Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sobel Wiki: a post-racial society

This week's featured article at the Sobel Wiki is on James Billington, the first black governor-general of the C.N.A. Sobel wrote For Want of a Nail in the summer of 1971, a time when race relations in the United States were at a low point. Every summer since the mid-1960s, there had been riots in the black ghettos of major American cities. In a way, this was actually a positive development, because it meant that African-Americans were actually fighting back against the institutionalized racism that had always been a feature of American society. At the time, though, it must have looked like the country was about to descend into an all-out racial civil war.

Ten years earlier, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had said that "There's no question that in the next thirty or forty years, a Negro can also achieve the same position that my brother has as President of the United States, certainly within that period of time." By 1971, though, it was an open question whether there would be any black people in the United States, or even whether there would be a United States, by 2001, much less a black president.

Obviously, America had taken a wrong turning somewhere, so Sobel decided to map out a more racially harmonious alternative. In the C.N.A., abolitionists take advantage of a slump in the price of slaves in the late 1830s to pass a generous compensated manumission bill (as opposed to our own history's executive order during a civil war in 1862). And Sobel never comes right out and says so, but the lack of violent opposition is almost certainly due to the presence of an escape hatch for slavery supporters: any slaveowner who doesn't want to see his slaves freed can, and presumably does, pack up and move across the Mississippi to Jefferson. (John Calhoun is the same staunch defender of slavery in the Sobel Timeline that he is in our own. Sobel never mentions Calhoun's reaction to the passage of the Lloyd Manumission Bill in 1840. He does mention a freed slave in 20th century Mexico named Miguel Calhoun, and allows the reader to draw his own conclusions.)

The next component of Sobel's racial utopia is Southern Vandalia, basically our own history's Kansas and Missouri, an area of the C.N.A. which attracts about half of the freed slaves and their children in the 1860s and 1870s, to the point where blacks make up a majority of its population. In fact, Southern Vandalia serves as a refuge for the U.S.M.'s black population as well, since Sobel explicitly says that most of the slaves born there after 1855 escaped across the border to the C.N.A.

Not that every freed slave went to Southern Vandalia to participate in this self-imposed apartheid. Sobel records that of the C.N.A.'s black population of 5.9 million in 1880, a million lived in the Northern Confederation, another 1.1 million lived in the Southern Confederation, and another 1.6 million lived in the confederations of Quebec, Indiana, Northern Vandalia, and Manitoba.

And all was not sweetness and light. When the governor of Southern Vandalia founded an organization called the Friends of Black Mexico to agitate for the abolition of slavery there, his supporters were subject to violent attacks by white racists everywhere but Manitoba. The solution to lingering white racism turned out to be a wave of emigration by blacks and whites in the 1920s, subsidized by the C.N.A.'s version of Henry Ford.

By 1938, the People's Coalition was able to win a narrow governing majority in the Grand Council by pledging to support a black candidate for Council President, an office that was a sort of combination Speaker of the House and Vice President. Twelve years later, this Council President, James Billington, succeeded to the governor-generalship himself.

Billington is much like our own history's Barack Obama, a political moderate who makes of point of drawing as little attention to his race as possible. The major contrast between Sobel's history and our own is in their opponents. Sobel records that Billington's opponents attack him for his policies rather than his race. He is defeated in the 1953 elections by Richard Mason, a more liberal candidate whose own campaign is based on an appeal to guilt rather than racism.

The election of Barack Obama, on the other hand, has been accompanied by opposition that is pretty much both racially motivated and unhinged. Conspiracy theories proliferate among Republicans, each more bizarre than the last, and all of them rooted in the belief that black people aren't real Americans. Anyone who wants to argue that Obama's election means that America is no longer racist would do well to read Chapter 34 of Nail to see what a non-racist political opposition really looks like.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

For All Nails #314: The Magnificent Anachronism

For All Nails #314: The Magnificent Anachronism
by Johnny Pez

Norfolk, Virginia, S.C., CNA
1 May 1972

Once again, as he had so many times before in his life, Dick Mason faced a cluster of vitavision cameras and a gaggle of reporters. This time, though, he was standing unaided on his own two feet, without the crutch that had been his constant companion throughout his political career.

“Good morning, my friends,” he began. No more “my fellow North Americans” or “gentlemen of the press.” He was finally done with that, as he was done with so many other things in his life. “I’m here today to talk about something that is never talked about. It’s something that many of us here in the C.N.A. have had to face, and we’ve had to face it alone, because it’s something that it isn’t considered polite to mention.

“I’m sure that many of you in this room have heard rumors, and I’m sure that many of you have made jokes, about my condition. Well, I’m here to tell you, and tell the entire nation, that what you’ve heard is true.

“I am Richard Mason, and I am an alcoholic.”

As he had expected, there was a susurrus of whispered words around the room that quickly grew into a low babble, then abruptly cut off, as the assembled reporters remembered that they were here to listen, not talk.

Mason could read the mood of the room, as any good politician could. Twenty-five years in the public eye had made him a master of the art. If he wished, he could play upon the group of reporters like a harpist playing upon his instrument. In times past, he would have, working their emotions, making them feel what he wished them to feel.

But not this time. Now he knew that the desire to manipulate the people he spoke to was a symptom of his problem. That desire was the Devil calling to him, and he had gained the strength to put the Devil behind him.

Instead, Mason continued as if he had not heard. He remained cold and rational. “The alienists tell us that alcoholism is a disease of the mind. But we in this country do not treat it like a disease. We regard it as a moral failing, and we drown it in silence.

“My biographer Mr. Losee has called me a magnificent anachronism. Would that I were! Far from being an anachronism, I am in this respect completely modern, and my condition is one I share with far too many men and women. All across this land, millions of North Americans struggle against this disease in shame, and in solitude. Just as I struggled against it for so many years, in shame and solitude. Struggled and failed.”

He was making his audience uncomfortable, he knew. He could read it in the way they avoided looking at him, avoided looking at each other. It was a familiar sensation, all too familiar. Back in his days as governor-general, he had sensed that discomfort, and fed it, until the people he spoke to cried out for a way to ease their guilt. And he had given them a way. He had told them that they could buy forgiveness from the world, and they were ready to believe him – ready to pay any price to lift the burden of guilt from their souls.

But that was the way of the Devil, and he would no longer do the Devil’s work. He would tell the truth, calmly and deliberately.

“I have seen the toll this disease takes on its victims, and on their friends, their families, their careers, and their lives. It took its toll on me, and were it not for the work of one man, it would take its toll still.

“Fourteen months ago, I read a book called Fight for Life by a man named Perceval Aldrich. Mr. Aldrich teaches us that the struggle against this disease should not be a solitary one. The greatest ally we have, he writes, is the comradeship and example we gain when we join with others who share the same affliction, and seek its cure. I took his words to heart, and I found other men and women who struggled against this disease, and together we were able to help each other to fight for life. Thanks to Mr. Aldrich, and to those men and women, I have been sober for fourteen months.

“Twenty years ago, I sought to bring help to a world torn apart by war. It was a noble goal, but I see now that there is a problem of equal magnitude right here in the C.N.A. that I, and all of us, have chosen to neglect. I will neglect it no more.

“I am here today to announce the creation of an organization called the Aldrich Alliance, to help others as I have been helped myself. I have chosen to devote the remainder of my life to the organization and expansion of the Alliance. In this way, the millions who face this disease will no longer have to face it alone.”

And once more, he could hear the Devil tempting him. He could reveal just how brief that remainder would be, and the news would dominate the evening broadcasts and the morning headlines . . . and the Alliance would be forgotten. The doctors had given him a year at most before the cancer claimed his life. Would it be time enough? The question was irrelevant. It was the time he had.

Inwardly, Mason sighed. He had said what he needed to say, what he had come here to say. However, the obligations of a lifetime were not so easily dealt with. This would be his last chance to exorcise the ghosts that clustered around him, and he must use that chance as best he could.

“There are those who will say, with scorn, or with alarm, that I have abandoned the cause of peace and justice. To them I say that no man is indispensable, and that the cause is greater than any man. That cause will go on without me, carried on by such worthy men and women as Councilman Tryon, Professor Volk, Chancellor Dean, and Mayor Levine. I have a new calling, as worthy as any I have had before.

“In closing, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the people who have enriched my life over the years.

“First, my former colleagues in the Liberal Party, especially my friend Councilman Speigal, who made my years as governor-general the success they were, and who I repaid with undeserved scorn. He knew all too well the facts of my condition; how could he not? Yet even when our conflicts were at their most bitter, his sense of honor would not allow him to make capital of it.

“Next, my former colleagues in the Peace and Justice Party, especially Professor Volk, who did so much to make the party a reality, and a force for good in the land. It speaks well of our great nation that such a man of learning and wisdom could gain so prominent a place in our public affairs.

“Above all, I would like to thank my wife Angeline, and my daughters Patricia and Cynthia, who stood by me during all my trials, and showed me what truly matters in a man’s life.

“Thank you, my friends. Thank you for listening.”

Dick Mason turned away from the microphone-festooned podium as it was lit by a cascade of flashbulbs. He ignored the questions shouted at him as he walked away. He had said what he needed to say. There was so much left for him to do, and so little time in which to do it.

And in the distant recesses of his mind, he could hear the Devil calling to him. He could hear him, but he knew that he could fight him. And he would.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sobel Wiki: The Third Founder

One of the pleasures of alternate history is seeing familiar historical characters in unfamiliar roles. However, it's a pleasure that can only last so long. As changes spread out from the original point of divergence, it becomes ever more unlikely for historical people to be born in the alternate history. Sobel was particularly prone to allowing historical characters to show up long after they should have been butterflied away (the FAN Cabal identified Glenn Curtiss and Simon Petlura as the last people from our timeline to appear in For Want of a Nail), but from the 1920s onwards, everyone mentioned is Nail is unique to the Sobel Timeline.

Mind you, not everyone in Nail finds himself playing a new role. Karl Marx is still a radical political economist, Charles Dickens is still a writer, and Darwin and Wallace still formulate the theory of evolution. But people as diverse as John Dickinson, Winfield Scott, Abraham Lincoln, and James Buchanan find themselves playing different parts, some more famous and powerful than in our world, some less so. And as Sobel himself says, one of the most important figures in 19th century history is the subject of the Sobel Wiki's featured article for the week: Andrew Jackson, the founder of the United States of Mexico.

It wasn't easy for Sobel to get Jackson included in the Wilderness Walk, in which the former rebels set out in 1780 to travel overland from Virginia to Spanish Mexico. For one thing, Jackson was only thirteen years old at the time. Nevertheless, he left his home in South Carolina, hitched a ride with a Virginia family named Collingswood, and managed to survive the two-year journey.

Thirty-five years later, Jackson was second-in-command of the army sent by the State of Jefferson to intervene in the Mexican Civil War. Succeeding to command a week into the war after the death of his commanding officer, Jackson entered Mexico City in February 1817, and within four months had seized power and made himself provisional president of Mexico. Jackson then browbeat his nominal allies back in Jefferson into agreeing to a union of the two countries, and in 1821 he was elected the first president of the U.S.M.

Three six-year terms later, Jackson retires, having managed to not only hold his unlikely nation together, but built it into a continental power capable of holding its own in a decade-long war with the despised British colonies he left behind.

Now, it may strike some readers as rather far-fetched to imagine that 130,000 Jeffersonians could successfully gain and maintain control over 3,000,000 Mexicans. I'll admit that I found it far-fetched myself when I first read Sobel. And yet, FAN founder Noel Maurer, who has forgotten more Mexican history than I'm ever likely to know, found it one of the least implausible things about the U.S.M. Here's how he put it in a soc.history.what-if post ten years back:

In essence, Mexico really has no sense of nationalism during this period, and the fiscal resources of the central government are nil....A shell of a state, in other words. More of a collection of disparate local fiefdoms, riven by simmering racial conflict and rampant banditry. Not unlike OTL Mexico in 1810-20, but without the legitimacy and resources conferred by attachment to the crown.

Mexico is in chaos, the conflicts winding down from exhaustion.

Now we have those Jeffersonians, their numbers boosted to several hundred thousand by the 1820s, still notionally part of this chaotic Mexican nation. Their financial resources are even larger than their numbers, due partially to cotton, but mostly to Alexander Hamilton....

Anyway, raising an army and marching on Mexico City, with the good white people of central Mexico cheering you on, is quite possible under such circumstances.

Do note that the good white people of central Mexico are cheering the Jeffersonians on. It's more like the organized --- if de facto independent --- Anglo part of the country coming to rescue the Hispano south. An end to the crazed bad government of Morelos and the Indian mob!

... Andrew Jackson cuts a deal with the white elites in Mexico City. The result is a presidentialist government, with the credibility and the financial resources to pacify the country --- it really wouldn't take very much --- and local autonomy to satisfy the local white elites....
The good white people of Mexico City and environs are instrumental in creating this settlement. It is not imposed on them. In fact, it is more imposed on the good white people of Jefferson, who didn't quite expect a new constitution to result.
Elsewhere in that thread, Maurer noted that the settlement creating the U.S.M., as described, certainly seemed within Andrew Jackson's capacity, and that he and Carlos Yu had both independently commented that Jackson seemed to be one historical character Sobel got right.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sobel Wiki: tears of a clown

This week's featured article at the Sobel Wiki is on Richard Mason, the governor-general of the C.N.A. from 1953 to 1963. Mason is one of the most peculiar figures in For Want of a Nail. He serves as a sort of personification of the collective survivor's guilt that sweeps the C.N.A. after the end of the Global War. The C.N.A. remained neutral throughout the war, and so managed to avoid the appalling death and destruction that the rest of the world suffered. Under Mason's leadership, the C.N.A. undertakes a massive foreign aid program, like a supersized version of the Marshall Plan, motivated not by geopolitical considerations, but by a collective sense of guilt.

Sobel describes Mason breaking down in tears while giving a national address in November 1953, and then becoming even more emotional and erratic over the years. In April 1956 Mason gives a speech in a chorale setting, and sings the last paragraphs. Whether Sobel actually believed that a national leader could act this way and still remain popular (Mason was re-elected in February 1958) is impossible to say. On the other hand, we in the 2010s know from experience that a tendency to break into tears is no impediment to a successful political career.

Which leads to an interesting speculation. Given the link between weepiness and alcoholism in politicians, it may be that Mason's erratic behavior was due to alcoholism rather than mental instability. Sobel never suggests that Mason had a drinking problem, but then, he never suggests that any of the figures in Nail had a drinking problem either. At least, he never directly suggests that Mason was an alcoholic, but he does describe Mason's critics as being like "the only sober people at a drunken orgy, trying to discuss serious matters with individuals in a state of advanced inebriation."

Mason was probably the most prominent figure from the later chapters of Nail not to have appeared as a character in a For All Nails vignette. Maybe the FAN Cabal just didn't know what to say about him.

I think I know what to say about him now.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

They wanted the highway

And now, because it's been a while, the Johnny Pez blog presents another embedded music video. Today it's Fastball's 1998 song "The Way".

Call the police there's a madman around

NICK: ...hate cops, Guido! I'll always hate cops!

GUIDO: Yeah, Nick! I hate cops too!

PAOLO: Yeah! Me too!

NICK: I'll tell you guys what I'm gonna do! I'll tell ya' what! I'm gonna get even with every rotten cop in this city!

PAOLO: Yeah! Me too!

GUIDO: How ya gonna do it, Nick? How ya gonna do it?

NICK: You know what I'm gonna do?

GUIDO: No, no, Nick! Whatcha gonna do?

NICK: I'm gonna ... turn in my badge!

--Firesign Theater, "How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All"

As usual the Four or Five Crazy Guys got there before everyone else on the whole Chris Dorner business. I'm not going to talk about Dorner, because I don't really know anything about him. Instead, I'm going to talk about something I do know about: cops.

As long-time members of my vast global audience will remember, I used to work the graveyard shift behind the front desk of a hotel in Newport, Rhode Island. And I can tell you, based on first-hand knowledge, that the absolute worst guests we ever got were off-duty cops. The reason they were the worst guests was because they knew they could do pretty much anything they wanted and nobody could stop them.

Standard procedure at the hotel was that guests who disturbed other guests (invariably because they were too drunk to realize how noisy they were being) were given exactly one warning to stop. If they peristed, they were turfed out. If they refused to go, we'd call the Newport Police Department, and they would escort the stubborn soon-to-be-ex-guests off the property.

The system usually worked well, but it would break down whenever the rowdy drunken guests were off-duty cops, because the local cops would drag their feet about throwing them out of the hotel. In one instance, the local cops refused to throw out a room full of noisy, drunken off-duty cops having a bachelor party. The drunken cops' long-suffering neighbors called down to complain about the noise at least half a dozen times, and the hotel eventually had to apologize and waive their night's rent. I doubt whether they ever came back, and I don't blame them.

On another occasion, some drunken off-duty cops who were staying at the hotel decided to hang out in the lobby, and they became extremely abusive when I couldn't get them a light for their smokes. I eventually called the local cops to throw them out, but the local cops didn't send them on their way. Instead, they took them to a local donut shop to cool down, then let them sneak back into the hotel through the fire door. At that point, of course, the drunken off-duty cops were trespassing on hotel property, but the local cops refused to arrest them.

And that sums up the problem with police is America today. In a sane society, the police would be held to a higher standard of behavior than everyone else, because the State arms them and charges them with protecting the rest of society. Instead, they're held to a lower standard of behavior than the rest of us just because they're cops. And being human, they abuse the privilege.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lovecraft answers

Let's face it, folks. If any man knows what true horror is, it's H.P. Lovecraft. So I sought his advice on dealing with my own personal nightmare, and he did not fail me.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sobel Wiki: the land without politics

This week's featured article at the Sobel Wiki is on the Confederation of Manitoba. Sobel's Manitoba includes not just our world's province of Manitoba, but also Saskatchewan, Alberta, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and most of Northern Ontario.

Sobel's Manitoba is one of the oddest things about For Want of a Nail. For one thing, even though Manitoba includes most of Rupert's Land, Sobel never once mentions the Hudson's Bay Company. Having gone over the chapter on the creation of the Confederation of Manitoba several times in the course of creating the Sobel Wiki, I've come to the conclusion that this was due to the fact that Sobel was unaware of the existence of the H.B.C. He seemed to think that Rupert's Land was part of Quebec. If any of my Canadian readers doubt whether such ignorance is possible, all I can do is remind you that Sobel was an American. If it didn't have any impact on American history, then it didn't exist.

Another odd thing about Manitoba is the location of its capital city, North City (named of course after Lord North, the Prime Minister who crushed the American Revolution). Sobel never says where North City is, so it's necessary to infer its location from clues in the text. Sobel mentions on page 66 that a railroad link between North City and Port Superior was established in 1855, from which it can be inferred that North City itself was not located on the shores of Lake Superior. So where was it? The FAN Cabal decided that it was on the site of our history's St. Paul, Minnesota, on the left bank of the Mississippi. (Dan McDonald reasoned further that a city on the site of Minneapolis, on the right bank, ought to be called West North City.) When I started the Sobel Wiki seven or eight years later, I thought about the matter again, and came to the conclusion that, no, North City wouldn't be on the site of St. Paul, because in the early 1780s that area had no white settlers whatsoever, and it would make absolutely no sense to establish a capital city there. Where, then? I finally decided that, if North City wasn't on Lake Superior, then it was most likely to be located at one of the factories (ie trading posts) that the H.B.C. had established on the shores of Hudson Bay. Since the company's headquarters was located at York Factory, I decided that was the logical site of North City, and so I've indicated in the Sobel Wiki.

Yet another odd thing about Sobel's Manitoba is its population growth. It's a subtle thing, and a casual reader of Nail wouldn't notice it, but the FAN Cabal were anything but casual readers. It was David Mix Barrington who noticed that Manitoba's population in 1930 was given as 31.5 million people. For comparison, the same area in our world in 1930 had a population of only 4 million people, about one eighth as many. Dave MB felt this was far too many, so in a vignette posted on 31 December 2001, he published "revised" population figures that showed Manitoba with "only" 16.1 million people in 1930.

How could Sobel think that Manitoba could support so many people? Well, thoughout the text, Sobel lays great stress upon the fertility of Manitoba's soil: "Her grain fields would soon be recognized as among the finest in the world," is how he puts it on page 66. He seemed to think that the Canadian prairie provinces were a super-sized Iowa that could support as many people as chose to settle there.

But probably the oddest thing about Sobel's Manitoba was its utter lack of political disputes, or even partisanship of any kind. It was known as "the land without politics." And this is in spite of the fact that Manitoba attracts, as Sobel puts it, "religious sects, utopians, poets, and the discontented of the other states." Putting together a collection of utopians, dreamers, religious reformers, and malcontents and expecting the result to be an apolitical rural paradise is astonishing.

Was Sobel serious? Maybe not. Sobel was not above committing the occasional act of satire, such as having rival groups of pacifists clash at an international peace conference, so Manitoba might be a satire on the back-to-the-land communalists who were active when Nail was being written. On the other hand, there are so many strange things about the Confederation of Manitoba that it's hard to say whether Sobel was being satirical or just failing to pay attention.