Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Populism is not mob rule

September 22, 2020

Thomas Frank

Paul Jay did a good three-part interview on theAnalysis.news with Thomas Frank on The People, No, his new book about populism and anti-populism.

  1. Populism Is Not Mob Rule.
  2. Corporate Democrats Idolize FDR, But Hate His Policies and the Populists That Spported Them.
  3. Liberal Elites Will Create Conditions for Another Trump.

Some forgotten history of Midwest radicalism

September 22, 2020

A review of The People, No! by Jonathan Larson on the Real Economics blog adds historical background to Thomas Frank’s book.

His focus is on Minnesota rather than Kansas, and he provides a lot of interesting information about Scandinavian-American cooperatives,, the thought of Thorstein Veblen and the rise and fall of the Farmer-Labor Party.

This history should not be forgotten.  Click on this to read the review.

More about Thomas Frank’s new populism book

September 21, 2020

Democracy Scares, from the Destruction of Bryan to the Abdication of Bernie: Why America Desperately Needs a Second Populist Movement, But Ain’t Gonna Get One by John Siman for Naked Capitalism.

 

Obstacles to a new New Deal

August 31, 2020

The USA is heading into an economic crisis with evictions, foreclosures, small-business failures and unemployment rates like those of the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s, made worse by the pandemic and catastrophic climate change.

But Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist whose specialty is money and politics, said that a second Great Depression will not necessarily result in a second New Deal.

The Great Depression was touched off with a crash in the financial markets.  Banks closed.  Business profits fell.  This weakened both the credibility and political power of big business.

No such situation exists today, Ferguson noted.  The Federal Reserve is propping up the banks and the financial markets.  The super-rich are actually richer and more powerful than ever.

President Roosevelt’s first response to the crisis was the National Recovery Act, a kind of democratic corporate state.  It was only when big business turned against him that the New Deal as we remember it emerged. with Social Security, the Wagner Act and so on.

The impetus for the true New Deal came from the new labor movement organized by John L. Lewis and the CIO.

Conditions today are different. Ferguson said.  Big business is entrenched in both parties and is able to block popular and necessary reforms such as Medicare for all.

There are wildcat strikes and a few militant unions, but nothing as yet like the labor movement of the 1930s.

Ferguson saw some long-range hope in the insurgent movement in the Democratic Party as represented by the Justice Democrats and other factions.  But in the long run, as someone said, we are all dead.  The crisis is not going to put itself on hold until 2022 or 2024.

LINKS

Biden Blurring Almost Everything, an interview of Thomas Ferguson for theAnalysis.com.

Joe Biden’s Platform for 2020: Anti-Populism by Bill Scher for POLITICO.

The Non-Voter by Chris Arnade for American Compass.

A Canadian on the end of the American era

August 12, 2020

Ford’s WIllow Run plant during World War Two

When people are faced with external threats, they need to pull together.   A Canadian anthropologist named Wade Davis pointed out that this once was true of the United States.

In 1940, with Europe already ablaze, the United States had a smaller army than either Portugal or Bulgaria.

Within four years, 18 million men and women would serve in uniform, with millions more working double shifts in mines and factories that made America, as President Roosevelt promised, the arsenal of democracy.

When the Japanese within six weeks of Pearl Harbor took control of 90 percent of the world’s rubber supply, the U.S. dropped the speed limit to 35 mph to protect tires, and then, in three years, invented from scratch a synthetic-rubber industry that allowed Allied armies to roll over the Nazis.

At its peak, Henry Ford’s Willow Run Plant produced a B-24 Liberator every two hours, around the clock.

Shipyards in Long Beach and Sausalito spat out Liberty ships at a rate of two a day for four years; the record was a ship built in four days, 15 hours and 29 minutes.

A single American factory, Chrysler’s Detroit Arsenal, built more tanks than the whole of the Third Reich.

That was then.  This is now.

COVID-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken.

As the crisis unfolded, with another American dying every minute of every day, a country that once turned out fighter planes by the hour could not manage to produce the paper masks or cotton swabs essential for tracking the disease.

The nation that defeated smallpox and polio, and led the world for generations in medical innovation and discovery, was reduced to a laughing stock as a buffoon of a president advocated the use of household disinfectants as a treatment for a disease that intellectually he could not begin to understand.

As a number of countries moved expeditiously to contain the virus, the United States stumbled along in denial, as if willfully blind.

With less than four percent of the global population, the U.S. soon accounted for more than a fifth of COVID deaths.

The percentage of American victims of the disease who died was six times the global average. Achieving the world’s highest rate of morbidity and mortality provoked not shame, but only further lies, scapegoating, and boasts of miracle cures as dubious as the claims of a carnival barker, a grifter on the make.

Some of these statements need asterisks.  Latin America has overtaken North America as the center of the coronavirus infection, and several advanced countries have higher coronavirus-related deaths per million people than the USA does, at least so far.

Davis, like many Canadian critics of the USA, is somewhat blind to the problems of his own country.  An American who has lived in Davis’s Vancouver pointed out that it is far from being the semi-utopia he claims it is.

But none of this disproves Davis’s general point.  U.S. industrial and governmental capacity has been unraveling for a long time.  This process won’t reverse by itself.  The first steps in change are for us Americans to understand our situation, pull together and stop accepting excuses for failure from our supposed leaders.

LINKS

How Covid-19 Signals the End of the American Era by Wade Davis for Rolling Stone.

The Unraveling of “The Unraveling of America” by Deanna Kreisel for Medium.

What if North America was French?

August 3, 2020

If the outcome of certain European wars had been different, the dominant culture of North America would be French and not English.

After reading David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream, I think this would have been a good thing.

The settlers of New Spain enslaved Indians.  The settlers of New England drove them out.  But settlers of New France intermarried with the Indians and lives with them in peace.

This was the dream of a remarkable individual, Samuel de Champlain.  Between his first voyage to the New World in 1603 and his death in 1635, his example and his laws established a pattern for a multi-cultural society.

His career would make a good TV mini-series, because it consisted of a series of crises, which in dramatic terms would be cliff-rangers—everything seemingly lost, but with the slim possibility of one last effort putting everything right.

Champlain was a soldier, sailor, navigator, explorer, map-maker, writer, administrator and diplomat, who was able to negotiate successfully in the councils of Algonquin and Huron warriors and the court of King Louis XIII Cardinal Richelieu.

He made mistakes in judgment, like everyone else.  The worst one was underestimating the severity of the Canadian winter.  He sometimes lost his temper.

But Fischer was unable to find a single incident in which he knowingly told a lie or broke a promise.  His observations of the lands he explored and his accounts of his own actions were not only truthful, but accurate.

When other French commanders made contact with Indian nations, they usually began a show of force and a demonstration of their superior firepower.

Champlain would walk into Indian settlements unarmed, either alone or with a single companion.

No fool he, sometimes on making first contact Champlain would sometimes have troops with firearms hiding in the underbrush in case things went wrong.  But he went out of his way to appear un-threatening.

He won the trust of the Indians by spending a lot of time with them and taking the trouble to understand them.  He sincerely liked them.  He didn’t have to fake friendship.

Champlain’s humanistic Catholicism was appealing to the Indians—I think partly because the Christian idea of forgiveness freed them of the duty of carrying on blood feuds without end.

Many Indian nations welcomed European settlers because they saw them as possible allies in their wars with other Indians.  Champlain avoided that trap.  He positioned himself as mediator.

But he did help the Algonquins and Hurons in their wars with the aggressive Iroquois to the South.

Champlain and allies vs. Mohawks

Champlain led a mixed French and Indian invasion of Mohawk territory in 1609.  They fought a battle on the shore of Lake Champlain, which he named/

The Mohawks wore wooden armor and fought shoulder-to-shoulder, as in an ancient Greek phalanx.  They probably would have won except for the French use of firearms, called arquebuses.

He led another expedition, against the Onondaga, in 1615, and fought a battle near today’s Syracuse.  The Onondaga took refuge in a wooden fort, which Champlain attempted to overcome by building a European-style siege engine—a portable wooden structure taller than the walls of the fort.

I never thought Indians wore armor or built forts.  I suppose a lot of what I think of as Indian warfare is an adaptation to the superior firepower of the English, French and Spanish.

After that, Champlain and the Indian nations of New France were able to negotiate a temporary peace with the Iroquois.  Fischer noted that this was partly because the Iroquois were preoccupied with fighting the Susquehannocks to their south.

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The War Nerd on silence and genocide

July 27, 2020

Racism and oppression are not perpetuated by insensitive language.  Racism and oppression are perpetuated by making some topics off limits to talk about at all.  The best PR for genocide is silence.

John Dolan, writing as “Gary Brecher,” the War Nerd, illustrated this point by pointing to the silence of the Victorians on the famines in Ireland in the 1840s and India in the 1870s.

Most of Dolan’s writings and broadcasts are behind a pay wall.  Maybe I should subscribe.

LINK

The War Nerd: Amateurs Talk Cancel, Pros Talk Silence by “Gary Brecher” for Radio War Nerd.

COVID’s Gettysburg moment

July 23, 2020

My friend Michael J. Brown, who teaches history at Rochester Institute of Technology, wrote a good article in the Rochester Beacon about the struggle against the coronavirus.

He compared it to the struggle to save the Union during the Civil War.  That may seem like a far-fetched comparison, but the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918 took more American lives than all of the wars of the 20th century.   The current pandemic could be just as deadly, and hundreds have already given their lives.

In the Civil War, as Brown pointed out, President Lincoln had a choice—to try to put things back the way they were before the war, or to remove the cause of the war—human slavery.  In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln resolved that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” so that “these dead shall not have died in vain.”  Brown asked—

Has this coronavirus calamity simply been an ordeal to endure, or does all the suffering and loss have some galvanizing purpose?  

Will it result in a new birth of freedom for our time—a period of reconstruction and reform addressing the myriad inadequacies and deep racial inequities that COVID has laid bare—or will a return to “normalcy” leave these problems untouched?

Reckoning with COVID, we might reevaluate the disparity between the significant health risks of “essential” work and its comparatively meager economic rewards. 

Michael J. Brown

We might ask why in a “booming” economy so many Americans were one paycheck away from miles-long lines at food banks.

The pandemic could prompt us to rebuild our Union better than it was, or its legacy could be limited to “We’re all in this together” commercials, in which “this” is the reassuring glow of national brands.

The difference between these outcomes is a function not only of what we here highly resolve, but whether we resolve anything at all.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln gestured beyond the Civil War to a better nation.  But he also spoke of prosecuting that war until Union victory—for which so many had already given “the last full measure of devotion”—was achieved.

Our battle against COVID is today very much in doubt.  More than 800 front-line health care workers have given their lives in the struggle.

While Lincoln resolved to finish his fight, “America is giving up on the pandemic,” according to the Atlantic.

“The coronavirus may not be done with the nation, but the nation’s capital appears to be done with the coronavirus,” reported the New York Times.  “As the pandemic’s grim numbers continue to climb … Mr. Trump and lawmakers in both parties are exhibiting a short attention span.”

Just as it was in the mid-1860s, the outcome today is uncertain. Just as then, it will have to be determined by countless people—from elected officials to everyday citizens.

This is COVID’s Gettysburg moment. Will we meet it?

LINKS

‘These dead shall not have died in vain’: COVID’s Gettysburg Moment by Michael J. Brown for the Rochester Beacon.  The whole thing is well worth reading.

In the Flower City, Take Root by Michael J. Brown for Dissent magazine (2010).  An earlier article by Michael.

Populists, plutocrats and the democracy scare

July 21, 2020

Populism: a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.  [Google Dictionary]

A good bit is being written nowadays about the alleged threat of populism.  The word is usually taken to mean an uprising of ignorant and intolerant masses against knowledgeable and responsible powers that be.  Donald Trump is called a populist, but so is Bernie Sanders.

Frank set the record straight in his new book, THE PEOPLE, NO: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, which is just out.  He begins with the original Populists, members of a radical farmer-labor party in the 1890s that briefly threatened the rule of bankers, railroad barons and grain and cotton merchants..

Naturally the plutocrats feared and hated the Populists, Frank wrote.  They said Populism was mob rule, the second coming of the French Revolution.  They said Populism was hatred by the failures and losers of the successful and capable, who deserved to be on top.  In the end, through the power of money, they won.

The core of the opposition to populism was opposition to democracy itself—what Frank called the “democracy scare.”  In The People, No, he traced the history of this opposition.

Frank wrote an excellent book.  It is short, it is easy to read and it covers a lot of ground.  What he wrote is true, important and largely ignored.  He also had a few blind spots and omissions, which I’ll get to.

Right now the USA is on the brink of an economic crisis as great as the ones in the 1890s and 1930s, and today’s economic, political and intellectual elites are failing just as badly as their predecessors did.

There is just as great a need now as there was then for a movement of the common people to take back control of the political and economic system, and just as much of fear of democracy.

The world “populist” is Latin for “of the people.”  The Constitution, the USA’s founding document, begins with the words “We, the people…”   President Abraham Lincoln said the USA stood for “government of the people, for the people and by the people.”  So why does the word “populism” have such a bad name?

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Was the American revolution a real revolution?

July 4, 2020

I just got finished reading Gordon S. Wood’s THE RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Wood said the American revolution was a real revolution, which brought about profound social changes, but was different from what the Founders had in mind.

As Wood saw it, the revolution proceeded from Monarchy, which the Founders overthrew, through Republicanism, which was their goal, to Democracy, which they did not intend.  For the first time, the expression, “this is a republic, not a democracy,” makes sense to me.

The core principle of the old regime in all Western countries in the 1700s was patriarchy.  The supreme authority was God, imagined as a Heavenly Father.  Next under God were kings and emperors, then various levels of aristocrats down through commoners and servants.

Society was a series of interconnected extended families, each ruled by a father-figure over women, children (Including grown children), servants and other dependents.

Aristocrats were expected to live a life of luxury, display and conspicuous consumption, because that made them job creators.  Their servants plus makers of luxury goods were a big part of the work force.

Master craftsmen also were patriarchs of extended families, ruling wives, grown children, journeymen and apprentices in extended households.

Only people of a certain social rank were entitled to live a life of luxury.  The poor were expected to be humble, frugal and unostentatious, and could literally be punished for getting above themselves.

Most people were born into specific roles, which they normally would be expected to play through life.  It was possible to rise in life, but only through patronage.

Rich and powerful people did favors for the poor and humble; they were expected to give loyalty in return.  You could see a modern example of this principle in the opening scenes of “The Godfather,’ where Don Corleone gives help in return for submission and the promise of a favor someday in return.

It was possible to rise in rank by making yourself useful to some patron.  At the same time, you spread your own influence by patronizing those who needed your power and influence.

 Patronage networks exist in almost all societies in all periods of history, including the contemporary USA, Russia and China, but in those days, patronage was not something below the surface.  It was a principle for organizing society.

Interestingly, riots and violent protests were common in 18th century England and its colonies.  The upper classes took them in stride.  They regarded them as a way that the lower classes could blow off steam.  They didn’t really threaten the social order.

In the 18th century, the British were probably less subordinate to hierarchies of birth than any other European people, and the British colonists in North America were more free than anyone else in the British Empire.

But their freedom, going back to Magna Carta, consisted of rights granted by the British crown to its subjects and enshrined in law.  They stemmed from law and precedent, not any theory of universal human rights.  This was what the British statesman Edmund Burke meant when he said he knew nothing of the “rights of man,” only of the rights of Englishmen.

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A brief history of objectivity in American news

June 16, 2020

[This is a replacement for my half-baked, deleted comment on the previous post.]

We talk about objective news reporting as if it were an age-old professional standard that everybody had always accepted.  In fact, it is a fairly recent development, very much related to economic considerations.

Most people in the 19th century USA would have been surprised to be told that journalists should not be opinionated.  Newspapers typically were organs of political parties and got their revenue from government printing contracts when their party was in power.

Other newspapers were organs of the local business community, or of churches, or of political reformers.  Others made money from being sensational or entertaining.

That doesn’t mean that all journalism of that era was of a low quality.  The Federalist Papers were first published as newspaper articles.  The Lincoln-Douglas debates were published in full in newspapers.  Mark Twain got his start as a newspaper reporter.  The muckrakers of the early 20th century exposed corruption in government and politics, and provided ammunition for the progressive reform movement.

Adolph Ochs’ New York Times made a point of separating news and opinion.  He saw his mission as providing accurate information that people in business could use as a basis for making decisions.

So did the Associated Press.  The AP served a consortium of newspapers.  Its mission was to provide news that could be run in any newspaper verbatim, no matter what the newspaper’s political slant.  This meant (1) a high standard of accuracy and (2) no opinions that differed from the consensus view.

I started working on newspapers in late 1958 when this was the standard of professionalism. Ideally, nobody reading an article would know what the reporter’s opinion was.

Getting a byline over a news article was rare because, in theory, good reporters would all report the news in the same neutral.  The byword was, “You report what you know, you don’t report what you think.”

Opinion belonged on the the editorial page, not the front page (although many readers didn’t know the difference).

This was good discipline for reporters starting out.  I bent over backwards to be fair to views I thought were clearly wrong and later, when I learned more about the topic, I was very glad I did.

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Piketty’s stats and the problem with class conflict

May 28, 2020

The late Saul Alinsky used to say that politics is a struggle among the haves, the have-nots and the have-a-littles.  He said the outcome usually depends on which side the have-a-littles choose.

Reading Thomas Piketty’s big new book, Capital and Ideology,  reminded me I’d forgotten this important truth.

The USA and much of the rest of the world is governed in the interests of a political and economic elite and not a majority of the public.  I want a politics that represents the interests of the majority of the population.

But there are objective reasons why this is harder than it seems.  If you look at economic class in terms of a top 10 percent in income or wealth, a middle 40 percent and a bottom 50 percent, you see that there is a difference between the middle class (the have-a-littles) and the lower class (the have-nots)

I had come to think that the big problem of American politics is that so much of it is a conflict of the top 0.1 percent of income earners with the next 9.9 percent, leaving the rest of us behind.

The top 0.1 percent, in this interpretation, are the millionaires and billionaires that Bernie Sanders denounces.  The next 9.9 percent, very roughly speaking, are highly paid professionals, the “professional managerial class,” who tend to be more socially liberal, but whose economic interests are different from the majority.

Matthew Stewart wrote a good article about this in The Atlantic a couple of years ago.  The conclusion is that we the American majority have to stop thinking we have to choose between the plutocrats and the PMC and unite in our own interests.

That would make sense if economic inequality were the same as it was in Britain, France or Sweden around the turn of the previous century, as reflected in the chart above (taken from Piketty’s book)

But it’s not.  There is now a big middle class, in between the top 10 percent and the bottom 50 percent, as shown in the chart below (taken from an article co-authored by Piketty).

Click to enlarge.

In western Europe and the USA, the middle 40 percent aren’t doing too badly.  They’re open to the politics of a Margaret Thatcher or a Ronald Reagan.

Instead of claiming a larger share from the haves, they’re told they need to worry about the claims of the have-nots.  Even in parts of the world where economic inequality is greater than in Europe or the USA, there is a middle class with something to lose.

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Piketty on the sacredness of property rights

May 27, 2020

When English settlers first dealt with American Indians, there was a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of property rights.

The Indians had no idea of buying the exclusive right to use a tract of land, keep everybody else off it and sell the land to someone else.

Thomas Piketty pointed out in his new book, Capital and Ideology, that, in fact, this was a fairly new idea even for the English and other Europeans.

The idea of absolute property rights did not exist in the European middle ages. Someone might have a hereditary right to grow crops on a certain tract of land, a second person the right to 10 percent of all crops grown on the land, a third person the right to grind grain produced on the land for a fixed fee, and so on.

Furthermore the right to land use was not so much bought and sold as inherited.

Medieval France was what Piketty called a “ternary” society—a society in which political power and property ownership were divided between a hereditary noble class who “fought for all” and a priestly class who “prayed for all,” leaving very little for a lower class who “worked for all.”

The “ternary” system existed in the Islamic world, India and many other parts of the world, and it casts its shadow over the present world.  Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (mostly Sunni) are ruled by hereditary monarchs while Iran (mostly Shiite) is ruled by clerics.  In India, the descendants of Brahmins (priests) and Kshatriyas (warriors) are richer and more influential than the Vaishyas (farmers, craftsmen and traders) and Shudras (laborers).

In Europe, uniquely, priests were celibate.  They could not found dynasties.  This mean that the Roman Catholic institutions had to be corporations.  They had to have a continuing existence that was independent of who was in charge.  It’s not accidental that business corporations originated in Europe.

The French Revolution overthrew hereditary property rights and established what Piketty called “proprietarianism” or “the ownership society”—the idea that property rights were sacred, provided that the property was acquired through legitimate purchase.

The accepted story in France is that the revolutionaries divided up the aristocrats’ estates among the peasants and turned France into a nation of small landowners.  In fact, according to Piketty, the revolutionaries made arbitrary distinctions between land that was owned through hereditary privilege and land acquired through voluntary contract, and, in many areas,  property ownership remained almost as concentrated as before.

Piketty wrote that the revolution was one of history’s “switch points.”  He thinks it could have been more radically egalitarian than it was.

In fact, concentration of wealth in France at the beginning of the 20th century was even greater than at the time of the French Revolution.

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Looking back on the influenza pandemic of 1918

April 8, 2020

Click to enlarge. Source: Our World in Data.

I managed to acquire a copy of THE GREAT INFLUENZA: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry before the libraries and bookstores closed.

It tells the story of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the deadliest in history in terms of absolute numbers.

Nobody knows for sure how many died.  The old consensus estimate was 20 million; the new one is 50 million.  Barry believes that the virus killed at least 35 million and probably between 50 and 100 million people.

In the USA, the estimated pandemic death toll was 675,000—more Americans that were killed in battle or died of wounds in all the wars of the 20th century..

One of the worst things about the pandemic is that its highest death rate was among people in their 20s and 30s, the young and healthy whose immune systems over-reacted to the ‘flu virus.

If the highest estimate of the death toll is correct, from one in 10 to one in 12 of the world’s young adults may have died, according to Barry.

The influenza pandemic arose in a world at war, and spread because of the war, just as the coronavirus pandemic spread because of a globalized world economy.

Barry said the first cases of the new influenza were reported rural Haskell County, Kansas, and then in Camp Funston at Fort Riley, Kansas, in March, 1918, where draftees were being trained and readied to be shipped overseas.

A short time later it appeared in Camps Forrest and Greenleaf in Georgia, and rhino in 24 of the 36 U.S. Army camps.  It was reported in Brest, France, a short time after American troops arrived there.  Soon it spread to all the nations and colonies that participated in the war. and then over the whole world.

At first, it was no worse than ordinary influenza—the “grippe,” as people called it.  But a second, deadlier wave arose during the summer, a mutant form of the first.

It killed in frightening ways.  Some turned blue or black, because of lack of oxygen in the blood.  Some spurted blood from their noses and even eyes and ears, for reasons nobody yet understands.

There were some who had air migrate from congested lungs to air pockets under the skin, which made a crackling sound when bodies were turned over.  One nurse said she could never eat Rice Krispies again.

The United States in which the influenza arose was more of a police state that it has ever been, before or since.  When war was declared on April 6, 1917, every American and every American institution was expected to be fully committed to the war effort.

There was a spy network, a propaganda network and a war bond-selling network, all reaching into every American town and neighborhood.

A Food Administration, Fuel Administration, Railroad Administration and War Industries Board had absolute power to carry out their missions.

But there was no Health Administration, only a relatively powerless U.S. Public Health Service.  No federal or state agency had responsibility for fighting the pandemic.  A volunteer organization, the American Red Cross, filled that vacuum, along with municipal health departments, private physicians and a few dedicated scientists.

What federal authority did do was try to protect civilian morale by suppressing news of how bad the pandemic was.

The seriousness of the pandemic was only acknowledged in the last month or two of the war, and that was in the context of charging Germany with waging germ warfare.

Censorship also suppressed news of the pandemic in Britain, France and Germany.  The first news accounts came from Spain, a neutral country.  From this people got the idea that the ‘flu originated in Spain

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Social distancing in the 1918 pandemic

April 8, 2020

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge

LINKS

How they flattened the curve during the 1918 Spanish flu by Nina Strophic and Riley D. Champline for National Geographic.

What the 1918 flu pandemic can teach us about COVID-19 by Sara Chodosh for Popular Science.

Rochester, NY, and the 1918 influenza pandemic

April 8, 2020

Alex Zapesochny, publisher of the on-line Rochester Beacon, wrote an interesting article about how Rochester, N.Y., coped with the 1918 influenza epidemic.  He pointed out that our city did much better than its peers.

Source: Rochester Beacon

Source: Rochester Beacon

Zapesochny went on to explain how Rochester public officials and business leaders acted promptly, before the pandemic was upon them.

Shortly after being warned by the state that a possible influenza epidemic was coming, Rochester began preparing, even though it had only two unconfirmed cases at the time.

A separate ward to take care of potential patients was set up at Rochester General Hospital.

By Oct. 9, Rochester’s commissioner of public safety announced the closure of all schools, as well as theaters and skating rinks.

Next, the city and the Chamber of Commerce asked manufacturing and retail business to stagger hours to prevent overcrowding on trolley cars.

Soon after the city closed churches, bars and “ice cream parlors.”  

In the meantime, five makeshift hospitals were set up around Rochester to augment the capacity of local hospitals, which would otherwise have been overwhelmed by the 10,000 influenza cases that occurred in October 1918.

Toward the end of October, as the number of cases started falling, residents and workers pushed the health commissioner to quickly lift the restrictions, especially to help those whose livelihoods were being affected.  

Despite being sympathetic to their request, the health commissioner acted carefully again, waiting another week before finally lifting the restrictions.

In other words, local officials in 1918 were doing many of the same things we see being done in Rochester today.

And while each epidemic has its unique dynamics, the one thing 1918 clearly teaches us is that different approaches by local officials can yield very different results. 

LINK

A lifesaving lesson from 1918 by Alex Zapesochny for the Rochester Beacon.

The Cold War, Bernie Sanders and me

March 5, 2020

The divided world of 1980. Click to enlarge. Source: Wikipedia

A lot of politics consists of argument about who was right about conflicts of the past.

The rights and wrongs of the Civil War were a dividing line in U.S. politics for more than a century after it ended.  U.S. intervention in World War One and the Vietnam conflict were issues for a generation or more after those conflicts ended.  So it is with the Cold War, which more than 30 years ago.

When the Cold War began, many people, myself included, saw it as a conflict between freedom and totalitarianism.   Over time, increasing numbers of people, evidently including Bernie Sanders, saw it as a conflict between capitalism and revolution.

Joseph Stalin’s USSR killed millions of its people through purges and through famines caused by government policy.  Mao Zedong’s China did the same.  Their goal seemed to be to seed the world with little junior replicas of themselves.  To me, the danger was clear.

As what was called a “cold war liberal,” I was in good company.  My fellow anti-Communists included many liberals and social democrats, including the great George Orwell, and disillusioned ex-Communists, who had come to realize that Soviet Union was the opposite of their ideal of a good society.

But the opposing view had support, too.  It had support from George F. Kennan, Dean Acheson, John J. McCloy and the other architects of Cold War policy, who in fact saw their mission as the defense of capitalism against revolution.

In their correspondence among each other, they did not express fear of the nightmare vision of Arthur Koester’s Darkness at Noon or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Their fear was that revolutionary movements would cut off American business from access to markets and raw materials.

Here’s how Kennan, who was head of the State Department’s policy planning staff, explained U.S. priorities in 1948:

We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population…. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.

Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction….

We should cease to talk about vague and…, unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization.  The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.  The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

Source: Noam Chomsky.

They didn’t think the U.S. public was willing to accept such harsh truths.  They agreed it was necessary to frighten the American people—to be, as Acheson put it, “clearer than the truth.”

So which side was right—the anti-Communists or their opponents?  Both had facts on their side.  Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China really were murderous dictatorships.  U.S. foreign policy really was more cynical than Americans were led to believe.  The question is: Which facts were more significant?

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How U.S. foreign policy is like 1930s Germany’s

January 10, 2020

I am careful about using the words “fascist,” “Nazi” and “Hitler,” and I do not think that what’s left of American freedom and democracy is equivalent to Nazi Germany’s totalitarianism.

But there are good reasons why other nations view the USA as the same kind of threat to international order as the Axis powers posed in the 1930s.  We Americans need to try to see ourselves as others see us.

I recommend you click on the links below.

LINKS 

On Rogues and Rogue States: Old, New and Improved by Fred Reed.

Reclaiming Your Inner Fascist by C.J. Hopkins for Consent Factory.

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.