Tag Archives: history

Is this the story a more thoughtful Trump would tell?

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Some try to explain Trump’s rise by citing local causes like Hillary or the wall.  But there’s something  happening all over the world.  Why?  And why now?

Once upon a time, there was a planet named Terra that teemed with life.  These life forms lived by a particular philosophy on how to interact with each other called the “Right to Oppress.”  Under this egalitarian philosophy, every creature had the right to oppress other creatures because all creatures were committed to the rule of oppressing other creatures if given the chance.  In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians sum up this philosophy in 431 B.C. while explaining to the Milesians why they are attacking their neutral city and wanting to kill the men, enslave the women and children, and take their possessions.

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences…since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

As millennia went by, one Terran life form grew more intelligent, more collaborative within their groups, and began to dominate the rest, and also sought to dominate each other.  For thousands of years, they organized themselves into ever larger and larger tribes to protect themselves from other groups.  Eventually these very large tribes were called “nation-states” the role of which was two-fold: to actively protect a population of millions within a geographic boundary and to actively protect and promote the culture of the majority (i.e. way of life).

Following the “Right to Oppress,” many nation-states rose and fell over the centuries as they tried to enrich and profit themselves at the expense of others.  Famous examples include nation-states Terrans call “the Romans” and another called “the Mayans.”  But one group of nation-states, often called “Western” nation-states, happened to be the ones particularly strong at a moment of two big changes in Terran history.

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Western colonial empires covered most of the world.  

First, unprecedented planetary war.  War was normal, but the scale of this war was not.  All the most powerful nation-states on Terra devoted their resources to destroying each other.  One generation later, another global war took place, this one more devastating.  Afterwards, though Western nation-states remained strong, they were not quite strong enough to continue the “Right to Opress” philosophy as usual.

Secondly, they didn’t want to.  Under their feet, the “Right to Oppress” had been declining in popularity for some time, dating back to what the Terrans called the “Enlightenment,” which was birthed in Western nation-states.  This new philosophy held that creatures did not have a right to be oppress.  Instead, the opposite was true.  Creatures had the “Right to Not Be Oppressed.”   This included rights to be free of things like unfairness and coercion.  In this view, people had the right to keep private property no matter who was in power, say outwardly what they thought inwardly, and be able to freely enter into contracts with each other as each individual saw fit.  This new “Right to Not be Oppressed” philosophy spread rapidly across Terra and became the general expectation of the governments of nation-states.  Moreover, most judged their ancestors who lived under the previous philosophy as barbaric and pathetic.

Because Western nation-states where those most recently “winning” under the now discredited set of rules, they were scorned by others and, more tellingly, by themselves.  They felt guilty for their old colonial empires and oppression.  At the same time, they did not feel that their culture was currently especially threatened.  Indeed, their language and customs was relatively dominant and they were still by and large the most powerful nation-states on Terra.  As a result of this, many Western nation-states became merely “states.”  These states saw their sole role as protecting a people within a geographic boundary but not actively promoting the culture of the majority.  They didn’t want to.  It also seemed immoral under the new philosophy of “Right to Not be Oppressed.”

But other Terran nation-states did not feel this guilt.  They remained keenly interested in promoting and protecting national culture and identity.  Consider, for example, the issue of naturalization, the process in which members of one nation-state becoming members of another nation-state.  Though the issues is more complex, limiting naturalization is an important way that nation-states protect the identity, cultural norms, and values of their nation.

For comparison, consider the European Union, which was a collection of Western states with a total population of 510 million.  They naturalized about 800,000-900,000 people a year between 2009-2014.  In 2014, 2.6 new members were naturalized for every 100 non-new members.  The United States was another collection of Western states, though more unified by history and language, with a total population of 320 million.  They naturalized 600,000 to 1,000,000 a year during the same time period.  In 2014, there was about 2 new members naturalized for every 100 non-new members.

This can be contrasted with naturalization rates in non-western nation-states such as Japan and China.  Japan, home of 127 million, naturalizes 10,000 people per year, or about .1 people per 100 (5% of the United Sates 2014 naturalization rate).  China has 1.3 billion people, the largest nation-state on Terra, yet it only has a total of 1,448 naturalized citizens in total.  If we divide that total across 50 years of naturalization, this means China naturalized on average a mere 29 individuals a year or .00002 new members per 100 non-new members (.001% of the United States 2014 naturalization rate).  Furthermore, in many non-Western nation-states, governments actively promoted it’s national character by, for example, banning foreign influences by excluding certain media, monetarily supporting efforts to revitalize and expand traditional culture and values, and even promoting cultural ways of doing everyday things like eating food.  In these Nation-States, the “Right to Not be Oppressed” came to also mean the right to live in a state that actively promotes your own values and the general sense of feeling at home and welcome in one’s own country.  In these countries, a priority of the government is protecting a certain way of life.

Furthermore, dovetailing with expansive naturalization policies among Western states, new technologies allowed growing communities within Western states to keep their own national identity.  They could eat their foods that tasted foreign to locals, build their own buildings that looked foreign to locals (see how Swiss and German nationalist movements pursue minaret ban), interact with those back at home via a worldwide communications network so they made fewer local connections, etc.  Furthermore, many states worked diligently to make sure that these communities were given equal resources and treatment, removing power dynamics that typically assist a homogenizing process

The result was unprecedented intermixing with much less homogenization.  Many members of western states welcomed and celebrated this new diversity, and in a way welcomed the eroding of the dominance of their culture, which they themselves associated with oppressiveness.  Many others, however, felt that though they were truly warm and welcoming of other people into their homeland, and had nothing against their way of life specifically, they resented when these guests were not willing to adopt their host culture.  Instead, they found that many of these new members wanted to create mini-nations within their own.   They were witnessing, in other words, small, ongoing, lawful, and peaceful invasions by foreign groups into their territory.  They felt that their government was keeping them safe, but not keeping their way of life safe.

These frustrations built for about 50 years until Terran history reached another tipping point, though this tipping point was less important and it only happened within Western states.  In short, many decided they wanted to be nation-states again.  They wanted their government to actively promote their cultural norms and values and they did not want to feel guilty about it.  New generations of Terrans no longer felt colonial guilt to the same extent, as those sins became increasingly associated with the work of ancestors than family members.  At the beginning of the 21st century, Western states en masse made democratic decisions to close borders, promote traditional values, and make their homeland more distinctively their’s.  To those who lost these surprising elections, it seemed like a return to racism, bigotry, and the “Right to Oppress,” and that narrative was not entirely false either.  Many were racist.  But for many others, this nationalism was not a nationalism against any particular nation, but a positive nationalism for one’s nation.

Moving forward with this new philosophy, Terrans are then confronted with difficult questions.  Do Terrans in Western states have the right to live under a nation-state that actively promotes their way of life?  Can nations choose to welcome people through their borders only if immigrants adopt the host culture?   Who is to decide what aspects of a culture are important, or which culture to promote in a heterogenous state?  When a nation makes decisions that make it increasingly heterogenous, can they then seek to homogenize at the expense of minority communities that they previously welcomed more unconditionally?  Will Terrans continue to uphold the universal “Right to Not be Oppressed”?  Is the future of Terra to be dominated by states or by nation-states?

To be honest, I’m not sure how to answer most of these questions, but I’m sympathetic to the reasonableness of each side.  Is this the narrative, or something like it, that many Trump folks and Brexit folks are trying to share?  (If it is, please pick a more honest, respectful, and better informed spokesperson next time.  I simply cannot promote a nationalism that exalts a figure that represents to me everything crass, ugly, and materialistic about America.)  If it’s not, should it be?

I grew up as a white kid in Taiwan for the first 18 years of my life.  In Taiwan, it’s really hard to become a citizen, even though I was born there and lived there so long.  A foreigner is not even allowed to buy land and the government spent considerable sums of money on promoting local culture. I assumed that is what nation-states did.  When I came to America, I was surprised to learn about what seemed to me an immense double standard.  I wasn’t surprised that the rest of the world had that double standard–the default disgust mechanism against the loud and powerful is understandable–but Americans themselves had it too.  Many seemed fine with decisions of other countries to protect their own way of life, such as how Vietnam actively discouraged  American-style burgers and fast-food chains in Saigon, but if New York State outlawed burritos, that would have been interpreted as racist.  That doesn’t seem fair to me (or racist, but that’s another post).  While in Taiwan, I also adopted a Chinese name to use with locals.  This was expected of me and I was fine with it.  How could I expect them to remember or pronounce such foreign syllables?   But when I came to the U.S., I assumed that it would work here the other way.  Often it did, often it didn’t, but what was interesting to me was the posture of the Americans I knew, who did not feel comfortable encouraging foreigners to adopt local names.

So is our future a world of states or nation-states?  I’m not sure what the future holds or even what I would wish for.  Both paths seem enlightened in their own way, as long as both firmly resist the old philosophy of the “Right to Oppress.”  Both present starkly different versions of the future that make me excited that I get to live for the next 50 years (hopefully) to find out what happens.

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I was born in Taipei, Taiwan.  My Mommy and Daddy loved me and named me Jeremy.  But that is a super foreign sounding word in Taiwan, so I took a local name too that was easier for locals to remember and pronounce.  It seemed helpful and appropriate to me and I figured that’s the way it worked everywhere.  So it feels strange that I haven’t been able to find an English-speaking culture where the members would feel comfortable having the same expectation of Taiwanese long-term residents that the Taiwanese had of me.  It’s not racism.   It’s just hard to make friends and influence people if they can’t say your name.  


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I also lived in Hong Kong for a while.  My brother (right) still lives there with his family.  Last time my wife and I went to visit, there was a Chinese traditional opera that was performing in the local square.  Apparently the troupe travels around Hong Kong performing for local communities at the public expense.  America certainly does some things that are somewhat similar (e.g. the Smithsonian), but nothing comes to mind quite like that.   Sometimes I wonder about why.  

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Why Wars Start

While I was in Sri Lanka, I was working on a new manuscript on pacifism and just war theories.  One pacifist claim I was thinking about is the notion that violence begets violence.  Undoubtedly, this insight is true and useful for understanding cyclical violence, but I started finding wars where violence did not beget violence, or where at least one has to make conceptual somersaults or view history through a strong ideological lens to make it true.

So I set about exploring the roots of 172 wars and conflicts, including the 100 biggest wars in known history (by estimated death toll), all of America’s wars (I am American-ish and it is the biggest superpower), and nearly all important wars in the last 75 years (warfare is changing in nature). I am coding conflicts’ origins and how the war was waged with an evolving schema of 37 reasons for why wars start (triggers and underlying causes).  So far I have completed the 43 largest wars in history.  It has taken me approximately 250 hours of work (just under 5 hours per war).

Why am I doing all this?  Four reasons.

First, second, and third, I can experience spiritual clarity for myself as I attempt to comprehend atrocity, indulge my love of history, and simultaneously satisfy my vain desire to win arguments.  At the end of the process, I can say with some level of certainty that I know why wars start.  I can also disabuse idiotic notions.  For instance, many people, notably pacifists, believe that wars start because of a lack of moral fiber.  However, of the 115 warring parties I have examined, I have found exactly four warring parties whose dominant actors likely considered their involvement in the war to be immoral.

Of these four, only one played an important role in starting the conflict itself: the Yan Dynasty in the An Shi Rebellion.  Therefore, I can say with some certainty that cruel intentions do not start wars. Also, from my research so far, I think that violence does beget wars, but it is not one of the top reasons why most wars start. By the way, again from this preliminary work, religion does not appear to be a major cause either.

My fourth and final reason for looking at why wars start is to end wars.  Once we have figured out why wars start, we might figure out patterns, leverage points, and ways to end them, and be able to guide masses of people in modern democracies towards that end.  Of course, I will fail at this if I am doing all this research myself.  Even people who know me and trust my intelligence and goodwill will wonder about my biases and where I am getting my information.

So here is the big idea:  Enlist a host of intellectuals in identifying the historical causes of warfare and run the numbers. Someone somewhere (not me, I hope, because I have other big ideas that interest me more) needs to get a foundation on board to figure out and coordinate a global effort. From what I understand, some of these activities are being done to various extents. I do not know who, if anyone, is doing them all.

  1. Identify a core team of historians and political scientists to create a rubric for judging the reasons for wars (like my schema).   
  2. Identify ethnically and politically diverse teams of historians who can summarize the historical account of the causal chain that produced a war, how it was waged, and the mindset of the major participants.
  3. Pilot the schema and 172 war descriptions with 10 intellectuals who will grade the reasons for why the war started.
  4. Adjust schema and summaries as needed.
  5. Recruit the top 150 intellectuals in the world with diverse political, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds to grade each war.
  6. Run the numbers.

The goal: at the end of the day, we can know objectively, or as close we can get to objectivity, why wars start. Of course, the process might be different. For example, we might rely solely on historians to identify the causes according to my rubric, but the goal is still the same.

Some possible findings:

  • We might find out that wars start for very innocuous reasons that are preventable or at least predictable.  For example, the biggest cause of wars that I have seen so far is the emergence of power vacuums.  This, of course, is not the cause of all wars, but it has been a primary cause of 29 out of the 43 I have studied so far.  An obvious example of an exception would include the Jewish wars against the Roman occupation.  
  • We might find that violence does in fact beget violence.
  • We might find that wars are caused by inequality.
  • Moreover, we might discover the causes of different types of wars.  Civil wars, from my research, often have very different causes than wars between nations, as do ongoing unresolved conflicts that span generations (e.g., Isreal/Palestine).  Perhaps, conflicts with such different structures should not be compared.

Being able to have some objectivity when making the claims about the historical causes of warfare, especially the wars waged in the last 50 years, might help focus our discussions on the biggest causes and have numerous other benefits.

So now I am left wondering. Who is already doing this?  I talked to Alicia about this and she mentioned how some people are doing similar things at the Uppsala Conflict Data Program and the International Peace Research Institute. I need to learn about this more, but for now, I thought I would share the idea and see if I could get any thoughts.


Remember When Dinosaurs Blew Your Mind?

Yup! Stegosaurs really existed.

The topic of dinosaurs, like space travel, strikes me as silly childhood fantasy, that is until I spend exactly 4 minutes learning about it and find myself wanting to devote my life to its study.  The last time I thought about dinosaurs I was a kid.  Like most thoughts I had when I was a kid, I do not trust them, as I am sure they were not based in reality.  So I was happy to discover in a lecture series, “Behold, the Mighty Dinosaur” by Dr. John Kircher out of Wheaton University, that there were indeed extremely large and bizarre giant lizards that walked the earth.  Yes; there really were 100 ton plant eaters.  Yes; there were Stegosaurs that had giant bony plates along it’s back and spikes in it’s tail.  Yes; they really did exist millions of years ago and were mysteriously wiped out.

What were they?

This is the wrong posture.

Dinosaurs were not lizards exactly.  They did not drag their tales, like a crocodile as paleontologists used to think.  We have found many dinosaur tracks, but no tail impressions.  Instead they walked holding their tails in the air, usually balancing their neck and head straight out in front of them.

This is more accurate posture.

They were also were not slow moving or basking in the sun all day trying to heat themselves up.  Instead, evidence now suggests that they were endothermic (warm-blooded) and lived very active lives.  Alicia and I just went to the Colombo Zoo last weekend and, let me tell you as pedantically as possible, it is no fun to watch lizards.  They don’t do shit.  Monkeys, guinea pigs, and birds are great; they are constantly on the move, playing games, fighting, etc.  Alicia and I even had a giraffe follow us around; we are pretty sure it liked white people for some reason (pictures to come later).

Dinosaurs have only one descendant that lives today, and that is birds.  The ostrich is perhaps the closest thing we have to a dinosaur.  (Check out Ostrich feet the next time you see them and think “dinosaur.”)

However, some of the big ones might have become more cold-blooded as they got bigger so as to substantially slow their metabolism.  This would allow a dinosaur five times the size of a full-grown African elephant to only need the energy the elephant needed.  In other words, on African safaris, we would see just as many animals, but they would all be bigger.

There really could have been enormous plant-eaters everywhere.

When were they?

This prof was a Wheaton professor, a good ole’ evangelical school, and he was telling me that dinosaurs lived between 65 million years ago and 245 million years ago.  Many dinosaurs went extinct and evolved during that time; in fact a Tyrannosaurus Rex would have never battled a Stegosaurus, because the former was alive in the late Cretaceous and the latter in the Early Jurassic, nearly 100 million years apart.

To put this in perspective, Earth is guessed by scientists to be 4,500 million years old, but things did not get very interesting until 500 million years ago.  After that vertebrates started coming (animals with spines), than land vertebrates, and then the dinosaurs, until 65 million years ago, when they suddenly disappeared from the fossil record.  From then on exactly zero dinosaurs, except birds, appear in the sedimentary rock.

Why did dinosaurs suddenly and completely die off 65 million years ago.?

In addition to all non-avian dinosaurs, ammonites (type of mollusk), mosasaurs (large sea-faring reptiles), and many types of mammals went extint, along with plants, even a type of extremely plentiful sea amoeba.

There is evidence of two catastrophic events.  The first is a series of volcanic eruptions called the Deccan Traps.  You should know this word.  Use it in poetry and you will sound cool…”My anger is a fiery tumult mightier than the Deccan Traps!”  They are huge volcanoes which covered half of modern day India with lava flows and the whole world with dust and ash.

But the Deccan Traps’ numerous eruptions would have slowly affected the globe over millions of years, maybe even 8 million years (68-60 million years ago), which is not the sudden change that the fossil record shows.   We also need something more harmful and more immediate, which points scientists to the Chicxulub impact.

The Grand Canyon is 18 miles across.

65 million years ago a rock six miles across hit what is now the southern Gulf of Mexico with a force 2 million times bigger than the biggest ever detonated atomic bomb.  It created a crater 112 miles in diameter.  It would have immediately destroyed all life in the hemisphere; the T-Rex’s that ranged over North America were all dead right away; and covered that world in a cloud of soot and dust that poured acid rain, burned off the vegetation, and killed anything that was not small enough to hide—impact winter.  It left a thin layer of sediment, the K-Pg Boundary, found all over the world with dinosaur fossils below it and none above it.  It also contains high levels of Iridium, common on asteroids and not common on earth.

An artist imagines the Chixculub impact, which vaporized all life nearby and started a nuclear winter around the world.

Whatever the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event was, it led to the rise of mammals, which had been living alongside the dinosaurs, but now had a wide open world to populate, and these mammals, apparently, led to us.  Ironically, there were some smart dinosaurs that possibly could have evolved into intelligent creatures.  Brain size roughly correlates with species’ intelligence, and there are some dinosaurs that had a brain to body ratio about halfway between dolphins and chimps and us.  Were there dinosaurs capable of language?  Would we have cities of dinosaurs now, with dinosaur presidents and dinosaur punk rockers?

And now for some random facts:

Dinosaurs were quite possibly extremely colorful.  Many could have had feathers.  Many could have had strange anatomical features which could not fossilize, like trunks or skin flaps.

A sauropod protects her young.

Those big Sauropod plant eaters probably did not chew a thing.  The only way their enormous bodies could be fed by such tiny heads is if they just stripped plants and swallowed.  Smooth stones have been found in the rib cages that they think were swallowed to aid in digestion, like some birds do, like Ostriches, who can swallow stones up to 10 cm across.

Because these Sauropods were so enormous, we do not know why they had such long necks.  They would have towered over most any tree that was around.  My personal theory is simple: long necks were a big dinosaur turn-on.

T-Rex’s often suffered from gout and, as one aged, probably became more of a scavenger than a hunter.

The biggest flying dinosaur had a colossal 40 ft. wingspan.  That blows my mind.  It was an actual thing!  Not some disney character.

Everyone who loves history has a moment when they realize how real history was; Napoleon and Thucydides was as real then as you or me are now.  In the last week, I was simply overjoyed to discover that this Lost World of childhood fantasy turned out to be history.  Dinosaurs really did live on this earth and roamed lands on which we all now tread—where we write and read blog posts.  (I even categorized this post under ‘History.’)

And we still live in the age of giants.  The biggest animal ever, at 180 tons, happens to be  around today: the blue whale.

Cool…


Adams vs. Jefferson Repeat in 2012

In 1800, John Adams was accused of being an out of touch, arrogant, elitist while his opponent, Jefferson, won with the image of a real American, a man of the people, and a champion of liberty.  For example, in a well-publicized national discussion, when the new republic was trying to decide what to call the president, Jefferson pushed for the title “Mr. President” while John Adams was willing to call him “His Excellency” or something that lent the position more gravitas.  Adams, spending years abroad in England and France, was viewed as having been poisoned by aristocratic and foreign sensibilities and communism was to Joe McCarthy’s USA as monarchy was to Jefferson’s.  As part of the Federalist Party, albeit a reluctant member, Adams wanted to consolidate government power while Jefferson, of the people, by the people, and for the people, had spent his whole life in America and was the people’s man.  He wanted their freedom and saw the small-holding farmer, as opposed to industry, as central to American life.

But biography is ironic.  Jefferson was the son of a rich plantation owner.  At age 21, he inherited 5,000 acres (20 km2) of land, 52 slaves, livestock, his father’s notable library, and a gristmill.  In 1768, he used his slaves to construct a neoclassical mansion known as Monticello.  In 1773, the year after Jefferson married a young widow, her father died. She and Jefferson inherited his estate, including 11,000 acres and 135 slaves.  With these additional slaves, Jefferson became the second largest slaveholder in Albermarle County with one of the biggest estates. The number of slaves from this time forward would fluctuate around 200.

Jefferson enjoyed an enormous income for his entire life, yet was almost always deeply in debt.  He spent lavishly and was constantly remodeling Monticello for no particular or practical purpose.  He spent great sums of money while abroad, especially in France, where he enjoyed the French aristocracy and their way of life.  He loved fine wine, expensive furnishings, and speculation, and died 1-2 million in debt.

Adams, on the other hand, was raised by a farmer who farmed the land himself.  Young Adams loved farming and he ran a farm his entire life, which he worked whenever possible, shoveling manure and plowing fields without the aid of slaves.  (Adams thought the only sensible investment was in land.)  As a boston lawyer, he had trouble making ends meet, and had to farm.  He hated taking cases without merit.  In fact, he took the case defending the British soldiers at the Boston Massacre, the case that launched his public career, in part because he was having trouble finding work.

Throughout his public career, Adams was frugal with his modest income, especially while serving abroad in the company of high socieity, which, unlike Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, he hated.  He could not stand the theatrics, the sleaziness, the politics, the make-up, the decadence, or the rich food; it disgusted him and he never fit in.  In fact, Franklin had the Continental Congress recall Adams against his will because he was too blunt and impolite; he was a “bull in a china cabinet.”

Nonetheless, for decades, no matter what he did, Adams could not shake the public image of an elitist snob who had been poisoned by foreigners, and Jefferson won the 1800 election.

Barack Obama has also been called an out of touch, arrogant elitist.  I hear it daily.  Indeed, he has given some fodder for this charge.  During his 2008 campaign, he mentioned that rural Americans can “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”  He called the economy “fine” a few weeks ago.  He spent some parts of his life in foreign countries.  Maybe he is out of touch with real America?

But Obama, we must remember, was raised by a single mom who worked for non-profits.  Mitt Romney’s dad, George Romney, was a successful businessman, a multi-millionaire, Governor of Michigan, Sec. of HUD, and ran for President against Nixon.

Obama finished paying off his school debt in 2004 and, though he is a millionaire now, only became one from book sales after his 2008 campaign picked up.  Romney, on the other hand, is worth over $250 million, making him the richest man ever to run for president — he always has been the 1%.

Obama was a community organizer working closely with underserved populations in Chicago before he became a lawyer, professor, state senator, Senator, and then President.  Mitt Romney worked as a Mormon missionary in France, a high-powered business consultant, a wildly successful venture capitalist executive for 14 years with an initial $37 million, chaired the 2002 Winter Olympics, became governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007, and has been running for President ever since.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what “out of touch” is supposed to mean.  Everyone is “in touch” with something.  As for me, I like Obama because he, like me, is multi-cultural and has been exposed to poverty.  Like me, he knows what it is like to worry about school debt and making ends meet since the majority of his life he paid close attention to electricity bills, travel expenses, and food prices.  He understands why they are important.  Romney seems like a good guy, but he has been enormously wealthy nearly his entire life.  Romney is Wall Street to Obama’s Main Street.

Did you hear about the $12 million expansion to his Ocean Front property in San Diego?  It includes a car elevator.  But car elevators can be super cool right?  Romney could be just a rich guy having everyman fun, like Obama when he enjoys the perks of bringing the musicians he loves to perform in the White house, or flying up to NYC for a dinner and a show with Michelle.  But surely all excess does not signal everyday humanity.  Maybe some excess is just excessive, such as the time and ink spent on this whole discussion of who is more ‘out of touch.’

So, vote for Obama?  It’s not really my point.  Instead, let’s just all try mightily not be as out of touch as the electorate in 1800.


I Was Wrong…

…the American Civil War was not about states’ rights, but about the South’s desire to keep slaves.

As you may be aware, I take a bit of pride in my knowledge of U.S. history, especially in knowing more than most ‘real’ Americans.  Getting a perfect score on my AP US History exam in high school, and my Mother teaching me thirty or so American songs like the Caisson Song, Goober Peas, and all 6 verses of When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, guaranteed me deep insight and a place in respectable society.

Seriously, before a week ago I thought that the Civil War is more aptly called the War of Northern Aggression and that, instead of slavery, it was really about states’ rights.  My Uncle, a retired Virginia State trooper, explains that throughout our history, the United States has generally encouraged the liberation of peoples rebelling in favor of self-rule, but only when they rebel in other countries.  Good point.  And, after all, as my friends and old neighbors in Atlanta, Georgia might point out, the South did not invade the North; they would have been happy to leave the North alone.  The North were invaders and then occupiers.  They could not stomach peaceful secession.

Also, I thought that slavery, rather than being the reason for war, was merely the catalyst for it; it could have been any number of other issues that would have challenged the Constitution’s lack of clarity on whether or not a state was allowed to secede from the Union.  The incidental issue of abolition, though morally upright, happened to be what the North was trying to ram down southern throats.

So I have held my nose up at those simple-minded people who read today’s morality into the motivation of the North—who don’t really know history.  Most Unionists were as racist as most Southerners, and still are.  Yet, while I still think there is good reason to call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression,” I no longer think the war was really about states’ rights for three reasons.

First, in the compromise of 1850, the North sought and passed a provision guaranteeing that the North would help return slaves discovered in its territories.  This amounted to free states, that had passed laws banning slavery, who thought slavery was wrong, being forced to abide by the rules of another State that they strongly disagreed with.

(This also had the effect of generating a backlash of anti-slavery sentiment among Northerners who, though racist and quite willing to allow the institution of slavery to exist if out of sight, were not comfortable with the immorality that was being paraded in front of them.  I see striking similarities to the spread of pro-LGBT laws in America, which could cause a backlash if imposed on populations not yet ready it.)

Secondly, the South was unwilling to allow new states to decide for themselves, when entering the Union, whether they would be slave or free.  Because of the even balance of power in the Senate, slave states pushed the United States to mandate some territories to become slave states, even if they did not necessarily want to be.  At the time, the South argued that this did not violate states’ rights because a territory is not yet a state, but that is misguided for two reasons.  First, after a territory becomes a state, it would then need to acquire the rights of a state, which should include the power to decide whether it wants to change to a slave or free state.  Secondly, at the core of the ideology of states’ rights is the principle of self-rule—it should not matter if the area is a territory or a state, they still should have the right to self-determination.  This was violated in many ways.

In the Missouri Compromise, all land below the 36°30’ parallel (southern border of Missouri) was guaranteed to become slave states.  Because of this, efforts were made to annex foreign land and make them slave states.  Unsuccessful plans included annexing Cuba & Nicaragua.  Successful plans include the Mexican War, which was fought in large part by James K. Polk as a land-grab, not just for the United States, but for the slave-holding South.  Finally, the South wanted Kansas, when it joined the Union, to become a slave state, though in main its people did not want slavery.  Eventually it would become a free-state, but only after wrangling in Congress, bloodshed (150 killed or injured), and a raft of Missourians coming over the state line to vote illegally for pro-slavery constitutions.  Of course, this also broke the South’s compromise with the North: Kansas was above the 36° 30’ parallel.

What drives this point home for me, that the South was not really interested in States’ Rights, is that the Democrats, the only truly national political party at the time, with deep roots in the South and pro-slavery policies, tried desperately to hold together a national coalition by appealing to self-determinination: a middle ground which guaranteed the rights of states and territories to decide for themselves.  Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic nominee in 1860, was fighting for states’ rights.  But the South would not have it.  So, while 14 out of 15 slave states had voted Democrat in 1856, Douglas only got one in 1860.  Instead, Southerners opted for John C. Breckenridge, a pro-slavery candidate, who won 11 out of 15 slave states.  But Lincoln swept the North and became president.

The final reason why the Civil War was not really about states’ rights has to do with the South’s reaction to Lincoln’s victory.  What must be understood is that, since George Washington, only moderate and pro-slavery presidents had been elected. In fact, of the 15 presidents before Lincoln, five did not own slaves and 10 did, most of them Virginians and southerners.  Of those 10, eight owned slaves while they served as president.  Of the five who never owned slaves, two were John Adams, a practical moderate, and his son, John Quincy, who was powerless.  The other three directly preceded Lincoln: Buchanan (Dem), Fillmore (Dem), and Pierce (Whig).  They were picked in large part because of their acceptance of slavery.  (Source cited by factcheck.org is here.)

In other words, for years, abolitionists had been losing elections and accepting them anyway.  This, after all, is the essence of democracy.  But, when the abolitionists had won, the South could not accept the outcome.  They did not wait for their cherished states’ rights to actually get trampled on.  Seven states seceded before Lincoln even took office.

Ironically, Lincoln was a clear-eyed pragmatist who would have probably been quite reasonable and measured in his policies.  His Emancipation Proclamation is rightly understood as a war measure, meant to weaken the economy of states that were in rebellion, and to muzzle any possibility of France or England, both having already abolished slavery, coming to the aid of the confederacy.  Also, the Proclamation did not free slaves in Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware, and specifically excluded numerous counties in some other states.  Lincoln did this so as to not push border states to join the Confederate cause.  As a result, some of these states did not ban slavery until they ratified the 13th amendment over three years later—6 months after the war was over.  This points to the likelihood that while Abraham would have certainly applied pressure with an aim to end slavery, he was not prone towards ideological or drastic measures.  But the south took their marbles and went home, before their states’ rights were even infringed on, but after it was clear that their power in the federal government to protect the institution of slavery was waning.

After listening to about 30 lectures detailing the first 80 years of American History (6 part Heritage Series), it is difficult for me to see this era as being dominated by a burgeoning crisis of states’ rights—of the majority of states forcing their will on the few.  Rather, we are witnessing, primarily in the South, increased racism, increased dependence on slavery, and increased fear that necessitated the preservation of their power so that they could continue and spread the institution of slavery.

But of course, “the American Civil War was about the South’s desire to keep slaves” is a sweeping historical statement.  There were many other factors involved, economic and otherwise.  In the end, it is probably only mostly true—I’d say about three fifths.


He was Me (Dad’s Story)

After last week’s post, I commissioned my father to write this particular story.  It is one so real to me that I struggle to remember that I was not actually in it!  Also, those of you who know me well will be struck with how the last few paragraphs share identical sentiments you’ve heard me rant about dozens of times.  Indeed, I was startled to see the resemblance, and then ashamed of my surprise.  Of course!  I got my passion for connecting to history from my own connection with my dad (and most of my other good passions I got from him too).  I hope you enjoy it!   

I remember the day very well. As a boy, it was my task to clean and dust the basement. It was one of those finished basements with the brick fireplaces and wood paneling popular in the 70’s. We spent a lot of time in that basement (as opposed to the living room, which was reserved for “guests” and almost never used), so it got messier quicker.

There was delicious irony in my mother assigning this particular task. On the wall an old photo of a civil war soldier looked out from a very ornate frame that my mom had to clean when she was a kid. She hated cleaning that frame, because it was so ornate—it took forever. I grew up around this picture and its frame, and now it was my turn. But unlike my mother’s situation, my taskmaster was not as persnickety, and so all I had to do was to take a vacuum brush to it, and then wipe it down with a cloth dampened with “Endust”–some wonderful modern chemicals.

On this particular day, however, I was not appreciating the lucky break that history had given me, but rather thinking what a silly chore this was.  And so I began to wipe this stupid frame with the stupid old picture in it, thinking what a beautiful day I was wasting. But, as I did so, the light from the window reflected off the picture in a way that made me actually look at the picture. My half closed eyes slowly got wider and wider. And I stopped wiping and just stared. And gaped.

I knew I was looking at my great great grandfather, Rich McGee. He was a confederate soldier in the civil war.  And he was around 16 when he joined. I knew all this. But it began to dawn on me that the eyes that were looking at me were about the same age as eyes that had been joylessly cleaning with Endust.

A stocky, 16 year old. Brown hair. Round face. Light colored eyes.

And then I saw him.

He was me. I was not looking at a picture, I was looking in a mirror. I had grown up into this picture.

It was both an exhilarating and tremendously creepy sensation, all blended into one. There was at once a sense of bonding with the past, and at the same time a realization that his world was nothing like mine, and the issues that he faced were quite different. I had to eventually stop and go upstairs to tell Mom my epiphany. She just smiled.

This got me wondering what had happened to Rich McGee.  And so I asked my grandmother Dana what she remembered about Rich McGee in the civil war. This is the story that she told me, with probably some details gone awry:

There were three brothers who had signed up for the confederate army, I believe from Patrick County. The mother was understandably worried for his sons. She made the oldest promise that he would take care of the youngest.  I don’t know why the middle child was not a part of this family pact, maybe the mother felt that he could take care of himself (but not necessarily others).

I don’t remember what battle it was—it could have been the second battle of Manassas. But after a day of combat, the older brother could not find the youngest among the fires that the soldiers huddled around. Desperate, he made his way out in the darkness, away from the fires, and back unto the battlefield looking for his brother. While searching on that battlefield, he was shot by a Union sniper, and was killed instantly.

Eventually, they did find the younger brother out there in the battlefield.   He was alive, but seriously wounded. About a half a year later, he would die from those wounds.

Only the middle child, Rich, remained.  Again, I am not sure which battle, but he was eventually taken prisoner, and waited the rest of the war out in a union camp.

Rich McGee eventually lived into his 90’s and died in the 1930’s. He had a son, also named Rich, and that son also lived into his 90’s and died in the 1960’s. I have a picture of that son, then grown old, there with his little great grandson—me.

And when I think of this, it reminds me how young we are as a nation, how the things we read about in history books are not really that far away. It also reminds me that we are never born in a vacuum. That we stand on the shoulders of the decisions and choices of those before us. And we stand with similar equipment in mind and body. This doesn’t stop each new generation from taking history in another direction. But it does tell us at what point we start.

I have come to appreciate the Chinese value of honoring our ancestors. But I don’t have to burn incense or paper money to do so. I can honor them by remembering their stories.

So thanks, Jer, for letting me do some remembering and some reminiscing–some honoring.

By Cary Clifton


Captain Abraham Lincoln: An Invitation to Story

While reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln recently, I saw this little tidbit that seemed worth sharing.  It reminds me of a similar story from my own family’s history.  

Thomas Lincoln named his son “Abraham” after the boy’s grandfather, Captain Abraham Lincoln, who fought in the Revolutionary War.  Once little Abe was old enough, Thomas told the story of how his namesake died.

After the War for Independence, Captain Lincoln moved his family to Kentucky, where they lived on disputed Indian lands.  One warm day in May, 1786, Thomas recounts, when he was just six, he went out with his brothers Josiah, age 8, and Mordecai, age 14, and their father to work the fields.  Suddenly a shot rang out from the woods nearby and Father collapsed.

Thomas stood transfixed in the crackling calm of shock–staring at his father.  Josiah took off sprinting to Hughes Station, where settlers gathered in the event of Indian attack, calling for help as he ran.  Mordecai hustled to the cabin where the family kept a loaded musket.  A figure emerged from the forest and moved towards Captain Lincoln’s body, towards Thomas.

Mordecai, quick to the cabin, grabbed the musket next to the door, turned, and saw the figure for the first time, an Indian, standing above his Father.  Gasping, Mordecai yelled and stumbled towards his Father and Thomas, the heavy rifle causing him to lose his balance and fall.  Thomas, still in shock, turned to the Indian, who was now reaching towards Thomas, who Mordecai thought was about to be killed or carried off.

In that second, 14 year old Mordecai rose to his feet, took aim, and fired, hitting the Indian in the chest and killing him instantly.  Bathsheba Lincoln, Abraham’s grandmother, was left a widow with five underage children.

Thomas Lincoln’s story had a powerful affect on young Abraham.  “The story of his death by the Indians,” President Lincoln later wrote, “and of Uncle Mordecai, then fourteen years old, killing one of the Indians, is the legend more strongly than all others imprinted on my mind and memory.”

I started loving history when I realized that the figures of history are just as real as you or I.  I started feeling socially responsible when I realized the future, though unknown, is still infinitely more real than the best fiction.  Connecting the past, the present, and the future, are stories–stories that formed us before we were born, and, through the telling, continue to form us today.  For Lincoln, his Father’s account of his grandfather’s death was such a story.  For me, my Father has told me a family story with similar effect.  I have invited him to re-tell it on my blog.  I also invite any of my readers, if you have a family legend, a connection to the past, which strongly imprinted itself on “mind and memory,” please share it on my blog.  The door is open.


The Island of Yap

As I studied economics, I ran across this story a number of times.  Perhaps you have heard it.  It helps me think about the nature of money and valuation.

The indigenous people on the island of Yap developed money that consisted of enormous round slabs of limestone, up to 12 feet in diameter, with holes in the middle.  Limestone was not found on Yap, but on a neighboring island.  Quarry and transport costs accentuated its value.  Of course, nobody owned very many of these huge stones, called rai, but they did change hands for dowries, or as a last resort after a failed crop (though hopefully your crop was the only one that failed, otherwise you might be facing rai inflation).

But rai did not change hands per se.  They were too big.  Instead, when you acquired rai, it was merely acknowledged that the stone now belonged to you.  You left it in the town square, or marking the path, or wherever it lay.  It was yours and everyone knew it.  Now you had enduring stored value, ready for you when you needed it.

Once, while transporting a large rai stone, it fell into a deep part of the sea.  Oh no!  But after some discussion, everyone concluded it must be down there somewhere, and so it continued to be exchanged as if it was regular rai.  It is still traded, though nobody has seen it for over 100 years.

It seems to me that the brilliance of modern finance is to say, “Why are we going through the trouble of mining and transporting these stones (or in our case, precious metals) in the first place?  Seems like a waste of time.  Instead, why don’t we pretend that all our rai are already lying on the bottom of the sea?  We’ll just use banks, accountants, and ledgers to keep track of it all, just like we were doing already, but in order to lessen the impact of cycles of inflation and deflation, let’s create a quasi-governmental organization (the Fed) to control how much fictional rai at the bottom of the sea we are allowed to think exists.”  Brilliant.  If we are all going to play make-believe, we might as well ensure our make-believe world is as stable as possible.


The Unique City

I thought David Rakoff’s book, Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal live Oil, and Other First World Problems, was going to make fun of these sorts of problems and provide insight.  Instead, he was serious about these meaningless difficulties.  It was a major disappointment for such a sweet title.

So, for entertainment and diversion, in the midst of this crazy adrenaline-filled week, I turned to a 14-lecture course on the History of Venice by Dr. Thomas Madden at Saint Louis University.  I enjoyed it greatly.  Kagan’s History of Ancient Greece is much better (you can find it on itunesU), but I think it is only because Venetian history is just so absurdly long, over 1,000 years.  It’s hard to create the magic of narrative when the story is so long and has so many players.

Venice is a unique city.  It did not exist during Roman times.  Nobody lived out on these tiny little low-lying sandy and marshy islands at the very northern tip of the Adriatic.  People started fleeing to them for safety as mainland Italy became less and less stable and it became a collection point for refugees from the Roman Empire.  As such, it kept a very close relationship to the Byzantines for hundreds of years, and it always associated itself, and rightly so, with the Roman legacy.

Venice’s location also set it apart from the mainland (more than literally).  While Europe adopted the land-based feudal system, Venice’s income was entirely based on the sea trade.  Ok.  They did make salt, and a few other things, but they were traders and not farmers.  In fact, their merchant-based economy did much to pave the way for modern finance (maybe I’ll discuss that in a different post).  Like Athens of ancient times, they enjoyed a unique combination of dominance at sea and relative weakness on land (if only Athens had enjoyed Venice’s supremely defensible marine location maybe the Pellopenesian War would have gone differently).

Unlike the other mostly monarchical governments of Europe, Venice’s government was originally a democracy in which the people voluntarily gave up their claims to a group of wise old men who in turn created an oligarchical republic.  Newly wealthy families could join the oligarchy, and this flexibility made it unlikely that the newly rich would agitate the populous in an attempt to gain political power.  The result was an incredibly stable republic in which everyone was subject to the rule of law, and this was good for business.

For centuries Venice enjoyed great privilege in trading with the Byzantines, and their seafaring abilities–they all grew up on the water–made them exceptional sailors for business and war.  However, with the opening up of the Atlantic passes to India by going around Africa and the discovery of America, Venetian trade became less important.  They were also slow to put cannons on ships, lose their rowers, and they never really got the hang of it.  They were incredible ship-builders during the Middle Ages.  In fact, they were the ones to really invent the assembly line, the factory (their “Arsenal” it was called), and interchangeable parts.  They would float hulls of boats down the docks to different stations.  At times, one third of the city worked at the boatyard and they could pump out a ship a day.  In 1450 they had about 3,000 ships on the water.  But eventually they couldn’t keep up with the French, English, or Germans.

Ironically, Napoleon, the product of the French Revolution, who thought himself the great liberator of Europe, the spreader of liberal ideas like equality under the law and republicanism, was actually the one to destroy the oldest republic in Europe, one which had always prosecuted those high-born and low-born.  In a sad series of events, Venice tried to placate Napoleon, but ultimately, Napoleon just wanted Venice.  He arrayed his cannons along the shore and was about to bombard the city.  Finally, technology had made obsolete Venice’s defense: the sea.  So, in an emotional meeting of the Great Council on May 12, 1797, after 1100 years of fairly even-handed and non-partisan self-rule, the last holdouts of the Roman Empire voted to voluntarily give up their republic and hand themselves over to French rule.

History makes me cry.