Exploration, conquest, and modernity…

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, we studied something then called the Age of Discovery, or if you were feeling particularly froggy, the Age of Conquest. This was the period in history from the 15th through the 17th centuries when Europeans set out on a global search for faster trade routes, wealth, personal glory. It corresponded with a then unprecedented explosion in knowledge about the natural world. 

I’ve watched a number of reports over the last few days condemning Columbus as a genocidal maniac and all I can do is shake my head in frustration. I will never understand why educated people insist on applying 21st century morality to 15th century actions. If we “discovered” an unknown continent tomorrow, we wouldn’t approach it the same way that Columbus did in the 1490s. We wouldn’t approach it the same way the Great Powers of Europe approached Africa in the 19th century, either. We would approach it using our best judgment based on 21st century understanding of peoples and our modern sensibilities. Half a millennia from now, we would surely be criticized for our actions because they were not how some future observers would have managed the affair.

“But, but,” they say, “He killed all those nice natives.” Yeah, he did. Can’t deny it. What seems to be forgotten in the discussion is Europe in the 1400s was a regular charnel house. Between plague, pestilence, disease, and the Hundred Years’ War, sudden, violent death in the New World most likely didn’t strike anyone as an unnatural state of affairs. All of our contemporary assessments of Columbus come from a 21st century perspective that is at least a full lifetime removed from any real concept of mass die-offs caused by war and pestilence. The dying related to COVID-19 doesn’t hold a candle to what was experienced historically during times of social upheaval.

We lack a personal frame of reference for what “normal” was in the late 15th century. In a very real way, the past is a foreign country. Even as a student of history, I always had a problem with those in the business who feel the need to apply contemporary morality to historical events. History is all about subtlety and context… and both are completely lacking when we try to hold Columbus to the standards of modernity.

During the Age of Conquest, as the name implies, some nations and civilizations did the conquering and others were vanquished. It’s happened since the dawn of recorded time and was happening long before we bothered writing the stories down. As often happens with the vanquished, we don’t hear much about their history. Now as a student of history myself, I’m all about understanding their story, but I’m not about rewriting the entire age of exploration into an overly simple victim narrative just to make someone feel better. Likewise, I’m under no illusion that Columbus or those that followed were demigods. History is a more complex animal than that.

Hundreds of millions of people lived and died during the three centuries of the Age of Discovery. Aside from kings and princes, we remember very few of them by name… and for those few we don’t remember them because they spent their often-short lifetimes boohooing the world around them, but because they dared to do what was hard and dangerous. They’re derided in the modern world, I suspect, because so many now live lives that are unfathomably easy and safe based on any measure of historical precedent. 

In this household, Columbus and all the men who set out in fragile wooden ships from the Old World to lay claim to the New will always be celebrated.

Sir Richard…

The social media response to Sir Richard Branson, astronaut, is nothing if not predictable. He’s an evil billionaire trying to escape earth because he’s destroyed it. He should be taxed into the stone age so we could give everyone in the world three pencils and a timeshare goat or whatever.

It’s done nothing but reinforce my opinion that the kind of lefties who are active on social media are more about controlling what people do or don’t do, how we spend our money and live our lives, and keeping perfect credit with whoever is tracking the approved “social justice” buzzwords of the day.

Branson is the kind of guy we use to tell people they should admire. Starting his own, relatively unremarkable business at the age of 16, over the next five decades he parlayed that small initial success into a corporate juggernaut. He made himself rich beyond the dreams of avarice in the process… and then used that money to fund a project that use to be the sole province of nation states. I’d love to understand how space travel and exploration is somehow less democratic now that it’s not purely a state-sponsored endeavor. 

Yesterday, a self-made man used his own fortune to heave himself into space and open another avenue to travel and explore beyond the bounds of earth. 

I’m here for it.

If the wags on social media can’t or won’t see past their obsession and abject jealousy of who has what, I almost feel sorry for their lack of vision. Sir Richard is making history while the social media set is, at best, scoring points with those in their echo chamber. 

A cause for celebration…

Ah, it’s Columbus Day again. The day of the year when revisionists and apologists whine most loudly that we should all be wearing ashes and rending our garments and begging forgiveness for because of things men did more than 500 years ago at a time we’re no longer supposed to call the Age of Exploration.

As always, I cheerfully encourage the apologists to bugger directly off with that nonsense. I don’t judge historical events or figures through 21st century morality. They were men of their own age, with strengths and weaknesses, who achieved greatly and committed grave sins.

The age of exploration was an age of heroes. We don’t remember them because they spent their often short lifetimes boohooing the world around them, but because they dared to do what was hard and dangerous. They’re derided in the modern world, I suspect, because so many now live lives that are unfathomably easy and safe based on any measure of historical precedent.

In this household, Columbus and all the men who set out in fragile wooden ships from the old world to explore the wonders of the new will always be celebrated.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Inefficiency. Look, I’m delighted that Big Pharma is reimbursing me 93% of my out of pocket costs for the meds that one of the smart docs from Hopkins tells me will contribute to being able to continue to living better through chemistry. I’d be even more appreciative if their reimbursement scheme allowed for ordering more than a 30-day supply of the stuff at a time. Everything else rolls in as a 3-month supply that’s simple enough to refill once a quarter except this one little pill. It feels like I’m online getting that one refilled or coordinating the refund about every seven days. If you’re going to spend the money either way you could save us both processing time and effort by doing it four times a year instead of 12.

2. Single points of failure. The world is full of people who want to gather all decision making and power unto themselves. I’ve never understood that particular logic for several reasons. First, the ones who seem to be drawn to absolute power are generally the last ones who should be engaged in decision making. Second, there’s nothing more ridiculous than a few dozen people standing around knowing what needs done but being paralyzed for lack of having someone explicitly telling them to do it.

3. Consistency in the space program. I really wish we lived in a country that had consistent and achievable, manned and unmanned space exploration goals. I want NASA to be above politics and be maybe the one instrument of government that is the best reflection of ourselves. I want to see big rockets with the stars and stripes plastered to the side hurtling American astronauts back to the moon and then getting their ass to Mars. To think that’s not the next logical step in exploration is nonsensical and flies in the face of humanity’s eternal struggle to expand into the unknown. Other people will tell you this should be way down on the list of priorities, but those people are wrong and should be quiet.

What Jeff Likes this Week

OrionOrion. It’s really that simple. I like Orion and the fact that for the first time since the early 1970s, the United States of America hurtled a man made object out beyond low earth orbit.

I like Orion because it represents the next in an unbroken series of exploratory and evolutionary steps that have carried humanity out of the Great Rift Valley, across and under oceans, and to the moon. It’s the only thing that makes sense after we’ve hunted and gathered our way across the surface of the entire planet – learning how to live in every inhospitable environment this world can throw at us. It’s what must be next because leaving this fragile blue planet is the last, best hope that human civilization will endure should we ever be dumb enough to destroy ourselves here on earth.

Of course leaving the planet is also the best chance that we’ll run into an aggressive space traveling civilization, microbes against which humanity has not natural defense, or give us the capability to militarize deep space and kill off civilization in entirely new and interesting ways… so it’s kind of a double edged sword.

Still, it’s worth every penny and every risk.

Note: This is the 3rd entry in a six-part series appearing on jeffreytharp.com by request.

The age of conquest…

Columbus Day is one of those odd holidays that no one enjoys unless you’re Italian, work for a bank, or find yourself in the employ of the federal government. There are plenty of hand-wringers out there who tell us that it’s Indigenous People’s Day or that there should be no celebration at all commemorating the arrival of Europeans in the New World – I also choose not to quibble about things like who got here when or whether it should be Lief Erikson Day. The concept of discovery is more important than the individual act itself. And to those out there wanting to argue that you can’t “discover” a place where people already life, I mostly say “nuts.” Columbus and his crew discovered territory that, to them and to most of Europe at the time, was new and wholly unexpected. Call it a flapjack and it’s still a rose by any other name.

See, Columbus sailed during what use to be called the Age of Conquest. Some nations and civilizations did the conquering and others were vanquished. It’s happened since the dawn of recorded time and was happening long before we bothered writing the stories down. As often happens with the vanquished, we don’t hear much about their history. Now as a student of history myself, I’m all about understanding their story, but I’m not about rewriting the entire age of exploration into an overly simple victim narrative. Likewise, I’m under no illusion that Columbus or those that followed are some kind of demigods. History is a more complex animal than that.

All I’ll say is we’d do well to learn a bit more about the Age of Conquest. I suspect some of the lessons there are shockingly applicable to those of us schlepping around in the modern world.

Celebrating Columbus…

I’m told by today’s endless media loop that celebrating Columbus Day isn’t cool. Blah, blah, genocide, blah, blah, conquest, blah, blah not a very nice man. Blah. Here was a guy who loaded three small wooden ships, pointed them west, and hoped at some point to find land waiting for him on the other side of the ocean before he ran out of food and water.

Christopher_Columbus“But, but,” they say, “He was looking for the Indies and only landed in the Caribbean by accident.” I suppose that’s true… but since I know people who can’t go across town without using their in-car navigation system, Google Maps, and hand written directions, I’m willing to cut the guy some slack considering he decided to cross an ocean using wind power and maps that were, at best, a wild ass guess of what might be out there.

“But, but,” they say again, “He killed all those nice natives.” Yeah, he did that. Can’t deny it. What seems to be forgotten in the discussion is Europe in the 1400s was a regular charnel house. Between the black plague and the Hundred Years’ War, letting the bodies hit the floor in the new world most likely didn’t particularly strike anyone as an unnatural state of affairs. All of our contemporary assessments of Columbus come from a 21st century perspective that is at least a full lifetime removed from any real concept of mass die-offs caused by war and pestilence.

We simply lack a point of reference for what “normal” was in the late 15th century. Even as a student of history, I always had a problem with those in the business who feel the need to apply contemporary morality to historical events. History is all about subtlety and context… and both are completely lacking when we try to hold Columbus to the standards of modernity.

Today, I’m celebrating Columbus Day. If that’s not cool, well, so be it.

Curiosity…

They say in America you can grow up to be anything. We all know that’s not exactly true, but believing that is something that is as much a part of our national narrative as apple pie. I, for instance, could never have grown up to be an engineer. My math skills just aren’t that strong and my level of interest in slogging through massive equations hovers just slightly above 0.00%. I just don’t have any business operating in a world that demands tolerances with hundredths and thousandths of an centimeter. It’s important to know your personal limitations.

Of course there’s a price to pay for basically ignoring math and science education. While I’ve been keeping myself busy with endless PowerPoint and unlimited supply of memoranda, the guys at the Jet Propulsion Lab were guzzling Red Bull, piling up over time and night differential, and landing a Volkswagen on Mars. You’ve got to admit, that’s a pretty damned cool resume line. It’s fair to say that a history degree and an MBA aren’t likely to get me assigned to one of those projects. Maybe if I’d have just paid a little more attention in Cosmic Concepts back in 1996 things would have been different…