Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Merhaba

June 30, 2014

I found an e-mail in my spam filter written in an unfamiliar language.

Merhaba,
Memnun oldum,
Benim adım i kişiyi gördüm ve seni bilmek ilgilenmeye başladı Evelyn, ve, sizinle kalıcı bir ilişki kurmak benim için arzu varsa ben göndermek böylece benim e-posta adresine(evelynedgard2009@yahoo.com) yoluyla bana ulaşın benim senin ve benim hakkımda daha sizeanlatmak için resim,
Teşekkür ve Tanrı sizi korusun,
Evelyn.

It doesn’t look like any language that I have ever seen. I have, at various times, studied German, Spanish, Koine Greek, and Latin, and while I am far from proficient in any of these languages I can sometimes make out the general meaning of a text written in these languages. This text doesn’t seem to be related to any of them. It is written in the Latin Alphabet, which narrows down the possibilities, but none of the words seem to be familiar. There was a translation written below.

Hello,
Nice meeting you,
My name is Evelyn i saw your contact and became interested to know you, and establish a lasting relationship with you, if you have the desire for me Please contact me through my email address (evelynedgard2009@yahoo.com) so that i can send my pictures to you and tell you more about me,
Thanks and God bless you,
Evelyn.

I don’t think I will take Evelyn up on her offer. I decided to run the foreign text through Google Translate in detect language mode and see if that would identify the language. It turns out that it is Turkish. I don’t think I have ever seen written Turkish before.

Linguists classify Turkish in the Turkic family which is considered part of the Altaic group, though this is controversial. This would make Turkish related to various Central Asian languages, mostly spoken in the Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union like Khazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc. It is more distantly related to Mongolian and various languages spoken in Siberia. Korean and Japanese may be still more distantly related, but this is uncertain. What is certain is that Turkish is not an Indo-European language like English, or the other languages that I am familiar with, which would account for the way in which I could not decipher a single word of the message.

Turkish used to be written in the Ottoman-Turkish Script which was based on the Arabic alphabet. This alphabet was not particularly well suited for the Turkish language, most notably for the absence of short vowels. Arabic is a Semitic language, in which it is not all that important to distinguish vowels in writing. Turkish has more vowels than Arabic and fewer distinctions between certain consonant sounds. Therefore, as part of the reforms that Kemal Ataturk enacted with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a new alphabet based on the Latin Alphabet was created for Turkish. The new alphabet had 29 letters, mostly the same as other European languages but with q,x, and w omitted and six added. They are:

a, b, c, ç, d, e, f, g, ğ, h, ı, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, ö, p, r, s, ş, t, u, ü, v, y, and z

The letters sound about the same as in English, with some exceptions, and I suppose that if I tried to read that message aloud a Turk might understand me. I wouldn’t know what I was saying, though.

English: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introducing the...

English: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introducing the new Turkish alphabet to the people of Kayseri. September 20, 1928 Türkçe: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk 20 Eylül 1928’de, Kayseri’deki Cumhuriyet Halk Fırkası önünde, halka yeni Türk harflerini öğretirken (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Turkish is what linguists call a agglutinative language. Turkish speakers pile affixes onto a base, resulting in long words that in English might be expressed by a phrase, or even a sentence. Here is an example from Wikipedia on how this works.

Avrupa                                                                  Europe
Avrupalı                                                              of Europe
Avrupalılaş                                                         become of Europe
Avrupalılaştır                                                   to make become of Europe
Avrupalılaştırama                                           be unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadık                                   we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadık                                   that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadık                                   one that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadıklar                             those that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımız                    our those that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımızdan            of our those that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmış     is reportedly of our those that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınız you are reportedly of our those that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınızcasına as if you are reportedly of our those that we were unable to Europeanize

 

Good grief. Every suffix has a meaning or conveys grammatical information. Some other agglutinative languages are Japanese, Eskimo, Sumerian, and Klingon. English is, by the way, somewhere between a synthetic language, one that uses inflections like German or Latin, and an isolating language, like Chinese. We used to have many inflections but have lost most of them over the centuries.

Well, even though I have no intention of contacting Evelyn or sharing pictures with her, I should thank her for giving me the excuse to learn a little about the Turkish language. It has been interesting.

 

The Christian Dark Ages II: The Early Middle Ages

June 28, 2014

In the previous post, I wrote against the all too widely held belief that the Middle Ages, that period of time between around AD 500-1500 was a Dark Age of ignorance, poverty, and religious fanaticism. No historian has held such a view for more than a century or longer, yet the idea of the Dark Ages still has many followers, mostly, it seems by anti-Christian polemicists eager to revive the outdated trope of an eternal war between science and religion. Since the Middle Ages were a very religious period of time, there could have been no scientific advances. Thus, there are quotes like the ones I copied from an atheist.

I am sure you have heard of the Dark Ages, but if not I’ll help you out. This was when, basically, science was outlawed, to the extent that if you were doing something that the church deemed blasphemous you were killed. This is when we hunted for witches because the bible says to kill witches, homosexuals, those who commit adultery, and the list goes on. If you were not a believer in god you were killed.

In addition this was also the time when the Crusades were going on. So we were killing both our own people and the people of other nations in the name of god. Following god’s laws was one of the worst times in history (IMO).

And Ayn Rand.

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival, leaving nothing but scraps for their rulers to loot, refusing to think, to venture, to produce, when the ultimate collector of their profits and the final authority on truth or error was the whim of some gilded degenerate sanctioned as superior to reason by divine right and by grace of a club.

Along with this picture

darkages

In my previous post, I hope I showed that the High Middle Ages, from AD 1000-1350, were far from being a dark age. The High Middle Ages were, in fact, among the most dynamic and brilliant in human history. What of the period before the High Middle Ages, the Early Middle Ages from around 500-1000?

The Early Middle Ages could more justly be called the Dark Ages. This was a prolonged period relative economic and cultural stagnation. There were immense dislocations during the fifth century, when the Western half of the Roman Empire collapsed after the invasions and migrations of the Germans tribes and the Huns. Trade and urbanization declined as did education and literacy. It proved to be very difficult to maintain a high level of civilization in the face of incessant war. Still, when the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, and others settled down in the kingdoms they carved out of the Roman Empire, their kings invariably tried to restore Roman civilization with varying degrees of success. Then, when things began to get better, new waves of invaders, the Avars, Bulgars, Moors would disrupt things once more.

Europe, after the "fall" of the Roman Empire

Europe, after the “fall” of the Roman Empire

Under the Merovingian and Carolingian kings, the Franks conquered most of Western Europe. Their greatest king, Charlemagne, even tried, with partial success, to restore the Roman Empire in the West. He realized how far civilization had declined and set about trying to improve education and culture in his vast realm. This is the period known as the Carolingian Renaissance and it is thanks to efforts of Charlemagne’s scribes that many Latin texts survived from antiquity.  Unfortunately, Charlemagne’s empire broke up within a century of his death due to quarrels among his grandchildren and more invaders, this time the Viking, the Magyars and the Saracens.

In the East, the Roman Empire remained intact for two centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. They were hard beset by the Arab invasions of the eighth century. For a century, the Roman or Byzantine Empire, as it is often called in its Medieval incarnation, fought for its life against the Arabs fired with enthusiasm for their new faith of Islam and during this century, even Byzantium suffered from a relatively dark age. The Byzantines withstood the attacks, and incidentally saved Western Civilization just as it was beginning and after their borders were secure, around 800, the Byzantine Empire quickly recovered to become the most powerful and advanced state in Europe.

The history of the Dark Ages, then,was not the history of ignorant religious fanatics wantonly destroying knowledge and suppressing science. It was not a era of intelligence on strike. Rather, the Early Middle Ages were an era in which men worked valiantly in the face of seemingly insuperable difficulties to maintain some level of civilization. Christianity, far from suppressing knowledge and science, played a key role in the preservation of culture. Christianity is a religion of the book and therefore requires, at least in theory, a literate clergy. To meet this need, the Church established cathedral and monastic schools, which kept literacy alive even through the darkest periods. The expansion of Christianity into northern and eastern Europe spread literacy to hitherto illiterate peoples. Western Catholic missionaries taught the Latin alphabet to the Irish, Germans, Anglo-Saxons, and eventually the Northmen. Eastern Orthodox missionaries introduced the adapted Greek letters that we call the Cyrillic alphabet to the Slavs.

In western Europe, knowledge of the ancient Greek scholars was lost and few people could read any Greek.  In that sense the Early Middle Ages might be considered a dark age, yet there was a continuing Latin literary tradition. Contrary to what is still widely believed, there was no general decline in technology during the Early Middle Ages. In most respects there was a steady progress in technological innovation including some important inventions.  Such inventions included the moldboard plow, the horse collar, stirrups and horse shoes, the Carolingian miniscule, the three field crop rotation as well as increased use of legumes to replenish the soil. Better iron smelting techniques were developed and there was wider use of watermills. There was a decline in some areas, especially in architecture, mostly because the various successor states to the Roman Empire lacked the resources to erect large buildings or maintain extensive networks of roads.

To put the matter simply, there was no such thing as the Christian Dark Ages. Christianity did not cause a thousand-year dark age of ignorance and squalor. If it had not been for the advances made during the Middle Ages, it is likely that modern science would never have developed and it was not a coincidence that modern science developed in Christian Europe. Had it not been for the Christian Dark Ages, we would not be exploring the galaxy by now. Perhaps we would only be starting to explore the Earth.

The Christian Dark Ages I:The High Middle Ages

June 26, 2014

I have seen this graphic here and there on the Internet.

darkages

The atheist blog where I stole that particular image provides an explanation of the Christian Dark Ages.

I am sure you have heard of the Dark Ages, but if not I’ll help you out. This was when, basically, science was outlawed, to the extent that if you were doing something that the church deemed blasphemous you were killed. This is when we hunted for witches because the bible says to kill witches, homosexuals, those who commit adultery, and the list goes on. If you were not a believer in god you were killed.

In addition this was also the time when the Crusades were going on. So we were killing both our own people and the people of other nations in the name of god. Following god’s laws was one of the worst times in history (IMO).

Ayn Rand described the Dark Ages by having John Galt, the protagonist of her book, “Atlas Shrugged” saying,

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival, leaving nothing but scraps for their rulers to loot, refusing to think, to venture, to produce, when the ultimate collector of their profits and the final authority on truth or error was the whim of some gilded degenerate sanctioned as superior to reason by divine right and by grace of a club.

Is any of this true? Were the Middle Ages a period of Darkness in which religious fanatics ran amok,  science was a crime punishable by death, and men of intelligence went on strike? Well, no. The idea that there was a thousand-year period of poverty, ignorance and stagnation caused by fanatic Christians who were opposed to any sort of intellectual endeavor is the result of a dramatic oversimplification of Medieval history and anti-Christian bigotry. It is simply not the truth.

There are not many historians nowadays who would fell comfortable labeling any period of the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages. This is not simply due to political correctness, but an acknowledgement that the period from around AD 500-1500 in European  history was too complex and diverse to be so simply labeled. There were indeed times and places in that period of history that were very dark, but there were also very bright times and places which attained a very highly developed civilization. Any two word phrase simply cannot do justice to the vast sweep of Medieval European History.

In general, historians divide the Middle Ages into the Early Middle Ages, from around 500-1000, the High Middle Ages, from around 1000-1350, and the Late Middle Ages, from around 1350-1500. I will ignore the Late Middle Ages since that period of time is usually referred to as the Renaissance, except to say that there was a sort of mini-dark age in the wake of the Black Death of 1349 and the general breakdown of Medieval institutions throughout the fourteenth fifteenth century.

Europe in 1190

Europe in 1190

I have already dealt with the Scholastic philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages and the important role they played in paving the way for the development of modern science. The High Middle Ages were the period in which the university was developed. European scholars gained access to ancient texts in Greek, and Arabic.  The population throughout Europe increased dramatically. More lands were cleared for settlement. Long distance trade expanded and modern banking and capitalism began to develop. Politically, this was the age in which nationalism began to develop and European states began to be more centralized and more efficiently governed. This was also an age in which the city states of Italy and norther Europe could flourish. Culturally, new movements in art and architecture began and literature began to be written in vernacular languages. The High Middle Ages saw an increase in religious devotion, along with the intellectual ferment, which should put to rest the idea that Christian piety and science are forever at odds. The Dominican and Franciscan monastic orders were introduced and there was an increase in religious activity among the laity which foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation. Among the new technologies either invented by Europeans or introduced to Europe were paper making, the magnetic compass, eyeglasses, the wind mill, the spinning wheel, the first mechanical clock, gunpowder and Arabic numerals, along with the re-introduction of the abacus.

Even the Crusades were a positive development.  As we will see, the Early Middle Ages was a period in which Europe was continually invaded from without. The Crusades were not just the result of mindless religious fanaticism, in which Christian barbarians slaughtered anyone who worshiped the wrong god. The Crusades were an attempt by the nations of Christendom to go on the offensive against enemies who had been threatening them for centuries. Transporting armies across a continent and defeating the Moslims on their own ground took a considerable amount of wealth and preparation. The fact that the Crusaders were victorious in the First Crusade is an early indication that the Europeans were beginning to pull ahead in technology.

The High Middle Ages were not a Dark  Age by any means. Instead, the High Middle Ages must be counted among the most brilliant and dynamic in human history. We would not be where we are today if the High Middle Ages had really been the Christian Dark Ages.

I had intended to take up the subject of the Early Middle Ages which could more justly be called a Dark Age but this post is getting long so I think the Early Middle Ages will have to have a post of its own.

 

 

 

The Incredible Shrinking President

June 13, 2014

That is the title of an article Walter Russel Mead has written in the Daily News. When you consider the contrast between the hype when President Obama was first elected and the public’s increasingly negative view of his job performance, he certainly seems to be shrinking. He came into office promising to heal the planet and now it seems he can’t get anything done. As Mead puts it,

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Less than two years after voters gave President Barack Obama a strong mandate for a second term, the White House is struggling against perceptions that it is losing its grip.

At home, the bungled rollout of the Obamacare website and the shocking revelations about an entrenched culture of incompetence and fraud in the VA have undercut faith in the President’s managerial competency.

Abroad, a surging Russia, an aggressive China, a war torn Middle East and a resurgent terror network are putting his foreign policy credentials to the test. With the GOP hoping to seize control of the Senate in November’s midterm elections, and the inevitable decline in presidential power that occurs as second term presidents move toward lame-duck status, Obama risks being sidelined and marginalized for the remaining two years of his term.

Mead has more to say about the president’s troubles but it is the second to last paragraph that intrigues me.

With 30 months to go, Obama still may have a chance to regain control of both the domestic and international agendas, but to do that he’s going to have to change his approach. He needs to focus on the nitty-gritty, day-to-day business of governing; six years into his administration, the public is fed up with promises and hungry for concrete accomplishments.

That has always been the problem with Barack Obama. He seems never to have been very interested in the day to day business of governing at any point in his political career. His colleagues in the Illinois State Senate and the US Senate remarked that he pref erred giving speeches on the Senate floor rather doing the actual work of preparing legislation in committees. He didn’t seem all that interested in the details of his most important legislation as president, Obamacare.

It is worth contrasting President Obama with another liberal Democratic president who had an ambitious agenda to change America, Lyndon B. Johnson. Both men believed in the power of the federal government to make life better for every American and both entered office with bold plans.On the whole, Johnson was more successful than Obama has been. Johnson was able to get Congress to pass his Great Society programs and civil rights legislation by large, bi-partisan majorities. Johnson took a personal interest in his policies and had an active part in designing the Great Society. Lyndon B. Johnson had spent twenty-four years in Congress before becoming John F. Kennedy’s vice president, serving in both Houses. He knew just who to talk to in order to get a bill passed and he knew how to persuade, intimidate or neutralize his opponents. He was a gregarious man who seemed to genuinely love politicking and policy.

That just isn’t Obama’s style and I doubt it ever can be. He just doesn’t seem to like dealing with members of Congress of either party all that much. There are reports that he is frustrated by the need to lobby people in Congress to get bills passed and would prefer to meet with world leaders and interesting people. He seems to believe that he can get things done by making grand proclamations and then every right-minded person will rush to make his policies happen. It seems that he does not believe that the people who oppose his policies might have different values or priorities and some compromise might serve the interests of both sides. Instead he thinks that any opposition can only be to personal dislike, racism, greed, or some other base motive. Johnson had great skill in crafting legislation to appeal to a broad majority. Obama seems not to be interested in trying

Since it is unlikely that a fifty-two year old man will be able to change his entire personality, the next two years of Obama’s presidency will undoubtedly be much like the last six. It’s going to be a long two years.

If D-Day Had Failed

June 9, 2014

I meant to write this on D-Day but with work and my own laziness, I procrastinated. Still, better late than never. There was an article which I read courtesy of Real Clear Politics, titled 5 Ways D-Day Could Have Been a Disaster written by Michael Peck  and published on D-Day in The National Interest. This article listed five ways in which things could have gone very wrong on that fateful June 6, 1944. Because the Allies did win World War 2, we are used to thinking that it was inevitable that they would win, but that is by no means certain. Launching an amphibious assault on the shores of Normandy was a terribly risky thing to do. Even under the best conditions sea-borne invasions are difficult and dangerous. The odds were against success No one knew that better than General Eisenhower. Before the battle he had written a brief statement to be released to the press in the event of failure. Eisenhower and his staff took extraordinary measures to keep the location of the invasion secret, even preparing a phantom army commanded by General Patton that seemed to be poised to land at Calais. If the Germans had discovered the location of the actual invasion and had troops ready to defend the beaches, the Normandy invasion would have been over almost before it began.

Reflection on D-Day

Reflection on D-Day (Photo credit: DVIDSHUB)

What would have happened if the Allied troops landing at Normandy had been defeated? The overall course of the war might not have changed all that much. Germany still would have lost. The destruction of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad the previous year ended any realistic hope of a German victory. The Soviet army would have continued to fight its way east. The British and Americans would have continued to fight in Italy. The invasion of southern France that took place in August might have gone ahead. Then again that invasion was successful because there had been a breakout from Normandy. Perhaps in the wake of a defeat it would have been deemed too risky.

There probably would have been another attempt to liberate France. The buildup for a second invasion would have taken time. It may be that the second attempt would not have been made until the following summer. World War 2 might have lasted for another year. If so the Soviets might have been able to move further west than they actually did. Maybe the meeting of the Allies would have taken place on the Rhine instead of the Elbe. Instead of a divided Germany, there would have been a united Communist Germany. That would have changed the balance of power in Europe in Russia’s favor. Maybe, with Soviet troops on their borders, the French and Italian Communists would have been more emboldened to seize power after the war. There is no way to know.

There are a couple of wild cards. Joseph Stalin was not a trusting man and he always suspected that the Allies were planning to fight Hitler to the last Russian.  This was why he agreed to the Ribbontrop-Molotov pact. He continually demanded that Roosevelt and Churchill open up a second front to relieve the Soviet Union. After a failure at Normandy, Stalin might have concluded that either the invasion was not really meant to succeed or that an invasion couldn’t succeed. Stalin might then have considered trying to negotiate an armistice with Hitler. Stalin wouldn’t have trusted Hitler, after Hitler had double crossed him by invading the Soviet Union and he certainly wouldn’t have forgiven him. Stalin, however, was patient and had often made strategic retreats in his rise to power in order to lull his enemies into complacency. Stalin might have decided to try for a separate peace until Hitler was engaged with the British and the Americans and then launched an attack.

I think this outcome unlikely, though. In 1944 the Red Army had the initiative and was steadily driving the Germans back. Stalin probably wouldn’t have wanted to slow or stop their momentum. Even if he had sued for an armistice, it is unlikely Hitler would have agreed. A Hitler who allowed the disaster at Stalingrad to take place and who ordered his army not to retreat one inch was not thinking very rationally.

Another wild card was the atomic bomb. The first atomic bomb was detonated at Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945. By this time Germany had already surrendered. There was thus no question of using the bomb on the Germans. If the fighting was still going on, things would have been different. Since Truman authorized the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as much to deter the Soviets from post war aggression as to defeat Japan, the atomic bomb would have been used on Germany. Perhaps the first atomic bombs would have been dropped on Munich and Hamburg. I don’t think that Hitler would have surrendered, even then. By the end of the war, he had become nihilistic enough to prefer Germany destroyed rather than occupied. An atomic bombing of Germany might have sparked a coup among his top officials and generals.

If the first two atomic bombs had been dropped on Germany in August, 1945, what of Japan? We only had the three atomic bombs, so none would have been available to use on Japan. The Japanese were clearly defeated by then, but they had some hope that as long as an invasion of Japan itself was prevented there could be some sort of negotiated peace. Since the die-hard militarists did not surrender even when the first atomic bomb was used at Hiroshima in Japan, the use of the atomic bombs on Germany probably would not have convinced them. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 8, just as the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the war ended, so the Soviet Union did not have much influence on post war Japan. If the war had lasted longer, perhaps Russia and America would have invaded Japan  and the country would have been divided as Germany was. I don’t think the US would have attempted a landing on Japan after we realized that the atomic bomb was workable. I think that more bombs would have been rushed into production and the US would have intensified conventional bombing. I do not think that the Soviets had the capability to launch an amphibious assault on Japan.

Of course, there is no way to know what would have happened if D-Day had failed and maybe my speculations are not very realistic. I think it is obvious, however, that things could have gone very badly. World War 2 could have lasted longer and more men might have died. We all owe the brave men who fought at Normandy a debt of gratitude that we will never be able to repay.

D-Day 65th Anniversary

D-Day 65th Anniversary (Photo credit: The U.S. Army)

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The Minstrel Show

June 5, 2014

I would have thought that the job of a history teacher at a middle school was to actually teach history, that is the various events that happened in the past. For example, a teacher might wish to mention racist practices that were accepted in the past, such as slavery or minstrel shows, that now are unacceptable because attitudes have changed for the better. However, according to this story at Yahoo News, teaching about past racism is now considered racist.

A middle school history teacher in small-town southeastern Michigan has been placed on paid administrative leave because he informed students that white entertainers used to paint their faces black to imitate black people and showed kids a video about it.

The teacher is Alan Barron, reports the Monroe News. The 59-year-old teacher has taught in the local school district for well over three decades and is retiring in just two weeks.

The suspension occurred after an assistant principal observed Barron teaching an eighth-grade class. Barron’s topic for the day was racial segregation laws during the Jim Crow era. The lesson included a video which showed how white actors commonly used theatrical makeup known as blackface — a practice which began in the nineteenth century and lasted over 100 years.

The unidentified assistant principal concluded that Barron’s lesson about how entertainers used to be racist was itself racist, according to the local paper. The assistant principal also apparently ordered that Barron stop the video as it was being played.

Parents with kids at the school have overwhelmingly opposed the suspension.

One parent, Adrienne Aaron, who has a daughter in the class, spoke with the Monroe News.

“It had nothing to do with racism,” Aaron (whose husband is black) said. “History is history. We need to educate our kids to see how far we’ve come in America. How is that racism?”

“He’s one of the best teachers we’ve had,” Aaron added. “We can’t believe that this is happening.”

Other parents have taken to social media. In a missive on Facebook, a frustrated parent called Barron a “great” teacher who “has changed many children’s lives.”

A school district spokesman, Bobb Vergiels, refused to say that Barron was suspended. Instead, Vergiels said, Barron is “on leave.”

“Mr. Barron has been on leave for about a week while we look into a reported situation in his classroom,” a school district statement obtained by the Monroe News reads. “Because this is a personnel matter that is going through the teacher-contract required steps, we cannot comment any further.”

As a result of the suspension, Barron cannot attend any school functions including an annual banquet during which he and other retiring teachers will be honored.

I really do not understand what the problem is here. Should Mr. Barron not teach the truth about the history of race relations in the US? Should his students not learn about aspects of American culture that may not be acceptable now, nevertheless did play an important role in our cultural development? The minstrel shows were terribly racist but they were very popular in their time and influenced White perceptions of African-American culture and contributed to the development of other forms of popular entertainment.

In a way it is a shame that the minstrel shows are so toxically politically incorrect by today’s standards. The minstrel shows were a uniquely American art form and the earliest American contribution to the theater. Although White actors blackened their faces to portray Blacks at least since the early 1600’s, the minstrel shows, featuring supposed slave on plantations began around 1830-1840. While most of the actors were Whites, there were minstrel shows featuring troupes of Black entertainers, in black face,  particularly after the Civil War. These all-Black troupes claimed that that their acts were more authentic representations of Black culture. They could be popular, but Whites often resented them if they became too successful.

Minstrel PosterBillyVanWare

Minstrel PosterBillyVanWare (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The shows themselves usually consisted of three acts. The first act was a song and dance number as the troupe of entertainers came on stage and introduced themselves to the audience. There was an interlocutor who acted as a sort of master of ceremonies and was the straight man for the jokes. The second act had a structure somewhat like a variety show with music or acrobatics. Often there was a stump speech or oration given in Black dialect for humorous effect. This speech could be nonsense or perhaps something like a stand up routine, or it could be about a social issue, done in the guise of an ill-educated Black man making a fool out of himself. The third act was often a skit set on a Southern plantation. Sometimes the actors played parodies of serious drama, such as Shakespeare. Just before and during the Civil War, skits based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin became popular.

The actors generally portrayed stock characters such as the Old Uncle, the head of the slave family, the simple-minded, happy-go-lucky slave, the Dandy or Black man who imitated Whites and thought himself their equal, and during the Civil War, the Black soldier, more accustomed to retreat than fight. Female characters, usually portrayed by men or boys in drag included the Mammy and the Wench. Blacks were, of course, always shown as being dim-witted, lazy, and generally content to be slaves. They always spoke in Black dialect, and the Dandy trying to speak in standard English was a source of humor.

These shows were undoubtedly racist and offensive to African-Americans but they could also be subversive. The fool making the stump speech could make social criticism that might have ended with him being run off the stage if he had played it straight. The black face enabled audiences to accept such criticism since it was only an ignorant Black who was speaking. The minstrel shows introduced Whites to Black culture, though an introduction filtered by prejudice. It is not certain to what extent the song and dance numbers were authentically Black in origin, but the minstrel shows had a powerful influence on the development of American popular music, even among Blacks.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the minstrel shows were eclipsed in popularity by the development of vaudeville. Even so, new trends in theater and the emerging film industry often incorporated themes from the minstrel shows, especially with Black actors who often found themselves restricted to minstrel show type roles in the early years of the movies.

As I said, it is a shame that such a uniquely American and influential form of entertainment should also be so racist and politically incorrect. Perhaps the fact that these shows were so popular in their day doesn’t say much that is good about the history of race relations in America. Then again, perhaps these shows made Whites somewhat more sympathetic to Blacks than they otherwise might have been. In any case, it is surely a sign of progress that such blatantly racist entertainment is not tolerated today.

 

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Black Confederate Soldiers

June 2, 2014

Yes, they did really exist, even though dailykos states that they were a myth concocted by right wing “wingnuts”. There were never very many Black Confederate soldiers and I very much doubt any of them ever saw combat, but they did exist. Actually the story of the Confederate Blacks is an interesting one about men willing to fight for their country, and not being allowed to until it was too late.

The problem that the Confederate States of America had throughout the Civil War was that almost in everything needed to conduct a war, the North had more than the South. The Union had the greater population with 20 million against the Rebel’s 9 million. In fact the ratio of men of military age was much worse for the South, 4,070,000 to 1,140,000, because around 3,500,000 of the South’s population were Black slaves who weren’t expected to fight.  In fact, slavery may have been the South’s greatest disadvantage. Slaves have to be watched or they may try to escape or slack off on their work. The Confederacy did have some advantage with geography and they didn’t have to invade and conquer the North to win. They could fight a defensive war. Conquering and occupying a country is harder and more expensive than defending against an invader. Unfortunately for the South, the North had a great enough advantage to make it possible, albeit with much bloodshed.

One logical way to offset at least some of the Confederate disadvantage in population would have been to enlist at least some of the  Black men to fight, in segregated units with White officers, of course. You might wonder why any slave would want to fight for his masters and whether they could be trusted. Well, not all the Black population in the South were slaves. According to the 1860 census, there were 3,653,870 Blacks in the states that seceded from the Union the following year, 3,521,110 were slaves but 132,760, or around 4% were free Blacks. Many Blacks who were emancipated moved North but many stayed in the South, because it was their home or they had relatives still in bondage. Although there was a lot of discrimination against them, some of these free Blacks managed to prosper and there was even a handful of Black slave owners. Some of these free Blacks were willing to fight, either out of patriotism or the hope of some improvement in their circumstances. Even slaves might be induced to fight with the promise of emancipation.

Needless to say, Southern Whites were not enthusiastic about the idea of Blacks, free or slave fighting for the Confederacy. The slave-owning planter class was especially against the idea. Part of this was simple racism. No one believed that Africans had the necessary skills or qualities needed to make good soldiers. Also, it didn’t seem to be prudent to arm slaves, or former slaves and teach them to fight. Aside from the possibility of a slave insurrection, the sight of Black soldiers marching off to war might encourage insolence among the slaves, making it harder to maintain control. Actually, quite a few slave owners thought that the mere existence of free Blacks set a bad example. Over time, the southern states made it more difficult for a slave owner to emancipate his slaves.

At the beginning of the Civil War, some of the free Blacks of New Orleans formed the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. This militia unit of 1135 men was organised on May 2, 1861. The 1st Louisiana Native Guard was actually the first unit in America to have Black officers, although Louisiana governor Thomas Overton Moore appointed White officers to command the unit. The Confederate government did not have any use for the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. It did not provide the men with uniforms or weapons.

1st Louisiana Native Guard

1st Louisiana Native Guard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The men were able to obtain their own weapons and uniforms at their own expense and marched in a parade in New Orleans on January 8, 1861. They were not given any duties, even as non-combatants and were disbanded by the Louisiana state legislature on February 15, 1862.

Although there are unconfirmed reports of Blacks fighting for the South, there were no Black units officially organized, nor was the idea of enlisting Blacks given any consideration. Slave labor was used in various support roles, as teamsters, hospital attendants, and slaves were increasingly used to replace to labor of the White men who were absent to fight in the war. It seems most likely that any Blacks who were seen fighting were servants obliged to pick up a rifle to protect themselves and their masters. As the war went on and the South began to lose, a few people began to consider the unthinkable. In 1864, Major-General Pat Cleburne of the Army of Tennessee called a meeting of the leading officers to propose freeing the slaves and enlisting them to fight. In this way, he argued, the South’s disadvantage of slavery could be turned into its advantage. This proposal was not well received by his fellow officers and his commander, Joseph E. Johnston, advised him not to press the matter any further. Word of Cleburne’s radical proposal leaked out, however, and although he was one of the South’s better generals, he was not considered for promotion again before he died later that year.

President Jefferson Davis also began to realize that it might be necessary to enlist Blacks. He realized that any mention of such a proposal would be extremely controversial, so he put off suggesting such a course of action until there was no alternative. By the start of 1865, it seemed that that time had come. On January 11, 1865, General Robert E. Lee wrote to the Confederate Congress urging them to enlist Black slaves to fight in exchange for freedom. The Confederate Congress debated the legislation for two months, finally passing a bill on March 13, by a very slim margin. President Davis signed the bill the next day and made it military policy to allow slaves to fight, with the permission of their masters, in exchange for manumission. Even then, most southern Whites resented the idea of allowing Blacks to fight. When the first Black recruits marched through Richmond in their new, gray uniforms, Whites threw mud at them. It was too late, in any case. On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered to  General Grant at Appomattox Court House. By the end of May the war was over.

Would it have made a difference if the Blacks in the South had been allowed to fight? Probably not. Even with the  additional manpower, the North still had a considerable advantage in numbers over the South, not to mention its other advantages. Then again, I think the greatest advantage the Union had over the Confederacy was in the quality of the leadership of the two sides. Jefferson Davis was capable enough, but he didn’t have Lincoln’s skill at placating critics or getting rivals to work together. Confederate diplomacy was amateurish. The governors of some of the southern states worked against the policies of the central government.  General Lee didn’t really understand the war on the continental scale to the extent that Grant and Sherman did. A Confederate government that was flexible and open minded enough to be willing to consider having the Blacks fight before the last month of the war might have been able to use the resources of the South to win. Of course, a Southern leadership that was open minded and flexible might have realized that slavery was an institution that was quickly becoming  discredited in the modern world and have adopted some plan of emancipation, thus avoiding the need for the war.

 

 

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A Bug or a Feature?

May 24, 2014

Some recent events in Africa, the death sentence for a young woman from Sudan for being a Christian, and Boko Haram‘s kidnapping of more than two hundred schoolgirls has elicited condemnations from people around the world, including some in the West who believe that any criticism of Islam counts as islamophobia. I suppose that would be too much to hope that these people will finally make the connection and realize that we, the civilized world, really do have a problem with Islam. No doubt they will mouth the usual platitudes about Islam being a religion of peace and explain that these detestable deeds are the actions of ‘extremists’ such that are found in any religion. Well, people of virtually every religion have committed atrocious deed in the name of their gods, yet somehow these days, this seems to happen far more often among the practitioners of one particular religion, Islam. The question that needs to be answered is whether violence , terrorism and intolerance are bugs, problems with misunderstanding the teachings of religion, or features, understanding the teachings of the religion all too well.

Before going any further, I would like to deal with a particular idea that I have seen in various places, the idea that Islam is where Christianity was several centuries ago. This notion has more to do with vague ideas about moral progress than with any serious study of the comparative histories of the two faiths. The idea seems to be that there is a definite direction to history in continuing moral improvement. This seems true enough. We no longer have slavery or burn witches. Still, I am not convinced that there has been any real change in human nature. We do not have slaves because we have machines. If our machines were to fail us, slavery, or some form of unfree labor would make a swift comeback. The history of the doctrines of every religions alternate between periods of comparative laxity and rigor. The more rigorous periods do not necessarily coincide with violence and intolerance. It is difficult to imagine a religious revival among the Jains or the Quakers producing suicide bombers. The idea that Islam is somehow behind Christianity and less morally developed is condescending and doesn’t really explain why Islamic rigor is more associated with violence than Buddhist or Christian rigor.

This idea also ignores the very real differences in the teachings of the two faiths. Jesus said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Mohammed agreed and added that dying by the sword in the cause of Allah was the greatest fate any man could hope for. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world”. Mohammed was a political and military leader as well as a prophet. A Christian who commits an act of terror is acting against the teachings of his Savior. A Muslim who commits an act of terrorism is following the instructions of his prophet.

I don’t recommend that you take my word for this. Consider that Sudanese woman. She has been sentenced to death for apostasy, leaving Islam. Almost everyone in the West finds any punishment at all for apostasy to be an infringement of religious liberty. In the Middle East, the death penalty for apostasy enjoys wide support.  Here is a defense of the death penalty for apostasy from what seems to be a fairly reasonably religious authority. Read the Koran. It is full of incitements to violence, especially Sura 9.

Consider these stories about Mohammed and his companions.

The apostle said, “Kill any Jew that falls into your power.”  Thereupon Muhayyisa leapt upon Ibn Sunayna, a Jewish merchant with whom they had social and business relations, and killed him.  Huwayyisa was not a Muslim at the time, though he was the elder brother.  When Muhayyisa killed [the Jew] Huwayyisa began to beat him, saying, “You enemy of God, did you kill him when much of the fat on your belly comes from his wealth?”  Muhayyisa answered, “Had the one who ordered me to kill him ordered me to kill you I would have cut your head off.”  This was the beginning of Huwayyisa’s acceptance of Islam… [Huwayyisa] replied exclaimed, “By God, a religion which can bring you to this is marvelous!” and he became a Muslim. (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 554)

When he asked who I was I told him that I was one of the [Muslims].  Then he laid down beside me and lifting up his voice began to sing: “I won’t be a Muslim as long as I live, nor heed to their religion give.”

I said (to myself) ‘you will soon know’ and as soon as the badu was asleep and snoring I got up and killed him in a more horrible way than any man has been killed.  I put the end of my bow in his sound eye, then I bore down on it until I it out at the back of his neck. (al-Tabari 1440)

When he [Muhammad] asked him about the rest he refused to produce it, so the apostle gave orders to al-Zubayr bin al-Awwam, “Torture him until you extract what he has.” So he kindled a fire with flint and steel on his chest until he was nearly dead. Then the apostle delivered him to Muhammad bin Maslama and he struck off his head.” (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 764)

Allah’s Apostle said, “Who is willing to kill Ka’b bin Al-Ashraf who has hurt Allah and His Apostle?” Thereupon Muhammad bin Maslama got up saying, “O Allah’s Apostle! Would you like that I kill him?” The Prophet said, “Yes,” Muhammad bin Maslama said, “Then allow me to say a (false) thing (i.e. to deceive Ka’b). “The Prophet said, “You may say it.” (Bukhari 59:369)

There are man, many more. These stories are from the hadiths, anecdotes about Mohammed’s sayings and deeds. These stories were transmitted orally for over a hundred years before Muslim scholars began to write them down. There is no way to know if any one of these anecdotes is a true account, if the story has become corrupt after numerous retellings, or if it has simply been fabricated. The scholars who collected these hadiths were aware of this problem and rejected many that they believed to be spurious. Even the ones that they collected were felt to have varying degrees of reliability. It doesn’t matter, though. The important point here is that these were actions that the first generations of Muslims believed to be worthy of approval and imitation. Violence in the name of Islam was something approved of and even part of the attraction of the faith. Read that first story again. Huwayyisa was so impressed by the willingness of his brother to kill a family friend that he immediately converted. (Either that or he was afraid his brother would kill him if he didn’t convert.) To the early Muslims, fighting was a way to get plunder in this life and paradise in the hereafter. Mohammed approved of violence and since he is considered to be the ideal for every Muslim to emulate, his followers ought also to approve of violence.

To answer the question then, violence and intolerance are features of Islam, not bugs.

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The Pale of Settlement

May 19, 2014

A little while back, I wrote about the English Pale, the system of English fortifications in Ireland which gave rise to the expression, “beyond the pale”. That word, pale, as been used in several other historical contexts, one notable example being the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe. The Pale of Settlement was not any sort of fortification of defense system, but it was a policy of the Russian Empire designed to keep an undesirable people, the Jews, out. Since Vladimir the Great, Prince of Kiev, converted to Christianity along with his entire kingdom, the Russians have been proud of their Orthodox Christian heritage. After the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 and went on to conquer most of Orthodox Eastern Europe, Russia stood strong as the last remaining bastion of the true Christian faith. (The Catholics of Western Europe didn’t count since they were vile heretics hardly better than the heathen Turks.)

Naturally the Czars of Russia did not want the sacred soil of  Mother Russia to be polluted by the footsteps of the Christ-killing Jews, so they made sure to keep the Jews out of the Empire. The problem was that beginning in the seventeenth and and eighteenth centuries, Russia started to expand westwards into Eastern Europe, mostly taking territories from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which formerly ruled over much of what is now western Russia, Belorussian, and the Ukraine. These territories, especially Poland had large numbers of Jews because earlier Polish kings had encouraged them to emigrate to Poland  in order to alleviate a shortage of skilled labor and merchants in the kingdom. Now,  most advanced, modern nations faced with a large population of undesirables would simply exterminate them. Russia, however, was somewhat backward and primitive so the Czars decided to simply exclude the detestable Jews from Russia proper while still permitting them to live in the conquered lands. It was Catherine the Great who first created the Pale of Settlement in 1791. In 1793, Poland was partitioned among Russia, Austria, and Prussia, bringing more Jews into the Pale.

English: Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772

English: Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Within the Pale, Jews were excluded from small agricultural settlements and villages, while their access to major cities was also limited. Most Jews lived in shtetls, Jewish communities in small towns. There were rare exceptions in which privileged Jews, mostly those with needed skills or large amounts of money were permitted to live outside the Pale, sometimes even in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Such permission was always conditional and could be revoked at any time. The boundaries of the Pale of Settlement could also be changed without warning and without consulting the Jews. The Russian government could also change the locations where Jews could reside within the Pale, again without warning or consultation. Life in the shtetls, then was precarious and impoverished. The Jews were subject to relocations and pogroms were not uncommon. There were quotas limiting the number of Jews who could attend Russian universities. Before 1827, Jews could not serve in the Russian army but were subject to double taxation to compensate. They were forbidden to hire Christian servants and often could not own land. The Czars often encouraged the persecution of the Jews to distract attention away from their own oppressive rule.

English: Map showing the percentage of Jews in...

English: Map showing the percentage of Jews in the and , c. 1905. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Despite the restrictions and discrimination, a rich cultural life flourished in the shtetls of the Pale. The Jews lived separately from their Gentile neighbors, speaking their own language, Yiddish, observing their own customs and largely governing themselves. The Jews formed social welfare organizations to help the more impoverished members of their community, especially students of the Yeshivas or religious schools. The Rabbis of the Pale of Settlement created new theological systems, particularly Hasidic Judaism. A literature in the Yiddish language flourished. One notable author was the humorist Sholem Aleichem, whose stories of shtetl life formed the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire was beginning to change and life in the Pale was also changing. Many young Jews were no longer content to live in a world apart. They began to speak the Russian language and adopt Russian customs. Many Jews, frustrated by the limitations of Czarist Russia emigrated to the Holy Land or to the United States. Those that remained behind tended to join radical groups such as the Bolsheviks and Jews played a prominent role in both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. World War I was the beginning of the end of the Pale of Settlement. Many Jews fled from the Pale into Russian proper in order to escape the fighting. Under the stresses of a losing war, the Czar’s government could no longer maintain any control over its subjects and the old restrictions on the Jews were increasingly ignored. Antisemitism also increased dramatically and throughout the World War and the Russian Civil War that followed, Jews were repeatedly massacred by those who blamed them for the disorders. The Provisional Government abolished the Pale of Settlement after the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, while Poland became an independent nation once more. The Jews, and the other minorities of the Russian Empire were granted equality with the Russians.

It is something of a sad irony that the end of the Czars who oppressed the Jews also meant the end of the distinctive culture of Russian Judaism. Many Jews had joined the various organizations that were devoted to ending the rule of the Czars. Jews were over represented in such radical groups as the Bolsheviks, yet the militant atheist Communist government proved to be more cruelly oppressive than the worst of the Czars. With the horrors of the Civil War, the hatred of the Communists toward any religious expression and the destruction of the Jews throughout Europe, little now remains of the formerly vibrant communities. Those Jews who remain in Russia are mostly secular and assimilated. Their numbers are shrinking rather than growing. The Yiddish language is rarely used today.  Yet, a remnant of this culture remains in the Russian Jewish communities of Israel and the United States. So, the glory of the world becomes less than it was.

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The Election of 1812

May 15, 2014

The election of 1812 was America’s first wartime election. James Madison was a man of peace and hadn’t wanted a war. Unfortunately the continuing refusal of Britain and France to respect the United States’ neutrality made war necessary. The British were the worst offenders since they were in the habit of impressing American sailors into the Royal Navy. The War Hawks in Congress, Especially Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun demanded war to protect the national honor against such egregious abuses. They also hoped that it would be possible for the United States to conquer Canada and seize Florida from Spain.  In June of 1812, Congress declared war at President Madison‘s request and the War of 1812 began.

The United States was not ready for war. The American army was small and better prepared to defend against Indian raids than fight against a professional European army. The state militias were poorly disciplined and often refused to serve outside their states. The charter for the First Bank of the United States had not been renewed because of the Jeffersonians’ hostility to the idea of a national bank and so the United States found it difficult to pay the expenses of a war. The war was not popular in New England. New England had been most harmed by British and French interference with trade, but the New Englanders feared that war would destroy their economy altogether.The US Navy was also small, but the United States had been expanding the number of ships and, backed by privateers, was actually able to hold its own against the largest navy in the world.

The army didn’t do so well. The invasion of Canada was a disaster. The British counter attack into Chesapeake Bay resulted in the capture of Washington and the burning of the White House. Only the fact that the British were preoccupied with defeating Napoleon prevented America from outright defeat in the first years of the war. Eventually, the Americans were able to learn from their mistakes and as the war progressed were able to win victories against the British and their Native American allies. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the causes for disputes between the United Kingdom and the United States ended and, in 1815, the two countries made peace, based on the pre-war status quo.

But, all this was in the future. Just a month before the War of 1812 began,  the Democratic-Republican members of Congress met in a caucus and nominated James Madison for another term as president. Since Madison’s vice president died of a heart attack that April, the caucus selected Elbridge Gerry of  Massachusetts  for vice president. Not everybody was happy with this slate and the Democratic-Republicans in the New York legislature decided to support DeWitt Clinton, the mayor of New York City and George Clinton’s nephew.

Since their strength was in New England, the Federalists opposed the War of 1812. There was some support for Chief Justice John Marshall, but ultimately the Federalists decided in their caucus in September to support DeWitt Clinton in the hope that he would deliver New York for them. A caucus in Pennsylvania nominated Jared Ingersoll,  the state’s attorney general for vice president. Clinton agreed to support Ingersoll in order to win Pennsylvania. A few Federalists supported Rufus King.

Clinton and his supporters ran a two sided campaign. In New England, he was a man who wanted peace and deplored the damage the war caused to New England’s economy. In the South and West, he supported a vigorous prosecution of the war. It didn’t work. Madison won reelection without too much trouble. Clinton had gotten more votes than any Federalist candidate since Adams but it wasn’t enough. The final results in the popular vote were 140,431 or 50.4% for Madison and 132,781 or 47.6% for Clinton, although only nine of the eighteen states chose their electors by popular vote. In the electoral college Clinton won 89 votes. He won New England, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Madison won the west and south along with Vermont, giving him 128 electoral votes. It was a closer election for Madison than his first one, but he got a second term.

 

The Election of 1812

The Election of 1812

 

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