Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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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The sad legacy of George H.W. Bush

December 10, 2018

George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, is being mourned as if he were a great and beloved figure.  But when he was in office, and running for office, he was widely mocked as an out-of-touch New England blueblood and as a wimp.

He tried to over-compensate for this and present himself as something he wasn’t.  Matt Taibbi wrote a fine article about this.

George H.W. Bush

He was an Episcopalian, but he tried to re-invent himself as a member of the religious right.  He had been a supporter of Planned Parenthood, but after he ran for national office, he opposed it. He opposed Planned Parenthood, AIDS research and drug legalization.  But the members of the real religious right never trusted him, no matter how well he served their agenda.

There is no reason to think that he personally was a racist, but his henchman Lee Atwater used the image of convicted rapist Willie Horton to stir up racial fears in order to defeat Michael Dukakis.  The political tactics of Atwater and his successor Karl Rove, in the younger George Bush’s administration, set the stage for Donald Trump.

In foreign affairs, the elder Bush’s goal was to end the so-called Vietnam syndrome, which was the reluctance of Americans to go to war with small nations that do not threaten us.  President Reagan took a baby step in this direction with the invasion of the tiny island nation of Grenada.  Bush took it a step further with the invasion of Panama, and then the first Gulf War against Iraq.

The real Vietnam syndrome is the desire of U.S. militarists to fight another Vietnam-like war and this time win.

I admit I was caught up in the propaganda for the first Gulf War.  I only later learned that the U.S. ambassador to Iraq had virtually invited Saddam to invade.  But we Americans learned that is it possible to kill large numbers of foreigners, have the thrill of a victory and not suffer any consequences—no immediate consequences, anyhow.

I can think of at least three good things about the elder George Bush.

He was a gentleman of the old school who treated people around him with courtesy and consideration.  He was famous for hand-written thank-you notes, a small thing, but not nothing.

He was a genuine hero in World War Two—at least as much so as John F. Kennedy.  He flew 58 combat missions and was shot down over the Pacific.

He had the wisdom to stand aside when the Soviet Union was losing control of eastern Europe and then breaking up itself.  If his administration had tried to take advantage of the situation in any obvious way, there might have been war.

I think his vision of a “new world order” was a kind of council of the stronger nations, like Prince Metternich’s Council of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon.  That’s not my ideal, but it is better than the idea of the U.S. be the world’s sole superpower, which took hold in the Clinton administration and after.

I hope that when U.S. hegemony collapses, we have a leader as rational as Gorbachev and leaders of other great powers are as restrained as Bush and Secretary of State James Baker.

That’s not nothing.  And then, in many people’s eyes, Bush had the merit of not being Donald Trump.  But his policies helped pave the way for Trump.

LINKS

George W. Bush’s Wimpy Image Had Consequences by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

I’m Sorry But This is Sheer Propaganda by Nathan J. Robinson for Current Affairs.

The Ignored Legacy of George H.W. Bush: War Crimes, Racism and Obstruction of Justice by Mehdi Hasan for The Intercept.

Andy Thomas’ portraits of the presidents

December 1, 2018

Andy Thomas is an artist noted for his popular group portraits of Republican and Democratic Presidents.   He makes interesting choices in how he portrays them, which I will discuss.  Read on only if you are interested in political and historical trivia.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge.

The light in the two paintings is from above, and falls on the faces of Donald Trump (white shirt, red tie) and Barack Obama (white shirt, blue tie).

Abraham Lincoln, the first and greatest of the Republican presidents, is shown with his back to the viewer.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, arguably the greatest of the Democratic presidents, is shown likewise.  But Andrew Jackson, the first Democratic president, is shown off to the upper left side and in shadow.

When I was younger, Democrats honored Jackson as one who stood up for the common man, or at least the common white man, against wealthy merchants and powerful bankers.  We overlooked his being a slave owner and respected him for being an Indian fighter.  That’s not how liberals and progressives think today.

Jackson, by the way, was the first President to be nominated at a party convention.  All the previous Presidents were nominated at congressional caucuses.

Notice that Obama is looking away from Jackson and also from Woodrow Wilson at the far right of the painting.  When I was younger, Democrats honored Wilson as a political reformer and overlooked the fact that he was a segregationist.  Not any more!

Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson are dressed formally.  We can’t see, but I assume that Lincoln’s and FDR’s suit coats are buttoned and they are wearing neckties.  

Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are shown in ties and vests, as they might do working in an office a century ago.  Donald Trump and Barack Obama also are dressed for office work.  So is Bill Clinton, although Clinton does not appear to have a tie.

Richard Nixon almost always wore a dark suit, but he is shown here with his suit jacket unbuttoned and I’m guessing he’s not wearing a necktie.  The older George H.W. Bush, standing, and the younger George W. Bush, seated, are shown wearing suits, but without neckties.

Harry Truman‘s white shirt and light-colored vest show him also dressed for work.  In one of Thomas’ older paintings, he is shown in the kind of flamboyant Hawaiian shirt he wore during vacations in Key West.

Dwight D. Eisenhower is dressed as if getting ready to play golf.  John F. Kennedy is dressed as if getting ready for a day on his yacht.  

Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson are dressed as if getting ready for a day at their respective ranches.  Gerald Ford is dressed for leisure generically.

Jimmy Carter is dressed as if getting ready for a day’s work in the family peanut warehouse or on a Habitat for Humanity project.  In one of Thomas’ older paintings, he is shown in a cardigan sweater of the kind he wore when giving a TV address on energy conservation.

The choice of beverages for the Presidents also is interesting.  Donald Trump is a non-drinker and is shown with a Coke.  George W. Bush struggled with a drinking problem before he went into politics and has what looks like iced tea.  Abraham Lincoln has a glass of water.

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‘Based on a true story…’

September 17, 2018

Jason Kottke of kottke.org pointed out a page on Information Is Beautiful, which goes through movies “based on a true story” scene by scene and rates each scene by how much it is based on fact.

Each movie gets a rating on how many minutes of screen time are fact and how many are fiction.  Interesting.  Here are the ratings.

Selma – 100 percent (!!)

The Big Short – 91.4 percent

Bridge of Spies – 89.9 percent

Twelve Years a Slave – 88.1 percent

Rush – 81.9 percent

Captain Phillips – 81.4 percent

Spotlight – 76.2 percent

The Social Network – 76.1 percent

The Wolf of Wall Street – 74.6 percent

The King’s Speech – 73.4 percent

Hidden Figures – 72.6 percent

Philomena – 69.8 percent

Lion – 61.4 percent

Dallas Buyers Club – 61.4 percent

American Sniper – 56.7 percent

Hacksaw Ridge – 51.5 percent

The Imitation Game – 41.4 percent

Many people, including friends of mine, regard movies of historical events as sources of information.   Information is Beautiful has done a good service by judging the accuracy of that information in recent well-known movies.

Usually when I’m impressed with a movie based on historical events, I read the book it’s based on.  I read Twelve Years a Slave, which showed the movie was largely accurate, and The Free State of Jones (not rated above), which showed many dramatic scenes in the movie never happened, but that the movie accurately depicted the overall situation.

I relied on the movie “Spotlight” for information on how the Boston Globe reported the Catholic pedophile scandal, and I’m glad to be reassured that it was largely accurate.

I understand that in dramatizing complex events, it is necessary to have composite and symbolic characters and to condense events, so I’m willing to cut directors a certain amount of slack.

But if you make a movie using the names of real people, and say it is “based on a true story,” you have a responsibility for a certain minimum level of accuracy—say 75 percent.

Otherwise change the names of the characters and drop the claim to be based on truth.  “The Imitation Game” would have been a fine movie if the hero had not been named “Alan Turning.”

LINK

Based on a True Story? Scene-by-scene breakdown of Hollywood films on Information Is Beautiful.

American exceptionalism and the rules of war

September 12, 2018

Professional soldiers regard war as normal.   The best of them adopt codes of honor that define things that you can do and not do in time of war.

Most of us Americans, during most of our history, have not regarded war as normal.  Our major wars have been fought against enemies we regarded as either outside the bounds of civilization, like the Indians, or evil, like the Nazis.

We believed that war is inherently bad and that, in fighting against evil, the means that brings about the surest and quickest victory is the most moral.

That was the justification for General William T. Sherman’s march through Georgia and General Phil Sheridan’s devastation of the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War.  The chivalrous Southern generals were shocked (although they didn’t extend their chivalry to black troops).  Sherman’s reply was the war is hell, and there is no way to refine it.

The same kind of thinking was the justification for the Allied bombing of the cities of Germany and Japan, culminating with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I remember that era, and I don’t think American public opinion then would have tolerated any limitation on the use of force.

But now the United States is in a different situation.  Our government is committed to open-ended war without any path to victory or any definition of victory beyond avoiding humiliating defeat.

We justified Sherman’s March and the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima because these were extraordinary situations, after which we could get back to normal.

Now torture, assassination, invasions and subversion of foreign countries are normal, which our government justifies by saying that we Americans are the embodiment of democracy, freedom and the rule of law, and so our enemies by definition are enemies of democracy and freedom and are outside the accepted rules of war.

Insurgents fighting in Afghanistan, Syria and other countries against U.S. and U.S.-backed forces say that, because they are fighting for liberation of their homelands, rules do not apply to them, either.

I don’t foresee us Americans adopting battlefield rules of engagement that cost American lives, nor submitting to the jurisdiction of international agencies such as the International Criminal Court, while we still seek worldwide military supremacy.

My hope is that American leaders can renounce the ambition for the USA to be the world’s only superpower, while that is still a matter of choice, and accept a role as a normal nation among others.

LINKS

Double Standards and the Rules-based Order by Paul Robinson for IRRUSSIANALITY.

Bolton and the ICC by peteybee for Pete’s Politics and Variety.

Paul Revere and American independence

July 4, 2018

Paul Revere was much more than the man who rode to warn the troops at Lexington and Concord that the British were on their way.

He was a true revolutionary whose methods in some ways resemble revolutionaries and insurgents of todays.  He was one of the most important leaders in a network of revolutionary organizations that engaged in propaganda, espionage and preparation for armed revolt.

He helped bring Britain’s Massachusetts colony to the tipping point of armed revolt, the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, and make that revolt successful.

PAUL REVERE’S RIDE by David Hackett Fischer (1994) tells the true story of Paul Revere as part of a detailed account of the events leading up to Lexington and Concord and an hour-by-hour account of what happened on that fateful day.

In giving a granular factual account of what happened on a particular day, Fischer threw light on many things—including manners, morals and day-to-day life in 1775 Massachusetts, how American and British political and social values differed, and how this was reflected in their respective military tactics.

In 1774-1775 Britain, you could be an artisan or mechanic who worked with his hands, a merchant who handled money or a gentleman who owned land and had a title of nobility, but you couldn’t combine these roles.

Paul Revere was all three.  He was a silversmith who worked with his hands, and whose work is still prized today.  He was a respected merchant.  And he claimed and was given the status of gentleman.

Revere’s opposite number was General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces in North American and royal governor of Massachusetts.  Gage believed his power derived from the King who ruled by divine right, but subject to British laws.  The British believed they were a free people because of the principle of the rule of law.

A contrary principle had grown in up colonial New England.  The Puritan churches, both in England and New England, were governed by their congregations.  The New England townships were governed by town meetings.  The principle was that authority in government came from the bottom up, not the top down.

General Gage’s mission was to make the people of New England submit to the authority of the British crown in some way, however minor or symbolic.  At least seven organizations sprung up to resist this.  There was no overall leader and nobody who belonged to all seven.  Paul Revere and another leader, Dr. Joseph Warren, belonged to five.

Out in the countryside, each town had is own well-ordered militia, based on the right and duty of the citizen to keep and bear arms.  Some towns provided weapons for the indigent.

There was no overall organization, only a communication network.  Paul Revere organized teams of riders who kept the nearby towns informed of British plans.  He made many rides himself.

Gage never ordered the arrests of Paul Revere, Dr. Joseph Warren, Sam Adams, John Hancock or any of the other revolutionary organizers, because they had not broken any specific law.  He was later criticized for this.

Because of the broad-based nature of the organizations, any leaders would have been quickly replaced.  Would new leaders have been as effective as the old?  Would this have mattered?  There is no way to know.

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The prototype action-adventure story

June 22, 2018

THE THREE MUSKETEERS by Alexandre Dumas (1844) is probably the first modern action-adventure story and the prototype of action-adventure novels and movies to come.

I’ve seen at least three movies versions during my life and I dimly remember reading the original a number of years ago.  I recently finished re-reading it, with great pleasure, as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

What sets The Three Musketeers apart from earlier stories of heroes and derring-do is its wit, its good humor and its quirky and amusing characters.

They aren’t solemn and serious, like, say, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.  They’re having a good time.  I enjoy their repartee and byplay as much as their adventures, which they seem to be enjoying as much as the reader.

There really was a KIng’s Musketeer corps, personal troops of King Louis XIII, who spent a lot of time loafing around Paris, drinking, gambling, womanizing and getting into fights with members of Cardinal Richelieu’s rival corps of musketeers.

This is an ideal life for a certain type of young man, and D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis are all young.  D’Artagnan is 20 years old when the novel begins, and Athos, who is old enough to have a tragic and secret past, is only 25.

They are classic examples of the aristocratic warrior ethic.  They are fearless.  They are unconditionally loyal to their king, their patron and each other.  And they never back away from any challenge, danger or fight.  They remind me of the pilots described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff.

On the other hand, they are not much for sobriety, self-restraint, deferred gratification, long-range planning, big-picture thinking or respect for the sanctity of private property or the virtue of women.

Each of them has a lackey, a totally loyal personal servant who attends to their every need, which also makes their lives more pleasant.

As the novel develops, it seems that the ruthless and devious Cardinal Richelieu and his evil secret agent, Milady de Winter, are acting more in the interest of France than the shallow and self-indulgent King Louis III and the faithless Queen Anne.  No matter!  Our heroes have chosen their side as, as men of honor, they stick to it, no matter what.

We had three men and four women in our reading group.  I would have thought that some of the women would have been bothered by the musketeers’ cavalier attitude toward women.  Cavalier!  There’s an interesting adjective.  It is probably based on the behavior of the actual Cavaliers, who is real life were warrior aristocrats with more of a sense of honor than a sense of virtue.

One thing that bothered me about the musketeers’ story is that they didn’t spend any time drilling with muskets.  A musket is a complicated weapon to load and fire, especially under battlefield conditions, and that is why troops were given musket drills so that behavior become automatic.

But not Athos, Porthos and Aramis.  They spent all their time in swordplay.  The same is true of D’Artagnan, who is only a would-be musketeer until the end of the novel.

The time comes when they are called upon to fight with muskets, and they do so, expertly.  Their lackeys load muskets for them, and they are all deadly marksmen, even though they have not spent any time practicing and the musket is not a particularly accurate weapon.

When I read the novel, I was swept along by the action and didn’t stop to think about such things until after I put it down.  I enjoyed it.  If you like swashbuckling adventure stories, you might enjoy it, too.

Witch hunting then and now

June 14, 2018

Puritans in 17th century New England believed that Satan was real and ever present.  To doubt that the devil was a clear and present danger was an indication that you yourself were under the influence of the devil.

In 1692, in and around Salem, Massachusetts, many people, mostly women, were accused of being witches.  Nineteen were executed and six more died awaiting trial.

If you were accused of being a witch, the way to save your life was to confess your sin and accuse other people of being witches.

The great playwright, Arthur Miller, saw a parallel with the search for hidden Communists in his own time, and wrote The Curcible, which was staged in 1953, in order to bring this out.   I read this play as part of a monthly play-reading group hosted by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The events of the play did not follow the exact historical record, but Miller did a good job of depicting the Puritan culture and attitudes, especially its pervasive sense of sin and guilt.

Possibly the central character, John Procter, like the Thomas More character in A Man for All Seasons, was more concerned with his individual integrity, like a 20th century person, and less with salvation a 17th century Puritan would have been.

Miller did not explicitly draw a parallel with events of his own time, but the parallel was there to see.  Intellectuals and other public figures accused of being Communists or former Communists were blacklisted if they refused to confess or name others, just like accused witches in 1692 Salem.

His play drew the ire of the government.  He was denied a passport to view the opening of the play in London in 1954.  When he applied for a passport renewal in 1956, he was subpoened to testify before the House un-American Activities Committee.  He readily told about his own past political activities, but refused to testify about anybody else.

He was charged with contempt of Congress, and a federal judge sentenced him to a fine and prison term, but his conviction was overturned on appeal in 1958.

The same syndrome of accusation, confession and new accusations, but on a larger and more lethal scale, operated in the Soviet purge trials in the 1930s and in the Spanish Inquisition.  There were many witch trials.  An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft from the 14th through the 18th centuries.

In the 1990s, many Americans were caught up in a literal witch hunt.  Satanic cults were thought to be a real menace, and innocent people went to prison on false charges of abusing children in Satanic rituals.

Today the threat to basic civil liberties in the United States is greater than it was in the 1950s, although it doesn’t involve rituals of confession and naming names as in the Salem witch trials or the Congressional investigations of the 1950s.  In that sense, The Crucible is yesterday’s news.

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How the New Deal created millions of jobs

May 31, 2018

Donald Trump promised a trillion-dollar infrastructure program that would create jobs. [1]  Bernie Sanders and other Democratic leaders are talking about a federal jobs guarantee.  Many Americans think this is utopian.

Eighty-some years ago, during the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration showed what is possible.

The Public Works Administration (PWA) put hundreds of thousands of people to work on a variety of heavy construction projects that gave a face-lift to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Roads, bridges and dams were repaired and upgraded. 

Rundel Memorial Library in Rochester, N.Y., funded by the Public Works Administration and completed in 1937

Scores of new schools, libraries, hospitals, post offices and playgrounds were built for an expanding population.  All of these projects were undertaken on a scale inconceivable, even in the most prosperous times.

In April 1935, Congress inaugurated the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which put nearly 3 million people to work, including semi-skilled and unskilled, on projects as diverse as building athletic stadiums, making books for the blind, stuffing rare birds and improving airplane landing fields and army camps.

In its first six years, the WPA spent $11 billion, three-fourths of it on construction and conservation projects and the remainder on community service programs. In those six years, WPA employed about 8 million workers. …

The New Deal paid special attention to the nation’s dispossessed youth.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put approximately 2.75 million idle young men to work to reclaim government-owned land and forests through irrigation, soil enrichment, pest control, tree planting, fire prevention and other conservation projects. …

Thousands of unemployed writers, actors, musicians and painters were given an opportunity to earn a modest livelihood from their artistic talents (many of them to achieve fame and fortune in later years) and to enrich the lives of countless culturally-deprived citizens.  The productions of the WPA Theater Project, for example, entertained a phenomenal audience totaling 60 million people, a great many who had never before seen a play.

Through the National Youth Administration (NYA) the government made it possible for 1.5 million high school students and 600,000 college students to continue their education by providing them with part-time jobs to meet their expenses.

A monumental achievement of the New Deal was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which produced and sold cheap electric power and fertilizer in a seven-state area (about four-fifths the size of England), whose farms were among the nation’s poorest and least productive, and where only a fraction of the inhabitants possessed electricity to light their homes and operate their equipment.

Source: Labor Educator

These were not make-work projects.  We still enjoy the benefits of these projects today.  Here is a summary of New Deal construction projects here in Rochester, N.Y., where I live.

  • Doubled the size of the Rochester International Airport (still in use)
  • Built a high school (still in use)
  • Built a post office with publicly commissioned art (still in use, art still there!)
  • Built a new Art Deco headquarters for the Rochester Fire Department (still in use)
  • Built a 40,000 square foot library (still in use)
  • Commissioned a variety of murals in high schools and public spaces, most of which still exist
  • Improved the local waterworks system
  • Set up a local Federal Arts Project center, that paid unemployed artists to create exhibits, run community art classes, and create art for public spaces.
  • Source: Jack Meserve, Democracy Journal.

What conditions exist today that prevent us Americans from doing what our forebears did then?

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‘A man knows a man’

May 28, 2018

The following cartoon is from Harper’s Weekly on August 22, 1865.

This unsigned Harper’s Weekly cartoon honors the service and recognizes the equal manhood of the black and white soldiers who had served the Union cause during the Civil War.

Although black men volunteered to serve in the Union armed forces as soon as the Civil War began, their service was rejected, ostensibly because of a federal law which prohibited blacks from bearing arms in the United States military. (Although the law was enacted in 1792, blacks had served during the War of 1812.) 

Both the eagerness of black volunteers and the refusal to enlist them were based significantly on the assumption that their military service would foster emancipation of the slaves.

At the beginning of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln realized the dire necessity of keeping the border states (slave states which did not secede) in the Union, and so he initially rejected attempts to arm blacks or emancipate slaves. 

That situation had changed by the summer of 1862 as the number of white volunteers dwindled, the number of contrabands (escaped slaves under Union military protection) rose and the border states became more secure for the Union.

In July 1862, Congress authorized the use of black men in the Union military, and President Lincoln informed his cabinet that he would soon proclaim the emancipation of slaves in Confederate territory.

The use of black servicemen, like the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), stirred considerable opposition throughout the Union states because of racial prejudice.

Black servicemen were segregated from whites in special “colored” units under the leadership of white officers, such as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. (The United States armed forces were not desegregated until the 1950s.)

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Modernization and an angry world

March 8, 2018

These are notes for a presentation to the Bertrand Russell Forum of Rochester, NY, at Writers & Books Literary Center, 740 University Ave., at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 8, 2018.

There’s no denying that world is full of angry people.

There are angry blood-and-soil nationalists, for whom love of country is like a religion, demanding their supreme loyalty. They are angry because they think their nations are under attack.

There are angry religious fanatics, for whom loyalty to a creed is a form of nationalism, defined by opposition to other creeds. They are angry because they think their religions are under attack.

There are angry and violent individuals, whose free-floating anger doesn’t appear to be linked to any larger movement or cause.

Pankaj Mishra wrote in Age of Anger: a History of the Present that most of this anger has a common cause—disappointment with the promise of modernity.

The promise of modernity is that if you give up your outworn prejudices, superstitions and customs, if you embrace science, reason and commerce, if you leave home, get an education and join a wider world, you will not only prosper, but you will be free to choose the course of your life..

The anger, Mishra wrote, comes from those for whom this promise was not kept, or who didn’t believe it in the first place.

The angry men—almost all of them are men—are not people clinging to a traditional way of life. They are men who long for something they lack.

This goes back a long time. It was felt by millions of people in Europe and North America in the 19th century and also billions in Asia and Africa in the 20th and 21st, who were uprooted from village communities and left to fend for themselves in an unforgiving global economy.

The promise of an improved material standard of living was kept for some of us—educated middle class people in North America and Western Europe, and, during the 20th century, great masses of working people.

But it is not humanly possible that the majority of the people in China and India, let alone Africa and the rest of the world, will ever be able to consume as much of the world’s resources as prosperous Americans and Europeans do. And even if they could, that might not compensate for what they have lost.

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