Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The misunderstood legacies of the New Deal

November 15, 2022

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal had two legacies – a welfare state and a warfare state.

Admirers of FDR focus on the legacy of the 1930s – the creation of Social Security and strengthening of the social safety net, the massive public works programs and job programs, the guarantee of the right to collective bargaining and the growth of a powerful administrative and regulatory state.

But just as important – maybe even more important – is the legacy of the 1940s. The New Deal programs mitigated the Great Depression, but they did not end it.  That only happened with the coming of World War Two and an economic boom based on war production.

The war economy made possible the re-industrialization of the United States.  Wartime investment in manufacturing capacity produced seeming miracles in production that carried over into peacetime for decades.

The New Dealers established military bases in Europe and Asia, the beginning of the empire of bases that exists to this day.  They built the Pentagon.  They created the OSS and then the CIA.  They created the atomic bomb and incorporated the A-bomb into American military strategy.

If not for FDR and the New Deal, the atomic bomb would not have come into existence when it did.

It is not just that Roosevelt personally authorized the research program that produced the atomic bomb.  Without the New Deal’s great hydroelectric projects on the Tennessee and Colombia rivers, the U.S. would not have had the industrial capacity to create a uranium bomb (at Oak Ridge, TN) and a plutonium bomb (at Hanford, WA).

Under Harry Truman, FDR’s chosen successor, the U.S. government chose to continue its wartime alliances, maintain its overseas bases, incorporate atomic weapons into the nation’s war strategy and maintain full employment through war spending.

Two important positive things about the wartime New Deal, from the progressive standpoint, are that it gave the labor union leadership a place at the table in war planning, and that it at least gave lip service to the need for civil rights and equal employment opportunity for African Americans.  Both these things were needed for full war mobilization, and also for Democratic electoral victory.

I don’t deny the idealistic and reforming impulses behind the New Deal.  They were an important part of its legacy, but they weren’t the only part.  Idealism seldom wins without being allied to someone’s interests. 

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Why Uncle Tom was not an uncle tom

November 4, 2022

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, or Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a best-selling novel that did more to arouse public opinion against American slavery than any other written work. Yet today educated Americans, if they think of it at all, think of it as racist.

The lead character, Uncle Tom, is regarded as a symbol of a black man who is subservient to white people.  One of the worst things an African-American can call another African-American is an “uncle tom.”

But Mrs. Stowe depicted him as a hero, a Christ-like Christian martyr who was true to himself unto death.

Uncle Tom followed the hard teachings of Jesus – the ones that said to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 

He reminds me of characters in Quo Vadis., a novel about Christians in pagan Rome.

Mrs. Stowe, in creating Uncle Tom, showed that, under slavery, the most humble and faithful servant could be sold down the river away from his family, beaten for manifesting self-respect and compassion and finally killed for refusing to turn informer against his own people.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, surprisingly to me, a novel of ideas.  Through thought experiments and debates between the characters, she sets up arguments excusing slavery, and then refutes them.

It also is a documentation of the evils of slavery.  Her claim is that every incident in the novel had a counterpart in real life.

A mother of six herself, she emphasized how slavery broke the bond between mothers and children.  She described mothers and children being separated by slave traders; a woman forced to be a wet nurse for her owner’s children while her own child died of malnutrition; another women being forced to be caregiver for her owner’s children while neglecting her own.

But in her view, as a believing Christian, the worst evil of slavery was that it endangered the souls of both masters and slaves.  The slave owners were corrupted morally by their absolute and unaccountable power.  Enslaved people were driven to despair and atheism by their unjust suffering

The two distinctive principles of Protestant Christianity are salvation by faith and the priesthood of all believers. 

In Protestantism, anybody who leads people to Christ – a black slave, a little girl or an obscure Quaker farmer – can perform a priestly function.   

Protestant faith doesn’t mean just assent to a set of doctrines; it means a personal and continuing relationship with Christ, a real being.  But without faith, your good deeds are meaningless.  Salvation requires faith. 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, first and foremost, a story of religious faith and martyrdom.

Uncle Tom’s heroism consists of how the example of his faithfulness saved other characters from hellfire and damnation.  There are few people today for whom these concepts are meaningful on a gut level, and that is the main reason Uncle Town’s Cabin has gone out of favor.

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Diana Johnstone on the decline of Europe

October 28, 2022

CIRCLE IN THE DARKNESS: Memoir of a World-Watcher by Diana Johnstone (2020)

Diana Johnstone is an American journalist, a year or two older than me, who has spent most of her adult life reporting from Europe.

This memoir is a rich account of the past half-century of European history.  Its over-arching themes are the erosion of the sovereignty of European nations and of the European left as fighters for peace and defenders of working people.  Another is reality is rarely what the official sources say it is.

It also touches on her personal struggles and family life.  She decided at an early stage in her career to choose freedom to write as she saw things over middle-class security.

I won’t try to summarize her work, which touches on many important events, but I’ll mention a few highlights.

∞∞∞

>> Johnstone was not a supporter of the European Union.  It had been promoted as a way for European nations to unite and make Europe an independent power, setting standards for human rights, social welfare and the environment, which other nations would have to respect in order to engage with Europe or belong to it.

Maybe it was that way in the beginning, at least to a certain extent.  But she pointed out that the proposed European Constitution of 2005, if you read the fine print of its more than 500 pages., committed its signers to supporting neoliberal economics and the NATO alliance.

It the principal objective of the Union was “a highly competitive market economy,” with business competition “undistorted” by state policy.  Public services “of general economic interest” had to be open to competition, including international competition.

The Constitution specified a “common security and defense policy” in which”commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”  It also stressed the need to defend against “terrorist attacks.”

It was put to a public vote in France and the Netherlands and rejected both times.  It was revised in the form of the 2008 Lisbon Treaty, which was accepted by all the member governments except Ireland.  The Irish put it up to a referendum, which was rejected in 2008.

After some minor concessions, the Irish were called on to vote again, and on Dec. 1, 2009, the new treaty became law.  The principle is: Keep voting until you get it right.

I doubt if many of those who voted “yes” understood they were locking themselves into economic austerity and undeclared wars.

> Johnstone didn’t know what to make of the 1968 student uprising in Paris.  It was inspired by privileged students’ desire to overthrow restraints on personal behavior (“it is forbidden to forbid”) and not by any program for improving the welfare of society.

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The life and afterlife of Stepan Bandera

October 17, 2022

STEPAN BANDERA: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist – Fascism, Genocide and Cult by Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe (2014)

Stepan Bandera is the national hero of Ukraine.  He also was a fascist who collaborated with the Nazis..   

The founders of the Organization of Ukrainian nationalists, which Bandera led, was modeled on the Fascist and Nazi parties.  Bandera sought Hitler’s permission to set up a Ukrainian puppet fascist state during World War Two.  His followers conducted massacres of Jews and Poles.

I read this book in order to better understand why Ukrainians, who were marked by the Nazis for extermination and enslavement, could admire him.

Grzegorz Rossolinki-Liebe is a German-Polish historian affiliated with the Free University of Berlin.  His long and exhaustive book answers the question.

The short answer is that most Ukrainians don’t know, and don’t want to know, the truth about Bandera.  They see him as a patriot who bravely fought both Hitler and Stalin, did nothing against Jews and cared only for the welfare of his people.

Unfortunately, there also is a small but strong faction in Ukraine that admires Bandera for what he really was and wants to put his fascist ideas into practice.

This is has become a moot point, because Ukraine’s current plight does not originate from within Ukraine, but from the fact that Ukraine is a bone of contention between the USA and its allies on the one hand and Russia on the other.

What I did get from the book was a better understanding of the history central and eastern Europe, the widespread appeal of fascism and the nature of historical trauma.

   ∞∞∞ 

Rossolinki-Liebe spent many pages wrestling with the definition of fascism and the distinction between fascism and other right-wing authoritarian nationalist ideologies that flourished in the period between the two world wars. 

I need not dwell on this.  The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists was fascist under any definition of the term. 

It arose after World War One in the province of Galicia, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that became part of the newly-independent Polish Republic.

Poland was ruled by nationalists who tried to impose national unity by suppressing non-Polish cultures and the use of languages other than Polish.  The OUN was formed in struggle against the Polish, not the Soviet, government, although they also were anti-Russian and anti-Communist.

Ironically, Ukrainians suffered the kind of oppression Poles themselves had suffered under the Russia Empire, and the kind of oppression the Ukrainian government imposed on Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority after 2014.

Its founders admired Mussolini and Hitler and took the Italian Fascist and German Nazi movements as role models.  Like the followers of Mussolini and Hitler, the OUN believed in absolute loyalty to the nation, to the nationalist movement and to the leader of the movement.

OUN ideology combined ultranationalism with racism, mysticism, antisemitism, anticommunism, authoritarianism and a cult of war and violence. Its followers hated Poles and Russians as oppressor nations, and Jews as supposed agents of the oppressor.

But its leaders had a grudging respect for the methods, although not the goals, of Polish nationalists, Bolsheviks and Russian nihilists in 19th century Russia.  

Stepan Bandera was born in Galicia in 1909.  He was raised by a Ukrainian Eastern Rite Catholic priest who was dedicated to Ukrainian national independence.  Ukrainian nationalism was the young Bandera’s religion.  

He was brave, self-sacrificial, and uninterested in personal financial gain.  As a young student, he trained himself to endure pain by burning himself with matches and like means, so that he would not break under torture.  He joined the OUN in 1929 and rose rapidly in the ranks because of his zeal and organizational ability.

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Book note: Regeneration by Pat Barker

September 20, 2022

REGENERATION by Pat Barker (1991)

I picked up this novel by chance at a neighborhood free book exchange.  It is a fascinating story, mostly true.

It is about the real-life encounter during World War One between Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, an Army psychologist, and Siegfried Sassoon, a poet and war hero turned war protester.

Sassoon had written a protest letter against continuation of the war.  He was not a pacifist.  He believed that the war had become a war of aggression and conquest, and that its original aims could be achieved through negotiation.

The letter was published in the London Times and read in the House of Commons.  Sassoon faced court-martial, but his friend Robert Graves, a fellow officer and fellow poet, arranged for his commitment to Craiglockhart war hospital to save him.

At the hospital, Sassoon met and mentored the war poet Wilfred Owen, another real-life patient of Rivers.  

Craiglockhart was for the treatment of shell shock (now known at PTSD).  Dr. Rivers before the war had been an expert on psychosomatic illness.  

His method of treatment, innovative at the time, began with convincing the patient that every man, no matter how brave, has a breaking point and the PTSD was not evidence of cowardice.  Then he helped the patient understand the cause of the trauma and so break its hold.

This was similar to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis except that Rivers believed the fundamental repressed human drive was not sex, but self-preservation.  He perceived that the basic loyalty of most soldiers was not to king and country, but to their comrades on the battlefield. 

Rivers treated officers.  In the novel, he met the real-life character, Dr. Lewis Yealland, who treated enlisted men.  His method of treating PTSD was very different.  It consisted of subjecting the patient to a worse trauma than the trauma that caused the symptoms.  

Yealland put his patients into a locked room and subjected them to extremely powerful and painful electric shocks, which ceased only when, step by step, their symptoms went away.  He claimed to cure his patients with just one treatment and to have a 100 percent success rate.

Rivers was shaken by Yealland’s apparent effectiveness, but he couldn’t bring himself to torture his patients.

The main fictional characters are Billy Prior, an officer of working-class origins, and Sarah Lamb, a factory girl with whom he has a love affair.  Prior suffered from “mutism,” the inability to speak, which was commonly found among enlisted men but almost never among officers.

The moral problem for Rivers was that his mission as a healer was to restore men to mental health so they could return to the battlefield and get themselves killed.  The average life expectancy of a British officer on the front lines in France was three months.

Sassoon and Graves hated the war, but they deeply resented civilians, including pacifists.  All things considered, they preferred being at the front with their doomed comrades to being safe at home.

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1971 – the year the USA started going downhill

July 14, 2022


I’ve posted versions of the chart above several times before.  It shows how American wages once grew along with growth in productivity, and how, around 1971 or so, wage-earners stopped benefitting from being more productive.  This fact about the U.S. economy explains a lot.

I saw an Internet post yesterday consisting of charts showing how many more kinds of things changed for the worse in 1971.  Economic inequality, the cost of living, inflation-adjusted wages—all got worse.

There are too many for me to copy and re-post, but here is a sample.


What happened in 1971?  The only major event I can think of is the Nixon administration’s decision to go off the gold standard.  From then, the U.S. dollar was redeemable not for gold or some other precious metal, but for U.S. Treasury bonds – in other words, IOUs.

Economist Michael Hudson has written books about how this decision allowed financiers and bankers to flourish and the U.S. military to finance its wars while the U.S. manufacturing economy faded away and living standards declined.

As much as I respect Hudson, it’s hard for me to believe that this one thing could have caused changes in so many different things so quickly.  Maybe it’s a tipping point caused by a lot of different things coming together at once.

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Book note: Tolstoy’s War and Peace

June 29, 2022

WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy (1865-1869) translated by Almayer and Louise Maude (1923) edited and with an introduction by Henry Gifford (1983)

War and Peace is the best novel I have ever read.  Each time I read it, it seems new to me, and I notice things it it that I missed before.

It is the story of two very different friends, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezukhov, and the woman they both love, Natasha Rostov.  It is also a war novel, a historical novel and a comedy of manners, full of subplots, great descriptive writing and interesting, believable characters.

Andrei is the ideal Russian nobleman and military officer.  He is dashing, handsome, and rich, and occupies a high social rank.  He is a respected commander and staff officer, well able to cope with enemies on the battlefield and intrigues at headquarters.  Everything he does, he does competently.  His manners are impeccable, although some find him arrogant. 

His friend  Pierre is the opposite.  He is fat and clumsy, naive and foolish.  He is the bastard son of a nobleman, a marginal person in society until he unexpectedly inherits great wealth from his father, and then is taken advantage of by all.

What binds these two unlikely friends together?  Both question whether life has meaning.  Both want something deeper than the conventional values of society.  Andrei’s answer is to play the social game by its meaningless rules as best he can; Pierre’s is to search for meaning, in his blundering way, in freemasonry and other schools of thought.

The two friends differ in their opinions, and have interesting arguments.  Pierre is a would-be humanitarian reformer.  Andrei is a cynical conservative.

Both lack emotional intelligence.  Pierre is easily exploited, especially by his new, gold-digging wife, Helene.  Andrei is unable to form close relationships.  He enlists in the military partly to avoid his wife, who loves him deeply but whom Andrei cannot love in return.

Neither had a loving father and mother to set an example.  Pierre’s father apparently disowned him, until the very end; Andrei’s father was a harsh and distant widower, who didn’t like women.

Andrei does have a spiritual awakening of sorts when he is wounded in the Battle of Austerlitz and near death.  He comes to realize the futility of the quest for military glory, but otherwise is not permanently changed.

He spends years in isolation after the death of his wife in childbirth.  His capacity for affection is awakened by an encounter with the sweet, charming 16-year-old Natasha Rostov.

The Rostovs are everything that the Bolkonskys are not.  Natasha’s father is an irresponsible spendthrift; her mother is a foolish society lady.  But they are a loving couple, and their children, including brothers Nicholas and Petya, are affectionate and joyful, and have good values.

Andrei and Natasha are each fulfillments of the other’s ideal fantasy.  Andrei is a handsome, dashing prince; Natasha is a lovely, pure young maiden.  When they dance at a ball, they are smitten with each other, and soon decide to marry.

But the elder Bolkonsky intervenes.  He tells Andrei that he will give his consent to the marriage only if he and Natasha separate for a year and still want to marry at the end.

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The flags they fought for

May 30, 2022

Hat tip to Mary Fahl: Going Home on Abagond.

Memorial Day originally was a holiday in honor of soldiers who gave their lives fighting for the Union in the U.S. Civil War.  Some of the former Confederate states had their own separate Confederate Memorial Days.  Now Memorial Day honors all who gave their lives while serving in uniform.

The video consists of the opening credits of the Civil War movie “Gods and Generals.”  It shows the flags beneath which men (some of them only boys) on both sides fought and died.

Americans on the move (and not)

May 16, 2022

  Hat tip to Lambert Strether.

This is an interesting illustration of the diversity of American state histories and American origins.  In many states, the number of foreign-born was greater in the past than it is today.  But in most states, the majority of citizens were born in the state.  I don’t claim this proves anything in particular.

College tuition and the anti-radical backlash

May 5, 2022

Will Bunch, a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, links the high cost of college education today to the conservative backlash against the student protesters of the 1960s.  Here is his argument.

The 1944 G.I. Bill signed by Franklin Roosevelt included a free college benefit almost as an afterthought, since academic and political leaders thought that most returning troops wouldn’t be “college material,” in an era when only 5% of Americans earned bachelor’s degrees and a majority didn’t finish high school.  Instead, the mostly working-class G.I. Bill recipients stunned the nation both in their large numbers and their devotion to taking classes. It was the start of a virtuous cycle that flowed into the unprecedented prosperity of the 1950s and the booming birth rate. By 1960, the rate of American youth heading off to college had skyrocketed six-fold to 31%

Kent State shooting

Yet this new American ideal of college wasn’t just a numbers racket. In the mid-20th century, the nation had emerged from a Great Depression, two world wars, and the arrival of the atomic bomb.  Thought leaders wondered if the concept of liberal education — geared toward developing critical thinking and not just rote career training — could steer America away from fascism, communism, and nuclear war.

Young Americans in the 1950s and ‘60s embraced this idea. Enrollment in the humanities and social sciences soared. In one 1969 survey of freshmen, 82% said what mattered about college wasn’t career training but “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.”  But for America’s so-called Establishment, the problem was what CIA agents would later label “blowback.”  Young people trained to venerate democracy and employ critical thinking turned their focus to America’s own hypocrisy — its senseless militarism in Vietnam, and racial apartheid in the Deep South, among other issues.

Top officials seemed less worried about the uproar at elite campuses like Columbia and more concerned about radicalism at the massive state universities —Berkeley or New York State’s university at Buffalo — that had exploded with working-class kids taking advantage of low (or free) tuition. They also nervously eyed rising enrollment and protests at HBCUs like Mississippi’s Jackson State University, where cops would murder two Black students on May 15, 1970.

Kent State skyrocketed from 5,000 students in 1954 to 21,000 by 1966, many of them kids of factory workers whose idealism had been forged in the New Deal-era union activism. By 1970, students exhausted by watching their neighbors return from Vietnam in body bags gravitated toward radical groups like Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. The final trigger was then-President Nixon sending U.S. troops into Cambodia, which led to Kent State protesters burning down the ROTC building, which caused Ohio’s governor to call up the National Guard.

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Life and death in Ukraine under Nazi rule

April 26, 2022

HARVEST OF DESPAIR: Life and Death in Ukraine Under Nazi Rule by Karel C. Berkhoff (2004)

Ukraine was the scene of two of the most murderous episodes of 20th century history.

The first was the Holodomor, which was the systematic starvation of Ukrainian and other peasants by Joseph Stalin in 1929-1933 as part of the drive to collectivize agriculture, combined with the suppression of Ukrainian culture.  Nobody knows for sure how many people died as a result, but the consensus is that they numbered more than 3 million.  Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow documents this event in its full horror.

The second was the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in 1941-1944.  The Nazis’ immediate objective in Ukraine was to use it as a breadbasket to feed the German army and people.  Its long-range objective was to depopulate Ukraine, by means of starvation and killing, so as to open it up for German pioneer settlers, with only a remnant of the Ukrainian people left to serve as slaves of the occupiers.

That story is told in Karel C. Berkhoff’s Harvest of Despair,  a history of Reichskommissariat Ukraine, the short-lived colony the Nazis set up on Ukrainian soil.

Berkhoff’s best estimate is that one million civilians and prisoners of war were deliberately killed or starved to death by the Nazi occupiers of Ukraine.

The dead mainly included (1) Jews and Roma (gypsies), (2) prisoners of war, (3) urban populations the Nazis deemed useless and (4) people killed during the German retreat in 1944 as part of a scorched earth policy.

Of course these killings are a small part of what would have happened if Nazi rule had become permanent.

I had a notion that this book would provide an explanation of present-day Ukrainians’ admiration for the Nazi-like Stepan Bandera.  My idea was that Ukrainians’ hatred for Russians arose during the Holodomor and was the reason for their admiration for Bandera, a nationalist who thought he could use the Nazis to create an independent Ukrainian state.

Berkhoff’s book provides no support whatsoever for my notion.  He said the basic attitudes of Ukrainians, despite their great suffering, were unchanged during the period he wrote about.

Ukrainians were so demoralized by Soviet rule that most of them were incapable of organized resistance.  Stalin’s rule had created a culture of mistrust and denunciation.  Anybody could denounce anybody else for what they allegedly said or did.   You could not trust anyone outside your immediate family or your closest friends.  This universal suspicion continued under Nazi rule.

Ukrainians during this period did not hate Russians, but regarded them as fellow victims of Soviets and Nazis, Berkhoff wrote.  When they spoke of “our people,” they meant both Ukrainians and Russians.

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Book note: A journey around Russia

April 13, 2022

THE BORDER: A JOURNEY AROUND RUSSIA through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway and the Northeast Passage by Erika Fatland (2017) translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson (2020)

Russia is the largest country in the world, and has the largest border.  The circumference of Russia is half again as large as the circumference of the globe itself.

A young Norwegian woman named Erika Fatland circumnavigated Russia, which is no small feat, and wrote this book about it.

She visited every country on Russia’s southern and western borders. She saw the sights in each country, talked to some of the locals and brushed up on the history of its relations with Russia.  

Every one except Norway bore the scars of having been attacked or occupied by Russia at some point in its history, most of them in the 20th century.

The implication is that there is something about Russians that makes them a standing threat to their neighbors, no matter whether they are ruled by Tzars, Communists or Vladimir Putin.

I don’t agree with this framing.  Russia itself has been attacked and invaded many times.  And, like the 18th century conservative Edmund Burke, I know not the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people.  

Even so, I found the book worth reading.  I learned interesting things from it.  I thank my friend Judith Judson for recommending it.

 It is too big to summarize.  I’ll hit some high points.

Fatland’s first stop was North Korea, whose existence is a reminder that totalitarianism is real.  People there have less freedom than an American or Briton in prison, yet they think they are free.  They are poor and backward, yet they think they live in the most advanced nation in the world.  

Or so they said.  But maybe the system of surveillance is so complete that many or most North Koreans inwardly have doubts, but don’t dare to say so.  The result is the same.

Back in the 1950s, many of us liberals feared that totalitarian governments could come to dominate the world and establish a complete system of thought control.  North Korea shows that danger wasn’t altogether imaginary.

I found Fatland’s account of Mongolia was the most interesting section of the book.  Mongolia adopted Tibetan Buddhism in 1586 and their spiritual leaders came from Tibet.  But the prediction is the next Mongolian lama will be incarnated in Mongolia.   Fatland heard a Mongolian throat singer, who’d mastered the art of singing in two tones.  

She interviewed reindeer herders in Tuva, the remotest part of this remote country.  She talked to “ninja miners,” individuals who prospect for gold and other minerals in this mineral-rich country.

Kazakhstan is a prime example of Soviet and Russian imperialism.  Along with the other Central Asian nations, its government is a continuation of the Soviet government and it is under the thumb of Russia.  An uprising a few months ago was quashed with the help of Russian troops.

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What is Russian exceptionalism?

April 6, 2022

LOST KINGDOM: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation from 1470 to the Present by Serhii Plokhy (2017)

Serhii Plokhy is professor of Ukrainian history and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.  His book,  Lost Kingdom, is about Russian exceptionalism—that is, Russia’s historic claim to lead and rule the eastern Slavic peoples and the pushback from Ukrainians and Belarusians.  

Kievan Rus’

It is an important and complicated story—full of ironies, zigzags and contradictions, and historical turning points that could have turned out differently from what they did.  It provides interesting background to the current war in Ukraine, although I do not think it is the final word on that topic.

Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all trace their origins to the culture Kievan Rus’ and the conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Christianity in 987.  The Kievan Rus’ lands stretched from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Finland and were regarded as a unity.  But most of them were overrun by the Mongol-Tatar Golden Horde in 1237-1239.  

The book’s story begins when Prince Ivan III of Muscovy, a vassal of the Golden Horde, married Sophia Palaiologos, a princess of the Byzantine Empire, which  had fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.  

Ivan claimed his marriage made Muscovy “the Third Rome,” the successor of the Byzantine and Roman empires.  This was bold talk for the ruler of a relatively small principality.   

Europe in 1470.

Muscovy expanded, step by step, although with a lot of back and forth struggle.  Its rulers adopted the title of Tsar, which is Russian for Caesar.  Muscovy conquered the independent Republic of Novgorod and warred against Tartars, Ottomans and the great and powerful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  

On the vast Eurasian plain, there were few obstacles to conquest, but also few barriers against invasion.  A Polish army occupied Moscow in 1610-1612 and a Swedish army occupied Ukraine in 1706.   Later on a French army reached Moscow in 1812, and German armies occupied Ukraine in 1918 and 1941.  It’s easy to understand why questions of allegiance and national unity were life-and-death issue.

Plokhy wrote that from earliest days, there was a recognized difference between the Great Russians, Little Russians (Ukrainians) and White Russians (Belarusians).  I recall that the Tsars claimed to be rulers of “all the Russias”—implying that there was more than one.

One turning point was the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796).  She was of German origin, and came to the throne after the murder of his husband, so her legitimacy was questionable.  Although she toyed with the ideas of the European Enlightenment, she doubled down on promoting Great Russian national identity and Eastern Orthodox religion.  

She joined the rulers of Austria and Prussia in partitioning Russia’s old enemy, Poland.  Russia got more than half of Poland, including its capital, Warsaw.  

In the ensuring years, the Polish nobility, remembering their former power and greatness, resisted Russian rule as best they could, while the Russian government tried to Russianize the Poles.

The Russian government began to look on Ukrainian language and culture in a new way, as a possible source of Polish-like nationalism.  This wasn’t altogether wrong.  

As with other subjugated and divided peoples in 19th century Europe, Ukrainian intellectuals began to study their cultural and national roots and think about independence and unification.    Academic studies of linguistics and ethnography in one generation became nationalistic intellectual weapons in later decades.  I think this was the real origin of Ukrainian and Belarusian nationalism.

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What is Ukraine?

March 30, 2022

FRONTLINE UKRAINE: Crisis in the Borderlands by Richard Sakwa (2015, 2016)

The Ukrainian flag consists of a field of blue, symbolizing the sky, above a field of yellow, symbolizing a field of wheat.

To Richard Sakwa, a scholar specializing in Russian and European politics, the flag also symbolizes the two schools of Ukrainian nationalism.

The blue sky symbolizes a unified blood-and-soil nationalism, the idea that Ukraine belongs only to those of Ukrainian lineage who speak the Ukrainian language, and everybody else is a lesser citizen or a foreigner.

The yellow field of wheat symbolizes a pluralistic nationalism, one that respects the cultures of all the peoples who live in Ukraine, not just Ukrainians and Russians, but Poles, Jews, Tatars and other minorities.

In Frontline Ukraine, Sakwa traced the history of Ukraine from 1991, when Ukraine become an independent nation, to 2014, when anationalistic anti-Russian government took power, and Ukraine was set on its present course of irreconcilable conflict with Russia and its own Russian-speaking minority.

Europe 2014. Click to enlarge.

He said Ukraine’s problems are due to a shift from the yellow to the blue.  I think this is true as far as it goes.  But Ukraine’s problems are not all of its own making.

One is that Ukraine’s boundaries were not determined by Ukrainians.  They were drawn by Joseph Stalin, and were created with the intention of making trouble down the line.

When the Soviet Union was formed, V.I. Lenin promised the Russian Empire’s former subject peoples that they could have self-government.  Stalin was given the job of drawing the boundaries of the new Soviet republics.

As someone pointed out to me, these boundaries were drawn so that each of the republics would have a large minority group and so would lack national unity.  The result has been frozen conflicts and ethnic clashes all across the former Soviet Union.  In many cases, they invited—or provided an excuse for—Russian intervention.  

Ukraine was part of this pattern.  Its eastern boundary was set so as to include many ethnic Russians.  Then, following the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, Polish and Rumanian territories were added to Ukraine in the west, 

However, Stalin was careful to keep Crimea, with its important naval base and Russian-majority population, as part of the Russian Soviet republic.  It didn’t become part of Ukraine until 1954, by decision of Nikita Khrushchev, an ethnic Ukrainian.

But the real explanation for the intensity of Ukrainian anti-Russian nationalism lies in what Ukrainians call the Holodomor, the deliberate killing of millions of Ukrainians by Stalin’s government in 1929-1933  This was twofold: an attack on independent peasants, who were the majority of the population of Ukraine, and a specific attack on Ukrainian culture and nationality.

 Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow tells the story of the Holodomor.  It makes extremely painful reading.  The consequence was that some Ukrainian nationalists saw the Nazi invaders as a lesser evil than the Soviets.  Their legacy continues to this day.

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Ideals and realities in the Ukraine crisis

March 7, 2022

When World War One began, most people in Great Britain thought that the sold cause of the war was German aggression.  We Americans had to be propagandized a good bit before we came around to that view.

The reality was more complicated.  Some of other causes were the French desire to avenge their previous defeat, Russian intrigue in the Balkans and the Anglo-German naval rivalry.

But after Germany attacked France and Belgium, the question of war guilt didn’t really matter.  The questions become: (1) What would happen if Germany dominated Europe?  (2) What price are we wiling to pay to prevent this?

The answers to these questions are not obvious.  Few in England in 1914 would have accepted a 1920s Europe dominated by the German Empire.  But this would have meant a future without Hitler’s Germany and possibility without Stalin’s USSR.

In today’s Europe, the questions are: (1) What would be the consequences of Putin’s Russia becoming the dominant power in Eastern Europe? (2) What price are we willing to pay to prevent this?

The answers to those questions are not obvious.  It’s early days yet.  It’s important to consider these things dispassionately before the winds of war blow away all possibility of rational discussion.

I of course disapprove of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  I disapprove of a lot of things.  But, in the present situation, I think an imperfect peace that both sides could live with would be better than a long mutually destructive war that would leave one or both sides in ruin.. 

LINK

It’s time to ask: What would a Ukraine-Russian peace deal look like? by Anatol Leiven for The Guardian.

Why are Nazis acceptable in Ukraine?

March 4, 2022

Azov Battaltion insignia and Nazi symbols

One of Vladimir Putin’s demands is that Ukraine “de-Nazify.”

These days the word “Nazi” is often a general purpose insult with no specific meaning. except “very, very evil.” But there are Nazis in Ukraine, and they are the real thing.

I don’t want to exaggerate.  

Ukrainian neo-Nazis are few in number. Most estimates put hardo-core Nazis at less than 2 percent of the population.  The extreme nationalist Svoboda and Right Sector parties each received less than 2 percent of the vote in recent presidential elections.  

Volodymyr Zelensky, the current President of Ukraine, is Jewish, and he received more than 72 percent of the vote.  Most of the rest went to the incumbent.

On the other hand the neo-Nazi parties are part of the Ukraine’s governing coalition.  The Azov Battalion, whose members are openly neo-Nazi, is an important part of Ukraine’s fighting force.  The “Overton window”—the range of ideas that are acceptable to discuss—includes neo-Nazis.

To understand how this can be, you have to know about the Holodomor, also known as the Terror-Famine or Great Famine, imposed by Joseph Stalin on Ukraine from 1929 to 1933.  

It was one of the 20th century’s greatest crimes against humanity.  A United Nations report estimates it cost the lives of 3 million to 10 million Ukrainians.  It is officially recognized as genocide by Ukraine and 16  other countries.

Joseph Stalin forced millions in Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union to starve to death in order to force the peasants into collective farms and gain control of the food supply.  He also suppressed Ukrainian cultural institutions.

Most historians interpret this as the Soviet Communist Party preemptively destroying all potential sources of resistance to the regime, including farmers who owned their land and individuals loyal to non-Russian cultures.

But there are those who see the Holodomor as an attempt by “the Russians” to destroy the Ukrainian race.  I’ve come across this meme serval times over the years while doing Internet research.  And I’ve also come across the meme that it was an attempt by “the Jews” to destroy the Ukrainian race.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s first look at the Ukraine terror-famine in all its horror.

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Once Vladimir Putin was ‘our bastard’

March 1, 2022

Vladimir Putin, second from left, in 1999 as President Boris Yeltsin, right, left office. Source: Consortium News.

Franklin Roosevelt is said to have once remarked that Cuba’s dictator Fulgencio Bastista or the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo “may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

Matt Taibbi was in Russia during Putin’s rise to power. He wrote a great post about how Vladimir Putin was once regarded as “our bastard,” but then he became his own bastard.

Once, Putin’s KGB past, far from being seen as a negative, was viewed with relief by the American diplomatic community, which had been exhausted by the organizational incompetence of our vodka-soaked first partner, Boris Yeltsin.  Putin by contrast was “a man with whom we could do business,” a “liberal, humane, and decent European” of “alert, controlled poise” and “well-briefed acuity,” who was open to anything, even Russia joining NATO.  “I don’t see why not,” Putin said. “I would not rule out such a possibility.” [snip]

Putin didn’t start out as a revanchist.  He rose as a member of Our Team, a thief of his own accord but also a bagman to fake, wealth-extracting “democrats.” This began with [St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly] Sobchak, the man the Washington Post mourned as a “reformist” and “intellectual” upon his 1996 loss.  

Westerners fawned over the former university professor like he was Vaclav Havel, beaming over his impassioned speeches denouncing the Soviet system, endlessly flattering his Jeffersonian contributions to Russian democracy (he is said to have been the primary author of the Russian Federation’s first constitution).  

Sobchak however ended up acquiring a reputation as an autocrat and was dogged by accusations that he’d privatized apartments into the hands of friends and relatives.  [snip]

It is true that Sobchak had powerful political enemies, and how trumped up or not some of these charges were remains in dispute. What’s not in dispute is that Putin’s aid in helping Sobchak escape prosecution proved to be his big break, as Boris Yeltsin somewhat incredibly admitted in the last of his “autobiographies,” Midnight Diaries.  As the New York Times later put it, “Mr. Putin’s star rose in Mr. Yeltsin’s eyes… because he was willing to circumvent the law when his mentor, the former St. Petersburg mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, was under criminal investigation.”

Taibbi went on to tell how Putin was designated Boris Yeltsin’s successor in return for helping Yeltsin get out of Russia with his ill-gotten gains, and how he stayed in power through rigged elections and the support of Russian oligarchs.  All this while he had the strong support of the U.S. government.

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Is this 1914 all over again?

February 28, 2022

[Updated 2022/3/1]

As I look around, I’m surprised at how everyone in the West seems almost to welcome war with Russia.  And I assume the feeling is much the same in Russia, although, unlike in the West, there have been peace protests, which have ruthlessly been put down.

Those of us distant from the battlefield don’t expect to fight ourselves.  But economic war, covert war and propaganda war are real forms of war, and we will pay a price for submitting to them.  It means we will be expected to accept austerity, authoritarianism and lies.

What surprises me is how eager some of our European allies have been to jump into the fray.  Don’t they realize the economic war will hurt them much more than it does Russia or us Americans?

It reminds me of what I read about the outbreak of the First World War.  Almost everyone thought it would end quickly.  Many thought it would be a glorious adventure.

In the years prior to World War One, just as at present, it had been a long time since there was a major war in Europe.   I think there are many leading frustrating lives who think war is a force that gives life meaning.

Both wars began with a large country (Austria, Russia) attacking a troublesome small neighboring country (Serbia, Ukraine) with a powerful sponsor (Russia, USA) in order to settle a problem for once and for all.  

They also began with the leaders of one country (Germany, Russia) feeling that they were being encircled, and had to fight to break out, and the leaders of the most powerful country (UK, USA) feeling their power was being threatened.

If the leaders had known what they were in for, they’d have found a way to compromise.  But once war began, compromise became impossible.  Too much had been sacrificed to settle for anything less than victory.

I don’t want to push the comparison too far.  To reverse something Mark Twain may have said, history rhymes, but it doesn’t repeat.

If we in the USA and UK are lucky, the actual fighting will be confined to what historian Timothy Snyder called the Bloodlands—Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Russia and the other killing fields of the 1930s and 1940s.  

But our economy, our government and our fundamental rights will be subordinated to the priority of winning the war.  And not just us Americans.   All the countries who are drawn into this war will be losers, including the nominal winners.

Our leaders in the USA will have an excuse to ignore the need to rebuild our manufacturing industry, to fix our dysfunctional government, to deal with the coming climate catastrophes, and we’ll take it.  National bankruptcy will be one of the bad possibilities.  Civilization-ending nuclear war is the worst.

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Incapable of making either war or peace?

February 22, 2022

A nation or individual should be capable of fighting if they must and making peace when they can.

The U.S. governing class, at this point in our history, seems incapable of doing either.

NATO & Russia 2017

The NATO alliance was formed to defend the western European nations against a possible Soviet invasion. Each member pledged to come to the aid of any other member that was attacked.

At the height of NATO’s power, there were hundreds of thousands of Americans stationed in Europe who were trained and prepared to fight the Red Army, if necessary.

The United States in the Cold War era was prepared for war, but also capable of negotiating the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which reduced the possibility of nuclear war between the great powers.

During the past 20 years, the U.S. government has grown increasingly belligerent toward Russia.  It canceled the ABM and IRNF treaties.  At the same time it has reduced its war-fighting capabilities in Europe, and we the American people have grown weary of military interventions.

After the 9/11 attacks, NATO allies, including France, sent troops to fight in Afghanistan in fulfillment of the self-defense pledge.  France did not follow the U.S. into Iraq, but some allies did.  Since then NATO allies have been less and less willing to support U.S. wars of choice.

So here we are.  Our government is unwilling to negotiate in any meaningful way with President Putin, but also unwilling to fight, except at arms length, through economic sanctions and shipments of arms.

I don’t justify everything the U.S. government did in the Cold War era.  That’s a topic for another time.  And I’m not a war hawk.  Far from it.  But there was a time when we Americans were capable of waging war, and also capable of negotiating treaties and abiding by them, and this is no longer so.

There are two ways of inviting trouble.  One is being too weak to defend yourself.  The other is going around starting fights.  I think we Americans would be willing and able to defend our homeland, but I don’t think the U.S. is capable of forcing our new “rules-based international order” on the world and I for one do not support it.

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Does Abraham Lincoln still deserve his pedestal?

February 14, 2022

Abraham Lincoln statue in Portland, Oregon, on Oct. 11, 2020

THE FIERY TRIAL: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner (2010)

WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates (1977)

When Abraham Lincoln was murdered by a fanatical pro-slavery diehard, the nation went into mourning.  His funeral train took 12 days to travel through seven states to his burial ground in Springfield, Illinois.  

An estimated 1.5 million viewed Lincoln’s body and 9 million watched the train or his hearse.  An estimated 25 million attended funeral services for him.  They were rich and poor, black and white, native-born and foreign-born.

A consensus arose, shared by almost everyone for 150 years,  that Lincoln was the greatest American, because his statesmanship preserved the Union from breakup and brought about the emancipation of American slaves.

But that consensus has been challenged.  Some now say Lincoln was nothing but a garden-variety racist and politician who only acted out of expediency.  Protestors have toppled at least one of his statues, and there have been demands for removal of others.

In order to reassess Lincoln’s legacy, I read these two biographies.  I was reminded that he was a man of an earlier era and not of ours.  Battle lines in his time were drawn differently.  I don’t think he would have known what to make of today’s controversies about race.

The slavery question bedeviled the USA from the earliest days.  The Republic of Vermont abolished slavery in 1777, which was the first abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere.  By 1804, all the states north of the Mason-Dixon Line and the Ohio River had abolished slavery.

But outside New England, abolition of slavery did not mean equal rights for black people.  Abolition did not necessarily give black people the right to vote, much less the right to equal treatment.

The motive in abolishing slavery was not predominantly humanitarian.  The great fear of white working people in the Northern states was having to compete with slave labor.

Slaveowners in the South had two great fears.  One was of abolition propaganda, which they feared could spark a slave revolt.  The other was that economic progress and growth in the North could reduce the South to a powerless minority.

Both fears had a basis in reality.  The North outpaced the South in every measure, including economic growth, population growth, education, infrastructure, the material standard of living and opportunity to rise in the social scale.  The poorest white people in the USA were in the areas where slavery was most predominant.  White people in those areas are still the poorest white Americans.  So all other things being equal, the slave states would be eventually left behind.

The South’s aim was to acquire new slave territory and bring new slave states into the Union.  This was partly because plantation agriculture as it was practiced then destroyed the fertility of the soil, and there was a continual need for new land.  New territory also was needed to preserve the balance of power of slave states vs. free states in the Senate.

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World context of U.S. slavery, in maps

February 11, 2022

African slavery was a shameful part of American history.  The purpose of these maps is not to excuse slavery or deny its importance, but to provide context for understanding it.

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, slavery was legal in every transatlantic European colony in the New World from Quebec to Argentina.   Slavery was the most intense in the sugar and coffee plantations of Brazil, the sugar plantations of the West Indies and the tobacco plantations of British North America.

African Slave Trade, 1400-1900.  Source: Wikipedia.

The first abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere was by the Republic of Vermont, in 1777.   By 1804, slavery had been abolished throughout the northern United States—New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the territory of the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan—and still existed everywhere else.

In some states, though, abolition was gradual and did not take full effect until decades later.  Also, emancipated slaves were seldom granted full civil rights.

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Alessandro Manzoni’s classic Italian novel

January 29, 2022

THE BETROTHED by Alessandro Manzoni (1827) translated by Bruce Penman (1972)

Recently I got around to reading an old paperback copy of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed.  I picked it up years ago because I read somewhere that it is a classic greatly beloved by Italians—much as The Pickwick Papers is beloved by the English and The Three Musketeers by the French.

The setting is northern Italy, around the end of the 16th century.  It is about the misadventures of Renzo, a good-hearted but foolish young workman, and his sweetheart, Lucia.  

I enjoyed it.  The author was a good storyteller and also a witty observer of the foibles of human nature.  

I also liked it because it gave me a glimpse of another time and place.  This helps remind me that today’s crises are not uniquely bad and that the way I and my friends see the world is not the peak of human wisdom.

Renzo and Lucia are eager to marry, but the local parish priest, Don Abbondio, keeps putting them off because he is afraid of the wicked local nobleman, Don Rodrigo, who has designs on Lucia.  

The two sweethearts flee, with the help of another Catholic clergyman, the Capuchin monk Father Cristoforo.  The two become separated, and Lucia takes refuge in the convent of the notorious Nun of Monza.

The Nun of Monza was a real person.  She was a member of an aristocratic family, pressured to take vows as a nun, more or less against her will, for dynastic and inheritance reasons.  

As a nun,  she lived a life of luxury and self-indulgence.  She look a lover, gave birth to a stillborn child and murdered a nun who threatened to tell about it.  But, in the novel, she takes a liking to Lucia.

Then Lucia falls into the clutches of an even more powerful and evil nobleman, the Unnamed.  He supposedly was so terrifying and ferocious that nobody, in his lifetime or after, dared refer to him by his real name—something like Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. He also was a real person, although his name, Francesco Bernadino Visconti, is known to history.

Renzo meanwhile finds himself in Milan, where riots are going on because of a shortage of bread.  Manzoni observes that the authorities think they can increase the supply of bread by holding down the price, while the street mob’s solution is to burn down bakeries.

Our hero shoots off his mouth, and a police spy decides to finger him as the ringleader of the riots.

Renzo is arrested, but gets away.  Lucia is freed because of the intervention of the saintly Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Frederigo Borromeo.  He, too, was a real person, the first cousin of St. Charles Borromeo.

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Reasons for not losing hope

January 14, 2022

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

I am not an optimist. I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends toward justice. It bends toward entropy.  I often feel discouraged about the state of the world, and my own country, the USA, in particular, and I think I have good reason.

But I haven’t lost hope.  Optimism is the belief that success is inevitable in the long run.  Hope is the faith that failure is not inevitable.

What gives me hope is recalling all the things in the past that turned out better than I thought they would. This means it is possible that things in the present may turn out better than I think they would.  Not inevitable.  Possible.

Some examples of what I have in mind are:

  • The eclipse of racism.
  • The eclipse of famine
  • A healthier world
  • Doomsday deferred

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The eclipse of racism.  I grew up in the USA of the 1940s.  This was a time when, throughout the former Confederate states, a white person could kill a black person with impunity.  Lynchings of black people were still a thing.  My parents, teachers and Sunday school teachers taught me that racism was wrong, but those who spoke against it were in the minority.

The heart of racism seemed to be the loathing and disgust felt by most white Americans, especially Southern white men, at the idea of a black man having sexual intercourse with a white women.  I wish I had a dollar for every time I was asked whether I would want one of them to marry my sister—often by people who knew me well enough to know that I didn’t have a sister.

It seemed to me, and to others, that the struggle for racial equality would take decades, and that acceptance of racial intermarriage might never occur at all.  But this proved wrong.  The civil rights revolution of the 1960s really was a revolution, a cultural revolution.  By the 1970s, black students at the University of Mississippi walked around arm-in-arm with their white girlfriends, and nobody said anything about it.

That’s not so say the civil rights revolution solved everything.  Racial prejudice still exists.  The old-time white-sheet racists have been marginalized, but they haven’t gone away.  The black community still has a lot of problems, not all of them directly related to racism.  And I happen to think that a lot of what’s called anti-racism nowadays is useless and even harmful.

Still, it is a mark of progress that we Americans are debating reparations and affirmative action rather than voting rights, racial segregation laws and lynchings.

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The eclipse of famine.   As a boy and youth, I was influenced by books such as William Vogt’s Road to Survival (1948)and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968).  They said most of the world was doomed to death by starvation because the number of people in the world (over 2 billion in 1948, 3.55 billion in 1968) exceeded the carrying capacity of the land.  I took this very seriously.

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The Christmas truce of World War One

December 24, 2021

The Story of the WWI Christmas Truce by Mike Dash for Smithsonian magazine.

Book note: The Good Lord Bird

November 20, 2021

Mural of John Brown by J.C. Curry in Kansas State Capitol

THE GOOD LORD BIRD by James McBride (2013)

The Good Lord Bird is the story of the abolitionist John Brown as it might have been written by Mark Twain, if Mark Twain had been black.  I happened to pick it up at a neighborhood free book exchange.

One of Brown’s beliefs is that the ivory-billed woodpecker, the “Good Lord bird,” is sent by God with the mission to destroy dead and rotten trees so the good trees can grow. This is a symbol of his own mission. 

The narrator is Henry Shackleford,  a young black boy growing up in the Kansas territory during the guerrilla war of the late 1850s to determine whether Kansas will enter the union as a free or a slave state.

He is a more-or-less contented slave until he is “liberated” after a shoot-out by John Brown and his sons, who adopt him as a kind of mascot and good luck charm.  Brown has the idea that Henry is a girl, because he was clothed in a gunny-sack that looks like a dress, and he plays along. 

Henry is like Huck Finn.  He is naive and ignorant of politics and religion, not to mention grammar, but a shrewd judge of human nature and human pretensions.  

The language and way of speaking McBride gives him is highly entertaining and full of what you might call black humor.

 Henry shares the hardships of Brown’s band and learns about all their eccentricities.  All his efforts to save his own skin are interpreted by Brown as heroism.

At one point he is separated from the band, is enslaved again and winds up as a servant in a Missouri whorehouse, where he is more or less content, until he is liberated again by Brown’s men.

The last half of the book is devoted to the planning and execution of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, an apparent failure, but the spark that set off the Civil War.  We see Brown as erratic, often foolish, but with an indomitable will and energy that prevails over setbacks, hardship and danger, and a charisma that binds his followers to him in spire of everything. 

We get Henry’s view of historic figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.  

Tubman is depicted as a majestic figure, but Douglass as a speechifier who is unwilling to give up his good life in Rochester, N.Y., with his black wife and white mistress.

That’s harsh. I wouldn’t condemn Douglass for holding back from joining what is obviously a suicide mission.

The Harper’s Ferry raid is shown as a true tragedy. We see how bad decisions of Brown and his lieutenants lead to mistake after mistake, depriving them of what little chance they had of accomplishing their plan to ignite a slave rebellion.  There is a final, fatal mistake that is Henry’s fault.

But ultimately Brown was successful. The raid precipitated the American Civil War, which brought about the end of slavery and, in the course of time, full political rights for African-Americans.

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