All posts filed under: History

Deception and Complicity—the Strange Case of Jessica Krug

On September 3rd, Jessica Krug, 38, abruptly resigned from her job as associate professor of African history at George Washington University (GWU). Apparently fearing imminent exposure, she confessed in a post on Medium that she had passed herself off for more than a decade as being of black-African descent from an ever-shifting range of backgrounds. In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she told fellow students she was of Algerian origin with a German father. Later, she claimed that she was from the inner-city “hood” with a spiritual kinship to the late rapper Biggie Smalls—or, alternatively, that she was the offspring of “Caribbean” immigrants, with an Ellis Island-style tale of immigration officials’ mis-transcribing her “grandparents’” surname, Cruz. Her final self-proclaimed provenance seems to have been the South Bronx slums, where she identified as a “boricua,” or Stateside-dwelling Puerto Rican whose mother had been a drug addict. She also moonlighted as a salsa-dancing community activist with the tag “Jess La Bombalera” and was videoed at a New York City Council hearing in June 2020 berating the …

Down the 1619 Project’s Memory Hole

The history of the American Revolution isn’t the only thing the New York Times is revising through its 1619 Project. The “paper of record” has also taken to quietly altering the published text of the project itself after one of its claims came under intense criticism. When the 1619 Project went to print in August 2019 as a special edition of the New York Times Magazine, the newspaper put up an interactive version on its website. The original opening text stated: The 1619 project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative. [emphasis added] The passage, and in particular its description of the year 1619 as “our true founding,” quickly became a flashpoint for controversy around the project. Critics on both the Left and Right took issue with the paper’s declared …

The Rule of the Masses

As cities burn across a divided United States of America, it is worth considering some of the conditions that foment the country’s increasingly radical politics. During the past few years, the United States has experienced a series of cultural shifts in which the public’s perception of numerous—primarily social—issues has been abruptly and dramatically altered. In a matter of months, the minority views of political activists become normalised while views which were previously tolerated in mainstream discussions are suddenly impossible to hold in public life. Though one would expect such shifts to occur gradually over many years and feature prominently in fierce public debate, the change always arises suddenly, at once a surprise to many who pride themselves on being informed about—and having a stake in—public life, and yet succeeding overwhelmingly against virtually no formal organised opposition. Moreover, these shifts are supported by private and public institutions which become, without warning, part of the vortex of mass opinion. I Writing between the two world wars that would shape the rest of his century and the beginning …

The Myth of Harmonious Indigenous Conservationism

It seems like a long time ago. But only six months ago, pundits had convinced themselves that the great morality tale of our time was playing out in an obscure part of British Columbia. Following on an internal political fight within the Wet’suwet’en First Nation over a local pipeline project, one columnist wrote that “the Indigenous people of Earth have become the conscience of humanity. In this dire season, it is time to listen to them.” In fact, the elected leadership of the Wet’suwet’en had chosen to participate in the controverted pipeline project. The nationwide protests against the pipeline that followed were, in fact, sparked by unelected “hereditary” chiefs who long have received government signing bonuses. It’s unclear how this qualifies them for the exalted status of humanity’s conscience. Yet the whole weeks-long saga, which featured urban protestors appearing alongside their Indigenous counterparts at road and rail barricades throughout Canada, tapped into a strongly held noble-savage belief system within progressive circles. Various formulations of this mythology have become encoded in public land acknowledgments, college courses, …

On This Day in 1945, Japan Released Me from a POW Camp. Then US Pilots Saved My Life

It was noon on August 15th, 1945. The Japanese Emperor had just announced to his people that his country had surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Powers. To those of us being held at Ohashi Prison Camp in the mountains of northern Japan, where we’d been prisoners of war performing forced labour at a local iron mine, this meant freedom. But freedom didn’t necessarily equate to safety. The camp’s 395 POWs, about half of them Canadians, were still under the effective control of Japanese troops. And so we began negotiating with them about what would happen next. Complicating the negotiations was the Japanese military code of Bushido, which required an officer to die fighting or commit suicide (seppuku) rather than accept defeat. We also knew that the camp commander—First Lieutenant Yoshida Zenkichi—had written orders to kill his prisoners “by any means at his disposal” if their rescue seemed imminent. We also knew that we could all easily be deposited in a local mine shaft and then buried under thousands of tons of rock for all eternity …

Lessons from the Last Empire of Iran

By the mid-620s, the Persian king Khusro II had conquered most of the Eastern Roman Empire. A final push toward Constantinople was planned. The armies of Iran and her nomadic allies of the steppe were to descend upon the capital, blockade it by land and sea, and receive the emperor’s surrender. The nobles and retired worthies of the Roman Senate had earlier sent a grovelling letter to the Persian government, urging Khusro to impose a client king over them and spare what was left of the empire. But Khusro ignored it. For a moment, the extinction of 800 years of Roman rule in the Mediterranean world hung in the balance. Khusro’s authority now stretched from the Nile to the Euphrates and from the Tigris to the Indus, and was about to be extended into Europe. Like his Persian forebears Cyrus and Darius, he commissioned monumental rock reliefs to commemorate his conquests. His vast empire might have lasted for centuries, binding together the fringes of Europe with North Africa and the Levant with the Iranian plateau, …

Understanding Totalitarianism

In recent years, amid concern about a possible resurgence of totalitarianism, a number of books and articles have appeared that are intended to warn about the rhetoric and behavior of the populist Right. At the same time, a countercurrent of public intellectuals and journalists have leveled similar accusations at the radical Left, alleging illiberal motives, ideas, and tactics for influencing culture and politics. Alarm about both of these developments can be found across the political spectrum. A sense of proportion is important when discussing this topic. For all its problems, America does not seem to be on the brink of a totalitarian revolution. Its institutions have been stressed during Trump’s term in office, but they have proved to be remarkably robust. And while there has been a concerning resurgence of radical leftwing activism in the months following the death of George Floyd, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for American president is a political moderate. And, although the pandemic provides unique challenges for the election in November, the country remains a constitutional republic of laws and …

Cultural Revolution in the Renaissance?

It is a striking feature of our historical moment that vast numbers of cultural institutions, universities and professional associations have felt the need to express their horror at the sickening murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25th. Hundreds of such messages have shown up in my inbox since that day, from almost every institution that has my email address on its lists. (“Unsubscribe” is apparently one of those words that has a special meaning on the Internet, like “fact” and “free.”) So it wasn’t really a surprise when the board governing the professional organization to which I feel closest, the Renaissance Society of America (RSA), decided to issue a “Statement in Support of Social Justice” last month, declaring its solidarity with the world-wide protests against “government-sanctioned brutality.” I wondered which organ of government had sanctioned the Floyd killing until I read further and met language blaming the incident on “a widespread and longstanding structure of anti-Black institutional racism that pervades American society and others around the globe,” …

Humanity’s Great Urban Adventure Didn’t Begin With Greece and Rome

The spectacular story of the growth and withering away of ancient Mediterranean urbanism is often drowned out by the noise of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Cities had begun to grow and connect when Rome was just a cluster of villages. And at its height, in the second and third centuries CE, the ancient urban system stretched far beyond the political limits of empire. Traders, missionaries, and diplomats travelled through the caravan cities of northern Syria and Iraq to connect with ancient Greek cities, by then lying in the heart of the Persian Empire, in Babylonia (now southern Iraq), and even Afghanistan. Others set sail down the Red Sea in search of the entrepôts of East Africa, southern India, and Sri Lanka, or traded down the Nile beyond Egypt to Nubia. Amber was brought from the Baltic and ivory from south of the Sahara long before Rome’s imperial adventure got off the ground. Ancient historians and geographers such as Herodotus, Strabo, Pliny, and Ptolemy knew there were yet even more distant cities, …

Of Heroic Deeds and Hysterical Masses

Perpetual progress is no more possible than perpetual motion, an axiom unwittingly vindicated by the benighted throngs that currently run amok across America, menacing the living and long dead wherever they rage. Whereas in the final decade of the 19th century, “enlightenment had progressed to the point where the Salem trials were simply an embarrassing blot on the history of New England… [and] a reminder of how far the human race had come in two centuries,” in the second decade of the 21st, enlightenment’s decline has unleashed a new inquisitorial spirit, no less spurious than that of old. One only can hope that someday, the witch trials of our time will constitute an embarrassing blot on our history and that two centuries will not be needed for that day to arrive. But at present, that is but a hope and in view of the unmitigated madness with which the present teems, a feeble one at that. What renders the hope all the more dim is that so much of the madness emanates from what ought …