All posts filed under: History

Tocqueville and Us

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. ~Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness Come around to my way of thinking. Don’t you want to, want to get along? ~Urge Overkill, “Sister Havana” The University of Michigan just signaled its plan to fight racism: “Over the next three years, the university will hire at least 20 faculty members with expertise in racial inequality and structural racism.” The key words here are “at least”; count on more than 20. Corporations like Microsoft, Disney, and Genentech now routinely browbeat managers and employees into moral conformity by way of “diversity training.” The Biden administration has reactivated “racial justice” and “equity” programs across federal agencies and at the unit level of the armed forces. The self-flagellation in such powerful American institutions only perplexes those who love their country for all it has overcome and still see it as a beacon of freedom and prosperity. A few brave souls have decried these academic, corporate, and federal policies to the detriment of their careers. But, in response, the agents …

Why Is the Society for American Archaeology Promoting Indigenous Creationism?

In April, one of us—Elizabeth Weiss—gave a talk, titled Has Creationism Crept Back into Archaeology?, at the 86th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA). The 87-year-old SAA identifies itself as “an international organization dedicated to research about the interpretation and protection of the archaeological heritage of the Americas.” The SAA board of directors includes professors, curators, and government archaeologists, all of whom presumably appreciate the importance of studying artifacts and human remains as a means to understanding the history of our species. The subject of the April 15th talk, co-authored with James W. Springer (who also co-authored this essay), was the threat of religious literalism being used as a means to insist on the repatriation of human remains (mainly skeletons) and artifacts to presumed descendent populations—i.e., present-day Indigenous communities whose members live near the location where such remains are discovered. However, our use of the term “repatriation” more broadly encompasses the new laws, ideological claims, and policies that serve to give Indigenous claimants control over remains and artifacts, as well as over …

How the (Much Maligned) Mongol Horde Helped Create Russian Civilization

If the great nomadic regime born from the Mongol expansion of the 13th century were projected on today’s maps, it would stretch across a region occupied by Ukraine, Bulgaria, Moldavia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Russia, including Tatarstan and Crimea. The history of this Horde is therefore a shared legacy. That legacy does not belong exclusively to the national narratives of any of these nation-states, narratives centered on linguistic, ethnic, and religious communities that had very different experiences with the Horde and today invest those experiences with a range of meanings. As a result, the historiography of the Horde has tended to depend very much on the standpoint of the historian. Where nationalisms solidified in opposition to Mongol rule, historians have told one kind of story; where nationalisms presume continuity with the Mongol past, historians have told another kind of story. In Russian nationalist scholarship, the Horde is an alien entity with disruptive effects on the formation of the Russian nation. In the Soviet Union, the Russian experience of vassalage to the Horde was …

White Lotus, Red Dragon—China’s History of Millenarian Dissent

On a warm Wednesday evening in May 2014, six people walked into a McDonald’s in Zhaoyuan, on China’s north-east coast. Four of the group were members of the same family, including a 12-year-old boy. Within minutes of entering the restaurant, they had cornered a young mother and were beating her to death. The motive for this murder has never been satisfactorily explained, but state media would soon portray it as the latest act in a drama that has been unfolding for almost 2,000 years. The group had been harassing diners, asking for their phone numbers. When one woman refused and snapped at them to “go away,” they attacked her with a chair and mop handle. Bystanders were told that if anyone tried to interfere, they would be killed. Police arrived quickly but the attackers continued to batter the woman’s body, breaking their weapons in the frenzy, until they were arrested. Part of the incident was captured by an onlooker’s mobile phone and uploaded to the video sharing site Sohu, from where it went viral. The …

Black Lives Matter and the Psychology of Progressive Fatalism

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murder, but the ramifications of his fateful encounter with George Floyd will reverberate through American culture and politics for years to come. The revival of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer produced the largest protest in American history and a groundswell of anti-racist activism across America’s major institutions. A year later, we can begin to see the ripple effects of what one Atlantic contributor has called the “Third Reconstruction.” More than 30 states have passed more than 140 police oversight reform laws; efforts are being made to introduce reparations for black Americans in various forms; and the progressive vision of racial inequality has penetrated American institutions and culture. Police are facing renewed pressure to perform their duties with discretion, and awareness of historical racism and its lingering effects has risen. On the other hand, the homicide rate is soaring in cities across the country amid a historic surge of violent crime—in Minneapolis, for example, the murder rate has returned to the days when the …

Book Burning at Midnight, May 10th, 1933

At the stroke of midnight on May 10th, 1933, the National Socialist German Students Union ignited a bonfire that—in the American imagination, at least—would never entirely flicker out. Illuminated by floodlights and flames, broadcast live on German radio, filmed by the newsreels, and rewound in archival documentaries ever after, the book burning by the Nazis, a festive confab held at 62 institutions of higher learning throughout Germany, was a picture-perfect metaphor for totalitarian thought control. The origin story for the grandest of the Nazi bonfires is instructive. Staged for the media with all the premeditation of a Nuremberg rally, it was held at the Opera Square in Berlin, between the Opera House and the University of Berlin, two sites formerly dedicated to art and education. In another sign of the times, the event was very much a student-sponsored extracurricular activity. After meeting with like-minded professors and coordinating with Nazi party officials, the students fanned out across Berlin ransacking libraries, book stores, and private collections. On the big night, a raucous procession of 5,000 torch-bearing undergraduates, …

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 …