Archive for the ‘What’s Happening’ Category

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?

The Resistance

July 8, 2017

I don’t object to the opposition that Democrats have shown towards President Trump and his policies. The Democrats are the opposition party and their job as the opposition is to, well, oppose. I am not one who complains much about gridlock or that the government isn’t moving fast enough. As far as I am concerned, gridlock is precisely what the Founding Fathers intended when they wrote the Constitution. They were most concerned about protecting the rights and liberties of the people and did not want a situation in which the majority could vote away the rights of the minority, thus they intentionally made it difficult for the federal government to do much without a broad consensus among the people. If I wanted a government in which everyone marches together in lockstep, I would consider moving to China or North Korea. What I do object to is the way that the people most opposed to Donald Trump have taken to calling themselves “The Resistance”. Not the loyal opposition, not simply the other party who happens to have disagreements on policy, but the Resistance, as if they are fighting against an enemy occupation.

The Resistance is deliberately named to harken back to the resistance movements in France and other countries occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II. This is a ridiculous conceit on their part. The resistance fighters of World War II faced considerable danger and hardships. The Nazis were not known for their kindness towards those who fought against them and their countrymen who chose to collaborate with the Germans could be far crueller. The only danger that a resistance fighter against Donald Trump could possibly face would be being interrupted by a standing ovation in the middle of a public rant against the president or developing carpal tunnel syndrome from being at their keyboard too long. In other words, there is no danger at all in “resisting” Donald Trump. If anything, judging from recent headlines, it takes more courage to publicly support Trump, at least in such progressive strongholds as Hollywood and college campuses.

It requires no courage to be against Donald Trump. He is not a Fascist dictator who has suspended the constitution. The police will not arrest anyone who speaks out against Trump. He does not have a paramilitary army of thugs to silence dissenters. It is the “antifa” protesters who are behaving like thugs. The Resistance is just a cheap way to feel courageous and virtuous. It is a way for people to feel as though they are fighting the good fight against oppression without having to do anything about the real oppression in the world.

Who is the Resistance and what are they resisting anyway? I notice that there don’t seem to be many marginalized, and oppressed people leading the marches against Trump. The Resistance seems to be comprised of Democratic politicians, journalists and media figures, Hollywood celebrities, academia, federal workers of the so-called Deep State, and the like. In other words, the Resistance seems to be those people with the most power to influence public opinion in the country, in many cases the people who seem to despise the “Deplorables” who live in flyover country the most. I get the impression that the are actually less concerned with losing their freedom than with losing their power to hector and bully the rest of us who do not care to follow the policies they see as enlightened. Trump’s populist tone and his “political incorrectness” must be really frightening to these people.

What are they resisting if Donald Trump is not a dictator who seized power in a coup or a puppet of an occupying power? They are resisting the duly and constitutionally elected President of the United States as well as the elected representatives, of at least the majority party, in Congress. The Resistance likes to accuse President Trump of shredding the constitution, but they are the ones who have been proposing one unconstitutional means after another to remove Trump from power. After the election they were urging the electors who were pledged to support the Republican candidate to be faithless electors and vote for someone else. They have proposed that Trump’s cabinet invoke the twenty-fifth amendment to declare him unfit for office. They are now promising to impeach Trump if the Democrats regain a majority in Congress, even though there is no evidence that Trump has committed any crimes. The Resistance is resisting the results of a democratic election. They are resisting the concept of democracy in this country. They are resisting the idea that we the deplorables should have any say in the direction this country takes. They are resisting the idea that the United States should have a government of the people, by the people, for the people, wishing instead to have a government of the elites, by the elites, for the elites.

For some time now, I have had the strangest feeling that I was living in a country occupied by an enemy determined to destroy, or at least fundamentally change, every aspect that makes this country unique. It seems to me that the people who have been running this country and shaping public opinion have been doing nothing but attacking America and the ordinary people who have made it great. Our history has been disparaged as nothing more than a history of systemic oppression and racism. Our founding fathers, the greatest men who have ever lived, have been dismissed as dead, White, slaveholders. Our great heroes are defamed as racists who committed genocide. Our religion has been mocked as intolerant. Our values and our way of life are derided as old fashioned and obsolete. If we dare to take a stand and ask that our concerns be addressed, we are called racists and bigots.

Both political parties have been taking part in this. The Democrats are openly against us. The Republicans listen to us before the elections, but as soon as they get to Washington, they decide that they don’t need to keep their promises. We had the Tea Party to try to get them to listen and it has had some success, despite the unanimous opposition from the media. It wasn’t until Donald Trump ran for president that they started to notice us, and even then we were all racist deplorables. I still do not altogether trust or like Trump, but he does seem to be one of the few people in Washington who really gets it. He won the presidency by understanding why so many of us in flyover country are so upset, and he seems to really be trying to fight for us.

It is really we who are the Resistance. We are the ones fighting to restore democracy in this country. We, the bitter clingers, the Deplorables, the people who love this country and want to see it become great again are the revolutionaries against the people who think there that this country was never really great and who want to see it transformed into something quite different. Donald Trump is the leader of this resistance movement, for the moment, but if we want to see America great and free again, we cannot rely on any leader. We have to rely on ourselves. It is up to us all to make America a great nation. Let’s get out there and fight.

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 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.

Obama Kids Revisited

June 12, 2017

Remember this video?

I wrote about it way back in September 2011. I still do not like the comparison made between Obama and Hitler. No American politician, either Obama, Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump is anything at all like Hitler. I also still think that having choirs of children singing the praises of a politician is more than a little creepy. It’s also odd that the same sort of people who didn’t have a problem with the Obama Cult are declaring that Trump is an evil dictator, just like Hitler. As far as I know, Trump has not had children singing about how wonderful he is, or artists depicting him as the Messiah, or celebrities pledging their unconditional allegiance to him. Perhaps this is projection? Maybe we are only safe from a would be dictator if he happens to be a Republican.

Anyway, I happened to see this video yesterday and I started to wonder whatever became of these children. They must be college age by now. Maybe some of them are attending Berkeley where they are participating in riots to drive away any conservative speaker who dares to show up. There might be one or two at Yale, screaming at professors who suggested that student might be able to choose their own Halloween costumes. They might be protesting against the systemic racism found at the University of Missouri. Perhaps they have skipped college altogether to attend “antifa” protests, fighting the threat of right-wing Fascism by beating up people and smashing store windows, in other words by acting like the Fascists did in Germany and Italy.

No contemporary American politician is anything like Hitler, but if a dictator ever does come to power in America, he won’t have any trouble finding recruits for his storm troopers from the sort of people who teach their children to sing hymns of praise to politicians.

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.

Memorial Day

May 29, 2017

Today is Memorial Day, the day we honor those who have fallen fighting for their country and for freedom.

Graves_at_Arlington_on_Memorial_Day

Memorial Day first started to be observed after the Civil War. That war was the bloodiest in American history and the casualties of that war were unprecedented. The number of killed and wounded in the three previous declared wars, the War of Independence, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, were insignificant compared to the slaughter house that the Civil War became. After the war people in both the North and South began to commemorate the soldiers who died for their country. The date of this commemoration varied throughout the country until it settled on May 30.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill. This law moved the dates of four holidays, including Memorial Day, to the nearest Monday in order to create three-day weekends. This, I think, was unfortunate. I believe that converting the day on which we honor our fallen heroes into a long weekend tends to diminish the significance of this day. It becomes no more that day to take off work and for businesses to have sales. There should be more to Memorial Day.

 

Organizing for Action’s Values

May 15, 2017

I still get email from Organizing for Action:

Organizing for Action
Friend —

The White House is doubling down on their immigration agenda, plowing forward with their multi-billion dollar budget request for taxpayer funds to build a border wall, deportation force, and expanded detention facilities.

This agenda does not represent our values, and we have to hold every member of Congress who votes in favor of it accountable.

Add your name to join the fight against funding this harmful, discriminatory immigration agenda.

The actions the administration wants to take wouldn’t just harm the way we’re viewed around the world, or waste precious dollars that could be used to improve our schools, advance research to cure diseases, or help small businesses: They would impact millions of people who are just looking for an opportunity for a better life. It shouldn’t matter where they come from — or how they pray. They want to contribute to the success of America.

The good news is that the White House needs funding from Congress to get this done. That’s our opportunity to intervene.

We need all hands on deck to let our representatives know that we won’t stand for an immigration agenda that runs counter to the values that make us strong.

Say you’ll hold your members of Congress accountable:

Add your name

Thanks,

Saumya

Saumya Narechania
National Issues Campaign Manager
Organizing for Action

Well, as a conservative, my values include the concept of ordered liberty under the rule of law, so I prefer that laws be enforced, including immigration laws. This means that a more vigorous enforcement of our immigration laws, as opposed to the more lackadaisical previous administration, represents my values perfectly.

The problem with illegal immigration is not the immigration but the illegal. The United States of America, like every other country in the world with a functioning government, has laws regarding who can enter this country and procedures that a person who wishes to emigrate here must follow. These laws are for the benefit of the people who already live here. No one has a right to emigrate into this country, or any other, and we are not obliged to allow anyone at all into our country, if we don’t want them here. We have every right to insist that the people wishing to come here learn to speak our language and agree to uphold our values. This means that if a potential immigrant does not want to try to learn English or wants to replace the constitution with Sharia law, we can refuse to allow him entry. We also should expect that a person who comes here to obey our laws. An illegal immigrant has already broken our laws.

The people at Organizing for Action seem to believe that our immigration laws are unjust. They may even believe that our borders should be open to anyone who wants to enter. Notice, however, that they are not advocating the repeal or alteration of our current immigration laws. Instead, they seem to believe that the laws should simply be . ignored. The rule of law, then, is not among the values they believe in.

Honesty in discourse also does not seem to be one of their values. They speak of the contributions that immigrants have made to this country and urge that we allow them in as if President Trump is closing our borders to everyone. No one is presently arguing for a complete ban on immigration. There is not even a movement to reduce legal immigration. The debate is over what ought to be done about illegal immigration, whether the relevant laws should, or should not be enforced. By blurring the distinction between legal and illegal immigration and attributing motives and policies to their opponents that they do not, in fact, hold, Organizing for Action and the left generally is arguing dishonestly. Why not argue for open borders, since that is what they seem to want? Because that would be unpopular and no politician who wants to keep his office would endorse it. Instead they have to rely on changing the subject and using glib words and outright lies.

Organizing for Action’s values are not my values. I hope that they are not America’s values.

 

Code Switching Ebonics

April 30, 2017

Language is often a contentious issue, perhaps because the languages we speak are one of the most fundamental ways in nations and societies differentiate themselves from on another. Language is often at the core of our identity. It should come as no surprise, then, that the question of Ebonics, or African American Vernacular English as it should more properly be called, should be controversial, particularly since it involves race, another contentious issue in America. For this reason, this a has gotten more attention than it really should, particularly from Conservatives who want to feel outrage

 In classrooms across the country, students might be scolded for using “ain’t” instead of “isn’t.” But a UW-Madison student is working to erase the stigma against Ebonics, also known as African-American Vernacular English. UW-Madison junior Erika Gallagher conducted research about code switching, also known as code meshing, in which people change their regular speech tendencies to fit into the mold of what is commonly accepted as appropriate. Ebonics is a variety of English that is commonly found in the center of large cities that have been historically populated primarily by black people. It is commonly found in slam poetry, as well as hip-hop and rap music.

Gallagher, a Posse scholar, began her research during her time as an undergraduate Writing Fellow this semester. She said she realized, as she sat in her seminar class of predominantly white students, that she wanted to focus on standard written English and how it excludes marginalized groups. “I want to center the voices of the people who need to be centered,” Gallagher said. “As a Writing Fellow, as a white-passing person, I have a lot of power and privilege that should be shared.” Gallagher conducted much of her research through three interviews. She talked to UW-Madison student leaders from marginalized groups and asked how they felt about code switching. She said all three “overwhelmingly” said it felt oppressive—one said “it is the biggest form of cognitive dissonance that exists.”

She presented her research at the Collegiate Conference on Composition and Communication in Portland, Ore., earlier this semester. She was selected as one of roughly two dozen undergraduates from across the U.S. to participate in the conference, which is typically attended by graduate students and professors. 

Before going on to the topic of Ebonics, I have to point out that Ms. Erika Gallagher’s research is worthless. She reached her conclusion that expecting “‘marginalized” persons to speak Standard English is oppressive by interviewing just three people. Three individuals from a single university campus is far too small a sample size to make any sort of generalization. But then, Ms. Gallagher seems to have reached her conclusions before doing any research at all. The fact that this nonsense is getting any sort of credit is an indictment of our system of higher education.

Code switching is the term used to refer to the practice of multi-lingual people switching languages during the course of a conversation, often even within a sentence. Code switching can also occur might even be done by a person speaking two varieties or dialects of the same language, such as person who speaks an informal or nonstandard dialect at home and a more formal dialect at work. Paul from Langfocus made a video about code switching, not too long ago.

The controversy about African American Vernacular English centers of whether it should be taught in schools along side of or even instead of Standard English and whether African Americans ought to be encouraged to speak in Standard English. Ms. Gallangher seems to be of the opinion that it should and she hopes her research will encourage the teaching of African American student in their own language.

Gallagher said she hopes to develop her research into a nonprofit organization that “teaches teachers to teach,” with the goal that educators will eventually express disclaimers at the start of each semester that state they will accept any form of English that students are comfortable with.

She also hopes increased acceptance of different rhetoric will encourage the formation of a campus-wide diversity statement.

“Just because you speak a different way doesn’t mean you’re not smart, but there’s a huge stigma around it,” Gallagher said. “I want to teach [educators] a different rhetoric, teach them to be more accepting.”

Now, every language exists in different varieties which may be dialects, accents, and so on. Usually some varieties are considered to be more prestigious or more correct than other varieties and there is often one particular variety that is considered to be standard. In American English, that standard is the vaguely midwestern accent often heard spoken by politicians and television reporters. There is no objective reason to consider some varieties more proper than others and from a scientific, linguistic point of view, you can’t really say that a particular pattern of speech is superior or inferior to another pattern of speech. There is no reason “ain’t” shouldn’t be a proper word or that, “he is going” is better than, “he be goin'”. Since the establishment of a standard language is more due to the chances of history and geography, there is no particular reason speaking in a different way might be stigmatizing.

In the real world, however, people do judge other people by the way they speak, and a person who cannot or will not speak Standard English is going to be regarded as uneducated or stupid. This is not just a racial thing. If you speak in a deep southern accent or a West Virginia hillbilly accent, anyone you are speaking to is going to deduct 20 points from his estimate of your IQ. It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD or graduated at the top of your class in medical school, he will still tend to regard your speech as uneducated. Similarly, an African-American who speaks in Ebonics will not be seriously considered for many well-paying jobs. His speech will confirm any prejudices against him.

For this reason, it is not actually helping “marginalized” people if they are not taught to use Standard English, at least in situations where more formal language is expected. Speaking solely in Ebonics will only make an African American more marginalized, since he may be denied opportunities that he might otherwise be able to take advantage of. Ms. Gallagher’s approach will not improve the lives of African-Americans. Her approach is also a little insulting. There seems to be the idea that African-Americans cannot really be expected to speak Standard English. It is just too stressful or triggering for them. Better for the rest of us to make accommodations. Ms. Gallagher demonstrates the soft bigotry of low expectations. Her approach is more about keeping a people in their place than helping to rise. It is about keeping them in their ghetto.

Earth Day

April 22, 2017

Today is Earth Day and what better way to celebrate than to recall the predictions of the first Earth Day back in 1970. Here is a list, courtesy of Freedom Works.

  1. “Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.”  — Harvard biologist George Wald
  2. “We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation.” — Washington University biologist Barry Commoner
  3. “Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.”New York Times editorial
  4. “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” — Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich
  5. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born… [By 1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.” — Paul Ehrlich
  6. “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” — Denis Hayes, Chief organizer for Earth Day
  7. “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions…. By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.” — North Texas State University professor Peter Gunter
  8. “In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution… by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.” — Life magazine
  9. “At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.” — Ecologist Kenneth Watt
  10. “Air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.” — Paul Ehrlich
  11. “By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate… that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, ‘Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, ‘I am very sorry, there isn’t any.'” — Ecologist Kenneth Watt
  12. “[One] theory assumes that the earth’s cloud cover will continue to thicken as more dust, fumes, and water vapor are belched into the atmosphere by industrial smokestacks and jet planes. Screened from the sun’s heat, the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born.”Newsweek magazine
  13. “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.” — Kenneth Watt

For more information about these predictions, read this article from way back in 2000 in Reason.com. 

I grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s and heard these sorts of doomsday predictions all the time. I was young and foolish enough to believe them. I sincerely thought that the world of my future would be an overpopulated, polluted dystopia. As I got older, I happened to notice that none of these gloomy predictions seemed to be coming true. We were not all starving to death or choking on pollution. There was still enough gasoline to fill up our tanks and the price, adjusted for inflation, seemed to be constant. That didn’t stop the doomsday predictions. You might think that the people making these predictions would be relieved that none of them came true. Some them might even admit that they were wrong and try to find out where they erred. No, the predictions kept on coming. Now it is global warming/climate change that is going to destroy the world. Somehow, doomsday keeps getting put off. It is always ten to twenty years in the future.

This is one of the reasons I am skeptical about just about everything the environmentalists claim. I have a working memory and I remember very well the failed predictions that they have made. Since they have been wrong so many times before, why should I start believing them now? At some point you have to consider that they are either mistaken or lying.

Now, you can argue that the stricter pollution control laws enacted since that first Earth Day have prevented the dystopian future that had been predicted. That is undoubtedly true. Advancing technology has also helped. More efficient machines mean less pollution. The Green Revolution has helped to feed billions who would otherwise have starved. But, that also kind of proves my point, at least about predicting the future. People do not just stand by passively as the world falls apart around them. They take action to fix things. This is why future dystopias are never very accurate glimpses of the future. If the world is indeed warming, then people will take action to ameliorate any ill effects caused by changing climates. There is no reason to worry the future and every reason to be optimistic. And remember, we humans do not have the last word on what is going to happen to this world. That is the prerogative of the One who created it.


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