A version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. In its own way, it commemorates African American History Month. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.
Dr. King is likely the American thinker who comes to my mind more than any other. Not the populist who was culturally moderated over time into a convenient character for classroom posters. But the difficult and complicated and tortured man, the leader who was flawed and inspiring and masterful in so many ways.
When a MLK quote rattles in my head, it isn’t his iconic, if tired, classic: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pulled from its context, that’s always seemed to me to be too universal to stir. Instead, it comforts, and I’ve found always found MLK misunderstood when he’s seen as a comforting.
The Americas were home to some of the world’s most complex and established civilizations in the world at the time of European contact.
As many as 100 million people may have lived in the Americas in 1491, far more than Europe. In the next century, an estimated 80 million of them died, largely because of diseases humans didn’t understand yet.
Though those estimates are still actively contested, a growing number of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians defend the concept that perhaps as many as one in five people on the planet died. It would have been the largest epidemic in human history.
That massive change in understanding pre-Columbian was chronicled in the celebrated 2006 book 1491, by Charles C. Mann, who had written on the issue for the Atlantic. It made a stir then, and I finally got to picking through it, regularly reading news articles on the topic.
There was likely once a single language, first developed 150,000 years ago. That grew to as many as 100,000 languages, before we developed farming. Today there are 6,000 and by 2100, that might be back to as few as 500.
Along the way, languages have emerged, influenced each other and continue to change.
That comes from the 2003 book “Power of Babel,” the third consecutive book I read by linguist John McWhorter, which I finished early this summer. In the last six months, I’ve become quite a big fan of his — having read his 2016 book on language evolution and his 2009 book on the lesser-known stories of the English language history, I seem to be working through his language books in reverse chronological order. (Read the Guardian’s review of this book here.)
The title of the book is, of course, a reference to the biblical story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel. Following the Great Flood, humans speaking a single language plan to build a tower that can reach heaven. God destroys it, sets humans into an array of languages and spreads them across the world to keep them from conspiring to do something like that ever again.
In large scale projects, preparing to do the work is often more important than doing the work. That was likely the biggest lesson I drew from the book, which chronicled a failed attempt by a consortium of French government and business leaders to build a sea-level canal and then a painful but ultimately successful American attempt that used locks and came at the heels of advancements in understanding how to deal with yellow fever.
I also drastically underestimated the magnitude the Panama Canal represented as an engineering and public health campaign. My previous ignorance to this period of human history is embarrassing.
As I often do when I read a book of relevance to leadership and history, I share my notes here.
The importance, sway and influence of one of the world’s most dominant 20th century newspapers was the focus of the 1998 collection of essays about the once powerful Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, edited by its former education reporter Peter Binzen, who also wrote Whitetown USA.
A central story line of the book was the Bulletin’s battle with the Inquirer, its chief rival, and how, in the end, the Inquirer, considered by many to be the chain response to the family-owned operation, won. Through all the bluster, I thought there were four primary reasons that rang most true to me:
The Bulletin fundamentally failed to innovate, remaining an afternoon daily as circulation fell with growing TV news audiences, increasing transportation costs due to traffic and changing news cycles.
The Bulletin failed to develop the revenue to stay competitive, including a premature sale of its nascent TV station, denying alcohol advertising and other funding methods that kept it lagging behind the Knight-Ridder funded Inquirer.
The Bulletin resisted aggressive editorial reconfiguration, following the investigative spirit of the 1970s that soared the reputation of the Inquirer behind editor Gene Roberts, and pushed out its own innovative editor George Packard.
The Bulletin came up short in following the suburban trend, having its 1947 purchase of the Camden Courier Post denied by the U.S. Department of Justice for anti-monopoly concerns was a large blow.
As I often do when reading something relevant to the news and innovation conversations I so adore, I wanted to share some choice thoughts from the book.
Metropolitan boosters — men employed in the late 19th century to encourage Americans to move west to burgeoning cities — have been of interest to me lately.
I’m interested in how that concept can be brought to modern concepts or urban renewal. I came across a portion of an essay in ‘A companion to the American West,’ collected by William Francis Deverell [p. 513]:
Integral to the hinterland and ‘instant city’ models of nineteenth-century western urban history has been the figure of the urban booster. Cities in the west have been promoted, hawked and downright lied about on a scale rarely matched elsewhere in the nation. Boosters in cities on the make — Chicago in the mid-nineteenth century, San Francisco in the 1860s, Denver in the 1880s, Seattle in the 1900s, Los Angeles and Oakland in the 1920s — spared little effort in luring the investment capital, industry and residents necessary to ensure sustained economic development. Western boosters and their allies engaged in what one historian calls ‘urban imperialism,’ an endless quest for control of the markets and economic bonanzas that guaranteed real estate profits. Booster scholarship has tended to focus on the art of promotion and to see cities as products less of social construction than of capitalist fantasies. But behind boosters is the most interesting feature of western cities: urban growth as an end in itself, an economic logic fundamental to capitalism, was elevated by western boosters to the level of civic religion. In some cities, for instance, space was rarely scare but capital was. In places like Los Angeles and later Dallas and Phoenix, this led boosters to cultivate real estate markets and encourage an urban morphology that spread development horizontally across vast distances. In other cities, an opposite geography was at work, and a great deal of scare capital went into creating very expensive space. In Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, immense amounts of capital were devoted to filling tidelands and wetlands that allowed the cities to grow…