Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Christian Revival in France

February 22, 2015

It is a commonly held viewpoint in our times that history moves in only one direction, from the benighted past to the enlightened present. This viewpoint is justified in the fields of science and technology. We obviously have much greater knowledge of the natural world and far better tools and machines than our ancestors could have dreamed of. This progressive view of history is less justified in politics and culture. In those fields it is less clear what really constitutes progress and whether history is really moving in a straight line toward some end. What I am trying to get at is that our ideas about what is right and wrong, or true and untrue, or desirable and undesirable are not necessarily superior to the ideas of our ancestors nor is it certain that we are forever moving in a certain direction toward the truth or the good, etc.

I mentioned, in passing, in a recent post that the idea of our time being uniquely liberated in its sexual mores while all past ages were repressed and puritanical is not really true. These sorts of cultural movements seem to go in cycled. A similar idea is held about the status of religion in society. It is often believed that religion is a relic of past ages in which people were ignorant and superstitious. In our more enlightened times, in which we have solved many of the mysteries of the universe, religion is no longer needed. As people become more educated, the influence of religion must fade. Europe is held as an example of this phenomena. The continent has become steadily more secular over the last two centuries and surely before long the people of Europe will be entirely free of religion. The fact that the United States is just as advanced as Europe in science and technology but has remained consistently more religious than Europe may seem to disprove the rule that societies become more secular as they advance, but the US is, in some ways,culturally backward compared to Europe, especially in the Red States. After all, those ignorant Americans still don’t have nationalized medicine or strict gun control. In twenty years, the US will be just as secular as Europe. After all, that is the way history is moving. So goes the argument.

But, perhaps not. Religious observance too tends to run in cycles. Periods of great fervor,even fanaticism in religion alternate with periods of laxity and skepticism. Atheism is by no means a new phenomena. There were atheists in ancient Greece and Rome, and curiously enough, they used the very same arguments against religion that the so-called New Atheists use. The current period of secularism in Europe may be followed by a religious period and there is no reason to believe that the US must inevitably follow in Europe’s footsteps.

Consider this article from The Week, about a possible religious revival in France.

On a recent Sunday, my family and I only showed up 10 minutes early for Mass. That meant we had to sit in fold-out chairs in the spillover room, where the Mass is relayed on a large TV screen. During the service, my toddler had to go to the bathroom. To get there, we had to step over a dozen people sitting in hallways and corners. This is business as usual for my church in Paris, France.

I point this out because one of the most familiar tropes in social commentary today is the loss of Christian faith in Europe in general, and France in particular. The Wall Street Journal recently fretted about the sale of “Europe’s empty churches.”

Could it be, instead, that France is in the early stages of a Christian revival?

Yes, churches in the French countryside are desperately empty. There are no young people there. But then, there are no young people in the French countryside, period. France is a modern country with an advanced economy, and that means its countryside has emptied, and that means that churches built in an era when the country’s sociological makeup was quite different go empty. In the cities — which is where people are, and where cultural trends gain escape velocity — the story is quite different.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. My wife and I now live in an upper-crust neighborhood with all the churches full of upwardly-mobile professionals. When we were penniless grad students, we lived in a working class neighborhood and on Sunday our church was packed with immigrant families and hipster gentrifiers.

It was only recently that I was struck by the fact that, imperceptibly, the majority of my college and grad school friends who were Christmas-and-Easter-Catholics when we met now report going to Church every Sunday and praying regularly. On social media, they used to post about parties; now they’re equally likely to post prayers for persecuted Middle East Christians or calls to help the homeless over the holidays.

My friends live all over town; some of them are young singles who move around a lot; all of them report looking for those mythical “empty churches” we hear so much about — and failing to find them. In fact, it’s closer to the other way around: If you don’t show up early, you might have to sit on the floor — and people are happy to do it.

The massive rallies in France, underwritten by the Catholic Church, against the recent same-sex marriage bill stunned the world: Isn’t France the poster child for sexually-easygoing secularism? Perhaps more than a million people took to the streets, and disproportionately young ones, too. (Compare Britain’s “whatever” response to its own same-sex marriage act, passed around the same time.) But they forgot that a century of militant secularism didn’t kill the Old Faith — it merely drove it underground. And perhaps by privatizing faith, the secularists unwittingly strengthened it; after all, the catacombs have always been good to Christianity.

There is more.

I hope that this is really the case, that there is a revival of Christianity in France and ultimately Europe, with the difference that there will be no more state sponsored churches. The melding of church and state that took place in the late Roman Empire and afterwards has been very bad for Christianity. Most of the bad behavior attributed to Christianity, which has served to discredit the church in the eyes of many, has been the result of an institution backed by the state, and employing coercion. Whatever form a possible revival of Christianity in Europe might take, it would certainly be better than the alternatives. I believe that secularism is a dead end. Man does not live by bread alone. He needs something higher to believe in. If people do not have religion, they will find something else, or they will cease to live. As it is, Europe is dying.

The are many who believe that the future of Europe is in Islam. They project a future in which thanks to a higher birthrate and conversions, the Muslim population of Europe will come to be a majority and impose their culture and values on Europe. I am not so certain of this, myself. It is unwise to take current demographic trends and project them in a straight line into the indefinite future. People do react to events and it may be that the Europeans will wake up to the threat to Islamization. Whatever happens, the influence of Islam is not a good one, and the less such influence Islam has on Europe and the world, the better. Secularism cannot really counter Islam. You can’t fight something with nothing. If the Europeans do not want to descend in the poverty and barbarism of the Islamic world, they will have to find a competing ideology, and what better than their Christian heritage.

 

Just the Facts About Vaccination

February 17, 2015

I read this open letter on the rejection of the proven, life saving technologies vaccination and genetically modified organisms.

Dear Every American Who Doesn’t Believe in Science:

I know you are smart.  I know you care about your kids, your family, your pets.  I know you are a basically decent human being who wants to do right and contribute to society.  And because I know these things, I’m going to try very hard to understand why you refuse to believe in scientific fact, rather than berate you and call you names.

The funny thing is, I actually think I’m reasonably good at seeing the other side of any issue.   There are a few issues where I struggle, but even then, if I’m honest with myself, I can intellectually understand the other side of the issue and why my friend or colleague has positioned himself on that side.

Regarding immunizations and genetically modified organisms, I can’t.

Yes, I view these two issues – though they are definitely in different industries – as intertwined.  Why?  Because the people who are anti either of them have a blatant disregard for science and I just don’t understand that.

Scientific consensus on both of these issues is that both are safe.  Immunizations are safe for the vast majority of people.  GMOs are safe for everyone.

Do you understand what scientific consensus is, my friend?  That means that most of the scientists (maybe even those who don’t usually agree) believe the safety of GMOs and immunizations to be fact.  It’s beyond dispute.  The data has proven safety beyond a shadow of a doubt so that scientists no longer squabble over this issue.

I appreciate what this writer is trying to do and agree with her positions, yet I cannot help but consider that her arguments are somewhat flawed, or perhaps insufficient is a better way to put it. Basically, her argument is that Science has decreed that vaccines and GMO’s are safe because there is a consensus and all the scientists say they are safe. In my view, this is a misunderstanding of what science really is and how it should work.

Science is not a body of lore handed down on stone tablets at Mount Sinai by God or some famous scientist. Science is a method of inquiry used to learn facts about the natural world. It does matter what Einstein or Newton or some other famous scientist says, no matter how great their contributions to science. They can be wrong. It does not matter what the consensus is. The consensus could be mistaken. Not so very long ago, the scientific consensus was that disease was caused by imbalances of bodily humors and bleeding was the most effective treatment. The only thing that matters, or should matter in science is the observations that are made and the logical inductions that are made from those observations Ideally, scientist should be interested in “just the facts”. I think the best arguments on any subject are those based on just the facts.

So, what are the facts about vaccination. Before the widespread introduction of vaccination, people fell sick and even died from a variety of infectious, contagious diseases’ smallpox, measles, whooping cough diphtheria, to name just the ones that spring immediately to mind. These diseases have been virtually wiped out since vaccines for them have been developed. Smallpox, the deadly disease that people feared, is now extinct. Only in backward regions, filled with ignorant and superstitious people, such as the darkest regions of California do these diseases continue to plague humanity.

There have been no credible studies linking vaccination with autism or any other chronic illness. The one study that did propose such a link has been discredited and retracted. This does not mean that there isn’t such a link.There could well be one that has not yet been discovered. But, consider the fact that millions of children have been vaccinated with no ill effects. There may be some danger in being vaccinated, nothing in this world is completely safe, but the dangers associated with not being vaccinated are far greater and more certain. Any rational consideration of the risks and benefits of vaccination must come to the conclusion that the benefits outweigh the risks. If you do not get your children immunized, you are putting them at risk of catching  preventable diseases that could cause permanent damage to their health, or even death. Those are just the facts.

 

 

The Earl of Clarendon

February 15, 2015

I have noticed that US history textbooks tend not to spend a lot of time on the Colonial Period. Generally, there is a chapter on Columbus and the Spanish Conquistadores, followed by a chapter on Jamestown and the Pilgrims. By the third or fourth chapter, they are at the Boston Tea Party and the Revolution, effectively skipping over the hundred and seventy or so years of the English colonies in North America. At least that was the situation when I was in school. Today, I suppose the textbooks teach about the evil whites who oppressed and exterminated the innocent Native Americans who lived in harmony with the Earth and each other.

This habit of skipping over so much of the Colonial Period is unfortunate, I think, since quite a lot happened during that time. The almost two centuries before Independence was the time in which the English colonists became Americans and learned the arts of self-government that served them so well during and after the Revolution. The colonists were forced to learn to govern themselves because England mostly neglected its North America colonies until the French and Indian War. Unlike the Spanish and the French, the English government did not exert much control over the internal affairs of its colonies and didn’t limit colonisation to approved populations. The English thought of their colonies as a source of resources, a place for adventurers to get rich and a dumping ground for undesirables. The royal governors who were appointed tended not to be the best and brightest of the English aristocracy.

The colony of New York seemed to have the worst luck with its governors. Probably the worst of the lot was Edward Hyde, the Third Earl of Clarendon. Hyde was reputed to be corrupt, incompetent, dissolute and a cross dresser. Hyde was appointed to be the Royal Governor of the colonies of New York and New Jersey by Queen Anne from 1701 to 1708. He was not a popular governor. According to some accounts, Hyde took bribes and stole from the public treasury, and he dressed in women’s clothes.

There are several stories about Hyde’s cross dressing. According to one, a constable noticed a woman loitering in one of the seediest parts of New York and arrested her on suspicion of being a prostitute only to discover he had arrested the governor. Another story, has Hyde addressing the New York Assembly in 1702 in a gown reminiscent of the style Queen Anne preferred. When questioned about his choice of attire, he replied that in his capacity as Royal Governor he represented the Queen, a woman, and so he ought to represent her as faithfully as possible. When his wife died in 1707, Hyde is said to have attended her funeral dressed as a woman. There is even a portrait purported to be of the the governor in drag.

Lord_Cornbury

There is, of course, some question over whether this is really a portrait of Hyde. One might think that since any politician wouldn’t allow himself in our more liberated times to be photographed in drag, surely no one in the more restrictive eighteenth century would sit in front of a painter to have his portrait done while wearing a dress.

Then again-

New York mayor Rudy Guiliani

New York mayor Rudy Guiliani

Actually, the idea that our times are more sexually liberated while all past eras were prudish and puritanical is not really true. The truth is that  periods of relatively liberal sexual mores alternate with more restrained times. The eighteenth century happened to be one of the more libertine centuries, at least among the aristocracy. The more prudish Victorian nineteenth century was a reaction against the looser morals of the previous century, just as much of the twentieth century has been a reaction against the Victorians. In fact, there was even a lively gay subculture in London and perhaps other large cities of Britain, complete with gay bars, which they called “molly houses” In eighteenth century slang, a “molly” was an effeminate, perhaps homosexual, man and a molly house was where they could congregate for companionship and sex with their more masculine lovers. They would dress as women and take on feminine identities. They even held mock marriages just as homosexuals today have mock marriages. These marriages were, of course, not recognized by the state as such mock marriage often are today. In that respect, the people of the eighteenth century were saner and had a better grip on reality. You must not think that homosexuality, or cross-dressing, was in any sense tolerated, though. Sodomy was a crime punishable by death. Most of what historians know about the molly houses is from court documents of trials persons captured in raids and the testimony of undercover police.

So, was Edward Hyde a molly? Did he frequent the colonial equivalent of a molly house, if any existed? Probably not. There is no reason to believe that he was a homosexual, and really no reason to believe the stories of his cross dressing. Upon closer investigation, the stories seem to have originated from his political enemies, of which he had made many, and to have dated some time after his tenure as governor. They always seem to have been something someone else had seen or heard about the governor. Even the supposed portrait of the governor is more likely to have one a painting of a woman with masculine features. The label on the frame of the portrait may only date to 1867. Even if Hyde did wear women’s clothing, he was probably heterosexual. Contrary to what is still often believed, most cross dressers are straight, and Hyde seems to have been genuinely fond of his wife. The stories of his corruption may also have been exaggerated by his enemies.

Edward Hyde was recalled to England in 1708 and promptly put into debtor’s prison, until his father died the following year and he inherited the title and properties of the Earl of Clarendon. He died in obscurity in 1723 and since his son had already died, the title passed to a cousin, Henry Hyde, Fourth Earl of Clarendon. The title died with his son, Henry Hyde, who died childless in 1753, but it was revived in 1776 with a son of a daughter of the Fourth Earl. Edward Hyde’s descendants include the present Earl of Clarendon, Sarah, Duchess of York, and the actor Cary Elwes. Edward Hyde himself is only remembered for his alleged cross dressing, perhaps not the legacy he might have wanted, but how many colonial Royal Governors are remembered at all?

Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2015
English: Saint Valentine kneeling

Valentine?

Today is Valentine’s Day, or St. Valentine‘s Day. Who was Valentine and why does he get a day named after him? The truth is, nobody really knows.Valentine or Valentinus was the name of an early Christian saint and martyr. The trouble is that nothing is known of him except his name. He may have been a Roman priest who was martyred in 269. There was a Valentine who was bishop of Terni who may have been the same man. St. Valentine was dropped from the Roman calendar of Saints in 1969 because of these uncertainties but local churches may still celebrate his day.

It is also not certain how Valentine’s day became associated with love. Some have speculated that the holiday was a Christian substitute for the Roman festival of Lupercalia. However, there is no hint of any association of Valentine’s Day with romance until the time of Chauncer. The holiday seems to have really taken off with the invention of greeting cards.

. Valentine postcard, circa 1900–1910

The First World War

February 12, 2015

The First World War was the single most important event of the twentieth century. Every event that followed that war, all the other wars, the great movements and revolutions, and even the scientific discoveries and inventions, began in some way, direct or indirect, from the great and terrible happenings of the years 1914-1918. A world in which that war had not occurred would be a very different and perhaps better world.

Despite the importance of World War One, I have never known very much about it. I had some knowledge of the general outlines, which countries fought on which side, and which side won. I knew the names of some of the battles, the Somme, Verdun, but nothing in detail. I had some familiarity of the conditions of the Western Front but knew almost nothing at all about the Eastern Front, save that Russia ended up losing. I do not think that I am alone in knowing so little about World War One. The First World War tends to be overshadowed, in contemporary minds, by the still greater and more catastrophic Second World War. Yet, had the first war not been fought, it is very unlikely the second war would have broken out. At first the nature of the combatants would have been different, no Nazis in Germany and no Communist Soviet Union. In the United States, World War One tends to get little attention because we only entered the war in its last year. While the US contribution was crucial to the Allied victory, the war did not hurt us as badly as it did the European powers that fought it. Unlike France, Germany or Britain, America did not lose much of a generation in the fighting.

keegan_first_l

To learn more about this war, I turned to The First World War by the eminent military historian John Keegan. I am happy to report that Mr. Keegan does a truly marvelous job in relating the course of the war, from its beginnings, in the plans by the military staffs of the various combatants to fight the next war, to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand that sparked the war, through the years of trench warfare when massive armies butted heads to no avail, all the way to the last desperate attempt by the Germans to knock Britain and France out of the war before fresh American soldiers arrived to reinforce them. He seems to pay equal attention to both the Western and Eastern fronts. I learned quite a lot about the fighting between Russian and the German-Austrian alliance, not to mention the fighting in the Balkans where the war started.
Keegan mostly dwells on the military aspects of the war and has relatively little to say about the domestic politics of the European nations. He does go into some detail about the diplomatic maneuverings the nations of Europe engaged in during the Balkan crisis that led up to the war. It is somewhat poignant to learn that neither side really wanted a general war in Europe, but no one seemed strong enough to end the crisis. Keegan speculates that if Austria-Hungary had launched an immediate invasion of Serbia in retaliation of their support for terrorist activities, the crisis would have ended before it had grown out of control. As it happened, Austria-Hungary waited for support from Germany, and the wait proved fatal for Europe.

Keegan challenges some myths and ideas that have grown up about the war. He argues that the various generals were not as incompetent or unconcerned about casualties as is often supposed. As he points out, they tried to fight the war as best they could, but technological development was at an awkward phase for fighting a war. Barbed wired and the machine gun made defended positions nearly impregnable, while the technologies that would have aided the offensive, tanks and airplanes were only beginning to be developed. Improvements in transportation, especially trains, made it possible to send many thousands of men into battle, but the generals had no way to keep in contact with their armies once battle had begun. It was no longer possible for generals to lead their men in person; the battles were too large for that. Telephone and telegraph wires were easily cut. Radio was still in its infancy. The generals were removed from the battlefields because they had no choice. They sent their men to be slaughtered because wars cannot be won without attacking the enemy and attacking the enemy’s positions killed thousands.

I enjoyed learning about World War One from John Keegan’s book and I think it serves as an excellent introduction to the war. It covers all the major battles and aspects of the war without getting bogged down in details. Best of all, it can be understood easily even by the reader not familiar with military affairs. I can highly recommend The First World War.

 

The Muslim Inquisition

February 6, 2015

At a prayer breakfast recently, President Obama admonished his audience that any religion, including our own, can be twisted into promoting the most atrocious behavior. As an example, the President cited the Crusades and the Inquisition.

I don’t think that there can be much doubt among those who have actually studied history that holy war has been much more typical of Islam than Christianity. The Crusades were a response to centuries of Islamic aggression against Christendom and the idea of a holy warrior was always somewhat controversial among Christians. In Islam, on the other hand, jihad is an integral part of the faith. Inquisitions seem to have been more of a Christian problem. One never hears of any Muslim Inquisition in history. Yet there was an organized Inquisition at least once in Islamic history.

In general Christianity lends itself more to the formation of something like an Inquisition and the punishment of heretics than Islam. In part this is because in Christianity salvation is not obtained by correct behavior as in Islam, but holding correct doctrine. What a Christian believes about God can have eternal consequences. This is not as unreasonable as it might seem to the modern mind. A doctor with incorrect information about the practice of medicine might kill his patient. A lawyer mistaken about the law cannot serve his client. In like manner, to the Medieval Christian, a priest or preacher who taught incorrect theology placed the souls of his flock in danger. We do not punish heretics, but we do prosecute people who make fraudulent claims and we can punish professionals for malpractice. The Medieval Inquisition, then, pursued cases of theological malpractice. I do not want to defend the Inquisition here, but I do think it is important to try to understand why such an institution was thought to be necessary during the Middle Ages.

The Muslims never absorbed the Greek passion for hair splitting philosophical discussion to the extent that the Christians did, so there is no equivalent in Islamic history to the furious debates over to what extent Christ was God or man or the precise relationship of the persons of the Trinity to one another. Islamic theology is relatively simple and straight forward compared to Christian theology, so there is less scope for heresy in Islam. Most disputes between Muslims have involved differences in legal jurisprudence or the correct succession to the Caliphate rather than fine points of doctrine. This is not to say that Islamic authorities were more tolerant of heresy. Denying a fundamental doctrine of Islam such as the existence of God or proclaiming oneself to be a new prophet with revelations that supersede those of Mohammed was always a good way to lose your head.

Another reason why there haven’t been Inquistitions in Islam is that unlike Christendom, church and state have never been separate entities. There has been no organized institutional church with a hierarchy of clergy as a separate source of political power and moral authority,to a greater or lesser extent opposed to the state in the Islamic world. The Caliph was always a religious leader as well as a political leader and laws were made by religious scholars based on Koranic principles. Among the functions of the state were the promotion of virtuous behavior and the propagation  of the faith. Heresy could be punished by the state and there was no need for a separate ecclesiastical institution for that purpose. Nevertheless, as I said there has been at least one Inquisition in Islamic history, though it was sponsored by the Caliph and its purpose was as much the suppression of his political opponents as the eradication of heresy. This Islamic Inquisition was called the Mihna and only lasted from AD 833 until 848.

This Mihna, the word means trial or testing in Arabic, was instituted by the Caliph al-Ma’mun for the purpose of imposing the beliefs of the Mutazilite school of philosophy on his government officials and judges. The Mutazilites or Rationalists were those philosophers and scholars who had studied Greek philosophy and sought to reconcile the teachings of such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle to the precepts of Islam. In particular, they adopted Greek ideas that the world is a rational place ruled by natural, logical laws that could be discovered through the use of reason. They even went so far as to teach that the nature God could be discovered by reason, supplemented by His revelations. To more orthodox or conservative Muslim thinkers, already suspicious of pagan learning, the idea that God could be known at all seemed close to blasphemy. A world ruled by natural laws seemed to infringe on the divine sovereignty of God.

al-Ma'mun is furthest on the left

al-Ma’mun is furthest on the left

The particular issue on which the Mutazilites and their opponents contended was whether the Koran was created by God or is the untreated, eternal Word of God. This may seem to be a trivial cause for argument, but the controversy helped to determine the course of Islamic theology and philosophy. If the Koran was created by God, than it does not necessarily possess the entirety of God’s perfection. Not every word of the Koran need be the literal Word of God. Some verses could be allegorical or influenced by some historical or cultural context. If the Mutazilites had prevailed, it is possible that the Islamic view of the Koran would be closer to the view held by many Christians on the Bible, inspired by God but with not every verse interpreted literally. On the other hand, if the Koran is uncreated and eternal, then, in a sense , it partakes of the essence of God. There can be no historical or cultural context. Verses which seem to relate to Mohammed’s life existed before Mohammed was born or the world created. Divine laws promulgated in the Koran are for all times and places.

The Mutazilite school was a movement of the intellectual elite rather than a popular movement and much of its influence came from the support of the Caliphs, especially al-Ma’mum who reigned from AD 813-833. In the year 827, al-Ma’mun using his authority as Caliph, proclaimed that the Koran was created. In 833, al-Ma’mun instituted the Mihna to compel acceptance of his proclamation. The Mihna continued after al-Ma’mun’s death the same year, through the reigns of his successors al-Mu’tasim and al-Wathiq. The Caliph al-Mutawakkil ended the Mihna two years into his reign in the year 848. The Mihna, then, was not a permanent institution as the various European Inquisitions were, nor was its effects as immediately far reaching. The Mihna was primarily directed at government officials and Islamic scholars in the Caliph’s capital of Baghdad. Muslims out in the provinces and among the common people were not affected by this inquisition. The Mihna was still unpopular,  however, since the men targeted by it were widely respected religious scholars and jurists, including Ahmad ibn-Hanbal, one of the most famous Islamic theologians and founder of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Like many such persecutions, the Mihna was a failure. The men targeted became martyrs and heroes of the faith. The Caliphs responsible were reviled as tyrants.

In the longer run, the effects of the Mihna were devastating for the Mutazilites and perhaps for the Islamic world as a whole. The Mutazilites were seen, somewhat unfairly, as the sponsors of the Mihna and their faction and its teachings were increasingly discredited afterwards. By the year 1000, the Mutazilites were universally viewed as heretics, a judgment that has continued to this day. More unfortunately, Greek philosophy,with its emphasis on the use of reason was also discredited, which may have been a leading cause in the decline of science in the Islamic world after around 1000. In order to do science, the thinker must believe that the world is a rational place, governed by rational laws that can be discovered by the human mind. If one believes that the world is governed by the arbitrary dictates of a deity beyond human understand, then it may be possible to make chance empirical discoveries, but there is less motivation to try to fit such discoveries into consistent, logical world view.

It is strange that the Islamic Inquisition ended up doing more damage to Islamic progress than the longer lasting and more extensive Christian Inquisitions did to progress in Europe. The history of the Islamic world seems to be full of these sorts of wrong turns and I have to wonder whether there is something in Islam, perhaps less tolerant of free thought than Christianity ever has been, even at its worst. Or, perhaps the backlash against the intolerance of the Islamic Inquisition ended up being greater intolerance, while the backlash against the Christian Inquisitions was to ultimately  discredit the idea of religious coercion. Such questions, perhaps, are unanswerable.

The Razor King

February 2, 2015

Anyone who shaves on a regular basis owes King Camp Gillette a debt of gratitude. King Camp Gillette, yes that was actually his name, was the founder of the Gillette Safety Razor Company in 1901 and the inventor of the disposable safety razor. Before this invention, men  shaved using a straight razor that had to be sharpened on a leather strop. These razors were expensive, needed sharpening often and were not especially safe or easy to use. There had been attempt to create safety razors out of forged steel in the nineteenth century but they were also expensive and hardly disposable.

English: Front page of Gillette's razor patent.

English: Front page of Gillette’s razor patent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

King Camp Gillette  was a salesman for the Crown Cork and Seal Company, which made bottle caps for soft drink bottles, and he noticed that people would throw away the bottle caps after opening the bottles. He thought that if bottle caps could be disposable, why not razors? Working with two machinists, Steven Potter and William Emery Nickerson, Gillette designed a cheap, disposable safety razor using stamped steel. The razor was an immediate success and since Gillette’s portrait was on the packets of the razor blades, he became recognizable all over the world. Gillette’s big break come with America’s entry into World War I. Gillette contracted with the government to provide razor kits for American servicemen. Despite his success, King Camp Gillette died in poverty in 1932. He lost control of his company to a fellow director, John Joyce, though the company retained the Gillette name. Gillette spent much of the money he gained from the sale on property and when the Great Depression struck, the shares of the company lost their value.

King C. Gillette

King C. Gillette (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Story of King Camp Gillette could be read as a great American success story or a rags to riches to rags story. What I find most intriguing about Gillette, however, are his social and political views. The Wikipedia article about Gillette describes him as a “Utopian Socialist” who wrote a book in 1894, advocating that industries should be nationalized and controlled by a single corporation owned by the public. It may seem incongruous for a capitalist to argue for socialism, but Gillette believed that capitalists were the natural choice to run the nationalized industries, since they already had the necessary experience. Gillette, then was a democratic socialist rather than a Marxist. He wanted a socialism that benefited everyone in the nation, not a class struggle and revolution.
Gillette’s views may seem radical, but this kind of democratic, corporatist socialism was very popular at the time. In 1888, Edward Bellamy (cousin of the Francis Bellamy who had devised the Pledge of Allegiance) had published a utopian novel titled Looking Backward, in which a man from 1887 falls asleep Rip van Winkle style and wakes up in the socialist utopia of 2000. In his novel, Bellamy had advocated the same sort of corporatist socialism as Gillette and many others. Looking Backward was a best seller and almost immediately after its publication “Nationalist” clubs sprang all over the country hoping to enact such policies. Ultimately some form of this National Socialism was adopted by Benito Mussolini in Fascist Italy and certain aspects of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

I have to wonder how otherwise intelligent men could imagine that creating a publicly owned monopoly to control an entire nation’s industry could possibly be a good idea or, in any way compatible with any idea of a free country. One of the major concerns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the growth of monopolies and trusts owned by such men as John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie. Many observers believed that such men practiced unfair and anti-competitive policies which gave them a disproportionate influence over the American economy and ultimately of the government. It seemed obvious that economic power should not be concentrated in the hands of a few men. Why then, was the solution to this concern considered to be the concentration of economic, political, and legal power in the hands of a few. The National Corporation that Gillette and others envisaged would be owned by the public, but the public wouldn’t be administrating the corporation on a daily basis. There would have to be some sort of committee of directors with perhaps a sort of CEO. Such directors would have far more control over the economy and the government than any private businessman. They would effectively own the whole country, even if nominally it was owned by the public. Even the most benevolent saint would be tempted to abuse such power, to benefit his friends, and the people who would aspire to such positions would not likely be saints.

I have similar reservations about the people who seem to believe that a bigger, more expansive government is the solution to all the nation’s problems, the sort of people who are always proposing new laws and regulations believe that a new government program is always the answer. I can understand that giving more power to the state will allow it to do more good for everyone, but why can they not see that it will also allow the state to do more evil. Given the defects of human nature, which inclines more to evil than to good, my personal preference is to leave the good undone rather than risk the evil that will certainly be done.

The Election of 1832

January 26, 2015

There were essentially two issues on which the election of 1832 was decided. One was the fate of the Second Bank of the United States. The First Bank of the United States was chartered by Congress for a twenty year term in 1791 at the proposal of Alexander Hamilton, who believed that a national bank like the Bank of England was essential for the economic development of the new nation. Hamilton hoped that the Bank of the United States would improve America’s credit and foster economic growth, particularly in manufacturing. Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans loathed the idea of a national bank, believing it to be an unconstitutional expansion of the federal government. They were also suspicious of banks and the financial industry as being the creation of a moneyed elite who cheated the common people out of their hard earned money. The only honest money was that which was earned through the labor of your own hands (or that of your slaves). When the charter of the First Bank of the United States terminated in 1811, President Madison and the Democratic-Republican Congress declined to renew it.
As a result, President Madison found it extraordinarily difficult to pay for the War of 1812, which broke out the following year. The Democratic-Republicans became converted to Hamiltonian economics and in 1816 chartered the Second Bank of the United States with a twenty year term.

Andrew Jackson hated the Second Bank of the United States as much as Jefferson disliked the first, and for much the same reason. Jackson presented himself as a Westerner and a man of the people fighting against the moneyed interests back East. If re-elected, Jackson promised to veto any renewal of the Bank’s charter and in the meantime, he would work to reduce the Bank’s influence. This dislike and distrust of a moneyed elite would be a feature of populist politics in future elections.
The second great issue of the election of 1832 was Andrew Jackson himself. President Jackson had played a far more active role in governing than any of his predecessors who had generally deferred to Congress. Jackson believed that while a Congressman was elected by his district and a Senator by his state, the President was elected by the whole people and should act as a Tribune protecting the people against particular interests. His opponents didn’t see matters in quite that way and accused Jackson of plotting to make himself a king or a dictator.

The campaign for the presidency began in September 1831 with the first nominating convention in American history, held the Anti-Masonic Party, the first of many “third parties”in American politics which would be organized around a single issue, gain temporary popularity and then fade away. The Anti-Masonic Party was, obviously, against the Freemasons and other secret organizations out of the fear that their membership were involved in a secret cabal to overturn republican government and substitute the rule of an elite. This seems rather paranoid, but it was something that many people were worried about. In any case, the Anti-Masonic Party held their convention in Baltimore Maryland and nominated former Attorney General William Wirt for President and Amos Ellmaker for Vice-President.

Jackson’s opponents, the National Republicans, also met in Baltimore in December 1831. They nominated Kentucky Senator Henry Clay for President and Clay’s friend John Sergeant from Pennsylvania for Vice-President.

The Democratic-Republicans, or Democrats as they can now be called, met in Baltimore in May, 1832 and to no one’s surprise, nominated Andrew Jackson for a second term. Jackson’s Vice-President, John C. Calhoun was not selected as his running mate. Jackson and Calhoun did not see eye to eye on a number of issues, particularly on the issue of state’s rights. Calhoun believed that the states had the right to nullify federal laws that were not to their liking, especially the tariffs which were unpopular in his home state, South Caroline. Jackson was a strong nationalist and threatened to send the army into South Carolina if they resisted or nullified any federal tariff. Jackson selected New York Senator, Governor, and his Secretary of State, Martin van Buren.

It was a nasty campaign, like the one before it, fought over personalities and the Bank. It was actually Henry Clay who brought the Bank into the campaign by persuading Nicholas Biddle, the President of the Bank to apply for a renewal of its charter four years early, in 1832. Clay hoped that Jackson would veto the renewal, dividing the Democrats, some of whom were actually for the Bank and winning Pennsylvania, where the Bank was located in Philadelphia. Biddle applied for the renewal of the charter and President Jackson promptly vetoed it. Events didn’t work out quite as Clay hoped, however. Jackson’s veto thrilled his supporters and burnished his populist credentials and made the contest one between the people and the elite. It didn’t help that Biddle and the Bank spent thousands of dollars funding anti-Jackson newspapers, pamphlets and other political activities.

Clay and his supporters made good use of these funds, accusing Jackson of arbitrary rule and dictatorship in cartoons and speeches, but the Jacksonians proved to be far more organized with meetings, parades, and Old Hickory clubs exhorting the voters to support their champion. In the end, Jackson won reelection easily.
Jackson got 701,780 votes, giving him 54.7% of the popular votes. Clay and the National Republicans got 484,205 votes with 36.9% of the popular vote. The Anti-Masonic party managed to get 100,715 votes with 7.8% of the popular vote.

Jackson won sixteen states all over the country for a total of  219 electoral votes. Clay only won his home state, Kentucky, Delaware, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island with 49 electoral votes. Wirt and the Anti-Masons won Vermont with its 7 votes. John Floyd, a supporter of Calhoun’s got South Carolina’s 11 votes. South Carolina was the last state to have its electors chosen by the state legislature rather than by popular vote. Maryland’s 10 electoral votes were divided with 3 votes for Jackson, 5 for Clay and two electors not voting.

The Election of 1832

The Election of 1832

 

With these results, President Jackson could claim a popular mandate for his policies and he began to withdraw government assets from the Second Bank of the United States. The new era of popular, Jacksonian, democracy had begun.

 

Death of a King

January 22, 2015

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has died. The Associated Press has an obituary.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the powerful U.S. ally who joined Washington’s fight against al-Qaida and sought to modernize the ultra conservative Muslim kingdom with incremental but significant reforms, including nudging open greater opportunities for women, has died, according to Saudi state TV. He was 90.

More than his guarded and hidebound predecessors, Abdullah assertively threw his oil-rich nation’s weight behind trying to shape the Middle East. His priority was to counter the influence of rival, mainly Shiite Iran wherever it tried to make advances. He and fellow Sunni Arab monarchs also staunchly opposed the Middle East’s wave of pro-democracy uprisings, seeing them as a threat to stability and their own rule.

He backed Sunni Muslim factions against Tehran’s allies in several countries, but in Lebanon for example, the policy failed to stop Iranian-backed Hezbollah from gaining the upper hand. And Tehran and Riyadh’s colliding ambitions stoked proxy conflicts around the region that enflamed Sunni-Shiite hatreds – most horrifically in Syria’s civil war, where the two countries backed opposing sides. Those conflicts in turn hiked Sunni militancy that returned to threaten Saudi Arabia.

And while the king maintained the historically close alliance with Washington, there were frictions as he sought to put those relations on Saudi Arabia’s terms. He was constantly frustrated by Washington’s failure to broker a settlement to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He also pushed the Obama administration to take a tougher stand against Iran and to more strongly back the mainly Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Abdullah’s death was announced on Saudi state TV by a presenter who said the king died at 1 a.m. on Friday. His successor was announced as 79-year-old half-brother, Prince Salman, according to a Royal Court statement carried on the Saudi Press Agency. Salman was Abdullah’s crown prince and had recently taken on some of the ailing king’s responsibilities.

He can’t have had an easy time trying to balance between the needs of modernizing his country and the ultra conservative religious establishment which controls so much of the kingdom’s society. As the obituary mentions, King Abdullah was an ally in the fight against al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism, yet Saudi Arabia has supplied much of the funding for that terrorism, with members of the Saudi royal family almost certainly providing assistance to radical groups. The strict Wahhabi sect of Islam which is Saudi Arabia’s official religion has provided much of the ideological backing for the most extreme Islamic groups and Wahhabism has spread in the Islamic world due largely to the financial support from the sale of Saudi oil.

King Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz in 2002

King Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz in 2002 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saudi Arabia is among the few countries left in the world governed by an absolute monarchy. The King of Saudi Arabia holds all the legislative, judicial and executive functions of government in his own persons and his royal decrees make up the law of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is also one of the few countries without even a pretext of any democratic machinery. Totalitarian dictatorships such as the People’s Republic of China and the People’s Democratic Republic of (North) Korea have (one party) elections and a legislature to rubber stamp the rulers’ commands. Saudi Arabia is still ruled like a medieval kingdom or a Bedouin tribe. Things are beginning to change in this old fashioned land. Recently there have been elections on the municipal level though no political parties are permitted and the councils elected are mostly powerless. In the 2015 elections, women will actually be allowed to vote and even run for office.

The king’s rule is not absolute, however. He must rule in accordance with the Koran and sharia law. Every Saudi male has the right to petition the king through a tribal council called the Majlis and in practice members and branches of the royal family have considerable influence as well as ulema, the religious establishment of Islamic scholars and jurists. The royal family, the Sauds, form an elite in the kingdom. These are the descendants of the first king of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Saud who united the Arabian peninsula and founded the Kingdom in 1932. Because of the practice of polygamy, the number of princes in the kingdom is very large, perhaps more than 7000. Of these, around 200 play an important role in the kingdom’s government. The Sauds effectively own the whole country and little distinction is made between the family’s assets and the finances of the state. They are the Saud in Saudi Arabia.

It is not easy to determine what will come next in the desert kingdom since so much is dependent on the personality and concerns of the king. So far, every king of Saudi Arabia has been a son of Abdulaziz. The new king, Salman, is 79 years old, so I doubt he will provide vigorous leadership.  Since Abdulaziz died in 1953, I doubt if any of his remaining sons are much younger, so it is possible there will be a series of short-lived, feeble kings for several years until the line of succession goes to the next generation.One can only hope that the desert kingdom continues to inch toward modernity.

In the Family

January 19, 2015

I am not sure if this story is true or not. It does not seem to be an obvious falsehood or satire, but I have my doubts as its veracity. The story is from Opposing views, but I caught it on Joe the Plumber’s blog.

An 18-year-old woman told New York Magazine that she has been in a two-year sexual relationship with her father after being estranged from him for 12 years.

The father and his ex-girlfriend conceived their daughter when they were both 18, and he left her before the birth. When their daughter was 5 years old, the man was back in the picture for a short time before leaving again.

Twelve years later, the father and his then 17-year-old daughter reconnected online, realizing they had a lot in common. “We shared the same favorite TV shows — “The Simpson” and “The Big Bang Theory” — and we both love to draw,” the daughter told New York’s “Science of Us” blog.

The pair arranged to meet in person and upon seeing her father for the first time in years, the teen said she was immediately attracted to him.

“It was so weird and confusing. I was seeing my dad for the first time in forever but it was also like, He’s so good-looking! And then I was like, What the hell are you thinking? What is wrong with you?” she said. “I saw him as my dad but then also part of me was like, I’m meeting this guy who I have been talking to over the internet and really connecting with and I find him attractive.”

The young woman said that the attraction began to intensify when she stayed with him for five days. One day, they went on a shopping trip and the father complimented her daughter’s figure. When they returned home, they began “play-wrestling.”

“That night we were play-wrestling in the room I was going to sleep in and I bit him. He was wearing a pair of basketball shorts and a tank top and after I bit him I could see goose bumps pop up from his toes to his shoulders. Then he pinched my inner thigh and I got goose bumps,” the teen said. “We stopped and said that we didn’t know what was going on but admitted that we had strong feelings for each other. We discussed whether it was wrong and then we kissed. And then we made out, and then we made love for the first time. That was when I lost my virginity.”

The daughter said she and her father “fell deeply in love” and are now engaged and planning a wedding.

Assuming that this story is true, is there a single logical reason why these two lovers should not be married? Traditionally, the institution of marriage was maintained for the creation and preservation of families. Since human beings reproduce sexually and two distinct genders each playing a role in the process, it has been understood that a marriage must consist of at least one of each sex. Close family members have generally not been allowed to marry each other because of the danger that their offspring will have an increased risk of developing genetic disorders. Such was the understanding in the dark days or institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, and heteronormativity.

In our more enlightened times, we understand that marriage has nothing at all to do with families or children. One need not be married to have children and one need not have children with the person one is married to. Marriage is now properly understood as a generic relationship that any two (or more) people can enter into regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or even species.

So, if two men or two women can get married, why cannot two brothers or two sisters? There is no question of children in such a relationship so any consideration of birth defects or diseases caused by incest is moot. Why shouldn’t a mother and daughter or father and son be permitted to marry one another?

Now, in the case of two family members of the opposite sex marrying, there is the question of the health of any offspring of the relationship, but that is easily resolved. One or both of the partners can simply arranged to have themselves sterilized. There is then no possibility of deformed children and no bar to a happy matrimony.

If marriage can be radically redefined to include same sex couples, there is no logical reason why it cannot be further redefined to include incestuous couples, polygamy, or bestiality. You cannot appeal to tradition or religion. If same sex marriage is a sacred civil right that overrides long tradition or religious sentiment, than so are incestuous marriages. You cannot appeal to personal distaste. Personal distaste is no reason to oppose any such change in policy. I do not oppose same sex marriage because of any personal distaste for homosexuals but because I do not believe that such a radical redefinition of a fundamental institution of society is likely to be beneficial to society.

To put the matter succinctly, if you support the idea of same sex marriage, than logic and consistency dictates that you also support the idea of incestuous marriages. There is no logical reason to support the one and oppose the other. I hope you will be happy in the brave new world you are helping to create.


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