Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Sixteen Years

September 11, 2017

It has been sixteen years since 9/11. We said that we would never forget, but I am afraid we are already forgetting. They are even starting to teach in colleges that it was our fault.  A person turning eighteen this year, old enough to vote, was only four on that fateful day. I don’t imagine that they would have any clear personal memories of that day, unless they or someone close was personally affected. I am afraid that we are trying to forget the most important lesson of 9/11, that the world is a dangerous place, and there are people out there who would like to destroy us.

Well, I will never forget that dreadful day fifteen years ago, no matter how long I live. We will just have to keep telling the story to the younger generations so they will not have to experience any such attacks for themselves. With that in mind, I am going to copy what I wrote three years ago.

On that Tuesday morning, I was at work, driving from Madison to North Vernon when I got a call from my wife. She asked me if I were listening to the radio. I was not. She told me to turn it on because something terrible was happening. I turned my car radio on and listened to the coverage of the attack.

I went about my duties at the stores in North Vernon in a sort of state of shock.  The North Vernon WalMart and Jay C played continuing news coverage of the day’s events instead of the usual soothing Musak. Not too many people were working or shopping in the stores. They were mostly just listening.

I had to go to Seymour for a meeting that afternoon. On the way I noticed that some gas stations had raised the price of gasoline to a then unheard of price of $5 per gallon. At the meeting, no one wanted to discus the business at hand. Instead we talked about the terrorist attack. It seemed certain to us all that more attacks were on the way and that this time we couldn’t just launch a few missiles, blow up some tents, and then move on. We were in for a long fight.

I don’t remember much about the rest of that day. I went home but I don’t remember much about it.

I was once in the World Trade Center. I was in New York with some friends as a sort of tourist and we took the elevator to the top floor of one of the twin towers. There was a gallery up there where you could look out over the city of New York. The day was foggy so I didn’t see anything. They had a gift shop in the center section of the floor. It sickens me to think that the people who worked there went to work one morning, and then had to choose between burning to death or jumping, Not to mention the tourists, who only wanted to look at the city.

It still sickens me to think about the people who were only doing their jobs having to lose their lives.

twin

 

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Carl Albert

September 2, 2017

Carl Albert was a Democratic Congressman from Oklahoma who served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1977. While the office of Speaker of the House is an important and prestigious position and Albert had played a key role in seeing that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson’s domestic agendas were passed and he chaired the Democratic National Convention in 1968, Carl Albert is not much remembered outside Oklahoma. Perhaps he did not play an especially memorable role in politics, yet the story of how he might have become president in 1973 is interesting and perhaps worth recalling.

Carl Albert

Richard Nixon’s first Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, resigned on October 10, 1973 after being indicted on charges of bribery, extortion and tax evasion. While the constitution mandates that the Vice-President assumes the presidency upon the death, resignation or disability of the President, there was no requirement that the new president should appoint another Vice-President until the adoption of the twenty-fifth amendment in 1967. If the President died and was succeeded by the the Vice-President or the Vice-President died in office or resigned, the office of the Vice-President was vacant until the next election. This actually happened sixteen times, with such presidents as John Tyler and Andrew Johnson until the adoption of the twenty-fifth amendment, and would have happened in 1973 if the twenty-fifth amendment had not been ratified.

Following the terms of the twenty-fifth amendment, President Nixon nominated the Republican House Minority Leader Gerald Ford for the Vice-Presidency on October 12, but Ford was not confirmed by Congress until December 6, so for about seven weeks the Office of the Vice-Presidency was vacant. Now, by this time the Watergate scandal was unfolding and it was becoming increasingly likely that Nixon would be impeached, or forced to resign. If this occurred while the Vice-Presidency was vacant the new President who be the person next in the line of succession, none other that the Speaker of the House, Carl Albert.

As Speaker of the House of Representatives, Carl Albert was responsible for scheduling the vote to confirm Ford in the House, as well as preparing articles of impeachment against the president. Albert could easily have postponed the confirmation of Ford indefinitely, as well as expediting articles of impeachment and perhaps forcing Nixon’s resignation. Albert could have maneuvered his way into the White House. He chose not to. Albert stated that he did not believe that as a Democrat he had the right to take a position that the people had chosen to give to a Republican in the previous election. Had he arranged to make himself President, the effort would have been tantamount to a coup. Moreover, He stated that had circumstances caused him to become president, he would have felt obliged to resign as soon as a Republican Vice-President was chosen.

I wonder what would happen if similar events occurred today. Suppose the Democrats sweep the midterm elections next year and gain comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress. Suppose further, that something happened to Vice-President Mike Pence, either he dies in office or resigns. Suppose also that the Democrats decide to impeach Donald Trump for the high crime and misdemeanor of being Donald Trump. When Trump nominates a successor to Vice-President Pence, would Speaker Nancy Pelosi schedule a vote to confirm the nominee, or would she delay it hoping that Trump is impeached and convicted, or resigns, making her the President?

I have a hard time believing that Pelosi, or any Democrat, or for that matter any Republican, would be as high minded as Carl Albert was under his circumstances. It seems to me that more and more the people we trust to lead this nation are less interested in following the rules and more interested simply in gaining and keeping power, whatever the cost to the country. Speaker Albert knew that he would not be entitled to make himself President and decided not to bend the rules to his advantage. I think all too many people in government today would have no trouble at all bending or even ignoring the rules. We seem to have declined somehow in the last decades, despite the advances we have made in technology and economically. Our culture has grown coarser. We seem increasingly less interested in playing by the rules or in adhering to the norms that allow a diverse people to live together in harmony.

A democratic government needs these kinds of rules and norms. People have to accept the results of an election, even when the candidate they don’t like wins. People have to support the rule of law, even the laws they don’t happen to like. People have to free expression, even of ideas they find repugnant. If we stop following these rules and norms, we cannot continue to be a free and democratic country. Maybe we can turn things around before it is too late. I hope it isn’t already too late.

 

Charlottesville

August 21, 2017

Since everyone else has an opinion on the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I might as well share my thoughts on the subject.

In books and movies and such, there is generally one side that is portrayed as the heroes or good guys, the side the reader or audience is expected to root for. The other side, the side that opposes the good guys are the villains or bad guys. In real life, there is not often such a clear-cut distinction between good and evil as there is in fiction. In most conflicts both sides believe that they are in the right and are trying to do what they believe is best. All too often, the conflict is not between good and evil , but evil and evil.

World War II is usually considered the “good war” because the Allies were fighting against one of the most evil regimes in history, Nazi Germany. If ever there was a clear-cut conflict between good and evil, surely the fight about Nazism was it. Yet, the Nazis didn’t see themselves as evil. They believed that they were saving the world from the menace of the Jews. More to the point I’m making, one of the Allies, the Soviet Union was actually even more evil than Nazi Germany, in terms of total number of people murdered and disregard of the most basic human rights.Stalin was more cruel than Hitler, and potentially more dangerous, since he didn’t make the kind of impulsive mistakes that cost Hitler the war. The two nations were even allied at the beginning of the war, dividing Eastern Europe between them, until Hitler double-crossed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. As far as the Eastern front of the European Theater of World War II went, it was truly a struggle of foul against vile. The fact that Stalin fought against Hitler and that the Russians were instrumental in defeating the great evil of Nazism did not make Stalin a good guy.

Which brings us to the recent events in Charlottesville. As I understand it, there was a rally of various groups belonging to the so-called “Alt-right”, reportedly members of the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis, racists, and White supremacists to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. I do not know how many of the people there actually belonged to racist groups. It is possible that many were simply against the  removal of the statue. Whatever the case, the racists are unquestionably vile people who hated others because of their race and are willing to use violence against the people they hate. They are the bad guys. There were also counter-protesters. Perhaps many of them were peaceful protesters against the hate groups, but many were members of the “Antifa”, the gang of left-wing thugs who have been shouting down conservative speakers on college campuses, rioting, and assaulting supporters of President Donald Trump. Naturally the event turned violent.

The media would like to spin a narrative of the good anti-racists versus the evil racists, and when Donald Trump condemned the violence on both sides, the media excoriated him for giving aid and comfort to right-wing extremist. But, President Trump was right. There was violence and extremism on both sides and political violence needs to be condemns no matter who is committing it, even if it is against Nazis. The media and the Democrats are the ones giving aid and comfort to both sides. They are covering up and excusing violent actions taken by Antifa, giving them encouragement. But by taking sides and all but approving of violence and censorship, they are giving the Klansmen and Nazis reason to believe themselves to be persecuted. Part of the belief system of the extreme right these days is that they are bravely speaking truth to power against the Jews or whoever. Also, by lumping together mainstream conservatives with these louts and calling everyone who dissents from politically correct orthodoxy racist, helps to mainstream the real racists out there. A fight between Fascist ans Antifa is a fight between evils and decent people shouldn’t favor either side.

One thing has to be made completely clear. If you are in favor of political violence for any reason, even against despicable people, you are not one of the good guys. If you think that punching a Nazi, or someone you think is a Nazi is acceptable behavior, you are not one of the good guys. If you believe that people who hold certain beliefs should not be allowed to speak out, if you believe that such people should be fired from their jobs, if you believe that it is acceptable to harass over over the internet, you are not one of the good guys. You may detest the Nazis and the racists, but you do not understand what makes them detestable. You only oppose them because they are the opposing team. You would feel just as comfortable among the Nazi as among the anarchists.

As a Northerner, I have absolutely no sympathy for the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. I do not think it is a heritage to be proud of. Not only was the South fighting for the worst cause imaginable, the right to hold their fellow human beings in bondage, but I think that most of the men who led the South before and during the Civil War were idiots. They succeeded from the Union knowing that it would start a war that they had only a slim chance of winning and they bungled any chance they had to win. Worst of all, the whole war was unnecessary. President Lincoln did not have the power to free a single slave, as he himself admitted, and by secession, the people who wanted to preserve slavery took the only course of action that would have ended the peculiar institution. As far as I am concerned, the whole Lost Cause mythology of brave Southern struggle against the overwhelming forces of the North was devised by the former Confederates to cover up and excuse their incompetence and bad judgement. These men don’t deserve to have statues raised in their honor.

Having said that, I am still opposed to this business of taking down the statues. It has too much of an Orwellian, Soviet feel to it. It is too reminiscent of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution for my comfort. The effort seems at best a distraction from the real problems of this country and of African-Americans and seems to be too much like an effort to erase history, to go back to the Year Zero. How long before they start attacking other periods of American history? Hardly any body in history could measure up to the strict standards of political correctness that they seek to apply.

It’s better to learn from the past than to erase it and to try to make a better future than to endlessly revisit old grievances and we would be a lot better off trying to find things to unite us all as Americans, rather seek new causes of division.

Anglish

July 23, 2017

I have mentioned in passing how the Norman Conquest of 1066 fundamentally changed the English Language. When William the Conqueror and his French speaking Normans defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings and took over the Kingdom of England, French became the language of administration, the court, literature, and polite society generally. English was relegated to being a language of the conquered, spoken largely by servants and serfs. After about two centuries the Norman kings and nobility began to think of themselves as English and to speak the English language. English became, once again, the language of England and thanks to Chaucer and others, English was renewed as a language of literature equal to French. But it was no longer the language of Beowulf and Alfred the Great. The Old English, spoken by the Anglo-Saxons had become Latinized and Frenchified, the language historians call “Middle English. As a result, fully half the words in the English Language ultimately derive from Latin, either directly or though one of the Romance Languages, mostly French.

What would English be like if William the Conqueror had lost the Battle of Hastings and remained simply William the Bastard, the Norman Duke who failed to capture England? Would we still be speaking Anglo-Saxon? Would Beowulf, the oldest work of literature written in English be comprehensible to the modern English speaker, instead of seeming to be a strange dialect of German? Probably not. Languages change over time, even in the absence of foreign invasions. The Norman conquest marks a decisive breaking point between Old and Middle English, but the language was changing anyway. Still, there would probably be more of a continuity between Old and Middle English without the break of the Norman conquest.

If he had lost…

While there probably wouldn’t be the vast influx of Latin words entering the English Language from French, there would be some borrowing. Latin was the language of the Church and of scholarship and France was just across the English Channel. The vocabulary of Modern English would probably be more German with fewer words derived from Latin. The total number of words might be smaller, but it is really hard to know just how many words there really are in any language. Claims that English has a larger vocabulary than most languages is impossible to verify. Since the Germanic words in Modern English tend to be the more commonly used, perhaps there wouldn’t be as much of a difference as you might think. On the other hand, there are many common Latin derived words. I’m not sure I could write this post if I were confined to words derived from Anglo-Saxon.

There might have be a greater influence from Old Norse. The Vikings or Danes had been raiding and settling in England since around the later part of the eighth century and began to settle in England by the middle of the ninth century. At one point around half of England was under the control of England. Although the Danes were driven out by King Alfred the Great, they returned and from 1013-1042, England was ruled by Danish kings. Shortly before the Battle of Hastings, Harold Godwinson had defeated an invading army of Norsemen. This long relationship between the Anglo-Saxons and VIkings added Old Norse words to the English language including, scarf, skirt, keel, knot, wife, muck, mire, and many others. If the Normans had not conquered England, perhaps the Scandinavians would have. English could be a lot closer to Scandinavian languages such as Danish or Norwegian. England could be considered another Scandinavian country.

If the Anglo-Saxons had managed to maintain control over England, perhaps Modern English would be something like Anglish. Anglish is English which has been purified or purged of foreign words. You can learn all about it at The Anglish Moot, a Wiki devoted to the subject with articles in English and Anglish telling what they are doing towards make the English language more English along with Wikipedia style articles written in Anglish and translations of texts and speeches.

Here is a description of their purpose.

The aim of Anglish/New-English is:

English with many fewer words borrowed from other tongues.

Because of the fundamental changes to our language, to say that English people today speak English is like saying that the French speak Latin. The fact is that we now speak the international language, Ancwe (Ancillary World English). Unlike most nations, we no longer “own” our language. The Anglish/New English project is intended as a means of recovering the Englishness of English and of restoring ownership of the language to the English people.

Here is a part of their article on the Banded Folkdoms of Americksland (United States of America)

The Banded Folkdoms of Americksland (BFA), mainly called the Banded Folkdoms (BF or B.F.) and Americksland, is a bound groundlawful folkwealth made up of fifty folkdoms and a bound shire. The land is indwelt in midmost Northamericksland, where its forty-eight linked folkdoms and Washington, C.S. (Columbo Shire), the headtown shire, lie between the Great Frithly and Even Seas, landlinked to Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. The folkdom of Shoulderland is in the northwest of the landstretch, with Canada to the east and Russland to the west across the Bering Narrowing. The folkdom of Firelands is an ilandcluster in the mid-Great Frithly Sea. Americksland also holds a few landstocks in the Great Frithly and Caribish Seas. Americksland is one of the world’s most heathenly sundry and manibreeding folklands, the outcome of great incomings  from many rikes. The earthlore and weather of the Banded Folkdoms is also sundry.

And a translation of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Speech.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this greatland, a new folkship, dreamt in freedom, and sworn to the forthput that all men are made evenworthy. Now we are betrothed in a great folk-war, testing whether that folkship, or any folkship so born and so sworn, can long withstand. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.

We have come to earmark a bit of that field, as a last resting spot for those who here gave their lives that that folkship might live. It is altogether meet and seemly that we should do this. But, in a greater meaning, we can not earmark — we can not bless — we can not hallow — this ground. The bold men, living and dead, who struggled here, have blessed it, far above our wretched strength to eke or take. The world will little write, nor long ken what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be earmarked here to the unfullcame work which they who fought here have thus far so highbredly put forth. It is rather for us to be here earmarked to the great task lasting before us — that from these hallowed dead we take increased drive to that belief for which they gave the last full deed of drive — that we here highly settle that these dead shall not have died in idleness — that this folkship, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that lawmoot of the folk, by the folk, for the folk, shall not swelt from the Earth.

It’s English, but not quite the English we speak. It seems less abstract, since the Latin roots and affixes that English often uses to create new words do not always have obvious meanings unless one is familiar with Latin, maybe homier is a better way to describe Anglish. It is a language closer to German both in vocabulary and in that homey quality that I wrote about not long ago.

While Anglish is interesting, and if I were a writer who wanted to write a story set in an alternate universe in which William the Bastard lost the Battle of Hastings, I would have the characters speak in Anglish, I do not altogether approve of the idea of language purification. I believe that the idea of  language purity to be almost as silly an idea as racial purity, though not nearly as silly an idea as cultural appropriation in vogue among leftists.

Languages grow by taking words from other languages. Any attempt to keep a language pure of foreign influences only stifles its growth, causing it to become something like a linguistic bonsai tree. It is the glory of English that it has always been willing and eager to take words from other languages without shame and the Latinate words the people at the Anglish Moot disdain as foreign are every bit as English as a word with a pedigree going back to Old English.

 

The Fisher King

July 23, 2017

The Fisher King is a figure in Arthurian legend. He is the guardian of the Holy Grail who has been wounded in the foot and cannot discharge his duties as king of the land he rules. Many scholars believe that the foot or leg is an euphemism for a wound in the groin and that the king is impotent. Whatever the case, according the the legend, because the Fisher King is barren and impotent, so is the land he rules. The health of the land depends on the health or virtue of its king.

This happens to be a motif found in many places in mythology, folklore, and political propaganda. There seems to be a strong need to believe that a strong and virtuous king will have a flourishing kingdom, while the kingdom of a weak or evil king will be desolate. The Chinese belief in the Mandate of Heaven held that the prosperity of the Empire was directly dependent on the virtue of the Emperor. If China was doing well, the Emperor must be good. If there were natural disasters or economic catastrophe, than the Emperor must be at fault somewhere. In the Old Testament there is an explicit link between the devotion of the kings of Israel and Judah and the welfare of the kingdom. It makes sense that if the king or emperor is the representative of God or the gods and is not doing a good job then Heaven might signal its displeasure by causing natural disasters.

One might think in our more modern world in which most countries are republics, such superstitions would be a thing of the past. That does not seem to be the case. It is true that people no longer ascribe earthquakes or hurricanes to the faults of our political leaders, but we do have a way of assuming that they have far more influence over the affairs of the country, especially over the economy, than they actually do. Here is an example from Sean Hannity.

President Donald Trump has made the United States more than $4 trillion richer since taking office last January, but you wouldn’t know that from watching or reading the mainstream press, writes Fox’s Stuart Varney.

As the destroy-Trump media continues to obsess over Russia-Trump conspiracy theories, the President has made good on his campaign promise to unleash the American worker and get the US economy back on track.

Since the President’s inauguration, Trump has added roughly $4.1 trillion to the nation’s overall wealth, affecting all Americans with a 401k, an IRA, a savings account, loans, stocks; essentially anyone with “a dime in the market.”

President Trump did no such thing. He does not have the power to add $4.1 trillion to the economy. It is possible that the policies he supports will encourage economic growth, but six months is far too early for any presidential policies to take effect. Of course, a good deal of economics is psychology. It is likely that if the president is perceived as pro-business, businesses will be more inclined to expand, believing that the economy will improve, creating a self fulfilling expectation. On the other hand, if the president keeps talking about spreading the wealth around, businesses will play it safe, anticipating an economic downturn, that their actions will help precipitate. I think that if Bernie Sanders had been elected president, we would be going into a deep recession. We can give Trump credit for inspiring optimism, but not for any magical powers.

Here is a more egregious example from a singer named Lana Del Rey

I feel less safe than I did when Obama was president. When you have a leader at the top of the pyramid who is casually being loud and funny about things like that, it’s brought up character defects in people who already have the propensity to be violent towards women. I saw it right away in L.A. Walking down the street, people would just say things to you that I had never heard.

I definitely changed my visuals on my tour videos. I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing “Born to Die.” It’s not going to happen. I’d rather have static. It’s a transitional period, and I’m super aware of that. I think it would be inappropriate to be in France with an American flag. It would feel weird to me now—it didn’t feel weird in 2013.

Women started to feel less safe under this administration instantly. What if they take away Planned Parenthood? What if we can’t get birth control?

This is precisely the same country in 2017 as it was in 2015. The only difference is that the person who is president has changed. If Ms. Lane is not as proud of her country now as when Obama was president, than she is not really very proud of her country at all. Trump cannot make the streets of Los Angeles more or less dangerous. He has no control over people’s character defects. He cannot take Planned Parenthood away. Even if Congress should cut Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, which they should, Planned Parenthood has other sources of revenue. Trump cannot ban birth control. She is ascribing to Trump powers that no president has.

Why do we do this, assume that our political leaders have greater power over events than they actually do? Part of the reason must be that this is what they want us to think. How many politicians running for office criticize their opponent’s handling of the economy? How many politicians boast of the economic growth that occurred during their time in office? They might as well be bragging about how good the weather was. Indeed, the whole idea behind the global warming/climate change alarmism is that national and international governments can change the climate.

Whatever the reason for this kind of thinking, we need to get over it. The president does not run the country. We do. . President Trump cannot make America great again, though he can lead the effort. It is up to each one of us to make this country a better place.

 

 

The Battle of Adrianople

July 16, 2017

The fall of the Roman Empire in 476 (or at least the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire, the eastern half survived  for a millennium after the “fall”) is one of the historical events which has attracted a lot of attention at least since Edward Gibbon’sThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and probably since the Empire actually fell. All sorts of explanations have been given as the reason for the fall of the Roman Empire; moral decay, civic disengagement on the part of the political elite, the unworldliness of Christianity, even the lead pipes used in Roman plumbing. While these explanations have some merit, in the end the Roman Empire fell because of bad decisions made by several Emperors as well as bad choices made by generations of ordinary Romans. There was nothing inevitable or preordained about the fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire could have stood by centuries longer than it did, or it could have fallen centuries earlier. One of the decisions that, if it did not lead inevitably to the fall of the empire, at least weakened the Roman state and led to the destruction of the Roman army, was the decision by the Emperor Valens to admit the entire nation of the Germanic Visigoths into the Roman Empire, and several subsequent decisions by Valens which led to catastrophe.

Valens was the brother of the Emperor Valentinian I, who came to power in the year 364. By this time, the challenges of ruling the Roman Empire had become so great that it was believed one man could not possibly rule the entire empire alone and as often as not, an emperor would have one or more co-emperors to help manage the burden, and so Valentinian made his brother co-emperor shortly after his own accession to the throne. Valentinian kept control of the western half of the Empire for himself and put Valens in charge of the eastern half. In the year 375, Valens learned that a vast number of Visigoths had appeared on the Roman borders at the Danube.

Valens

The Visigoths were one of a number of German barbarians who lived beyond the Roman borders along the Rhine and Danube rivers. This border was always Rome’s greatest security threat, since the Germans often invaded Roman territories seeking plunder. The Roman legions had a difficult time repelling these raids and they were never able to actually conquer Germany because of the thick forests and fierce inhabitants. It was in the provinces along this border that were the most heavily defended in the Empire and where most of the legions were stationed. Of course, the relations between the Romans and the Germans were not invariably hostile. There was much trade across the borders and over time the Germans came to appreciate Roman civilization and even began to emulate the Romans. The Romans even hired Germans as mercenaries for their armies as Rome’s population began to decline and Romans became disinclined to join the army. Sometimes barbarians would be permitted to settle depopulated territories within the Empire, where they quickly became assimilated.

As it happened, the Visigoths did not come as invaders, but as refugees. The Huns had emerged from Central Asia and had invaded the Goths’ homelands in what is now the Ukraine. The Huns had already conquered the Visigoth’s kinsmen the Ostrogoths, and the Visigoths had decided that they would rather seek refuge inside Roman territory and become Romans themselves than be subjects of the Huns.

Valens was preparing for a war with the Persians, Rome’s traditional enemy to the east and he was delighted with the idea of filling the ranks of his army with trustworthy Visigoths, so he gave permission for some of the Visigoths who had been allies of Rome to enter. Because most of his troops were in Syria for the proposed war, there weren’t enough Romans in the area to properly supervise the crossing of the Danube and before long the entire Visigothic nation was settling in Roman territory. This might not have been a problem if the Gothic refugees had been properly handled. The Visigoths may have been barbarians but they were not strangers to the Romans. Many of these Goths had served in the Roman army and were familiar with the Roman Empire and its customs. Probably a great many of these barbarians spoke Latin or Greek. They were eager to become a part of the Roman Empire and if the Romans had settled them in the more depopulated regions of the Balkans and given them land to farm, while recruiting their young men for the army, the Visigoths would have a valuable asset to Rome.

That is not what the Romans did. The Imperial officials in charge of handling relations with the Goths were corrupt, greedy, and incompetent. They disarmed the Visigoths and settled them in refugee camps. The Emperor Valens had promised to distribute food to the Visigoths until they could provide for themselves, but these officials withheld the provisions to sell to the Goths at such exorbitant prices that they were obliged to sell their children into slavery to eat. The Romans made it clear that the Goths were barbarians who could never expect to become really Roman.

Naturally, the Goths were not inclined to put up with this treatment. They rose up in rebellion in 377 and defeated the Roman troops in the region. Now the Roman Empire had an enemy within its borders. The Gothic army won further victories against the local Roman forces and soon controlled much of the province of Thrace. Valens had to call off his war with the Persians and march west with his army to fight the Goths. Meanwhile, the Western Emperor Gratian, who had assumed the throne upon the death of his father Valentinian, prepared to march east to assist his uncle. By the summer of 378, Valens was ready to launch a campaign to subdue the Goths.

By August 9, 378 Valens’s army had caught up with the Visigoths outside the city of Adrianople. The Visigoths had camped on a hill with their wagons drawn up in a circular corral, rather like the settlers during an Indian attack in an old western. The Romans seemed to outnumber the Goths and the Gothic cavalry was off raiding. It seemed that the Romans would win an easy victory. Valens’s generals advised him to wait for Gratian’s reinforcements before engaging the Goths, but Valens didn’t want to share the credit for the expected victory with his nephew. Valens led his army out to meet the Goths.

Adrianople

The Gothic leaders were aware of their precarious position so they sent envoys out to parley with Valens hoping to buy time until their cavalry returned. The Roman soldiers, already tired after a seven hour march now had to stand at attention in the hot sun while their Emperor negotiated. Eventually the Romans had had enough and began to attack the Goths without waiting for orders. At first it seemed that the Romans would win the easy victory they expected, but the Goths pushed back their first assault. As the Romans were reorganizing for another attack, the Gothic cavalry returned from their raiding. The cavalry managed to surround the tired and thirsty Romans and the Roman army was routed.

The Battle of Adrianople

This was one of the worst disasters in the entire history of the Roman Army. The core of the East Roman Army, the best and most experienced soldiers who were led by the Emperor was destroyed and the Emperor Valens was killed. This was not the end of the Roman Empire. The Goths lacked the siege equipment to capture Adrianople and Valens’s successor, Theodosius I, slowly rebuilt the Roman Army and managed to defeat the Goths, ending the war on much the same terms as they had agreed to when they first entered the Empire. Yet, it was never the same afterwards. The myth of the invincibility of the Roman Army was shattered. The Romans had been defeated before and the Empire has been invaded many times, but always before the legions had managed to triumph in the end. After Adrianople, Rome was never entirely in control of its territory. In 410 these Visigoths sacked Rome and in 418 they established themselves as an independent kingdom in Gaul.

I can’t but wonder if there is some parallel between Valens’s incompetent handling of the Visigoths and some policies followed by present day leaders in Europe. They have permitted large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East to come into Europe to alleviate a post-war shortage of labor, but they didn’t try very hard to assimilate them. Instead they made it clear that these Muslims would never really be French or German etc. Naturally the immigrants started to resent this and sought refuge in their religion, increasingly radical forms of Islam. It hasn’t helped that Europe’s intellectual elite has since lost all confidence in their own Western Civilization and are now inclined to appease the Muslim minority, no matter how outrageous their demands, thus earning the contempt of the Muslim minority. Is there a twenty-first equivalent of the Battle of Adrianople in the near future?

Independence Day

July 4, 2017

The Fourth of July is the day on which the American people celebrate their independence from Great Britain. It is not actually clear why Independence Day is the Fourth. Congress actually passed the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776. It has often been thought that the Declaration was signed on the fourth, but that doesn’t seem to be true. There wasn’t any one time when the members of Congress signed the Declaration and there were a few who didn’t get around to signing it until August. Nevertheless, the fourth is the date that stuck. As John Adams wrote to Abigail.

English:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

And so it has been, for the last 241 years. May God bless America and grant us many more years of freedom.

Happy Independence Day.

The Crushed Little Man

June 19, 2017

Take a look at this pillar.

This pillar with the little man crushed under it can be found in the Church of the Jacobins in Toulouse, France. I read about this oddity in this article from Atlasobscura.

The Church of the Jacobins is in the center of the city of Toulouse in southern France. It is a Gothic mass of brick and stone, decorated inside with elaborate trompe l’oeil and soaring pillars. Most famously, it houses the remains of St. Thomas Aquinas. A lot less famously, it has this strange little carving of a man trapped under one of the pillars.

The remains of Thomas Aquinas are entombed in a golden reliquary along the side wall of the nave. Just behind it to the left there is a double-column that sits on a square base. Look down towards the floor and you’ll see, sticking out, a peculiar pair of bony hands and chubby crossed feet, their meaning and origin unknown. Some of the church tour guides don’t even know the crushed little man is there.

The church dates to the early 13th century, founded by the French Dominican order of the Jacobins. It has weathered a complicated history, beginning with the Dominicans being outlawed in France during the Revolution. It then began a journey that included everything from a takeover by Napoleon (who used it as barracks and an armory for the military), a period as a school gymnasium, an exhibition hall, and, during World War I, a safe haven for art treasures from the Paris museums.

The later decades of the 20th century saw enormous efforts to bring back the majesty of the church. After periods of major restoration – including the reveal of medieval paintings that had been whitewashed by Napoleon – it has emerged as an important museum and cultural center for Toulouse. But the little carving remains a mystery, the only one of its kind in the church. Posted, you might say, without comment.

It’s a little hard to find the little man, but look behind the St. Thomas Aquinas golden altar. You’ll see his little squished hands and little squished feet at the bottom of the pillar to the left.

I wonder what the sculptor was thinking. Does the crushed little man have any relation to Thomas Aquinas? Aquinas was one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent theologians who did much to codify Catholic doctrine. His philosophical system, Thomism, is still used by the Catholic Church and even other Christian denominations to some extent. Maybe the little man represents Truth crushing ignorance, or the Devil being crushed by Christ.

Here is a painting of Thomas Aquinas overcoming Averroes, a Spanish Muslim philosopher who helped to reintroduce Aristotle to the West.

Presumably the painter considered Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of Aristotle to be superior to Avarroes’s. Maybe the crushed little man represents the same idea in stone.

Or maybe it was just a joke. Maybe the artisan who was carving out the base of the pillar thought it would be funny to make it look like they stuck the pillar on top of a man. I wonder if anyone noticed or if the artist got into any trouble. I wonder what sort of person he was, or even what his name was. We will never know, but I think I’d like to meet him in whatever afterlife might exist and learn his story.

The Election of 1860

June 17, 2017

The Election of 1860 was, without doubt, the most contentious election in American history, ending as it did with the secession of the South and the Civil War. For democracy to work, the loser of an election, along with his supporters have to be willing to concede to the winner. This can happen as long as the consequence of an election is not an existential threat to the lives and liberties of the losers. For the first, and so far only, time in the history of the United States a large portion of the electorate simply refused to accept the results of a democratic election, in part because they feared the results would be destructive to their way of life.

How did it come to this, that the South so feared the election of Abraham Lincoln that it was willing to secede from the Union and risk war? Slavery had been an increasingly divisive issue for decades, yet the nation had always managed to find some sort of compromise to pull back from the brink. There had been talk of secession since the beginning of the Union, but it was mostly talk. No one seemed willing to take the fateful step to dissolve the Union before 1860. After his election in 1856, President James Buchanan had even dared to hope that the contentious slavery debate would be settled by the of his term and peace and prosperity would be the rule. He could not have been more wrong. In fact, it was during President Buchanan’s administration that a series of events occurred that made Civil War if not inevitable, certainly increased sectional tensions to the breaking point.

Historians generally hold that the Civil War began when Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, yet in a way the Civil War had actually started almost a decade earlier in Kansas. As early as 1854 fighting had broken out between pro and anti-slavery settlers in the Kansas Territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had called for popular sovereignty to decide whether Kansas would be Slave or Free. Settlers from North and South poured into Kansas attempting to get a majority for their side. Election fraud was rampant and neither side was willing to concede to the other, resulting in two separate territorial legislatures. It wasn’t long before violence broke out, egged on by radicals back east only too willing to supply arms.

Then there was the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott vs. Sanford, announced just two days after President Buchanan’s inauguration. This decision which overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and denied the right of Congress to outlaw slavery in the territories delighted the South and infuriated the North. Because of this ruling, slavery could no longer be contained to southern territories but could spread north. Even worse, because the Court decided that Dred Scott was not free just because his master had taken him to a state where slavery was illegal, opened the door to the possibility that state laws forbidding slavery might be effectively overturned since freeing the slaves of a person who moved North could be construed as unlawfully depriving him of his property. Chief Justice Roger Taney and President Buchanan hoped that the Dred Scott decision would settle the issue of slavery once and for all, but the uncompromising nature of the decision only made things worse.

Finally, there was John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry on October 19, 1859. I don’t think the Northern abolitionists had any idea how afraid the slave owners of the South were of their own slaves. While Southern apologists depicted the Blacks as simple minded creatures, perfectly content with slavery in their propaganda, anyone who had much contact with the slaves must have known how much they resented their servitude. They had good reason to fear that the Black slaves would take a terrible revenge if they ever got the chance. When the abolitionists demanded that slavery be ended, the Southern Whites, only heard a call for their own destruction. When a terrorist from Kansas tried to incite a slave insurrection only to be hailed as a hero and a martyr by sympathetic Northerners, the Southerners must have seen their worst fears confirmed.

By the election of 1860, it must have seemed that the United States could no longer be half Free and half Slave. Either slavery would be abolished, along with a way of life that benefited the Southern elite, or slavery must spread to every part of the nation. Little wonder a Civil War resulted.

The Democratic convention was held in Charleston South Carolina in April. Since President Buchanan declined to run for reelection, the most obvious candidate was Stephen Douglas from Illinois. Douglas had served in the House of Representatives from 1843 to 1847 and then in the Senate from 1847 until his death from typhoid fever in 1861. Stephan Douglas is best known today for his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln during the Senatorial election of 1856. He was a great believer in democracy, believing that popular sovereignty should settle the slavery issue in the territories. Douglas tended to oppose the Dred Scott decision, but had to be careful lest he alienate the South.

This “pro-choice” did not please the Southern delegates at the convention who wanted a party platform that specifically protected slavery. This Douglas and the Northern delegates would not agree to and the convention broke up. This was not a good sign.

The Democrats met again the following month in Baltimore. Again the Northern and Southern delegates could not agree on a candidate or a platform, so they held separate conventions. The Northern delegates nominated Stephen Douglas, as expected, and selected Herschel V. Johnson, the governor of Georgia from 1853-1857. Their platform called for popular sovereignty in the territories.

The Southern delegates nominated Vice-President John C. Breckinridge for President and Joseph Lane, one of Oregon’s first two senators, for Vice-President. They supported a platform demanding federal protection of slavery in the territories.

Meanwhile, the Republicans held their convention in Chicago from May 16 to 18. Abraham Lincoln was not really one of the leaders of the Republican Party. The more prominent Republicans who were expected to get the nomination included Senator William Seward of New York. Governor Salmon P. Chase from Ohio, and Senator Simon Cameron from Pennsylvania. Lincoln’s political resume was thin compared to these leaders having only served in the House of Representatives from 1847-1849 and in the Illinois Legislature form 1834-1842. However, each of these leaders had made enemies and had alienated one faction or another of the party. Lincoln, in contrast was well liked and known to be a good debater. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1856 had attracted national attention. Lincoln was also a shrewd politician and while he was against slavery, he was not as radical as some Republicans. Lincoln was nominated on the third ballot and Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine was selected as his running mate.

Then, because things were not confusing enough with three candidates, a group of former Whigs, along with a few Democrats and former Know-Nothings met in Baltimore on May 9 to organize the Constitutional Union Party. This party was for preserving the Union at any cost, and not much else. They were silent on the slavery question, perhaps hoping to make the controversy go away. The Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell, who had served as Senator from Tennessee from 1847-1859. Bell had begun his political career as a Democratic supporter of Andrew Jackson, then he split with Jackson to become the leader of the Whig Party in Tennessee. By the 1850’s he had begun to create a third party composed of moderates from both the North and South in an effort to alleviate the increasing sectional tension. Bell’s relatively moderate views on slavery made him unpopular in the South, though he had some appeal in the border states. The Constitutional Union Party went on to nominate former Senator from Massachusetts, Edward Everett as Bell’s running mate.

 

Since the Democratic party was split and Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in the South, the the election of 1860, was essentially two separate contests, Lincoln vs Douglas in the North and Bell vs Breckinridge in the South. As one might imagine, this turned out to be an exciting and tumultuous election, with all the hoopla of American politics in the nineteenth century. Stephen Douglas broke with tradition and actually went out to campaign in person, in the South as well as the North. In the South, he pleaded for the Southerners to accept the results of the election, no matter who won. They didn’t listen. Southern newspapers continued to run editorials promising secession and war if the “Black Republican” Lincoln were elected.

The other candidates stayed at home and tried to look dignified and presidential but their supporters made up the difference in raucous energy. Bell’s supporters rang bells at rallies. Republicans were the most enthusiastic, holding parades featuring rails that the great rail splitter Abraham Lincoln had personally split.  If it weren’t for the great seriousness of it all, it would have been a lot of fun.

None of the four candidates got a majority of the popular vote, but Lincoln won a plurality with 1,865,908 votes or 39.8% of the total. Douglas came in second with 1,380,202 votes (29.5%). Breckinridge was third with 848,019 votes (18.1%C) and Bell came in last with 590,901 votes (12.6%). It is slightly ironic that if the Southern Democrats had supported Stephen Douglas, he might have won the election. By leaving the convention and nominating their own candidate, they virtually guaranteed a victory for Lincoln, the one candidate they could not accept.

The Electoral vote was more decisive, with Lincoln getting a comfortable majority. The vote was divided along sectional lines. Lincoln won the entire North and West except for New Jersey, getting a total of 180 electoral votes. New Jersey split its seven votes giving four to Lincoln and three to Douglas. Douglas was second in the popular vote, but last in the Electoral College winning only Missouri’s nine votes and three of New Jersey’s for a total of 12 electoral votes. Breckinridge won all the Southern states, except for Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, and got a total of 72 electoral votes. Bell won those three states with 39 electoral votes.

The Election of 1860

The Election of 1860

Stephen Douglas realized that a Lincoln victory would divide the country and immediately after the election he traveled south and gave speeches supporting the Union. It didn’t work and on December 20, 1860 South Carolina formally succeeded from the Union. Soon, the other Southern states followed and America’s bloodiest war began.

The Timely, Relevant Handmaid’s Tale

June 4, 2017

Hulu has begun airing a series based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the critics are falling all over themselves in proclaiming how timely and relevant the program is in Trump’s America.

The Handmaid’s Tale, for those fortunate enough not to have encountered it, is a dystopian novel set in the “Republic of Gilead”, a future North American nation in which Christian fundamentalists have seized power. Naturally women are horribly oppressed in Gilead, since that is what Christian fundamentalists most like to do. Women are chattel who are forbidden to work outside the home or to have bank accounts. There is an epidemic of infertility caused by environmental pollution and those women who are still fertile are pressed into service as “handmaids” compelled to give birth to women incapable of having their own children. As you can see, The Handmaid’s Tale is timely and relevant, for women living in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. Since Trump hardly ran on a platform of disenfranchising women, the novel is probably not particularly relevant to the experiences of American women, whatever Atwood and her fans might believe.

An everyday sight in Trump’s America

The purpose of dystopian literature, and science fiction in general, is not to predict the future but to highlight circumstances and emerging trends in the present. If it had been Margaret Atwood’s intention to highlight the oppression of women in the Middle East by portraying a similar situation in a more familiar context, much as George Orwell highlighted Stalinist tyranny by placing it in the more familiar context of England, than her effort would be laudable. That is not what she was trying to do. By her own account, she was trying to show what the “religious right” intended to do to women when they gained power. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, at a time when the Moral Majority seemed to be on the ascendant, so it might have been timely and relevant then; except that not a single prominent figure on the “religious right” was proposing anything at all like the subjugation of women in the book. If treating women like chattel had been on the agenda of the Christian Coalition, I doubt very much if it would have had any influence on politics at all. And again, Trump is hardly a fundamentalist Christian, nor did he campaign on reducing women to brood stock as part of his program to Make America Great Again.

This is where The Handmaid’s Tale falls short as a dystopia. A dystopia works by pointing out the most extreme consequences of existing trends. The resulting vision need not be especially realistic. This is science fiction after all. However it ought to ring true. The setting of a dystopian work ought to at least seem possible, based on things already happening

As a man of the left, George Orwell knew from personal experience the totalitarian tendencies of most left wing movements. He knew what he was writing about when he wrote 1984. He was able to make the setting of his novel match the real life circumstances of totalitarian governments like the Soviet Union under Stalin and Nazi Germany. He believed, with good reason, that Britain was heading towards a totalitarian socialist state. We may not currently be living in Big Brother’s Oceania, but in an age of mass surveillance and bigger, unaccountable bureaucracies, we should certainly be aware of the possibilities.

Aldrous Huxley had considered very carefully the possible changes that advancing technology might bring to society. His Brave New World is a study of how advances in contraception, cloning (though the word hadn’t been coined at the time) might change family life. If we can design each person according to plan would we design different people for different jobs? What would the concept of equality mean if some people are designed before birth to be the leaders while others to be workers? Huxley also explored the implications of freedom of thought in a world in which thoughts are conditioned by persuasion techniques far more advanced than the crude advertising and propaganda of our time. You might not need the Thought Police if every thought in every head is put there by years of conditioning. It is possible that something like Brave New World might really be in our future, perhaps closer than we might imagine.

In contrast, Margaret Atwood knew nothing about the goals and aspirations of conservative Christians when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale and there is no sign that she has bothered to learn anything about them in all the years since. Her vision is one that simply does not match the reality. No prominent Christian leader of any sect or denomination has come out in favor of disenfranchising women. Christianity is not the religion that teaches that a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s. Historically, women have generally had a higher status in the Christian West than in any other civilization. It is true that women have often been discriminated against and patronized in the West, but women have rarely been treated as chattel or worse to the extent they have in East Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, and especially the Islamic world. It is in the Christian West that the idea that women ought to be treated as actual human beings, and even protected arose. Only in the West could anything like feminism come to be.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantasy. I think it is poorly written, but that is just my opinion. Perhaps others may think it a classic. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the literary quality of the work, but please don’t insult my intelligence by saying it is in any way timely or relevant to contemporary America.


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