Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Alternate history and ancient science

June 14, 2019

Alternate history is one of the most popular types of science fiction.  It is based on speculation as to what would have happened if history had been different from what it was – if the Axis had won World War II, or if the South had won the U.S. Civil War.

CELESTIAL MATTERS by Richard Garfinkle (1996) is a work of both alternate history and alternate science.  I read it with great pleasure when it first came out, and reread it with pleasure recently.

The alternate history is what would have happened if the ancient Greek culture had not self-destructed during the Peloponnesian Wars.  

The alternate science is what the world would be like if ancient Greek science were correct—if matter consisted of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, if the sun, moon and planets revolved around the earth, if medical theories of the “humors” were true, if life could be created through spontaneous generation.

In the novel, the Delian League, the alliance of the Greek city-states formed after the defeat of the Persian invasion, did not become a vehicle for Athenian domination, but was an equal alliance of Athenian thought and Spartan valor that endured for a thousand years.

Alexander of Macedon, influenced by his wise tutor Aristotle, did not attempt to conquer Greece, but joined the Delian League.  He did not cut the Gordian Knot, but allowed Aristotle to gently untie it.  He conquered not only Persia but India, lived to a ripe old age and set up an enduring stable government.

The Delian League’s only rival was the Middle Kingdom, whose technology was based on Taoist principles of Yin and Yang and “xi” force.

The novel’s protagonist, Aias of Tyre, is a scientific officer on an expedition to the Sun to obtain solar fire to use as a high-tech weapon against the Taoists.  The principles of space flight in the novel, of course, have nothing to do with gravity or Newton’s laws of motion.

Alas has to contend with Taoist attacks, sabotage by a secret traitor, personality conflicts in the high command and his doubts about the possible blasphemy against the divine Apollo—not to mention his growing attraction to the female Spartan officer appointed as his bodyguard.

The Greek gods exist and speak to him and other characters, but as voices and images in their minds.  Each of the gods represents a separate aspect of life and of the good.

This is not a novel for everyone, but if this is the kind of novel you enjoy, you will enjoy Celestial Matters a lot.

Lessons from the fate of ancient Athens

June 14, 2019

The alternate history novel Celestial Matters describes a world in which the Delian league of Greek city-states endured a thousand years.  This of course did not happen in reality, and the reasons it didn’t have a moral for us Americans.

The Delian League was an alliance of Athens and other Greek city-states against the Persian Empire, which had invaded Greece and was defeated by the Spartan army and Athenian navy.

Allies of Athens were supposed to contribute money to a treasury located on the island of Delos to be used to construct ships to wage war against Persia.

In time, the treasury was shifted from Delos to Athens.  In time, Athens gave up the pretense that the contribution was anything more than tribute exacted by Athens.  Delian League money went to help pay for construction of the Parthenon.

Allies revoted against Athens, and were put down ruthlessly.  All this was before the outbreak of war between allies of Athens and members of the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League.  Athens lost the war, but it was devastating to both sides.  Greece was successfully invaded by Macedonia and later by Rome.

What would have happened if the Athenians had maintained the Delian League as a true alliance rather than making it into an empire?  They might have been more powerful rather than less, because they wouldn’t have to expend blood and treasure in suppressing rebellions against their empire.  Their aggression might not have been feared as much by the Spartans.  These things aren’t knowable.

I see a parallel between Athens after the Persian Wars and the United States after the Second World War.  The United States was the trusted leader of the Western world.  

It sponsored the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union, the United Nations as a means of implementing international law and the Bretton Woods agreement as a means of stabilizing the world financial system.

I think that if the U.S. had been faithful to the purposes of the international organizations it created, and had been willing to submit to the laws that it demanded other nations obey, our nation still would be a respected world leader.

But over time the Western alliance and U.S.-created institutions such as the International Monetary Fund have become a vehicle for American empire.  The administration of Donald Trump does not try to hide this.

I don’t want to lean too heavily on historical analogies, but I believe that, unless the U.S. changes direction, we will meet the fate of Athens.

The Athenians were not hypocrites.  They did not violate any of their professed ideals.  Athenian democracy was based on the citizens’ right to govern themselves collectively and their duty to govern themselves individually.

They lacked any idea of humanitarianism, universal human rights or the rule of law, which are part of the American ideal of democracy.  It is we, not they, who will be judged by history by failing to live by our own principles.  

Slavery did not end with the Civil War

June 5, 2019

Source: ADOS.  Click to enlarge.

I was taught in school that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but in fact tens of thousands of African-Americans in the South were enslaved in everything but name from the 1870s through the 1930s.

They were bought and sold for money, whipped and abused by their masters, supervised by overseers with guns and hunted down with hounds when they tried to flee.

Douglas A. Blackmon wrote in SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War Two that we should not speak of the “Jim Crow” era, but the era of neo-slavery.

The way it worked was this.  A black person would be arrested.  Sometimes he would be guilty of a real crime.  But any black male not under the control of a white employer was subject to being arrested, charged with something like “vagrancy” or “offensive behavior” or a trumped-up charge.  Some records list only the sentence and not the nature of the offense.  

The black person would of course be convicted automatically and sentenced to a prison term or a fine, which would include not only the lawful penalty for the offense, but also the cost of his arrest and imprisonment.

A white employer would pay the fine in return for a contract entitling him to the black person’s labor  The sheriff or police chief, jail keeper, magistrate and court clerk would divide up the payment.  The buyer might sell the contract to someone else.

The convict would typically work under armed guards and be whipped regularly for trivial offenses or for not working hard enough.  Overseers would commonly soak a leather strap in water or molasses and then coat it with sand, so that a whipping would flay the skin off. 

It is true that, unlike slaves before the Civil War, the convict did not serve a lifetime sentence, his children were not automatically enslaved and the majority of blacks were not enslaved.  

But the threat of enslavement hung over everyone, and conditions under the new slavery were often worse than under the old.

In the earlier era, slaves were valuable property and slave owners had an incentive to keep them strong and healthy.  

But in the neo-slavery era, there was no reason not to work them to death because, just as in Hitler’s labor camps or Stalin’s Gulag, there was an unlimited supply of fresh laborers.  Employers suffered no penalty when convicts died, even when they were beaten to death.

I’ve heard people say that slavery would have ended of its own accord if there had been no Civil War because slave labor was not suitable for modern industry.

But Blackmon showed that neo-slavery was practiced not just by individuals, but by corporations that exist to this day.

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The argument for slavery reparations revisited

May 22, 2019

Ta-Nehisi Coates made the argument back in 2014 that the United States owes reparations to the descendants of American slaves for slavery and for denial of basic rights continuing into the second half of the 20th century.

Since reparations has become an issue in the 2020 Presidential campaign, it’s time to take another look at his argument

Coates pointed out that even after slavery was theoretically ended, the Jim Crow system subjected black people in the South to a system in which their property, their freedom and their lives could be taken from them at any time.

When black people moved to the North, they were still refused jobs and credit based on their race.

This meant that, unlike all other ethnic groups in American history, they were unable to build up through wealth generation by generation.

Coates said reparations is not a claim against individual white people for what their ancestors may or may not have done.  The claim for reparations is against the government of the United States for what the nation has done.

When Union Carbide was sued and forced to pay damages to victims of the Bhopal, India, chemical plant disaster in 1984, the executives, employees and stockholders at the time of payout in 1999 were not all the same individuals as when the disaster occurred.  Claims are still being made, including claims against Dow Chemical, which became a part-owner of the plant in 2001.

The idea is that a corporation is a continuing enterprise, separate from the individuals who own and run it.  The present-day executives and stockholders benefit from the profits earned by those who came before.  They also inherit the claims and liabilities incurred by those who came before.

When nations pay reparations, it is based on the same idea.  A nation is a continuing entity.  All Americans, whether they were naturalized last week or trace American ancestors back to 1776 and before, are heirs of what their nation has done in the past, both good and bad.

Reparations will not get rid of racist thinking, racial prejudice or racial discrimination.  That is not the purpose.  The purpose is compensation for a wrong.

Do people in the present still suffer from the effects of slavery?  Maybe they wouldn’t if African-American slaves had been given full citizenship rights after the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted.  But they weren’t.

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Ilhan Omar holds Elliott Abrams to account

February 14, 2019

Elliott Abrams in the 1980s carried out U.S. support for central American dictatorships that massacred their own people.  He is justly hated for his actions to this day.  For the Trump administration to put him in charge of U.S. policy toward Venezuela is an insult to the people of Latin America and a signal that the U.S. government does not care about human rights.

In the video above, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a new member of Congress from Minneapolis, questions Abrams about his record.  Along with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, she is a new voice in Congress, who speaks truths that others fear to state.

Omar referred to a notorious massacre in which more than 800 civilians, including two-year-old children, were killed by U.S.-trained troops.  The Intercept had details on this:

On December 11, 1981 in El Salvador, a Salvadoran military unit created and trained by the U.S. Army began slaughtering everyone they could find in a remote village called El Mozote.  Before murdering the women and girls, the soldiers raped them repeatedly, including some as young as 10 years old, and joked that their favorites were the 12-year-olds.  One witness described a soldier tossing a 3-year-old child into the air and impaling him with his bayonet.  The final death toll was over 800 people.

The next day, December 12, was the first day on the job for Elliott Abrams as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs in the Reagan administration. Abrams snapped into action, helping to lead a cover-up of the massacre.  News reports of what had happened, Abrams told the Senate, were “not credible,” and the whole thing was being “significantly misused” as propaganda by anti-government guerillas.  [snip]

The extermination of El Mozote was just a drop in the river of what happened in El Salvador during the 1980s. About 75,000 Salvadorans died during what’s called a “civil war,” although almost all the killing was done by the government and its associated death squads. The numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. El Salvador is a small country, about the size of New Jersey. The equivalent number of deaths in the U.S. would be almost 5 million. 

Moreover, the Salvadoran regime continually engaged in acts of barbarism so heinous that there is no contemporary equivalent, except perhaps ISIS.

In one instance, a Catholic priest reported that a peasant woman briefly left her three small children in the care of her mother and sister. When she returned, she found that all five had been decapitated by the Salvadoran National Guard. Their bodies were sitting around a table, with their hands placed on their heads in front of them, “as though each body was stroking its own head.”  The hand of one, a toddler, apparently kept slipping off her small head, so it had been nailed onto it.  At the center of the table was a large bowl full of blood.

Criticism of U.S. policy at the time was not confined to the left. During this period, Charles Maechling Jr., who had led State Department planning for counterinsurgencies during the 1960s, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the U.S. was supporting “Mafia-like oligarchies” in El Salvador and elsewhere and was directly complicit in “the methods of Heinrich Himmler’s extermination squads.”

Source: The Intercept

Similar stories could be told about U.S. support for the dictatorship in Guatemala and Panama and for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

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Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine

February 6, 2019

In 1961, the philosopher Bertrand Russell said President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, because of their commitment to nuclear weapons, were worse than Adolf Hitler..

“…Macmillan and Kennedy, through misguided ignorance and deliberate blindness, are pursuing policies which are likely to lead to the extermination of the whole human race,” Russell said.  “Hitler set out to exterminate the Jews.  On a purely statistical basis, Macmillan and Kennedy are 50 times as wicked as Hitler.”

I recently got around to reading Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book, THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, which indicates that Russell was basically wright.

Kennedy, like Truman and Eisenhower before him and every President since, was willing to threaten nuclear war.  Ellsberg wrote that this not only could have led to the death of virtually the whole human race, but, on Kennedy’s watch, very nearly did.

I remember the 1950s and the 1960s, and the public’s well-founded fear of nuclear war back then.  The fear has gone away, but the danger hasn’t, as Ellsberg made clear..

The book is in two parts.  The first is a personal history of nuclear policy, leading up to the Cuban missile crisis.  The other is a historical look at how American leaders in World War Two came to regard mass killing of civilian populations as morally acceptable, and how no American leader since then has been willing to give it up.

The Eisenhower administration had a war plan called “massive retaliation.”  That meant that in the case of military conflict with either the USSR or China, the U.S. would implement a plan that called for the nuclear bombing of every town in Russia with a population of more than 25,000, and also every large population center in China.

The Air Force, in response to a query by President Kennedy, estimated that this would result in the deaths of 324 million people in China or Russia through blast and radioactive fallout, which is more than died at the hands of Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined.  It estimated that up to an additional 100 million people in Communist ruled nations in eastern Europe, in allied nations in western Europe and also in neutral nations, depending in which way the wind was blowing.

This amounted to more than 600 million people, a quarter of the human race at that time.

But wait.  There’s more.  The Air Force did not attempt to estimate casualties due to fire.  Nuclear bombing would have set off fire storms that would have made World War Two Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo seem like the victims of children playing with matches. Ellsberg wrote that, if you count direct deaths to fire, a nuclear attack on the Communist bloc would have taken the lives of between one third and one half of humanity.  I can’t get my mind around such an enormity.

All of these estimates were based on a successful U.S. first strike that destroyed the Communist countries so completely that their military would not be able to retaliate.  If that didn’t work, there would have been tens of millions or hundreds of millions of American deaths as well.

Later on certain scientists awoke to the possibility of “nuclear winter”.   Firestorms resulting from a nuclear attack would send so much soot and smoke into the upper atmosphere that they would literally blacken the sky.  The dark layer would be above the clouds, so there would be no rain to wash it down.  It would remain for 10 years or more, making it impossible for plants to grow or for most complex life-forms to survive.

So an all-out nuclear attack could literally be a Doomsday Machine.

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A sequel to The Three Musketeers

January 25, 2019

TWENTY YEARS AFTER by Alexandre Dumas (1845) is the first sequel to The Three Musketeers.

The Three Musketeers was the first and maybe the best of the swashbuckling action-adventure novels.  I enjoyed it a lot, and I enjoyed this sequel, too.  It would make a highly enjoyable TV miniseries.

The first novel ended with the 20-year-old D’Artagnan being rewarded for her heroism with a commission as lieutenant in the King’s Musketeers.  As this one begins, he is a hardened veteran of 40, somewhat embittered  at never having been promoted further.

Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XIII are dead.  France is ruled by Cardinal Mazarin, an Italian, and the widowed Queen Anne, a Spaniard,  who is regent for the 10-year-old Louis XIV.

D’Artagnan happens to command a military escort to protect Mazarin from the rebellious Paris mob one night, and Mazarin, impressed by his professionalism, takes the trouble to learn his history.

He asks D’Artagnan to reassemble his team—Aramis, who’s entered the Catholic priesthood; Porthos, who’s married a rich widows; and Athos, who has resumed his life as a high-ranking nobleman.

But D’Artagnan only succeeds in recruiting Porthos.  Unknown to him, Aramis and Athos have joined the Fronde—a coalition of rebellious nobles and commoners united against oppressive taxation and foreign influence.

Mazarin wants them to carry a message to Oliver Cromwell that he will not oppose Cromwell’s overthrow of King Charles I and persecution of Catholics if Cromwell will not support the Fronde or attempt to protect French Protestants.

Also unknown to him, Cromwell’s emissary, Mordaunt, is the son of the evil Lady De Winter, who has sworn vengeance on the musketeers for supervising the execution of his mother for her crimes.

When D’Artagnan and Porthos reach England, they meet Athos and Aramis, who persuade them to change sides. 

D’Artagnan’s idea is that as a soldier, his duty is to obey orders, and that, as a Frenchman, he has no concern with what happens in England.

But Athos convinces him that he has a higher duty, a duty to the idea of royalty, which stands for everything that noble and honorable.  Oliver Cromwell, in this version, is neither; he is suspicious, cunning and ruthless, like a Mafia don.

The four attempt to save King Charles, but D’Artagnan’s various plans are thwarted by Mordaunt, who nearly succeeds in killing the four musketeers as well.

Mazarin is naturally angry at D’Artagnan’s disobedience of orders, but through a combination of force, blackmail and Queen Anne’s influence, he gets a promotion to captain and rewards for all his friends.

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The sad legacy of George H.W. Bush

December 10, 2018

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

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

George H.W. Bush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LINKS

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

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

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

Andy Thomas’ portraits of the presidents

December 1, 2018

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

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Based on a true story…’

September 17, 2018

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

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

Selma – 100 percent (!!)

The Big Short – 91.4 percent

Bridge of Spies – 89.9 percent

Twelve Years a Slave – 88.1 percent

Rush – 81.9 percent

Captain Phillips – 81.4 percent

Spotlight – 76.2 percent

The Social Network – 76.1 percent

The Wolf of Wall Street – 74.6 percent

The King’s Speech – 73.4 percent

Hidden Figures – 72.6 percent

Philomena – 69.8 percent

Lion – 61.4 percent

Dallas Buyers Club – 61.4 percent

American Sniper – 56.7 percent

Hacksaw Ridge – 51.5 percent

The Imitation Game – 41.4 percent

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

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

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

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

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

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

LINK

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

American exceptionalism and the rules of war

September 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LINKS

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

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

Paul Revere and American independence

July 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The prototype action-adventure story

June 22, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Witch hunting then and now

June 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How the New Deal created millions of jobs

May 31, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Labor Educator

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

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

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

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‘A man knows a man’

May 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Modernization and an angry world

March 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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War in the heart of America

February 28, 2018

During my lifetime, I’ve read a fair amount about the Civil War, but two books that I read during the past few weeks bring home its reality in a new way.

They show how different the war was to people at the time than it seems in the light of history, and how events could have turned out differently from the way they did.

It was not inevitable that the war would last as long as it did, that the North would win or that slavery would have been abolished even if the North had won.

The two books are IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES: War in the Heart of America (2003) and THE THIN LIGHT OF FREEDOM: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (2017) both by Edward L. Ayers.

His window into the war is a collection of source material—letters, dairies, newspaper accounts and the like from two communities— Franklin County, Pa., and Augusta County, Va.—collected over a period of decades as part of a special project of the University of Virginia.

The two counties are at opposite ends of the Great Valley running north and south between the Blue Ridge and the Appalachians, which was a major battleground of the war.

They were more alike than they were different.   Both consisted of prosperous small farms and small towns.  Augusta was different from the plantation South; Franklin was more typical of the North.

Ayers began with accounts of the 1859 celebration of the Fourth of July in the two counties.   The white people of both considered themselves loyal to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.   Both wanted to preserve the Union.  Neither wanted to abolish slavery.

Yet within a few years they were at war and hated each other.   Reading these books helps me understand places such as Bosnia and Lebanon, which differing peoples can live together in peace for generations, yet, in a short period of time, be brought to the point of killing each other.

In the 1860 election, Augusta County supported the Constitutional Union party, which was pro-slavery, but anti-secession.  Franklin County supported the Republican Party, which was anti-slavery on only one point—that slavery should be barred from United States territories, in order to protect Northern white workers from competition with slave labor.

Slaveowners in the Deep South saw this as an ultimate threat, because no new slave states would have been admitted to the Union, which in the long run would have made slaveowners a politically powerless minority.

In Virginia, delegates from Augusta County voted against secession.  But as secession proceeded, the question changed from favoring the Union vs. secession to favoring the North vs. the South.  Once the decision was made, the anti-secession delegates fought bravely the Confederate Army or otherwise supported the war wholeheartedly.

The white people of Augusta County were willing to break up the Union in order to preserve slavery.  The white people of Franklin County became willing to abolish slavery in order to preserve the Union.   Black people in both counties had their own w

None foresaw how long the war would last, how many lives would be lost nor what the result would be.

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Haiti’s problems mostly originate outside Haiti

January 18, 2018

Haiti is poor largely because outside powers keep it poor.   Not that Haiti doesn’t have its own home-grown crooks and tyrants, but the Haitian people would be better able to deal with them if the crooks and tyrants weren’t backed by the U.S. government.

President Trump’s recent vulgar comment about immigrants from Haiti and other majority-black was offensive.  But offensive language isn’t the main problem.  The problem is the centuries-long history of the United States and other powerful countries holding Haiti down, of which Trump is just the latest example.

LINKS

One of the most repeated facts about Haiti is a lie by M.R. O’Connor for VICE News.

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The New Deal’s forgotten accomplishments

January 1, 2018

A widely accepted criticism of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal is that it never really ended the Great Depression.  It took rearmament, the military draft and the Second World War to bring about full employment.

Conrad Black. of all people, writing in The American Conservative, of all publications, pointed out that what these critics overlook is the millions of Americans put to work by the New Deal conservation and public works programs.

Between 5 million and just under 8 million workers were employed on New Deal projects during the 1930s, but, according to Black, they were not included in the employment statistics cited by most historians, including partisan Democratic historians.

Solid line counts workers employed on public works as unemployed; dotted line does not.  Source: The Edge of the American West.

Black, formerly a Canadian newspaper publisher, has written biographies of Richard M. Nixon and Franklin D. Roosevelt.   Reviewing Robert Dallek’s recent biography of FDR, Black wrote: —

He states that the unemployed stood at 10 million in 1940, when Roosevelt broke a tradition as old as the republic and went after his third term.

In fact, unemployment was somewhat under 10 million, but was declining in the run-up to election day by 100,000 a month, largely due to the immense rearmament program Roosevelt had initiated and to the country’s first peace-time conscription, which he called a “muster”.

But Dallek completely ignores, for purposes of calculating unemployment, the many millions  of participants in his workfare programs, who were just as much employed as, and more usefully than, the millions of conscripts and defense workers in the major European countries and Japan, against which Roosevelt’s record in reducing unemployment is often unfavorably compared.

[snip]  These programs kept between five million and nearly eight million people usefully employed at any time building valuable public sector projects at bargain wages for Roosevelt’s first two terms, until defense requirements and the public sector took over and completed the extermination of unemployment.

Those unable to work received Social Security, unemployment and disability benefits from 1935 on.

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Modernization has created an angry world

November 29, 2017

I think the world is locked into struggle between a heartless corporate neoliberalism and a rage-filled blood-and-soil nationalism, neither of which offers hope for the human future.

Pankaj Mishra, author of AGE OF ANGER (2017), said this is part of a conflict of ideas that originated with Voltaire and Rousseau in the 18th century and is still going on, all over the world, today.

Voltaire taught that if you give up your outworn prejudices, superstitions and customs, and embrace science, reason and commerce, you will gain the power to determine the course of your life, as well as enjoy a rising material standard of living.

His enemy, Rousseau, spoke for all those who were angry because this bargain was not kept, or because they rejected the bargain in the first place.

They included millions of people in Europe and North America in the 19th century and also billions in Asia and Africa in the 20th and 21st, who have been uprooted from village communities and left to fend for themselves in an unforgiving global economy.

Voltaire, although a brave defender of religious and intellectual freedom, despised the ignorant masses.  He admired “enlightened” despots, such as Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great, for trying to force their unwilling subjects to adopt modern—that is, French—ways of life.

Rousseau cared nothing for modernization.  His ideal was an imaginary Sparta, an austere, primitive and close-knit society of brave warriors.   He thought it unimportant that Spartan warriors were predatory and merciless to others.  What mattered was their comradeship with each other, and also their manliness.

Another theme of Rousseau, in contrast to Voltaire, is the need for manliness and the corresponding need to keep women in their place.   Once again, this is an example of Rousseau wanting something he didn’t have.  He was never able to fulfill the traditional role of the male, which is to be a protector and provider for women and children.

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George McGovern and the path not taken

November 14, 2017

George McGovern in 1972 tried to unite the old New Deal liberalism and the New Left radicalism.

He courted African-Americans, feminists, college students, gays and lesbians, environmentalists and peace advocates, while at the same time promising to close tax loopholes for the rich and using the money to grant property tax relief for middle class Americans.

George McGovern in 1972

All the issues he campaigned on—especially economic inequality—have become every more relevant today.

Yet he went down to defeat, and all the Democratic candidates from then did their best to distance themselves from McGovernism.   He was supposedly the Democratic counterpart to Barry Goldwater.

But while Goldwater’s followers reacted to their defeat by doubling down on their beliefs and going on to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Democratic leaders—Jimmy Carter, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama—have run away from the supposed taint of McGovernism.

I think the difference between the legacy of Goldwater and the legacy of McGovern is that Goldwater’s movement had the support of wealthy individuals and corporations, and McGovern’s didn’t.

McGovern at the start of 1972 was as little known as Bernie Sanders at the start of 2016.   Odds-makers gave him a 200 in 1 chance of winning the Democratic nomination.   When he did win, the Democratic Party as an institution did not support him.   President Nixon meanwhile stole the Democrats’ thunder, by creating the Environmental Protection Agency, calling for a guaranteed annual income and announcing that peace was at hand in Vietnam.

President Nixon discredited himself in the Watergate affair, and Democrats rebounded.   But the Democrats did not offer a credible alternative to Republican policies, and could not hold on to power.  Thus began a political cycle that continued ever since, of voters swinging back and forth between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates while the condition of the country grows worse.

The national figure today who comes closest to resembling George McGovern is Bernie Sanders—a Senator from a small state who seemingly came out of nowhere to lead a movement.

The top leaders of the Democratic Party are as hostile to Sanders’ followers as they were to McGovern’s 45 years ago, but the Sanders followers seem to have more staying power than their predecessors.

Even Bernie Sanders is not really a peace candidate, as George McGovern was.   That is the forgotten part of McGovern’s legacy that we need the most.

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A movie of John Steinbeck’s ‘In Dubious Battle’

October 26, 2017

I recently saw a great new movie—”In Dubious Battle,” based on John Steinbeck’s 1936 novel and inspired by agricultural workers’ strikes in California in 1930 and 1933.

Directed by and starring James Franco, the movie’s cast includes Vincent D’Onofrio, Sam Shepard, Robert Duvall, Ed Harris and Bryan Cranston and other fine actors.  The photography is beautiful.  The direction is powerful.  It works well, both as drama and propaganda.  I’m glad I saw it.

This post, however, is not a review of the movie, but thoughts about questions raised by the movie.

Based on everything I’ve read, I think wages and working conditions were just as bad as the film depicts, and workers were just as desperate.

I think the criminal violence of the growers is only slightly exaggerated.  They didn’t openly commit murder, as depicted in the movie.   Rather they arranged to have labor leaders arrested in trumped up charges, and to have strikers, including peaceful picketers, fired upon and killed, as had been done so often in American labor strikes.

The most interesting part of the movie is the character of the labor organizer Mac McLeod, played by James Franco, and his apprentice Jim Nolan, played by Nat Wolff.

They are identified as generic radicals, without any specific affiliation, but what they represent is the Communist ideal of the labor hero.

They are completely dedicated to the cause of the working class, wanting nothing for themselves, and the Mac McLeod character in the end knowingly sacrifices his life to the cause.

Their dedication supposedly justifies their lies and manipulation of workers in order to achieve their goal.   They are not the official leaders of the strike, but every initiative comes from them.

There is not one instance in the movie of one of the fruit pickers themselves initiating anything good or having a good idea of what to do.   This is the Communist view that workers on their own cannot think strategically, that they need to be led by a vanguard, consisting of themselves.

I have to admit the inconvenient fact—inconvenient to self-described liberals such as myself—that Communists and anarchists were fighting for labor rights and for racial equality, many at risk to their lives, at a time when many of us college-educated middle-class liberals and progressives held back.

I think the world owes more to real-life Mac McLeods than many of us care to admit.   At the same time, I would not want to live under their rule.

People who are hard on themselves frequently think this gives them a right to be ruthless toward others.   The great flaw in the Communist program, other than its commitment to an unworkable economic system, is lack of accountability to anyone except each other.

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The South as a culture of honor

September 29, 2017

I’ve been reading and thinking about the differences among American regional cultures, and especially the difference between the culture or cultures of the South and the culture of the New England Yankees.

I believe that one reason for the clash is that the South is predominantly a culture of honor and the Yankee culture is predominantly a culture of virtue.

David Blight

The other day my e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey sent me a link to the text of a lecture by David Blight, a history professor at Yale, that is an excellent discussion of this.   I link to it today.

A culture of honor teaches you to behave in a way that people are forced to respect you.   A culture of virtue teaches you to follow moral rules no matter what people think.

These are not polar opposites.  An honorable person and a virtuous person will do the same things most of the time.   But a person of honor will not tolerate an insult or a slight that a person of virtue might shrug off.   A person of honor will usually put loyalty to kindred over loyalty to principle.

When I write of the culture of the South, I mean specifically the white people of the South.  But I think the African-American culture is, in its own way, also a culture of honor.

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The shadow of the Korean War

September 11, 2017

Photo via The Intercept

We Americans remember and memorialize the Vietnam Conflict, and tend to forget the equally savage and lethal Korean Conflict.   I’m not sure why that is—maybe because the Vietnam fighting was stretched out over more years, maybe because Vietnam was the experience of the Baby Boom generation.

Be that as it may, the Korean War is not forgotten in Korea, and especially not in North Korea.   The North Koreans remember that they have endured the worst the United States and its allies could throw at them, short of attacks with nuclear weapons.   I think that if you remember this, it goes a long way to explaining why Kim Jong-un defies the United States.

For the record, it was the North Koreans, and not the Americans or their South Korean allies, who started the war in June 1950, when they crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded the south. Nevertheless, “What hardly any Americans know or remember,” University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings writes in his book The Korean War: A History, “is that we carpet-bombed the north for three years with next to no concern for civilian casualties.”

How many Americans, for example, are aware of the fact that U.S. planes dropped on the Korean peninsula more bombs — 635,000 tons — and napalm — 32,557 tons — than during the entire Pacific campaign against the Japanese during World War II?

How many Americans know that “over a period of three years or so,” to quote Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, “we killed off … 20 percent of the population”?

Twenty.  Percent.  For a point of comparison, the Nazis exterminated 20 percent of Poland’s pre-World War II population. According to LeMay, “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea.”

Every. Town.  More than 3 million civilians are believed to have been killed in the fighting, the vast majority of them in the north.

Source: The Intercept.

The total population of Korea in 1950 was slightly over 20 million, with 9 million in North Korea.

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