Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Harriet Tubman, an American hero

July 24, 2016

quote-i-was-the-conductor-of-the-underground-railroad-for-eight-years-and-i-can-say-what-most-conductors-harriet-tubman-274133

The following is notes for a lay sermon at First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY, on July 24, 2016.

Before the present announcement that Harriet Tubman’s face will appear on the $20 bill, all I knew about her was that she was connected with the Underground Railroad.

I’ve since learned something about her, and come to realize that she is truly a great American – but with a different kind of greatness than that of historical figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Grant or Benjamin Franklin.

It is not just that those others were white, and she was black.  It is not just that they were all men, and she was a woman.  She was poor and illiterate, and earned her living through most of her life by physical labor.  Unlike her, they were commanders and lawgivers at the pinnacle of power.  She showed the power and position are not necessary for greatness.

What did her greatness consist of?  Her greatness consisted of the willingness to risk everything for freedom – first her own freedom, and then the freedom of others.

As a young girl, born into slavery, she resisted efforts to force her to accept submission, and eventually escaped.  Then, at great personal risk, she returned to the place she had been held in bondage, and rescued others.

During the Civil War, she volunteered as a scout for the Union Army and led other enslaved people into freedom.  During the final phase of her life, she supported equal rights for both African Americans and women.

She lived according to the ethic of Jesus in a way that few people today, including Unitarian Universalists, can understand.  She had a deep faith in God, and was guided by her visions of God.  She shared everything she had with those more in want that she was, and trusted in God to provide.

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Newton Knight, an American hero

July 22, 2016

My friend Hal Bauer urged all his friends to see the movie, Free State of Jones.  I saw it, and it is as good as Hal said it is.

The movie tells the story of Newton Knight, a white farmer in southern Mississippi, who led a rebellion against the Confederacy itself.

Newton Knight

Newton Knight

Knight was 6-foot-4 with black curly hair and a full beard—“big heavyset man, quick as a cat,” as one of his friends described him.  He was a nightmarish opponent in a backwoods wrestling match, and one of the great unsung guerrilla fighters in American history.  So many men tried so hard to kill him that perhaps his most remarkable achievement was to reach old age.

“He was a Primitive Baptist who didn’t drink, didn’t cuss, doted on children and could reload and fire a double-barreled, muzzle-loading shotgun faster than anyone else around,” said [local historian Wyatt] Moulds. 

“Even as an old man, if someone rubbed him the wrong way, he’d have a knife at their throat in a heartbeat.  A lot of people will tell you that Newt was just a renegade, out for himself, but there’s good evidence that he was a man of strong principles who was against secession, against slavery and pro-Union.”

Source: Richard Grant | Smithsonian

Knight hated the 20-slave rule, which gave slave-owning families one exemption from military service for every 20 slaves they owned.  He also hated Confederate confiscations of livestock, crops and food from small farmers.

For a time, his Knight Company drove the Confederate Army out of Jones County and surrounding areas of southern Mississippi.  Contrary to the impression given by the movie title, he didn’t intend to set up Jones County as an independent nation.  He was loyal to the Union.

He didn’t only fight for independent white farmers.  He fought against slavery himself.  He defended the rights of newly-freed slaves after the Civil War.  After the triumph of the Ku Klux Klan, he retreated to his homestead where he lived with his inter-racial family.

I had no idea Newton Knight existed until I saw the movie.

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Lessons from North Dakota

July 11, 2016

A century ago, the state of North Dakota underwent a peaceful political revolution—one more radical than what Bernie Sanders attempted this year.  The benefits to the people of the state endure to this day.

North Dakota farmers were subject to the domination of banks and flour mills in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  They set mortgage interest rates and the price of wheat.  Business interests dominated North Dakota government.

But progressive reformers opened up the political process through the initiative (voters could propose laws), the referendum (voters could vote directly on laws) and the recall (unsatisfactory state legislators could be voted out before their terms ended).  More importantly, the state legislated open primary elections.

This opened up the process for the Non-Partisan League, organized by a fiery socialist named Arthur C. Townley.  Starting in 1914, he recruited 40,000 dues-paying members, mainly farmers, in a state whose population was 600,000.  The NPL then endorsed and campaigned for candidates who adopted the NPL program.

In 1916, NPL candidates effectively took over the Republican Party in the state.   NPL candidates won all statewide offices and a majority in the state Assembly; in 1918, they took over the state Senate as well.

Among their reforms were a state grain grading service so that farmers were assured a fair price, regulation of railroad shipping rates, and authorization of state-owned enterprises, including the Bank of North Dakota, the crown jewel of the NPL program, which is still going strong.

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The radicalism of the Declaration

July 4, 2016

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness

==In Congress: the unanimous Declaration of the 13 united States of America, July 4, 1776

These words are among the most radical statements ever written.   It denies that government is established by divine right or ancient custom, and that subjects have no choice but to obey.   It affirms that people have the right to form a government by free decision, and proceeds to do just that.

It is a philosophy that is hard for many people to accept—including, as I have found through experience, many supposedly well-educated 21st century Americans.

Our Declaration.inddI have believed in the basic ideas of the Declaration’s since I was old enough to understand them.  My interpretation of American history is that it consists of (1) a series of events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the Constitution and (2) a playing out of the consequences of those two actions.

Recently I read a book, OUR DECLARATION: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle Allen which both reinforced and clarified my understanding of the Declaration.

What, Allen asked, does it mean to say “all men are created equal”?  Obviously people are not the same in virtue, or ability, or wealth and social standing.

As she pointed out, we are all equal in the desire to live, in the desire to live free of subjugation to someone else’s will and in the desire (this is more controversial) to define for ourselves what we need to make us happy.  If I demand these rights for myself, I have no standing to deny these rights to you.

The Declaration gives two possible sources of these rights – “the Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God.”  The first reflects the ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment; the second of radical Protestant Christianity.

All Christians believe that human beings are made in the image of God, and are in some sense descended from Adam and Eve and then from Noah.  Protestants believe that human beings can have a direct relationship to God without the need for a priesthood to serve as intermediary.  Radical Protestants such as the Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers practiced democracy in their congregations, and in town meetings.

The rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment thought in the same manner, except without the Biblical scaffolding.  They held that all human beings, regardless of their other differences, had a moral sense.   They thought people should think of government as a social contract—a mutual agreement based on mutual benefit.

The social contract was only a theory for John Locke and other 18th century philosophers.  But social contracts were made by the American colonists—first in the Mayflower Compact of the Pilgrims as they voyaged to Plymouth Rock, then of various frontier communities, and finally the Constitution of the United States.

The most radical of the Declaration’s affirmations is the right of revolution.  The United States of America is founded not on a principle of authority or national unity, but on principles of freedom and equality to which the government itself must submit or risk dissolution.

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Murray Bookchin: from saints to sellers

June 24, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin

bookchin-endquote

chapter eight – from saints to sellers

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin traces the history of peasant revolts, starting with one recorded in Egypt in 2500 BC and continuing through peasant revolts in ancient Egypt and Sumeria, helot revolts in ancient Sparta, slave revolts in ancient Rome and peasant revolts in the European Middle Ages.

Based on my reading, I can say that what he wrote was also true of peasant revolts in Russia, China and probably other civilizations as well.

He wrote that all these rebels destroyed, first of all, records of taxation, mortgages, other debt and legal records, and secondly, treasure.

The rebels deeply resented the transubstantiation of tangible wealth, such as grain, livestock, wine and cloth, into symbolic wealth, such as golden utensils, jewelry, intricate works of art and rich furnishings and palaces, which were manifestations of domination.

In the politics of ancient Rome, Bookchin wrote, commoners demanded redistribution of land, cancellation of debts and greater equality before the law.  This is not too different from what the Occupy Wall Street movement demanded.

He devoted most of the chapter to the rebels of the European Middle Ages who, unlike the rebels of ancient times, had ideals of a better society which they derived from Christianity.

These ideals included (1) the tradition of the first Christians, who were poor and owned all things in common, (2) the ideal that all human beings are equal in the sight of God, (3) the idea that God’s law is superior to human law and (4) the hope of a better and more just world in the End Times.

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Bernie Sanders 2016 and Gene McCarthy 1968

June 10, 2016

Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has the same significance as Eugene J. McCarthy‘s in 1968.

McCarthy was a moderate Democrat from Minnesota who chose to run against incumbent Lyndon Johnson on a platform of opposition to the Vietnam War.

Eugene J. McCarthy

Eugene J. McCarthy

He didn’t have an especially distinguished record, and he wasn’t the best possible candidate.  But he was the candidate who had the nerve to run while all the other war opponents held back.   He provided an outlet for all the pent-up anti-war sentiment.

He won a plurality of the votes in the New Hampshire primary, against two slates of delegates both pledged to President Johnson.   His victory emboldened Senator Robert F. Kennedy to run, and Johnson decided not to seek re-election.

Even if Kennedy had not been assassinated, he probably would not have been able to defeat the entrenched Democratic Party organization or to prevent the nomination of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

What McCarthy and then Kennedy did do was to open the door for a peace faction which was a continuing force in the Democratic Party independent of McCarthy himself.   I think, or at least I hope, Bernie Sanders has opened the door for a Democratic Party social justice faction that will outlive the Sanders campaign.

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Murray Bookchin: the legacy of freedom

June 8, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).  

chapter seven – the legacy of freedom

Bookchin was an anarchist who believed it was possible to create a society without government or corporations, in which free people could live in peace with each other and with nature.  I’m interested in Bookchin because of the failures state socialism and corporate neoliberalism and the unsatisfactory nature of current politics.

In the first six chapters of The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin described how hierarchy emerged from what he called the original organic society, of how tribal shamans and warrior bands became priesthoods and armies and of how the idea of abstract justice to balance the power of ancient despots.

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin wrote about how Christianity shaped the idea of freedom, and how, for many centuries, the struggle between freedom and hierarchy was fought within the framework of Christian thought.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Early Christian communities, in many ways, fit Bookchin’s anarchist ideal.   Early Christians came together voluntarily and as equals.  They not only came together for worship, but to provide for each others’ needs, since the Roman government’s functions were mainly limited to collecting taxes, suppressing disorder and waging war.

Later on the Christian church developed a hierarchy that accommodated itself to the Roman Empire, and then to feudal lords and medieval kings, and to the modern state.

The medieval Papacy was the ultimate hierarchy.  Its ideal was the Great Chain of Being—God and his angels at the peak, delegating authority to popes and kings, who empowered priests and nobles, with the common people at the bottom.  Papal power reached its peak under Pope Gregory VII, who excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, for resisting the church’s claims to power.

But, as Bookchin noted, the memory and ideal of primitive Christianity never entirely disappeared.  In time, Puritans, in the name of Christianity, beheaded their king and labeled the Pope as the Antichrist.

St. Augustine, he wrote, regarded government not merely as irrelevant, but as evil—a necessary evil, however, because people were corrupted by original sin.  The ideal, however, was a community in which people were united by the bonds of love, and that ideal also never disappeared.

The ancient Greeks, Romans and most of the rest of the pagan world regarded history as cyclical, so that everything that happened would happen again.   But Christians believed that history had a direction and a goal, starting with the Garden of Eden and ending with the Second Coming of Christ, in which a better world would come into being.   That hope of a better world never disappeared.

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What’s so remarkable about Harriet Tubman?

June 5, 2016
This is not how Harriet Tubman will appear on the $20 bill

This is NOT how Harriet Tubman will appear on the $20 bill

I knew hardly anything Harriet Tubman before the current announcement that her face will appear on the $20 bill.  During the past couple of weeks, I’ve read books that help me appreciate her for what she was.

What’s remarkable about Harriet Tubman is how she risked her life, not once but many times, in order to achieve her own freedom and the freedom of others—as a gun-toting conductor for the Underground Railroad and then as a scout and spy for the Union Army.

She did all of this at her own initiative and much at her own expense.  She financed her first slave rescue expeditions with money she earned as a cook and cleaner, and her work for the Union Army by making and selling pies and root beer.  A poor illiterate black woman who suffered blackouts probably due to a childhood head injury, she earned the respect of intellectuals and generals.

larson.harriettubman519Qj41qP2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

She was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, sometime from 1820 to 1825 under the name of Amarinta Ross.  At the age of five or six, she was hired out as a nursemaid to keep watch on a baby; whenever the baby woke up and cried, she was whipped.  Once she was whipped five times before breakfast.

Later jobs included muskrat trapping, field and forest work, driving oxen, plowing and hauling logs.

Once an irate slave owner threw a heavy metal weight at another slave and hit her instead.  She said the blow “broke my skull.”  She suffered dizziness, pain and blackouts throughout the rest of her life.  A devout Christian, she also experienced strange visions, vivid dreams and premonitions that she thought were the voice of God.

Harriet_Tubman_Locations_MapIn 1849, she escaped to Philadelphia, and adopted the name of Harriet Tubman.  Many escaped slaves changed their names in order to make recapture difficult.   She was married to John Tubman, a free black man about 10 years older than her, but he refused to go with her.

Her position was as precarious as that of an illegal immigrant today.  Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 as well as previous law, she could have been arrested and returned to slavery at any time.

Rather than playing it safe, she returned to Maryland to rescue members of her family, not just once, but at least 13 times.  Slowly, one group at a time, with the help of the Underground Railroad, she brought an estimated 60 or 70 slaves to freedom, and helped possibly 60 or 70 more by showing them the route.

Among them were brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces and her aged parents who by that time were free, but were under suspicion of aiding the others to flee.   She sought out her husband, but he had meanwhile found a new partner.

She may have been the only fugitive slave who regularly ventured back into slave territory to bring other enslaved people out.  This is especially remarkable because she went back to a place where she was known by sight to white people in the community.

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Lest we forget: the fallen of World War Two

May 30, 2016

Click on fallen.io/ww2 for an interactive version of this video.

World War Two was in sheer numbers the greatest mass slaughter of human beings in human history.  It was an era of great heroism and great crimes—great heroism not only by those who were fighting in the good cause, great crimes not only by those who were fighting in the bad cause.

I take nothing away from the honor due to the Americans who fell at Normandy, Guadalcanal and other battles in saying that, compared to Russians, Poles, Germans and many other nationalities, the USA got off lightly.

The makers of the video take satisfaction in the fact that no comparable mass killing has taken place in the subsequent 70 years.  I think that, overall, this is true—although Koreans, Vietnamese and others might see things differently.

I recall, though, that people in 1913 took satisfaction in the fact that nothing comparable to the Napoleonic Wars had taken place in Europe for nearly 100 years.  Their mistake was to assume that peace is something that can be taken for granted.

The thing the current generation needs to think about is that there is that is in place that would prevent the outbreak of another world war.   We, too, take too much for granted.

The best way to honor the fallen is to make sure their sacrifice does not have to be repeated.

Just how evil was Muammar Qaddafi?

May 23, 2016

Hillary Clinton is proud of bringing about the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi of Libya.

Supposedly his rule was so evil, or so much of a threat to the United States, that his downfall and death were necessary.

Just what did Qaddafi do that was so bad and so threatening?

Qaddafi in many ways was like Fidel Castro.

He was definitely a dictator, although by all accounts a popular one.  Although he listened to advice from popular assemblies, he also crushed opposition.  As in Cuba, there were neighborhood watches to identify opponents of the regime.  He supported revolutionary and terrorist movements, including the Provisional IRA, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.   He sent troops to defend the odious Idi Amin of Uganda.

He was a thorn in the side of U.S. foreign policy.  Libya was a founding member of OPEC, and an initiator of the Arab oil embargo of 1973.   He was accused of direct involvement in many terrorist attacks himself.

The best you can say of the crimes of Qaddafi’s government is that he was guilty of few things that the U.S. government was also not guilty of, and of nothing that U.S. allies have not been guilty of.

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Murray Bookchin: the legacy of domination

May 11, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin, which I’m doing in order to help myself understand it better.  I’m interested in Bookchin’s philosophy of social ecology, which seems like a kind of socialism without government or libertarianism without corporations.

quote-the-assumption-that-what-currently-exists-must-necessarily-exist-is-the-acid-that-corrodes-murray-bookchin-71-78-05

chapter five: the legacy of domination

Murray Bookchin believed that human beings first lived in what he called “organic societies”.  They lived more or less in harmony with nature and with each other.  They were “matricentric”—not ruled by women, but reflecting the motherly values of home and hearth.

By the time of ancient Israel and ancient Greece, patriarchy came into its own.  Israelite and Greek fathers had complete authority over their grown sons, including the right to banish and disinherit them for disobedience.

Women were taught the virtues of renunication, modesty and obedience, lest they become like Eve, Pandora or Circe—were regarded as sources of temptation, and were taught the virtues of renunciation, modesty and obedience.

In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh exercised the absolute authority of a patriarch, not only over a clan but over a whole nation.   Genesis told how Joseph, Pharaoh’s agent, collected and distributed food, and had food surpluses stored up so they would be available in hard times.

This became the typical pattern for the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world.  People became convinced they could not get along without a government to provide for them, Bookchin wrote.

The same attitude persists today, he added.  People think freedom is choosing the right form of government.  They do not question the need for government.

Ancient Athens was the shining exception to this, he wrote.

It is true the Athenians were patriarchal.  They did not accept slaves, former slaves, women or foreigners as equals, so were every other people they knew about.  But among themselves, they regarded each other as competent, self-reliant individuals, capable of self-management and management of public affairs.

Everything was decided in public assemblies, and the people who decided were the ones who carried out the decisions, including decisions regarding peace and war.

This represented an advance over the primitive organic societies, Bookchin wrote, because Athenian society was created and maintained intentionally and with full awareness, as the Funeral Oration of Pericles showed.

The oration was the equivalent of the Gettysburg address, paying tribute to Athenian soldiers who died in the war with Sparta.   Pericles said Athenians honored the right of the individual to strive for excellence in his own way, and they fought just as bravely as those who submitted to regimentation and hierarchy. did not hinder prevent the Athenians from fighting bravely.

But many Athenian thinkers, including Thucydides, who recorded Pericles’ oration, regarded freedom and democracy as a form of chaos, and chose order instead.

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The seeds of America’s culture wars

April 29, 2016

David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America is a ground-breaking 946-page book I never got around to reading, and probably won’t.  But I think I got the gist of it by reading a review by Scott Alexander on his Slate Star Codex blog.

Fischer’s argument is that basic patterns of American culture were set by migrations of four very different groups of migrants from the British Isles:

  • Albion'sSeedhek32xef_largePuritans to New England in the 1620s.
  • Cavaliers to Virginia in the 1640s.
  • Quakers to Pennsylvania in the 1670s.
  • Borderers (aka Scots-Irish) to the Appalachians in the 1700s.

Those who came after, he said, had to adapt to social systems established by these four groups—the moralistic Puritans, the aristocratic Cavaliers, the tolerant Quakers and the warlike Borderers—even though the biological descendants of these groups ceased to be in the majority.

It’s interesting and, I think, at least partly true.   Alexander’s review is long for a blog post, but much shorter than the book, and even those uninterested in his basic theme will enjoy reading his lists of fun facts about each group.

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Murray Bookchin: the emergence of hierarchy

April 26, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005)

bookchin-quote

chapter three: the emergence of hierarchy

In the dawn of recorded history, the human race was in the midst of a social, political and technological revolution.  Agriculture has started to replace hunting and gathering.  New technologies such as the wheel, the pottery kiln, the metal smelter and the loom generated increased wealth, making possible societies with much larger populations than villages and hunting clans.

Hardly any of this, however, went to improve the overall human material standard of living.  Instead the increased means of power and wealth went to support emperors, priesthoods, aristocracies, armies and merchants.   Human beings gained both increased power over nature and increased power over other human beings.

Studies of grave sites indicate that the average human in ancient civilizations was in poorer health and was more poorly nourished that the so-called savages living in hunting and gathering societies.

Most historians, including Marxist historians, recognize this, but they think it was a good thing, not a bad thing.

If the increased wealth had been spread among the populace, they say, it would have resulted only in a moderately prosperous mediocrity.  The concentration of wealth made it possible to create science, philosophy, literature, the fine arts and more new technologies, which is turn allowed humanity to advance through stages to the good life we enjoy today—or, according to the Marxists, create the material basis for a utopian society of the future.

Murray Bookchin disagrees.  For one thing, he does not believe that history proceeds in pre-ordained stages.  He believes that the different periods of history offered choices of roads to take, some good, some bad, most of them mixtures of the two.

The rejection of hierarchy would have been a good choice, he wrote.  There are many non-Western societies in which people, in Gandhi’s words, have enough for their need, but not their greed.  Such societies are rich in tradition and culture, and people are at least as happy as modern Americans and Europeans.

I am not as sure as Bookchin that such a choice was feasible.  Once one civilization devotes itself to militarism and acquisition, the rest must submit or find a method of defense, and the most obvious method of defense is to become militaristic and acquisitive themselves.

This is a dilemma that still exists today, and which thinkers such as Gene Sharp have tried to find answers for.

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Another way of looking at things

April 5, 2016

Murray Bookchin is a leading anarchist thinker whose work I had never thought about until I learned that he is, of all things, respected by the Kurdish people in the Middle East.

The Kurds have struggled for decades for independence for decades against the governments of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.  They are the most effective fighters in their region against the Islamic State and the successors to Al Qaeda in their region.

In all this, they have not engaged in acts of terrorism against civilians.  They respect the rights of women, and even have women in their fighting forces.  Although mostly Sunni Muslims, they gave refuge to people of all religions, including Christians, who suffer religious persecution.

remakingsociety369096Of course all this does not necessarily stem from their admiration for Murray Bookchin, but I am intrigued that this American thinker finds admirers in admirable people in a (to me) unlikely part of the world.

Bookchin is an anarchist, which means that he is opposed both to capitalism and to state socialism, a point of view I have come to share, late in life.  Some other anarchist writers I admire, and have posted about, are David Graeber and James C. Scott.

I just finished reading Bookchin’s Remaking Society, a quick and readable, but somewhat superficial, outline of his views.  I have started reading his earlier and longer book, The Ecology of Freedom: the emergence and dissolution of hierarchy, which is more detailed and profound, but more difficult to follow.

Bookchin is opposed to hierarchy as such.  He thinks all domination is connected – political domination, economic domination, racism, patriarchy and the domination of nature.

His ideal is the “organic” society, in which people cooperate voluntarily for their mutual benefit, and seek to understand natural processes rather than override them.

He thinks organic societies existed in pre-historic times.  Tribes based on kinship worked together for the benefit of all.  Persons of superior ability became leaders, but not rulers.  They had prestige, but not the power to coerce.  Men and women had different functions, but neither ruled the other.

Their principle, he said, the equal treatment of unequals, which sound to me very like the Marxian principle of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”.  Our present capitalist society, he said, is based on the opposite principle – the unequal treatment of equals.

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If the New York Times wrote Jesus’s obituary…

March 27, 2016

Sam Roberts, an obituary writer for the New York Times, was asked to imagine what Jesus’s obituary would have been like.

jesus-christ-obit-satire 2Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean carpenter turned itinerant minister whose appeals to piety and whose repute as a healer had galvanized a growing contingent of believers, died on Friday after being crucified that morning just outside Jerusalem, only days after his followers had welcomed him triumphantly to the city as “the anointed one” and “the Son of David.”  He was about 33.

For a man who had lived the first three decades of his life in virtual obscurity, he attracted a remarkable following in only a few years.  His reputation reflected a persuasive coupling of message, personal magnetism, and avowed miracles.  But it also resonated in the current moment of spiritual and economic discontent and popular resentment of authority and privilege, whether wielded by foreigners from Rome or by the Jewish priests in Jerusalem and their confederates.

[snip]

After running afoul of the Jewish elite in Jerusalem for blasphemy and his arrest on Thursday, Jesus was sentenced to death by Governor Pontius Pilate. (The Jewish authorities lacked jurisdiction to impose capital punishment.)  The charge, in effect, was treason, for claiming to be King of the Jews or “the anointed one” (Messiah in Hebrew and Aramaic; Christos in Greek).  After he was declared dead on Friday night, he was buried nearby in a cave.

On Sunday, his disciples reported that the body was missing.

∞∞∞

Click on What Would Jesus’s New York Times Obituary Look Like? to read the whole thing in Vanity Fair.  Hat tip to kottke.org.

Why was (and is) Bill Clinton so popular?

March 17, 2016

Thomas Frank has published another excerpt from his new book, Listen, Liberal., which I look forward to reading.  This one is about Bill Clinton, and why he is still so popular among working people and minorities despite having done so little for them when in the White House.

I would periodically ask my liberal friends if they could recall the progressive laws he got passed, the high-minded policies he fought for—you know, the good things Bill Clinton got done while he was president.   Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him—apart from his obvious personal charm, I mean?

Bill Clinton in 1992

Bill Clinton in 1992

It proved difficult for my libs.  People mentioned the obvious things: Clinton once raised the minimum wage and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit.  He balanced the budget.  He secured a modest tax increase on the rich.  And he did propose a national health program, although it didn’t get very far and was in fact so poorly designed it could be a model of how not to do big policy initiatives.

Other than that, not much.  No one could think of any great but hopeless Clintonian stands on principle; after all, this is the guy who once took a poll to decide where to go on vacation.  His presidency was all about campaign donations, not personal bravery—he basically rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, for chrissake, and at the end of his time in office he even appeared to sell a presidential pardon.

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Frederick Douglass on Abraham Lincoln

February 12, 2016

Abraham Lincoln was born this day in 1809.   Lincoln’s Birthday was a national holiday until it was absorbed by the meaningless “President’s Day”.

Some question Lincoln’s greatness.  I am not one of them.  The best and truest rebuttal to Lincoln’s critics by Frederick Douglass in an oration delivered at the unveiling of Freedman’s Monument in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., in 1876.

Here’s is the meat of the talk.

Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.  He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.  In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans.

He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery.  His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race.  [snip]

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Obama and the CIA: a conspiracy hypothesis

January 8, 2016

For years my friend Daniel Brandt has been telling me about circumstantial evidence that the young Barack Obama and his mother, Ann Dunham, had connections to the Central Intelligence Agency.

I never tried to delve into the truth of this.  I believe that the undisputed known facts are so appalling, and so ignored, that there is no point in using my limited time, energy and brainpower in speculating on what lies beyond my knowledge.

However, a blogger named Joseph Cannon did that work for me.  What he found is, shall I say, very interesting, although, as he himself wrote, not absolutely conclusive.  Here are links to Cannon’s posts on this topic.

The money: A spooky story.   (2008)

Spies, lies, Barry and his mom.  (2008)

Tim Geithner’s dad, Barack Obama’s mom and the CIA (2009)

Obama, the passport scandal and a murder (2009)

“The name’s Obama – BARACK Obama” (2009)

Obama’s parents and the CIA (2012)

Shadow government (2016)

As Cannon notes, all his evidence is circumstantial.  It is not proof.  But if true, it explains a lot—especially why President Obama gave impunity to torturers and other war criminals, and waged an unprecedented war on whistle-blowers.  There would be just too much that the CIA had on file that Obama couldn’t afford to have known.

My own attitude toward Obama is not based on speculation as to what he and his mother did in the 1970s and 1980s.  It is based on his record as President.

Obama is what he is—someone who has continued the Bush policy of invading foreign countries that do not threaten us, someone who claims the right to order the death of anyone he says is a threat or a potential threat to the nation, someone who has recommitted the country to endless war.

We live in the world that Henry Kissinger made

December 28, 2015

When U.S. forces bombed and then invaded Cambodia in 1970, many Americans were shocked, both at the mass slaughter of bystanders and at the fact that it was done without a declaration of war.   Nowadays such actions have come to be regarded as normal.

Grandin.KissingersShadowHistorian Greg Grandin, in his new book, KISSINGER’S SHADOW: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, says the normalization of military aggression and mass killing of civilians is due to the influence of Henry Kissinger, not just as national security adviser and secretary of state under the Nixon and Ford administrations, but as an influential public intellectual and elder statesman.

Kissinger’s bloody record includes the prolonging of the Vietnam conflict, the carpet bombing of Cambodia and Laos, support for Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor and massacres of minorities and dissidents, the overthrow of the democratically-elected Allende government in Chile, sponsorship of South American death squads through Operation Condor, support for white mercenaries fighting African liberation movements and much else.

But U.S. military interventions, covert actions and war crimes did not begin with Kissinger nor, for that matter, with the Cold War, nor are such things unique to the United States.

The real significance of Kissinger, according to Grandin, was that he, more than anyone else, was responsible for the overcoming of the “Vietnam syndrome” – the idea that U.S. use of force should be restrained by morality, law and prudence, and that so many Americans have come, without realizing it, to accept Kissinger’s philosophy of power.

Kissinger was an admirer of the German philosopher and historian Oswald Spengler, who believed that civilizations rise when they have powerful leaders whose understanding is based on sound instinct and intuition.  Spengler believed they decline when leaders limit themselves to sterile reasoning and empirical fact.

While Spengler believed that Western civilization was in a state of irreversible decline, Kissinger thought that this could be reversed by statesmen with the strength of will to ignore the “fact men” and impose their vision on reality.

Kissinger, according to Grandin, believed that power was a dynamic process.  The only way a nation could maintain power was to participate in the struggle for power.  A nation whose leaders stayed on the sidelines would only become weak.

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Our place in history and time

December 13, 2015

This is from a post on the Wait But Why web site.

Time-G-e1419172691756

How people really fought with swords

November 27, 2015

Hat tip to kottke.org.

A look at the European martial arts tradition.

History of U.S. Treasury bond interest since 1790

November 16, 2015
treasuries

Double click to enlarge.

Source: Wealth of Common Sense (via Barry Ritholtz)

This chart is an interesting snapshot of American financial history.

It shows the interest rates on U.S. Treasury bonds from 1790, when they were first issued at a rate of 8.7 percent, through the third quarter of 2012, when they were at an all-time low of 1.62 percent.  As of this morning, the 10-year Treasury yield is 2.26 percent.

Why would people lock in their savings at such a low interest rate?  If they are foreigners, it could be because they have more confidence in the value of the U.S. dollar than they do in their own currencies.  Or it could be that they fear another financial crash that would wipe out the value of most stocks and bonds.

Is the US due for a new wave of violent upheaval?

October 3, 2015
History_of_violenceNEW

Click to enlarge.

Source: Human cycles: History as science by Laura Spinney for Nature.

Hat tip to Jayman.

The passing scene – August 20, 2015

August 20, 2015

Struggle and Progress: Eric Foner on the abolitionists, Reconstruction and winning “freedom” from the Right, a conversation with Jacobin magazine writers.

Eric Foner

Eric Foner

Historian Eric Foner pointed out that the abolition of slavery was truly a second American Revolution.  It involved the confiscation without compensation of the most valuable form of property at the time—enslaved African people.

The Civil War is sometimes interpreted as a triumph of industrial capitalism over a backward agrarian economy.  Foner said that, although this is true in a way, the pre-Civil War capitalists got along very well with the slaveowners.

The abolitionists included moderates, radicals, wealthy philanthropists, lawbreakers, politicians, former black slaves and racists who opposed slavery because it was harmful to white people.  Although sometimes working at cross-purposes, Foner said their diverse approaches created a synergy that made the movement stronger.   This has lessons for our own time.

The Last Refuge of the Incompetent by John Michael Greer for The Archdruid Report.

John Michael Greer wrote that a successful revolutionary movement will (1) discredit the existing order through relentless propaganda, (2) seek alliances with all those with grievances against the existing order, (3) create alternative institutions of its own and (4) offer a vision of hope, not despair.

In the USA, this program is being carried out not by what Greer called the “green Left,” but the “populist Right”.

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The passing scene – August 14, 2015

August 14, 2015

Will Trans Pacific trade deal go up in smoke over anti-tobacco proposal? by Adam Beshudi for POLITICO.

The latest word is that Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiators have agreed to exclude the tobacco industry from provisions giving corporations the right to sue governments before private tribunals.  Tobacco companies have successfully sued countries under other trade agreements over restrictions on cigarette sales and advertising.  This is a deal-killer for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and others from tobacco-growing states.

Torturing Chelsea Manning in Prison by Stephen Lendman for Counterpunch.

The imprisoned whistle-blower is being repeatedly put in indefinite solitary confinement.  His offenses include using a tube of toothpaste past its expiration date.

The 10 Trump Rules by Barry Lefsetz for The Big Picture.

Donald Trump understands how American politics has changed, and the other candidates don’t.

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