All posts filed under: History

The Problem With Poland’s New Holocaust Law

On Tuesday, Poland’s president signed a controversial bill into law allowing punishment of up to 3 years in prison for any person who claims “that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.” This development has sparked an angry debate, particularly in Poland and Israel, over the tragic history of Poles and Jews during the Second World War. But the new law cannot be understood without an appreciation of the unique context from which it emerged. The following points bear consideration: The 1939-1945 occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany, which organized the worst genocide the world has ever seen. The subsequent 44 years of Communist rule, during which Poles were taught only that they helped Jews during the war and that discussion of contrary facts was forbidden. The opening up of Polish society after 1989, including revelations of cases where Poles persecuted and killed Jews. The careless use of the phrase “Polish death camps” by Western politicians and media to refer to Nazi-run camps like Auschwitz. …

Why Free Speech Matters

From 1980 – 2003 the number of countries with a free press grew from 51 to 78. This increase was also proportionately significant. In 1980 34% of the world’s then 161 countries had a free press. In 2003 41% of the world’s 193 countries had newspapers free to criticize their own governments and inform their citizens without censorship. Those of us growing up in that period thought we belonged to a generation that could take free speech for granted and see this principle become universally entrenched. But 2004 would mark the beginning of a constant decline in global press freedom lasting until this day. From the high-water mark in 2003, we’re down to 31% of the world’s countries where journalists don’t have to worry about being imprisoned (262 reporters were behind bars in 2017). Or put differently: Only 13% of the world’s 7.4 billion people enjoy free speech. 45% live in countries where censorship is the norm. Venezuela, Russia, and Turkey are among the worst offenders. But In liberal democracies, free speech has also become a …

Why Walls Work

When Constantinople finally buckled and fell in the spring of 1453, it was before the awesome power of the Ottoman siege cannons. A Venetian surgeon, Nicolo Barbaro described the barrage during the desperate final days,  When it fired the explosion made all the walls of the city shake, and all the ground inside, and even the ships in the harbor felt the vibrations of it…No greater cannon than this one was ever seen in the whole pagan world, and it was this that broke down such a great deal of the city walls. The siege cannons were created by a Hungarian engineer named Orban. He first offered his services to Constantine XI, but the nearly insolvent Emperor couldn’t afford his retainer. He subsequently sought out the young Sultan Mehmet II who immediately understood their potential use in his planned attack on the seat of the dying Byzantine Empire. The fall of Constantinople was the dramatic final chapter of the Middle Ages. Powerful cannons radically changed the value of walled cities, and thus the nature of …

“Hate Speech” Does Not Incite Hatred

The United States Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed that “[s]peech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground” is protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. However, the protections of the First Amendment extend only to government efforts to punish or censor speech. Private entities remain free to take action against people who engage in speech which ostensibly demeans others, and private actors from Harvard University to Facebook and Twitter have punished or censored individuals whose speech they have found to be “hateful.” Those who advocate the censorship of so-called “hate speech” claim that it causes various ills, but perhaps the most common claim is that “hate speech” engenders hatred towards particular groups, and thereby causes violence against members of those groups. Such claims have been particularly common in recent years, and have included allegations that “anti-police hate speech” on the part of Black Lives Matters supporters has led to violence against police officers; that Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric has led to an …

Defending Humanities Scholarship from its Defenders

University of Toronto academic and literary scholar Ira Wells recently wrote a defence of humanist academics for The Walrus magazine. But Wells’s characterization of humanist scholarship, and its purpose, is itself problematic. Wells claims that the majority of humanities courses are committed to fostering critical thinking. But, as Uri Harris has already pointed out elsewhere at Quillette, Wells’s definition of critical thinking, “to read against the grain of accepted wisdom and to question the inherited power hierarchies that structure human relations,” is in fact applied critical theory, aka Frankfurt School-style leftist politics. To be critical with the tools of critical theory means analyzing an institution, an event, a work of art, in order to reveal the unequal allocation of power. Within this mode of inquiry, the unequal ‘power dynamics,’ especially within ‘traditional hierarchies,’ are not facts needing explication but roadblocks to social justice, or as Herbert Marcuse put it, “a world without fear and misery.” This form of criticism is primarily about finding oppressors and their victims, not weighing evidence or assessing contending explanations. It …

Nikola Tesla: The Extraordinary Life of a Modern Prometheus

Match the following figures – Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, Alfred Nobel and Nikola Tesla – with these biographical facts: Spoke eight languages Produced the first motor that ran on AC current Developed the underlying technology for wireless communication over long distances Held approximately 300 patents Claimed to have developed a “superweapon” that would end all war The match for each, of course, is Tesla. Surprised? Most people have heard his name, but few know much about his place in modern science and technology. The 75th anniversary of Tesla’s death on Jan. 7 provides a timely opportunity to review the life of a man who came from nowhere yet became world famous; claimed to be devoted solely to discovery but relished the role of a showman; attracted the attention of many women but never married; and generated ideas that transformed daily life and created multiple fortunes but died nearly penniless. Early years Tesla was born in what is now Croatia on a summer night in 1856, during what he claimed was a lightning storm …

In Memory of the Spanish Flu

A hundred years ago the First World War was lurching bloodily towards its squalid end. The Germans were planning their Spring Offensive: a desperate attempt to beat the Allies before the Americans could intervene. Its failure led grindingly to their defeat. An Allied counteroffensive smashed the Hindenberg Line, General Ludendorff endured something close to a breakdown and the Germans slowly, sullenly began to surrender. I would argue that the First World War was the most important episode of the 20th Century. The Tsar’s bad joke of a campaign fuelled the rise of communism. Germans, humiliated and impoverished at Versailles, were left to stew in the resentment that inspired Nazism. The British, who had lost almost three quarters of a million men in a war many had expected to be won in months, had been devastated militarily and psychologically. The French had lost a million men. Europe was not the same. Even as the war began to end, however, and as people might have been excused for breathing sighs of relief, the world was stumbling into …

Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer

O Man, to whatever country you belong and whatever your opinions, listen: here is your history as I believe I have read it, not in the books of your fellow men who are liars but in Nature which never lies. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality In 1966, at the ‘Man the Hunter’ symposium held at the University of Chicago, anthropologist Richard B. Lee presented a paper that would radically rewrite how academics and the public at large interpret life in hunter-gatherer societies. Questioning the notion that the hunter-gatherer way of life is a “precarious and arduous struggle for existence,” Lee instead described a society of relative comfort and abundance. Lee studied the !Kung of the Dobe area in the Kalahari Desert (also known variously as Bushmen, the San people, or the Ju/’hoansi) and noted that they required only 12 to 19 hours a week to collect all the food they needed. Lee further criticized the notion that hunter-gatherers have a low life expectancy, arguing that the proportion of individuals older than 60 among the …

Are the JFK Conspiracies Slowly Dying?

Recently, a 2016 British documentary called 9/11: Truth, Lies, and Conspiracies cropped up in my Netflix list. It seemed to have a legitimate pedigree and, at only 43 minutes, I decided to give it a spin. About eight minutes in, I was rewarded when it made a leap that was both astonishing and satisfying, and yet so subtle I almost missed it. I re-watched the 45-second section several times. On the screen is Dylan Avery, one of the producers of the widely viewed and vastly nutty 9/11 documentary titled Loose Change. “Today,” the narrator explains, “Dylan’s views have moderated. He doesn’t stand by his more extreme claims, such as passengers being offloaded from Flight 93 before it crashed.” Wait … What? “Even so,” she continues, “he still believes that many of the questions posed by Loose Change are as relevant today as they have ever been.” Then Avery speaks: “Why did no one catch these guys?” he asks. And just like that, a leading light of the 9/11 crackpot universe, in front of the world, takes a big step back …

Ratko Mladić’s Conviction and why the Evidence of Mass Graves Still Matters

Ratko Mladić has been convicted of genocide and persecution, extermination, murder and the inhumane act of forcible transfer in the area of Srebrenica in 1995. He was also found guilty of persecution, extermination, murder, deportation and inhumane act of forcible transfer in municipalities throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina and of murder, terror and unlawful attacks on civilians in Sarajevo. In addition, the former Bosnian Serb army general was convicted for the hostage-taking of UN personnel. But he was acquitted of the charge of genocide in several municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992. The events that occurred in and around the Srebrenica enclave between July 10-19 1995, where an estimated 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, mostly men and boys, lost their lives, are well documented. These atrocities, culminating in the “biggest single mass murder in Europe” since World War II, not only resulted in a tremendous loss of life and emotionally scarred survivors, it also left behind a landscape filled with human remains and mass graves. Forensic investigations into the Srebrenica massacre assisted in convicting Mladić, who stood …