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.