Archive for the ‘History’ Category

A brief entertaining history of everything

May 20, 2017

This video by Bill Wurtz is fun and, as far as I can tell, well-researched and accurate.

Hat tip to Jason Kottke, who also linked to Wurtz’s video history of Japan.

Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for All Seasons’

May 17, 2017

A Man for All Seasons is a play about Sir Thomas More, a scholar, humanist, statesman and devoted husband and father, who also was a hero who went to his death rather than swear to a false statement.

It may be my favorite play.  Offhand I can’t think of one I like better.  It was first performed in London in 1960.

I saw it in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s.  Recently I took part in a reading of it organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The things I liked and admired about the play are its language and characters; its staging and lighting, which gave it a timeless relevancy; and its non-banal affirmation of human dignity and integrity.

More was beheaded on the order of King Henry VIII for his refusal to affirm that the Pope was wrong in refusing him permission to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.

The play is about More’s struggle to find a way to stay alive without sacrificing his integrity, and his final decision to choose integrity over life.

There is a passage I particularly like about the rule of law—the principle that nobody is above the duty to obey the law and nobody is below the right to protection of the law.

   WILLIAM ROPER:  Arrest him.
    SIR THOMAS MORE: For what? ……
    MARGARET MORE: Father, that man’s bad
    THOMAS MORE: There’s no law against that.
    ROPER: There is!  God’s law!
    THOMAS MORE: Then God can arrest him……
    ALICE MORE (exasperated): While you talk, he’s gone.
    THOMAS MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law.
    ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law.
    THOMAS MORE Yes.  What would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
    ROPER:  I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
    THOMAS MORE (roused and excited)  Oh? (advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil himself turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (he leaves him)
    This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (quietly) Yes, I’d give the Devil himself the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Here is another passage I like.

     SIR THOMAS MORE: … If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes.
     But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all, why then perhaps we must stand fast a little… .

 In the play, there are two opponents to More’s point of view.

One is Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless Machiavellian power-worshiper, who is tasked with the mission of forcing More to give him or, failing that, providing a justification for sending him to his death.

The other is a figure that Bolt calls the Common Man, an actor who introduces each scene and also plays the part of More’s servant, a boatman, a jailer, a juryman and, in the last scene, the headsman.

He represents the common sense view of the ordinary person, who tries to stay out of trouble and who goes along to get along.

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The FBI never was chartered by law

May 16, 2017

I hadn’t known until today that the Federal Bureau of Investigation never was established by law.

President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to create a Bureau of Investigation within the Department of Justice, but Congress refused to act.  So Roosevelt just went ahead and established it by executive order.

So would President Donald Trump not only have the authority to fire the FBI director, but to abolish the FBI itself?

I would guess not, because Congress has appropriated money to fund the FBI and the President doesn’t have a line item budget veto.   And, as a practical matter, the FBI is too powerful and entrenched to be gotten rid of, even though its legal basis is shaky.

I learned about the FBI’s origins by reading an article by Mark Ames, editor of two on-line journals, Pando Daily and The eXiled.   In the article, Ames went on to review the FBI’s history of mass surveillance, suppression of radicals and political blackmail—well worth remembering.

There was a bill in the late 1970s to define—and thereby limit—the FBI’s powers, but it died in Congress.

LINK

The FBI Has No Legal Charter, But Lots of Kompromat by Mark Ames for The eXiled.

Can the U.S. make credible threats or promises?

April 19, 2017

President Trump reportedly hopes that cruise missile attack Syria and the 11-ton MOAB bomb dropped on Afghanistan will make American threats more credible when he deals with North Korea and other hostile countries.

But it is not enough for a leader of a great nation to be able to make credible threats.  He also has to be able to make credible promises.

It is not enough for foreign heads of state to feel in danger if they oppose the United States.  They have to be able to feel safe from U.S. wrath if they cooperate with the United States.

Otherwise the threats will make them redouble their efforts to be able to strike back.

Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad all found that appeasing the United States was more dangerous than defiance.

Unfortunately for President Trump, he—for reasons not of his own making—is in a situation in which neither his threats nor his promises are credible.

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The Irish in old New York

March 17, 2017

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I strongly recommend Slaughter on Eighth Avenue: a St Patrick’s Day Commemoration by John Dolan for Pando Daily.

Why and how Britannia ruled the waves

March 16, 2017

One hundred years ago, the British Empire and Commonwealth comprised one-fourth of humanity.   There were British colonies on every continent, and nations on every continent with whom Britain was their greatest trading partner.

Yet this power was largely an illusion.   Britain no longer had the industrial and financial power to maintain a global empire and, 50 years later, it was no longer a world power.

Today the United States is seemingly as supreme as Great Britain was then.   The USA has more than 800 military bases in 160 countries; it can project its military power to places as far from home as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet this, too, is largely an illusion.   Our American industrial and economic power is as hollow now as Britain’s was back then.  I don’t think it will take as long as 50 years for this to become apparent.

A few weeks ago, I happened to pick up Paul M. Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (1976, 1983) in a second-hand bookstore.  Kennedy has a deep understanding of the relationship between military power, economic power, technology and geopolitics, and the ability to explain complex matters clearly.

His book is fascinating for itself, and for its implications for American power.   His story begins in the 16th century, when England depended on sea power, diplomacy and a balance of power to preserve its independence from the powerful Spanish Empire and French Kingdom.   The English Navy was under-financed and under-paid; it used privateers and buccaneers as a kind of guerrilla navy.

In the 17th century, Britain was torn by internal conflict, including a full-scale Civil War.   The British avoided conflict with France and Spain, the great European powers, but built up their merchant marine and fought three wars with the Dutch for rule of the seas.

The British established naval bases worldwide and founded colonies in North America.  Maritime commerce became a source of national wealth and power.   By the end of the century, Britain had subdued Scotland and Ireland, and overcome its internal religious divisions.

Theaters of Britain’s war with France, 1754-1763

From 1689 to 1815, Britain fought a succession of wars against France, all of which (except the French-backed U.S. War of Independence) left Britain richer and more powerful and at the point of becoming the world’s only global power.

The growing British merchant marine added not only to Britain’s wealth, but her number of seamen and access to naval stores.  Wars on French commerce enriched British merchants and shipowners.  Victories added to her colonies and naval bases.   Britain’s new wealth, plus its commercial spirit and resources of coal and iron, gave rise to industrial revolution.

In the 19th century, British supremacy at sea was unchallenged.  There was a kind of naval-industrial complex.  The British Navy created a market for the shipbuilding industry, iron industry (for cannon) and other products, and spurred industrial innovation.

As the first industrial nation, Britain was for a time the workshop of the world.   Industrial power reinforced sea power, and sea power helped open markets for the products of British industry.

During all this time, as Kennedy noted, Britain never tried to dominate the continent of Europe, and could not have done so if it tried.  Instead it tried to maintain a balance of power among the great European countries.    The British could not avoid fighting in Europe, but were unable to win without the support of allies, often financially subsidized allies.

The 19th century British tried to make their world empire acceptable to other European nations.   The British Navy suppressed piracy and the African slave trade (which had been a big source of British wealth in previous centuries).   It financed scientific expeditions, laid oceanic telegraph cables and public navigational charts–all to public benefit.

But in the middle of the 19th century, technological developments shifted the advantage from sea power to land power.

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Ancient Greece and the meaning of democracy

February 22, 2017

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What is democracy?  Does democracy consist of free elections?  Is democracy based on inalienable human rights?  Is a democracy a government of laws and not of men?  Does democracy require political parties, checks and balances and separation of church and state?

The classicist Paul Cartledge pointed out in his new book, DEMOCRACY: A Life (2016), that ancient Athens and the other Greek city-states lacked all these things.   Yet, he argued, it was they who best represented the ideal of democracy and we Americans and British who have fallen away from it.

Democracy in ancient Greece had a complicated history.  Cartledge derived from the fragmentary historical record how the common people over time wrested power from kings, aristocrats and the rich.

At the high tide of democracy, the main governing bodies were Assemblies were chosen at random, by lot, as juries are today.

The Athenian Assembly had a membership of up to 5,000 to 6,000, chosen from a citizenry of about 30,000, and they all met for important decisions.

The Assembly met almost continuously; it passed laws, set policy, tried important legal cases and decided on whether to exile (ostracize) troublesome citizens and politicians.

The Assembly did elect an administrative Council of 500 as well as generals and treasurers.  Other governmental positions, including juries for minor cases, were chosen by lot.

There was no bright line dividing the legislative, executive and judicial function.   An Athenian citizen might propose a military action in the Assembly one day and be named to command the troops to carry out that action.

There was virtually no limit to the power of the Assembly.  You could call it a tyranny of the majority.  You could even call it a dictatorship of the proletariat.

But you couldn’t deny that the people of Athens and the other democratic Greek cities ruled themselves in a way that contemporary Americans and Britishers don’t come close to doing.

Aristotle defined democracy as the rule of the poor (meaning workers) and oligarchy as the rule of the rich (meaning property-owners who don’t do manual labor).   Any Athenian in the time of Pericles would call the modern USA and UK oligarchies, based on the influence of the rich on public policy and the lack of participation by the mass of the citizenry.

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Timothy Snyder on the 1930s playbook

February 16, 2017

There is a playbook from the 1930s that some people in the presidential administration are following.  This includes picking a minority in your country, associate it with a global threat and use the notion of a global struggle as a way to create national solidarity while neglecting the nation’s actual problems.

This is a quote from an article by historian Timothy Snyder for Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Steve Bannon’s wars, at home and abroad

February 13, 2017

Steve Bannon is President Trump’s most trusted adviser.   He is the second most powerful person in the Trump administration.

He is guided by a dangerously wrong philosophy.

He thinks that Judeo-Christian civilization is at war with the Moslem world abroad, and with secularists and Muslims at home.

He expects a shooting war with China and as well as a shooting war in the Middle East.

He sees himself as part of a global nationalist movement that includes the United Kingdom Independence Party, the National Front in France and similar movements across Europe.

He has expressed admiration for Lenin and Karl Rove, and has compared himself to Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors.

Trump owes him.  He and Jared Kushner, through their skilled use of data mining and social media, are responsible for Trump’s victory in the 2016 Election.

His idea that Americans are engaged in both a civil war and a global war could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

∞∞∞

Steve Bannon, born in 1953, has had a varied career as U.S. Naval officer, mergers and acquisitions specialist for Goldman Sachs, and executive producer in Hollywood.  He has degrees from Virginia Tech, Georgetown University and Harvard University.

He was a little-known but influential figure even before he joined the Trump campaign.  Among his films are documentaries on Ronald Reagan, Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin and an expose of Occupy Wall Street.  He was on the board of directors of Breitbart News and became executive chair when founder Andrew Breitbart died in 2012.  Another Bannon organization sponsored opposition research on Hillary Clinton which resulted in the book, Clinton Cash, and many articles in mainstream newspapers about the Clintons’ conflicts of interest.

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The hollow populism of Steve Bannon

February 13, 2017

Steve Bannon, the chief adviser to President Donald Trump, is probably the most influential person in the Trump administration besides Trump himself.

But I find it hard to get a handle on Bannon’s thinking, since he shuns the limelight, and hasn’t written any books or magazine articles I could get hold of,

His 2010 documentary film, Generation Zero, is probably as good a guide to his thinking as anything else.

It is well done and, despite being 90 minutes long, held my interest—at least until the last 10 minutes of so, which consists of restatements of the main points.

Generation Zero is an analysis of the roots and consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, which Bannon rightly blames on crony capitalism, the unholy alliance of Wall Street and Washington that began in the 1990s.

But if you look at the film’s action items, what he really does—knowingly or unknowingly—is to protect Wall Street by diverting the public’s attention from what’s really needed, which is criminal prosecution of financial fraud and the break-up of “too big to fail” institutions.

Bannon presents himself as an enemy of corrupt politicians and financiers.  But there is nothing he advocates in the film or otherwise that threatens the power of either.

∞∞∞

Generation Zero draws on a book, The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, who claim there is a cycle in American politics based on the succession of generations.  Each cycle consists of four turnings—(1) a heroic response to a crisis, (2) a new cultural or religious awakening, (3) an unraveling and (4) a crisis.

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The revolutionary power of early Christianity

January 25, 2017

QUO VADIS by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1896)  tells a story of the coming of Christianity to Rome in the time of Nero.  It depicts the discontinuity between Christianity and the Greco-Roman pagan world, and what happens when people actually live by the Sermon on the Mount.

This would be a revolutionary moral change today.   It was an even more revolutionary change then.

quovadis41daeylwxl-_ac_ul320_sr224320_Unlike in Christianity, worship of the Greco-Roman gods had nothing to do with morality nor with hope and heaven.   The pagan gods were regarded as powerful supernatural beings who had to be appeased with worship and animal sacrifice for the sake of one’s family or one’s city or nation, but who otherwise did not care about you.

Many of the Roman upper classes had come to believe that religion was a useful superstition for keeping the common people contented.

This had nothing to do with leading a virtuous life, which was the province of philosophy, and only a select few were followers of philosophy.

Christianity represented a moral revolution.  St. Paul, St. Peter and the Christians depicted in this novel practiced universal love, unconditional forgiveness and the sharing of all wealth and property—something unprecedented in any mass movement.

The Christian missionaries taught that in the Kingdom of God, there was no distinction between rich and poor, free and slave, man and woman or Roman, Greek or Jew.  They created communities whereby poor people could band together and provide for their own needs, independently of the oppressive and indifferent Roman state.   The collision of the pagan and Christian view of life is the subject of this novel.

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Donald Trump, Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon

January 23, 2017

During the past six or eight months, it seems as though every conversation on a general topic that I’ve engaged in has come around to the topic of Donald Trump.

Yesterday morning I led a discussion at First Universalist Church on the topic of spirituality.  It was a good discussion overall, but the conversation soon drifted to the lack of spirituality of Donald Trump and how people’s spirits were lifted by taking part in protest demonstrations against Trump.

donaldtrumpczeur4ixuaaryrYesterday evening I took part in a group that is reading and discussing Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis.  Sure enough, we soon started talking about the resemblances between Donald Trump and the Emperor Nero.

I don’t hang out with pro-Trump voters on a day-to-day basis, but my guess is that they also are talking about Trump and his opponents.

It is amazing to me how President Trump has managed to dominate public discourse, and on his own terms.

The Washington press yesterday was talking about estimates of crowd sizes.  It wasn’t talking about what Trump’s policies will be concerning the economy, the environment or foreign wars.  Still less was it talking about what we Americans ought to be doing concerning these issues.

No, the national press—as well as all my friends who get their information from network television—were reacting to Trump’s tweets and sound bites—that is, to an agenda set by Trump.   And so is most of the national press, even though in their own minds they are opposed to Trump.

I feel as if I am the target of psychological warfare, intended to induce despair and fear.

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400 years of poor white people in America

January 17, 2017

When I was a boy in western Maryland in the 1940s, I sometimes heard people say things like, “The Negroes aren’t so bad, compared to the poor white trash.”

The underlying meaning was that it was part of the nature of things for black people to be poor and marginalized, but there was something deeply wrong with white people who let themselves sink to the same status.

9whitetrash-iisenberg780670785971I just finished reading a book, WHITE TRASH: the untold 400-year history of class in America by Nancy Isenberg (2016), that tells how these attitudes go back literally to the first settlements at Plymouth Rock, Jamestown and before, and persist today.

Today’s poor rural Southern white people of today may literally be lineal descendants of the convicts, debtors, beggars, orphans, homeless vagrants and unemployed vagrants who were shipped to England’s North American colonies in the 17th century.

Many were victims of the enclosure movement, in which wealthy landowners privatized common lands formerly used by small or tenant farmers, leaving them without an obvious means of livelihood.  These displaced poor people were regarded as useless—much as workers replaced by automation are regarded by economists and corporate executives today.

The prevailing attitude then was that families were “the better sort” or “the meaner sort,” that they were “well-bred” or “ill-bred”.   Today we think of “good breeding” as applied to individual persons as meaning the person has been taught the proper way to behave.   Back then, roughneck poor people were regarded as inherently inferior.

Our American tradition is that the seeds of our nation were planted by freedom-seeking New England Puritans and adventurous Virginia Cavaliers.  This is true, but only a half-truth.    The ships that brought them to the New World also brought penniless, landless English poor people, who were regarded as surplus population.

What set the English poor white colonists apart was that they were not given land.  They were intended to be servants and field workers.  When black African slaves turned out to be more efficient and exploitable workers than indentured English servants, they lost even this role.

Even so some of the poor whites acquired property and a measure of social status.   White Trash is about the descendants of the ones that didn’t.

They fled to the western frontier of settlement.   But the wealthy and well-connected had already obtained title to most of the frontier land.  Poor whites became squatters.  They contended that clearing, improving and planting land gave them the right to have it; title-holders disagreed.  This was the source of much conflict both in the colonies and the newly-independent United States.

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Learning about (and from) the Spanish anarchists

December 29, 2016

Anarchists advocate a society based on voluntary cooperation and mutual aid.   They reject government and corporate bureaucracy and the profit motive.  They champion personal and political freedom.  I find this highly appealing.

Writers and thinkers I respect—Paul Goodman, Murray Bookchin, Noam Chomsky, James C. Scott and David Graeber—self-identify as anarchists.

spanishanarchists-bookchin-51vdq4ymscl-_sx332_bo1204203200_I’d like to believe such a philosophy is feasible.  The problem is the scarcity of examples of anarchists in power.

That’s why I recently read three books about the Spanish revolution of 1936.   The three books were Murray Bookchin’s The Spanish Anarchists: the Heroic Years, 1868-1936 and To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936, and Frank Mintz’s Anarchists and Workers Self-Management in Revolutionary Spain.

In the Spanish revolution, ordinary workers and farmers took over factories, businesses and landed estates and operated them on anarchist principles.  By one estimate, some 1.8 million Spaniards (workers and their families) participated in rural and industrial collectives.

I learned from reading these three books that anarchism can work well—provided there is a hard core of capable and strong-willed people dedicated to making it work.

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What if the Axis had won the Second World War?

December 26, 2016

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Philip K. Dick is not my favorite science fiction writer, but many of my favorite science fiction movies—Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Next and The Adjustment Bureau—were based on his ideas.

I did greatly admire and enjoy his novel, The Man in the High Castle, which gives the Dickian imagination free rein but has a more coherent plot than many of his other stories and novels.

The setting of The Man in the High Castle is a 1962 USA which has lost World War Two and been partitioned between Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire, with the Rocky Mountains serving as an unoccupied neutral zone.

There are two plots.  One involves high-level Japanese and German officials conspiring to avoid a nuclear war between the two superpowers.  The other involves ordinary Americans trying to survive in Japanese-occupied San Francisco and one of them traveling to the neutral zone in search of “the man in the high castle,” author of a novel in which the Allies won the war.

Amazon Prime has started a series based on the novel, which incorporates most of the material in the novel, but which branches out to include Nazi-occupied New York and the Reich itself.

I subscribed to Amazon Prime mainly to watch this series, and Seasons One and Two have been well worth it.

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Why the Electoral College result should stand

December 15, 2016

 The original idea of the Electoral College (Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution) was that Americans would not choose a President ourselves, but instead choose the leading citizens from our communities, and delegate the decision to them.

In that way, we supposedly would avoid self-seeking politicians and only choose individuals devoted to the public good.

This idea lasted through precisely one administration, that of George Washington.  From then on we had political parties and electors pledged to particular candidates—precisely what the Founders hoped to avoid.   This reality was reflected in the Twelfth Amendment.

Now certain opponents of Donald Trump, who claim to be followers of Alexander Hamilton, say that electors should ignore their pledges and exercise independent judgment.  This is a terrible idea.

I would be perfectly happy to delegate decision-making to someone I considered to be wise and good, but that is not what I did when I voted in the recent presidential election.   Most American voters don’t know the names of the electors they voted for.  I don’t.  If you do, you’re a rare exception.

I don’t think most Americans who voted for Donald Trump (or, for that matter, for Hillary Clinton) would be willing to see their decisions over-ridden by people they’d never heard of.   This is very different from the original idea of the Electoral College.  I think that Alexander Hamilton and the other Founders would think so, too.

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The legacy of Fidel Castro

November 26, 2016

Fidel Castro died yesterday at the age of 90.  He ruled Cuba from 1959 to 2006 and was widely admired as a brave patriot and revolutionary who defied the power of the United States.

He was indeed a patriot and a brave man, but I never believed in him or what he stood for.

Fidel Castro in 1964 (Magnum)

Fidel Castro in 1964 (Magnum Photos)

Human beings cannot flourish under any system based on giving absolute power for life to a single person or small group of people can work.  Human life is too varied and complex to be subject to the will of a tiny elite of self-selected masterminds.

A number of people asked me at different times whether giving people bread was more important than freedom of the press or voting in contested elections.  I answered that I didn’t see the connection between giving people bread and denying them the right to ask for bread.

They asked me whether a nation has a right to change its political and economic system.  I answered that they do, and they have a right to change their minds if the first change doesn’t work out.

The Communist dictatorship was established supposedly to safeguard the ideals of socialism.  That was the purpose of all the suppression and regimentation.

Now the government of Cuba, like the governments of China and Vietnam before it, is renouncing socialism and opening itself to the capitalist world market, but the dictatorship remains.

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Thanksgiving and the Pilgrim story

November 24, 2016

The story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving feast is more complicated, less sweetly sentimental and much more interesting than many might think.

LINKS

Native Intelligence: The Indians who first feasted with the English colonists were far more sophisticated than you were taught in school | But that wasn’t enough to save them by Charles C. Mann for Smithsonian magazine.

Ditch the Lovefest and Learn the Real Story of the First Thanksgiving by Glenn Garvin for Reason.

The Silver Lining of Thanksgiving Past by Ian Welsh.

Clinton actually got more votes than Trump

November 10, 2016

The votes are still being counted, but it now seems almost certain that more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than voted for Donald Trump.

The same thing happened in the 2000 election.  Al Gore received more votes nationwide than George W. Bush.  Two out of the last three Republican victories were with a minority of the votes!

Until and unless the Electoral College is abolished, this is likely to happen again, and always in favor of the Republicans.

trump-clinton1The reason is that Americans do not vote directly for President, but for members of the Electoral College, who then choose a President, and that the Electoral College is tilted in favor of small states—most of them rural states with Republican majorities.

Each state gets a number of electoral votes equal to its representation in the House of Representatives, which is apportioned according to population, plus its representation in the Senate, which is two per state.

Democrats are concentrated in cities and in large states with large cities.  Republicans are more spread out across the country, and are more over-represented in the Senate and in the Electoral College (and also in the House of Representatives, due to gerrymandering).

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David Brion Davis on the history of slavery

November 2, 2016

One of the things I’ve come to realize is the central importance of African slavery not only in the history of the United States, but of the whole New World and the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese empires.

My understanding has been greatly helped by the historian David Brion Davis.   He wrote about slavery as a moral issue—how it was justified in the first place, and how the Western world came to turn against it.

I’ve read his principal books—The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), Slavery and Human Progress (1984), Inhuman Bondage: the Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006) and his latest book, which I finished reading last week, The Problem of Slavery in The Age of Emancipation (2014).

davisslaveryemancipationbwoakes02161391905742Slavery is a problem because in Western culture because of the heritage of the Greeks and Romans, who regarded freedom as necessary to human dignity, and because of the Christian religion, which taught that all human beings are equally children of God.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, there were two kinds of slaves—debt slaves and war captives.  Selling yourself or your children into slavery was the ultimate form of bankruptcy, and it exists in the world today.  I read somewhere that the world’s largest concentration of slaves are debt slaves in India.

Ancient armies did not have facilities for keeping prisoners of war.  Their choices for dealing with defeated enemies were to kill them (or at least kill all the adult males) or to enslave them.

When the Atlantic slave trade began, the rationalization was that the African slaves had been defeated in war in their own homelands and already forfeited their lives.

The first white opponents of Western slavery were the Quakers and other peace churches.  Since war was anti-Christian, the Quakers believed, then slavery, as the fruit of war, also was wrong.

Quakers were leaders of the anti-slavery movement in both Great Britain and the United States; many and maybe most white members of the Underground Railroad were Quakers.

Another strain of opposition to slavery came from the rationalistic thinkers of the 18th century, who opposed hereditary privilege and believed that government should should be based on recognition of human rights.

They were not as wholehearted as the Quakers.  Slaveowners such as Thomas Jefferson admitted that slavery was in theory a great evil, but insisted that the times and conditions for emancipation weren’t right.

The invention of so-called scientific racism was in part a response to qualms of people like Jefferson.  If black Africans are not as human as white Europeans, then slavery does not have to be justified.  There is no reason not to treat enslaved people as if they were livestock.

This argument did not touch the Quakers and other religious opponents of slavery because they opposed slavery on moral grounds, not scientific grounds.

Black people, both free and enslaved, meanwhile fought for their own liberation, in slave uprisings and in appeals to white people for the abolition of slavery.   Without their struggle, the majority of white people might have been able to ignore the moral issue indefinitely.

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Time for another Reconstruction?

October 14, 2016

Black people in the South were liberated during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War.   It was followed by a white backlash and the Jim Crow era, in which most of their newly won rights were taken away.

Then came the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s, which the Rev. William J. Barber II, leader of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, calls a second Reconstruction.  Another white backlash attacked the gains from that era.

wbarber-3rdreconstruction978-080708360-4Rev. Dr. Barber says it is time for a third Reconstruction.   Like the first two, he said, it requires fusion politics—blacks and whites working together for the common good.   The backlash succeeds only when they are divided.

To see what he means, take a look at the Constitution of North Carolina, originally drafted in 1868 and retaining much of its original wording.  It is a very progressive document, even by today’s standards.

It states that not all persons created equal and have the right not only to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but to  “the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor.”

It guarantees free public education as a right.  It states that beneficent provision for the poor, the unfortunate and the orphan is among the first duties of a civilized and a Christian state.   It guarantees all the rights in the U.S. Constitution and eliminates property qualifications for voting.

All these provisions are the result of Reconstruction.  North Carolina’s present Constitution was drafted at a constitutional convention immediately following the Civil War.   The 133 delegates included 15 newly enfranchised African-Americans and 18 Northern white men (so called carpetbaggers).

It was ratified by a popular vote in which 55 percent voted “yes”.   As a result, more African-Americans were elected to public office in North Carolina in the following period than at any time since.

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A giant statue of Chinese warrior hero Guan Yu

September 24, 2016

giant-war-god-statue-general-guan-yu-sculpture-china-9

This 190-foot tall, 1,450-ton [*] statue represents Guan Yu, a heroic general and warrior who lived during China’s Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD).   His famous Green Crescent Dragon Blade weighs 150 tons [*].  For comparison, the Statue of Liberty is 111 feet tall and weighs 225 tons.

Guan Yu was so fierce and righteous that he is worshiped as a god.  This statue, one of many in China, was erected last summer in the Chinese city of Jingzhou in Hubei province.  There is an even larger statue, 292 feet high, in his home town of Changping in Shanxi province.

He was a character in the famous Chinese historical novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which became the basis of many a Chinese movie and video game and is said to be one of the favorite reading of Mao Zedong.

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A graphic history of global climate change

September 14, 2016

Source: xkcd: Earth Temperature Timeline

Thoughts about the Free State of Jones

September 6, 2016

In the “Free State of Jones” movie, Newton Knight, a white Mississippi farmer who rebelled against the Confederacy, takes refuge in an inaccessible swamp and is helped by fugitive slaves.

Victoria Bynum

Victoria Bynum

Such things happened in real life.   Many fugitive slaves fled, not to the North, which many of them couldn’t reach, but to places such as the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia where their pursuers couldn’t follow.

The Seminole Indians were never defeated because they retreated deep into the Everglades where the U.S. military couldn’t follow, where they were joined by fleeing slaves.

And, yes, some of them did shelter white fugitives (fugitives for good and bad reasons).

∞∞∞

Jones County wasn’t unique as an example of white Southern unionism.  Victoria Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones, on which the movie was based, has written another book (which I haven’t read), The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies about white uprisings against the Confederacy in North Carolina, Mississippi and Texas.

I did know about Winston County, Alabama, and there were others.  The whole state of West Virginia was created out of a pro-Union section of Virginia.

Movies such as Glory remind us of the contribution of black troops to Union victory.  Loyal white Southerners also were important to Union victory,  Many of the Union’s best generals, such as George Thomas, were Southerners.

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Newton Knight and the free state of Jones

September 6, 2016

I read THE FREE STATE OF JONES: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War by Victoria Bynum after seeing the movie, “The Free State of Jones,” which I liked, in order to see how much of the movie is based on fact.

freestateofjones.bynum.amazon-fsojThe movie dramatized the true story of Newton Knight, a white Mississippi farmer led a guerrilla revolt against the Confederacy during the Civil War, and was never captured or defeated.

He took his grandfather’s slave as a lover and became the patriarch of an interracial community which continued to exist down tinto the middle of the 20th century.

Victoria Bynum’s book begins with the origins of the families who fought in the Knight Company.  In colonial times, they lived in the backwoods of the Carolinas, and opposed rich plantation owners in the political struggles of those times.

Racial lines were not drawn so strictly in those days as later, and some sons of poor white indentured servants felt they had more in common with black slaves than with slave owners..

During the American Revolution, many wealthy planters such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were rebels, and many poor backwoodsmen were Tories.

After the Revolution, many backwoodsmen migrated into the lawless frontier region that later became the states of Alabama and Mississippi.  They endured great danger, hardship and isolation, particularly the women, but rejoiced in being their own masters.

Slaveowners adopted, taught and enforced a rigid ideology of racism. to a degree previously unknown, Bynum wrote.

Anybody with “one drop” of Negro “blood” was considered black.  White men had a duty to preserve the chastity of white women, lest white “blood” be contaminated.  This was supported by a religious practice that condemned dancing, alcohol and sensuality.

No doubt the slaveowners sincerely believed in these things, but they served a function of keeping the black slaves isolated and preventing them from joining forces with whites.

But, according to Bynum, not all white people followed the accepted code.  Some enjoyed feasting, dancing and drinking, sometimes among black companions.  Some preferred charismatic, revival meetings, sometimes led by women, to the stricter and more authoritarian religion.  There were those who became lovers across the color line.

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