My Weekly Reader 16 May 2019.

If you want to think about “God” in simple evolution-of-ideas terms, then the stages would run something like the following.  At first, humans believed all Nature was alive and that all living creatures possessed an “anima” (spirit, soul).[1] Later, seeking to appease these powerful natural forces, people “personified” them as “gods.”  There were many things that could go wrong or right in life, so there were many gods.  Build temples, offer sacrifices, and hope for the best.[2]  Then they refined this polytheism into each city having one particular patron god or goddess, along with the others.  That deity lived in a temple in the particular city that s/he protected.  Participation in religious rites figured as an important duty, rather than as a choice.  The deity didn’t move around.  Greek and Roman religion were merely stems from this stock, but elaborated non-religious ethical systems of great power.[3]  Animism yielded to Polytheism.

After a while, what became Western civilization diverged from this broad cultural pattern.   The Hebrews developed “ethical monotheism.”  That is they believed that only one real God existed; all the others were false gods.  That God existed everywhere in the world, rather than being bound to the confines of some runty city-state.  That God had made a “covenant” with His “chosen people.”  He would protect them if they worshipped only Him.  He didn’t settle for mere rites and offerings.  He also required adherence to a moral code of action in this world.  Then Christianity emerged from Judaism by opening the “covenant” to anyone who would profess the faith and by extending the “covenant” to include a promise of life after death.

If you want to go all sociological-psychological, then you might argue that Christianity amounted a generational revolt by young men against the old men who ran Judaism.  Alternatively, you could argue that God now wanted all of His Creation to share in the benefits and strictures of the faith he had granted first to the Jews.  Polytheism yielded to Monotheism.

Then, in the 7th Century AD, another monotheistic faith arose: Islam.  This, too, is an example of ethical monotheism.  If you want to go all sociological-psychological, then you could argue that the Prophet Muhammad borrowed much from Judaism and Christianity, and then preached his new faith to the polytheist Arabs at a critical moment in their history.  Alternatively, you could argue that God had gotten fed-up with the inability of Jews and Christians to follow His instructions.  He had sent Muhammad to call back the whole world to the benefits and strictures of the faith he had granted first to the Hebrews.

Since then, Judaism and Christianity have divided between growing secular majorities and shrinking “fundamentalist” minorities.  Islam, however, has not followed the same path.  The Koran remains the unalterable Word of Allah.

“Every schoolboy knows” the term “a willing suspension of disbelief” when approaching a work of fiction.  What might make understanding between faiths easier would be a “willing suspension of his belief” on the part of the individual.[4]

[1] For a serious, accessible, and sympathetic portrayal of this belief system, see Brian Moore, Black Robe (1985).

[2] I suppose one could think of this as either bribery by the people or extortion by the gods.  Living now in a more secular age, it appears that politicians have become the new source of manna.  Reading the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in parallel each day, I conjecture that Democrats believe in the bribery interpretation and Republican believe in the extortion interpretation.  But what do I know?

[3] If not of universal compliance.  That’s one of the things that makes Ancient History so much fun.

[4] I stole this from Eric Ormsby, “Allah: A Biography,” WSJ, 17 January 2019.

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Couple of Factual Points.

First, so far as I can tell at the moment, the first use of the term “collusion” came on “Meet the Press,” on 18 December 2016.  The person who used the term was John Podesta, a major figure in Hillary Clinton’s shambolic presidential campaign.  Did Podesta not want to use the term “conspiracy”?  Later that week, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada)—who may have been watching “Meet the Press”—also used the term “collusion.”[1]  From there it entered the lexicon of both Democrats and the media.  Then, apparently, it became the term of choice for the President and his supporters when asserting his innocence.  Then it became a term roundly denounced by Democrats and the media as meaningless and an obfuscation.

Second, firing James Comey as “obstruction of justice.”  On 14 February 2017, Trump reportedly told FBI Director James Comey that “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”  After all, “he’s a good guy.”  On 4 December 2018, a sentencing memorandum from Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller said Flynn “deserves credit for accepting responsibility in a timely fashion and substantially assisting the government.”  As a result, Flynn should receive little or no jail time.  What’s the diff?

Third, the Mueller Report “did not identify evidence that any U.S. persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation.”  More emphatically, “the Special Counsel’s report did not find any evidence that members of the Trump campaign or anyone associated with the campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its hacking operations.”

Fourth, “as the Special Counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.”[2]  His actions should be seen in this light.

Watching the “analysis” following Attorney General William Barr’s press conference this morning, I couldn’t help but be reminded of President Obama’s remark that he had to hold on “until the fever breaks.”[3]  Many people seem to have behaved badly in this mess.[4]  What to do?

I’m “concerned” (i.e. worried, frightened, angry) that Republicans will NOT let it go.  We don’t need a “reckoning” or a bloodbath or a counter-vailing “witch hunt.”  All of us—liberals, conservatives, and independents–would be lucky if the perpetrators of the “witch-hunt” calmly reflected on what went wrong.  The New York Times did so admirably after the Jayson Blair[5] and Judith Miller[6] events.

Calm reflection is difficult when the hounds are baying at your heels.  So, hounds, lay off.  Much as “they” need to be on the next thing smoking to Guantanamo, just lay off.  America’s democracy is at stake.

[1] See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/opinion/collusion-meaning-trump-.html

[2] Quotes from https://www.politico.com/story/2019/04/18/transcript-barr-press-conference-1280949

[3] See his equally shrewd statements that “the Cambridge police were stupid”; that ISIS is “just the JV team”; and that “Russia is only a regional power.”

[4] See: “Ace in the Hole” (1951), “Absence of Malice” (1981); “Network” (1986); “Shattered Glass” (2003).  These are among the real origins of the belief in “fake news.”

[5] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayson_Blair

[6] See: http://nymag.com/nymag/features/9226/

Rising Tide.

In the 1840s, two republics contended for power in the southwestern quadrant of North America.  In 1846, Mexico and the United States went to war over the issue.  The United States inflicted a catastrophic defeat on Mexico.  As prize of war, the United States got California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.  Plus the Republic of Texas was allowed to join the United States.  In 1853, the United States “purchased” the Gadsden Strip from a chastened Mexico.

Until 1924, the United States pursued a policy of “open borders.”[1]  That meant millions of Southern and Eastern Europeans could migrate to the USA.  Big industrial cities in the East and the Midwest filled up.  It also meant that there were no restriction on cross-border movements in the Southwest.  Many Mexicans migrated northward toward the more dynamic economy of the United States.

Then came the Depression, which decreased wages in both Mexico and the United States.[2]  When the United States entered the Second World War, the American economy began a long boom.  Between 1944 and 1966, 5 million “braceros” (Mexican temporary workers) came to the United States.  Not all of them went back.  By 1969 an estimated 540,000 illegal immigrants were working in the United States.  That number increased markedly in the 1970s and 1980s.  The economy of Mexico slumped far more than did that of the neighboring United States.  By 1986, perhaps 3.2 million illegals were living in the United States.  Mostly they were doing work that ordinary American citizens would not do.  Hard, dirty, and for long hours.

In 1979, the Carter Administration (1977-1981) proposed building a border wall.  In contrast, inn1986, the Reagan Administration supported an Immigration Reform and Control Act that granted amnesty to 2.7 million of the illegals.

Under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations, it was back to “get tough.”  From a dozen miles of fence between San Diego and Tijuana, the amount of fence grew to 560 miles after 9/11.  In 2000, 1.6 million illegals were caught at or near the border.  Then the Obama Administration added 137 miles of fence for a total of 697 miles of fence on the 1,954 mile-long Mexican-American border.  Purportedly, improvements in the Mexican economy then reduced the migration of Mexicans.[3]  In 2017, the Border Control arrested only 310,000 illegals.   So, triumph without a—full–wall!

The recent border “crisis” arises from different sources.  Many Central American countries are collapsing under the weight of gang violence and mis-government.  Whole families are migrating and presenting themselves as “refugees” at US points-of-entry.

However, people crossing the Sonoran desert is a peripheral issue in so far as illegal immigration is concerned.  In 2017 alone, 700,000 people obtained US tourist visas and then over-stayed their visas.  They just disappeared into the American hinterland.[4]  That is better than half of all the illegals.

Why should Central Americans get priority while Asians, Africans, and Muslims wait?  “It’s a serious question.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vInFuLgwR1U

[1] From 1882, the United States did try to limit immigration by Asians to the Pacific Coast.

[2] “A history of the southern border,” The Week, 8 February 2019, p. 11.

[3] The huge slump in the American economy—the “Great Recession”—may also have had something to do with it.

[4] This was basically the story with the 9/11 hijackers.

Bus Station.

Back in the day (as my undergrads used to say back in the day) I was in the head in the Greyhound station in like, IDK, Winnemucca, Nevada?  Cold as all get-out.  Riding the bus east from Seattle to Boston after Christmas break.  See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GONmFCkCGCc   Black kid is using the head also.  Then this cowboy staggers in through the swing-door.  Older guy in jeans, boots, sheep-skin lined  jacket, real Stetson.  So, a real cowboy.  His saddle is probably in the luggage compartment under a bus bound for Casper.  He’s holding a fifth of some amber colored fluid and I don’t think it was green tea full of whatever green tea is full of that’s supposed to be good for your health.  OTOH, it’s in a regular “factory whiskey”–as Henry Fonda said in “Grapes of Wrath”–bottle instead of a Mason jar, so you probably won’t wake up two days later, blind and in a culvert.  Anyway, who was I?  Oh, yea.  The cowboy sees the black guy and says “Hey darky, help me get this thing whipped” and holds out his jug.  Black kid is just frozen.  He knows the guy meant it in a friendly way.  He knows that he isn’t going to do some Man-Tan “Nossuh, Ah don’t drink no whiskey” routine.  He knows that he should fight for being called “darky.”  He knows that there isn’t another black person around for 250 miles—unless there’s a train stop and some old porter named Ulysses Grant Weems is aboard.

Once every five years or so, I think about those two guys and wonder how it shook out after I left in embarrassment for all three of us.

 

Zion Island 11.

NEU FILME!!

Apparaitre a la “Theatre d’Ete a Madagascar.”

“Die Hunde von der d’Urbervilles.”

Avec Hardy Kruger comme “Vitus Gasthaus” et Mina Loy comme “Frau Murnau.”

Realise par Franz Seitz, Sr.

Scenario de Graf Guy de Marcheret d’Eu.

 

 

Curmudgeon Me.

Il y a etait un fois, America had the best democratic public school system in the world, AND the greatest college and university system in the world.  More Americans went farther in education than did people in any other country.  In percentage terms, America had more and better “human capital” than did any other country in the world.  “We cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q49NOyJ8fNA&t=16s

Then, standardized tests revealed a terrifying decline in American educational attainment.  The generally-accepted, state-mandated, and Federally-funded response took the form of more standardized testing, accountability through assessment, the standardization of delivery models, and the proliferation of rubrics.

Here’s the thing.  When American education led the world, nobody did much standardized testing, nobody did much formal assessment[1], nobody insisted on standardized delivery, and no truly-educated person knew what the word “rubric” meant.  Schools and teachers didn’t do ANY of the things that now are supposed to cure “the prince of our disorders.”  This suggests that the origin of American educational problems lies elsewhere than in the educational system itself.

This applies to the American education reform experience of the last several decades.  Has anyone—other than me—ever been lost in the woods?  The hard-won lessons of millennia in this matter counsel certain behaviors.  First, Stop where you are!  Do not keep going forward!  Do not turn aside to the left hand or to the right to go bush-whacking through the brush!  You will fall over the edge of a cliff, bust your leg, and end up being mauled by some aggrieved Momma-bear.  Second, turn around and head back down the trail that you came up.  Eventually, you will come upon the place where you last knew where you were.  Third, stop in that place, consult your map and compass, and discern where you went wrong.  Fourth, get back on the trail you were supposed to be on before you missed the way-mark because you were looking down at your boots, trying not to trip over roots, when you should have been looking up to notice the white-painted blaze in a tree.

Thus, we need to stop bush-whacking through the educational underbrush.  We need to stop, turn around, and go back to whatever it is we were doing right before the wheels came off.

What was it we used to do when “once we were warrior kings”?  Historians have begun to explore what went wrong since the 1970s.  The early evidence suggests that complex social, economic, and cultural forces combined to wreck the foundations of American educational achievement.  The oil shocks of the 1970s put an end to an already troubled economic boom.  Families stopped valuing education as the pathway to success and stopped supporting the teachers who provided it.  Women’s Liberation took a lot of smart women out of career ghettos in teaching school (and nursing and bank-tellers and secetaries in offices), then replaced them with inferior substitutes.  They stopped buying encyclopedias and stopped subscribing to newspapers and magazines, and stopped taking their children to public libraries.  (Which have now become “social centers” with Ute and yentas grumbling at the top of their lungs.)  Divorces and re-marriages multiplied even though that meant that children had fewer resources and less family-support structures in challenging circumstances.  Trust in any and all institutions (understandably) declined.  (Hard to appreciate where those idiot anti-vaxxers come from otherwise.)  In short, the bourgeois social norms that had raised up individual “achievement” and collective “civilization” (along with its many injustices) went into a death spiral.

It would be un-fair to ask college administrators and faculty leaders at any one college or university to have the testicular fortitude to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  So, I’m doing it.

That’s my straw-man.  Knock it to bits.

[1] Although teachers and professors wrote a good deal of commentary in the margins of blue-books and essays.  Less common now because many people just score a rubric.  Leave the student to figure it out on their own.

Venezuela 7 February 2019.

In 1998, the Venezuelan people elected Hugo Chavez as president of a country with a strong economy, but also one divided over the distribution of the benefits of that economy.[1]  Chavez was a “populist”: he nationalized the oil industry, the banks, and much of the land, then used the profits to fund programs to aid the poor.  A big rise in government spending outstripped revenue, so they started printing money.  Prices soared.  Chavez slammed on price controls.  These didn’t (and don’t ever) work.  By 2013, the inflation rate had climbed to 50 percent; since then it has headed toward 10 million percent per year and the currency is worthless.  Furthermore, owners of nationalized assets were bent out of shape (see: selfish) and the price controls had distorted economic activity (see: Paul Samuelson).  In these circumstances, men with guns might make all the difference when it came to staying in power.  Chavez kept a tight leash on the army.  They—and politicians–went into drug trafficking.[2]

Then America’s “fracking” revolution hit.  An alternative to oil and coal flooded the energy market.  Oil prices collapsed everywhere, to the distress of Arabs, Russians Nigerians, and Venezuelans.  In the case of Venezuela, the country lost most of its foreign exchange earnings.  This cut the amount of money available to pay for key imports.  One of these was food, because the “populist” polices in the countryside had reduced food production.  Venezuela had to import more food, but lacked the foreign exchange to do so.  The same went for pharmaceuticals.  Entrepreneurs-with-pistols now extract goods and services.  As a result, 75 percent of the country is in poverty.  An increasing number of Venezuelans demanded a new course.  The army became even more important.

Then Chavez died in 2013 and his chief subordinate, Nicolas Maduro, took his place.  Maduro could have tried to clean up a bad situation.  He would have been a national hero.  Instead, he decided to ride it down.[3]  Ever-growing street protests began in 2014.  When opposition groups won the 2015 elections, Maduro fell back to rewriting the constitution so that he could do what he wanted and arresting anyone who seemed like a threat.[4]  Both the police and pro-government paramilitary groups called “colectivos” assailed the protestors.  Hundreds are dead.  Many of the original leaders are in jail.  Many ordinary people are pre-occupied with getting food and other necessities.[5]  Three million people have emigrated to neighboring countries.[6]  So protests died down in 2018.  Maduro rigged the 2018 election to win a new six-year term.  Cuba has sent intelligence officers to support the repression, China has loaned millions, and Russia has warned off American intervention.

From one perspective, this looks like the collapse of Communism in 1989.  Like the collapse of Communism, the aftermath will be painful, messy, and often un-just.

[1] “The growing crisis in Venezuela,” The Week, 25 January 2019, p. 11.

[2] This probably isn’t much different from Mexico.

[3] See; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_SMJ-Uwmkg

[4] Many of these people were old Chavez loyalists in government ministries and in the army.  As a historian, I can’t help thinking of Stalin purging the “Old Bolsheviks.”  I’m sure this is an over-reaction.  So don’t write to me.

[5] So, a capitalist black market thrives amidst the ruins of a formally socialist society.

[6] Perhaps seven million more may follow their path, according to one estimate.