Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Albion’s seed in the South

July 20, 2017

The Cavalier settlers of tidewater Virginia were noted for their strong sense of rank—much more so than the Puritans, Quakers or Apppalachian borderers.   That is a heritage that continues today.

Rank in the old army sense of “rank has its privileges”.   Rank in the sense of expecting men to take off their hats and women to curtsey in your presence.   Rank based not just on wealth and power, but on hereditary privilege.

This was idea behind the 17th and 18th century English class system, based on the idea of the “great chain of being.”  God was at the top, then the King who ruled by divine right, then the different ranks of aristocrats, yeomen and tenants.

David Hackett Fischer wrote in Albion’s Seed that the early Virginia settlers, of all the North American colonists, were the strongest royalists and the most committed to aristocratic privilege.

The Quakers at the other extreme were persecuted because they refused to recognize  rank.   They refused to call people “mister” or “your excellency” or anything but “friend.”

The Appalachian borderers talked to each other as if they were equals, but they respected wealth and power men who were strong enough to acquire it and hold on to it.

The Puritans abbreviated the English order of rank.   They didn’t have hereditary aristocrats, and they didn’t allow any members of their communities to sink into absolute poverty.  But the “meaner sort” were expected to take off their hats and show deference to the “better sort.”

But the Virginia Cavaliers, whose families warred with the Puritans back in Britain, imported the English rank system in all its glory.    Fischer said the Virginians believed in what he called “hegemonic freedom.”   The idea is that you are free to the extent that you have power over other people and nobody has power over you.

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Albion’s seed in New England

July 17, 2017

The Puritan colony in Massachusetts Bay was a much more thoroughgoing theocracy than modern-day Iran.

The Puritan leaders not only banned all religious worship except their narrow version of Calvinism.   They screened newcomers for religious orthodoxy.   Sunday religious worship was compulsory.   They might jail or fine you for such offenses as wasting time.

It’s true, as David Hackett Fischer pointed out in Albion’s Seed, that established churches and religious persecution were the norm in 17th century Europe and its colonies.

Virginia and the other southern colonies, like New England, had tax-supported established churches.  The settlers on the Appalachian frontier settlers did not hold with established churches, but they were quick to drive out any clergy whose preaching didn’t meet with their approval.   Only the Quakers of the Delaware Valley embraced the radical idea of tolerating religious teachings they thought to be in error.

But the Puritan religion was exceptionally narrow, austere and joyless.   It was about human sinfulness, the threat of hell, policing each others’ behavior and listening to hours-long sermons on hard benches in unheated churches.   The Anglican religion of tidewater Virginia, in contrast, involved a rich liturgy, 20-minute sermons and many feast days.

The flowering of New England culture was the result of a revolt against this Calvinist orthodoxy at the dawn of the 19th century.

Transcendentalists rejected original sin, and taught that we all have a divine spark within us.  In that respect, their theology was more like the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light than it was like the old-time Calvinism.

Humanitarian reformers sought to bring about the Kingdom of God by championing the cause of the blind, the deaf, the mentally ill, the American Indian and the black slave.   There, too, New England Congregationalists and Unitarians followed in the footsteps of Quakers.

The things the Yankee reformers retained from Puritanism were moral and intellectual seriousness, belief in education and self-government, and commitment to collective action.

One of the first fruits of the flowering of New England was the emergence of the Republican Party, which was formed to oppose the spread of slavery.   Almost all the famous New England writers and reformers were Republicans.

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How four of Albion’s seeds sprouted in America

July 17, 2017

A New Englander once told me about traveling in the South, and stopping at a convenience store to ask for directions.  Even though there was a long line of people waiting to be served, the clerk came out from behind the counter and did everything she could to make sure the traveler was properly oriented.

The waiting customers did not resent this.  Instead they joined in and tried to assist the clerk.   A New England clerk would not have done this, my acquaintance said.  It is not that the New Englander would have been less concerned.  It is just that a Southerner would regard hospitality to a stranger as the first obligation, and a New Englander, equally kind, would have made sure that customers were served.

We Americans are very conscious of our regional differences.  I wonder if they’re apparent to foreigners.

We have sayings, such as: If you introduce yourself to New Englanders, they’ll ask where you went to school; to New Yorkers, they’ll ask what you do for a living; to Southerners, they’ll ask what church you attend; to Minnesotans, they’ll not ask personal questions of a stranger because that’s impolite.

Recently my friend Janus Mary Jones lent me a copy of ALBION’S SEED: Four Regional English Folkways in America, a fascinating 1986 book by a historian named David Hackett Fischer, which attempts to explain American regional differences in terms of colonial origins.

Fischer made the bold claim that the seeds of present-day American culture were planted by four relatively small groups of migrants from different regions of England at certain periods of history, and that American history is largely the flowering of these seeds.

The four groups of migrants were:

  • 21,000 Puritans who left East Anglia for Massachusetts Bay in 1621-1640.
  • 45,000 Cavaliers and their servants who left southern and western England for tidewater Virginia in 1642-1675.
  • 23,000 Quakers who left the English Midlands, along with German Pietist allies, for the Delaware Valley in 1675-1713.
  • 250,000 borderers who left northern England, the Scottish lowlands and northern Ireland for the Appalachia backcountry in 1717-1773,

Although few in number originally, these colonists multiplied and spread, Fischer wrote, and they established the cultural frameworks to which later migrants had to adapt.

These cultures were very different from each other and also very stereotypical, Fischer wrote.   The Puritans were very puritanical, the Cavaliers were very haughty and aristocratic, the Quakers were very plain and peaceful and the Appalachian borderers were very rebellious and violent.   None of these qualities originated in North America.  They all had roots in their British places of origin.

A blogger named Scott Alexander has written an informative and readable revew describing these four cultures.  Rather than try to summarize, excerpt or improve on what Alexander wrote, I will just link to his post.

I think the impact of these four original settlements was important, but I don’t want to exaggerate.   Present-day Americans have more in common with each other than we do with 17th and 18th century Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers or Appalachian backwoodsmen.

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Declaration of Independence is still revolutionary

July 7, 2017

National Public Radio has a long-standing custom of broadcasting the Declaration of Independence every Fourth of July.

This year NPR sent out the Declaration of Independence on Twitter, and was accused of sending out radical propaganda.   They thought the Declaration referred to President Trump, not King George III.

It goes to show that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are like the Bible. More people say they believe in them than actually reading them.

I can remember newspapers years ago doing man-in-the-street interviews about excerpts from the Declaration or the Bill of Rights, and showing how many average Americans regarded their country’s founding ideals as dangerous and radical.

Actually, this country’s founding ideals are dangerous and radical, but in a good way.

LINK

Some Trump supporters thought NPR tweeted ‘propaganda’ | It was the Declaration of Independence by Amy B. Wang for The Washington Post.

Your country is your country – like it or not

July 4, 2017

The world is my country, all mankind my brethren and to do good is my religion.
          ==Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, born an Englishman, was an early advocate of American independence and a morale officer for George Washington’s Continental Army.

Later he traveled to France and became an advocate for the French revolutionaries, returning in old age to the new nation of the United States of America.  He said he considered himself to be a citizen of the world, but of no particular country.

A number of posters on one of my favorite Internet sites, as well as a couple of my acquaintances, aspire to be like Thomas Paine.

Although born American citizens, they disavow allegiance to the United States, which they see as a nation founded on slavery of African-Americans, ethnic cleansing of native Americans and enfranchisement of white Anglo-Saxon property-owning males.

None of them, so far as I know, make any actual effort to shed the legal privileges and responsibilities that go with American citizenship.  The question is whether shedding nationality is even possible.

European acquaintances, and friends who’ve spent time in Europe, tell me that Americans are instantly recognizable wherever we may be—by our gait, our body language, the way we speak English and our basic attitudes toward life.   These are not things that are so easy to get rid of!

The black writer James Baldwin traveled to France in the late 1940s and early 1950s to seek refuge from American racism.   What he came to realize, as he wrote in an essay collection called Notes of a Native Son, is that whatever else he was, he was an American.

Baldwin felt a strong solidarity with African students who hated French colonialism.  But he himself understood that he was an American, an African-American—not an African in exile.    He said the idea that nationality is a matter of personal choice is a specifically American idea.

… the American … very nearly unconscious assumption that it is possible to consider the person apart from all the forces that have produced him. 

This assumption, however, is itself based on nothing less than our history, which is the history of the total, and willing, alienation of entire peoples from their forebears.

What is overwhelming clear, it seems, to everyone but ourselves is that this history has created an entirely unprecedented people, with a unique and individual past. 

It is the past lived on the American continent … … which must sustain us in the present.

The truth about that past is not that it is too brief, or too superficial, but only that we, having turned our faces so resolutely away from it, has never demanded what it has to give.

==James Baldwin, “A Question of Identity” (1954)

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Tyranny, Trump and Timothy Snyder

June 26, 2017

Timothy Snyder, a historian of the Hitler-Stalin era, has written an eloquent and heartfelt little book—On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Centurywarning that democracy could perish in the United States of today just as it did in Europe in the 1930s.

Just as no couple making love for the last time ever realize it is the last time, he wrote, so no person voting in a free election for the last time realizes it is the last time.

On Tyranny contains 20 timeless principles for defenders of democracy.    The principles are illustrated by ominous stories of how the mass of people failed to resist Nazi and Communist tyranny and inspirational stories of how a few did.

Then come claims that Vladimir Putin is like Hitler and Stalin and that Donald Trump is like all three, and a call to be ready to resist.

Snyder has done well to remind Americans of the fundamental principles of democracy and the need to defend them.

But the need for the reminder didn’t originate with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  As Glenn Greenwald, Conor Friedersdorf and others have warned, these dangers have existed since enactment of the USA Patriot Act in 2001, and before.

During the Bush and Obama administrations, the government has claimed the power to engage in acts of war, order assassinations, spy on citizens, and bypass due process of law and also to imprison anyone who reveals what is going on.  Until this changes, every President is a potential tyrant, not just Donald Trump.

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American optimism and deaths of despair

June 12, 2017

I always thought that optimism was a basic and unchanging part of the American national character.

My belief is shaken by the rise in “deaths of despair”—first among middle-aged (45-to 54) white Americans, more recently among prime working aged (25 to 44) Americans of all races.

“Deaths of despair” are suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol-related liver disease.  The rise is thought to be caused by the hopeless economic situation of many Americans and by the ready availability of addictive drugs.

But this can’t the whole story.   In earlier eras of American history, such as the 1890s, poverty was greater, inequality was more extreme and addictive drugs were more freely available than they are now.

Pioneer families struggling to survive in sod houses on the prairie, immigrants in ragged clothes getting off the boat on Ellis Island, let alone African-Americans and native Americans—they all were in more desperate situations than any American today.

The USA was in the midst of a depression, comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s.  There was no social safety net.   It was possible to starve to death in New York City or any major city in the Western world.  If you couldn’t pay a doctor bill, you relied on charity or, more commonly, did without.

Opiates were sold legally.  Opium dens were found in every major city.  Heroin was a patented brand-name drug sold legally by the Bayer company.   Drunkenness was a serious social problem.

But this was an era of hope, not despair.  Workers formed labor unions and fought armed company police.   Farmers started organized the Populist movement.   Middle-class reformers started the Progressive movement.   They enacted reforms and social changes from which we Americans still benefit.

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Book note: The Making of Global Capitalism

May 30, 2017

International financial organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization have come to be a kind of world government, dictating policy to supposedly sovereign governments.

I recently read a book, The Making of Global Capitalism (2012) by two Canadian leftists named Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, on how this came about.   I thank my friend Tim Mullins for recommending it.

It’s quite a story.  It is not well understood.

The first part of the story is the U.S. New Deal.   President Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress gave the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve System the authority they needed to stabilize the crumbling U.S. financial and banking system.

The second part is the 30 years following World War Two.   Under the leadership of the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve, international financial institutions were created that duplicated the U.S. system.  They presided over the era of greatest peace and prosperity that North Americans and Europeans had ever since.

The third part is what happened after that.  The world’s financial system endures a series of ever-greater financial crises.   To deal with them, international financial  institutions demand the surrender of gains made by American and European workers and the middle class in the earlier era.

The irony is that a financial governing structure created by American power is now stronger than ever, while the actual American economy is rotting away beneath it.

Panitch and Gindin described in great detail how this happened, step-by-step,.

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Memorial Day 2017

May 29, 2017

Memorial Day was originally a holiday to honor the Union dead in the Civil War.  They should not be forgotten.   The painting below illustrates the Battle of Gettysburg, with Union defenders on the left, Confederate attackers on the right.

A Memorial Day War Nerd: Gettysburg Was The Finest Fight Ever in the World by John Dolan, aka Gary Brecher, for The eXiled.

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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