All posts filed under: History

Here Comes the Story of the Hurricane

How many people who followed the BBC’s podcast series about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter were startled—or even outraged—when Carter was not triumphantly vindicated in the final episode? In the small hours of June 17, 1966, two black men walked into a late-night Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey and opened fire on the occupants. They left bartender James Oliver and patron Fred Nauyoks dead at the scene and mortally wounded a woman named Hazel Tanis, who would succumb to her injuries a month later. Another customer named Willie Marins lost an eye in the shooting but survived. Neighbors Patty Valentine and Ronald Ruggiero told police that they had seen two black males flee the scene in a white vehicle. This testimony was corroborated by petty thief Alfred Bello who walked past the dead and the dying to empty the cash register after the shooters had fled. Half an hour later, Paterson police stopped middleweight boxer Rubin Carter and his companion John Artis in a car bearing out-of-state plates that matched the eyewitnesses’ description. A search …

The Scars of Rwanda, 25 Years On

I was home from University for the Easter holidays when the genocide began. April 7, 1994 is a date seared into my family’s psyche. My parents and I were transfixed by the news. They’d been front-line aid-workers for decades. My father was with the UN’s refugee agency. My mother, a child psychologist, worked with child soldiers. Neither were naïve about the world’s darker recesses, but the speed and scale of the savagery in Rwanda left everyone, even the most jaded and battle-hardened of my parents’ colleagues, reeling. The phone rang repeatedly. Meetings ran late. People we knew were dispatched to the region.  Over the next 100 days, an estimated 800,000 Tutsi were hacked to death with machetes wielded by their Hutu countrymen. House by house. Village by village. Town by town. Often it was neighbor killing neighbor. Occasionally, family members butchered their own kin. Two pieces of footage from those days remain clear in my mind. One was shot clandestinely, by someone hiding in some bushes. It filmed a makeshift roadblock with a few Tutsi …

Milan Kundera Warned Us About Historical Amnesia. Now It’s Happening Again

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. —Milan Kundera Milan Kundera is 90-years old on April 1, 2019 and his central subject—The Power of Forgetting, or historical amnesia—could not be more relevant. Kundera’s great theme emerged from his experience of the annexation of his former homeland Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in 1948 and the process of deliberate historical erasure imposed by the communist regime on the Czechs. As Kundera said: The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long that nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster. I first read Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) back in 1987, when I was a member of the British Communist Party. The book shook my beliefs and Kundera’s writing became a part of a process of truth-speaking that shook the USSR …

Socialism’s Endless Refrain: This Time, Things Will Be Different

Germany’s socialist left is currently embroiled in a row over the correct stance on Venezuela. The conflict came to the fore at the February conference of Die Linke, the country’s main socialist party, when a group of Nicolás Maduro fans stormed the stage, chanting slogans and waving banners with pro-Venezuela messages. Nicolás Maduro is the successor to Hugo Chávez, and has served as Venezuelan President since 2013. The legitimacy of his presidency has been in free fall in recent years, and many now call him a dictator. As Maduro’s popularity has waned, his tactics have become increasingly brutal. In 2018, a panel of legal experts convened by the Organization of American States recommended that the regime be referred to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Many members of the Die Linke party establishment, however, still side with Maduro, whom they see as a comrade under siege. Others, especially in the party’s youth organisation, take the opposite view—which is why the February conference was contentious. One young member describes the party’s in-house Chavistas as …

The French Genocide That Has Been Air-Brushed From History

The Secret History On March 4 2011, the French historian Reynald Secher discovered documents in the National Archives in Paris confirming what he had known since the early 1980s: there had been a genocide during the French Revolution.1 Historians have always been aware of widespread resistance to the Revolution. But (with a few exceptions) they invariably characterize the rebellion in the Vendée (1793–95) as an abortive civil war rather than a genocide. In 1986, Secher published his initial findings in Le Génocide franco-français, a lightly revised version of his doctoral dissertation.2 This book sold well, but destroyed any chance he might have had for a university career. Secher was slandered by journalists and tenured academics for daring to question the official version of events that had taken place two centuries earlier.3 The Revolution has become a sacred creation myth for at least some of the French; they do not take kindly to blasphemers. Keepers of the Flame The first major Revolutionary mythographer was the journalist and politician Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877), who became the first President …

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 …