Communication and Dictatorship

My newspaper this morning delivered the news about dictatorship in the world, and the role of communication in supporting or defying it.  The stories told about actions taken by dictatorial bosses who did not consult the general public. Consequently, whether they liked it or not, dictators had their acts communicated to the public.

For example, three unconnected stories illustrate similar truths:

  • The dictator Lukashenko in Belarus called out troops to put down protestors who claim he stole a recent election. In the old days, he would have shot a few people and gotten away with it.  The protestors are organized and communicating with each other and the international press. Subsequently, Lukashenko alerted his Russian patrons that he may need military help. In a timely way, I’m reading about it in my newspaper.
  • Israel imposed a national lockdown forbidding large groups from gathering, on the eve of the Jewish high holidays. Most importantly, the lockdown will last till October, making impossible worship of the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by large groups of people sitting together. Ultra-religious Israeli citizens are very angry, and my newspaper presents the details.
  • The Dallas Symphony for the first time during the pandemic held a concert in its usual concert hall for some of its subscribers. The symphony hall holds more than 1800 seats, and this concert played for about seventy subscribers. The program consisted of three relatively short Beethoven pieces, short because no intermissions were allowed. A famous pianist played with an orchestra of 35, under an Italian conductor who entered the U. S. by special arrangements. First steps taken against rules imposed by government, and now people everywhere know about it.

 

Communication has Changed Form

This blog is about as old as the current pandemic lockdown. In a way it’s a child of current trends in communication. In my lifetime, communication has moved from newspapers, radio and movies, to television, and to digital communication. Print media gradually faded into the background, replaced by cable television and digital media.

Many newspapers, book publishers, and movie theaters failed well before the pandemic lockdowns. However, fifty years ago the communications media provided widely watched and respected national news, as well as high quality popular entertainment and artistry. Newspapers and books printed educated commentary and thoughtful essays.

Newspapers Used to be Numerous

Today, instant images of events, distributed to a world-wide audience by electronic devices, stand in the place of the news reported in the old media. The time consuming business of creating thoughtful commentary  today is replaced by partisan shouting on television and in newspapers. As a result, newspapers keep dying and the old broadcast television and theater-based movie businesses continue to shrink. In other words, we are seeing a Gresham’s Law in communications: bad news drives out good news.

Communication and Dictatorship

Like most complex changes, there are pluses and minuses to the transformation of modes of communication.  In days when literacy wasn’t widespread and small elites owned the newspapers, newspapers could sway national leaders and affect policy. Elites monopolized national communications and could excite the public. They created fervor for whatever interested them. Newspapers could start wars. Dictators also used them  to support their actions and abuse opponents..

The old dictatorships manipulated radio, movie and print communication.  If they didn’t like a newspaper, they sent thugs to destroy the printing presses.  They could forcibly take over radio stations and stop the showing of movies they didn’t like.

The dictator has a harder time monopolizing thought and communication when everyone is a communicator. For example, if Lukashenko sends in troops to support his rule, the images of the event will appear on cellphones and mobile media instantly and world-wide. His Russian patrons know that.

Cell Phones Tell the News When it Happens

Lukashenko can’t stop cell phones from working in Belarus and throughout the world. When Israel decreed the lockdown, the government couldn’t stop loud complaints.  When the Dallas symphony took small steps at reopening, it was reported not only in Texas but in The Wall Street Journal.

 

Forms of Communication and Content

About eighty per cent of the readers of this little blog use mobile devices. In other words, people are reading this mainly on smart phones. Since I’ve already reached my 80th birthday this delights me, At my age, the feeling of being relevant is very enjoyable.

The digital world has no geographic limits.  My readers live in India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other places.  Because I write in English, and mostly about the lessons of American history, I’m not surprised my readers live mainly where English is spoken.

I can’t tell which blogs do best in which place.  I guess comments about the contributions of women to history and visions of grandchildren are appreciated everywhere.

 

Communication and the Breakdown of Dictatorship

As everyone probably knows, state governments have imposed a pandemic lockdown on those of us living in the United States. We are also enduring a national election.

Local governors have seized emergency powers, without resort to public approval. They are miniature dictators, imposing rules by emergency decree. They dictate the size of group gatherings, spacing for social distancing, and the opening or closing of various businesses.  Governors decree what size of group can meet where and where people are required to wear masks. State governors decree whether restaurants can open and when they can serve indoors. They dictate the distances people must observe when out in public. Governors make decisions about placing sick people in nursing homes or quarantining nursing homes.

These rules vary from state to state. Some states permit large numbers of people to carry on public protests. If protests become too violent, governors make the decision whether or not to call out the national guard. Social media report  events in real time, instantaneously. Newspapers and television follow up with partisan shouting and little objective analysis.

It is hard to measure the effects of widespread instantaneous communication. How soon do people make decisions on elections? Do they wait for debates?  Which is more prone to partisan manipulation and outright deceit: newspapers, television news reports, or social media?

Dictators have a harder time with social media.  They can’t ban the use of phones and digital media without harming the general economy: business requires regular communication and ease of data collection.  But with that, you get twitter, and personal tweets from the president down (or up?) to everyone, including children, and the reverse.

It’s the reverse that counts: dictators now can hear what people are saying and can’t control everything that’s said.

Learning About History: The Place of Women

Why do people care about history? What do they think knowledge about the old days will tell them? Men and women look at history a little differently.  They imagine what the world might have been for each of them.

After several years as a docent at Jamestown Settlement and fielding questions from people from all age groups and parts of the country, I think I understand what we, both men and women, want to learn about history. Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum commemorating the arrival of three English ships in 1607.

Children learn the history: warfare, Pocahontas, starvation, lots of murky action.  Jamestown Settlement is a park, a fort, an Indian village, and a dock on the James River holding replicas of the three ships.   Children enjoy playing outside where chickens and wild turkeys roam and crafts are demonstrated in the Indian village.

But adults don’t come to Jamestown simply to entertain the children.  When they enter the museum they ask questions. They want to know where they fit into the mosaic that makes up American history.  Did their ancestors arrive in Virginia four hundred years ago?  Unlikely, in physical terms, for most people asking. But they still feel an affinity with the first settlers; somehow they feel a connection.

Susan Constant docked on James River

History and the Need for Women

The first settlers were young men and boys who spent a lot of time fighting with everyone, including themselves. After all, they came to fight, and thought they would fight the Spanish. Sometimes they succeeded in killing each other.  These people didn’t have descendants.

So when does American history begin? In my opinion, it happened when the first young settlers realized that to survive, they couldn’t rely on rescue ships from the mother country. To thrive in the new world, they needed to build more than a lonely fort.  They needed a place to live and begin families. For that, they needed women.

In the beginning, the only women around Jamestown came from the native tribes who lived in the area.  Archaeology tells us that native women did a lot of the cooking in Jamestown fort.  Historians estimate that about a third of the original settlers who arrived on the first ships married Indian women.

Indian Cooking Site outside Jamestown Fort

 

After a hundred years or so, with substantial intermarriage with the Indians and the arrival of some women from Europe, Virginia developed a family structure.  The wealthy landowners created plantations on which they raised and sold tobacco. There were very few towns; religion was observed in small parish churches paid for and controlled by local parishioners who lived on plantations. Though the colony received a charter to establish a university in 1622, Virginia didn’t get around to accepting that idea until 1693.

Virginia tobacco was highly prized in the mother country and all over Europe, and Virginia planters became wealthy.  From 1619 they were also self-governing by an elected House of Burgesses.  The mother country sent over governors who were advised by an appointed Governors Council; the more raucous elected House of Burgesses passed all legislation, including tax bills.

Women in Colonial Virginia

This is all basic stuff, but think.  What and who were represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses? After about a hundred years the colony numbered about fifty thousand people.  Two representatives were elected from each borough and they, all men, represented the plantations.

The plantation was Virginia’s basic unit of society. It contained everything that was necessary for life and the beginning of a family structure:  the plantation raised the food, prepared it, made the furniture and the tools necessary for the crops, and sold the product. It also provided security from bandits and incursions by foreign tribes. A representative of a plantation spoke for everyone living there: rich, poor, male, female, free, indentured or slave.

Tobacco brought wealth and nice houses located on the rivers from which tobacco was shipped. Tobacco traded internationally; Virginia credit purchased many products for the use and enjoyment of the plantation residents. It also paid for tutors for the children.

Because the men went out to the fields and served in the local militia, Virginia plantations often were run day-to-day by women. Women frequently outlived their husbands and powerful, wealthy women operated in international trade.  Women were important participants in deciding who their children should marry, and Virginia plantation society featured close family ties. Many members of the Governor’s Council and the House of Burgesses were closely related. It was a government of cousins who knew each other well.

History Continues: Women still Watch out for the Children

Is that so different from what we have today?  Women still write a lot of the checks and run most households.  They have the children and raise them.  They also run a lot of small businesses, as they did in colonial Virginia.  When a tourist visits Colonial Williamsburg he and his family can eat in a number of restaurants in the colonial area.  Historically, almost all of them were owned and operated by women.

Women exercised their property rights early, and generally they did so to protect their children. Jamestown Settlement’s museum displays a legal document from the 1650s which describes what today would be described as a prenuptial agreement.  In it, Mrs. Hannah Bennett Turner Tompkins Arnold states that she will marry her third husband, but that certain parts of her acreage will be set aside for her children. She buried three husbands and kept her farm and property together for her heirs by legal deed.

This is all detailed to a certain extent in my book, The Wealth of Jamestown. The star of that book is, of course, Sarah Harrison, daughter of a great planter, who in her marriage ceremony to the Rev. James Blair, clearly stated “No obey” when asked if she would love, honor and obey him.  From that, the plot thickened.

Women didn’t often get their names and dates recorded, but they were there. We’d have no history without them.