All posts filed under: History

The Podcaster Who (Single-handledly) Made Me Love History

This is an instalment of Simple Pleasures, an occasional Quillette series about some of the new joys that our writers have discovered as a result of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Writers interested in contributing may contact Quillette at pitch@quillette.com. My law-school years were humbling ones. I’d been admitted to a highly touted American program based pretty much entirely on my ability to ace standardized tests. This skill didn’t signify any actual knowledge, however. And once on campus, I found myself surrounded by people who were much smarter and more accomplished. But one positive thing about being the runt of the intellectual litter is that you learn to jump higher for scraps—and the experience set me on an intellectual-improvement kick that persists to this day. Coming into law school, my own background was in engineering, while most of my classmates were products of elite programs in history, political science, and philosophy. As such, they tended to casually throw around adjectives such as “Rawlsian” and “Hegelian.” I had no idea who Rawls or Hegel …

Dictatorship and Responsibility in Hong Kong

Thus, the population was shaken up, forced into silence, and left without any possible leaders of resistance. So it was that ‘wisdom’ was instilled, that former ties and friendships were cut off. ~Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1985). I Can moral life survive dictatorship? When a government intimidates its subjects; when it sows mistrust among them; when it penalizes virtue and incentivizes servility, how might men and women keep faith with themselves and their fellows? Citizens of democratic states tend to ponder such questions, if at all, with a detached, even theoretical, interest. Dictatorships happened then or, if extant, occur over there. But in the once-free city of Hong Kong such insouciance has vanished. For just over two decades Hong Kong lived the life of an anomaly. When Britain, in July 1997, renounced sovereign rule over Hong Kong, the colony became a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Under the terms of the Sino-British Declaration (1984) and the articles of the Basic Law (adopted by the National People’s Congress in 1990), …

The Value of Knowledge

To no one’s surprise, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the mind behind the New York Times‘s 1619 Project, has spread a new falsehood. On Twitter, she confidently declared that school choice—a policy that allows families, not zoning laws, to choose their schools—“came about to stymie integration.” This claim is wrong in at least three ways. First, both John Stuart Mill and Thomas Paine recommended some scheme of school choice long before Jim Crow laws were introduced in the United States. Second, Milton Friedman, the popularizer of the policy, considered it a means to integrate American schools without top-down mandates. Finally, many segregationists came to reject choice, preferring school zoning laws as a means to achieve their racist agenda. Why would a journalist as renowned and supposedly well-read as Nikole Hannah-Jones make such a statement? What is critical thinking? While it is a bit simplistic to put it like this, the goal of education is to produce experts in various fields—be they historians, carpenters, or neurosurgeons. So, teachers and educators ought to be concerned with the question of what …

Republicans’ Lyceum Moment—and America’s

The assault on the US Capitol, not by foreign invaders but a domestic mob, left the American public (outside the most hardened and credulous pro-Trump precincts) bewildered and alarmed. The ubiquitous refrain from reporters on the scene struck a note of incomprehension: “This is happening in the United States of America.” The unspoken subtext was clear: such an outbreak of fanaticism was the stuff of banana republics, and no part of the American tradition. But this attitude served only to remind viewers of Gore Vidal’s quip that U-S-A stands for the United States of Amnesia. For the Trump mob’s invasion of Congress was scarcely the first time Americans have surrendered to mass frenzy. Almost two centuries ago, a spirit of anarchy seized the people, and the country began degenerating into bedlam. The source of mob violence in that day lay not with any particular partisan social or political cause. There were mobs motivated by religious sectarianism, hostility to gambling, and naked xenophobia. The passions loosed by the “peculiar institution” of slavery, of course, helped propel …

Ray Russell’s Incubus: A Lost Gem from America’s Twentieth Decade

Hard as it might be to believe, the years that stretched from roughly 1967 through the bicentennial year of 1976 brought even more foment, outrage, unrest, and upheaval to America than the most recent decade has managed. The escalation of the Vietnam War, the student protests against that war, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., psychedelia and the sexual revolution, Woodstock, the political resurrection of Richard Nixon, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the moon landings, the Manson murders, second-wave feminism, the Pentagon Papers, the shootings at Kent State, Watergate, the fall of Nixon, the rise of the summer blockbuster film—it was an era of almost unprecedented social and cultural turmoil. Perhaps that explains why so many remain fascinated by that era today. All sorts of recent cultural properties have revisited it: the 2020 Amazon Prime TV series Hunters (set in 1970s New York City and starring 1970s icon Al Pacino), How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (the recent HBO documentary about the Bee Gees), Emma Cline’s 2016 novel The …

A Misremembered Day of Infamy

Nothing illustrates better the extraordinary changes in America’s political culture than the almost furtive way in which the anniversary of Pearl Harbor has been marked. The surprise attack by the Japanese imperial navy on America’s Pacific Fleet 79 years ago—on December 7th, 1941—was barely commemorated this year in a nation convulsed by a deadly pandemic and the unprecedented effort by its president to steal an election. The exception to this general insouciance came in the tally of the honored dead compared with the gruesome numbers still being inflicted daily by the COVID-19 virus. (What’s more, as of this writing, the number of American COVID fatalities almost equals its Second World War combat toll.) In the public imagination, Pearl Harbor has become little more than an occasion to contextualize national grieving, a historical calamity that serves as a measure against our present difficulties. This shallow use of a hinge event in history has become typical of a nation that has begun to lose its sense of itself. This is evident in Americans’ diminished standards of conduct at home …

An Optimistic Outlook on 2021

The outlook, scientist Peter Turchin tells the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood, is bleak. Turchin thinks we are looking at another five years—or more likely a decade—of misery. And as 2020 draws to a close, modern civilization does appear to resemble a metaphorical dumpster fire. It really has been a terrible year, possibly the worst most people can remember. Every morning seemed to bring a new global damage report—an endlessly spreading pandemic, mounting death tolls, economies cratered by lockdowns, rising unemployment, racial inequality and civil unrest, spiraling political polarization, election turmoil in the United States, and bushfires in Australia. Countless people are ending the year feeling much further behind than they were on New Year’s Eve 2019. “Surely 2021 can’t be worse than 2020?” feels like wishful thinking. 2020 has felt particularly punishing, at least in part because the decade that preceded it was astonishingly hopeful and productive according to almost every metric of human progress. Extreme poverty was dramatically reduced, from 18 percent of the global population to just 8.6 percent. More than 158,000 people climbed …

A Brief History of China’s One-Child Policy

Liu Fang once had the job of policing the women in her village. She made sure that none of them gave birth to a second child unless their first had been either female or disabled. Whenever she found an unauthorised pregnancy, she would urge the woman to abort. Today, however, Liu Fang’s job has transformed itself. Now she encourages local couples to have a second child as a matter of national urgency. The orders from her superiors in the Chinese Communist Party are very clear on this. In a dizzying volte-face, the world’s most murderously anti-natalist regime has become its most pleadingly pro-natalist. The Party launched its one-child policy in 1980, at a time when misplaced Malthusian fears could be found far beyond China’s borders. India’s government was experimenting with a forced sterilisation programme, the authorities in Singapore were running a campaign telling citizens to “Stop at Two,” and in South Korea they were insisting that “Two’s Too Much.”1 “The battle to feed humanity is over,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968. “By 1980 the …

On the Trail of Delusion—A Review

A review of On the Trail of Delusion—Jim Garrison: The Great Accuser by Fred Litwin. NorthernBlues Books, 466 pages (September 30th, 2020) When Quillette asked if I might review Fred Litwin’s On the Trail of Delusion about the failed JFK assassination probe of New Orleans District Attorney, Jim Garrison, I initially hesitated. I did not believe there was much new information that another book could add to the historical record. In Case Closed, my 1993 re-examination of the assassination, I relied on documents from Garrison’s own investigation as the backbone of a 30-page chapter (“Black is White, and White is Black”) in which I exposed the extent of his abusive prosecution. In its review of Case Closed, Publishers Weekly wrote, “About New Orleans DA Jim Garrison, the hero of the movie JFK, [Posner] is merciless, laying out an endless trail of his lies and exaggerations.” Australia’s Sunday Herald Sun noted that “Previously undisclosed files cited by Posner also play havoc with the romanticised portrait of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison that director Oliver Stone presents in …

On Remembrance Day, Celebrating Two Canadian Prisoners Who Took Down an Entire Shipyard

To compensate for Japan’s manpower shortage during World War II, the country’s military commanders often shipped their prisoners to the Japanese mainland, where they worked as slave labourers in mining and heavy industry. As someone who made such a trip after my own capture in 1941, I can attest that the journey to Japan was terrifying in and of itself. Because the Japanese didn’t mark prisoner transport ships with a red cross or some other agreed-upon symbol, thousands of prisoners were lost at sea when unsuspecting American submarines mistakenly torpedoed some of these transports. One such ship, the Lisbon Maru, carrying about 1,800 British POWs from Hong Kong to Japan, was sunk in the South China Sea on October 1st, 1942, by the American submarine USS Grouper, whose captain had no idea of the precious cargo in the hold. Eight hundred and forty-six prisoners died, either by drowning, or were shot by the Japanese as they tried to swim clear of the wreck. This was the backdrop when the first group of 1,180 Allied prisoners—including …