Light joy and the Magna Carta

Walking composition

“No matter how thin you slice it, there will always be two sides.” —Spinoza

The light recently has been remarkable. Sometimes we get days like that, often during or between bouts of rain. Clouds rumple in a mix of gray-blue, sunlight glancing off odd angles, and the deep pine green sets off against it. One of the things I miss about walking to the elementary school is the sky-cloud vista from the playground, open and breath-full like little else around here.

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I recently listened to an interview with Peter Linebaugh, a history scholar and professor whose work on the Magna Carta and the commons I’ve followed for a few years. Coming across the interview was a serendipitous moment, as I’ve been thinking what to do with material gathered for the no-book on ownership and the difficulty I’ve had reading Linebaugh’s books The Magna Carta Manifesto and Stop, Thief! They’re extensive, vital works of scholarship on this history but they’re kind of all over the place and I kept putting them down because they’re hard to follow. Full of mind-bending tidbits, though, like how important honey and hives were as a right of the commons—not just in England where the Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest were so formative, but all over the world where honey was a source of calories—and that the patron saint of England, St. George, was from Palestine and the dragon he slew was in Libya.

The interview prompted me to dive back into The Magna Carta Manifesto with all its scattered points of time and characters, like how in 1214-15 King John began stealing forests, ransoming children, and selling women (including his wife Isabella) in order to finance the Crusades as a way to bolster up his faltering power.

In the interview, Linebaugh gave some background to Karl Marx I also hadn’t heard before, that some of his economic thinking came from seeing German Rhineland peasants prosecuted for foraging wood for heat—for stealing—because large Prussian timber interests were using the wood for their own profit.

Everything old is new again.

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What do we have the right to? What do we have the right to be protected from? How does power use scarcity to divide people who would otherwise work toward common purpose?

It was only with privatization that criminality was created, said Linebaugh. “Crimes against property had been an essential part of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.” In The Magna Carta Manifesto he wrote about criminality and the encroachment of property-protecting law into rights of subsistence that have been eroded and reclaimed time and again over the centuries.

There is something fitting about watching the rumple-gray sky, its complexity and unpredictability, and sitting with the idea that our modern struggles against commodification and for a right to life for life go back some thousand years and probably millennia more. As I write these sentences dark rain clouds—our favorite kind—are moving in and a pheasant is squawking in my neighbor’s yard. I think of seeds I need to plant start and planning for this fall’s hunting already an eager, murky idea even as the trees I can see have barely begun to open their buds.

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Some stuff to read:

  • Jeremy Adelman’s essay in Aeon about the difficulty that progressive thinkers have grappling with liberal nationalism (as opposed to globalism) made me think a lot. I’m not sure I agree with all the ideas; I’ll have to give more time to better understand them. America, as Adelman points out in his rebuttals to Jill Lepore, is complicated: “To restore the myth of the nation ‘born liberal’, to rescue it from ethnocidal nativists, means leaving others out of the story until they become ‘immigrants’ seeking shelter from illiberalism somewhere else.”

  • I had less trouble getting my head around the ideas in Paula Keller’s essay in Psyche about what art history shows us about anti-feminist women. Her explanations about people who don’t understand the oppression they live under make a lot of sense, though they still don’t go far enough to answer a question I’ve been asking myself privately for a while now, most specifically since the special Alabama election in 2017 in which 63% of white women had voted for a candidate who’d been creditably accused of sexual assault against teenage girls: “What is wrong with white women?” As I am a white women, this is a question I feel compelled to grapple with as deeply as possible.

  • Jordan Shapiro’s essay in Nautilus on the need for more feminist dads sounds predictable but was really . . . I was going to say “lovely” but maybe “restful”—as in “someone else is thinking about this difficult problem in compassionate and insightful ways, so maybe I don’t have to worry so much about it”—is a better word.

  • (I’d like to say something revelatory about the fact that an essay on anti-feminist women and the desire for feminist dad role models showed up in my inbox in the same week, but I don’t have anything except that it happened.)

  • And something totally different, a heartbreaking but beautifully written essay by Stephanie Austin in The Sun Magazine on her father’s death and a lifelong difficult relationship that I think will speak to many. “Maybe the emotional disconnect I felt with my father — that most people felt with my father — was not his fault. I started to ask around: ‘What was my dad like when he was young? Did he have friends? Did he make eye contact? Tell me about his eye contact.’”