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In 1646, Sir Thomas Browne wanted to rid the world of a vast range of false beliefs -- that elephants have no knees, that beavers bite off their testicles to avoid capture, that garlic disempowers magnets, and so on and on. Browne's problem was that he had no simple way of describing what he was doing.
Alexander von Humboldt revolutionized the way Westerners see the natural world. He came up with the idea that nature was a web of life and described Earth as a "living whole" where organisms were bound together in a "net-like intricate fabric."
I did the best I could, the historian on the plane, landing again and again in some remote (to me) place for a week or two of intensive archival digging. As I dug, though, I found that I was tracing the footsteps of American academics 80 years earlier.
We have cultivated an image of the Nazi as anything but a thinking man -- but reading the writings of Adolf Eichmann confronts us with the disturbing fact that National Socialism gets its power from a fundamental and consistent criticism of the ideas of reason and justice. The Holocaust was anything but an unthinkable crime.
Through the lens of cotton, we see the expansion of capitalism as the global process it was, and not as the Eurocentric story we had accepted for all too long. The history of cotton is important in its own right, but even more significantly, it allows us to trace the emergence of the modern world that is so familiar to all of us.