Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Romans Without Laurels

Romans Without Laurels
© 1962  Indro Montanelli
352 pages


In Romans Without Laurels, Indro Montanelli delivers an affectionate history of the Roman Republic and the empire which followed. Although a work in translation, it succeeds wonderfully as narrative history, reminding and entertaining the reader with stories from Rome's rise and fall. The author declares at the beginning that his intention was to deliver a history of the Romans as people, warts and all, avoiding the temptation to put them on a pedestal. Their own historians depicted themselves as hysterically flawed at times; why should we not do the same? Politics is the main course here, of course, but Montanelli is never far from working in literature or economics. He works these in rather cleverly, too: after the chronological history arrives at the eruption of Pompeii, he pauses to write about daily life for ordinary Italians -- their work, their habits, their passions. Similarly, when Rome is transitioning, he pauses to reflect on the evolving culture, as Rome passed from dicipline to decadence. Montaelli is a laudably fair author, one who can't bring himself to demonize anyone -- not even Nero or Caligula. He reflects sadly on their few virtues before recounting the ludricrous and obscene antics of both. Montanelli even appreciates the pre-republican kings of Rome, who (aside from the infamous Tarquins) had the same essential powers as Roman consuls. As he is operating from the original Roman histories, some stories are passed to the reader verbatim -- including the rumor that Caligula made his horse consul. He does offer caution from time to time, however, reminding the reader that Roman historians had their biases just as modern writers do.

For a narrative history of Rome, this is hard to find but enjoyable reading for popular audiences. The popularity of Mary Beard's SQPR indicates that Rome continues to fascinate us, and this has the additional attraction of having been written by an Italian.

Related:
Rubicon, Tom Holland

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

State of Fear

State of Fear
© 2004 Michael Chrichton
672 pages



I stumbled upon State of Fear via Rousseau, oddly enough. Wikiquote’s page on Rousseau included an excerpt from a Michael Crichton article rebuking Rousseau’s “noble savage” myth. The article in question scrutinized political environmentalism, and after reading it I decided to give State of Fear a try. In the article, Crichton drew the same parallel between environmentalism and cultural christianity that I personally observed about peak oil scenarios after I encountered Jim Kunstler*. Crichton‘s work is more cultural criticism than novel, however, given that his introduction effectively spoils the plot: the reader knows in advance that nothing at all is going to happen aside from a few deaths on the far side of the world. The real reason to read the novel is to understand what Crichton means by a ‘state of fear’, and how politics is involved.

The plot in question is fairly simple: an environmental group is preparing the launch of a major initiative, and as part of the campaign they want to engineer a few natural disasters that will unfold within the same week. Their major political donor catches wind that something odd is going on, and in the midst of pulling their funding he seems to commit suicide. A few good guys stumble upon the plot, midway through the Crichton Lecture arrives, and then the novel wraps up just as the introduction indicated it would. I didn't care about any of the characters, and poked along entirely for the author arguments.

The Crichton Lecture is part of any Crichton novel, and usually apprises the reader on the limits of knowledge and the arrogance of power. Here, it speculates that since the end of the Cold War, the powers that be (a political-legal complex supplanting the military-industrial complex) have sought to maintain the same level of constant dread among the American populace through one bogey or another, and at present the imminent collapse of the environment is their favorite. It has proved to have multiple heads; looming extinctions, natural disasters, and resource depletion are but a few. As is usual for a Crichton novel, he presents readers with the same information that the characters are faced with: in this case, graphs. Crichton does not dispute the growing rise of carbon dioxide, or that humans are responsible; what he disputes is that there has been a global increase in temperatures as a result. Crichton mainly uses a series of graphs that indicates that temperatures in North America have been more constant that not, and a series of city heat records that calls the “main” graph, the one showing correlated heat and CO2 rises, into question. He argues, via one of the characters, that the data used in the main graph indicating rising temperatures is based on flawed data. How seriously can we data produced in China during its decades of turmoil, for instance? Other arguments, like that the weakening of Antarctic ice is localized to one peninsula and that Antarctica as a whole has been gaining ice -- after several thousand years of losing it -- are also included.

Frankly, this isn’t an argument I care to wade in to.  My environmental sensibilities are rooted in immediate stewardship, not far-off dangers --  in taking care of what is given to us. This means cleaning up after ourselves and not being wasteful; my own interests in humane urbanism and fiscal sustainability promote "environmental" measures.  That said, my  experience with doom forecasters like Kunstler, and my regular reading of  environmental writers like Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey (who have criticized DC‘s mismanagement of land) has induced a heavy amount of skepticism about the efficacy of politically-motivated technocratic intervention However, the bulk of Crichton’s argument was based on that large graph, and not on anything like ice core studies. Since reading the book I’ve been googling about reading articles about particular claims, and the flicker of interest has been squashed down again by the name-calling. I think I will just keep cleaning up after myself. If the oceans rise and we are replaced by dolphins, well -- it’s not that much of a loss.

*To quote from my 2008 "Response", written shortly after listening to Kunstler at my university:

It's a secular doomsday scenario. While religious scenarios see society destroyed by the corruption of sin, followed by the restoration of proper living and morality, this scenario sees society undermined by a dependence on "free energy" and a return to "simpler" living, to 'sustainability'. 


Monday, August 21, 2017

Columbus was a lucky devil

The great American eclipse has come and passed, and in my neck of the woods it was scarcely noticable. According to a website, we were to have achieved 88% obscurity, which sounded like "dusk" to me. The only noticable effect was a tint to the light -- not necessarily even a dimming, just a tint as if part of the light was being filtered out.



This image from Wikipedia is of a bookstore doing science outreach using interest in the eclipse. We tried to do the same at the library. Unfortunately, I couldn't use Storms from the Sun, it being checked out. That volume came to mind because in it, the author recounts the story of Columbus being accosted by the people of Hispanolia, who were tired of feeding him. He threatened to take away the sun, knowing an eclipse was expected within days, and used the eclipse to continue their support.  I say he was a lucky devil because being at the right latitude is particularly important:  although we were only 200~ miles away from totality, we experienced virtually nothing. Had the sun merely dimmed for Columbus as he did here, he would have never returned. But of course, Fortuna smiled on him in general -- how else to explain his stumbling upon new continents when he had so badly misjudged the size of the Earth?


Ten Biographies of Interest

I was asked to create a bookmark or brochure of biographies to promote that section at the library. I used Goodreads and selected ten books which we have,  adjusting a bit to include more women.  The blurbs borrow slightly from the official descriptions.  I've read a couple of these and a few more are definite possibilities -- particularly Wild Swans.   Hidden Figures would dovetail nicely with We Could Not Fail.


1. Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson
The man behind the Apple II, the Ipad, and the Iphone – “The Innovator of His Generation”

2.  Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly

3.  Marie-Antoinette, Antonia Frasier
France’s iconic queen, wrongly reviled, commanded by fate to feature in one of Europe’s most dramatic moments

4.  Alexander Hamilton, Rob Chernow
The story of a self-taught orphan from the Caribbean who rose to become the Treasury Secretary of the United States.


5. Wild Swans, Jung Chang.
The lives of three women tell the story of China’s tortuous path into the 20th century, as they lived through warlords and revolution


6. Catherine the Great, Robert Massie
The tale of a princess who went to Russia at age 14 and became one of the most powerful women in history

7.The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
The story of a young farmwoman who unknowingly became a contributor to science throughout the 20th century, as her long-lived cells were used to combat viruses and cancer long after her death.


8. Theodore Rex, Edmond Morris
Highly-regarded treatment of a larger-than-life president famed for his energy, a man who insisted on delivering a speech even after being shot in the chest

9. John Adams, David McCullough
History on a grand scale about a colossus of independence

10. The Soul of a Butterfly, Muhammad Ali
The autobiography of the famed boxer.

The Art of Deception

The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security
© 2005 Kevin Mitnick
352 pages



The Art of Deception is interesting at first, but very repetitive. Mitnick, who claims his career as a hacker was passed solely on manipulating people to gain information and access, shares stories of others who did the same. These mostly include private investigators, with at least one pair of curious teenagers and a few bits of corporate espionage. The modus operandi in all the cases is very similar: the actor engages in background research to learn a few names and some of the lingo of the business, then makes phone calls to different people and departments within the company. Information is solicited under false pretense from various people, then combined to gain further access or the answers. Mitnick refers to this as social engineering, and it's obvious from his collection that a high degree of charisma is required to gain the trust or goodwill of subjects; Mitnick also points out how the actors manipulate the people they're interacting with, pushing buttons for sympathy and fear. There are very few cases included here of people working in person; the simplest case involved a man studying a business to find out when the office staff left, and when the janitors arrived. He then approached the place in a suit and briefcase, and pretended to be an office worker who needed to run in and get a few things from his office -- allowing him free run of the place. Mitnick ends each section, and the book in total, with advice on how to secure and compartmentalize information so employees don't accidentally give the farm away. This includes strict policies and training to control the flow of information, emphasizing the need to verify the identity and need of people requesting information.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination Of Your Child

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination Of Your Child
© 2010 Anthony Esolen
256 pages



In the spirit of The Screwtape Letters comes this, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination Of Your Child.  Anthony Esolen opens by observing that the western world obviously does not like its children, or it would treat them differently.  In mocking appreciation for what passes for modern education and parenting, Esolen offers a guide to what is being done well, and offers advice for even more efficiently crushing their messy little humans into conveniently-formed bricks in the wall.  Dripping with irony, this manual for childhood destruction is really a defense of being human,  calling parents’ attention to how much has been lost and reminding them what is valuable and good about being ye as children.

In his introduction, Esolen notes that American children spend the majority of their day in warehouses, surrounded by people who do not love them.  We have reduced our children to commodities -- to be bussed, warehoused, and then put to use in the economy.  In the process, some of the essence of humanity -- curiosity, adoration, innocent dreams -- are snuffed out. (Think of the native passion for learning about the world, for instance, which is absent in most adults.)  Esolen criticizes the very nature of schoolrooms themselves, the strict age segregation and the concentration of hundreds of kids into the same spaces.  The socialization received in such institutions is the same received in prisons: the socialization of gangs and cattle.  These mass schools are Efficient, but human beings are not creatures who can be made efficiently.  We are handicrafts,  best shaped by learned hands with the experience of years in them -- who know how to work out our lumps and produce something that is beautiful without having to be perfect.

The dreary mentality of the factory, the curse of Taylorism -- "scientific management", in which factory laborers were turned into efficient cogs by doing the same practiced motion over and over again --  has penetrated deep into the school.  The risky, the inefficient, are kept away. Gone are childhood adventures outside; the kids sit inside, transfixed by their phones.   Gone, too, are the self-organized games played on the street and in any vacant lot, the games that allowed children their first taste of adulthood -- for there they regulated their games, improvising as they needed to to allow for limited conditions or layers.   If children 'play' sports now, they only do it in organized teams,  supervised constantly by adults. The little saplings are never free to bask in the sun, not with looming pines above them.  What should be done for sheer joy  is instead pursued for filling out a college resume; the commodity's only value is for its utility.

Esolen's criticism goes beyond education, though he fires sallies it at regularly given how much  time kids spend institutionalized.  The parent who wishes to spiritually neuter their child, to turn play into passivity, would do well to plunk them down in front of television.  Not only will it shorten their attention span and keep them fixated for hours on end, but it will take the time they could have been using to get into trouble --  exploring outside, for instance.  This trivialization of the human experience continues in the reflexive sneering-at of men and women once lauded as extraordinary, as well as the reduction of sexuality to meat and friction -- instead of the dangerous, beautiful act of creation it once was. The triumph of triteness has reduced “love”  to lust, or admiration, or preference, or any old thing – but never devotion and affection.

Esolen is ultimately arguing for a childhood and a human life that is valuable for being human, not for economic utility. His version of childhood is one that is rooted in the family, not in organization; he dreams of children sitting at their parents' feet, admiring them and heroes from fiction and history, wanting to grow up to be good men and women themselves.  Esolen renders his rebukes not in a despairing tone, but in a mischievous, playful one; the same one that appears in his lectures on Dante ,where he off-handedly mentions that the motto of a given university is in fact taken from Dante.(There is always a lone guffaw when he intones: "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate...")*  Esolen's wit is also audacious, as seen when he started mocking television...while on television. The hosts cut him off rather awkwardly. It is an argument for a humanistic education -- that is, one that takes as its purpose the fulfillment of the human person, not  producing Dewey's faithful subjects for the state.

* Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Related:
The Unschooling Handbook, Mary Griffith
School Sucks Podcast
Free Range Kids

Civics Literacy Test

Within the last few weeks I stumbled across a pdf  labelled "1960s Alabama Literacy Test".  The host is a state university that has put it in a 'jimcrow' folder, so I assume it is presented as an example of the ways people were excluded from the vote when they attempted to register.  I post it here as a curiosity, as  I suspect even those like myself who are well-versed in history and civics will find it challenging.  For the answers, click here for another version of the test hosted by PBS.

1. Which of the following is a right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights?

  • Public Education
  • Employment
  • Trial by Jury
  • Voting


2. The federal census of population is taken every five years.
_____True _____False

3. If a person is indicted for a crime, name two rights which he has.


4. A U.S. senator elected at the general election in November takes office the following year on what date?


5. A President elected at the general election in November takes office the following year on what date?


6. Which definition applies to the word “amendment?”

  • Proposed change, as in a Constitution
  • Make of peace between nationals at war
  • A part of the government


7. A person appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court is appointed for a term of:

8. When the Constitution was approved by the original colonies, how many states had to ratify it in order for it to be in effect?

9. Does enumeration affect the income tax levied on citizens in various states?

10. Person opposed to swearing in an oath may say, instead:
(solemnly)

11. To serve as President of the United States, a person must have attained:

  • 25 years of age
  • 35 years of age
  • 40 years of age
  • 45 years of age


12. What words are required by law to be on all coins and paper currency of the U.S.?

13. The Supreme Court is the chief lawmaking body of the state.
_____True _____False

14. If a law passed by a state is contrary to provisions of the U.S. Constitution, which law prevails?

15. If a vacancy occurs in the U.S. Senate, the state must hold an election, but meanwhile the
place may be filled by a temporary appointment made by:

16. A U.S. senator is elected for a term of _____ years.

17. Appropriation of money for the armed services can be only for a period limited to _____ years.

18. The chief executive and the administrative offices make up the ___________________
branch of government.

19. Who passes laws dealing with piracy?_________________________________________
________________________________________________________________________

20. The number of representatives which a state is entitled to have in the House of Representatives is based on:

21. The Constitution protects an individual against punishments which are _______________
and _______________________.

22. When a jury has heard and rendered a verdict in a case, and the judgment on the verdict has become final, the defendant cannot again be brought to trial for the same cause.
_____True _____False

23. Name two levels of government which can levy taxes:

24. Communism was the type of government in:

  • U.S.
  • Russia
  • England


25. Cases tried before a court of law are two types, civil and _________________________.

26. By a majority vote of the members of Congress, the Congress can change provisions of the Constitution of the U.S.
_____True _____False

27. For security, each state has a right to form a:

28. The electoral vote for President is counted in the presence of two bodies. Name them:

29. If no candidate for President receives a majority of the electoral vote, who decides who will become President?

30. Of the original 13 states, the one with the largest representation in the first Congress was:

31. Of which branch of government is the Speaker of the House a part?

  • Executive
  • Legislative
  • Judicial


32. Capital punishment is the giving of a death sentence.
_____True _____False

33. In case the President is unable to perform the duties of his office, who assumes them?

34. “Involuntary servitude” is permitted in the U.S. upon conviction of a crime.
_____True _____False

35. If a state is a party to a case, the Constitution provides that original jurisdiction shall be in

36. Congress passes laws regulating cases which are included in those over which the U.S. Supreme Court has ____________________________________________ jurisdiction.

37. Which of the following is a right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.

  • Public Housing
  • Education
  • Voting
  • Trial by Jury


38. The Legislatures of the states decide how presidential electors may be chosen.
_____True _____False

39. If it were proposed to join Alabama and Mississippi to form one state, what groups would have to vote approval in order for this to be done?

40. The Vice President presides over:

41. The Constitution limits the size of the District of Columbia to:

42. The only laws which can be passed to apply to an area in a federal arsenal are those passed by ___________________________________________ provided consent for the purchase of the land is given by the _________________________________________.

43. In which document or writing is the “Bill of Rights” found?

44. Of which branch of government is a Supreme Court justice a part?

  • Executive
  • Legislative
  • Judicial


45. If no person receives a majority of the electoral votes, the Vice President is chosen by the Senate.
_____True _____False

46. Name two things which the states are forbidden to do by the U.S. Constitution.


47. If election of the President becomes the duty of the U.S. House of Representatives and it fails to act, who becomes President and when?


48. How many votes must a person receive in order to become President if the election is decided by the U.S. House of Representatives?

49. How many states were required to approve the original Constitution in order for it to be in effect?

50. Check the offenses which, if you are convicted of them, disqualify you for voting:

  • Murder
  • Issuing worthless checks
  • Petty larceny
  • Manufacturing whiskey


51. The Congress decides in what manner states elect presidential electors.
_____True _____False

52. Name two of the purposes of the U.S. Constitution.

53. Congress is composed of:

54. All legislative powers granted in the U.S. Constitution may legally be used only by

55. The population census is required to be made very _____ years.
56. Impeachments of U.S. officials are tried by:

57. If an effort to impeach the President of the U.S. is made, who presides at the trial?


58. On the impeachment of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the U.S., who tries the
case?

59. Money is coined by order of:

  • U.S. Congress
  • The President’s Cabinet
  • State Legislatures


60. Persons elected to case a state’s vote for U.S. President and Vice President are called presidential __________________:

61. Name one power which is exclusively legislative and is mentioned in one of the parts of
the U.S. Constitution above:

62. If a person flees from justice into another state, who has authority to ask for his return?

63. Whose duty is it to keep Congress informed of the state of the union?

64. If the two houses of Congress cannot agree on adjournment, who sets the time?


65. When presidential electors meet to case ballots for President, must all electors in a state vote for the same person for President or can they vote for different persons if they so choose?

66. After the presidential electors have voted, to whom do they send the count of their votes?

67. The power to declare war is vested in:

68. Any power and rights not given to the U.S. or prohibited to the states by the U.S. Constitution are specified as belonging to whom?


The End of Civilization, or the story thereof



Seven years ago, I began reading Will Durant's epic  Story of Civilization series.  I use 'epic' deliberately, for each of the eleven volumes in this series neared a thousand pages, and they covered not just politics but every aspect of the period: philosophy, literature, art, music, religion, economics, statecraft.   After a prodigious beginning (three volumes in 2010, four in 2011), I slowed down dramatically; I read The Age of Reason in 2012, and The Age of Voltaire only in 2014.  Only this year did I dive back into the series with Rousseau and Revolution, and now (just recently) The Age of Napoleon.

What have I learned from this study of civilization?   Durant planted two seeds very early on that have taken root in my mind; and while they don't form my thinking, they do shade it.   The first is that history is more cyclical than progressive, that civilizations flourish and then wither, being replaced by others.  Rome is the all-too-obvious example, but think also of Spain or Austria: once the world trembled before them. On the grand scheme, humanity as a whole can progress, but only if knowledge and traditions are passed on from one civilization to another; think of the Arabs becoming the inheritors of Greek knowledge via the Byzantines, and later passing the baton to Europe.

 Durant's estimation of civilization is not material progress, however, any more than Kenneth Clark's is. In his first volume he also introduced a dichotomy between 'stoicism' and 'epicureanism', and maintained that societies are born in stoicism, and then ripen and decay in epicureanism.    This is not in reference to the Greek schools of thought, but rather to moral attitudes. The stoic beginnings were called such because they emphasized virtue, discipline, and and asceticism;  the epicurean ones emphasized pleasure and freedom.  In Durant's view, what typically happened is that older civilizations flowered in art or goods, but began to decay socially;  they were eaten alive or invaded or otherwise supplanted by younger,  more virile, and more puritanical cultures.  Durant doesn't approve of either one of these phases; they are merely the death and life of civilizations, and seemingly inevitable. He notes that personally, he would rather live in the fatal flowering of an epicurean age.

Durant also believed that religion was an essential aspect of any culture to bind it together and create a common morality -- nearly any religion would do, and he saw in the post-enlightenment age  an attempt to create a 'civil' religion that would suffice, with the state in the stead of the gods.  The social-structural importance of religion is not an unusual opinion among historians -- see Christopher Dawson or Edward Gibbon. It's also one suggested by Robert Wright in The Moral Animal, and noted by Michael Crichton.  Even if formal religion is vanquished,  other forms of belief materialize: in The Enemies of Reason,  several celebrity skeptics bemoaned the rise of horoscopes and ghost-belief in supposedly secular Europe.

Finally, I have gained an enormous respect for the Durants.  The amount of research conducted over forty years is astonishing enough, even moreso considering the gifted pen with which they wrote.  What most impressed me, however, especially from the medieval volume onwards, was the Durants’ ability to understand and fairly present issues from opposing quarters.  Consider, for instance, the dialogue in The Reformation between a Catholic, a Protestant, and a humanist.  The same convivial spirit is seen as new factions war with each other for control of society, like owners of capital and labor, or traditionalists and reformists.  Many a great man is lauded here, but the poor  are ever given voice.. Durant quotes from Edmund Burke and Karl Marx alike.  I assume the Durants’ sympathetic insight was the result of their long, patient survey of humanity as a whole. It is a mark to aspire to.



THE STORY OF CIVILIZATION


Our Oriental Heritage
This covers prehistory,  and the usual litany of Fertile Crescent civilizations: Babylon, Egypt, Persia, and so on, in addition to India, China, and Japan. This first volume is the most unusual in the series in that it reflects Durant's original intention to cover the entire sweep of civilization: he realized early into his research that such an undertaking was far too vast considering that he was committed to a 'full' history of politics, economics, arts, literature, religion, music, etc.    Oddly, then, this volume covers the eastern nations all the way up to the 1930s, when Japan was poised to plunge the Pacific into war.

The Lives of the Greeks
I was especially obsessed with the Greeks at the time of my reading this, but only remember being grateful for the exposure to so much Greek literature through the volume.

Caesar and Christ
Most memorable for Durant's tepid appreciation of the Romans, who contributed little that was new to the human experience.  A quotation from this has stuck with me ever since: power dements more surely than it corrupts.

The Age of Faith
The largest in the series,   the Age of Faith  stalled me two times before I was able to make it all the way through. I did not expect to enjoy the age of faith; while Frances and Joseph Gies had disabused me of the worst conceits modern readers have about the medieval epoch,  I began as a hostile audience.  But as Durant pored over medieval Europe,  the Byzantines, Persia, and the dawn of Islam, I found myself drawn in.  Incredibly, The Age of Faith remains my favorite volume in the series.

The Renaissance
When I began the series, I looked forward to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, for then I followed the star of Human Progress. Durant's volume was heavy with Italian politics, but there were a few artists I encountered here for the first time.

The Reformation
What I remember most about this book is the enormous role played by Charles V in the Reformation, and Durant's talent for exploring multiple sides of an argument, as he did in an ending dialogue between a Catholic and a Protestant.

The Age of Reason Begins
700 pages of religious and other wars, which Durant argues paved the way for more toleration later on when people were exhausted by the bloodletting. I was certainly exhausted reading all of the gore.

The Age of Louis XIV
An interesting era; England becoming more of a constitutional monarchy, with the House of Commons emerging as a power; France doubles-down on absolutism, and Peter the Great attempts to westernize Russia.

The Age of Voltaire
The Enlightenment is really beginning to form, with Newton and Voltaire both appearing.  There was a two and a half year gap between my reading Louis XIV and moving on to this, and as I read the reviews there's a noticeable cooling in my regard for radical change.

Rousseau and Revolution
The  dawn of Romanticism, but a very slow one. I read this one only recently, so I remember much about it -- the debate between Rousseau and Voltaire, and the many towering personalities like Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great,  Bach, Schiller, etc.

The Age of Napoleon
Through Durant I was able to remedy a long-standing weak spot for me: Napoleon.  Durant not only covers his political rise and his imperial-military career, but discusses at length the arts and sciences through his reign.   The Durants are critical admirers of the Emperor, viewing him as a man unique in European history.

It's been...a long road, one of 9,960 steps. (That's the grand total of pages read).

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Age of Napoleon

The Age of Napoleon
© 1975 will Durant
870 pages




Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me – or didn’t.  Will and Ariel Durant intended for Rousseau and Revolution to be the final volume in their epic history of Western Civilization, but grew bored waiting for the Grim Reaper to show up and claim them.  They decided, therefore, to scratch an itch, and devote a final volume to Europe in the age of Napoleon.  No individual has ever dominated a single volume in this fashion; even Charles the Fifth,  in The Reformation, would disappear  in chapters chronicling Persia and Arabia.   But Napoleon’s story encompasses not just France and England, but Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria,  and Russia.  The emperor does move backstage at times – in the chapters on  English poetry and novels, for instance – but he is never completely gone.  This final volume manages through Napoleon’s person to be just as comprehensive, but more tightly bound.

The Durants open with a more involved chronicle of the French revolution that concluded Rousseau and Revolution, this one making more obvious that the revolution was a slow but quickening crumbling of royal legitimacy that collapsed into the chaos of revolution after a few sudden shocks.  The king’s decision to attempt to escape France in fear of his life was one such shock, demonstrating that he was and remained an actor – not a prop.  From here, the Durants follow the Wars of the Coalitions, as the various nations of Eurrope fell in to and out of alliances with or against France, with the enmity between England and France being the only fixed point.  In 1807, with Napoleon  enjoying one of his greatest triumphs – the subjugation of Prussia, and the pretended friendship of Russia –  the Durants pause to cover  both French and English culture, including one hundred pages on English poetry alone.   They then alternate  sections on the culture of Germany, Russia, Italy, Iberia, etc and sections on the Napoleonic wars as they encompassed these regions.

Related to this volume’s unusual dominance by one person is the unusually heavy amount of military coverage here. The Durants typically dispatch wars in  a few sentences, concerned with them only as a background to  the social or political events that develop as a consequence.  There’s no getting away from battles and Napoleon, though, even considering the energy he poured into the political administration of France and Europe, and the long-term effects that energy would have.  The result is not a military history, however; there are no maps of battles.  Instead, the Durants treat the readers with their usual balance of literature, science, economics, etc.   there is a section on Jane Austen, for instance.  Another prominent author, Germaine de Staël,  maintained a long rivalry with Napoleon; she wrote a celebratory survey of German culture that pined for more amity between France and the Germans, and was present in Russia when Napoleon drove towards Moscow.  Beethoven, of course, merits a full section of his own.

Napoleon reliably described himself as a Son of the Revolution, even though his policies ended some revolutionary dreams.  His concordant with Rome, for instance,  re-established the Catholic Church in France, albeit in a corralled form. That was a far cry from the total secularization (or de-christianization, depending on the revolutionary), dreamed of by many – those who redrew the calendar and butchered France's artistic legacies,  those who in a just heaven will be consigned to  war forever with the whitewashing Puritans and the sculpture-smashing Wahhabis,   as well as others who would destroy art and heritage for ideology. Napoleon did apply much of the revolutionary, modernizing spirit to those parts of Europe he conquered  -- overwriting their ancient laws and traditions with constitutions from his own pen.   Although Napoleon kept faith with some of the past as convenient -- his concordant with Rome, for instance -- the Durants observe that in his army and state,  merit reigned, allowing even commoners to advance.

Although the Napoleonic wars have never been of great interest to me, the Durants' volume created an actual enthusiasm in me about the subject. As usual, I was impressed with their critical but forgiving evaluation of Napoleon, whom they regard as one of the singular men of history.  His reputation owes not just to his role in closing the violence of the revolution, or in his spectacular battles -- but pouring so much energy into his work, and being so successful in combat and in administration, that he transformed Europe,  planting seeds that would flourish throughout the 19th century. A century after his final defeat at Waterloo, an even greater war -- one spurred by changes Napoleon wrought -- would be harrowing the soil of France in blood, bones, and cannon once more.

And now, dear readers, what's next in Will Durant's Story of Civilization?


C'EST FINI! 



Monday, August 14, 2017

New Acquisitions

Today I received several books in the mail,  using a gift card I won taking online surveys to effect a guilt-free purchase.


First up Down and Out in Paris and London, one of the entries on my Classics Club list. It's not really a classic, but I used a fairly fast-and-loose measure for classic when compiling that.  I  bought a paperback instead of the cheaper kindle, in part because reviews indicated the electronic version was a mess.  I believe them, because...



..my  second purchase was The Discovery of India, which I purchased because my university library copy turned out to be like Schrodinger's Cat:  they both have and do not have it. It is in the catalog, but not in its proper place. It could be there, it could be not. We won't know until a century or so hence, when a student worker taking down the last shelves to install more of the day's electronics, discovers it misfiled in the Romanian Literature section. Unfortunately, when I pulled the book out of its sheath, I discovered it was a fraud.


A fraud? Yep. The book is an inferior electronic version that has been reprinted with a "8th grader using Wordpad" cover, and not edited to repair OCR mistakes. Consequently, proper formatting is out the window, and I'm sure there's loads of transcription errors. Because I effectively got it for free thanks to the gift card, and because the 'real' versions of the book are much more expensive, I may just try it. We'll see.


Another arrival in the post was a version of Sophie Scholl: Die Letzen Tagen, about the martyred founder of the White Rose movement in Germany. Sophie was a young woman who, with her brother, were arrested for spreading anti-Hitler leaflets on German campuses.  I received the German version by accident a few weeks back.  Unfortunately, the disk would only play on European/region 2 players, and it had no English subtitles. I've seen the movie and could follow along, but I'd rather have the subtitles. My college Deutsch isn't what it used to be, especially now that I'm trying to revive my high school Spanish.

Also, last night, after my worst game of bowling ever, I poked my head inside a discount store and saw two books, each for a dollar:  The Tyranny of Email, as well as And Then There's This, about the rapid bubble-like nature of viral news stories.

This week, though, I am concentrating on reading The Age of Napoleon, with two reviews pending.  The Wonder That Was India will follow.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Gulag Archipelago, Volume I

Archipeleg GULag / The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation
Volume I (of III)
© 1973, 1974 Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
660 pages


Such was my desire to read The Gulag Archipelago that when I found it on the shelf and observed that it was not one big book, but three big books, I didn't pause to reconsider.  It's not just an entry on a list for me; I've heard too much about the book and about its author to shy away.   Because it's a multi-volume work, each collecting several 'books', I will be posting about the volumes as I read them, and then attempting a general review at the very end.

Let's begin with the very obvious. The Gulag Archipelago is vast survey of the Soviet prison state -- a state within a state, an internal empire. Its property is not contiguous, but consists of islands of security buildings and camps connected by processing hubs and the roads themselves.  Solzhenitsyn was born the year of the revolution, and became an officer in the Russian army during the "Great Patriotic War".  Although strongly encouraged to apply for NKVD training, Solzhenitsyn demurred, increasingly uncomfortable with the morality of the state's actions. His timid research into the means and methods of the gulag system would grant him immediate first-hand evidence, as Solzhenitsyn himself was arrested and subjected to interrogation.

This is not merely a prison memoir. In his opening chapter, Solzhenitsyn renders a complete history of the Gulag system, with every wave of mass arrests chronicled in term. These arrests were not effected simply to purge out heretics to Soviet dogma, or to punish wicked peasants who resisted the seizure of their farms. Whenever the state encountered a problem --  failing infrastructure, ruined crops -- it found someone to blame it on.  Quickly given a label -- "limiter" for instance, for those who dared to suggest that rail lines only had so much carrying capacity, and that trebling loads would ruin the rails -- the traitors would then be dispatched away.  Problem solved! Another brand of  nogoodniks were the "wreckers", who were responsible every time machinery broke down. Sometimes, the wreckers were responsible even if they did precisely what they were told, like sowing seeds in the snow because Lysenko believed exposed seeds would increased their yield. (They rotted, instead.)

The book's opening chapters have incredible interest, some of it dark. Solzhenitsyn details all of the various methods of torture and interrogation he and his fellows were exposed to;  the methods were not meant so much to provoke truth as to elicit a confession, as official dogma made truth relative. So long as there was an angle to pursue, a faint argument to make,  a man could be hung with his own words. "Give us the man," said the state police, "and we'll make the case."  Particularly of interest is Solzhenitsyn's chapter on the "Bluecaps", the state police themselves, and his thoughts on good and evil.   It would be wonderful, he writes, if there were simply evil people, and we could separate them from the rest of us; but the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, and who among us would cut out his own heart?   This isn't woolgathering on Solzhenitsyn's part, as he remembered his own moral compromises just as an officer of the army -- his easy arrogance, his thoughtless actions.   Later on in this volume, Solzhenitsyn chronicles the history of show trials and the developing legal codes that would allow official sanction for arresting and executing anyone whom the state saw fit.   In the last part, book two, he follows his own journey to the work camps themselves by writing about the transit camps and the elaborate transportation system; here, as more prisoners are mixed in together, we see spontaneous pecking orders, with the actual criminals (thieves and such) taking the best and sneering at the politicals.  This is quite the change from the Tsarist regime, in which politicals were a minor class of detainee who enjoyed far fewer restrictions than the criminals.  (Of course, the nature of prison-keeping changed from the Tsars:  when Russia was on the eve of evolution, the jailers were regarded with such contempt that gentlemen wouldn't even shake their hands. After the revolution, jailers were regarded with fear and trembling.)

A third of the way into this epic, I am already beginning to appreciate why Solzhenitsyn's work is regarded so highly;  the amount of information collected and ordered here is rendered to the reader in a very human voice,  one which recounts all this in sometimes comic, sometimes sad, disbelief.

Volume 2 will follow in September.






Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Tragedy of Liberation

The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
© 2013  Frank Dikotter
400 pages



Readers who approach Frank Dikotter’s histories of Maoist China (The Tragedy of Liberation, Mao’s Great Famine, and The Cultural Revolution) should brace themselves going in; like  books about the holocaust, or obscenities like the rape of Nanking,  the sheer amount of human misery is overwhelming.  The Tragedy of Liberation opens at the close of World War 2,  in which China became an area of contention not only between the Nationalists and the Communists, but their respective allies – the United States and China.   After documenting the rout of the Nationalists in that context, Dikotter then takes readers through the early 1950s, and first years of Communist rule as the new party-in-power ruthlessly imposed its will and went to work creating the New Sino-Soviet Man.

As Forgotten Ally indicated, Communist China was a creature formed from the Second World War.   In that book, Rana Mitter noted how the war wrecked Nationalists credibility by their heavy-handedness, and execution of desperate measures like blowing dams to slow down the Japanese. Here, another aspect of the war's contribution to Mao's triumph is documented;  we find the Communists being supported by the butcher Stalin, given direct aid by him as well as help in corralling and putting to use Japanese military equipment abandoned in northern China. Chiang Kai-Shek found increasingly little support from the United States as the Japanese retreated, as Truman's intelligence indicated that the Communists were nothing but isolated bands of guerrillas in the extreme north.

The Communist takeover is told in various chapters of misery.  We begin with the almost-immediate economic implosion, as taxes and legislation imposed such a burden on shops and larger businesses that they practically disappeared.  The  countryside  fared no better, subjected to rapidly increasing control of the farms by the state.  As the farms became progressively worse-managed, they produced less food and hemorrhaged labor.  Production declined for many reasons, two being the supervision of services or tasks by politically appointed incompetents,  as well shoddy care given to communal work, including maintenance of vital tools and the land. But a production crisis at a factory is merely a loss;  a production crisis in farms, in a country that has closed itself off to foreign trade, is famine and death.

Matters grow worse. I referred to The Rape of Nanking earlier; that’s not an accident.  If Mao called for a hundred flowers to boom in China, they had plenty of fertilizer.   The amount of people murdered by  Mao's Communist party, either directly or at its prompting, bewilders the mind. The numbers don't register.  Land owners,  peasants, those accused of being close to foreigners, those who fail express sufficient enthusiasm for the Party and the New Democracy -- they are only the beginning of a slaughter not seen in Asia since the Khans.  what began as a state sanctioned punishment regime against 'class enemies' widened into murderous chaos. The slaughter of innocents by those in power is one matter, however;  the culture of death, degradation, and denunciation which grew as a result of the Party's enthusiasm for murder is another subject altogether.   Readers of Roman history may remember how the proscription lists of Sulla's time, in which people were denounced and declared outlaw by the regime -- their lives and money forfeit. This occurred in China on a grand scale, as neighbors looted one another. The society itself became tyrannous, as everyone began policing everyone else's actions, in which the slightest flaw might lead to a death sentence.   Dikotter grimly notes that the Chinese of Mao's time didn't have freedom of silence,  let alone freedom of speech: those who failed to say the right things were marked. Even when Mao seemed to relent after the death of Stalin, encouraging dissent, deadly pushback followed.

The Tragedy of Liberation makes for haunting, sobering reading.  I've known that Mao's regime was deadly for years  -- deadlier even than Stalin's, who put Hitler to shame -- but to know something in the abstract, and to have the bodies placed before the mind's eye, are different.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Irish Soldiers of Mexico

The Irish Soldiers of Mexico
© 1997 Michael Hogan
298 pages


And it was there in the pueblos and the hillsides
That I saw the mistake I had made
Part of a conquering army, with the morals of a bayonet brigade
And amidst all these poor dying Catholics --
Screaming children, the burning stench of it all --
Myself and two hundred Irishmen decided to rise to the call
From Dublin City to San Diego,  we witnessed freedom denied
So we formed the St. Patrick Battalion and we fought on the Mexican side.

("The St. Patrick's Battalion", David Rovics)


One discovers the oddest stories through music.  Take this, for instance -- the story of a few hundred Irish immigrants to the United States, who shortly after participating in the invasion of Mexico, decided to defend it instead. They fought valiantly in five battles, flying the green flag of St. Patrick,  and their survivors continued to serve Mexico even after the war as a check against brigandry.  To the United States, they are an embarrassment best forgotten, a blotch on the United States' first military adventure outside of strict self-defense. To Mexico, they are red-headed heroes: they are the San Patricos.  The Irish Soldiers of Mexico  makes the best of scarce resources and supplies generous background information to give the fighting Irish their deserved laurels.

Hogan grounds the decision of the Irish to bolt in both race and religion. Prior to the waves of European immigration in the late 19th century, the early Republic shared England's pride in its Anglo-Saxon heritage, complete with varying degrees of disdain or contempt for non-Saxons. Prejudice against the Irish was as pronounced as it might be against blacks or Native Americans, at least until so many Irish came over that they begin blending in.   The early Republic was also expressedly  Protestant in its religion,  viewing the Catholic church as Old World and un-American as it was possible to be. Even Maryland, established as a Catholic sanctuary and home to the largest landowner of the founders, Charles Carroll, was quickly taken over by Protestantism.   The abuse incurred by the Irish for both their Celtic blood and their Catholic region kept a barrier up between them and the affection they might have had for their adopted country, and made them sympathetic to the plight of Mexico -- what was Ireland, but a poor nation of Catholics, dominated by Anglo-Saxon Protestants who regarded its inhabitants as fit only for serfs?   The abhorrent behavior exhibited by the invading US Army -- the same abhorrent behavior exhibited by virtually every invading army anywhere,  in which men are replaced by uniformed chimpanzees bent on looting, raping, and burning --  coupled with the seemingly deliberate attack on Mexican churches forced the Irish to make a decision. Who would they keep faith with? Their paymasters, or the people of Mexico, whose plight was so much like the Irish?

Although this book concerns a military battalion, it is not principally military history; what we know  based on  terse US records and  Mexican records (reduced by fire, unfortunately) is that the San Patricios were particularly noted for their work on the cannons. In one battle, after Mexican troops had exhausted their ammunition, the Irish fought to the last, recovering their compadres' retreat.  Those San Patricios who were captured were put to death in a gruesome manner -- not shot as soldiers, but incompetently hung after standing at attention for four hours, or beaten with the lash in excess of the Articles of War.  Half the book's volume is given over to notes, and much of its content proper explores the racial and religion aspects of the Irish stand. While this information is slight, this is an often-overlooked chapter in the Mexican war, one that Irish Americans in particular should note with interest.

Related:
Green, Blue, and Grey: The Irish in the American Civil War, Cal McCarthy
Reproduction of details on the Arch of Titus

When we survey human history, we experience also the wonder of the ancient, the immemorial. We look to a tombstone in a Roman cemetery and read the inscription, sponsa optima, the best of wives, and we feel the pull of kinship across the centuries. We look at the Arch of Titus and see, celebrated on its massive pillars, the destruction of Jerusalem and the raiding of the Temple, and we feel the prickle of astonishment, for those same Jews have returned, and the Roman Empire is long gone, and still there are men who would happily sweep them into the sea. We enter the great library of John Adams, and it feels like a chapel -- it is meant to feel like a chapel -- and we handle the books that he handled and see his history in the light of the history that he read, from which he learned so much about the persistence of human folly and ambition, and the tenuousness of liberty. 
The study of the past is also, often, an exercise in humility.

p. 150, Life Under Compulsion. Anthony Esolen.


I like this quotation for several reasons.  History has a transcendental effect on me, connecting me with the lives of men and women across the ages; this is particularly effective when one reads within a cultural tradition and can  listen in on a conversation that has taken across over a span of centuries, as minds across the ages respond to one another.  To be deep into history is to have one's soul stilled; the excitements and fads of the present day don't register as dramatically, don't intrude on one's mind the way they might on the person for whom the present is everything.. One can view a disruption not as the end of the world, but as a passing storm.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Cities of Gold

Cities of Gold: A Journey Across the American Southwest in Pursuit of Coronado
© 1992 Douglas Preston (Walter Nelson, Photographs)
480 pages



Sometimes, history has got to be pursued from the back of a horse.  Douglas Preston wasn't sure what took him to New Mexico -- he had a nice life in Manhattan before he abruptly decided to move to Santa Fe, to see the adobes washed in red sunlight --  but it took him further still, to the border of Arizona and Mexico.  There, along with a friend and a hired horse wrangler, he purposed to re-create the journey of Francisco  Vázquez de Coronado, the first Spainard to explore the Southwest.   They would discover the Four Corners as the Spanish did, on horseback -- carrying their own supplies,  following the water. Their mission -- to search what it might have been like to enter into these enormous spaces for the first time, and travel through them to the seven cities of Cibola.  Preston and company were warned against the pursuit; there was a very real chance such a journey would kill them. The desert is kind to no one, and Preston proposed to navigate through sheer wilderness, during the summer, amid a drought.  But fate is kind to fools, drunks, and Americans, and Preston's royal-flush team prospered through their wits, the kindness of strangers, and a mix of luck and grit.   The product is for me the best piece of travel writing I've yet read.

Along for the ride with Preston were a cantankerous neighbor of his, Walter, and a hired woodcutter who professed to be a horse wrangler.  Eusebius's only virtue for the reader proves to be his comic rage that reveals itself with every mesquite tree, barbed-wire fence, and thrown horse-shoe; the man is as experienced with horses as you or I. (His virtues for the party are practically nil, although his incompetence forced Walter and Doug to become jacks of all trades, which probably saved their lives after the fake-wrangler quit.)  The country they proposed to cross was desperately hostile. The voyage opened in a thick swath of mesquite trees, for instance, which turned a proposed one-day journey into four days of hacking, cussing, and chasing horses.   They crossed mountains so far off  the beaten track that the closest thing to a path was a cut made by the riders of the Pony Express.  Their journey takes them through the detritus of ruined civilizations and communities, the residents and their hopes long-dead -- both mysterious Anasazi remains, and the less mysterious array of abandoned silver boomtowns.   They encountered an array of interesting people: rattle-snaker trappers,  ranchers and cowboys, echoes of the dying Old West.  They also spent considerable time visiting with native Americans as they pass through  Zuni and Acoma reservations, learning some of their stories.  While the travelers were sometimes greeted with a shotgun, Doug and Walter certainly didn't look like tourists after the first few hundred miles of hard riding, and after explaining their mission, virtually everyone offered them hospitality with open arms and admiring eyes -- even from old ranchers who lived over a hundred miles from everybody else and did everything around their homesteads themselves.  (The only exception was a man who assured them that nobody named Coronado  came this way because the road hadn't been built until last year, and anyway that would have been trespassing.)

Cities of Gold expertly mixes adventure, history, photographs, and encounters with interesting people. As Doug and Walter pass through the landscape, so we learn the story of Coronado's exploration of the Southwest, and the story of the West in general: the trials of the Hopi, Apache, Zuni, and other people through the last two centuries, the triumphs and tribulations of traders, trappers, and gold-strikers;  the rise and fall of the cowboy. But there's more to the memoir than history, for both the Zuni and the cowboys have something to say about stewardship, of the husbandry of the land. They argue that the land has been much abused by outsiders who came in with great confidence and little knowledge, from the first ranches to the present Forestry Sevice.  Numerous citizens condemn the heavy-handedness of the Forestry Service's no-burn rule: the attempt to keep so much of the country in stasis is smothering it to death. The antelope herds that once flourished by eating young-growth forests, for instance, have dwindled as the old-growth cedars continue to expand, unchecked by fire.  As this journey was taken in 1989, I don't know if matters have improved. (What has not improved is Albuquerque traffic, which these two took horses through!)

While my prolonged fascination with the Southwest greased the skids here,  Cities of Gold  is most impressive.  The entire premise is awe-inspiring: this is a journey of a thousand miles on horseback, through thickets and quicksand, over mountains, across barren stretches of salt lakes and desert, through valleys and up mesas.  The people, as mentioned, are fascinating into themselves, both the living and the dead. I did not recognize the name Coronado before I began reading this book, and I learned enormous amounts about him, the native cultures, and the history of the West in general as I followed Doug and Walter through these magnificent, storied landscapes.





Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Rousseau and Revolution

Rousseau and Revolution
© 1957 Will and Ariel Durant
1092 pages



"...little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever."

Edmund Burke, on the execution of Marie-Antoinette

In the tenth volume of Will Durant's  Story of Civilization, we now approach the latter half of the 18th century.  This is an age of titanic personalities, in every field.  Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia,  Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Bach, Schiller, Gibbon, Adam Smith, Rousseau, Voltaire -- what an age to be alive in!    For those unfamiliar with Durant's epochal series, his approach was a symphonic history that covered politics, economics, religion, architecture, music,  and literature. This particular volume opens with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's critique of reason, and -- amid all the politics -- examines the influence of the Romantic reaction on the arts and politics, ending with the storming of the Bastille.

This is an age of enormous change; the industrial revolution has spread beyond England, and its social consequences are brewing political revolution, especially in France. It is an age of war, like most ages; Russia, Austria, and Turkey bicker incessantly over the Black Sea, and western Europe sees several wars of succession. The most influential conflict, however,  is the Seven Years War. This saw most of Europe allied against Prussia and England, with from some instability on Russia's part. While the consequences in Europe were minimal,  this was the war that made England an superpower.  While everyone invaded (and was rebuffed by) Prussia, the English chased the French out of  both India and North America, creating an incredible global empire.  The Seven Years War would set the stage for the American War of Independence, removing as it did America's great opponent on the continent, and pressuring the British to make the colonies pay for themselves via taxation.

Although the Enlightenment has already provoked its reaction in the form of the Romantic movement in the arts, the 'age of reason' itself is not yet spent: it is only now beginning to enter some subjects, like economics.  Irreligion among the intellectual caste is de rigeur, although in the Protestant north, a few individuals (Boswell and Gibbon, for instance) get their subversive kicks by embracing Catholicism, if only temporarily.  Writers like Voltaire and Rousseau write constantly of novel approaches to old problems: Emile, for instance,  is ostensibly about the proper education of a human being. (A curious subject, given that the author sent his own children to an orphanage on their birth.)  In the decline that which had been sustaining public morality, the Church and faith in general, people tried to find new ways of justifying a moral life. Some, like the Marquis de Sade, didn't bother; they rejoiced in the fact that without God, all things were permissible. Much of the philosophy here, skeptical as it was of the old authority, also rebelled against reason; this was an age of Feeling, of sensibility -- hence a larger role here for literature, theater, and other arts in the history. Rousseau in particular is used to epitomize the beginning of the romantic age, for his writings condemned cities, civilization, and material learning as corruptive elements leading the inherently good hearts of men astray. (Burk's comment about sophisters and economists almost echoes him there.) His emphasis on humanistic morals, however, did not make him a traditionalist; he regarded the Church with suspicion because it threatened patriotism, being an institution which transcended nations. (This was an age of French literature, Italian opera, and German music -- every nation had something to be extremely proud of.)  Rousseau is most remembered for his political philosophy, which emphasized the 'will of the people'.  While sometimes cited as an inspiration for the American revolution, Rousseau did not believe that representative legislatures truly served the will of the people; that had to be effected through full democratic assemblies, and so genuine democracies must remain small.   Rousseau's emphasis on popular will  and republics put him at odds with Voltaire, who distrusted the populace and smiled upon enlightened kings. In general, Durant noted, the revolutions of the 19th century would follow Rousseau in politics and Voltaire in religion.

Rousseau and Revolution is, like  all of the books in Durant's series, formidable in its size but not in its writing. Durant, when he shows his personality, is utterly amiable. He is not as personal with his pen here as he was in The Age of Faith or The Reformation, but at times we witness the human being behind the pen, mindful that he is not writing of abstractions but of real people. He cautions the reader to never lose sight of the individual people whose lives were creating what we perceived as larger trends. Accordingly,  Durant writes not just of big things -- the epic novels, the epic personalities -- but of passing affections, like fashion and frivolities, the concerns of the flesh and blood creatures who then walked abroad. The Durants are gentle and humane authors, students of the very history they write, forgiving of their subjects' sins and excesses.  We'll see if that lasts throughout the French Revolution, for this book ends with the storming of the Bastille.

We move now to Napoleon and the end of civilization; or at least, the end of Will and Aerial Durant's Story thereof.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Boomsday

Boomsday
© 2007 Christopher Buckley
336 pages



By day, Cass Devine is a public relations specialist who labors to ensure her clients' sh-tuff doesn't stink. By night, she's a  tax revolutionary, stirring the pot -- blogging furiously and urging young people to take to the streets and protest against the social security crisis. In only a couple of years, Social Security will be bankrupt -- despite DC's usual solution of raising taxes on under-thirties even more. Cassandra's national movement lands her in jail, and turns on senator into a presidential candidate who turns to her as his on-the-lam adviser.  They have an idea:  do that thing in Soylent Green where older citizens voluntarily  have themselves euthanized, but instead of being turned into snacks for the younger generation, the aged are rewarded with generous benefits and tax breaks in the years before their "Voluntary Transition".    Like They Eat Puppies, Don't They,  Boomsday is sadly comic, though its characters are not quite as reprehensible on average.The social security problem is one the American public heard a lot about during the Bush years, but oddly has slipped under the radar, at least as a television talking point.

This one is mildly funny, mildly vulgar,  and mildly forgettable.  I liked it more than  They Eat Puppies, but less than Thank You For Smoking.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Mexican Frontier

The Mexican Frontier 1821 - 1846: The American Southwest Under Mexico
©  1982 David Weber (University of New Mexico Press)
440 pages


In 1821, the people of Mexico declared their independence from Spain, recognizing that its Napoleonic straits meant that the mother empire had little future left, either at home or abroad.  Once the bid for independence had achieved its aims, the 'Mexican empire' spanned everything from Oregon down to South America.  Within thirty years, however, the United States had invaded Mexico, seized its capital, and forced the purchase of nearly forty percent of  its northern land.  Sneaky Americanses!  Wicked! Tricksy! False!

Well, not really.  It wasn't David Weber's intention, but having read this history of the Mexican frontier I'm considerably less condemnatory about the treaty of Guadalupe-Hildalgo. Not about the war, of course,  but the treaty itself seems to have only hastened the inevitable break-off of the great northern expanses from Mexico proper. Weber's history begins with  Mexican independence, then details the decline of institutions in the north as the contest for power in central Mexico continued; with a consequentially distinct frontier culture emerging, one that would constantly struggle for its own autonomy. Central to this history is understanding that young Mexico went through several constitutions in those early years,  constantly struggling to find its way. The breaking-away of the north from central Mexico was partially grounded in dispute over which constitution was legitimate: the more republican 1824 constitution, or the more authoritarian 1832 constitution imposed by the ilk of Santa Ana.

The fractures were only made possible by the precipitous decline of institutions in the north that would have tied states and territories like Texas, New Mexico, and the Californias more firmly to the government in Mexico City. The Franciscan missions, for instance, vanished with the Spanish -- in part because they were supported primarily by Spain, in part because many monks were Spaniards more faithful to their patria than their parish,  and in part because  Mexico wanted them out of the way. The missions had all the best land and labor, and if they could be dispatched with, then settlers could move in and hire the newly-emancipated Indians as workers.   Although Mexico officially secularized the clergy -- replaced the Franciscans with state-paid priests --  it did this so slowly that  the Church effectively disappeared in the frontier, and with it marriages and schools and other civil functions that the state was slow in restoring.

Another primary institutional failure was that of the military; because central Mexico's government was so unstable, its  army stayed close to home, either to stave off further intrigues or participate in some. The array of presidios that once guarded the northern frontier, with its independent attachments of cavalry,  was poorly maintained; the soldiers were so scantily paid and armed that not only did civilians have to raise their own militias to defend themselves against Apache raids, but when the militias were on the attack, the presidio cavalry sometimes raided the homes they were supposedly protecting.   In addition, the Mexican government's economic policies -- forcing trade goods in and out of the interior to circulate first through far-distant Vera Cruz -- made supplies rare and expensive. The sheer distances between the frontier and Mexico city added to the eroding attachments between a place like California and Mexico;  the ruling city seemed to be as far away and imperious as Spain. Little wonder that in the 1830s, Texas declared and fought for its independence;  California declared independence but accepted a compromise that allowed it more autonomy; and New Mexico rolled with rebellion several times.

Because of Mexico's instability,  the failure of institutional ties to form or hold, and the sheer distance between cities like  Santa Fe and Mexico City,  the northern expanse of Mexico was increasingly oriented along another axis: it looked east, to America, for cheap, ready, supplies, and  eager settlers and tradesmen. That commercial and cultural Americanization of Mexico's north made it increasingly America's west -- hence why I suspect now that the treaty which ended the United States' unjust invasion of Mexico only hastened the inevitable.  At the risk of condoning Polk, the American federal system finally allowed for the 'home rule' that the restive north fought for in the 1830s.  Had Mexico not struggled so much to create  a stable government early on, it might have held on to much of what the treaty lost -- but it is a difficult thing to create civil society from scratch, let alone when a nation is being constantly invaded by invading Comanche.

Related:
The Spanish Frontier in North America, David Weber

Monday, July 24, 2017

Top Ten Things You Won't Find in Today's Local Newspaper


Working in local history, I spend a lot of face to face time with our microfilm machine. We have reels for papers as far back as the mid-1800s, and there's no decade in the 20th century I haven't spent weeks in, looking for obituaries and specific articles.  This is an absorbing experience, one which makes the past more personable:  my mind is taking in the same material as readers decades before me, though in a different form.   While the basic experience doesn't change, the kinds of things newspapers report on has.


1. Society gossip


In contemporary papers, social reporting is limited to wedding announcements -- but in older papers, even tea parties register entries.



2.  Serial Stories




Readers may be aware that a lot of "novels" were originally published as newspaper  or magazine serials. A lot of authors like Dickens and Asimov got their starts writing serialized novels or short stories for literary magazines.

3. Train and Ship schedules




I don't know if cities in Europe with train service still carry timetables, or if the internet has taken over the role. These are a treasure for realizing how dominant trains once were, though. (Steam boats were still offering twice-weekly passage from Selma in 1906:  the Nettie Quill upriver to Montgomery and the Queen Mary  downriver to Mobile.)

Care for a tren ride down to old Mexico?




4, Radio logs



When I first started visiting radio websites in the early 2000s, I thought finding lists of the music played during a given hour was an innovation. Nope -- that was  being done in the 1930s, by my local paper.

5. World News



When I first began looking through the local newspapers of 1906, attempting to establish when my hometown trolley system ended service (1926),  I discovered that local news was buried within the pages, with national and global news taking priority. This continued at least through the 1970s. There are even weekly quizzes to see how many news stories from around the world the reader recognizes -- as he ought, if he is a daily reader of the paper. Today, national news rarely appears, except in the case of disasters and presidential elections;  radio, television, and the internet  provide all of the general news, and the newspaper is left to fill a local niche. Opinion pieces on the news still provide a glimpse of what's going on outside, however.



6. Discretion

Take a look at this political cartoon of FDR. By 1940 it was known that Roosevelt was partially paralyzed, but the cartoonist doesn't dwell on it. These days, every detail about people's personal lives becomes a national obsession if they become newsworthy.




7. Girls Only



Look at that, ladies, your very own page!

8.  Personal Ads




I'd give her a call, but she probably found a beau by now. I don't know if I'm cut out to be a step-great-great-grandfather. 

9. Yesterday's News

Perhaps the oddest consistency in the papers I've surveyed is that until the 1970s or so, they feature -- on a daily basis -- tidbits from the news thirty years ago. (Except the one I discovered below, which was thirty-one years ago.)




10. The use of "solons" to refer to legislators




Solon derives from an ancient Greek lawgiver who is remembered for beginning democratic reform in Athens.  Ah, for the days of literacy, when casual references like this were normal. (I've seen this use as far as the 1970s.)

I hope you enjoyed these little looks back in time -- and here's a few extras. 
Bonus:


Giant airships!

...bank deposits? Sure, why not?


Where's Hoffa nowadays? Nobody knows...