Posts Tagged ‘history’

Columbus Day

Monday, October 8th, 2012

I wish Italian-Americans had a better heritage day than Columbus Day. I read something earlier today (I forget where) that suggested celebrating exploration in general while playing down Columbus’s story (you know, with all the genocide and what-not). Not sure what the right answer is here.. the positive aspects of Columbus Day do deserve to be celebrated, but it doesn’t seem right to ignore the truly awful things that Columbus did.

Christmas in Puritan New England

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

This wikipedia article on the subject provides a useful history lesson. Quote:

Christmas celebrations in Puritan New England (1620–1850?) were culturally and legally suppressed and thus, virtually non-existent. The Puritan community found no Scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas, and associated such celebrations with paganism and idolatry. The earliest years of the Plymouth colony were troubled with non-Puritans attempting to make merry, and Governor William Bradford was forced to reprimand offenders.

I didn’t really know much about early Christmas celebrations (or lack thereof) until relatively recently. I wonder if there are good nonfiction books about Puritains.

The Battle of Towton

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

From an interesting yet grisly article in The Economist about The Battle of Towton:

The soldier now known as Towton 25 had survived battle before. A healed skull fracture points to previous engagements. He was old enough—somewhere between 36 and 45 when he died—to have gained plenty of experience of fighting. But on March 29th 1461, his luck ran out.

Towton 25 suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal.

It’s amazing how much detail they can recover from these centuries-old skeletons.

Military Spending

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Inflation-adjusted military spending over time:

.. always brings me back to this:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower

(chart by johnpseudo on wikipedia)

Those who own the country

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

John Jay (NY delegate to the Continental Congress, NY Governor, and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) is quoted as having said “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” While this sort of sentiment would likely be disagreeable to all but the most objectivist modern American, it’s very much a reflection of what we have right now. This is nothing new: if anything, it has become less blatant. By some estimates, over half of white men were barred from voting at the time of the Constitution (source), largely caused by property requirements. At the Constitutional Convention, James Madison said:

Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

While I of course wouldn’t support it, there are some arguments for land owners to have more control in the government: they have a stronger long-term vested interest in the affairs of the state. Similar arguments support the expectation that those who earn more will contribute more money in taxes.

Vanity Fair had a must-read piece about the causes and effects of income inequality in America. It begins:

It’s no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. […] While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top.

And on the effect of this inequality with government:

Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office. By and large, the key executive-branch policymakers on trade and economic policy also come from the top 1 percent. When pharmaceutical companies receive a trillion-dollar gift—through legislation prohibiting the government, the largest buyer of drugs, from bargaining over price—it should not come as cause for wonder. It should not make jaws drop that a tax bill cannot emerge from Congress unless big tax cuts are put in place for the wealthy. Given the power of the top 1 percent, this is the way you would expect the system to work.

And finally, one thing I’ve seen too many times myself:

This new inequality goes on to create new distortions, undermining efficiency even further. To give just one example, far too many of our most talented young people, seeing the astronomical rewards, have gone into finance rather than into fields that would lead to a more productive and healthy economy.

Far too many smart people have worked to create financial instruments beyond comprehension and control. These people could have been working on solving actual problems, but instead worked on finding better ways to gamble. Blind adherents to free-market theology would argue that anything that makes money within the boundaries of the market must inherently be good, but I don’t think any honest person looking at the financial industry in the last decade can continue to make such claims with credibility.

Some would claim that raising these sorts of issues would constitute “class warfare”, as if engaging in class warfare makes the argument inherently invalid. Whatever it’s called, it doesn’t seem like the current trajectory is sustainable.

Conflict History

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

Conflict History is an interactive timeline and map of conflicts throughout recorded history. It’s interesting to browse.. there’s always more than I expected.


Worst Jobs

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

Lapham’s Quartly has a chart of history’s “worst jobs in the world”. The axes are a bit odd, but the chart’s content is definitely interesting.


MLK & Vietnam

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Tonight I listened to Martin Luther King Jr’s 1967 speech “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam”. King’s opposition to the Vietnam war was, as far as I recall, largely omitted when learning about him in school (reminding me of my earlier post about the Pentagon Papers and history education). The speech itself is rather plodding at first, but really picked up in the second half (it won the 1971 Grammy for Spoken Word).

This post won’t do any real analysis of the speech, I only hope to highlight certain passages that I found noteworthy. The parallels with the modern world will be self-explanatory to anyone who reads this blog.

On equating dissent with disloyalty:

Now, of course, one of the difficulties in speaking out today grows the fact that there are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty. It’s a dark day in our nation when high-level authorities will seek to use every method to silence dissent. But something is happening, and people are not going to be silenced. The truth must be told, and I say that those who are seeking to make it appear that anyone who opposes the war in Vietnam is a fool or a traitor or an enemy of our soldiers is a person that has taken a stand against the best in our tradition.

On domestic vs. war investment:

And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic, destructive suction tube. And you may not know it, my friends, but it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor, and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for salaries to people that are not poor. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.

On non-violence and the press:

There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, Be non-violent toward [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff] Jim Clark, but will curse and damn you when you say, “Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children”. There’s something wrong with that press!

On things and people:

I’m convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.

On economic imperialism and warfare:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be changed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

If you have time, the whole speech is worth a listen. Here’s the audio:


Full speech text (differs somewhat from audio above, as I believe it’s from a different version of the speech)

The Pentagon papers & history education

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

I recently had a chance to see “The Most Dangerous Man in America”, a documentary about Daniel Ellsberg and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. Two things really struck me during the movie.

The first was the fact that I largely didn’t know this story before this year. I had known that the Pentagon Papers were a large leak of defense-related documents to the New York Times during the Vietnam War, and that Richard Nixon was outraged by it. The last part I had learned from The Onion. I really knew nothing of the scale of the leak nor its contents and effects.

The second thing that struck me was how familiar parts of the story were. The documentary covered the lead-up and escalation of the Vietnam War, and the similarity to the Iraq War amazed me. Specifically, the claims made around the Tonkin Gulf incident sounded like they were right out of Bill Moyers’ excellent Buying the War show (which documented the lead-up to the Iraq War).

Finishing the movie, I was a bit disappointed in myself that I didn’t know the story earlier. Why hadn’t I been taught about this in any detail? The relevance of that story to this last decade was quite obvious. The only US history class I took in high school (and since then) was AP US History in 11th grade. If I remember correctly, the AP test was a month or two before the end of the school year, and the test itself only covered through World War II. Since post-WWII America was only covered after the test, it was quite cursory, and it seemed that both the teachers and students didn’t put in too much effort. This is a real shame, as it seems like this period is more relevant than most.

I’ve been making some effort over the last year to make up for this gap in history. Earlier this year, I read The Limits of Power, a short, incisive and generally depressing walk through the last 50 years of US foreign policy. It’s not really a primer on the subject, but if you’re interested in the last 50 years of history, I highly recommend including it in your reading.

Thinking about this gap in education, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a deeper reason for this. If I were a high school teacher, I’d imagine that it would be much more challenging to deal with relatively-recent historical issues in the same way that we deal with issues before the parents’ lifetimes. For example, I’d expect that it’s easier to craft a lesson around the Alien and Sedition Acts than it is to make one about the Patriot Act, because the former really isn’t controversial anymore (though maybe we’re returning to that state of affairs).

Eerily familiar

Monday, September 28th, 2009

A reader on Andrew Sullivan’s blog sends along this picture of the Little Rock school integration protests:

I hadn’t seen this before, but it’s interested that a lot of the same names (‘communism’, ‘antichrist’) were used in reference against racial integration that are now being leveled at Obama today, especially by the fringe. While some modern protesters are certainly racists, I don’t think that most are. It’s good that people protest unbridled government spending. I wonder where these people were during the Bush administration, though…