All posts filed under: History

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe—A Review

A review of Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson. Allen Lane, 496 pages (May 2021) Viewed from a certain angle, history appears to be the legacy of our errors—the record of humanity risking too much and anticipating too little, getting things wrong and getting them wrong all over again. If there is a fatal flaw (in a Greek sense) that underwrites our experience of history and gives it a tragic aspect, it is—to appropriate a phrase from Kierkegaard—that we are doomed to live it forwards and understand it backwards. In his novel, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth called this “the relentless unforeseen,” the treadmill of the unknowable on which we are forever running. Roth’s novel—in which the isolationist celebrity Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and signs a peace treaty with Imperial Japan and the Third Reich—inverts our conception of catastrophe: America avoids the disasters of Pearl Harbor and the Second World War, but inherits other kinds, as the country finds itself insidiously neutral towards Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism festers, …

Interrogating Jane

Jane Austen, beloved English novelist of the Regency period, is now embroiled in the custody wars over the history and legacy of the British Empire. The Daily Telegraph has reported that the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, is planning an “historical interrogation” of the Austen family’s connections to slavery and colonialism. Museum director Lizzie Dunford pointed out that the Austens consumed tea, sugar, and cotton, all of which were the products of Empire. One of the potential new exhibits is entitled “Black Lives Matter to Jane Austen.” Unsurprisingly, some Austen fans rejected this idea as decisively as Lizzie Bennet turning down a marriage proposal. During an interview about the row on TalkRadio, Welsh comedian Abi Roberts spoke for many appalled Austen fans when she declared that the museum’s curators had “gone completely bonkers.” “My father was a life-long lover of tea,” wrote one reader in a representative letter to the Telegraph‘s editor. “In addition, he spent four years in Burma and India, albeit as a private in the army … can anyone advise …

Stopped Cold: Remembering Russia’s Catastrophic 1939 Campaign Against Finland

While the Germans had been flexible on the fine print of their August 23rd, 1939 non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin had been meticulous with his own territorial claims. By insisting on Soviet predominance in Finland and the Baltic states, Stalin could not only recover Russia’s old Tsarist borders in the north-west but also acquire naval bases to project Soviet power further into the Baltic Sea, whence came numerous stores vital to the Nazi war effort, from Swedish iron ore and timber to Finnish nickel. Compounding the economic leverage Stalin enjoyed over his partner in Berlin—owing to Hitler’s need for Soviet oil, manganese, cotton, and grain, as well as rubber transshipments from Asia—Soviet domination of the Baltic, Stalin believed, would turn Nazi Germany into a virtual economic vassal of the USSR. The one thing Stalin had not reckoned on was that any of these neighbors might object. Certainly he did not expect resistance from the Baltic states. As early as September 24th, 1939, three days before Warsaw surrendered to Germany, Soviet Foreign Minister …

Rinaldo Walcott’s On Property—A Review

A review of On Property by Rinaldo Walcott. Biblioasis, 96 pages (May 25th, 2021) The true founder of civil society was the first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying, “This is mine,” and came across people simple enough to believe him. How many crimes, wars, murders and how much misery and horror the human race might have been spared if someone had pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch, and cried out to his fellows: “Beware of listening to this charlatan. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and that the earth itself belongs to no one!” Even if most sober-minded readers might dismiss Rousseau’s counter-factual history as a symptom of a dangerous utopianism, his critique of private property has fired the imaginations of radical thinkers and activists since before the French Revolution. While Rousseau himself did not believe we could return to a propertyless state as the “solution” to modernity’s problems, his view of history as a “fall” from …

Anti-Colonialism’s Bad History

Prevailing academic theories of race relations hold that wealth and power differences between groups of people arose from social, economic, and legal systems created to benefit one group of people over another. One of those systems, we are told, was colonialism. Hence the renewed interest in European imperialism and calls to “decolonize” everything from education and beauty to music and health. “Renewed” because this is, of course, not the first time that colonialism has been blamed for the vast wealth and power differences readily observable in the world today. The story starts with Karl Marx. Marx admired capitalism, which he credited with destroying feudalism and the “idiocy” of rural life. The fly in the capitalist ointment, as Marx saw it, was competition, which he thought would drive down profits. To remain profitable, he averred, capitalists would be compelled to squeeze laborers’ wages, thus “immiserating” the working class. The more rational economic system Marx envisaged would do away with competition and replace it with central planning. That was a big mistake, but not the only one. Between …

The Campaign to Thwart Paleogenetic Research Into North America’s Indigenous Peoples

One of the major North American archaeological discoveries of the 20th century was made in 1967 by a bulldozer crew preparing a site for a movie theater in the small fishing village of Port au Choix (PAC), on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula. It was a vast, 4,000-year-old cemetery created by a complex maritime culture known among researchers as the Maritime Archaic. The graves contained beautifully preserved skeletons covered in a brilliant red powder called red ocher (powdered specular hematite). Buried with the skeletons were many finely crafted artifacts. A few similar ones had previously turned up in earlier field surveys on the island, but no archaeologist had suspected that such a large and magnificent ceremonial site existed in the North American subarctic. Had the discovery been made only a few years earlier, it is likely that no trained archaeologist would have taken over from the bulldozer crew. But fortunately, Memorial University in St. Johns had just added archaeologist James (“Jim”) Tuck (1940–2019) to its faculty. The American-born scholar set out to explore the cemetery, eventually excavating …

Houses of Horrors

In country after country, museums are now undergoing an épuration—a process of confession and penance. Until recently, debate about empire in European and other democratic countries was consigned to historians’ squabbles. Now, the West’s colonial past occupies a central place in the culture wars, roaring for belated recognition of its legacies. At the least, the demand now pressed upon the museums, mainly by their own radicalised staffs, is for greater sensitivity and respect in the display of the millions of artefacts taken from colonial possessions. At the most morally exacting extreme, they are exhorted to adopt a similar posture to that taken by Holocaust museums, acknowledging complicity in organised massacres. On this account, museums must bear witness to past events “where people are killed in their thousands and tens of thousands, when palaces, temples and villages are bombarded, when cultural treasures are looted and sold.” This is the uncompromising posture adopted by Dan Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford University, curator of archaeology at the university’s Pitt Rivers Museum, and author of The Brutish …

Fulton and the Case Against Normalcy

Whether they know it or not, Americans are in trouble. The world order from which they have drawn immense benefits—an order they once led the way in creating and for which they have borne the greatest burdens over three-quarters of a century—is at risk. Since Americans generally misunderstand their role in the world, the United States has developed an unfortunate habit of performing that role fitfully and poorly. A more mature understanding of their unique position and exceptional role in world affairs is required for Americans to better protect their interests and avert disaster in a dangerous world. A long-ago speech by a foreign dignitary may hold the key to recovering some lost wisdom about how America came into this role in the first place. Seventy-five years ago this month, Winston Churchill traveled to the American Midwest to deliver what he believed to be the most important speech of his career. At an obscure college in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill set himself two stark objectives: one general and the other specific. The general aim of “The …

Fifty Years of Fear and Loathing

On March 21st, 1971, Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta arrived in Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 desert rally for Sports Illustrated. Asked to write a 500-word summary of the race to accompany a photograph, Thompson annoyed his editors when he turned in thousands of words about his escapades in the city of sin, with barely a mention of the race itself. This bizarre piece of writing ultimately became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, one of the most important but misunderstood novels of the 20th century. In 1971, Hunter S. Thompson was at the peak of his literary powers but not yet a household name. His first book, Hell’s Angels, had been published to widespread acclaim just five years earlier, and in 1970, he had stumbled upon a great literary breakthrough with an essay entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” a piece of writing so unique that it created a new literary genre that came to be known as “Gonzo journalism.” As the star writer for Rolling Stone, Thompson …

Sex, Drugs, and Antiquity

A review of The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name by Brian C. Muraresku. St Martin’s Press, 480 pages. (September 2020) A growing appreciation of plant medicines over the past few decades has allowed the media to shine a favorable spotlight on the previously proscribed use of ayahuasca, psilocybin, and other lesser-known plant allies in the “Age of Entheogens.” In the Entheogenic (“manifesting god within”) Era, for the first time since Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” 50 years ago, not only are entire universities and medical schools like Johns Hopkins conducting studies on these plants, but advocates are coming out of the most unlikely corners of the sober professional class to advocate for their proper use. One such professional is Brian Muraresku, a Jesuit-educated classics scholar, DC lawyer, and graduate of Brown University and Georgetown Law. He remains a “psychedelic virgin” but has nonetheless penned what will likely become a classic study of the ancient use of drugged beer and wine in the Near East and Europe, and the …