Archive for the ‘History’ Category

A history of interest rates through the ages

December 2, 2019

Double click to enlarge

What this chart shows is how government debt became a source of income, like ownership of land, and then how governments in recent years tried to use interest rates as a way to guide the economy.

The theory is that low interest rates generate cheap money, which stimulates the economy, but also leads to inflation, while high interest rates do the reverse.

The problem with the theory is that we in the USA and UK have been in a period of unprecedentedly low interest rates for years, but that this has neither stimulated productive investment nor led to runaway inflation.

Something’s wrong that isn’t being fixed by tweaking interest rates and the money supply.

LINK

The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years by Nicolas LePan for Visual Capitalist.

The making of the Oxford English Dictionary

November 2, 2019

The Oxford English Dictionary, which attempts to encompass the whole English language, was and is an epic achievement.

Commissioned in 1857, begun in 1879 and completed in 1926, it consisted of 12 volumes containing 414,825 words and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations, most of them in type set by hand.  New editions and updates of the OED continue to this day.

This unflagging commitment to a purely cultural project, of no monetary or military value, is truly remarkable.  It is like the construction of the medieval cathedrals that were begun with the knowledge they would take a century or more to complete.

I learned about the background of the OED by reading Simon Winchester’s book THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1998, which my friend Jan Hickman gave me.

The professor was James Murray, the chair of the committee overseeing the compilation of the dictionary.  He was a Scot who dropped out of school because of poverty at age 14, but was respected as an expert on philology, having taught himself multiple ancient and modern languages, including Roma, the gypsy dialect.

Because of the immensity of the project, the OED depended on volunteers to contribute definitions and examples of word usage.

One of the most prolific volunteers was one Dr. W.C. Minor, who submitted tens of thousands of definitions and turned out to be an inmate of an asylum for the criminally insane. He had murdered an innocent man whom he thought was part of a plot to assassinate him.  Murray liked and respected Minor, and visited him regularly.

Minor’s distinctive contribution was to collect centuries-old books and read them through, not out of interest in the content, but simply to find early usages of words and how the definition would change.

By day, he was a scholar,  By night, he felt he was being tortured by enemies coming out of the walls and floor.  His performance, under the circumstances, was heroic.

Winchester remarked that it is too bad that mental illness was not understood back then as it is now.  But if Minor had lived 50 or 100 years later, he might have been subjected to lobotomies, electric shock treatments or mind-altering drugs. We still do not know to what extent mental illness is biological in nature and to what extent it is due to life experiences.

Instead his keepers treated him kindly and simply prevented him from wandering off and tried to prevent him from harming himself or others.  Of course good treatment was encouraged by the fact that his family was immensely rich.

I put down the book with increased respect for these Victorian men—their strength of character, their devotion to learning, their determination to carry through what they had committed to do.  I also appreciated the great individual dictionary makers—Samuel Johnson in 18th century England and Noah Webster in the 19th century USA.

What project could be started today that people would still be committed to carrying on a century or more from now?

LINKS

Simon Winchester’s website.

Blog | Oxford English Dictionary.

Contribute to the OED | Oxford English Dictionary.

What I think about historic wrongs.

October 23, 2019

My friend Hank Stone summarized my ideas on this topic better than I did myself.

  1. Changing history is not the goal because here is where we are and the platform from which we can go forward.  
  2. We don’t need collective guilt, but we do need to remember and understand the past.  
  3. Going forward, we in the USA need to find ways to live together in justice and peace.

U.S. history from the viewpoint of the Indians

October 21, 2019

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s disturbing An Indigenous People’s History of the United States is, in the author’s words, the investigation of a crime scene.

She told a story of a nation that broke treaty after treaty in order to engage in unprovoked military aggression, ethnic cleansing and genocide in order to gain living space.

Settler militias and government troops burned crops, demolished homes, and paid bounties for the scalps of Indian men, women, and children. The buffalo were deliberately destroyed to deny sustenance to the Plains Indians

British General Jeffrey Amherst practiced germ warfare against the Pontiacs in colonial times.  US army personnel skinned Indian victims to make bridles for their horses.  The buffalo were deliberately destroyed in order to deny sustenance for the Plains Indians.

General William T. Sherman, who headed the War Department under the Grant administration, famously said that the only good Indians he ever saw were dead.

I see an obvious analogy.

What happened to the Indians was not happenstance, Dunbar-Ortiz wrote.  It was a result of both government policy and the core values not only of American culture, but of European civilization as a whole.

These policies and values shaped U.S. military tradition and its way of waging war today, she wrote.  U.S. troops still call occupied territories “indian county.”

I kind-of, sort-of, in-a-way vaguely knew much of the contents of the book, but it never fully registered on me until I read it.  Having all these facts concentrated into one 236-page indictment has an impact I can’t forget.

∞∞∞

When Columbus sailed in 1492, there was a flourishing native American civilization.  Dunbar-Ortiz said it was wiped out not only by the unplanned spread of European diseases, but also as deliberate policy.  European and native American civilizations were incompatible.

Europeans believed in the “doctrine of discovery,” which is that Christians have the right to claim territory they discover for their own, regardless of the non-Christian inhabitants.  This is still part of U.S. law, she noted.

The Puritan settlers of New England were Calvinists, like the Boers in South Africa.  They believed that they, like the ancient Israelites in the Old Testament, had made a covenant with God that entitled them to the land they settled and that the existing inhabitants were to be killed, subjugated or driven out, like the Canaanites.

In the South, the economy was based on plantation agriculture worked by forced labor, which poor whites couldn’t compete with.  They became frontiersmen instead.

The settlers’ goal was to own land individually, to exploit or sell as they saw fit.  The Indian nations could never accept this.   The varied Indian cultures all believed that land was a common inheritance that could not be alienated.

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An interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

October 21, 2019

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is the author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, published in 2014.  She gave an interview about the book to the Real News Network.

In the first part of the interview, she told of her childhood as a poor sharecropper’s daughter in Oklahoma and how she became a scholar and Indian rights’ activist.

In the second part, she talked about the colonial origins and foundational myths of the United States and Andrew Jackson, the great Indian fighter.

In the third part, she talked about how James Fenimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln and other writers and statesmen created the ground for ethnic cleansing of the Indians.

Lessons of The Killing Floor

October 13, 2019

I saw a great movie Friday night – a remastered version of the 1984 movie, The Killing Floor, which is about the fight of slaughterhouse workers in Chicago in the 1910s to establish a union and how they were divided and defeated by racial conflict.

It is a reminder of a history we Americans shouldn’t forget and carries lessons for labor and social justice struggles today.

All the characters are based on real people, who supposedly did approximately the same things that the movie shows.

The viewpoint character is Frank Custer, an illiterate sharecropper from Mississippi, who at first is grateful just to find work and doesn’t want to get involved in what he sees as a conflict between white people.

But when Bill Bremer, a German-American union leader, sticks up for him, Custer begins to realize that people of a different race and heritage are not necessarily his enemies.

The union local reflects the culture of the immigrants from central and eastern Europe who make up the majority of its members.  Speeches by union leaders are translated into Polish, and union meetings are following by polka dances.

The white ethnic leaders welcome Custer into their midst, and rely on him and a handful of other black organizers to bring African-American workers into the union.  He becomes a respected member of the leadership.

This was a huge, huge thing for white people to do in the 1910s, when extreme racism was the norm not only in the United States, but throughout the Western world.

But the white leaders do not do what Custer did—get out of their comfort zone and make contact with people who are culturally different from themselves.

Instead they depend on him to represent the union to the black workers, and to represent black workers to the union leadership.  In the end, this proves to be too much to expect.

Custer’s best friend meanwhile goes off to serve in World War One, and comes home to scorn any idea of alliance with white people.  He trusts only his fists and his revolver.

Another black worker, Heavy Williams, resents Custer for the power and prestige he has gained by allying himself with white people.  He helps to sabotage the union’s fragile racial amity.

Following the end of World War One, the United States was torn with race riots—not race riots like today, which consist of black people going on rampages, mainly through their own neighborhoods.

The race riots of the “red summer” of 1919 consisted of armed white gangs shooting up black neighborhoods and wrecking property, while police looked the other way.

A race riot in Chicago was touched off by the stoning to death of a black man for trespassing on a white beach area.  White gangs in blackface set fire to Polish and Lithuanian homes.  Black Chicago neighborhoods are terrorized.

The meat packers used the end of wartime prosperity and the need to create jobs for returning veterans as an excuse to lay off union workers.  Many white union members saw African-Americans as a threat to their jobs.  Many African-Americans saw working as strikebreakers as the only way to get jobs.

The union was defeated temporarily, but gained recognition and a contract in the 1930s.

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Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red

September 23, 2019

I finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, last week.  Published in 1998 and translated from the Turkish in 2001, it is an interesting oddity—a historical novel, a love story, a murder mystery and a novel of ideas.  Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature.

The chapters have various narrators, all addressing the reader in a conversational style.  The narrators are not just the principal characters, but the two dead murder victims, their anonymous murderer, illustrations of a dog, a horse, a tree, two dervishes, Satan and Death, an unnamed man imagining himself as a woman and the color red.

Islamic Empires. Click to enlarge

The setting is 1591 Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled north Africa, western Asia and the Balkans. a territory as extensive as the Roman Empire.

The Ottomans were eventually left behind by modern civilization, but at the height of their power, some Europeans admired their government, in which administrators were chosen for ability and disinterested loyalty, not noble birth, wealth or connections.

By the standards of the time, the Ottoman Empire was notably tolerant in religion.  It gave refuge to persecuted Jews and heretical Christians, including unitarians.

In the novel, Sultan Murat III commissions an illustrated book to celebrate the glories of his realm.  The problem is that he wants it painted in the European style, which many of his subjects consider contrary to Islam..

Pamuk’s artists see art is a form of mysticism.  A picture of a horse should be an ideal horse, a horse as God sees it, not a recognizable image of a particular horse.  If an artist has a unique style, that is an imperfection in his art.  The works of the greatest artists should be indistinguishable because they converge on a true vision.

I don’t know to what degree actual Turkish and Persian artists of the time thought that way and how much is Pamuk’s invention.

The two murders in the novel are a product of the murderer’s fear that the artists will be attacked by fanatic religious mobs if knowledge of their project gets out.

Two characters. the master miniaturist Osman and the apprentice Black, are given 72 hours to solve the second murder.

If they fail, the Ottoman judicial system will revert to its default procedure, which is to torture all suspects (in this case, including Osman and Black) until someone confesses or offers evidence of guilt of someone else.

To be fair, judicial torture was part of the judicial systems of Europe and China at the time, and the Ottoman system was used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its hunt for terrorists following the 9/11 attacks.

I’m sure Pamuk planted enough clues to identify the murderer in advance, but I did not figure out who he was until the end.

Black is in love with the beautiful Shekuri, daughter of the illustrator Enishte, who is in charge of the Sultan’s manuscript project.  He has returned from eight years of wandering and found that she is married and the mother of two young sons.

Her husband is a warrior who has been missing in action for four years, and she lives in the house of her domineering father-in-law and lustful brother-in-law.  So she sees Black as a possible solution to her problem.

The two female characters, Shekuri and Esther, the Jewish neighborhood matchmaker and fixer, are the only ones who are able to think two or three steps ahead.  All the male characters are prisoners of passion and illusion..

There are fables within the main story and many, many allusions to how various illustrations related to Turkish and Persian literate and folklore.  I found this part of the novel tedious because I don’t know the background.

My Name Is Red would not be to everybody’s taste.  I found it interesting for its characters.  They operated under very different cultural assumptions from mine, but still reflected universal human nature in unexpected ways.

The world of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley

September 12, 2019

I enjoyed reading Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  Published in 1849, the novel is set in Yorkshire in 1811-1812 at the time rebellious factory workers were fighting the introduction of labor-saving weaving machinery.

The title character is Shirley Keeldar, a rich, beautiful extroverted heiress who, in the absence of either father or husband, comes as close to being free and independent as was possible to any woman in that time and place.

By good-humoredly refusing to conform to the expectations for women in that era, she gets the men to accept her as a kind of honorary man.  She isn’t a rebel against society; she just wants to be a full participant.  She enjoys managing her estate and organizing charities.  She gets a number of proposals of marriage from rich suitors, which she turns down.

The Shirley character was the orphan daughter of a man who wanted a son and raised her as a boy—which was in fact the background of many accomplished women of that time and later.

Shirley was then a man’s name; it may have become more of a woman’s name because of the novel.

The emotional core of the novel is the intense personal friendship Shirley forms with the introverted and penniless Caroline Helstone, who lives as a tolerated poor relation of her uncle, Matthewson Helstone, an Anglican rector.

Rev. Helstone thinks he is doing his duty by Caroline by giving her food, shelter and a place to sit and do her sewing until some man comes along who is willing to marry her.

She is unhappy with these limitations, but the only choices for an upper- or middle-class woman of that time would be to find a suitable mate or live a marginal life as an old maid.   There was long before women could become school teachers, nurses or typists.

The only occupation open was governess, which is being a nanny and tutor to a rich family’s children.  Only educated women from genteel backgrounds are eligible to become governesses, but their lives were constant reminders that they are servants and social inferiors of their employees.

The older characters all regard Caroline’s discontent as girlish foolishness.  Their view is that life is not supposed to offer you love or happiness.  It is a grim test in which you prove or fail to prove your worthiness to enjoy eternal happiness with God in Heaven.

Caroline is attracted to her cousin, Robert Gérard Moore, a half-Belgian factory owner, who has affectionate and protective feelings toward her.  She accepts the fact that marriage is out of the question because she has no money.  Moore in turn has a platonic, intellectual friendship with Shirley.

Moore is in the forefront of the struggle against the “frame breakers,” workers are fighting mechanization of the weaving industry.  Brontë depicts them as criminals and terrorists who have successfully intimidated magistrates and other industrialists by threat of riot and assassination..

Moore alone has the courage to fight back.  He brings in troops to protect his factory, tracks down rebel leaders and sees to it that they are sentenced without mercy to transportation to Australia.  This is at great personal risk because at one point he is shot and nearly dies.

Rev. Helstone and the other Anglican clergy are all on Moore’s side.  They do not attempt to be peacemakers.  Methodist and Baptist preachers are depicted as part of the rebellious riffraff.

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‘Woke-ness’ vs. Americanism: a religious conflict

August 30, 2019

As I think about what’s called ‘woke-ness’ as a quasi-religion, I better understand the attacks on the symbols of American patriotism.

I’m thinking of the removal of the Betsy Ross flag from Nike sneakers, demands for removal of statues of Thomas Jefferson and the recent New York Times magazine edition that said the true founding of the United States was not in 1776, but in 1619 with the arrival of the first slave ship.

Americanism is also a quasi religion.  What’s going on is the attempt to substitute a new religion for an old one.  The attacks on symbols of American patriotism are like the early Christians’ attacks on statues of the pagan gods or the early Protestants’ attacks on images of Catholic saints.

‘Americanism’ is an odd word.  Nobody I know of speaks of Canadianism or Mexicanism.  It reflects the fact that being a patriotic American has always implied adherence to a creed—although we Americans have always fought over the definition of that creed.

Debates in American history have generally taken the form: “I am a true American and you are not.”  Both sides in our Civil War believed they were the champions of liberty and self-government as defined by our nation’s Founders (with a capital “F”).

We Americans historically have regarded the Declaration and the Constitution as like Holy Writ, equivalent to the Bible, and criticism of these sacred documents as equivalent to blasphemy.   We settle arguments by citing these documents.

The Pledge of Allegiance is a sacred ceremony.   The American flag is a sacred object.  Criticize them at your peril.

Americanism provides a sense of community.  Trying to be a good American can give life a sense of meaning.  Americanism can also provide a rationale for persecution.

The advantage of Americanism is that, in principle, it is open to any believer, regardless of race, creed or national origin.  No matter where you were born, you are in principle eligible to become an American. [1]   This isn’t true of China or most other countries.

I have always thought of myself as a patriotic American and an adherent of the best ideals of American history and culture.[2]

The triumph of “woke-ness” as a quasi-religion requires the displacement of Americanism as a quasi-religion.  Reverence for the old is an obstacle to creating reverence for the new.

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When did American democracy lose its way?

August 28, 2019

The president of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use, and be authorised to use, in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.  

He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen.  He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call the Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.

==Dick Cheney, Fox News, Dec. 21, 2008

We Americans live under a government whose executive has the power to attack foreign countries, order assassinations and kidnapings, imprison people without trial, commit crimes and prosecute those who reveal those crimes.

When did this start?  The historian Garry Wills, in his 2010 book BOMB POWER: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State, argued that it began with the Manhattan Project.  The creation of the atomic bomb set the pattern for exercise of vast power in secret, without legal authority, with national security as the justification.

General Groves, the organizer of the project, operated without authorization from Congress and outside the norma military chain of command.  He spent billions of dollars back when that was real money.  He authorized major industrial facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, plus the research and test facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico.  All this was done without knowledge of the public (although spies told the Soviet government about it.)

The original purpose was to develop an atomic weapon before Hitler’s scientists did.  When Germany was defeated, that purpose became moot. The purpose became the justification of the project’s existence.

If Groves had not had a uranium bomb to drop on Hiroshima and a plutonium bomb to drop on Nagasaki, he might have been court-martialed, or at the very least, subjected to a congressional investigation, for usurping power and wasting the government’s money.

On the contrary, the atomic bomb became the core of postwar American military strategy.  Congress lost its authority to declare or refuse to declare war.  A decision to respond to an attack, nuclear or otherwise, had to be made within minutes.

Only the President controlled the Bomb and, by extension, the fate of the world with no Constitutional check.  The President came to be regarded not as Chief Executive of one of three branches of government, but as Commander in Chief of the whole nation.

The secret Manhattan project set a precedent for the vast secret powers of the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and the rest of the national security state.  Congress’s power of financial oversight was shut off by a veil of secrecy..

It is true that the U.S. government has a history of suspending civil liberties in times of war, but, prior to World War Two, life returned to normal after the war ended.

 In the nuclear age, the shooting war against Germany and Japan morphed into a global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.  And when the Soviet Union fell apart, the Cold War morphed into a supposed war against terror that had no defined enemy.

The wartime footing became a constant in American life.  Only the designated enemies changed.

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What if Hitler had been assassinated in 1930?

August 21, 2019

What if Adolf Hitler had been assassinated in 1930?  How would history have been changed?

I believe there would have been no Second World War in Europe.  The more than 20 million troops who died in battle and more than 20 million civilians who were killed would have lived out their natural lives.  But the consequences after that?  A mixture of both good and bad..

Some say history might not have been changed all that much.  They say some other Nazi, such as Goebbels or Goering, would have stepped into Hitler’s shoes.   And that leader, they add, might not have made Hitler’s mistakes.  A more capable leader might have won the war.

Adolf Hitler

I don’t think so.  The Nazi party was organized around the cult of Hitler’s personality.  It wouldn’t have been so easy to find a substitute with his charisma.  I don’t think any of the others would have had his ability to maneuver his way into the chancellorship, then leverage that power into absolute dictatorship and lead a reluctant German officer corps into war.

In the absence of Hitler, Germany might well have become an anti-semitic right-wing dictatorship anyhow, like Poland, Hungary and other European countries.  The German government might have included a few Nazis.  Germany certainly would have re-armed and resumed its place among the great European powers.

But the German generals did not want to go to war with Britain and France.  We now know they would have attempted a coup if the Allies had resisted the remilitarization of the Rhineland or the annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.  If Hitler had not tamed them, they would not have consented to starting a general war in Europe.

After the war, the German generals claimed they might have won if Hitler had not rejected their advice on strategy and tactics.  But Hitler had a better strategic sense than they did.  He recognized that without a dependable source of oil, the blitzkrieg tactic would have stalled, because it depended on large numbers of motorized vehicles moving quickly.  He prioritized the invasion of Ukraine and the Caucasus, but the main objective of his tradition-bound generals was Moscow, the enemy capital.

 No Hitler, no Second World War in Europe.  What follows from that?

There would have been no atomic bomb in 1945 or perhaps.  Without a Hitler, there would have been no reason to undertake such a project.

Only the United States had the wealth and industrial power to undertake the Manhattan Project, and even then, the project would not have succeeded without the help of European refugee scientists.

There probably would still have been a Pacific War between the United States and Japan.  The cause of that conflict was the U.S. oil embargo against Japan to enforce a demand that Japan withdraw its forces from China.

Rather than comply with that demand, Japan seized the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), the only important source of oil in the Far East.  The Japanese attempted to neutralize British and American forces by conquering the Philippines, capturing Britain’s Singapore base and bombing the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Even though the United States would have lacked an atomic bomb, there would have been no need for an American invasion of the Japanese islands.  U.S. forces could have bombed and starved the Japanese into submission without an invasion and without nuclear weapons, probably with as much or more loss of Japanese lives than in the actual war.

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If you had your life to live over…

August 19, 2019

Sometimes I like awake in bed going over the many times in my life when I’ve been foolish, weak or blindly selfish, and rewriting the script so that I behaved as I wish had I behaved.

What would it be like to actually have the chance to live your life over?  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is about a women who had that chance, not just once, but many times.

Her heroine, Ursula Todd, dies or is killed at least 15 times, including once in childbirth in 1910, four times in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and three times in the London Blitz in 1940.  On each new iteration of her life, she has a dim memory of having lived before.

She learns to survive the ‘flu epidemic by pushing a family servant girl, Bridget, down a flight of stairs and making her break her arm the night before she would have gone into town and gotten inflected.

In later lives, she achieves the same result by telling Bridget lies that cause her to break up with her boyfriend, thus depriving her of the reason to go into town.

But no matter how many times she lives, she can never realize all possibilities.

During one iteration of her life during the Blitz, a man sitting next to her on the Tube (subway) notices she is good at working crossword puzzles, gives her his business card and says he is recruiting “clever girls.”  She decides to follow up on this, but loses the card.

We the readers know, as she does not, that she has lost a chance to be a codebreaker at Bletchley Park.  That chance does not come again.

The Blitz is the “dark beating heart” of the book, Atkinson wrote in an afterword.  She was born in 1951.  “During the war we were weighed in the balance and not found wanting.  The more I read about the war, the more I think that … we really were at our best then, and I would have liked to have known that.”

The book is “about being English,” she wrote.  “Not just the reality of being English, but also what we are in our own imagination,” she wrote.   Yet Ursula lives one of her lives in Germany and dies in Berlin in 1945.

Ursula decides to change history by assassinating Hitler.  In the following life, she learns German and marksmanship, makes the acquaintance of Eva Braun in 1930 and is introduced to Hitler.  She pulls a gun out of her handbag and gets off one shot, because being shot down by his bodyguards.

This is the end of the book. It is where I, as a long-time reader of science fiction, would expect the novel to begin.

What does she do next?  Will she do the same thing in all her subsequent lives—devote herself to preparing to kill Hitler, dying in a hail of bullets at the age of 20, and never knowing for sure what effect her sacrifice had? Or perhaps, in repeated lives, perfect her technique so that she can kill Hitler and get away with it?

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George Alfred Townsend’s The Entailed Hat

August 10, 2019

Time for something a little lighter!  I recently finished reading a literary curiosity, THE ENTAILED HAT, or Patty Cannon’s Times: a romance by George Alfred Townsend.  It was published in 1884 but is long out of print.  

Set on the Eastern Shore of Maryland around 1830, It has two plots.  One is a beauty-and-the-beast story about how circumstances cause a beautiful young woman to wed an ugly man who wears a very ugly hat.  The other is an action-adventure story, which graduallly takes over the novel, about an attempted rescue of victims of a criminal gang that kidnaps and sells black people, both enslaved and free.

George Alfred Townsend

The author was a best-selling writer of his time.  He was reportedly the youngest correspondent to cover the Civil War and achieved fame for his reporting of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth.

Later he become one of the first syndicated newspaper columnists and a fiction writer.  He used the pen name Gath, based on the Biblical version, “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not on the streets of Askalon.”

The Entailed Hat is considered his best novel.  His character Meshach Milburn of Princess Anne, Somerset County, wears a hat passed down by his family through the eldest sons since the 17th century.  It is extremely ugly and makes him an object of ridicule, but he stubbornly continues to wear it out of family pride.

One day a pretty little girl, Vesta Custis, gives him a rose to put in his hat.  He is so touched that he falls in love with her and waits for her to grow up  so her can marry her.  

Although an uneducated backwoodsman (a “forester”) low on the social scale, Milburn quietly builds up a fortune over the years.   

At the same time, Vesta’s father, Judge Custis, invests the family fortune in a failed enterprise to smelt iron from low-grade “swamp ore.”   He finally gets to the point where he uses the same property twice for security on different loans, which means that he is in jeopardy of criminal charges as well as bankruptcy.

Milburn buys up all the judge’s IOUs and offers an exchange—a write-off of all his debts in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage.  The judge refuses.

Here the novel takes an unexpected turn.  Vesta interviews Milburn, evaluates the situation and concludes that he would be an adequate, non-abusive husband and that the benefits of marriage would exceed the costs.

Soon after the marriage, Milburn falls ill with fever and Vesta takes charge of his affairs.  She also takes charge of her father’s affairs.  Her example causes her father to reform and give up his bad habits.  She teaches Milburn social graces to make him acceptable in polite society—although she can’t persuade him to give up his hat.

About this time some of Vesta’s slaves and Milburn’s free black employee, Samson Hat, are kidnaped by members of Patty Cannon’s gang.  Patty Cannon was a real person, and her gang, operating near the Maryland-Delaware border, was once the terror of the Delmarva Peninsula.

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Lessons from Hitler’s rise to power

August 6, 2019

Benjamin Carter Hett’s THE DEATH OF DEMOCRACY: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic is a month-by-month account of the politics of the years leading up to the Nazi conquest of power in Germany.

Hett described how Hitler went from 2.8 percent of the popular vote in the 1928 elections to 37.6 percent in 1932,  how he leveraged Nazi voting strength to make himself chancellor by legal means in 1933 and how all pretense of legality ended in the “night of the long knives” in 1934.

That was when Hitler destroyed all remnants of legality by simply ordering the execution-style murder of his opponents, including dissidents in the Nazi party.

Adolph Reed Jr. said in an Interview that Hett’s book is not only good in itself, but it throws light on contemporary U.S. politics.  In fact it does have lessons for the present-day United States, although not in a straightforward or obvious way.

A number of European countries, following defeat in World War One and with middle classes threatened by powerful Communist movements, became right-wing dictatorships.  Fascist Italy led the way.

Germany followed a different path.  A Communist revolution was crushed by a government supported by Social Democrats.   Socialists then joined forces with the Catholic Center Party and moderate conservative parties to form a democratic government.

The democratic coalition worked for a number of years.  The economy recovered.  Inflation was curbed.

Germany became a model for democratic socialism.  Labor unions were powerful.  The government provided compulsory wage arbitration and a strong social safety net.  Homosexuality and abortion were legal.

But, like today’s USA, Weimar Germany struggled with the issue of globalization vs. economic nationalism.

One big issue Weimar Germany had in common with the present-day USA was the question of globalization vs. economic nationalism.

The governing coalition accepted the need to pay reparations for Germany’s supposed guilt for starting World War One and to back their currency with gold.  Both were seen as the price of participating in the world economy.

The right-wing nationalists, including the Nazis, objected to these policies because they denied Germany the means to pay for rearmament and a large army.  They also objected to globalization on principle.  The Nazis wanted to end reparations, abrogate international trade treaties, limit foreign trade and make Germany as self-sufficient as possible.

The refugee crisis was another big issue.  An estimated 1.5 million refugees entered Germany between 1918 and 1922.  Most of them were Germans from former German territory in France and Poland, and many were refugees from Bolshevik Russia, but a lot of them were Jews.

Many Germans worried about their country’s inability to secure its borders. The Nazi position was to expel all refugees and also all Jews, refugees or not.

Weimar Germany had its own version of identity politics, which however was based on social class and religion rather than race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.  By identity politics, I mean politics based on an affirmation that your own group is good and other groups are bad, rather than politics based on getting what you and your group want.

The identity group to which the Nazis and other right-wing nationalists appealed were the rural and middle-class German Protestants.  The American and British image of Weimar Germany is based on Berlin, but more than a third of Germans lived in villages of fewer than 2,000 people.  Rural Protestants tended to be highly religious, respectful of authority and nostalgic for the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm.

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Hitler lost WW2 because he ran out of gas

July 12, 2019

I came across an interesting history video that explains how access to oil was Adolf Hitler’s main goal in World War Two, how it determined his strategy and why his failure to achieve that goal doomed Nazi Germany to defeat.

It provides good food for thought, both about history and today’s geopolitics.  Here is an outline of what it said.

Adolf Hitler believed that Germany could not be a powerful or even an independent nation so long as it depended on imports for food and energy.  His long-range goal was to acquire the farmland of Ukraine and the oil of the Caucasus for Germany.

Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 was a step toward that goal.  If Britain hadn’t declared war on Germany in 1939 or had agreed to a truce in 1940 or 1941, he might have succeeded.

The United States during that period produced 70 percent of the world’s oil.  Most of the rest came from the USSR and Venezuela.  Even after Germany conquered most of Europe, including the oil fields of Rumania, the British blockade remained in place.  Germany was cut off from the oil of the USA and Venezuela and the USSR did not supply enough to meet its requirements.

Germany’s blitzkrieg strategy depended on tanks and other motorized vehicles operating on a broad front.  But Germany lacked enough oil of its own to conduct long campaigns.

The German army “demotorized” in order to provide enough fuel for the tanks.  It used horse-drawn vehicles to move supplies.  Messengers rode bicycles rather than motorcycles.  It also used an expensive process to synthesize oil from coal, even though coal supplies also were limited.

This meant Germany had a limited time in which to invade Soviet Russia and obtain the oil it needed.   Otherwise it would run short of the fuel needed to power its tanks and trucks.

That is why Hitler did not plan for a long campaign, and why he wanted his generals to concentrate on the Caucasus rather than Leningrad and Moscow.

The 1941 invasion failed.  After that Germany had one last chance of victory—by using what fuel reserves it had in 1942 to make one last stab at Maikup and Grozny in the Caucasus while conquering Stalingrad so the Soviets could not transport oil up the Volga River from refineries in Baku.

Lack of fuel was why Hitler ordered troops to stand fast and hold the line at all costs rather than allowing his generals to engage in a war of maneuver.

If the Nazis had succeeded, Russia would have been cut off from both the oil of the Caucasus and the Ukraine breadbasket.  Soviet forces would have been hard put to find the means to keep on fighting in 1943 and 1944.

But the Nazis failed.  From then on, Germany’s only goal in fighting was to prolong the war in hope of a negotiated peace.

All this shows that while Hitler was evil, he was not a madman—at least not where military strategy was concerned.  He understood strategy better than his generals.

It also shows the British blockade and American oil were as important to victory as the actual fighting by the Red Army.  If Winston Churchill had not become Prime Minister in 1940, Britain might have made a separate peace with Germany, and the German army would have had the fuel it needed to blitzkrieg Russia.

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How George Washington crossed the Delaware

July 4, 2019

If General George Washington had not led American troops across the Delaware River on Christmas, 1776, and defeated Hessian troops in Trenton, American secession from the British Empire probably would have failed, and the United States would not have become an independent nation when and how it did.

I recently finished reading Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, which tells the story of that victory— how it was achieved, what came after and why it mattered.

By describing events in fine-grained detail, drawing in letter, diaries and reminiscences of many individuals on both sides, he drew a vivid picture of what it was like to fight in that era, and also showed how differently the two sides viewed the war.

Fischer’s history begins with the British driving the Continental Army out of New York City in the summer of 1776, and then winning victory after victory until they occupied all of New jersey.  He ends with the turning of the tide in a way that showed how Americans would win ultimate victory.

In grade school, I was taught to think of the British redcoats as fools, who marched in formation while Virginia and Pennsylvania riflemen picked them off from behind trees and stone walls.

The fact was that the British troops who occupied New York City in the summer of 1776 were veterans of regiments who, a short time before, had won battles in every continent in the Seven Years War against the French Empire.  They were backed up by the British fleet , which commanded not only the high seas, but the waters around Manhattan island.

They out-fought and out-maneuvered the inexperienced American troops, driving Washington’s troops out of New York and south through New Jersey.

By Christmas, the British and their Hessian allies had every reason to think they had all but won.   Washington’s desperate plan to attack across the Delaware River involved coordinated crossings at three different locations.   Two of the crossings failed.  Washington failed to make his crossing on schedule or as planned, but he pressed on to the attack anyway.

He pressed on and won.  As a schoolboy, I also was taught that he caught the Hessian garrison hung over from a drunken Christmas Eve party the night before.  Not so!  The Hessians were tough and well-disciplined troops who put up a brave fight, but were defeated in the end.

Fischer gives a powerful account of what it was like fight in those days, marching and pushing wagons through knee-deep mud and freezing rain, and fighting on despite hunger, exhaustion and lack of adequate shoes or clothing.  I can’t even imagine what it would be like to march through mud that was literally knee-deep or worse.

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The painting of Washington crossing the Delaware

July 4, 2019

Washington crossing the Delaware.  Please click to enlarge.

A German-American painter named Emanuel Leutze made his famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware in 1850 to encourage freedom-loving Germans after the defeat of democratic revolutions in 1848.

The original remained in Germany and did not survive World War Two, but Leutze made a copy that survives today in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Although the accuracy of some details has been question, historian David Hackett Fischer, in his book, Washington’s Crossing, gives Leutze credit for showing what a great feat it was to cross the Delaware River on Christmas Day, 1776.

The crossing succeeded partly for the same reason that General MacArthur’s Inchon landing succeeded during the Korean Conflict.  It was so difficult a feat that the enemy didn’t consider it as a possibility.

Fischer also gave Leutze credit for recognizing the diversity and individuality of the American troops.  Here is Fischer’s description.

Washington’s small boat is crowded with thirteen men …

One man wears the short tarpaulin jacket of a New England seaman; we look again and discover that he is of African descent.  

Another is a recent Scottish immigrant, still wearing his Balmoral bonnet.  

A third is an androgynous figure in a loose red shirt, maybe a woman in man’s clothing, pulling at an oar.

At the bow and stern are hard-faced western riflemen in hunting shirts and deerskin leggings.  

Huddled beneath the thwarts are farmers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey in blanket coats and broad-brimmed hats.  One carries a countryman’s double-barreled shotgun.  The other looks very ill and his head in swathed in a bandage.

A solider beside them is in full uniform, a rarity in this army; he wears the blue coat and red facings of Haslet’s Delaware Regiment.

Another figure bears a boat cloak and an oiled hat that a prosperous Baltimore merchant might have used on a West Indian voyage; his sleeve reveals the facings of Smallwood’s silk-stocking Maryland Regiment.

Hidden behind them is a mysterious thirteenth man.  Only his weapon is visible; one wonders who he might have been.

The dominant figures in the painting are two gentlemen of Virginia who stand tall above the rest.  

One of them is Lieutenant James Monroe, holding a big American flag upright against the storm.  

The other is Washington in his Continental uniform of buff and blue.  He holds a brass telescope and wears a heavy saber, symbolic of a statesman’s vision and a soldier’s strength.

The artist intends us to see each of these soldiers as an individual, but he also reminds us that they are all in the same boat, working desperately together against the wind and the current.

The greatness of George Washington was that he could forge an Army out of such diverse origins, and defeat the hardened British and Hessian professional soldiers.  The greatness of Americans in that era was that we could bury our differences and unite in a common cause.

Americans today are even more diverse that we were then.  But we’re still all in the same boat.

A novel set in Renaissance Florence and Hell

June 29, 2019

Jo Walton’s LENT (2019) is a historical fantasy novel set partly in Renaissance Florence and party in Hell.

The protagonist is the Dominican monk, Girolamo Savonarola, who attempted a moral and spiritual revolution in Florence in the 1490s, but was burned at the stake for heresy.

Walton’s novel is partly an attempt to rehabilitate Savonarola’s reputation.  He is remembered as a religious fanatic who organized a Bonfire of the Vanities, in which the population of Florence consigned everything to the flames that was frivolous and distracted them from God.

But she shows him as a Renaissance humanist, a close friend of Pico della Mirandola, and a sincere religious  reformer, although not, as sometimes depicted, a forerunner of Protestantism.

The novel begins in 1492 with Savonarola exorcising demons, which in the novel are all too real, and then visiting Lorenzo the Magnificent on his deathbed, where he is given a mysterious talisman.  It follows his life to 1498, when he is tortured and killed, and learns that he is a damned soul in Hell, condemned to eternally repeat his life.

He returns to 1492 again and again, trying to make his life turn out better for himself and for Florence.  The novel reminds me of the movie “Groundhog Day” and of Ken Grimwood’s SF novel Replay.

The novel is based on an original and interesting premise, which is well-executed.  I’m not sure why I don’t like it better than I do.  Maybe it’s because the cruelty and terror of Hell and the Inquisition are so much in the foreground that they detract from the glories of the Renaissance.

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Alternate history and ancient science

June 14, 2019

Alternate history is one of the most popular types of science fiction.  It is based on speculation as to what would have happened if history had been different from what it was – if the Axis had won World War II, or if the South had won the U.S. Civil War.

CELESTIAL MATTERS by Richard Garfinkle (1996) is a work of both alternate history and alternate science.  I read it with great pleasure when it first came out, and reread it with pleasure recently.

The alternate history is what would have happened if the ancient Greek culture had not self-destructed during the Peloponnesian Wars.  

The alternate science is what the world would be like if ancient Greek science were correct—if matter consisted of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, if the sun, moon and planets revolved around the earth, if medical theories of the “humors” were true, if life could be created through spontaneous generation.

In the novel, the Delian League, the alliance of the Greek city-states formed after the defeat of the Persian invasion, did not become a vehicle for Athenian domination, but was an equal alliance of Athenian thought and Spartan valor that endured for a thousand years.

Alexander of Macedon, influenced by his wise tutor Aristotle, did not attempt to conquer Greece, but joined the Delian League.  He did not cut the Gordian Knot, but allowed Aristotle to gently untie it.  He conquered not only Persia but India, lived to a ripe old age and set up an enduring stable government.

The Delian League’s only rival was the Middle Kingdom, whose technology was based on Taoist principles of Yin and Yang and “xi” force.

The novel’s protagonist, Aias of Tyre, is a scientific officer on an expedition to the Sun to obtain solar fire to use as a high-tech weapon against the Taoists.  The principles of space flight in the novel, of course, have nothing to do with gravity or Newton’s laws of motion.

Alas has to contend with Taoist attacks, sabotage by a secret traitor, personality conflicts in the high command and his doubts about the possible blasphemy against the divine Apollo—not to mention his growing attraction to the female Spartan officer appointed as his bodyguard.

The Greek gods exist and speak to him and other characters, but as voices and images in their minds.  Each of the gods represents a separate aspect of life and of the good.

This is not a novel for everyone, but if this is the kind of novel you enjoy, you will enjoy Celestial Matters a lot.

Lessons from the fate of ancient Athens

June 14, 2019

The alternate history novel Celestial Matters describes a world in which the Delian league of Greek city-states endured a thousand years.  This of course did not happen in reality, and the reasons it didn’t have a moral for us Americans.

The Delian League was an alliance of Athens and other Greek city-states against the Persian Empire, which had invaded Greece and was defeated by the Spartan army and Athenian navy.

Allies of Athens were supposed to contribute money to a treasury located on the island of Delos to be used to construct ships to wage war against Persia.

In time, the treasury was shifted from Delos to Athens.  In time, Athens gave up the pretense that the contribution was anything more than tribute exacted by Athens.  Delian League money went to help pay for construction of the Parthenon.

Allies revoted against Athens, and were put down ruthlessly.  All this was before the outbreak of war between allies of Athens and members of the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League.  Athens lost the war, but it was devastating to both sides.  Greece was successfully invaded by Macedonia and later by Rome.

What would have happened if the Athenians had maintained the Delian League as a true alliance rather than making it into an empire?  They might have been more powerful rather than less, because they wouldn’t have to expend blood and treasure in suppressing rebellions against their empire.  Their aggression might not have been feared as much by the Spartans.  These things aren’t knowable.

I see a parallel between Athens after the Persian Wars and the United States after the Second World War.  The United States was the trusted leader of the Western world.  

It sponsored the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union, the United Nations as a means of implementing international law and the Bretton Woods agreement as a means of stabilizing the world financial system.

I think that if the U.S. had been faithful to the purposes of the international organizations it created, and had been willing to submit to the laws that it demanded other nations obey, our nation still would be a respected world leader.

But over time the Western alliance and U.S.-created institutions such as the International Monetary Fund have become a vehicle for American empire.  The administration of Donald Trump does not try to hide this.

I don’t want to lean too heavily on historical analogies, but I believe that, unless the U.S. changes direction, we will meet the fate of Athens.

The Athenians were not hypocrites.  They did not violate any of their professed ideals.  Athenian democracy was based on the citizens’ right to govern themselves collectively and their duty to govern themselves individually.

They lacked any idea of humanitarianism, universal human rights or the rule of law, which are part of the American ideal of democracy.  It is we, not they, who will be judged by history by failing to live by our own principles.  

Slavery did not end with the Civil War

June 5, 2019

Source: ADOS.  Click to enlarge.

I was taught in school that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but in fact tens of thousands of African-Americans in the South were enslaved in everything but name from the 1870s through the 1930s.

They were bought and sold for money, whipped and abused by their masters, supervised by overseers with guns and hunted down with hounds when they tried to flee.

Douglas A. Blackmon wrote in SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War Two that we should not speak of the “Jim Crow” era, but the era of neo-slavery.

The way it worked was this.  A black person would be arrested.  Sometimes he would be guilty of a real crime.  But any black male not under the control of a white employer was subject to being arrested, charged with something like “vagrancy” or “offensive behavior” or a trumped-up charge.  Some records list only the sentence and not the nature of the offense.  

The black person would of course be convicted automatically and sentenced to a prison term or a fine, which would include not only the lawful penalty for the offense, but also the cost of his arrest and imprisonment.

A white employer would pay the fine in return for a contract entitling him to the black person’s labor  The sheriff or police chief, jail keeper, magistrate and court clerk would divide up the payment.  The buyer might sell the contract to someone else.

The convict would typically work under armed guards and be whipped regularly for trivial offenses or for not working hard enough.  Overseers would commonly soak a leather strap in water or molasses and then coat it with sand, so that a whipping would flay the skin off. 

It is true that, unlike slaves before the Civil War, the convict did not serve a lifetime sentence, his children were not automatically enslaved and the majority of blacks were not enslaved.  

But the threat of enslavement hung over everyone, and conditions under the new slavery were often worse than under the old.

In the earlier era, slaves were valuable property and slave owners had an incentive to keep them strong and healthy.  

But in the neo-slavery era, there was no reason not to work them to death because, just as in Hitler’s labor camps or Stalin’s Gulag, there was an unlimited supply of fresh laborers.  Employers suffered no penalty when convicts died, even when they were beaten to death.

I’ve heard people say that slavery would have ended of its own accord if there had been no Civil War because slave labor was not suitable for modern industry.

But Blackmon showed that neo-slavery was practiced not just by individuals, but by corporations that exist to this day.

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The argument for slavery reparations revisited

May 22, 2019

Ta-Nehisi Coates made the argument back in 2014 that the United States owes reparations to the descendants of American slaves for slavery and for denial of basic rights continuing into the second half of the 20th century.

Since reparations has become an issue in the 2020 Presidential campaign, it’s time to take another look at his argument

Coates pointed out that even after slavery was theoretically ended, the Jim Crow system subjected black people in the South to a system in which their property, their freedom and their lives could be taken from them at any time.

When black people moved to the North, they were still refused jobs and credit based on their race.

This meant that, unlike all other ethnic groups in American history, they were unable to build up through wealth generation by generation.

Coates said reparations is not a claim against individual white people for what their ancestors may or may not have done.  The claim for reparations is against the government of the United States for what the nation has done.

When Union Carbide was sued and forced to pay damages to victims of the Bhopal, India, chemical plant disaster in 1984, the executives, employees and stockholders at the time of payout in 1999 were not all the same individuals as when the disaster occurred.  Claims are still being made, including claims against Dow Chemical, which became a part-owner of the plant in 2001.

The idea is that a corporation is a continuing enterprise, separate from the individuals who own and run it.  The present-day executives and stockholders benefit from the profits earned by those who came before.  They also inherit the claims and liabilities incurred by those who came before.

When nations pay reparations, it is based on the same idea.  A nation is a continuing entity.  All Americans, whether they were naturalized last week or trace American ancestors back to 1776 and before, are heirs of what their nation has done in the past, both good and bad.

Reparations will not get rid of racist thinking, racial prejudice or racial discrimination.  That is not the purpose.  The purpose is compensation for a wrong.

Do people in the present still suffer from the effects of slavery?  Maybe they wouldn’t if African-American slaves had been given full citizenship rights after the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted.  But they weren’t.

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Ilhan Omar holds Elliott Abrams to account

February 14, 2019

Elliott Abrams in the 1980s carried out U.S. support for central American dictatorships that massacred their own people.  He is justly hated for his actions to this day.  For the Trump administration to put him in charge of U.S. policy toward Venezuela is an insult to the people of Latin America and a signal that the U.S. government does not care about human rights.

In the video above, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a new member of Congress from Minneapolis, questions Abrams about his record.  Along with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, she is a new voice in Congress, who speaks truths that others fear to state.

Omar referred to a notorious massacre in which more than 800 civilians, including two-year-old children, were killed by U.S.-trained troops.  The Intercept had details on this:

On December 11, 1981 in El Salvador, a Salvadoran military unit created and trained by the U.S. Army began slaughtering everyone they could find in a remote village called El Mozote.  Before murdering the women and girls, the soldiers raped them repeatedly, including some as young as 10 years old, and joked that their favorites were the 12-year-olds.  One witness described a soldier tossing a 3-year-old child into the air and impaling him with his bayonet.  The final death toll was over 800 people.

The next day, December 12, was the first day on the job for Elliott Abrams as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs in the Reagan administration. Abrams snapped into action, helping to lead a cover-up of the massacre.  News reports of what had happened, Abrams told the Senate, were “not credible,” and the whole thing was being “significantly misused” as propaganda by anti-government guerillas.  [snip]

The extermination of El Mozote was just a drop in the river of what happened in El Salvador during the 1980s. About 75,000 Salvadorans died during what’s called a “civil war,” although almost all the killing was done by the government and its associated death squads. The numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. El Salvador is a small country, about the size of New Jersey. The equivalent number of deaths in the U.S. would be almost 5 million. 

Moreover, the Salvadoran regime continually engaged in acts of barbarism so heinous that there is no contemporary equivalent, except perhaps ISIS.

In one instance, a Catholic priest reported that a peasant woman briefly left her three small children in the care of her mother and sister. When she returned, she found that all five had been decapitated by the Salvadoran National Guard. Their bodies were sitting around a table, with their hands placed on their heads in front of them, “as though each body was stroking its own head.”  The hand of one, a toddler, apparently kept slipping off her small head, so it had been nailed onto it.  At the center of the table was a large bowl full of blood.

Criticism of U.S. policy at the time was not confined to the left. During this period, Charles Maechling Jr., who had led State Department planning for counterinsurgencies during the 1960s, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the U.S. was supporting “Mafia-like oligarchies” in El Salvador and elsewhere and was directly complicit in “the methods of Heinrich Himmler’s extermination squads.”

Source: The Intercept

Similar stories could be told about U.S. support for the dictatorship in Guatemala and Panama and for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

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Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine

February 6, 2019

In 1961, the philosopher Bertrand Russell said President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, because of their commitment to nuclear weapons, were worse than Adolf Hitler..

“…Macmillan and Kennedy, through misguided ignorance and deliberate blindness, are pursuing policies which are likely to lead to the extermination of the whole human race,” Russell said.  “Hitler set out to exterminate the Jews.  On a purely statistical basis, Macmillan and Kennedy are 50 times as wicked as Hitler.”

I recently got around to reading Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book, THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, which indicates that Russell was basically wright.

Kennedy, like Truman and Eisenhower before him and every President since, was willing to threaten nuclear war.  Ellsberg wrote that this not only could have led to the death of virtually the whole human race, but, on Kennedy’s watch, very nearly did.

I remember the 1950s and the 1960s, and the public’s well-founded fear of nuclear war back then.  The fear has gone away, but the danger hasn’t, as Ellsberg made clear..

The book is in two parts.  The first is a personal history of nuclear policy, leading up to the Cuban missile crisis.  The other is a historical look at how American leaders in World War Two came to regard mass killing of civilian populations as morally acceptable, and how no American leader since then has been willing to give it up.

The Eisenhower administration had a war plan called “massive retaliation.”  That meant that in the case of military conflict with either the USSR or China, the U.S. would implement a plan that called for the nuclear bombing of every town in Russia with a population of more than 25,000, and also every large population center in China.

The Air Force, in response to a query by President Kennedy, estimated that this would result in the deaths of 324 million people in China or Russia through blast and radioactive fallout, which is more than died at the hands of Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined.  It estimated that up to an additional 100 million people in Communist ruled nations in eastern Europe, in allied nations in western Europe and also in neutral nations, depending in which way the wind was blowing.

This amounted to more than 600 million people, a quarter of the human race at that time.

But wait.  There’s more.  The Air Force did not attempt to estimate casualties due to fire.  Nuclear bombing would have set off fire storms that would have made World War Two Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo seem like the victims of children playing with matches. Ellsberg wrote that, if you count direct deaths to fire, a nuclear attack on the Communist bloc would have taken the lives of between one third and one half of humanity.  I can’t get my mind around such an enormity.

All of these estimates were based on a successful U.S. first strike that destroyed the Communist countries so completely that their military would not be able to retaliate.  If that didn’t work, there would have been tens of millions or hundreds of millions of American deaths as well.

Later on certain scientists awoke to the possibility of “nuclear winter”.   Firestorms resulting from a nuclear attack would send so much soot and smoke into the upper atmosphere that they would literally blacken the sky.  The dark layer would be above the clouds, so there would be no rain to wash it down.  It would remain for 10 years or more, making it impossible for plants to grow or for most complex life-forms to survive.

So an all-out nuclear attack could literally be a Doomsday Machine.

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A sequel to The Three Musketeers

January 25, 2019

TWENTY YEARS AFTER by Alexandre Dumas (1845) is the first sequel to The Three Musketeers.

The Three Musketeers was the first and maybe the best of the swashbuckling action-adventure novels.  I enjoyed it a lot, and I enjoyed this sequel, too.  It would make a highly enjoyable TV miniseries.

The first novel ended with the 20-year-old D’Artagnan being rewarded for her heroism with a commission as lieutenant in the King’s Musketeers.  As this one begins, he is a hardened veteran of 40, somewhat embittered  at never having been promoted further.

Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XIII are dead.  France is ruled by Cardinal Mazarin, an Italian, and the widowed Queen Anne, a Spaniard,  who is regent for the 10-year-old Louis XIV.

D’Artagnan happens to command a military escort to protect Mazarin from the rebellious Paris mob one night, and Mazarin, impressed by his professionalism, takes the trouble to learn his history.

He asks D’Artagnan to reassemble his team—Aramis, who’s entered the Catholic priesthood; Porthos, who’s married a rich widows; and Athos, who has resumed his life as a high-ranking nobleman.

But D’Artagnan only succeeds in recruiting Porthos.  Unknown to him, Aramis and Athos have joined the Fronde—a coalition of rebellious nobles and commoners united against oppressive taxation and foreign influence.

Mazarin wants them to carry a message to Oliver Cromwell that he will not oppose Cromwell’s overthrow of King Charles I and persecution of Catholics if Cromwell will not support the Fronde or attempt to protect French Protestants.

Also unknown to him, Cromwell’s emissary, Mordaunt, is the son of the evil Lady De Winter, who has sworn vengeance on the musketeers for supervising the execution of his mother for her crimes.

When D’Artagnan and Porthos reach England, they meet Athos and Aramis, who persuade them to change sides. 

D’Artagnan’s idea is that as a soldier, his duty is to obey orders, and that, as a Frenchman, he has no concern with what happens in England.

But Athos convinces him that he has a higher duty, a duty to the idea of royalty, which stands for everything that noble and honorable.  Oliver Cromwell, in this version, is neither; he is suspicious, cunning and ruthless, like a Mafia don.

The four attempt to save King Charles, but D’Artagnan’s various plans are thwarted by Mordaunt, who nearly succeeds in killing the four musketeers as well.

Mazarin is naturally angry at D’Artagnan’s disobedience of orders, but through a combination of force, blackmail and Queen Anne’s influence, he gets a promotion to captain and rewards for all his friends.

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