All posts filed under: History

Captain Cook and the Colonial Paradox

On April 29th, 1770, a longboat from the Royal Navy bark Endeavour grounded on Silver Beach at Botany Bay in what is now Sydney’s southern suburbs. Isaac Smith, a young midshipman, leapt out and became the first European to set foot on Australia’s east coast. Four men followed—Swedish scientist Daniel Solander, English Botanist Joseph Banks, Tahitian navigator Tupaia, and the commander of the expedition, Lieutenant James Cook. They had rowed towards an encampment of the Gweagal Aboriginal people in the hope of speaking to the inhabitants. However, all the people had fled, save for two men, who seemed determined to oppose Cook’s landing. Cook tried to speak to them, but to no avail—neither he nor Tupaia could understand the language they called back in. Cook tried throwing some nails and beads onto the shore as a peace offering, but they didn’t understand the gesture, and according to Cook, made as if they were going to attack. He fired a musket between them, and one responded by throwing a rock. He fired a second shot, wounding …

Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization—A Review

A review of Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization by Samuel Gregg, Gateway Editions (June 2019) 256 pages. The role of Christianity in Western history presents an interesting puzzle. Those who argue that Christianity has nothing to do with the success of the modern West need to explain why the scientific method, constitutional government, market economics, and the modern concept of human rights arose in Christian Europe rather than somewhere else. On the other hand, those who argue that Christianity is critical or integral to the success of the modern West need to explain why these developments did not occur until 12 centuries after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. For most of its history, Christianity didn’t seem to be making much of a contribution to freedom, peace, and prosperity. One interpretation which has gained currency is the “Athens and Jerusalem” argument, according to which, Western civilisation is based in a unique combination of Greek reason and Judeo-Christian faith. This argument was recently rehearsed, for example, by Ben Shapiro in …

Lessons in Death and Life from the Diaries of Samuel Pepys

One of the passions of my reading life—which might seem strange for a youngish man—has been devouring and re-devouring the complete diaries of Samuel Pepys, which, when stacked on top of one another, rise above my knee. If you are late to the Pepys game, it suffices to say that our man, who was born in early 1633 and went on to be England’s chief administrator of the navy and a member of parliament, was king of the diarists. Day in, day out, he kept a record of his life from January 1st, 1660, and continued to do so for about 10 years. He likely wrote for posterity, but he also seemed to write with a maxim in mind: If it was true, he would say it. And so, we have him complaining with regularity about his wife, the cat he contemplates drowning, and his weakness—for Pepys was a born peeper—for young, comely actresses. Strange as my passion for Pepys may be in the age of the meme and an apparent war on literate expression, …

Seven Reflections on Isolation

From this moment I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition than it was possible I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world; and with this thought I was going to give thanks to God for bringing me to this place. ~Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe As I read Defoe’s tale as a child, I imagined being stranded on a remote island. This, I believed, would be an unrivaled adventure. It was exciting to think of overcoming the elements, of sheltering, of creating a lean-to that I would improve daily, and of devising ways to harness the land and sea in the search for nutrition and sustenance. The thought of loneliness never entered my mind. I was too young to understand the native man Friday. I certainly didn’t flinch at Crusoe’s insistence on being called Master, for what did I know of the colonial world or of white versus the Other. But a part of me wanted …

Social Distancing During the Black Death

One of the comforts of studying history is that, no matter how bad things get, you can always find a moment in the past when things were much, much worse. Some commentators on our current crisis have been throwing around comparisons to earlier pandemics, and the Black Death of 1347 — 50 inevitably gets mentioned. Please. The Black Death wiped out half the population of Europe in the space of four years. In some places the mortality was far swifter and deadlier than that. The novelist Giovanni Boccaccio, who gave us the most vivid picture of the Black Death in literature, estimated that 100,000 people died in Florence in the four months between March and July 1348. The population of the city in 1338, according to one contemporary chronicler, stood at 120,000. Boccaccio at the time was a city tax official and saw the whole thing at ground level. Every morning bodies of the dead—husbands, wives, children, servants—were pushed out into the street where they were piled on stretchers, later on carts. They were carried …

Sorry, New York Times, But America Began in 1776

The United States of America began in 1776, not 1619. That one sentence is the thesis statement of “1776”—a non-partisan black-led response to the New York Times’s “1619 Project” initiative, which launched last week at D.C.’s National Press Club. I am pleased and proud to be a part of 1776, along with founder Bob Woodson, Glenn Loury, Coleman Hughes, Jason Hill, Carol Swain, John Wood, Taleeb Starkes, Robert Cherry, and many others. From my perspective as a member, 1776 has three core goals: (1) rebutting some outright historical inaccuracies in the 1619 Project; (2) discussing tragedies like slavery and segregation honestly while clarifying that these were not the most important historical foundations of the United States; and (3) presenting an alternative inspirational view of the lessons of our nation’s history to Americans of all races. The first of these points is perhaps the least important, but still a weighty task. Many of the claims made by the 1619 Project, which attempts to link everything from non-socialized medicine to American sugar consumption to historical slavery, are …

Putin at the World Holocaust Forum

Earlier this month, some 10 days after the World Holocaust Forum held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem to commemorate the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, the museum issued an unusual apology for a film presentation that contained “inaccuracies” and “created an unbalanced impression”—by, among other things, memory-holing the 1939 division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the Soviet occupation of the Baltics in 1940. The apology letter, signed by Professor Dan Michman of Yad Vashem’s International Institute of Holocaust Research and published in Haaretz, referred to this assault on historical facts as a “regrettable mishap.” But the presentation was actually part of a much bigger problem: the degree to which the forum was turned into a showcase for Russian President Vladimir Putin, his revisionist history, and his friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The January 23rd forum—funded mostly by Russian Jewish billionaire, European Jewish Congress president, and Putin ally Moshe Kantor, and organized in partnership with the Israeli government—more or less channeled the Kremlin propaganda narrative of World …

Holbrooke and the 68ers

Our Man—Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century by George Packer, Knopf, 608 pages, (May 2019) Power and the Idealists by Paul Berman, W. W. Norton and Company, 348 pages, (April 2007 Reissue) I. George Packer is a shrewd chronicler of American decay. In his 2013 book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, Packer reveals a battered, post-recession United States—from gutted factories in Youngstown, Ohio to abandoned housing developments in Tampa, Florida. The Unwinding isn’t a polemic—it’s written in the style of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, so it includes long profiles of the main “characters” alongside shorter essays about major American figures (from Colin Powell to Oprah) and page-long, staccato blasts of ads, lyrics, movie quotes, and headlines over the years. While some of the portraits in The Unwinding are evocative accounts of American resilience and ingenuity, if you pick up the book today, it’s like reading the prequel to Trumpism. And it hasn’t escaped Packer’s notice that his most recent book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End …

Bravery and Betrayal: The Peculiar Case of Ágnes Heller

Balatonalmádi is a small lakeside village in Hungary still brimming with socialist influence: Stalinist architecture, standardized everything, alongside the serenity of the lake after which it is named. It was here that on July 19th, 2019, a 90-year-old woman went for a swim and did not come back. Her name was Ágnes Heller, and she was one of the most distinguished female philosophers of the modern world. Heller was full of life, with a vivacious laugh and venomous sense of humor, but she also enjoyed a reputation as a principled foe of injustice and defender of the oppressed, whether they were Jews, women, or whoever happened to be on the wrong side of power. In particular, she was revered as a courageous political dissident and outspoken supporter of the doomed uprising against Hungary’s communist regime in 1956, a vitally important event in the history of her homeland. At a 2007 conference in Berlin, when asked about the book she and her husband had written about the events of 1956, she said: For me, 1956 was …

Confucius Got It Right: Giving in to ‘Bias’ Is Part of Living an Ethical Life

“I would strangle everyone in this room if it somehow prolonged my son’s life.” That’s what I blurted into a microphone during a panel discussion on ethics. I was laughing when I said it, but the priest sitting next to me turned sharply in horror and the communist sitting next to him raised her hand to her throat and stared daggers at me. Why was I on a panel with a priest and a revolutionary communist? Long story—not very interesting: we were debating the future of ethics with special attention to the role of religion. The interesting part, however, is that at some point, after we all shook hands like adults and I was on my way home, I realized that I meant it—I would choke them all. Well, of course, one can’t be entirely sure that one’s actions will follow one’s intentions. The best-laid plans of mice and men, and all that. But, given some weird Twilight Zone scenario wherein all their deaths somehow saved my son’s life, I was at least hypothetically committed. …