Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sobel Wiki: shibboleth

This week's featured article at the Sobel Wiki is on Carlos Conceptión, the 19th century Mexican politician-turned-revolutionary. Although Sobel never explicitly says so, it is clear from Conceptión's rhetoric that his ideology has been heavily influenced by the Sobel Timeline's alt-Karl Marx. As I've noted before, Sobel includes a number of historical people who were born several decades after his point-of-divergence in 1777, and Marx is one of them. In the case of Conceptión, Sobel begins by describing his rhetoric and actions in the 1870s in Chapter 16. Its not until Chapter 19 that Sobel provides us with a long quote from Marx's 1869 second edition of On the Coming Revolution in Mexico, to show us the source of Conceptión's ideology.

It's hard not to sympathize with Conceptión. The United States of Mexico had been dominated since its creation in 1819 by its Anglo minority. Of the country's first six presidents, four were Anglos, one was a Hispanicized Anglo, and only one was a native Hispanic. The U.S.M.'s economy is also dominated by Anglos, and is clearly becoming more so as the California consortium Kramer Associates becomes ever more powerful and influential.

(A question that Sobel never addresses is whether K.A. founder Bernard Kramer can really be considered an Anglo. Kramer is a German immigrant, and Sobel notes at one point that one of his business partners in K.A. is his Hispano brother-in-law, which implies that he married into San Francisco's Hispano community, and which implies further that Kramer is Catholic. Sobel always uses Bernard as Kramer's first name, but of course his original German name would have been Bernhard; and Sobel always quotes Kramer speaking English, but Kramer is, as Sobel admits, the product of a polyglot culture who presumably spoke several languages, including Spanish. It can be argued that Kramer actually straddled the U.S.M.'s racial divide; I can imagine him going by Bernard and speaking English in his business dealings with the country's Anglo business elite, then going home to his Hispano family, and speaking Spanish and going by Bernardo when he's among them.)

A more intersting aspect of Conceptión is his surname. You would expect him to be named Concepción, but Sobel always uses a weird fusion of the Spanish Concepción and the English Conception. This is one of several instances of Sobel using nonstandard variant spellings of Spanish names: Cuatros Hombres rather than Quatros Hombres, Guatamala rather than Guatemala, and Chapultapec rather than Chapultepec. Presumably the idea he's trying to get across is that the U.S.M.'s Anglo elite occasionally mangles the spelling of Mexican placenames. However, Carlos Yu of the For All Nails project had a more sinister interpretation: the variant spellings are shibboleths, a way for the Anglos to maintain a group identity, and denigrate the country's other racial groups, by deliberately misspelling certain names, much the way modern conservatives do by using the grammatically incorrect "Democrat Party".

Under that interpretation, Sobel's use of "Chapultapec", "Guatamala", and especially "Conceptión", are his way of siding with Mexico's Anglos in the country's historical culture war. In the Sobel Wiki, I've chosen to adopt this interpretation, so that the entries use the correct Spanish spellings, and note the existence of the variant spellings.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sobel Wiki: the dictatorship of the plutocracy

This week's featured article at the Sobel Wiki is on Benito Hermión, dictator of the United States of Mexico, and first (and only) Emperor of Mexico.

For Want of a Nail has two central characters, one for each of the nations it features: Ezra Gallivan of the Confederation of North America, and Benito Hermión of the United States of Mexico. Fittingly, the two are contemporaries, and their periods of power overlap: Hermión rules the U.S.M. from 1881 to 1901, and Gallivan governs the C.N.A. from 1888 to 1901. Gallivan is a moderate reformer who leads a newly-formed populist political party to its first electoral triumph. Hermión is an aristocratic reactionary who subverts democracy on behalf of his corporate backers.

As I've noted before, Nail can be seen (and in some quarters, is seen) as a work of propaganda aimed at convincing the people of the C.N.A. to ally themselves with Kramer Associates, the nuclear-armed supercorporation, against the U.S.M. In this view, alt-Sobel, the Australian business historian who is the nominal author of Nail, slants his narrative to present K.A. in as positive a light as possible. Thus, when he writes about Hermión's seizure of power, he de-emphasizes the extent to which Hermión is acting on behalf of K.A. founder Bernard Kramer. For instance, it is only in a footnote at the bottom of page 208 that we learn that it was Kramer who prevented the Senate from appointing a successor to President George Vining after the latter's death in September 1881. It is left to the reader to deduce that Hermión's maneuvers to have himself appointed "Chief of State" over the next five days were also done at Kramer's behest.

By contrast, alt-Sobel goes into great detail in recounting the role of Kramer's successor, Diego Cortez, in removing Hermión from power in October 1901. We see Cortez attempt in vain to persuade Hermión to give up his dreams of empire. We see Cortez slowly and surely draw his plans against Hermión. We are even treated to a lengthy description of a meeting between Cortez and the anti-Hermión opposition. Finally, we are assured that it was Cortez, acting almost single-handed, who made certain that democratic government was restored in Mexico after Hermión's ouster.

Throughout Nail, alt-Sobel emphasizes the U.S.M.'s heritage as the stepchild of the American rebels of 1776, and fixes on this heritage as the reason for the country's troubled political culture. He ignores the role that Kramer Associates played in corrupting Mexican politics, though the narrative makes it clear just how important that role was, in spite of his attempts to downplay it. It's a subtle demonstration of how the historian's biases can subvert the facts he relates.