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Published: Sun, 19 Nov 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 19 Nov 2017 03:56:56 -0500


Brickbat: Aid and Comfort

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 04:00:00 -0500

(image) A South Korean court has fined Park Yu-ha, a professor at Sejong University, $8,900 for defaming comfort women, those women who worked at Japanese military brothels during World War II. In her book The Comfort Women of the Empire, Park suggested that some of the women may have willingly prostituted themselves and were not forced into sexual slavery and that some may have even formed emotional bonds with Japanese soldiers.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting Turns 50

Tue, 07 Nov 2017 12:23:00 -0500

Fifty years ago this week, Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the law that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I've been writing about the CPB for two of its five decades; here's a sampling of those stories: • "With Friends Like These" (July 24, 1997): A paper I wrote for Cato on the ways the CPB has made independent, listener-funded, volunteer-driven community radio stations blander and less accountable to their communities. This is out of date in all sorts of ways, but the history I discuss is still relevant. And there may be some broader lessons in my explanation of a cycle built into the CPB's subsidies: The limited amount of money the state has to offer requires it to discriminate on some rational basis—if the CPB dispensed funds to every small community station in America, it would have to divide its budget so finely that no station would receive enough money to justify the corporation's existence. So the CPB strives to direct its money to the stations with the most powerful signals and the largest measured audiences and shies away from financing more than one outlet in a single market. But the CPB requirements encourage stations to grow and adopt "professional" values, putting further pressure on the CPB's budget and forcing it to further restrict the flow of money, refueling the cycle yet again. If the CPB's budget is expanding anyway—as it did during the Carter years, for example—the cycle might be slowed and the problem concealed. If the budget is contracting, as it is today, the problem only gets worse. Under any circumstances, the professionalization and expansion cycle is built into the federal subsidies; it cannot be eliminated by minor reforms or by putting a friendlier group of bureaucrats in charge. • "It Didn't Begin with Sesame Street" (October 1997): I review Ralph Engelman's book Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History. Among other things, the article discusses the birth of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; it also looks at the handful of public TV stations that existed before the CPB, when some social engineers at the Ford Foundation argued that "educational television" (as it was then known) could be a force for social uplift, "an instrument for the development of community leaders," even "a form of psychotherapy." • "Independent Airwaves" (March 2001): I interview a man with a plan to "restructure public broadcasting as an independent public trust." His group was split between people who wanted a completely independent institution and people who just wanted to rearrange how the government gives broadcasters money. • Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (2001): The CPB isn't the only topic I cover in this book, but it's a significant part of it. • "The Way to Sesame Street" (November 2009): For Sesame Street's 40th birthday, I looked at the complicated social legacy of a show that "reflected both an antipathy to commercialism and a fascination with commercials, which served not just as a source for its parodies but as a model for its programming." We had to make some cuts to the piece to fit it into a two-page spread; I posted some of the outtakes, including the tale of the time an executive mistook Jim Henson for a member of the Weather Underground, on my personal blog. • "Radio Theater" (February 2011): Republicans have repeatedly threatened to defund the CPB. Not only do these standoffs always end with the institution still standing, but in the long run its budget keeps growing. This article takes a tour through the history of those fights, arguing that the real point of these exercises isn't to cut the broadcasters loose. It's to use the threat of cutting them loose to whip them into shape. The system was still standing after Nixon made his threats, but all save one of the programs he found objectionable went off the air. After the Gingrich-era battle ended, the Republican pundits Fred Barnes, Peggy Noonan, and Ben Wattenberg all landed gigs at PBS—and follow[...]

Brickbat: Susanna, Don't You Cry

Mon, 06 Nov 2017 04:00:00 -0500

(image) The Pittsburgh Arts Commission has unanimously recommended removing a 117-year-old statue of Stephen Foster, the "Father of American Music," from a public park. The statue depicts him next to a black slave playing a banjo.

Communism Turns 100

Wed, 01 Nov 2017 00:15:00 -0400

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of one of the worst mistakes ever made: the Communist revolution in Russia. Communist regimes went on to kill about 100 million people. Most died in famines after socialist tyrants forced people to practice inefficient collective farming. Millions of others were executed in political purges. Yet when the Russian Revolution happened, people both inside and outside Russia were excited. Crowds cheered Lenin. No longer would nobles rule; no longer would capitalists exploit workers. Now the people would prosper together. British journalist Theodore Rothstein wrote, "The undivided sway of the Imperialist nightmare is at an end... (there will be) rule of the labouring classes." But you can't have government plan every aspect of people's lives and expect things to go well. Instead, you get bureaucratic planning commissions and secret police. That won't stop some Americans from celebrating Communism's anniversary. A day of anti-Trump protests is scheduled for Nov. 4, and I'm sure some protestors will wave hammer-and-sickle flags. Some will wear Che Guevara shirts. A few commentators will call the protesters "idealistic" but impractical. They shouldn't. We should call them supporters of mass murder. Lenin ordered the hanging of 100 property owners at the very start of the Revolution, saying people needed to see the deaths of "landlords, rich men, bloodsuckers." Mass murder and starvation rapidly increased the death toll after that. It wasn't exactly what philosopher Karl Marx had in mind—but it shouldn't have surprised anyone. Marx's writing is filled with comparisons of capitalists to werewolves and other predators who must be destroyed. Marx admitted that capitalism is productive but said that "capital obtains this ability only by constantly sucking in living labor as its soul, vampire-like." Even as the Russian regime killed millions, some journalists and intellectuals covered up the crimes. Stalin kept most media out, so few Americans knew that millions were starving, but New York Times writer Walter Duranty saw it first-hand. Yet he "covered up Stalin's crimes," says Tom Palmer of the Atlas Network, a group that promotes free market ideas around the world. Because Duranty wanted to support "the cause," he wrote that "report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda." Duranty "saw the truckloads of bodies," says Palmer, yet "he wrote on the front page of The New York Times how wonderful everything was." He even got a Pulitzer Prize for it. In some ways, times haven't changed that much. This year, the Times ran a series of essays commemorating the anniversary of Russian Communism, including one piece arguing that sex was better in the Soviet Union because the Revolution destroyed macho capitalist culture. At least The New York Times eventually admitted that Duranty's work was "some of the worst reporting in this newspaper," but the Pulitzer committee never withdrew its prize. Communism kills wherever it's practiced. But people still people believe. Making a video on Communism's hundredth anniversary, I interviewed Lily Tang Williams, who grew up under the regime in China. "Mao was like a god to me," she recounts. "In the morning, we were encouraged to chant and to confess to dear Chairman Mao." Under Mao, Williams nearly starved. "I was so hungry. My uncle taught me how to trap rats. But the problem is, everybody is trying to catch rats. Rats run out, too." Still, she says she was so brainwashed by Communist propaganda that she "cried my eyes out when Mao died." But then, "when I was college student, I met a U.S. exchange student... He showed me a pocket Constitution and Declaration of Independence. A light bulb came on!" For the first time, she realized, "I have rights... natural rights that cannot be taken away. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." She escaped to the United States. Now she says her mission in life is to teach Americans the importance of liberty. I t[...]

Corporations Are Not As Powerful As You Think

Tue, 31 Oct 2017 07:00:00 -0400

Concern over the power of large corporations is back in vogue. From Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) on the left to Fox News' Tucker Carlson on the right, politicians and opinion makers worry about the influence of U.S. corporate giants on politics as well as on the private lives of ordinary Americans. People are concerned about Facebook's censorship of content, Twitter's banning of controversial users, and Google's possession of staggering amounts of information about users' search histories, shopping habits, etc. As a libertarian, I say, pish-tosh! If you don't like a particular company, find an alternative provider or live without a particular service altogether. Alas, most people are not libertarians or as closely wedded to the sanctity of the contract as the latter tend to be. The good news is that corporations are not as powerful as most people think. Before I get to that, a little background is in order. Until the 19th century, most economic output came from family farms in rural areas and artisan families in towns. As such, the only serious concentration of wealth and power was in the hands of the landed aristocracy and a few wealthy bankers. The latter came from small Italian city-states or were Jewish. As such, they had little political muscle and their wealth was subjected to periodic expropriations. As with so many other things, the Industrial Revolution upended the old order. The rise of the factory and large-scale manufacturing put massive amounts of money in the hands of a new breed of men—the Industrialists. By the end of the 19th century, Western Europe and North America could boast a coterie of self-made millionaires, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, Edward L. Doheny, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan. The ruling classes were caught by surprise, and it is telling that a disproportionate number of early socialists were aristocrats. Although they comprised a mere 1.7 percent of the population of the Russian Empire, 22 percent of Bolsheviks belonged to the landed gentry. And Russia was not an outlier. The French Emperor Napoleon III once worried about the Empire's prospects, quipping, "The Empress is a legitimist; Morny is an Orleanist; Prince Napoleon is a republican; I am a socialist...; only Persigny is an Imperialist—and he is mad!" As George Watson argued in his The Lost Literature of Socialism, "Socialism above all meant a horror of the new age: the age of machines and high finance. It was more than conservative. It was reactionary and nostalgic, and in the long march from status to contract it demanded a return to the familiar and time honored world of status." It was not just the wealth of the industrialists that the aristocrats envied and the loss of the nobility's relative status that the latter bemoaned. At the end of the 19th century, no one knew just how large corporations could get. Many people simply assumed that corporations would continue to grow indefinitely. Concern about the drift of the corporate behemoth toward a monopoly gave rise to the Progressive Movement in the United States—a bipartisan phenomenon as witnessed by its two leading lights, Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. Unfortunately, the Progressives have not found time to evaluate the logic of, and the empirical evidence for, their concern over corporate power in the last 100 years. And so it fell to Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute to do that for them. In a fascinating article, "Fortune 500 firms 1955 v. 2017: Only 60 remain, thanks to the creative destruction that fuels economic prosperity," Perry looked at the changes in the composition of the Fortune 500 firms between 1955 and 2017. According to Perry, "only 60 companies… appear in both lists. In other words, fewer than 12 percent of the Fortune 500 companies included in 1955 were still on the list 62 years later in 2017, and 88 percent of the companies from 1955 have either g[...]

The Insatiable Utopia

Sun, 29 Oct 2017 06:00:00 -0400

The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine, Princeton University Press, 1,100 pages, $39.95 In February 1917, a 30-year-old Bolshevik named Valerian Osinsky wrote to his 22-year-old mistress about a coming revolution that would wipe away czarism and deliver what Christianity couldn't: the kingdom of heaven on earth. "Only in the world of insatiable utopia," he wrote, "will the simplest ethical rules become real and free from exceptions and contradictions." Twenty-one years later, he would be executed as an "enemy of the people" for his blasphemies against the Soviet Union. Stories like that abound in the Berkeley historian Yuri Slezkine's 1,100-page epic, The House of Government, which chronicles the lives of elite Bolsheviks and their families from their early days of revolutionary awakening through the overthrow of the czar, the building of "the dictatorship of the proletariat," Joseph Stalin's Great Terror, and their children's loss of faith. Divided into three volumes, The House of Government isn't just history. It's art that self-consciously, and successfully, mimics Tolstoy's War and Peace and Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. By the end it's also a horror story of grotesque proportions, as the "insatiable utopia" devours its own. The Bolsheviks weren't just ideologues, Slezkine argues at the outset. They were "millenarian sectarians preparing for the apocalypse" who "managed to take over Rome long before their faith could become an inherited habit." After showing them prevail in the revolution, the book centers around the House of Government—Europe's largest apartment building, reserved for the "high priests of the Revolution." It was, Slezkine writes, "a place where revolutionaries came home and the revolution came to die." These priests of "earthly salvation" made no vow of poverty. The House of Government, which ended up costing over 30 million rubles and was built in what was known as Moscow's "Swamp," was equipped with all the latest amenities—"a kitchen with a gas stove, garbage chute, exhaust fan, and fold-away bunk for the maid," plus extra living space not afforded the typical worker. The House of Government also conveniently contained public spaces, such as a cafeteria, a movie theater, a child care center, a laundry, a bank, a library, and a gym. That wasn't the end of the luxuries they allowed themselves. Elite party members relied on chauffeurs and made full use of the aristocratic estates, or dachas, "expropriated" from the "enemies of the working class." A prince's country property became "Lenin Rest Home No. 1"; built "in the Italian style," the manor could accommodate 150 guests and included a 27-acre park and a large pond with a motorboat. The House of Government, the elite told themselves, was a transitory moment in socialism's destruction of the family—"halfway between bourgeois individualism and communist collectivism," summarizes Slezkine. Under socialism, according to the communal house theorist L.M. Sabsovich, "children will no longer be 'the property' of their parents; they will be 'the property' of the state, which will take upon itself the solution of all problems involved in child rearing." In practice, unsurprisingly, these elite Bolsheviks loved and spoiled their children. The contradictions of Bolshevism weren't just confined to the elite's way of life. Stalin's first five-year plan, which sought to industrialize the Soviet Union and establish the economic preconditions for communism, relied "on forced labor as much as it did on 'genuine enthusiasts'" of the working and peasant classes, writes Slezkine. Workers and peasants didn't want to build socialism, and so labor shortages meant that low-level criminals and political prisoners would. According to Matvei Berman, the head of the Gulag system, a convict cost the state approximately $500 rubles a year. "Why on earth should workers and peasants feed this ar[...]

For Heaven's Sake, Just Release the Rest of the JFK Files

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 10:30:00 -0400

Yesterday the government was supposed to declassify its final files on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That was the deadline set by the JFK Records Act of 1992, but there was an escape hatch: The president had the power to withhold some of the documents on national security grounds. After much vacillating, Donald Trump decided at the last minute to keep some files classified.

A day later, he's still vacillating. The president is "unhappy" about what happened, according to CNN:

(image) President Donald Trump wanted more of the documents related to President John F. Kennedy's assassination released. But when the final requests from government agencies hit his desk on Thursday, there wasn't enough time to go through the hundreds of records the agencies wanted to keep secret, two US officials said.

As the deadline ticked away, Trump was confronted with a choice: release all of the 3,100 records without any redactions, or accept the redactions of intelligence and law enforcement agencies and release 2,800 of those documents.

Trump agreed to the second option, while also requiring agencies to conduct a secondary review of the information they believed should be redacted within 180 days. But Trump was still miffed by his decision. "He was unhappy with the level of redactions," a White House official said, adding that Trump believed the agencies were "not meeting the spirit of the law."

If this is actually true, it should put to rest any Trumpian fears that the "deep state" is trying to depose him. What intelligence agency would want to get rid of a president so easily manipulated?

You don't need to buy any of the conspiracy theories about John F. Kennedy's death to see that this is a historically significant event that still has several open questions around it, especially with regard to Lee Harvey Oswald's trip to Mexico City shortly before the shooting. And you don't need to be personally interested in the topic to be appalled that the feds are still suppressing information about an incident that took place more than half a century ago. (No, I don't buy the halfhearted excuse that the withheld files may include relatively recent documents added to the stockpile in the 1990s. Even if you think those should still be classified, they aren't all that's still classified. For example: Jefferson Morley, author of a new biography of former CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, notes that Angleton's secret Senate testimony from 1975 is among the missing material.)

The deadline for the remaining documents to be reviewed is April 26, 2018. Maybe we'll see more material after that, but I'm not optimistic. If the agencies involved can drag their feet for this long, they can drag them for another six months. In the disappointed words of Gerald Posner, one of the better-known advocates of the lone-assassin theory: "They have only had 25 years to get ready."

Getting the State Out of Marriage

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 06:00:00 -0400

We recently got married. Well, technically, we got married twice. One fine day this spring, we put on nice clothes and publicly performed the rites and rituals recognized by our families and community as a wedding ceremony. As part of the day's events, we signed a Ketubah, the traditional Jewish wedding contract. Historically, the Ketubah included the groom's promise to provide "food, clothing, the necessities of life, and conjugal needs" for the bride, along with a statement of the dowry the bride brought to the marriage. Modern versions are often more egalitarian. Ours included a mutual promise to "work for one another," "live with one another," and "build together a household of integrity." Ketubot are typically beautifully calligraphed works of art, and we spent a lot of time choosing the right text and design for ours. It was witnessed by our rabbi and by two beloved friends. It hangs in our bedroom as a reminder of the commitment we have made to each other. We also got married in the eyes of the law. Our state marriage license was printed at the city-county building on cheap paper after the clerk checked our IDs, filled our names into the anonymous blanks in the same text every other couple has to use, and gave us a pamphlet about syphilis. We had no say in the wording or the witnesses. We keep that license in the safe deposit box at the bank with our mortgage and the titles to our cars. The contrast in the thinking behind our two marriage documents, and in how we have treated them now that we have them, captures the difference between thinking of marriage as a mutual contract and thinking of it as a license from the state. It's the difference between a relationship that requires consent and one that requires permission. If you hang around with libertarians long enough, you'll almost certainly hear someone ask, "Why can't we just get the state out of the marriage business entirely?" Until two years ago, when Obergefell v. Hodges settled the question, you'd occasionally hear a certain stripe of libertarianish conservative call for privatizing marriage too, sometimes on principle and sometimes as a dodge around the question of whether the federal government should recognize gay unions. Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), for instance, has long said, "I don't want my guns or my marriage registered in Washington." The Alabama state legislature has considered proposals that would more or less end the licensing of marriages in the state, presumably not because of a deep commitment to limited government. As libertarians, we would prefer to deal with the government as little as we can, yet we still chose to involve the state in our marriage. The reasons we did so can shed light on the challenges involved in extracting the state from this institution, and also on why such a change might be worthwhile. Cupid by Contract What does it mean in practice to say we want to get the state out of marriage? One problem is that state marital provisions are one-size-fits-all, as with our fill-in-the-names-and-sign-here marriage license. Actual 21st century marriages are much more idiosyncratic—the wide range of pre-nuptial agreements demonstrates this, as does our personalized Ketubah. Many people might want the flexibility in marital arrangements that privatization allows. Writing in Slate in 1997, the Cato Institute's David Boaz imagined a kind of standard contract, much like a standardized will, that would work for many as-is but would also allow for more detailed arrangements. One can even imagine marriage contracts that are renewable at 5- or 10-year intervals, allowing couples to part ways amicably without many of the financial and emotional costs of divorce. Economic arrangements could be varied along a number of dimensions, including considerations for children, agreements about how money will be spent, and worst-case-scenario planning for illness,[...]

The Great Pentagon Exorcism of '67

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 15:10:00 -0400

Fifty years ago tomorrow, thousands of antiwar protesters marched on the Pentagon. Armed troops formed a barrier outside the building; hippies stuck flowers in their weapons. Demonstrators dressed as cheerleaders chanted "Beat Army! Beat Army!" Other protesters tried to storm the structure, with a handful managing to get inside. And some of the political pranksters who would later form the Yippies led a ritual to exorcise the demons from the Pentagon and then levitate it into the air. Abbie Hoffman claimed in Revolution for the Hell of It that his crew had come out to measure the building some time before: "67-68-69-70-" "What do you think you guys are doing? "Measuring the Pentagon. We have to see how many people we need to form a ring around it." "You're what!" "It's very simple. You see, the Pentagon is a symbol of evil in most religions. You're religious aren't you?" "Unh." "Well, the only way to exorcise the evil spirits here is to form a circle around the Pentagon. 87-88-89..." The two scouts are soon surrounded by a corps of guards, FBI agents, soldiers and some mighty impressive brass. "112-113-114-" "Are you guys serious? It's against the law to measure the Pentagon." "Are you guys serious? Show us the law. 237-238-239-240. That does it. Colonel, how much is 240 times 5?" I suspect the dialogue didn't go exactly like that, but it's a funny story anyway. When the day of the demonstration arrived, the levitators chanted "Out, demons, out!" but did not in fact form a ring around the building, prompting Norman Mailer to declare that "exorcism without encirclement was like culinary art without a fire." The protest was captured in The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, a short documentary by the French directors Chris Marker and François Reichenbach. (Marker is probably best known for La Jetee, the science-fiction film that inspired Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys.) Antiwar veterans marching in formation, Castroites carrying "Avenge Che!" signs, Nazi counterdemonstrators, a preacher in a hydraulic crane denouncing communism: They're all here. And of course there's footage of the hippies trying to levitate the building—though not, alas, of the building actually leaving the ground. I guess the camera must have been pointed in a different direction when that happened. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Marker later reused some of that footage in A Grin Without a Cat, his mammoth 1977 documentary about the global New Left and its times. Besides the bigger canvas, there was a substantial change in tone between the two pictures. The Sixth Side of the Pentagon was made by a couple of radical partisans who believed the march had marked a shift from "protest" to "resistance." A Grin Without a Cat was made by a guy who still dreamed of a utopian society but had seen a lot of defeats and betrayals in the last 10 years. Bonus links: For a Washington Post story on the anniversary, go here. For an oral history of the exorcism of the Pentagon, with appearances by everyone from Kenneth Anger to the Fugs, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For another Friday A/V Club with Yippies in it, go here.[...]

Not Even Lincoln Is Spared the Wrath of the Statue Topplers

Mon, 16 Oct 2017 17:00:00 -0400

It began with Confederate monuments, but it was only a matter of time before the history of everyone ever commemorated in America was in dispute. Even Abraham Lincoln. The statue of the 16th president and liberator of slaves at the top of Bascom Hill is one of the most beloved sites on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Graduating students and their families wait in line for hours in the spring to have their pictures taken in Lincoln's lap. Wunk Sheek, an indigenous student group, does not share this sentiment. The group has charged that a statue of Lincoln has no place on campus. "Everyone thinks of Lincoln as the great, you know, freer of slaves, but let's be real: He owned slaves, and as natives, we want people to know that he ordered the execution of native men," Misha Johnson, co-president of fiscal relations for Wunk Sheek told the Daily Cardinal, one of the student newspapers. "Just to have him here at the top of Bascom is just really belittling." It is wrong to say Lincoln ever owned slaves, but he was president during the Dakota War of 1862 and he did authorize the execution on December 26, 1862 of 38 Dakota men out of more than 300 convicted of war crimes in military tribunals. According to College Fix, university administration has said it has no intention of moving Lincoln anywhere. But the school is planning on putting up a handful of signs around campus to "interpret the 12,000 year history" of those who inhabited the land upon which the university was built. Madison's Lincoln has been under siege for a while now. Two years ago, during the height of Black Lives Matter protests, a group, "About Race UW," proposed removing the statue, but the idea never gained traction. Since then the Lincoln statue has been subjected to graffiti decrying all white people as racist and draped in a black tarp after the 2016 election. The UW student government this past Spring approved a resolution to educate the community about Lincoln's oppression of Native Americans, a resolution the administration never took up. Pressure to address racism and white supremacy after the terrible events at Charlottesville, where Neo-Nazis marched in the streets and one counter protester was killed, likely prompted UW Madison students and administrators to renew efforts to address the campus' history, including the Lincoln statue. Week Shunk insists the focus not be turned from Lincoln's part in the Dakota War punishment. The history, like all history, is more complicated than it has been portrayed by the activists. Between 400 and 800 U.S. citizens, 77 U.S. soldiers and more than 150 Dakota Native Americans died, although definitive numbers are hard to find. "Anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on the one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other, I caused a careful examination of the records of trials to be made," Lincoln reportedly told the U.S. Senate after reviewing each trial of the over 300 Dakota men accused of war crimes. The causes leading up to a terrible and bloody war, the treatment of Native Americans after the war, and the fairness of the military tribunals are all valid parts of a larger historical discussion. Portraying Lincoln as a white supremacist who signed off on the execution of Native Americans distorts the discussion. Demanding the Lincoln statue be removed is demanding the discussion be silenced. Answering the demands of activists without any certainty that the complexities and nuances of history will be included reflects a troubling trend. Whether Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, or Lincoln, people need to be exposed to and learn to navigate the complexity of their shared history. Not enough history is required of students. Revising how history is taught in schools and universities is a possible sol[...]

Delaware's Odd, Beautiful, Contentious, Private Utopia

Sat, 14 Oct 2017 06:00:00 -0400

They held a town pageant in Arden, Delaware, on September 5, 1910: a medieval procession with performers dressed as knights, troubadours, pages, and squires. One Ardenite, an anarchist shoemaker named George Brown, played a beggar. This annoyed some of the other players, because no such role had actually been written. But Brown decided to add it to the program anyway, so he dressed in rags, caked himself with mud, and invaded the proceedings, taunting the other characters and demanding alms from the audience. Many "onlookers needed assurance," The Single Tax Review reported, that Brown "was only 'part of the show.'" This was a pattern: Brown liked to talk, and not everyone liked to listen to him. According to the novelist Upton Sinclair, who lived at the time in a little Arden house that his neighbors had dubbed the Jungalow, Brown insisted on "discussing sex questions" at the Arden Economic Club. When the club asked him to cut it out, Brown declared his free-speech right to continue and kept talking until he'd broken up the meeting. He broke up the next meeting too, and finally, Sinclair wrote, "declared it his intention to break up all future meetings." At this point some of the locals wanted to have him arrested for disturbing the peace. But that required outside help, because the town of Arden did not have a police force. In fact, the town of Arden didn't have a government at all. Not, at least, in the usual sense of the word. I should back up and explain a few things. Arden's origins go back to the Delaware Invasion of 1895 and '96, when the Single Tax movement tried to take over the state. The Single Taxers were followers of Henry George, a 19th century economist who argued that government should be financed solely by a tax on land values. No income tax, no sales tax, no tax on the improvements to a property—just one tax on land. The campaigners crisscrossed the state in armbands, knapsacks, and Union Army uniforms, delivering streetcorner speeches and singing Single Tax songs ("Get the landlords off your backs/With our little Single Tax/And there's lots of fun ahead for Delaware!"). More than a few got tossed in jail for their efforts. The invasion was a flop. A disaster, really. Not only did their gubernatorial candidate get only 2.4 percent of the vote, but within a year the movement's foes would insert a provision into the state constitution that made a George-style tax impossible. Unable to achieve their ideas at the ballot box, a group of Georgists decided to take another approach. In 1900 they acquired some farmland outside Wilmington, created what amounted to a community land trust, leased out plots to anyone who wanted to move in, levied rents based on the value of the unimproved land, and used the rent money to pay for public goods. In other words, they set up a private town and enacted the Single Tax program contractually. And with that double experiment in communalism and privatization, Arden was born. I just called Arden a "town," but for its first few years it was essentially a summer resort. (Or a summer camp—many of the part-time residents slept in tents.) But by the end of the decade, particularly after the founders made some tweaks to the lease agreement in 1908, a year-round community had formed. It was a largely lower-middle-class crowd, with a high number of artists and craftsmen; it attracted not just Georgists but other sorts of nonconformists, from socialists to vegetarians. And anarchists, like our sexually explicit friend George Brown, who kept a cottage there with his common-law wife. The Ardenfolk had institutions—the trustees who set the rents had a certain degree of power, and there were regular town meetings too—but they weren't a municipality and they didn't have any police. So in July 1911, aggravated by t[...]

Mr. Smith Goes to Court

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 13:45:00 -0400

America's oldest ongoing civil case began in 1951, when the military sued thousands of Southern California landowners to establish Camp Pendleton's control of their water rights. The move sparked a lot of outrage at the time. The Los Angeles Times, which in those days tended toward a curmudgeonly conservatism, crusaded against it; Reader's Digest joined in too; The Saturday Evening Post ran a story on the subject headlined "The Government's Big Grab." That piece opened with some of the most egregious elements of the tale, like the church that had used just $4.70 worth of water in a month and was nonetheless being told it could be cut off. Then the authors laid out what they saw as the stakes of the story: "if the Federal Government can, by sovereign authority, take California water, then it might, by the same reasoning and authority, take anything anywhere." By the end of the '50s a lot of the smaller landholders had been dropped from the case, and in 1963 a judge ruled largely, though not entirely, against the feds. Since then the saga has seemed less like an apocalyptic fight for freedom and more like an endless stretch of legal trench warfare, as different litigants dispute the precise boundaries of their rights. "This western water rights case will likely outlive us all," The San Diego Union-Tribune concluded last year. But our interest here is in the early days of the conflict, and in one particular property owner who got drawn into the fray. Among the landholders sued by the feds was Frank Capra, the director behind such films as It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe. The Chamber of Commerce and The Los Angeles Times asked Capra to make a movie about the issue, and so he helmed a short documentary called The Fallbrook Story, released in 1952. He kept his name off it, and I can't say I blame him—on an artistic level it may well be the worst thing he ever made. Capra's biographer Joseph McBride wrote that it feels "like a crude parody of a Frank Capra film"; I think McBride is wrong about many things, but not about that. But while The Fallbrook Story is too clumsy to be good art and too romanticized to be solid journalism, it still comes down on the right side of the dispute. And it is, at the very least, a fascinating footnote in the filmmaker's career. Watch it here: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Since this battle pit citizens against the national security state in the feverish early years of the Cold War—and during the Korean hot war at that—you might wonder whether any of the people battling the feds were redbaited. In fact, the era's most infamous redbaiter seems to have sided with the landholders. That San Diego Union-Tribune piece points out that the "Navy's participation in the lawsuit was even investigated by a Senate subcommittee helmed by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, known for his reckless Cold War accusations, on grounds that there was a previous order prohibiting the use of Navy funds to prosecute the case." McCarthy, of course, was not a guy who let his fear of communism keep him from picking fights with the military, a fact that eventually led to his doom. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For other installments featuring Frank Capra, go here and here.)[...]

The Great James Buchanan Conspiracy

Sun, 01 Oct 2017 12:00:00 -0400

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean, Viking, 334 pages, $28 The board of education in Brown v. Board of Education—the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated American public schools—was located in Topeka, Kansas, a city that was overwhelmingly white. Brown overturned a policy set by a majority, and it was right to do so: School segregation is just as wrong when it is imposed democratically as it is when it is imposed by suppressing the black vote. So the strangest thing about Democracy in Chains—a book that contains many, many strange claims—may be how its author, the Duke historian Nancy MacLean, treats Brown. On one hand, she believes that those who want to bind majorities with preset constitutional rules are up to something sinister. Her chief villain on this score is James Buchanan, an economist and political philosopher who argued that government actors ought to be subject to built-in structural constraints. On the other hand, MacLean clearly thinks Brown was correctly decided. Indeed, she accuses Buchanan of working to undermine the ruling. MacLean seems not to notice Brown is itself an example of the phenomenon MacLean is denouncing: a Constitution being used to overrule a democratic outcome in the name of protecting a minority. It's an awkward start for a baroque conspiracy story, and it signals what a mess the book will be. The historian has little to no evidence for her history. She invents some when necessary, and will at times just make assertions to suit her narrative, mustering neither real nor phony evidence to back them up. Many of her factual and interpretive errors have already been covered elsewhere, in venues ranging from Vox to The Washington Post. Rather than get lost in the weeds of covering every false statement or misleadingly gerrymandered quotation in this book, I want to focus here on the core claims that it gets wrong: MacLean fundamentally misunderstands Buchanan's intellectual project, treating his theories about politics as an apologia for the wealthy and powerful. This gives short shrift to a serious body of thought, and it fails to see that his arguments can indict the wealthy as much as anyone else. She tries to tie Buchanan's work to the segregationist order in the South, even implying that his ideas arose from a desire to preserve it. She essentially invents links along the way. She paints Buchanan as an important influence on Augusto Pinochet's repressive dictatorship in Chile. Not only does her evidence fail to support this, but she misses an important piece of counterevidence: a 1981 speech, delivered in Chile, in which Buchanan condemned dictatorial rule. And finally, though Buchanan was neither an orthodox libertarian nor a central influence on the libertarian movement, she puts him at the heart of a Charles Koch–driven conspiracy to impose a radical libertarian agenda on the United States. In the process, she manages to misread both Buchanan and Koch in telling ways. Public Choice, Private Greed? Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his role in founding the "public choice" school of economics. This school's key idea, to quote the Nobel committee, was to seek "explanations for political behavior that resemble those used to analyze behavior on markets." The result was a body of work in which politicians and bureaucrats, no less than entrepreneurs and investors, often "act out of self-interest," driven not just by a vision of the common good but by a desire for votes or bigger budgets. MacLean, by contrast, treats public choice as little more than an effort to question the good-heartedness of public servants. Its conclusions, she insists, have "no true research—no facts[...]

Brickbat: History Lesson

Tue, 26 Sep 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) In Louisiana, the Orleans Parish School Board has rescinded the permission it gave to a private group to repair and refurbish a World War I monument that sits on school property. Officials have refused to say why they will not allow the monument, first erected in 1919, to be refurbished, but it is included in a list of monuments that Take Em Down NOLA, the group that spearheaded the removal of Confederate statues, wants removed. The group objects because the names of black World War I veterans are listed separately from those of white veterans.

George Washington's 'Founding War of Conquest'

Sun, 24 Sep 2017 06:00:00 -0400

Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion that Opened the West, by William Hogeland, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 pages, $28 The Battle of Little Big Horn may loom larger in popular consciousness, but it is the fray now known as St. Clair's Defeat that marks Native Americans' single largest victory over U.S. forces. In 1791, in what today is Ohio, a pan-tribal force under the direction of Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware leaders served notice to the fledgling American republic that continued incursion into Native lands would come at a dear price. In this case, that price was at least half the soldiers on the U.S. side killed—some sources suggest the number dead was far larger—and nearly 20 percent more badly wounded. News of the rout caused President George Washington temporarily to lose his legendary cool. (More than one source reportedly heard from Washington's personal secretary, Tobias Lear, how the president raged about General Arthur St. Clair: "To suffer that army to be cut to pieces, hacked, butchered, tomahawked—by a surprise! The very thing I guarded him against! Oh God, oh God, he's worse than a murderer!") Once Washington simmered down, he embarked on a path that would define both his administration and his country: the creation of a standing national army and the pursuit of a war to secure the West for U.S. expansion. In Autumn of the Black Snake, the independent historian William Hogeland tells the story of that war. His aim, he writes, is to fill in a "vacancy in American memory when it comes to what is perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of George Washington's career, and to the political, moral, and existential burden his career, and its national indispensability, will forever carry." The result is an imperfect but nevertheless compelling work of history. Hogeland rescues some colorful key players from obscurity and restores them to the main narrative of the early American republic. The Black Snake himself is a case in point. Anthony Wayne began as a Pennsylvania boy enthralled with all things military and became a war hero during the Revolution, rising to the rank of major general. But "after 1776," Hogeland writes, "Wayne never really went home." Returning to civilian life in his late 30s, he proved unfit to manage anything competently: not marriage, not fatherhood, not property, not politics. Wayne was estranged from his family, barely one step ahead of his creditors, freshly relieved of his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (after a House committee found fraud in his election), and in a downward spiral when Washington unexpectedly placed him in command of the country's new standing army, the Legion of the United States. In that position, Wayne turned his obsessive focus toward preparing, supplying, and supporting his troops. He built forts, he instituted the first basic training for U.S. soldiers, and his tireless emphasis on discipline and preparedness earned him the nickname Mad Anthony from his men. His "preternatural vigilance"—the man could not be surprised and seemed never to sleep—also earned Wayne the title Black Snake from his enemies in the pan-tribal Western Confederacy. Wayne ultimately vindicated Washington's trust and accomplished what the president wanted, breaking the back of Native resistance at the August 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers, and securing both Native and British retreat from the Northwest Territory in the Treaty of Greenville a year later. And he did it all while his second in command both actively undermined him and served as a spy for Spain. Hogeland also devotes attention to the impressive leaders of "the only confederation that had a chance of obs[...]