Posts Tagged ‘History’

‘Who controls the past controls the future’

October 2, 2014

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.

==George Orwell, 1984 

So many people I know seem to have amnesia about the past.  I think this is both sad and dangerous.

I think history is the key to understanding almost everything—how different things were in the past, but how the present is a product of that past.  If you have that knowledge, you have a grounding that will help keep you from being swept away by the propaganda of Big Brother.

But if you don’t have an independent knowledge of history, Big Brother can manipulate you into believing almost anything.

The Democracy Now video above is about a controversy between the Jefferson County, Colorado, school board, and various public school teachers, about how history should be taught.   It’s an important topic.

The school board says the teaching of history should emphasize citizenship, patriotism, the merits of the free market, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.  I personally agree in principle with all of these, but I suspect my interpretation of these principles differs from the school boards.

What is the free market?  Do they think this is what the United States has now?  Do they advocate respect for all authority, or only legitimate authority?  If you respect all authority, what happens to individual rights?  Is patriotism loyalty to the government, loyalty to fellow Americans or loyalty to the Constitution?

And most important: Are these open questions or is there one and only one officially true answer?

The school board specifically opposes material that encourages or condones civil disorder, social strife and disregard of the law.  What, I wonder, do the members think should be taught about the Sons of Liberty, the Boston Tea Party and the Minute Men?

I think if a nation—any nation—is to exist, its children should be taught to be proud of the good things in their national heritage.  But they shouldn’t be shielded from the facts about the bad things.  And every nation, like every person, has both good and bad things in its past.  If children are only taught the good, they’ll become disillusioned and cynical when they finally learn the bad.


A David Graeber reader: links to articles

September 9, 2013


David Graeber’s Debt: the First 5,000 Years is a brilliant work that reinterprets history in a new way and shows how payment of interest-bearing debt has come to be regarded as the obligation that overrides all moral obligations.

Here is a set of links to articles that explain what Graeber is all about.  The first is an article in the New Yorker about who Graeber is.

David Graeber and the Anarchist Revival by Kalefa Sanneh for the New Yorker.

Next some links to Graeber explaining his ideas in his own words.

What Is Debt?: an Interview with Economic Anthropologist David Graeber

Debt: the First Five Thousand Years by David Graeber.  This is his outline of the basic idea of the book for the Anarchist Library.

And some links to critiques and reviews.

The Debt We Shouldn’t Pay by Robert Kuttner for the New York Review of Books.

David Graeber’s Debt: My First 5,000 Words by Aaron Bady for The New Inquirer.

The Very Last David Graeber Post by Brad DeLong.  A scathing critique of the concluding chapter of Debt by a professor of economics.

Debt: the First 500 Pages by Mike Beggs for Jacobin magazine.  Why he found Graeber’s main arguments “wholly unconvincing.”

In Defense of David Graeber’s Debt by J.W. Mason for Jacobin magazine.

The Constitutional remedy for voter suppression

July 30, 2013

      Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, some of the Republican-controlled state governments are going all-out to find ways of discouraging voting, especially by people in categories likely to vote Democratic.

There is a remedy for this already in the Constitution.  The Fourteenth Amendment states that when adults not convicted of a crime are denied the right to vote, then that state’s congressional representation should be diminished accordingly.  Here is the wording.

…When the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial Officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion or other crime, the basis of such representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

This by the way is the only provision of the Constitution that makes a distinction between the rights of men and the rights of women.  Susan B. Anthony objected to it for this reason, and she quarreled with her good friend Frederick Douglass for supporting it.  All this was resolved by the Nineteenth Amendment, stating that the right to vote cannot be abridged on account of sex.

This provision was never enforced.  In the years from 1880 to 1960, voter suppression in the South was much worse than it is now.  The laws and policies that kept black people from voting also kept poor white people from voting.  Fewer people voted in the 1928 presidential election in the 12 states of the former Confederacy than voted just in New York state; if this provision had been taken seriously, these states would have had less representation in Congress than New York.

I doubt the Roberts Supreme Court would be willing enforce it now.  Still, it would be interesting to see what would happen if voter suppression increases and somebody files a lawsuit.


Recommended reading 7/17/2013

July 17, 2013

Here are things I read recently that I found interesting.  Maybe you will, too.

Chalmers M. Johnson reviews ‘Gold Warriors’ by Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave in the London Review of Books (2003).

Gold WarriorsThis 10-year-old book review is utterly fascinating.  Gold Warriors: America’s Secret Recovery of Yamashita’s Gold tells the story of how the Japanese military looted the whole of eastern Asia of its treasure and buried it in hidden underground vaults in the Philippines, much as described in Neal Stephenson’s great thriller Cryptonomicon, and how some of it was discovered and used to fund top-secret activities of the Central Intelligence Agency.   Weird, but evidently true, according to Chalmers Johnson, an expert on China, Japan and U.S. policy in the Far East.

Are Corporations Trying to Distract Us With Social Issues While They Take Control of Our Economy? by R.J. Eskow on AlterNet.

Robert Frank, in What’s The Matter With Kansas? wrote about how Republicans persuaded “values voters” to base their vote on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and gun control rather than on their economic self-interest.  R.J. Eskow argues that the Democrats are doing just the same thing, except using the reverse side of these issues.   The problem for American voters is that the only meaningful choices the Democratic and Republican parties offer us are on issues that don’t threaten the holders of economic and political power.

Time to Fight for Something Better Than Obamacare by Alejandro Reuss for The Washington Spectator.

The Affordable Care Act will leave the United States with a certain number of people with good individual or employer-provided private insurance, a lot of people with bad private insurance, some people helped by Medicare or Medicaid and some with no insurance at all.  Should we be satisfied with that?  Alejandro Reuss argues that Americans should demand a single-payer system (Medicare for all).

Why the City of Miami Is Doomed to Drown by Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone.

Miami might well be doomed even if its leaders face up to the threat of rising sea levels and worsening tropical storms.  Which they aren’t.

The Expendables: How the Temps Who Power Corporate Giants Are Getting Crushed by Michael Grabel in ProPublica.  (Hat tip to Daniel Brandt)

Taken for a Ride: Temp Agencies and ‘Raiteros’ in Immigrant Chicago by Michael Grabel in ProPublica.  (Hat tip to Daniel Brandt)

It’s tough to be a temporary worker.  It’s infinitely worse to be an immigrant temporary worker.

Readings for Independence Day 2013

July 4, 2013


Some readings for American patriots.

Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies by Edmund Burke (1775)


Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls (1848)

Speech on The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro by Frederick Douglass (1852)

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness by Andrew Sullivan

Is the U.S. a land of liberty or equality? by Robert J. Samuelson

The Omega Glory by Maggie McNeill

Remembering the Harvesters on this Fourth of July by Gracy Howard in The American Conservative.

How Unreasonable Searches of Private Documents Caused the American Revolution by Juan Cole on Informed Comment.

A Persuasive Argument by Bert Likko for The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

The Declaration: a persuasive argument

July 4, 2013


These are the opening words of THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Bert Likko, writing for the League of Ordinary Gentlemen web log, said the importance of the Declaration was that it was A Persuasive Argument.

The proposition that things are or even can be self-evidently true is something that it seems to me philosophers debate to this day.  But who among the readership — a readership consisting of English colonists in the Americas and Europeans — would deny that people should have life that not be taken arbitrarily from them, and that people ought to be happy, or at least be able to pursue happiness? Who would not want life, liberty, and happiness for themselves, and not recognize a similar desire in others? Jefferson frames these unquestioned social goods as rights, and universalizes those rights.

What is radical, or at least radical enough, for 1776 was to do so on an individualized basis, claiming all men as equals to one another.  In a world still steeped with and ruled by hereditary nobility, it was a relatively well-accepted proposition that some people were just plain better than others by virtue of the accident of their births.   To say that all men are created equal denies the very concept of nobility and calls into question the concept of even a social elite.  […]


The Canadian roots of Labor Day

September 3, 2012

This is from the History Channel.

The fortunes of war

August 26, 2012

The following is from George Orwell’s “As I Please” column in the London Tribune for October 13, 1944

Recently I was told the following story, and I have every reason to believe it is true.

Among the German prisoners captured in France there are a certain number of Russians.  Some time back two were captured who did not speak Russian or any other language that was known either to their captors or their fellow prisoners.  They could, in fact, only converse with one another.  A professor of Slavonic languages, brought down from Oxford, could make nothing of what they were saying.  Then it happened that a sergeant who had served on the frontiers of India heard them talking and recognized their language, which he was able to speak a little.  It was Tibetan!  After some questioning, he managed to get their story out of them.

Some years earlier they had strayed over the frontier into the Soviet Union and had been conscripted into a labor battalion, afterwards being sent to western Russia when the war with Germany broke out.  They were taken prisoner by the Germans and sent to North Africa; later they were sent to France, then exchanged into a fighting unit when the Second Front opened and taken prisoner by the British.  All this time they had been able to speak to nobody but one another and had no notion of what was happening or who was fighting whom.

It would round the story off neatly if they were now conscripted into the British army and sent to fight the Japanese, ending up somewhere in Central Asia, quite close to their native village, but still very much puzzled as to what it is all about.

Here’s a similar story told a few weeks ago in The Daily Mail of London.

American paratroopers in Normandy in June 1944 thought they had captured a Japanese soldier in German uniform, but he turned out to be Korean.  His name was Yang Kyoungjong.

In 1938, at the age of 18, Yang had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese into their army in Manchuria.  A year later, he was captured by the Red Army after the Battle of Khalkhin-Gol and sent to a labor camp.  The Soviet military authorities, at a moment of crisis in 1942, drafted him, along with thousands of other prisoners, into their forces.

Then, early in 1943 he was taken prisoner at the Battle of Kharkov in Ukraine by the German army.

In 1944, now in German uniform, he was sent to France to serve with one of the Wehrmacht’s eastern battalions made up of Soviet prisoners to defend Normandy at the base of the Cotentin peninsula.   After time in a prison camp in Britain, he went to the United States.  Yang settled there and died in Illinois in 1992.

via Mail Online.

Hat tip to SLICETHELIFE for Yang’s story.

I don’t draw any particular conclusions from these stories, except to take note of the tens of millions of people in the 20th century who were dispossessed, conscripted, uprooted, exiled and killed by totalitarian governments and global wars, and to be thankful I lived where I did when I did.   I hope that Mr. Yang had a good life in the United States.

The future of historical amnesia

August 13, 2012

I’m continually surprised at the number of people who know little and care less about events before they were born.  Since I was 30 or so, I’ve been muttering to myself, “Kids these days!  They think history began with the Kennedy assassination.” “…with Watergate.” “with the Reagan administration.” “…with the Monica Lewinsky scandal.” “…with the 9/11 attacks.”

Historical knowledge gives you a frame of reference for understanding the present, as well as providing a reminder that things weren’t always the way they were today.  Without knowledge of history and culture, I would be at the mercy of the advertising, propaganda and the mass media.  If I didn’t remember the Joe McCarthy era, or have knowledge of the internment of the Japanese during World War Two, Big Red Scare of the 1920s or the Alien and Sedition laws in the early days of the American republic, I might regard our present Homeland Security state as normal

My earliest historical memory is of World War Two.  I don’t remember Pearl Harbor, but I remember patriotically collecting scrap paper and metal, and I do remember how my third grade class was given the day off in honor of V-E Day.  My earliest memory of a political argument was from when I was in the sixth grade, and I argued for re-election of President Harry Truman against the challenger Thomas E. Dewey.

But World War Two didn’t occur merely because Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were evil people.  It had its roots in World War One and the blood-and-soil nationalism of the 19th century.  Truman and Dewey didn’t come out of nowhere.  They were the political heirs of Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, of the Great Depression and New Deal, and of the conflicts of the Populist and Progressive eras around the turn of the previous century.

It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect everyone to be as fascinated with history as I am.  But I continually find people who consider themselves to be highly educated who are ignorant of basic historical facts.  I wonder whether this historical amnesia is distinctively American or whether it is universal in the modern world.

Click on xkcd for cartoons and occasional infographics like the one above.

John Quincy Adams on Independence Day

July 4, 2012

John Quincy Adams gave a Fourth of July speech to the House of Representatives in 1821, with good advice to those who think it is the mission of the United States to impose our version of freedom and democracy on other nations.

America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government.  America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.  She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, equal justice, and equal rights. She has … respected the independence of other nations, while asserting and maintaining her own.  … …

John Quincy Adams

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.  But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.  She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.  The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.  The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power.  She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.

And later near the end of the speech.

Her glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace.

Click on Speech on Independence Day by John Quincy Adams to read the whole thing.  Hat tip to Daniel Larison.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 662 other followers