All posts filed under: History

Understanding Modern African Horrors by Way of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade

On January 15, and well into the morning of the next day, terrorists affiliated with the Somali Jihadi group Al Shabab forced their way into an upscale Nairobi hotel and business centre, killing 21 innocent civilians. Kenyan authorities, with some help from Western allies, killed some of the terrorists and captured the rest. Al Shabab justified the attack by denouncing the Kenyan government’s participation with African Union forces in Somalia, which has been in a state of civil warfare since the early 1990s. I had driven by the targeted complex a couple of days before the attack, and once lived in this neighbourhood back when Kenya was my permanent home. On this visit to the country, I’ve noticed that—notwithstanding January’s terrible tragedy—tourism is booming, agriculture is bountiful and the Kenyan elite are benefiting from the massive Chinese investments that have transformed the landscape. The overall degree of improvement depends on which expert you believe. But the plethora of expensive cars that now jam the streets of Nairobi, and the building boom on display in many …

Glenn Greenwald’s Bad History

In a January 14 featured article at the Intercept, co-founder and radical journalist Glenn Greenwald rehearsed a stale leftwing talking point, most recently revived by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick in their Showtime documentary series, The Untold Story of the United States. For over 3500 laborious words, Greenwald recounts a shopworn tale of an allegedly illegitimate FBI investigation of a sitting U.S. government official. The FBI’s secret investigation of Vice-President Henry A. Wallace began during FDR’s third term, continued when Truman became president and made Wallace Secretary of Commerce, and throughout Wallace’s campaign for president on the pro-Communist ticket of the Progressive Party. And why did the Bureau decide to carry out this secret counter-intelligence operation? According to Greenwald: The FBI long suspected that Wallace harbored allegiances to the Kremlin and used his government positions to undermine what the FBI determined were “U.S. interests” for the benefit of Moscow and, as a result, subjected Wallace to extensive investigation and surveillance. Greenwald has brought all this up again in response to reports that the Bureau was investigating …

Enlightenment Wars: Some Reflections on ‘Enlightenment Now,’ One Year Later

You wouldn’t think that a defense of reason, science, and humanism would be particularly controversial in an era in which those ideals would seem to need all the help they can get. But in the words of a colleague, “You’ve made people’s heads explode!” Many people who have written to me about my 2018 book Enlightenment Now say they’ve been taken aback by the irate attacks from critics on both the right and the left. Far from embracing the beleaguered ideals of the Enlightenment, critics have blamed it for racism, imperialism, existential threats, and epidemics of loneliness, depression, and suicide. They have insisted that human progress can only be an illusion of cherry-picked data. They have proclaimed, with barely concealed schadenfreude, that the Enlightenment is an idea whose time has passed, soon to be killed off by authoritarian populism, social media, or artificial intelligence. This month’s publication of the paperback edition of EN in the US and UK is an occasion for me to weigh in on the controversies that have flared up in the year since …

60 Years On: Reflections on the Revolution in Cuba

Sixty years ago, as thousands of Cubans celebrated the fall of Fulgencio Batista’s regime, an atmosphere of hype and hatred was also overtaking Havana. Not many people foresaw what was to come, but on January 1, 1959, the Republic of Cuba was murdered. Few tears were shed for her at the time—some were too busy desperately packing their bags, while others were preoccupied with burning cars and smashing storefront windows. The institutions not destroyed by the previous dictatorship were savagely dismembered in the following months and years by the Castro regime. Cuba’s National Congress would never again return to session in the National Capitol building (or anywhere else, for that matter). Christmas, bars and cabaret clubs, independent trade unions, religious schools, private clubs, large and small businesses, any and all vestiges of what was Cuba before communism—all of these were destroyed, expropriated, or otherwise expunged from the lives and minds of the Cuban people. The Cuban Revolution never disguised its contempt for the greatest symbol of the Republican era: Havana itself. The Havana Hilton hotel …

“Heroic Guerrilla”—From Revolutionary Militant to Saint

In 1954, my father was working for the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture as a veterinarian in charge of the artificial insemination of cattle. He was asked if he would like to meet a fellow Argentine—another recent graduate from the University of Buenos Aires, an M.D. named Ernesto Guevara de la Serna. He said sure. They met “almost daily to talk and drink un cafesíto.” Guevara was broke; my father always paid. They talked politics, as any university-educated Argentine of the period would; of the injustice, the poverty, and the callous indifference of the elites to the suffering of the poor. Nothing out the mainstream for the time and place. My father said there was no talk of Marx or guerrilla warfare. Guevara mentioned that he wanted to practice medicine in the countryside, but the Ministry of Health insisted that he join the Communist Party. Ernesto refused and told them that he would not join the Party in order to practice medicine. My father was not required to join the Party, I assume because livestock are not in need …

Solzhenitsyn: The Fall of a Prophet

The 100th anniversary of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s birth on December 11 was an occasion for many tributes. A decade after his death, Solzhenitsyn remains one of the past century’s towering figures in both literature and public life. His role in exposing the crimes of the Soviet regime is a historic achievement the magnitude of which can hardly be overstated. But his legacy also continues to be the subject of intense debate among people who share his loathing of that regime—and those controversies, which have to do with freedom, traditional morality, and nationalism, are strikingly relevant to our current moment. Solzhenitsyn was once my childhood hero. Growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, in a family of closet dissidents, I knew him as the man who defied the system and told the truth about its atrocities—the man idolized by my parents, especially my father, himself the son of gulag survivors. I was eleven when Solzhenitsyn was arrested and expelled from the Soviet Union; our Stalinist political instructor at school bellowed that he should have been …

The Children of the Revolution

“Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart,” wrote James Baldwin, “for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.” This observation has been confirmed many times throughout history. However, China’s Cultural Revolution offers perhaps the starkest illustration of just how dangerous the “pure in heart” can be. The ideological justification for the revolution was to purge the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the nation more broadly, of impure elements hidden in its midst: capitalists, counter-revolutionaries, and “representatives of the bourgeoisie.” To that end, Mao Zedong activated China’s youth—unblemished and uncorrupted in heart and mind—to lead the struggle for purity. Christened the “Red Guards,” they were placed at the vanguard of a revolution that was, in truth, a cynical effort by Mao to reassert his waning power in the Party. Nevertheless, it set in motion a self-destructive force of almost unimaginable depravity. The Cultural Revolution commenced in spirit when Mao published a letter indicting a number of Party leaders on May 16, 1966. But it was a seemingly minor event nine days later …

What Can We Learn from Dictators’ Literature?

Dictators, of course, are terrible people. They also tend to be terrible writers. Yet many tyrants have entertained the illusion that they were literary super geniuses. Mein Kampf and Quotations from Chairman Mao (aka The Little Red Book) are the best-known works in the dictatorial canon, but they represent only a fraction of the awfulness on offer in a vast, infernal library. There are so many other books: from Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia to Khomeini’s Islamic Government to Gaddafi’s The Green Book and beyond. In the heyday of 20th century tyranny, the writings of dictators were placed at the center of their personality cults, officially revered as sacred texts, and imposed upon (literally) captive audiences. That the books were frequently unreadable mattered little when the authors controlled the printing presses and the education systems, and could imprison or execute anyone who gave them a bad review. And yet, when regimes fall, how quickly these books vanish. Those who suffered under the dictators wish to move on, while those who did not are …

What Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Mean Today?

“What is man, that you are mindful of him, human beings that you should care for them?” The question the Psalmist asks God is the same question philosophers have been asking one another for more than three millennia: What does it mean to be human? What makes us different from the rest of creation? For Aristotle, the answer was man’s political, or “social,” nature. For Blaise Pascal, it was man’s intellect: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, author of the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, maintained that man’s distinguishing feature is his volition. Immanuel Kant located humanity’s uniqueness in our moral nature. The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which turned 70 on December 10 this year, offers a different answer: to be human is to have an innate dignity that gives us an irreducible moral worth—a worth that makes all human individuals fundamentally equal to one another and distinct from other forms of life. The UDHR’s …

Orwell and the Anti-Totalitarian Left in the Age of Trump

I In his review of Pascal Bruckner’s new book, An Imaginary Racism: Islamophobia and Guilt, Nick Cohen begins with a denunciation of the contemporary Left’s obsession with identity politics and “willingness to excuse antisemitism, misogyny, tyranny, and obscurantism, as long as the antisemitic, misogynistic, tyrannical obscurantists are anti-Western.” Cohen acknowledges that Bruckner has been among the most penetrating analysts of the Left’s moral and intellectual decline in the twenty-first century, recalling that he described Bruckner’s The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism as a “brilliant defence of liberalism and a deservedly contemptuous assault on all those intellectuals who have betrayed its best values.” However, Cohen now thinks Bruckner’s animus toward the Left has propelled him to the Right, arguing that he fails to “extend his opposition to Islamism to cover the purveyors of anti-Muslim bigotry,” uses the “language of demagogues and civil war,” and displays the “ethnic favouritism and intellectual double-standards of the counter-Enlightenment.” Cohen also laments Bruckner’s sparse commentary on right-wing populist and nationalist movements in Europe and the United States: At …