Once and Future Blog

A topnotch WordPress.com site

All memorials are strange

A “bourgeouis” memorial stone (source: Tolkovatel’, http://ttolk.ru/?p=14958)

A few articles on striking Russian tombstones caught my eye today. The picture on the right is exemplary, rather than representative, but it’s definitely worth a few minutes to check out pictures:12, 3.

As the attention these memorials are getting testifies, these are fascinating and strange to Americans, but the comments on the second link indicate that they also unusual and evocative to many Russians. This is absolutely not what you would see in your average Russian graveyard. Some urban cemeteries are considered artistic and interesting enough to attract tourists on a regular basis, such as the one in Moscow where Stalin and Chekhov are buried, and though I haven’t been to the ones pictured myself, they may be similar.What’s interesting to me isn’t whether laser-engraved, lifelike, even life-sized photographs of men on tombstones is a crime against “good taste”, or a bizarre custom among a small subculture of Russian nouveau riche, though. It’s what, exactly, they are memorializing, and why.

One commenter in the English Russia article says,

These men have left their images on tombstones to be remembered, im wondering how many people each has killed? Whose families they have distroyed? Each of these men have left a mark in the world, they are infamous. They found power without glory, and are trying not to forgotton.

This is a compelling reading of these portrait stones, as they preserve powerful, masculine images of men (sometimes with their belongings, or in idealized settings) in long-lasting stone. It seems that the dead are looking out at the visitors. But as countless historical archaeologists have pointed out, the dead do not bury themselves. Rather, it is their families, relatives, or in some cases state or employers who determine whether and how their graves will be memorialized.

Cemeteries are places where the living build images of the people they knew ones according to their relationships and social values. When these change, practices in memorialization change. For instance, in Sarah Tarlow’s book Bereavement and Commemoration, the author found that non-elite Orcadian tombstones held very little personal information in the eighteenth century – often only initials that marked a grave site for families to visit – but came to stress relationships, particularly marriage, and the sadness of bereavement, parallel to more individualistic and romantic ideologies in the nineteenth century.

What’s really fantastic about Tarlow’s book is her discussion of why mourning attitudes changed in the Victorian era (think replacing your wardrobe and household furnishings with everything black) and the twentieth century (when a number of authors have insisted we repress and ignore death, since mourning has become much less public and material). She writes,

The challenge to the bereaved in the nineteenth century was in finding a means of expression which would signify outwardly the profundity and pain of inner grief….However, by the end of the last century, means of funerary expression such as the extravagant use of black, extended periods of mourning and a high degree of elaboration and ostentation in commemoration had been so frequently used that they lost some of their expressive power. The dramatic personal expression of the mid-nineteenth century had become cliched, which precipitated a crisis of expression, accentuated by confrontation with the appalling slaughter of the First World War. (p. 175-176)

She argues that when originally radical Victorian mourning practices began to seem cliched, people had to find new ways to express a sense of loss that felt so personal it could not be conventionalized, since one of the characteristics of modern Anglo-American societies is how focused on the value of individuals we are.

Could this be what is going on with the photographic tombstones? Are they really expressions of the power of the dead, in that they were ordered by the deceased before their deaths, or are they efforts of their loved ones to preserve their memories in lifelike ways? Could they be both, as conspicuous consumption but also offerings of love? Do they communicate that the sum of a person is his body, or the impression he makes – that there is no eternal life, only physical presence? (That would be quite the opposite of eighteenth century American gravestones, which stressed with “memento mori” that graves held only physical remains, while souls were eternal.)

And who are they for? Perhaps the stones with photographs of people with their cars or pipes are symbolic offerings to the dead, creating images of them with the things they loved, or as their loved ones imagine they would like to be remembered. The fact that few of them offer personal information, and some even lack names, implies to me that they are for private visitation and remembrance by people who knew the deceased, not public statements about power. The Tolkovatel’ article includes a few pictures of simple stones that include only nicknames and religious symbols or flowers – one says “tooth,” another “dollar.” Clearly, these are signs of private bonds and relationships, signs of intimacy lasting beyond death.

This is all speculation, of course, especially since I am not well-versed in Russian funerary traditions or the social context of wealthy life there (whether legally or illegally obtained). But there is more to be gained by wondering than by gawking.

Anthropology’s Great Books, hipster drama, and more

Sometimes, the internet is just too good to keep to yourself. Worth reading:

1) Anthropology’s landmark books – this is a treasure trove, with comments from anthropologists listing the 3 most influential books they’ve read. I, of course, want to go pick some up immediately, and keep checking the post for more.

2) Paul Mullins on sympathy for hipsters – when one of the contemporary archaeologists you most admire wonders why hipster hatred is such a popular sentiment, you READ it. He points out that people with prominent forums seem to be ranting against hipsters as an idealized market niche, but not actually asking people who would qualify about their viewpoints and experiences. It’s interesting to ask why they would do that.

3) Wade Davis’s review of The World Yesterday by Jared Diamond – I haven’t read Diamond’s book yet, but as a standalone piece, this article has some important things to say about the fraught position of evolutionary reasoning in anthropology. That’s a discussion I’ve been having a lot lately with scientifically literate non-anthropologists, so it’s an important thing to be able to recap for non-specialists, which this piece does admirably.  At the end, I think it comes a little close to implying that traditional societies exist to give “us” hope that there are different ways to live, when really they exist for their own sakes, but to be fair, Davis doesn’t say that outright.

4) Field books from the future – a little thought experiment from the National Museum of Natural History’s field book collection project.

5) Syllabi from Melissa Harris-Perry on the politics of environmental justice and Black political and religious thought – sometimes when you know something is important and interesting, but you aren’t sure where to start, it’s excellent to have resources like these. I’m immediately grateful for the second, since the A.M.E. Zion Church was pretty significant in my research site in the 19th century, and I am trying to learn more about its context in African American history.

6) Cultural Heritage Informatics  field school – this looks like a great opportunity, if you can do it, but even if not, the listed prerequisites seem like good free, DIY training suggestions on their own.

This is why….

Fort Providence residential school, children and staff. (Sacred Heart Parish/NWT Archives)

This article describes how the Canadian government has failed to collect and archive documents related to the residential schools that indigenous children were forced to attend for over a century, despite legal requirements. These schools, which also existed in the United States and Australia, were set up to assimilate Native children into Euro-American society. They intentionally removed children from their families, languages, and cultural traditions as they grew up, which was inherently harmful to families and communities, and the children often suffered further abuse. It is a dark part of our very recent histories in much of the English-speaking world.

According to the Globe and Mail,

The government had intended the documents to be the basis of a resource centre at the University of Manitoba, where survivors and their families could find out what happened behind the walls of the church-run schools.

Federal departments knew they were required to produce the material, but a senior bureaucrat has indicated they procrastinated for years, then dumped the burden on the commission when costs mounted and time ran short.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in 2008 as part of the $1.9-billion settlement between former students, the Canadian government, the churches, and others, to record the experience of the schools.

It says it has neither the time nor the resources to search for the documents. It is taking the government to court for refusing to release the material that could shine light on the abuse of first nations, Inuit and Métis children during the schools’ 130-year history.

This is why historical records have gaps and biases. Historical records aren’t deposited naturally. They’re created when people make efforts and direct resources toward them.

This is why it is the people who receive the least protection who also have the least input into these histories. Inequality in the past affects the history that is written and accessible for us now…and what we choose to do, or not to do, to bring that inequality to light shapes the historical record we will leave for the future.

This is why historical archaeology exists. It’s one way of addressing those gaps and biases, and trying to get a different perspective on life in the past from different forms of evidence. It’s not perfect, but it’s one thing we can do to help.

This is why Idle No More exists – because this is what North American history looks like, whether we hide it or bring it into the light. I’m neither a First Nations member nor a Canadian citizen, but I can see why it’s “not just an Indian thing“.

One name, two lives: notes from whaling archives on the mysterious Henry Greens

After half a year of building up data on Sag Harbor whalers, I’ve finally determined for sure that the Henry Green whose whaling voyages are so well documented is not the same Henry Green who lived in the working class neighborhood of Eastville; married Esther, the sister of their locally prominent African American neighbor David Hempstead; and had a large family of daughters who supported their mother and each other for decades by working as servants and seamstresses, buying property with their cousin Mary Jane, and writing each other into their wills.

No, the Henry Green who kept excellent journals of his career as a whaling captain was definitely not the Henry Green whose family I find so fascinating and inspiring. Henry Green the captain was probably white, well educated, and became wealthy at sea. Henry Green the husband of Esther was a person of color who earned enough to buy a small property and build a house…and apart from his inclusion in a list of native whalers at the Shinnecock Museum & Cultural Center, that’s all I know. The voluminous journals of Henry Green do not belong to that Henry Green.

Frustrating as that is, I’m glad to have this question resolved. It’s not too surprising – historical records duplicate the inequalities and exclusions in which they are produced. Even though whaling has been lauded as one of the few fields where people of color or those with modest means could advance based on their own hard work, it was still part of the early modern United States, where exclusion was based on race and resources. Most of our records were made by people like the captain Henry Green; few were made by people like the sailor Henry Green.

In their own time, these two probably never met or knew about each other, even though they worked in the same industry in a small port city; the captain was a little older, and  I have found no records of their sailing together. Yet in my mind, they are mirror images of each other – what might the more elusive Henry Green have written, if he’d had the same opportunities as his more privileged historical doppelganger?

For instance, might he too have written something like this?

“It would be a great comfort to one banished as I am from all that is Dear to me to learn that my beloved Family are well; Indeeed this unremitted hard service is a great sacrifice, giving up all that is pleasurable to the soul or soothing to the mind and engaging in a constant contest with the elements or tempers and dispositions as boisterous and untractable, great allowance should be made for us when we come on shore for being long in the habits of absolute command we grow impatient of contradiction and are unfitted for the gentle intercourse of quite life, I am sally (?) in great hopes that it will not be long before I can make the experiment again for I assure you that I will endeavor to conduct myself with as much consideration as possible. “ (Henry Green, back leaf of the journal of the ship Phenix, 1831; Log 208, Mystic Seaport G.W. Blunt Library)


Today I wrote a draft of my dissertation abstract and an outline of my theoretical framework on 750words.com. When I finished, it gave me these “stats” about today’s writing. Given that I mostly write about racism, inequality, household archaeology, and cemeteries, it’s actually pretty on the mark! Historical archaeology FTW?

Mapping History Online: Quest for the Best Applications

After spending two months preparing tour materials for the Eastville Community Historical Society’s charrette, I’m now moving on to transferring those materials online, which means I’m starting to explore mapping applications. Today I’m just making note of what I’ve seen so far, but I would love other thoughts, suggestions, and advice.

And then it will look just like this!

Okay, well, no. But we can dream.

1) Since I’ve been working in ArcGIS so far, my initial experimentation has been with ESRI’s online service. The main attraction for me is simply that I could upload layers straight from my GIS files. However, it’s also interactive for the viewer, since you can turn on and off layers, click individual points for pop-up descriptions, zoom and pan, and change the basemap from satellite to street or topographic. It looks like people may even be able to add layers, which would be a great way to learn more from local or distant experts, but I haven’t used that feature yet so I am not sure if it requires annoying extras (like signing up for an ESRI account, which many visitors would not want to do).

The main problem that I’ve run into is just that the pop-up descriptions come from attribute fields in ArcGIS, which have a 50 character limit. Worse than Twitter! It’s hard to tell any kind of story in that few characters, and what info I’ve given so far is fairly reductionist and boring. I will have to work to improve those and also link them to fuller stories somehow, whether elsewhere on the website, in another medium, or even marketed as the attraction for coming on a tour in person.

Now that you’re warned, my small scale experiment at mapping a couple themes of interest is at http://bit.ly/SaLBN7

This is the only program I’ve used for this purpose, but I’ve also tried to do mapping for presentations or online exhibits on Google Maps and Viewshare, and I think those would be better for telling different stories about this neighborhood.

2) Viewshare has more helpful and attractive pop-ups in its maps, a lovely interface, and multiple visualization options. However, it requires data in a fairly specific format, i.e. an Excel spreadsheet with latitude & longitude, which is what has kept me from finishing my previous project using Viewshare: editing to include major changes is time consuing and tedious. Also, I had the information in ArcGIS tables already, I have a dissertation to work on, and I’m not sure how well it works for hyper-local mapping like this, so I went with something more customizable.

In the future, though, it might be wonderful for more long-distance mapping, like the voyages of Eastville’s whalers, especially combined with visualizations of demographic or economic information about African American and Native American whalers from Long Island.

3) Google Maps might actually be the best option for reaching visitors just learning about the area, or allowing others to contribute, since it doesn’t require special software. Pretty much everyone who would use an online map knows how to navigate it, it lets you see photos and reviews of nearby places, and it has street view, which would definitely help an online map give you the feeling of a walking tour. If you want to see a fantastic example, check out how Google is showing off UNESCO world heritage sites at the top of the page. It’s an archaeologist’s dream!

Coming back to earth, though (ahahaha!), on a very basic level, I’ve found that navigating between street view and an aerial map while progressing down a street isn’t that easy, it turns out. On an ethical note, I’m wary of pinpointing houses that are currently residential as historic sites on such a public forum without the permission of their owners. Finally, you can’t export nice-looking maps very easily. I’d like to explore the potential of Google Maps for heritage areas more in the future, though – it seems like there is a lot.

Are there others you’ve heard about, or used?


Eastville Heritage House

On Saturday I had the good fortune and excellent timing to be part of the Eastville Community Historical Society’s (ECHS) charrette. Today I’d like to spread the word about what a neat experience this was for drawing the local community into finding direction for the future.

What is it?

A charrette is a short term, intensive planning effort that tries to draw perspectives and reach consensus among multiple stakeholders. It’s a term mainly used in architecture for quickly coming to an agreement on design projects. It was an architect involved with the restoration of the ECHS’s Heritage House who came up with the idea. The general principle is that process is more important than product – it may be messier to let people disagree than to bring in a professional consultant, but if you’re not trying to work with the people you are working for, you might as well not do anything at all.

Why hold one?

The historical society is at a crossroads for the future in the sense of starting to plan several major projects, but needing to understand how these projects could best serve its community. Even though it’s located in Sag Harbor, NY, a major tourist destination in the summer, the ECHS is a very community-oriented grassroots institution, founded in the 1980s by local residents who wanted to preserve a historic AME Zion church building, still run by many of its initial members. It still draws heavily for its membership and audience from local residents of the historic Eastville neighborhood and the surrounding African-American resort developments.

The ECHS leadership is considering remodeling the basement of its Heritage House, a 1920s Sears Roebuck home that it restored in the 1990s, in order to create a larger space for meetings or exhibits; planning for the documentation and restoration of the St David’s AME Zion cemetery, which it now owns; and imagining how best to improve its tour programs and use its outdoor space. These are all big projects that require community support to be feasible and worthwhile. The charrette was the strategy chosen to introduce and discuss them.

How does it work?

I would describe the process on Saturday as “directed democracy.” In the all-day program, to which local people, members of government, clergy, and press were invited, the first couple of hours involved planners and facilitators introducing the organization and the issues on the table.

1. First, after a summary of the charrette process and goals, everyone introduced themselves. We handed out information packets with pens, paper, maps, history, strategic plans, and membership info.

2. All who were able went on a walking tour covering the neighborhood’s historic core and some of the preservation and tour issues we would discuss throughout the day.

3. When the tour group returned, everyone split into groups, and each group would discuss one of the four main planning areas: the heritage house, its grounds, the cemetery, and the tour program. Each workshop had two facilitators, and drafted volunteers to take notes and draw ideas. The facilitators introduced the issues that needed to be discussed and presented relevant information, like potential plans for the building, or methods and costs of cemetery survey. Open discussion followed, with the facilitators mainly trying to encourage people to join in while keeping discussion on topic.

4. At this point, we stopped for lunch, which was as long as we could fit in order to encourage people getting to know each other and talking openly. (After lunch, they fit me in for 20 minutes to summarize the historical research I’ve done here this fall, and what I’m hoping to do in the future, which turned out to be a great opportunity for me to meet people I should talk to about neighborhood history in the future! This isn’t a key part of a charrette though.)

5. After lunch, we split back into groups to try to come up with ideas and solutions for the issues we’d discussed in the morning. Then we came back together into a large session for an hour, where someone from each group presented their results, and everyone could offer questions and thoughts.

6. We thanked everyone and they left! The next step will be compiling all of the material people wrote and creating a draft proposal for future plans, which the ECHS will try to present to the community and gain feedback.

How did it go?

I’m still feeling the afterglow, since it was great to bring people together (a little over 30 total, which turned out to be close to the ECHS’s capacity), so I would say it went wonderfully. While this number cannot be representative of the entire local community,  and future efforts will attempt to reach out further, there were people from several different stakeholding groups, and all were enthusiastic to be involved. We all heard new ideas that the leadership hadn’t thought of (precisely the point of this exercise), and gained support and excitement for some proposals that were on the table. Including, fortunately for me, one that would contribute to my research!

Not to mention…it was fun. I feel so fortunate that I got to be involved. So if you’re in an organization looking for ways to engage the public, and you are willing to spend months planning, then maybe consider a charrette.

Iterative Mapping: local history as process

Making a neighborhood history walking tour map is not something the newest person in the neighborhood should do on her own. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been working with a local history group this fall to make the map for a public planning event tomorrow, called a charrette , and for the group’s website and interpretive materials in the future. Yet while I have access to historical resources and technological tools, there is one necessary ingredient I don’t possess: local knowledge.

Initially it seemed simple to ask the neighborhood historian which sites should be included on the tour, add historical information from my research, and identify them on the map. That turned out to be very wrong. It turned out to be an effort that would take multiple drafts and much revision to find a consensus. But in the end, we couldn’t have made the product without the process, and thinking of that process as its own form of unfinished oral history has made it even more valuable.

Iteration one

How do you think of places that hold memories in your neighborhood? Do you think of them from the perspective of someone flying over, picking out houses from an aerial view? Do you separate houses based on when they were built, or the dates of important events? Almost certainly not. You probably imagine them as though you are standing outside the front door, or walking up the steps. You probably envision them in the consecutive order of travel, whether by foot, car, or bicycle. What almost nobody does is think of the place they live in terms of a mapping product that doesn’t exist yet.

First, we tried doing a digital walking tour to identify sites, an idea inspired by Activehistory.ca. I thought that looking at houses on Google street view, then zooming out to see where they were on an aerial photograph, would bridge the historian’s and my knowledge: she knew places from the ground, and I could only make sense of them on historic and aerial maps. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. The street view was difficult to navigate as though we were walking along the road, the foliage sometimes obscured facades, and the historian found it hard to see the screen in general; this was partly a generational difference between the two of us and partly due to a lack of practice on my part, but it turned out to be easier to simply go out and walk the route.

Walking, and going home later to spend some quality time with existing maps (and even Google street view), helped in terms of location, but we had to do it again later to check that the historical maps, the new map, and the historian’s knowledge all matched up.

Iteration two

The first map attempt I made identified each site by family names, but checking on the location of each site raised questions as to those names. Members of the society referred to historic houses as, say, the “Smith house,” referring to an early or important family who lived there. Yet many families in the neighborhood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been closely related. Sometimes there were multiple Smiths at the same time. Sometimes descendants remained in one house or moved around the area for generations. Sometimes the Smiths the historian considered important were tenants, not owners, so their presence is less well documented. Sometimes I didn’t understand why we were talking about the twentieth century Smiths when the nineteenth century Joneses who lived there were so interesting. So…which Smiths?

I tried to fix this on my map by giving the houses or house sites names of the families who lived there in chronological order: the Smith house might become the Jones-Smith-Carter house, for example. This became confusing and difficult to read, however, and still didn’t answer the biggest question: what made these families important?

Iteration Three

The next round of revision really dealt with the question of significance, and I asked many more annoying questions about why specific places mattered to local history. This was a great way to elicit information about why people today think history matters.

The society director helpfully  suggested that there are three themes for three time periods in the neighborhood’s history: its early history as a racially and ethnically mixed, working class whaling settlement; its twentieth century reinvention as an African-American vacation community with strong connections to Harlem; and its identity as the home of several prominent African-Americans within a famous resort area today. (This is clearly anonymous in name only, because that’s a lot of clues.)

The historian, on the other hand, identified some early houses in terms of the whaling history, others because of their Native American occupants, and others in more personal anecdotes, as the homes of descendants of settlers and people who helped her reconstruct neighborhood history when she founded the historical society in the 1980s. Her knowledge isn’t structured in terms of time periods, it is structured by place. More on that next entry.

Iteration Four

I tried to combine these different perspectives on local history by numbering each site and creating a separate booklet for the key, doing away with the site names completely. For each number, I named key themes in local history that it tied into so future tour guides can simply say, “today we’re doing the whaling tour,” and go to the sites identified as relevant. Then I structured the content by year or time period, adding information about which families lived there and what they did.

This met everyone’s approval, and then the corrections to text began. Others noted entries where more local knowledge would help flesh it out, where names were confused, or where the significance wasn’t clear. We went through several more drafts of the text before it met everyone’s approval.

Iterations five and beyond?

We’re finished with the map for the tour tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean we’re finished. I hope that at the event tomorrow, local residents will give us more information to flesh out our history. My research is ongoing and I am already finding more relationships between different households through time.

More importantly, focusing on the process by using a map to spark memories, call on local knowledge, and gain input about what is important about this neighborhood has been a “product” in itself. It has been such a useful exercise that I would gladly do it again, rather than calling the picture and text a finished product. Local history is a living thing, and in a way, remembering history is making history.

Rolling Jubilee: thinking through the objections

A day before the official kickoff I wanted to collect yet more Rolling Jubilee links, but at this point there are enough basically similar summaries (like the New York Times’) that I’m not going for comprehensiveness. On a practical level, the issues are whether the forgiven debts will be counted as income, i.e. taxable, and whether the entire movement will “work.” The major topic of discussion today on an ideological level seems to be why debt would be chosen as a rallying point.

According to Bloomburg Businessweek, IRS policy on forgiven debt could prove a problem, since it is considered income the debtor receives. The IRS provides a very unhelpful one sentence guideline saying that gifts are not counted as taxable income, but doesn’t specify the legal definition or proof of gift in this case. Presumably the Rolling Jubilee will try to record its actions as gifts, so as to not make its beneficiaries subject to taxes on their debt. I will relieved to see this verified though.

Now for the more principled critiques. Doug Henwood’s, for instance. He asks,

But why the intense focus on debt and its relief? Debt could be an excellent point of entry into a discussion about many other things. Why so much personal debt? Because wages are stagnant or down, unemployment is high, yet the cost of living continues to rise. Why so much mortgage debt? Because until sometime in 2007, housing inflation (meaning tax-subsidized homeownership) was practically the American national religion. Why so much student debt? Because higher education is too expensive—in fact, it should be free. Etc. But Occupy has inherited a lot of American populism’s obsession with finance as the root of all evil, without connecting it to the rest of the system.

He has a point – our economic system runs on debt, but it’s a tool, not the root of the problem. The inequality that makes debt a means of increasing one’s wealth for a company like Bain Capital or an individual like Donald Trump, and an tightening shackle for millions of less famous people, isn’t necessarily the fault of banks. It has to do with wage stagnation, the casualization of labor (a phrase I hate because it makes it sound fun to have your hours, benefits, pay, and security reduced), out of control medical costs, predatory lending practices, and the rising cost of higher education, to name just a few factors. Given those realities, Henwood asks, is it radical enough?

Seth Ackerman and Andrew Ross discuss the same question of whether attacking debt is really the best direction in Strike Debt, the Debate. Ackerman, playing devil’s advocate to Ross’s full-throated support, points out that Strike Debt doesn’t have a clear policy end point – in fact, he’s not sure of it’s point in the first place:

Strike Debt essentially takes the form of an open-ended propaganda campaign, with no defined end-goal.

And I have to confess to being a little unclear even about the fundamental message of the propaganda: is all debt illegitimate, or just some debt? Should only some debts be cancelled, or should all of them be—in which case, wouldn’t we also lose most of our savings? Should there be a permanent end to the existence of debt; if so, what kind of system should replace it?

Maybe open-endedness and ambiguity are useful, though. If the clear purpose of the Rolling Jubilee were to completely overthrow our banking system, I would object to it as impractical in reality but destructive and ill-thought-out in theory. If it were a complete rejection of the concept of debt, I wouldn’t support that either; debt can be incredibly useful for bridging insecurity.

On the other hand, if left ambiguous, we are free to interpret the Rolling Jubilee as a goodwill effort of peer-to-peer support, and as a small scale protest against inequality. If left open-ended, it can inspire ideas that are more grassroots and culturally based than specific policy demands, which is something I think a lot of critiques of the Occupy movement miss.  How do you measure if something like that “works”? Doesn’t the publicity this experiment is getting mean that in a cultural sense, it already “works”?

Both articles are correct that Rolling Jubilee doesn’t identify sources of common struggle that everyone shares, since debt is widespread but not inevitable. In fact, Ackerman and Ross’s discussion brings up the point that consumer, mortage, medical, and student loan debt all exist for different reasons and because of different choices and circumstances. Medical debt is generally viewed much more sympathetically than credit card debt. Again, I think that this may be a feature, not a bug. By refusing to distinguish between types of debt as “good” or “bad,” “accidental” or “chosen,” Strike Debt proponents may be missing nuance, but they’re also refusing to buy into the association of money with virtue.

This is a big deal. The idea that having “bad debt” means you deserve any suffering it brings you is all too closely tied to the idea that our incomes reflect our work ethics and our values, and that if you are in bad financial straits, you must be lazy or misguided or otherwise at fault. Sometimes, perhaps, this is true; we all make mistakes and some of them relate to money. But poverty doesn’t exist because all poor people screwed up, and five minutes of Mitt Romney’s time is not actually more productive than my entire year’s work. If we credit ourselves for our good fortune, and blame others for their bad luck, we are less willing to help each other. Refusing that entire line of thought is a exercise in empathy, and a good reason for joining in an effort of mutual aid.

Disagree? How come?

Now let’s see how this thing starts rolling….

Rolling Jubilee Link Roundup

Today I’m seeing a lot of buzz online about Rolling Jubilee, a debt relief effort organized by a group in connection with Occupy Wall Street. The short explanation is that the group is buying debts in default for about $15 per $100 worth of debt and simply discharging the obligations, relieving random individuals. It’s a protest against the way the sale of debts in our financial system tends to benefit large corporations and even rich individuals, and a form of anonymous peer-to-peer support.

This is literally fascinating and exciting me so much that I cannot focus on my actual research dealing with systemic inequality in 19th century America. So I’m rounding up some links here for anyone who’s interested and hoping that will help me walk away until later.

Rolling Jubilee (official site)

Matt Yglesias: “Occupy Distressed Debt: Can we save the world with loan forgiveness?” (a critique that I’m not sure gets the point, but he’s prominent and the comments section is full of questions and debate)

Natasha Lennard: “Occupy Gets Into the Debt Market” (exploring potential problems – the kind that might happen if it were successful, though!)

Tim Worstall (Forbes): “Finally, an Occupy Wall Street Idea We Can All Get Behind, the Rolling Jubilee” (general explanation that brings up an interesting tax issue and approves it as a market-based solution)

Huffington Post: “Rolling Jubilee Offshoot of Occupy Wall Street To Offer Debtors $1 Million Bailout” (summary with videos – but it’s already surpassed $1 million!)

And here are a few from an explicitly Christian perspective – relevant given the origins of the jubilee idea, and very expressive of why this is so appealing.

Fred Clark: “Rolling Jubilee: Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land”

Bethany Keeley-Jonker: “Rolling Jubilee as a model of God’s Grace”

Richard Beck: “The Rolling Jubilee”


I think this is really exciting even though I don’t think that debt itself in our financial system is inherently harmful. Credit can be a useful tool for individuals and businesses, and in a systemic sense it helps lubricate economic expansion. In the past few years we’ve seen how too much separation between the paper value of debts and the actual value of assets can be highly destructive (thanks for 2008, Wall Street!), but also how the contraction of available credit can hold back growth. I don’t think that a financial system based heavily on credit is something we need to eliminate.

On the other hand, I do think that when debt becomes crushing (e.g. through medical bills) or contributes to our country’s increasing economic inequality, that is a problem. I like the idea of a “people’s bailout” because it’s appropriating a tool of the powerful – the ability to buy and sell debts for pennies on the dollar – in a symbolically rich grassroots way. I like that it’s something we can actually do, rather than recognizing pervasive structural inequalities and feeling completely paralyzed. I even like that it doesn’t depend on the government, just on individual good will and generosity. “Will it work?” is not a yes or no question, and I think it’s already working as a beautiful idea.

This is a quick and shallow post, so please let me know your thoughts, if you think I’m getting something important wrong, or if you have any other links to suggest. And now…back to the 19th century for me.