even those sympathetic to the Seminoles were, however, appalled by the cost of the war, almost a half billion in today’s dollars.

Black Seminoles suffered a cruel fate. When captured they faced being returned to their owners or being sold into an even worse slavery within the Native American economy. The Creeks regularly kidnapped black Seminoles and sold them to slave traders for resale.

Most of the largest rivers in the Southeast and the Gulf Coast of Florida ran through lands dominated by Seminole tribes, hence harder for the U.S. navy to guard.  Those harbors and estuaries provided opportunities for smugglers operating out of Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Several Seminole chiefs signed an agreement with the U.S. government in 1823 declaring a truce and granting a stipend to the chiefs, perhaps shared, perhaps not. They agreed to retreat to a track of land south of present-day Ocala. But then within a few years, they were told that they had to move again. The Seminoles were not migratory; they needed time to establish their farms and room to pursue their profitable trade in hides.

The authors have written with much sympathy for the Seminoles but believe that the move west was an inevitability. Armed resistance was useless. That was particularly true once the Seminole Wars became an issue debated in Washington and provided career-building opportunities in presidential politics: Andrew Jackson, Winfield Scott, William Henry Harrison, and Zachery Taylor boasted of their military engagements with the Seminoles. Career army officers found opportunities to build their military careers, especially when battling Seminoles was combined with serving in the Mexican War from 1846 to 1848. Also anyone who has lived through the genocides and ethnic cleansing of the twentieth century, cannot help but feel uncomfortable with the similarities to “the trail of tears and death.”

John Missall and Mary Lou Missall are generous in the credit they give to John Mahon (formerly on the faculty of the History Department, University of Florida) and his History of the Second Seminole War, 1835 to 1842. University of Florida Press, 1989. The Seminoles are still living in South Florida where they have become tourist attractions.

 

 

 

Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Jordan. W.W. Norton, 2014.

The men in blue who fought in the Civil War continued to fight that war for years and even decades after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in the spring of 1865. It had been a long a deadly war, mostly fought by conscripts. Those soldiers had accomplished the Union’s objectives, ending both the rebellion and slavery. In May 23 and 24, 1865 elements of the Union Army paraded through the streets of the Capital, receiving the enthusiastic accolades of the crowds and politicians, though Abraham Lincoln’s recent assassination by a Confederate sympathizer had cast a pall over the Grand Review.

Had the Rebels been defeated? The men in blue were hearing unsettling stories of race riots and lynching of blacks in Memphis, New Orleans, and elsewhere.

Returning Union soldiers sensed that the civilian population in the North wished to bury the sectional rivalries that had caused the war, and move beyond flag-waving parades.  What, then, would be their hometown reception? This is where the author of Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Jordan begins his story of their – and the reader’s – journey back to post-Civil War America.

In the century since 1865 we have come to understand the psychological injury of warfare on its participants. It has been called by different names in different wars, “shell shock” or “battle fatigue,” in more recently “post-traumatic stress disorder.” It had yet to be given a name in 1865.

Almost immediately the former men in blue organized. The Grand Army of the Republic began pressing for pensions for those who had served in the war and the creation of a national holiday (Memorial Day) to commemorate their fallen comrades.

Their demands were mixed with their impatience, even anger. The demobilization process had left many veterans sitting around, waiting, and without the adrenalin rush of battle. They had time to worry about their reintegration into their families. Would they be able to find work? Moreover, on the edges of these postwar encampments, there were shysters around to offer them bogus services.  And others offering a plentiful supply of whiskey. Many veterans had taken up the War Department’s offer and bought their weapons. They were impatient, angry, and armed. This ominous mix produced an “epidemic of misdeeds.” Civilians, Jordon suggests, were puzzled by this anger, and frightened.

The wounded had received better medical attention in the newly organized base hospitals during the Civil War than was true of other wars of that era. The most common treatment for the many shattered arms and legs was, however, still amputation. Jordon relates the story of a left-handed penmanship competition for amputees who had lost their right arm. The essays, usually about their war experiences, were not judged, only the penmanship. A common theme: their wounds (empty sleeves) were ‘living monuments’ to the sacrifices which they had made for the Union. And they were unsure about how much those empty sleeves were unappreciated.

Jordan devotes a chapter to veterans who spent time in Confederate Prisoner of War camps. (A journey to the Andersonville Prison near Americus, Georgia gives the visitor some idea of the horrors of imprisonment in the last years of the war.) POWs returning to civilian life had all of the same anxieties of other veterans, but they were also in terrible physical shape. Plus they had to face the stigma of having surrendered.

The federal government established a network of ‘asylums’ (subsequently called ‘homes’) for those veterans who couldn’t make it in the civilian life to which they had returned. As the numbers of aging veterans with health and mental problems grew, the states began establishing homes as well. The Iowa Veterans Home was in Marshalltown, seventeen miles from my home town of Garwin. It opened in 1887.

Residents in these homes were subject to Army rules and regulations and military discipline for infractions. Those admitted were required to wear uniforms, march in formation, and stand at attention for inspection. They rose and retired to the bugle call. Residents needed passes to get by the sentry at the gate. Despite much political grumbling about the “extravagant” government expenditure involved, Civil War soldiers were eventually awarded $8.00 a month. (Roughly $180.00 in current dollars.) They had to sign their pension over to any facility they entered.

As an example of the insensibility to Union veterans, Jordan tells the story of President Grover Cleveland’s first term of office, 1885 to 1889. (Cleveland had hired a young Polish immigrant as his substitute, allowed by the 1863 Conscription Act.)  A Democrat, he wished to bring the South back into the national Democratic Party and condemned the “wicked traffic… in sectional hatred.” He was referring to the Union veterans who opposed his ‘Southern strategy.’

In a gesture to end this sectional hatred, he proposed the return of Southern battle flags captured by Union soldiers and over the years entrusted to the government. There was much sentiment attached to these “relics” of the good fight, so returning them was an affront. Cleveland apologized and withdrew his proposal.  The incident, however, gives testimony to Brian Jordan’s “unending Civil War.”

Privacy in the New Media Age by Jon Mills. University Press of Florida, 2015.

 

There has always been conflict between the idea of our right to privacy and the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. But Jon Mills argues that the ‘new media age,’ that is the widespread use of the internet as a source of information, has come upon us with new privacy issues. There are, he argues, solutions already in place that deal with the rights of privacy relative to the press and broadcast media, but we need to think through this matrix of controls and regulations to see what might apply to the issue of privacy and the internet.

 

A lawyer, Mills is professor and past dean of the University of Florida’s law school. He was once Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. He is not an alarmist about the growth of the internet medium. He can see advantages of having citizen journalists, or “iReporters”, recording and “publishing” what they have observed. He points out, for example, that police interactions with the street and vice versa have had an impact on our views about the relationship between law-and-order and both civil rights and privacy.

 

But he is concerned. There are no “editors” and “gatekeepers” checking content of videos posted on web sites by thousands of bloggers and read by millions both here and abroad. We are getting used to hyperbole these days coming from candidates for the U.S. Presidency. We agree that political speech is allowed to wander from the truth. Those same allowances can be made for postings on the internet. They can be evaluated in much the same way that we view those ‘tell-all” magazines at grocery checkout counters. So should we just give up on the internet?  To Professor Mills’ credit, he isn’t giving up.

 

He builds his argument by beginning with the contention that bloggers should have the same rights and obligations that newspaper reporters have always had. Journalists are, for the most part, shielded from litigation over their reporting. We would perhaps agree that we want that to continue to be the case with reporters. But bloggers?

 

Mills reminds us that there are also limits to reporters’ immunity from lawsuits. Property rights come in to play; there are, for example, laws against trespassing. Mills agrees that someone using concealed video cameras to record what is going on inside your house is “intrusion upon seclusion” and should be illegal.  Another building block: you cannot legally violate an individual’s privacy when it comes to his or her cell phone without a court order. And anyone who addresses the judge on the matter must have good reason for the request. But the internet makes all of this seem a bit quaint. Bloggers don’t bother. For example, they readily post crime scene photographs and autopsy photos, hence clearly invading privacy.

 

Community Standards? Back when I had a bookstore and a newsstand, I argued that it was impossible to ascertain “community standards.” I argued that community standards were the creation of their “spokespersons”, and in any case not a tangible code. That is certainly true of the internet these days.

 

Those who use the internet enjoy considerable anonymity. Still we know from Edward Snowden’s revelations that electronic snooping can provide the opportunity and a temptation for governments to “listen in” on millions of internet conversations.

 

I found interesting Mills’ discussion of the distinction between obtaining information that should be considered private and publishing that material.  Once the information is available to or in possession of the press, prohibiting publication is viewed as prior restraint or censorship, an intrusion upon seclusion. The acquisition of material has been much more frequently contested than the subsequent publishing of it.  The courts are divided on maintaining this distinction.

 

Curiously the longer information about a person’s private life is stored the more it becomes protected by privacy rights. Drudging up information that is several decades old is considered more of an offense to privacy than an immediate revelation!

 

Mills also points out that journalism generally is not a licensed profession. Nor has the category ‘reporter’ even been defined.  Perhaps, at the very least, those in newspaper and broadcast journalism, but also those individuals posting on the internet, might be asked to read and sign a document outlining what is expected of them by way of intent and accuracy. In the meantime, one should assess the expectations one has of privacy in the new media and adjust one’s participation accordingly.

Electronic Books, Amazon, and the Fate of Print, 2005-2015.

Electronic Books, Amazon, and the Fate of Print, 2005-2015.

“E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead,” an article about the book industry, shared the front page of The New York Times (23 September 2015) with the visit of Pope Francis. The author of the article, Alexandra Alter, reminded us that only five years previously, pundits were proclaiming the demise of print books. Sales of Kindle readers, Nooks, iPads, various other electronic devices, and books in the electronic format were soaring.

Surprise! E-book sales have fallen by 10% in the first five months of this year over the same period last year (quoting from the NYT article). And e-book sales have not been increasing in recent years at anywhere near the same rate as they had in the earlier half of the period (2005 to 2015).

The impact of the electronic format on print books (mass paper, trade paper, and hard) has varied with format and category. The mass paperback format (the old ‘pocket book’) has been the most affected, by far. Print editions of mass paperback genre fiction, particularly romances but also mysteries, thrillers, science fiction & fantasy, suffered most from competition with e-books. Hardback fiction was also adversely affected. Less so, non-fiction, and less so, kids’ books.

When they first came on the market, electronic books were presented as a godsend to travelers who didn’t want print books weighing down their luggage. However, the chains that run bookstores at airports are reporting that print books are regaining traction with travelers.

Other explanations for the short-lived e-book bubble. Lighter to hold, they would suit people who read in bed and would like to snuggle up to a Kindle. Some thought electronic books a boon to the industry because they would entice a new group of book buyers.

There were two trends worrying publishers. Rising expectations for the future of e-book and Kindle sales, they worried, would discourage print editions. It was not so much that print sales were off dramatically, but publishers noted that print was losing market share to electronic. Secondly publishers worried about the fact that the book business was increasingly concentrated in one mail-order operation, Amazon.com.

Publishers had welcomed Amazon as a solution to their fledgling direct sales efforts. But Amazon began to acquire an ever-growing share of print sales and then almost immediately 65% of the electronic book market. Publishers awakened to a world where one dominant retailer could dictate the prices it paid publishers for the e-books, their retail price, and hence the publishers’ margins. The older arrangement of the publisher setting a “suggested retail price” that included a fair return for themselves but also for the wholesaler and retailer was being remodeled. When negotiating price structures with Amazon, it has been a “take it or leave it” proposition.

Meanwhile, Amazon has begun selling all kinds of other merchandise, and the books’ share of its revenue is shrinking.  Amazon.com was becoming less dependent on book publishers just when book publishers were more dependent on Amazon.

Publishers Weekly recently celebrated the contribution that Amazon.com has made to the world of book retailing (”20 Years of Amazon.com Bookselling,” PW  7 September 2015).  The retailer was given a good part of the credit for creating best-sellers for the industry. The article provided a list of Amazon’s 20 all-time bestsellers. But the books on the list were titles that any brick-and-mortar book store would have sold well in that same 20 years!

Other achievements of Amazon’s first 20 years. The Kindle, introduced in 2007, was a significant contribution. However, their self-publishing platform Kindle Direct Publishing, rolled out in that same year, entered an already well-established and crowded field. Textbook rentals, another listed achievement, had long been around by the time Amazon entered the market (2012). There were numerous subscription services when it got around to launching its own last year. The pattern is that Amazon enters a competitive market dominated by mostly startup companies and soon gains its usual “tight grip” on the sector, forcing out competitors (see “Digital Comics” Publishers Weekly 10 August 2015).

Readers have always availed themselves of ‘gatekeepers,’ beginning with acquisition departments of publishing houses. Gatekeepers determine the array of titles that are made available to a book-buying public. Traditional gatekeepers closer to the consumer include brick-and-mortar booksellers, libraries – and now websites including this one. Goodreads.com, a popular web site and definitely a gatekeeper, has been, wouldn’t you know it, recently bought by Amazon.

Well then, who are the winners and losers of this rise of Amazon, the e-book “explosion,” and now its contraction? The presence of small publishing houses probing the “nooks and crannies” of readership for publishing opportunities is still inspiring. There will always be entrants and exits, but this sector of the industry remains remarkably vibrant. Also, mid-sized book publishers and the conglomerates are adding warehouse space and promising faster delivery to their book store customers. They seem optimistic.

Local book stores lost big time, though it looks like they are returning to discerning communities. The resilience of print is giving them opportunity. The American Booksellers Association reports an uptick in membership over the last five years. And wouldn’t you know it, Amazon Books has just opened its first brick-and-mortar store in Seattle, with more to come.

The group that seems to have suffered the most from the e-book bubble has been authors. Authors Guild recently released a membership survey, and the median income of its membership is down significantly over the last five years of this decade. According to its report in Publishers Weekly (21 September 2015), full-time book authors’ incomes are down by 30% comparing 2009 with 2014, and part-time authors’ income by 38%. There are several causes discussed in the article. The decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores has been a factor. Certainly they are receiving fewer royalties on e-book sales than was the case with print books. Authors, it appears, have been shouldering a good chunk of the cost of Amazon’s discounting.

Thanks to Publishers Weekly and The New York Times. Both diligently read and much admired.