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Published: Fri, 28 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Fri, 28 Oct 2016 12:23:14 -0400


Future Nobel Laureate Warns: The Antichrist Is Coming!

Fri, 14 Oct 2016 10:40:00 -0400

It's April 1980. You live in Toronto. You're going to see future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan play a show at Massey Hall. Of course, you don't think of him as future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan. You think of him as a hippie rock star who's just pissed off vast swaths of his fan base by converting to evangelical Christianity. Hopefully you weren't expecting to hear his old hits, because Dylan doesn't sing any of those. Instead he plays a bunch of his new religious songs, and at one point, with the band vamping behind him like he's a preacher and it's Sunday morning, he lets loose a little sermon. "In the Bible," he says, "it tells you specific things, in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, which just might apply to these times here." And he talks about Afghanistan and he talks about the Antichrist, and while he's standing there playing the prophet you start to realize that future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan isn't just into Christianity; he's into some freaky endtimes shit. But damn if he doesn't make it compelling, and somehow it all builds to a revved-up performance of "Solid Rock." Check out the whole thing here: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> I'm already on record as a fan of Dylan's Christian albums, and I'm not gonna recycle my arguments for them here. I wrote a piece for No Depression back in 2003 that makes my case, and if you're interested you can check that out. I'll just note that I'm not a Christian myself, so I'm not inflating their quality because I agree with them. And much as I love Dylan's best work, I'm definitely not the sort of fan who eats up everything he puts out, so that's not the issue here either. I honestly believe that Slow Train Coming is one of the great American jeremiads and that Saved is 43 minutes of good-and-sometimes-great gospel music. But I do have one little bias that might be magnifying my affection for this stage of Dylan's career. It's the window it opens on that Carter-era apocalyptic mood, when everything from the Afghan war to the Jonestown massacre—yeah, Dylan mentioned Jonestown in that sermon too—felt like a sign that Armageddon was near. Every era of American history has its own set of apocalyptic fears, a particular collection of cataclysms that seemed to loom at that specific moment. Inevitably, someone combines those historically contingent threats with the more long-lived tales Americans tell each other about the endtimes, so that, say, whatever happened that week in the Middle East is imagined as an event foretold in the Bible. Such exercises always look a little ridiculous in retrospect, once the crisis has passed without the world ending. But try to look past the ridiculousness. Try to suspend your disbelief and take them seriously, the way you might when you watch a horror movie. If you can do that, you'll find they're a valuable portal to the past. If you want to understand how the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan felt as it happened, you have to take yourself out of the mindset that sees that incursion as the beginning of a nine-year war that ended nearly three decades ago. You have to imagine how it looked to someone who had no idea how this was going to end, someone who caught a whiff of Armageddon in the air. Someone who might talk about the invasion as though he was just a few years removed from doomsday, not 36 years removed from winning a Nobel Prize. And if he can wrap up that talk with a solid song, all the better. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For the Orson Welles version of Carter-era apocalypticism, check out the second and third videos here. For the far end of the period's endtimes fears, go here.)[...]

The Sitcom and the Surveillance State

Fri, 07 Oct 2016 08:05:00 -0400

One of the weirdest half-hours of nominally normal 1960s television is "Top Secret," a 1963 episode of My Three Sons. This almost invasively wholesome series starred Fred MacMurray as Steve Douglas, an aeronautical engineer raising three boys after his wife's death. In this installment, he has to work at home on a classified project; to keep everything secure, the house is put under surveillance. "We'll handle this job as though the Douglas family was out to blow up New York City," one agent explains to his colleagues. "Every word, every move, every meaningful silence—that's our assignment, from Top Level Pentagon." An apparatus built to combat external and internal threats will be used instead on an ordinary American family, for what we are assured is the common good. For the rest of the episode the government invades everyone's privacy, but the biggest victims appear to be the feds themselves, who are bored to tears by what they find. They file dreary reports on a young boy's movements; they tap the family's phone, yielding nothing but the halting progress of a teenager's love life. At the end, Fred MacMurray's character breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly: You know, this security thing was a little tough on my family for a while, but, well, you can see that it was necessary. Of course, now that the project is completed I can tell you what it was all about. You see, what I was really working on was a type of missile— And then the words TOP SECRET appear over MacMurray's face and his next several sentences are scrambled. The security system that hovered over the Douglases turns out to be in our homes too, intercepting information before it can be heard on our televisions. It is difficult to describe this scene without it sounding deeply creepy, but the show presents it as perfectly benign. There's even a laugh track: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> In my book The United States of Paranoia, I contrasted that episode with a bicentennial-year edition of another sitcom, Good Times. (The summary above is adapted from my write-up in the book.) By 1976, the country had seen all sorts of official crimes exposed, from Watergate to COINTELPRO. Between that and the larger cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s, audiences were more willing to accept stories about the national security state abusing its power, even in a genre like the situation comedy. So when Good Times did a story about an ordinary American family falling under federal surveillance, it took a rather different approach to the subject. Here the FBI is shown callously disregarding its targets' liberty, privacy, and well-being, with disastrous results. This is how much pop culture can change in 13 years: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Part two of three: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Part three of three: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> As you may have noticed, "The Investigation" ends with John Amos looking directly at the camera, like Fred MacMurray at the end of "Top Secret." This time there's no laugh track. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]

Disaster Progressivism

Sat, 01 Oct 2016 12:00:00 -0400

Spontaneous cooperation, not social chaos, is the norm after a natural or technological disaster. That fact looms large in Jacob Remes' Disaster Citizenship (University of Illinois Press), a book that looks at two devastating events—a 1914 fire in Salem, Massachusetts, and a 1917 shipyard explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia—and shows what happened when that grassroots mutual aid ran headfirst into the Progressive Era's passion for rule by "expert" professionals.

Remes examines everything from ethnic networks to labor politics to the battle for control of government aid. (The people of Salem and Halifax were often happy to take the help, but only on their own terms.) As an undergrad at Yale, Remes took a class from Seeing Like a State author James C. Scott, and a very Scottian theme runs through all of the book's nuances and distinctions: the clash between an "organic, emergent order" and a power structure for whom that order was "inherently illegible and unknowable."

The Haunted House That Guns Built

Sun, 25 Sep 2016 06:00:00 -0400

The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture, by Pamela Haag, Basic Books, 528 pages, $29.99 Sarah Winchester was the widow of William Winchester, and William's father Oliver was the pater familias of the Winchester gun company. Oliver died in December 1880, and William succumbed to tuberculosis four months later. Two months after that, Sarah's mother died. By mid-1881, Sarah was essentially alone. But she also held 48 percent of the stock for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. And the stock paid dividends, between 21 and 79 percent of profits every year from 1869 to 1914. Upon William's death, his wealthy widow got on a train in New Haven and went west until she couldn't go further. She ended up in San Jose, then a burgeoning town still feeling the aftereffects of the gold rush. She bought some land and began building a house—and kept building, and building, and building. When she died in 1922, the house was still under construction: a confusing, ad hoc, and immense mansion of 160 rooms filled with inscrutable architectural choices. Doors open onto walls; staircases go nowhere; halls wind back and forth; rooms are built within rooms. The whole disorienting, labyrinthine mess is now dubbed the Winchester Mystery House. Why did Sarah build it? Well, there's the legend and there's the truth. Here's the legend: Distraught by the deaths of the people closest to her, Sarah became heavily involved with spiritualism. A medium told her the family was cursed by everyone who had been killed by Winchester guns, and that she should go west to build a house for the spirits. If construction ever stopped, the medium said, Sarah would die as well. The house is built in a convoluted fashion in order to throw off the spirits, who apparently were easily confused by switchback hallways and oddly placed doors. The truth? No one knows. Sarah left no journals, she was obsessively reclusive, and very few records exist. But for Pamela Haag, the legend in some sense is the truth. In The Gunning of America, her contentious and aggravating but still ultimately interesting book, the Yale-educated historian traces the stories of American "gun capitalists," most prominently the Winchester family, and the businesses they built. "We hear a great deal about gun owners, but what do we know about their makers?" she asks. Haag tells Sarah's story because "Oliver Winchester produced the rifles that contributed to many a gun legend; and, through her creation, Sarah became a counter-legend to the gun legends.…Oliver's mad ambition and Sarah's mad conscience belong to the same story and culture." More bluntly, she tells the legend because it fits her narrative. Haag believes that companies like Winchester did not merely manufacture guns but manufactured the demand for them; if this created a crisis of conscience for Sarah, Haag feels, so should it now for the nation. Although Haag often papers over the factual lacunae in Sarah's tale with words like "may have" and "perhaps" and "probably," she doesn't always do so. Readers have to be astute to differentiate between solid facts and Haag's guesswork, as during a bizarre multi-page foray into what Sarah's visit to a Boston medium "may have" looked like. And even when she includes such caveats, she can really lay it on: "Sarah may have heard the cogs of justice click into place. The spirits had exacted retribution against Sarah—and the Winchester name—by taking Will's life, and Annie's, and the lives of all her babies, to atone for those killed by their rifles." She should have added, "or at least that's what some unsubstantiated and biased sources say." Hundreds of passages could have used a similar disclaimer. Haag's book is not an anti-gun diatribe. But from the outset, she confesses that guns are foreign to her; she admits to having never owned or shot a gun when she began working on the book, and many of her word choices—a reference to America's "intractable gun problem," for example—bet[...]

Friday A/V Club: ABC, LSD, and the CIA

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 13:15:00 -0400

(image) Watergate and the other scandals of the '70s sparked a surge in skepticism toward the country's most powerful institutions. Here is an artifact from that era: a 1979 ABC News special called Mission: Mind Control. The hour-long documentary examines the CIA and Army's attempts to master brainwashing and other sorts of behavioral manipulation, included unethical experiments in which unwitting subjects were dosed with psychedelic drugs.

The show occasionally lapses into TV-news goofiness—at one point, as psychedelic imagery flashes on the screen, we're told that what we're watching is "considered by many experts to be the closest illustration of the effects of a hallucinogenic"—but at its core it's a hard-hitting piece of journalism. It was preserved, interestingly, by the National Archives and Records Administration, which did not bother to remove the commercials from the broadcast. So along with a harrowing exposé of official crimes, you get to see Will Rogers Jr. pitching Grape Nuts and a promo for a Geraldo Rivera report on a biker gang (featuring "dope, death, and the Bandidos"). Enjoy:

src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Mexico Needs Independence From the Cronies Who Hold Its Economy Back

Fri, 16 Sep 2016 17:30:00 -0400

Marking the occasion of Mexican Independence Day (which is not Cinco de Mayo but is actually celebrated today, September 16), David Frum of The Atlantic has an interesting look at the successes and problems plaguing the Mexican people and their government as the country enters its 207th year as an independent state. Frum has a point to make here—which I'll get to in a moment—but libertarians and anyone who takes an interest in comparative analyses of government will find that the most interesting part of the piece has to do with how Mexico and the United States took divergent courses in the two-ish centuries since their respective tossing-offs of European powers. The Mexican Revolution was nothing like the American one. It failed, at least as a populist movement. The agitators of the revolution—Mexico's equivalent of Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the rest—were captured and executed shortly after the September 16, 1810, uprisings that are celebrated today. Mexico actually achieved its independence from Spain more than a decade later after a long process of colonial reforms were approved by the imperial government in Madrid. Suppose there had never been a Declaration of Independence drafted in the summer of 1776, but that the 13 colonies had gained independence by an act of Parliament sometime in the late 1780s—perhaps our national myth would be built around the armed uprisings in Concord and Lexington and we'd celebrate our Independence Day on each April 19. That's basically what Mexico does. In Mexico, ties with Spain were finally severed because Mexican aristocrats—think the bad guys in any Zorro flick—decided to rebel against the Spanish throne rather than risk losing their high economic and social status as liberalizing reforms spread across the Atlantic from a post-French-Revolution era Europe. A decade after putting down a populist revolution, they became the revolutionaries—not for high-minded ideals like many of the revolutionaries of that era, but rather to preserve their system of cronyism built atop an imperial edifice that subjugated native Mexicans (and many of their fellow settlers too)—and then constructed a founding myth that eulogized the failed 1810 rebellion. As Frum puts it: "Imagine that it had been Benedict Arnold who achieved American independence, pronouncing himself Emperor Benedict I, banning all religions except the Church of England, and concentrating land ownership in the hands of a few grand Tory families." The differences in the two nations' origins are reflected in the last two centuries, during which Mexico has struggled to shake-off the control of crony elites. Frum takes note of how that dynamic has prevented Mexico from taking the same path towards freedom and prosperity followed by the United State and Canada. Even after the last 50 years, when Mexico began to loosen state controls over the economy, it's still burdened by disincentives to competition that benefit a handful of ultra-rich at the expense of the rest of the country. "Overcharges by the country's telecommunications monopoly are estimated to cost 2 percent of Mexico's total economic output. That monopoly earns profits almost double those of its U.S. and Canadian counterparts," Frum writes. "Unsurprisingly, the monopoly's owner, Carlos Slim, ranks among the world's richest men. The Mexican state-dominated energy industry also remains staggeringly inefficient, paralyzed by privileged labor unions and starved of investment by a Mexican government that demanded the energy monopoly Pemex pay its profits into the national treasury, rather than use them to maintain fields and modernize equipment." Those aristocrats who rebelled against Spain to maintain their high standing in Mexican society never really went away. Instead of owning vast stretches of land worked by poor peasants, today they run the country's telecommunications companies, energy monopolies and government contra[...]

Today in History: Socialist Eugene Debs Sentenced to Prison for Giving Anti-War Speech

Wed, 14 Sep 2016 11:45:00 -0400

(image) On this day in 1918 federal authorities sentenced the socialist leader Eugene Debs to serve 10 years in federal prison for violating the Espionage Act, a 1917 law that made it a federal offense to interfere with U.S. involvement in World War I. How did Debs run afoul of this notorious law? He delivered an anti-war speech to a crowd of leftists out for an afternoon picnic in Canton, Ohio.

Debs' speech was plainly protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But constitutional fidelity was not exactly a defining characteristic of the Woodrow Wilson administration, which helped to craft the Espionage Act and then used the vile law to silence political opponents. To make matters worse, the U.S. Supreme Court also failed to take the First Amendment at its word. Writing for the Court in the unfortunate case of Debs v. United States, Progressive hero Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. brushed aside Debs' First Amendment arguments and upheld his preposterous conviction.

By 1919 World War I was over and U.S. troops began returning home. But Debs still languished in prison, his health faltering. President Wilson, whose health was in even worse shape, came under pressure to pardon the ailing Debs. But Wilson flatly refused to free the political prisoner. As H.L. Mencken, an outspoken critic of what he termed the "Wilson hallucination" put it, "confronted, on his death-bed, with the case of poor Debs, all his instincts compelled [Wilson] to keep Debs in jail." President Warren G. Harding finally pardoned Debs in 1921.

The case of Debs v. United States went down nearly a century ago, but it still contains some useful lessons for the present day. Foremost among them is the lesson of what can happen when the government and the courts stop respecting the First Amendment.

When Anti-Left and Anti-Right Repression Combine

Wed, 14 Sep 2016 10:00:00 -0400

David Beito and Marcus Witcher begin their paper in the latest Independent Review with a familiar-sounding story about a witch-hunting 1950s congressional committee demanding that a witness name names: Nobody was quite sure what Edward A. Rumely would say in testimony before the U.S House Select Committee on Lobbying in 1950. Would he name names, plead the Fifth Amendment, or defy the committee and thus risk possible jail time? Rumely chose defiance, declaring, "I will not give you the names of people who have bought our books. You are invading our constitutional rights." Instead of the Fifth, he pleaded the First Amendment. Even before this encounter, the chairman of the House committee, Frank Buchanan, had warned that the unfriendly witness risked a contempt resolution. He vowed not to "permit Mr. Rumely or his organization to divert this hearing into an argument over constitutional rights." It may sound like a Hollywood reenactment of the McCarthy era, but the Buchanan Committee wasn't hunting reds—not yet, anyway. Rumely was the co-founder of the Committee to Uphold Constitutional Government, a group that had been launched to stop Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing scheme and had gone on to oppose much of Roosevelt and Truman's policy agendas. The people Rumely was refusing to identify were the people who had purchased his group's books in bulk. The Buchanan Committee was investigating "lobbies," and it wanted to know who was buying the books on the grounds that this would reveal who Rumely's financial backers were. Beito and Witcher frame the Buchanan Committee's probe as the last act of the first Brown Scare, Leo Ribuffo's term for the '30s/'40s hunt for subversives on the right. But by the end of the story, they note, the congressmen were red-baiting as well as brown-baiting. Eager to prove its balance, the committee decided to investigate the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a clash that culminated with the committee demanding that the group reveal the donors who had contributed to the CRC's defense of a black man facing execution in Jim Crow Mississippi. Along the way, one Georgia congressman denounced CRC witness William Patterson as a "black son of a bitch" and a "chocolate covered Communist." Transpartisan alliances formed. When Congress considered a resolution to hold Rumely in contempt, the opposition came from conservatives—and from Vito Marcantonio, the most left-wing man in the House. When Patterson was the one facing a contempt resolution, several southern Democrats switched sides and supported the measure, but the opposition that remained was still a radical/conservative coalition. Both resolutions passed, but the Supreme Court eventually ruled in Rumely's favor, a precedent that proved useful to people in other parts of the spectrum. "Joseph McCarthy's leftist targets cited United States v. Rumely when refusing to name names," Beito and Witcher note. And "in NAACP v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court cited United States v. Rumely when it upheld the NAACP's right to deny the state of Alabama the names of its members." It's a largely forgotten chapter in the history of civil liberties, and it should be especially engrossing to anyone interested in how anti-left and anti-right repression can feed on each other. I've barely scratched the surface of the story; to read the whole thing, go here.[...]

Brickbat: A Big Furor

Wed, 14 Sep 2016 04:00:00 -0400

(image) The owner of a pub in Bavaria faces up to four years in prison after investigators found bottles of Führer Wine, with images of Adolf Hitler on the labels, in his pub. Officers say the man has no links to the far-right. He says he received the wine as gift and thought it was funny. The wine is part of a series of wines from an Italian winery with historical images on the label.

Alexander Hamilton May Rule Broadway, But He Was No Banking Genius

Thu, 08 Sep 2016 21:07:00 -0400

Larry White, avatar of the libertarian tradition of advocacy and scholarship regarding "free banking," takes the enormous revival in popularity of Broadway sensation and founding father Alexander Hamilton as a teaching moment about how state monopoly banking wasn't a genius innovation of its time. None other than former Federal Reserve chieftain Ben Bernanke (who tends to overrate the historical wisdom and necessity of the central banking he served and is as stained by politics as can be) avers, "Hamilton was without doubt the best and most foresighted economic policymaker in U.S. history." Why? Partly because he helped shove through "the chartering in 1791 of the First Bank of the United States, which was to serve as a central bank and would be a precursor of the Federal Reserve System." The tricky thing about that First Bank, says White from his free banking perspective, is that it was granted a state monopoly on interstate branch banking. (States at that time did not let out-of-state banks operate branches in their state.) White insists that "Creating a legal monopoly where open competition could and should prevail is hardly a mark of good or foresighted economic policy." Even the evidence potentially available to Hamilton at the time would have indicated aspects of his error: A more wholesome, solid, and beneficial credit system could be observed in Scotland at the time, with free entry into nationwide branch banking. Hamilton's "masterpiece" was oblivious to the benefits of competition in banking, much less the separation of banking and state. In his banking policy views, as in his tariff policy views, Hamilton was a retrograde mercantilist. Adam Smith knew the score, and Hamilton should have gotten the point from him, as per this from Wealth of Nations: The late multiplication of banking companies in both parts of the United Kingdom, an event by which many people have been much alarmed, instead of diminishing, increases the security of the public. … By dividing the whole circulation into a greater number of parts, the failure of any one company, an accident which, in the course of things, must sometimes happen, becomes of less consequence to the public. This free competition, too, obliges all bankers to be more liberal in their dealings with their customers, lest their rivals should carry them away. In general, if any branch of trade, or any division of labour, be advantageous to the public, the freer and more general the competition, it will always be the more so. Some of Hamilton's academic cheerleaders note that he had read Smith, so obviously "Hamilton either didn't understand Smith's policy message — the more banks competing the better — or rejected it as not helpful to his own mission of empowering the federal government, for which his chosen means was to forge an alliance between the government and a new privileged financial elite." Hamilton, as great a showman as we now know he was, was in fact not far-seeing but behind the times in "pushing for an exclusive nationwide bank with a sweetheart government deal. He was...a persuasive second-hand dealer in discredited mercantilist ideas. A quick explanation on how and why too many mainstream economists and historians overprivilege the wonders and necessity of central banking of the sort of which Hamilton is a patron saint.[...]

Anarchy, Swamp, and Utopia

Thu, 08 Sep 2016 15:20:00 -0400

In Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed, the anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott explores the idea of nonstate spaces. In such regions, he writes in Art, "owing largely to geographical obstacles, the state has particular difficulty in establishing and maintaining its authority." Those obstacles can take many shapes—Scott mentions "swamps, marshes, mangrove coasts, deserts, volcanic margins, and even the open sea"—but the result is the same: They become havens "for peoples resisting or fleeing the state." It sounds exotic, and the territory that Art ends up discussing in detail—a vast Asian area known as Zomia—is far from America. But such spaces have appeared here in the United States too. The Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina and Virgina is, as its name suggests, an unforgiving landscape. But it was also a refuge for slaves and for others fleeing authority. Stories have long circulated about maroon colonies in the swamp, but for obvious reasons it's hard to assemble a history of a people who avoided outsiders and didn't leave a written record. There are scattered references in various historical sources, and the swamp people occasionally turn up in works of literature, such as Dred, Harriet Beecher Stowe's follow-up to Uncle Tom's Cabin. The eccentric historian Hugo Prosper Leaming wrote a dissertation on the subject in the '70s, but Leaming was given to speculative fancies—some of his other work has been soundly debunked—and he shouldn't be taken as the last word on anything, fun though he is to read. The swamp eventually turned up in anarchist texts too, such as James Koehnline's prose-poem "The Legend of the Great Dismal Maroons." But Koehnline didn't pretend to be doing anything akin to conventional scholarship. He was sketching out an imaginative secret-history tale of Masonic conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, of utopian autonomous enclaves and a long war for freedom. Here's an excerpt: By 1708 political forces in England had determined that the time had arrived to develop North Carolina as a commercial plantation slavery colony. This necessitated a full-scale war against the old settlers, which was followed by a full-scale war with their allies, the Tuscarora nation. The British declared victory and established their colony. The Maroons never admitted defeat. They retreated to the depths of the Great Dismal Swamp and from their sanctuary waged a 160-year guerrilla war against slavery. In the end, they won. They fought alongside the British under Lord Dunmore in the revolution, because Dunmore promised an end to slavery and gave them uniforms with a special sash that read "Freedom For Slaves". They fought as "Buffalo Soldiers" on the side of the Union in the Civil War, holding all the surrounding territory without army support. In between, they sent out continuous raiding parties to free slaves and discourage slavers. They established an extensive communication system throughout the upper south through a network of plantation preachers and conjuremen and women. The swamp had been considered a holy place by the Indians since time immemorial. It was now doubly so for the slaves and Maroons. It's a great story, but it's more like a William Burroughs or Robert Anton Wilson novel than a social history of the swamp. If you want to look past that romantic vision to see how those liberated slaves actually lived in that harsh marshy world, it won't get you far. But gradually we're learning more. The September issue of Smithsonian reports that archeologists have been exploring the swamp and doing what they can to reconstruct the lives of the people who lived there: In early 2004, one of the refuge biologists strapped on his waders and brought [the American University archeologist and anthropologist Dan[...]

The Executive Branch Doesn't Need a New Ornament

Thu, 01 Sep 2016 13:30:00 -0400

Should the White House have its own History Squad? The Harvard historian Niall Ferguson and his colleague from the political science department, Graham Allison, think it should. Writing in The Atlantic, the duo calls for a federally funded "Council of Historical Advisers" modeled on the Council of Economic Advisers, with a chair, "two additional members," and "a small professional staff." These court historians would be charged with finding past parallels to current events and then using their discoveries to supply the president with advice: In 2003, to take one example, when President George W. Bush chose to topple Saddam Hussein, he did not appear to fully appreciate either the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims or the significance of the fact that Saddam's regime was led by a Sunni minority that had suppressed the Shiite majority. He failed to heed warnings that the predictable consequence of his actions would be a Shiite-dominated Baghdad beholden to the Shiite champion in the Middle East—Iran. There were indeed historians who made this argument in 2003. But there were also historians who wanted Bush to invade, as Gene Healy points out in a devastating response to Ferguson and Allison. "In fact," he reminds us, "there was a top-flight Middle East scholar, fully up to speed on the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, who had the administration's attention in the run up to the war. That was Bernard Lewis, 'Bush's historian,' who 'deliver[ed] spine-stiffening lectures to Cheney over dinner in undisclosed locations' and pro-war thinkpieces in the Wall Street Journal." If a Council of Historical Advisers had existed in the Bush years, it's easy to imagine the president appointing Lewis to lead it. (As Healy notes, another historian who cheered for the Iraq war was none other than Niall Ferguson.) Lewis, to be sure, is a significant scholar whose work is worth reading, and I say that as someone who often disagrees with him strenuously. But that speaks to a bigger issue. Bernard Lewis' considerable knowledge about what has already happened does not necessarily make him an expert on what will happen. One of the best things about history as a discipline is that it doesn't pretend to be a predictive science—or, indeed, to be any sort of science at all. That isn't a flaw; it's self-awareness. History is certainly useful when making predictions. You can't make sense of the present without knowing about the past, and there is obvious value in finding historical analogs to current events. But Ferguson and Allison seem to be calling for something more: a new discipline they call "applied history," where scholars "find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences." The whole idea smacks of science envy, down to the models they cite: "You might say that applied history is to mainstream history as medical practice is to biochemistry, or engineering is to physics," they write. "But those analogies are not quite right. In the realm of science, there is mutual respect between practitioners and theorists. In the realm of policy, by contrast, there is far too often mutual contempt between practitioners and academic historians." At any rate: If we had a panel of these applied historians at our disposal, and we asked them to look for past parallels to this council, what would they say the consequences of the Ferguson/Allison proposal would be? If they're frank enough to undermine a potential job opportunity—let's pretend, OK?—they may well conclude that the body wouldn't have much impact on the boss's decisions. As Healy writes, "Presidents have mostly used their pet scholars as ambassadors to academia and the chattering classes: they're valued less for their[...]

Frederick Douglass on Capitalism, Slavery, and the 'Arrant Nonsense' of Socialism

Sun, 28 Aug 2016 08:35:00 -0400

In November 1848 a socialist activist gave a speech at the 13th annual meeting of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society. "Mr. Ingliss" began his remarks well enough, reported the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who was present to give a speech of his own that day, "but strangely enough went on in an effort to show that wages slavery is as bad as chattel slavery." Douglass soon became infuriated with the socialist speaker. "The attempts to place holding property in the soil—on the same footing as holding property in man, was most lame and impotent," Douglass declared. "And the wonder is that anyone could listen with patience to such arrant nonsense." Frederick Douglass heard a lot of arrant nonsense from American socialists in those days. That's because most socialists thought the anti-slavery movement had its priorities all wrong. As the left-wing historian Carl Guarneri once put it, most antebellum socialists "were hostile or at least indifferent to the abolitionist appeal because they believed that it diverted attention from the serious problems facing northern workers with the onset of industrial capitalism." The true path to social reform, the socialists said, was the path of anti-capitalism. But Douglass would have none of that. "To own the soil is no harm in itself," he maintained. "It is right that [man] should own it. It is his duty to possess it—and to possess it in that way in which its energies and properties can be made most useful to the human family—now and always." Douglass had no patience for socialism because Douglass championed the set of ideas that have come to be known under the label of classical liberalism. He stood for Lockean natural rights, racial equality, and economic liberty in a free labor system. At the very heart of his worldview was the principle of self-ownership. "You are a man, and so am I," Douglass told his old master. "In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living." Referring to his first paying job after his escape from bondage, Douglass wrote: "I was now my own master—a tremendous fact." For Douglass, that tremendous fact of self-ownership necessarily included both the freedom to compete in the economic marketplace and the right to enjoy the fruits of his own labors. Unsurprisingly, Douglass's individualistic, market-oriented definition of liberty put him at odds with the socialist creed. The abolitionist-turned-socialist John A. Collins offers a telling contrast. A one-time colleague of both Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, Collins went on a fundraising trip to England on behalf of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in the 1840s and returned home a devotee of the English socialist George Henry Evans. The "right of individual ownership in the soil and its products," Collins declared, are "the great cause of causes, which makes man practically an enemy to his species." Collins came to think that private property was the root of all evil. He didn't remain much of an abolitionist after that. "At antislavery conventions," the historian John L. Thomas has noted, "Collins took a perfunctory part, scarcely concealing his impatience until the end of the meeting when he could announce that a socialist meeting followed at which the real and vital questions of the day would be discussed." Perhaps the most significant left-wing attacks on the abolitionists at that time came in the pages of The Phalanx, a journal devoted to spreading the ideas of the French socialist Charles Fourier. "The Abolition Party," The Phalanx complained in an unsigned 1843 editorial, "seems to think that nothing else is false in our social organization, and that slavery is the only social evil to be [...]

Alcohol Prohibition Was a Dress Rehearsal for the War on Drugs

Thu, 25 Aug 2016 14:10:00 -0400

"The war on alcohol and the war on drugs were symbiotic campaigns," says Harvard historian Lisa McGirr, author of The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State. "Those two campaigns emerged together, [and] they had the same shared...logic. Many of the same individuals were involved in both campaigns."


Did alcohol prohibition of the 1920s ever really come to an end, or did it just metastasize into something far more destructive and difficult to abolish—what we casually refer to as "the war on drugs?" McGirr argues that our national ban on booze routed around its own repeal via the 21st Amendment. Ultimately, Prohibition transformed into a worldwide campaign against the drug trade.

The ties between drug and alcohol prohibition run deep. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was established in 1930, only three years prior to Prohibition's repeal. The FBN employed many of the same officials as the Federal Bureau of Prohibition. And both shared institutional spaces as independent entities within the U.S. Treasury Department. "In some ways," observes McGirr, "the war never ended."

Runs 12:42 minutes.

Edited by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Jim Epstein and Meredith Bragg.

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All Aboard This History Piece on the Queen Mary

Fri, 19 Aug 2016 15:00:00 -0400

Mighty Ship at War: The Queen Mary. Smithsonian Channel. Sunday, August 21, 8 p.m. The most interesting thing about the Queen Mary, which for several decades was the largest passenger ship ever built, is not the 20-foot propellers so perfectly balanced that they could be spun with a flick of the wrist; or the 35,000 tons of metal that went into its construction; or the 10 million rivets that hold the whole thing together. It's not even the still-mysterious question of how the ship became the springboard for the very first cheap-shot joke about Joan Collins. (Q. What's the difference between Joan Collins and the Queen Mary? A. It takes a few tugs to get the Queen Mary out of her slip.) No, the really special thing about the Queen Mary is that it was one of the epic government bailout boondoggles of the 20th century. In 1931, barely a year into the ship's construction, the Cunard line went broke. The British dutifully forked over a loan of a staggering 9.5 million pounds—that's $684 million in 2016 dollars—to keep the company afloat (dreadful pun not intended until I actually typed it). Which, as the documentary Mighty Ship at War: The Queen Mary notes, saved a whopping 2,000 jobs—at $342,000 a pop, I can only conclude that shipping lines employ a lot more neurosurgeons than I was aware—and, more importantly, England's image: "Great Britain was at risk of losing its reputation as the world's leading maritime nation." Its wide-eyed admiration of pork-slinging statecraft aside, Mighty Ship at War is a peppy and quite watchable little documentary about an oddball chapter in maritime history: the conversion of luxury liners into troop transports during World War II. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, unleashing German submarine wolfpacks on commercial shipping in the Atlantic, the cruise ships were drafted just like able-bodied men. They even got the maritime equivalent of a GI haircut, repainted a dull naval gray while their posh staterooms were ripped out to make way for towering stacks of bunks. Even before its military makeover, Mighty Ship at War relates, the Queen Mary had found its business model remade by Europe's gathering war clouds. Because the ship's London-to-New York route included a stop in Cherbourg, France, it became the escape route of choice for many Jews fleeing Europe. Even families of modest means often traveled in plutocratic splendor, blowing their life savings on first-class tickets, because the Germans would confiscate any money or valuables the refugees tried to carry with them. "Give the money to the Brits, not the damn Nazis," one refugee who made the crossing as a small child remembers his parents saying. By early 1939, every London departure of the Queen Mary was sold out. The soldiers who followed the refugees, heading to England as part of the forces that would invade first North Africa and then France, didn't have such rococo surroundings. The Queen Mary was stripped for action, carrying an entire division (between 15,000 and 16,000 troops) at a time, the men crammed together in a fashion that would make sardine cans seem spacious—especially at night, when everybody had to stay below deck so the glow of their ubiquitous cigarettes wouldn't call the attention of enemy aircraft. There were so many men aboard that they could only be fed twice a day; by the time they finished filing through the mess lines for breakfast, it was time for dinner. The ship's swimming pools and cocktail lounges had been removed, of course, and military police had even been instructed to keep the men from shooting dice or playing cards. "That didn't work out too well," recalls one American soldier who made the crossing. The MPs had[...]