Down the Malay Barrier 5.

Many different threads of history knot in the case of the steamship “Jeddah.”

First, there is geography.  On the one hand, trade between the Far East and anywhere to the West (the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, East Africa, Europe) must pass through one of two narrow gates: the Sunda Strait (between Sumatra and Java) or the Malacca Straits (between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra).  On the other hand, the southern edge of the Arabian peninsula, on the northern shore of the Indian Ocean, is a poor land called the Hadramaut.  It grows frankincense and not much else.  Then the River Clyde runs through southwestern Scotland.  Along its banks many shipyards grew up in the 19th Century.[1]  Clydeside became the heart of British ship-building.

Second, there is demography.  The Dutch held the Sunda Strait for centuries; in 1818, the English got the island and harbor of Singapore in the Malacca Straits.  They emphasized attracting Arab merchants already familiar with local people and trade.  It quickly became the hub of East-West trade.  At the same time, Hadhrami (people from Hadramaut) began emigrating to places all around the Indian Ocean.  Usually, they became merchants and sailors.  “Blood is thicker than water”: family networks were vital to success in long-distance trade.

Third, among the “pillars” of Islam, one is “Hajj”: the obligation to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the birth-place of Islam.  In Britain’s “Indian Empire” (today India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), in Indonesia, and in the Philippines, there were many Muslims.  Many of them made the “hajj.” Sea voyages offered the least inconvenient route, but the small sailing ships commonly used for the journey were uncomfortable, slow, and sometimes dangerous.  A second “pillar” is “Zakat”: the obligation to give charity to the poor.

These threads came together when Syed Abdul Rahman Alsagoff, a Hadhrami, arrived in Singapore in 1824.[2]  He went into the spice trade, where he prospered.  His son and grandson followed the trade.  The grandson, Syed Mahomed Alsagoff, possessed great wealth and engaged in generous philanthropy.  In 1870, Alsagoff ordered construction of a steam-powered passenger ship to carry Muslim pilgrims to and from Jeddah, the port-of-entry on the Red Sea for Mecca in the interior.  The ship was to be named the “Jeddah.”

Fourth, British ships and British sea captains were the best in the world.  In 1872 a Clydeside shipyard[3] launched the “Jeddah.”   Alsagoff hired British officers to command the ship.  For eight years it plied its trade between Singapore and Jeddah.

On 17 July 1880, the “Jeddah” sailed from Singapore with 953 pilgrims aboard.  By 3 August the ship was approaching the Red Sea.  Then a terrible hurricane blew up.  The ship began to leak, lost most of its power, and began to list to one side.  On 7 August, believing the ship would sink, most of the officers abandoned the ship—and the passengers—in a lifeboat.  They survived and reported the ship sunk.  But the “Jeddah” did not sink.  The remaining officers and the passengers worked to save the ship, then were rescued by a French ship.

Fifth, Authority and Responsibility cannot be separated without disaster following.  It is an unwritten law of the sea that captains remain aboard until everyone else has been saved, or go down with their ship.  The officers had betrayed this duty and became outcasts.  Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900) imagines the terrible fate of one of these men.

[1] Also a great many distilleries, although you shouldn’t combine the “twa”—boat-building and booze.

[2] The term “Syed” indicates that he was a descendant of one of the Prophet Muhammad and was, thus, of high status among all Muslims.

[3] David Byrne grew up there.  See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AINJTvRUk1w

Down the Malay Barrier 4.

The Ganges River flows across most of northern India, draining the Himalaya Range.  Near its eastern/lower end it is joined by the Brahmaputra River.  Then the mighty river flows into the head of the Bay of Bengal.[1]  Along the way, the rivers carry immense mounts of earth.[2]  When the river approaches the waters of the bay, it slows down and the silt gets deposited along the shores.  This has created a huge delta.  Actually, it is the biggest delta in the world.  It is more than 200 miles across at its widest point and covers more than 40,000 square miles.  Bigger than the Nile delta, or the Mississippi delta, or the Amazon delta, or the Google delta.  Like other great deltas, the flow of water-born sediment has pushed the delta out toward the sea.  Over time, the delta has advanced an estimated 250 miles to the south.

The silt is rich in minerals and nutrients, so that the soil that builds up is excellent farm land.  With the river and many streams close at hand, it is easy to irrigate the land.  The soil is so rich that between 125 and 145 million people live in the delta.  (That is two-thirds of the population of Bangladesh.)  That works out to about 520 people per square mile.[3]  They grow rice, tea, and sisal.[4]

In addition to the human beings, the islands are inhabited by deer, pythons, eagles, crocodiles, elephants, woodpeckers, leopards, and some Bengal tigers (which occasionally invade villages for take-out).

The delta is not one big mass of land.  It is a maze of islands separated by rivers and streams.  The many islands are connected by “traditional” wooden ferry boats, rather than by bridges.[5]  Most of the delta is between 30 feet above sea-level and sea-level.  Indeed, if global warming caused enough of the polar ice pack to melt to raise the sea-levels everywhere by 20 inches, then 6 million delta residents would lose their homes and land.

The delta gets a lot of rain.  The monsoons drop from 59 to 79 inches of rain on the western part of the delta and from 79 to 118 inches in the eastern part.  All that rain is one of the things that makes rice-farming possible.  The run-off causes streams and rivers to rise.

Lying at the head of the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges delta is the frequent target of tropical cyclones.  In the Atlantic these are known as hurricanes.  High winds (typically about 80 miles per hour), lots of rain, and big storm surges (water pushed ashore by the storm).  Tropical cyclones start in the south of the Bay of Bengal, then move northward toward the head of the bay at the Ganges delta.  This shoves a lot of water from deep water toward shallow water.  When it reaches shore it is called a storm surge.  Another problem is that the Ganges delta is densely populated (compared to the Jersey shore during hurricane season).  If they get a big storm, the water level suddenly rises, and many people drown.

What we see here is human beings living at the edge of two great natural physical processes.  The river has created a land that can support many people.  The monsoons of the Bay of Bengal make farming possible, but the cyclones push back the line of safe settlement.

[1] Bengal is in north-eastern India, so the Bay of Bengal is on the eastern side of the Indian sub-continent.

[2] Also, the remains of dead people who were cremated upriver and cast into the stream.

[3] The population density of Conshohocken, PA, is about 13,000/square mile.  However, Conshy is purely residential while the Ganges delta is mostly devoted to farm land.  So the concentration of people in farm villages is much greater than it sounds.

[4] Sisal is a fiber used to make twine.  I bought a roll in the Dollar General to tie up a bunch of small branches that had come down in the yard for trash day and to attach gingerbread cookies to the Christmas tree.

[5] If you read the New York Times, the ferries are overloaded all the time, and capsize all the time, and lots of passengers drown all the time.

Zion Island 19.

Fodor’s South Asia on Five Dollars a Day (1952).

Madagascar.

Madagascar is difficult to visit, but well worth the effort.  The difficulties arise from its remote location, the infrequency of air flights or ship sailings to the island, and from the stringent customs formalities.  The benefits more than repay these difficulties.  The lush vegetation, the immense diversity of fauna, the striking scenery, and the remarkable social experiment being conducted on the island combine to make Madagascar a must-see for the sophisticated traveler.

The island may only be entered through the east coast port city of Toamasina.  There are monthly sailings from Germany and from Dar es Salaam in Tanganyika.  From Dar es Salaam one can make connections to many other destinations.

The capital city is Theresienstadt (formerly Antananarivo).  Here are located the headquarters of the administrative services.  Here, also, is located a small technical institute that supports the European immigrant population’s agricultural development program with a variety of engineering services.

Theresienstadt is also the home of the Institute for Tropical Medicine.  The ITM provides European scientists a home base that serves the many medical research stations dotted about the island.  The ITM is particularly notable for its pioneering techniques in seeking cures for tropical diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever.

The traditionally sleepy languor of a tropical town has been enlivened in recent years by immigrants from a variety of European cultures.

You have to get out into the countryside to garner a sense of the “real” Madagascar.  The island is divided by climate and geography into three zones.  Along the east coast there is a narrow, high scarp of mountains.  The twisting roadways are largely the product of the extension of Germany’s domestic program of “autobahn” to the tropical island.  These allow for many eye-catching views.  But don’t let your attention wander too much!

The central part of the island is occupied by a plateau.  Here one finds the indigenous population.

The bulk of the European immigrant population is engaged in re-claiming the arid Western coastal strip that slopes down from the central plateau to the Mozambique Channel.  The whole region is dotted with small agricultural settlements.  Irrigation systems are being constructed and mangrove swamps drained to increase farmland.  Soon the fields will give forth a harvest of fruits and vegetables that promise to become a major source of export earnings.

The unusual mixing of different populations might be expected to give rise to some tension.  In fact, the substantial police presence inspires a sense of security that reassures all parties.

Killings.

In 2016, 61.3 percent of the population of the United States was white; 12.7 percent of the population was black.[1]

Homicide (2016).

In 2016, there were 6,676 murders in the United States.[2]

Of the perpetrators, 81 percent of whites were killed by other whites and 15 percent were killed by blacks; and 89 percent of blacks were killed by other blacks and 8.4 percent of blacks were killed by whites.  So, we live in a pretty segregated society in this area just as in many others.

Of these killings, 3,499 victims were white; 2,870 victims were black; 221 victim were “other race”; and 86 victims were listed as “unknown race.”  So, 52 percent of the victim were white; and 42 percent of the victims were black.  This means that white suffer about 5/6s or 80 percent of the homicides they “should” suffer if homicide was evenly distributed by race.  In contrast, blacks suffer more than three times as many homicides as they “should” suffer if homicide was evenly distributed.

Killed by police (2019).

In 2019, police officers killed 1,004 people.[3]

Of the killed, 370 were white; 235 were black; 158 were Hispanic; 39 were “other”; and 202 were listed as “Unknown.”  Of the 784 people killed whose race was known, 47.6 percent were white; and 30 percent were black.

Application (2020).

On 23 February 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was shot to death by two white men attempting to make a “citizen’s arrest” because they suspected that he might be a burglar.  Arbery’s death and the failure of the local authorities to take any action triggered widespread protests and criticism.  In addition video of the killing soon went viral.  When I Googled his name just now, I got 10,600,000 results.

On 25 May 2020, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer as bystanders filmed the event.  The video soon went viral.  Demonstrations soon began and have slid into rioting, looting, and arson in some cases.  When I Googled his name just now I got 205,000,000 results.

On 1 May 2020, the son of a disgruntled Dollar Store customer shot to death unarmed security guard Calvin Munerlyn.  Several candle-light vigils appear to have followed.  When I Googled his name just now I got 144,000 results.

This isn’t to argue that police violence isn’t a grave problem for African-Americans.  It is.  It isn’t to argue that the deaths of Arbery and Floyd don’t deserve all the attention they have garnered.  They do.

It’s just to suggest that there are even more grave problems facing African-Americans than deaths at the hands of the police.  But nobody seems interested in drawing that lesson—or in remembering Calvin Munerlyn.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_ethnicity_in_the_United_States

[2] See: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2016/crime-in-the-u.s.-2016/tables/expanded-homicide-data-table-3.xls

[3] The Washington Post has been running a data base.  See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/police-shootings-2019/

Down the Malay Barrier 3.

The Shan State forms one of Myanmar’s ethnic communities.  Located in the northeastern quadrant of Myanmar, it borders southwestern China (Yunnan), Laos, and Thailand.  Under other circumstances, a bunch of forested hills on the inland edge of a no-account country would be of no interest.  In fact, however, it is an important–and increasingly important—link in the international narcotics supply chain.

For one thing, the many small farms grow both produce and opium poppies.  Poppies grow easily in the poor soil often found in hill regions.  Poor peasants value poppies as a cash crop.  For another thing, part of the anti-Communist Chinese Kuomintang Army retreated from Yunnan into the Shan State after the Communist victory in 1949.  Rather than transit to join the other supporters of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, they settled down in Shan State.  There the refugee army embarked on opium and heroin production.  For yet another thing, since 1962 the central government’s effort to suppress autonomy movements has spawned local resistance groups.  As the old saying goes, “For success in war, three things are necessary: money, more money, and still more money.”[1]  Shan autonomists have relied upon drug sales to build up military forces more than capable of holding off the army of Myanmar on most occasions.[2]

If opium and heroin built the foundations of the Shan State drug trade, the producers have been alert to changes in global market conditions and new product development.  Take, for example methamphetamine and fentanyl.  Methamphetamine is a synthetic stimulant.[3]  “Crystal meth” is an alternative form of methamphetamine.  Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is far stronger than is heroin.[4]  All have become popular “recreational” drugs.  Much of production of the chemical components of both methamphetamine and fentanyl took place in China.  In recent years, pressure from the United States caused the Chinese government to restrict production in China proper.  Producers shifted their facilities outside China, including to Shan State.

New supply chain routes then developed.  Fishing villages dot Myanmar’s long coastline on the Bay of Bengal.  Doubtless the local fishermen feel the same eagerness to profit from the drug trade as do the peasant farmers.  Probably they carry their cargo to ports like Yangon and Singapore, while another route may run down the nearby Mekong River to Ho Chi Minh City.

Myanmar’s war with the ethnic groups has been a murky business.  To offer one example, the Kachin Defense Army, in Shan State, is suspected of having done a deal with the army of Myanmar involving the drug trade.  However, the trouble with criminals—even criminals in uniform—is that they’re dishonest.  The Kachins seem to have been sending some of their product to the Arakan Army on the west coast.  Discovering this betrayal, the army and police launched a series of raids into Kachin territory in Spring 2020.  They hauled in 200 million tabs of meth, 1,100 pounds of crystal meth, 630 pounds of heroin, and almost 1,000 gallons of methyl fentanyl.[5]  The army probably sought to remind the Kachins of the deal, not break the deal.

[1] Attributed variously to Marshal Trivulzio and Raimondo Montecucolli.

[2] You might enjoy and learn from “Proof of Life” (dir. Taylor Hackford, 2000).

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methamphetamine

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fentanyl

[5] Hannah Beech and Saw Nang, “Record Raids in Myanmar Point to Shifting Drug Trade,” NYT, 20 May 2020.

Down the Malay Barrier 2.

Geography and climate.  Burma is an up-and-down country sandwiched between India and Bangladesh in the northwest, China and Laos in the east, and Malaya in the south.  The Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal create long seaboards.

Just as Egypt is “the gift of the Nile,” Burma is “the gift of the Irrawaddy.”  Burma’s chief river runs most of the length of the country through a wide, lush valley.  Encircling that valley to west, east, and north are ranges of hills and increasingly rugged mountains.

Burma is in Monsoon Asia: there is a wet season and a dry season (October-May); it’s mostly hot and sometimes steamy.  For Western travelers, health dangers abound.[1]

 

The history that matters.  Burma began as a series of city-states in and around the Irrawaddy River valley between 200 and 100 BC.  Larger kingdoms rose and fell through the 800s AD.  All the while, new ethnic groups immigrated from China and India.  Then, during what Europeans would call the High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1500 AD), a succession of still bigger kingdoms emerged to engulf many of the territories surrounding the Irrawaddy valley; and first Buddhism, then Islam spread from India.  All this created an ethnically and religiously diverse Burma.  From the late 1600s to the early 1800s, a series of empires and kingdoms sought to expand the boundaries of Burma and to impose strong central government on outlying ethnic communities.

This worked pretty well until an expanding Burma collided with an expanding British Empire in India.  Three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824-1885) ended in British rule over Burma.

British rule increased the Western impact on the country: Buddhism was disestablished as the state religion; secular schools—largely staffed by Christian missionaries—were created; a fleet of riverboats and ferries sailed the rivers; and a railroad ran the length of the great central valley.  Furthermore, many new immigrants—Indians—settled in Burma, while the mixed race “Anglo-Burmese” later became an important sub-group.  The British administration granted enlarged autonomy to the “tribal” areas containing ethnic minorities.  By the early 20th Century, Burma had become a remarkably diverse multi-ethnic community.[2]

Naturally, British rule inspired a student-led nationalist movement.  Minor British concessions failed to appease nationalist demands before the Second World War.  The Burmese ethnic groups had composed their differences—for the moment—in a 1944 conference.  A war-exhausted Britain granted independence in 1948.

When the civilian government failed to squash demands from the ethnic minorities for greater self-government, the army overthrew the government (1962), then later changed the country’s name to Myanmar.  Burma has been a military dictatorship ever since.  The generals have wrecked the economy through socialist-inspired policies incompetently applied.  They haven’t done much better at either defeating or reconciling the ethnic minorities.  A host of ethnic “National Armies” dominate much of the country.  The recent persecution of the Muslim Rohingyas has attracted much attention, Burma/Myanmar is a cauldron of conflicts.  Prominent among the rebellious areas is the Shan State.

[1] See: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/myanmar-burma

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ethnic_groups_in_Myanmar

Down the Malay Barrier 1.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they simultaneously attacked the Americans in the Philippines, the British in Malaya, and the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies (what is today Indonesia).  Japanese naval air forces also raided Darwin in northern Australia.  Early Japanese victories drove Allied forces back toward Burma in the north, the Dutch East Indies in the west, and northern Australia.  Desperate efforts were made to hold this “Malay Barrier.”

Today the region is home to growing economies, societies under stress, Islamic radicalism, and crime.  What would a traveler see moving from Bangladesh to Darwin?

The city of Jakarta, Indonesia proper has a population of something over 10 million people, but the larger metropolitan area has a population of 30 million people.  A lot of people produce a lot of trash.  Much of the trash from Jakarta—7,000 tons a day–ends up in nearby Bekasi.[1]  A daily stream of 1,000 trucks dump their daily loads onto a 150 acre one-time rice field.  They’ve been at this for thirty years, so the loads have accumulated into a plateau dotted with hills.  Those hills can temporarily rear up as high as 150 feet until bull-dozers working ‘round-the-clock level them down into another layer of the plateau.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and not just for the company that runs the dump.  Many villages surround the mountain of trash.  Most of the villagers are immigrants, farmers who lost their land elsewhere and came to Bekasi in search of work.  They’re here because they had no other choice.  The villagers earn their living by trash-picking for anything that might have resale value.  They scramble up and down the trash piles, dodging around the bull-dozers, and loading their finds into baskets strapped to their backs.  Any plastic, metal, wood, or electronic waste can be sold to someone.  Middle men buy different types of recovered material, paying by weight.  Recycling companies buy what the middlemen purchase from the trash pickers.  Pickers can earn anywhere from $2 to $10 a day.

One kind of economy creates other ones.  Little stands sell cigarettes, and snacks and soda to trash-pickers taking a break.  Drug dealers and prostitutes meet other needs.[2]

The trash stinks, so the hundreds of trash pickers stink and so do the surrounding villages.  Flies are everywhere.  The ground water is polluted.  Working—or, in the case of children too young to work, playing—on trash leads to cuts and scrapes.  Sores, infections, and breathing problems abound.  Poor Indonesians haven’t had much contact with modern medicine.  Folk belief holds that living in these conditions strengthens the body’s immunity to disease.

The Indonesian government doesn’t do much to help to poor.  Muslim charities elsewhere pay for Koran study classes or provide scholarships for the occasional exceptionally good students to continue their education through university.  Non-profits provide other kinds of help, like additional food.

Is this an example of human triumph over difficulty or of complacent rulers ignoring inequality and suffering at their own peril?

[1] Aleasha Bliss, “Bantar Gebang: Trials and Tribulations of Indonesia’s “Trash Heroes”,” Jakarta Globe, 8 February 2019; Adam Dean and Richard C. Paddock, “Picking Plastic, Metal, and Bones from a Trash Tower,” NYT, 28 April 2020.

[2] See: Richard Davies, Extreme Economies: What Life at the World’s Margins Can Teach Us About Our Own Future (2020).

ChiMerica 4 18 May 2020.

For decades, both foreign policy experts and business leaders saw China in a favorable light.  They expounded their views to American voters.  Opening China to capitalism and world markets would integrate the Asian giant into the global economy to the benefit of all.  At the same time, capitalism would raise billions out of poverty while spawning a middle-class, the historical driver of democratization.

“Outsiders” long dissented from this “elite” view of China.  They claimed that China rigged its domestic market to exclude foreign products, subsidized Chinese companies competing on international markets, and ruthlessly stole intellectual property.  One effect came in the massive out-sourcing of American industrial jobs and manufacturing in the wake of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).  They claimed that China remained a one-party state governed by and for the benefit of the Communist Party.  They pointed out that economic power converts readily to military power, while China advanced supposed “historical” claims to territory beyond its current borders.

Now the “elite” view has lost traction.  American public opinion has taken an increasingly critical view of the Peoples’ Republic of China.[1]  Already in 2019, under the shadow of the tariff war with the United States, the brutal repression of the Uighur minority, and the crack-down on pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong, 57 percent of Americans took an unfavorable view of China.  In February 2020, the unfavorable view had risen to 67 percent.  There is little difference between the political parties in their perception of China as a threat to American interests: 62 percent of Democrats see it that way, leaving little daylight between them and the 68 percent of Republicans who feel the same way.

As a candidate, Donald Trump loudly expounded the anti-China “outsider” view.  As President, he followed his campaign words with presidential action by slamming severe tariffs on China and harshly criticizing it behavior.  Now the United States is in the midst of a coronavirus-induced economic collapse that has undone all the progress that took place during the first Trump administration.  Now the country is desperately short of the personal protective equipment that American companies produced at home in days of yore.  Now many countries, and not merely the United States, are criticizing China for a lack of transparency in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.

 

How vulnerable is China to external pressure?  China faces grave economic problems.   Its drive for industrialization overshot even the huge demands of domestic and export markets, leaving it saddled with excess productive capacity.  Its long construction boom has achieved the same thing in terms of office space and housing, leaving a property bubble.  Both were financed by excessive government credit channeled through banks that are now on the verge of insolvency.

As the early response to the coronavirus in Wuhan showed, the Chinese central government is hard-put to respond to a crisis because of the autonomy actually exercised by—often corrupt–local authorities.  Moreover, the claim of the Communist Party to sole authority requires that its failures be covered up.  Finally, China’s flawed economic progress has enriched the Party elite and their cronies.  Fixing problems would require painful sacrifice.[2]  For all these reasons, China is vulnerable to external pressure.

 

How wise or idiotic would it be to exert such pressure?  Anything that triggered a severe economic crisis in China would send shock waves around the globe.  Slumping Chinese production would lead to falling demand for raw materials from many countries.  For example, in 2018, China imported more than $60 billion worth of iron ore, gas, coal, agricultural, forestry and fisheries products.[3]  China is deeply entangled in global supply chains for many goods, so the markets for many Chinese products would also start to strangle.  Finally, the global financial system would suffer from the resulting global slowdown.  Thus, in the interlocked global economy, trouble in China will mean trouble everywhere else.  Furthermore, as history has shown time and again, severe economic problems have comparable political effects.  Sometimes the effects create important reforms.  Sometimes they create turmoil and crisis.  All in all, it seems better to seek a co-operative solution that addresses both the immediate crisis and the underlying problems.  That might appeal to the risk-averse, but they aren’t the only ones making decisions.

[1] Walter Russell Mead, “Trump’s Best Re-election Bet: Run Against Beijing,” WSJ, 23 April 2020.

[2] Walter Russell Mead, “China Is the Sick Man of Asia,” WSJ, 4 February 2020.

[3] See: https://asialinkbusiness.com.au/china/getting-started-in-china/chinas-imports-and-exports?doNothing=1

The Logan Act.

Early modern European politics focused on the competition of “factions” organized around powerful individuals, rather than on “parties” organized around competing ideologies.  Hence, the Founding Fathers did not expect political parties to occupy the political system created by the Constitution.  Things didn’t work out as expected.[1]

Early National American politics quickly polarized into Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.  The two parties reflected different strands of the American Revolution in terms of attitudes to the power of the central government and of social groups.  However, the party competition also incited a degree of personal animus that challenged the generally desired rationality of the time.

In a further surprise, although the Patriots had sought to separate themselves from Europe, foreign affairs repeatedly intruded into the political life of the Early Republic.  An anti-monarchical revolution in France initially won broad support in America, then took a radical turn that divided Americans.  Opinion quickly swung from “Oh, they’re like us” to “What if that could happen here?”  Then war broke out between the new French Republic and, well, almost everyone.  Most important to the United States of all the combatants was Britain because of the Royal Navy’s control of the seas and of the trade that used those seas.  Federalists came to loathe the French Revolution and see a natural alignment with Britain, while the Democratic-Republicans sympathized with the aspirations of the sister-republic and put down its excesses to a temporary war expedient.

The debates on these matters between the two parties quickly soured.  Since the Federalists held the White House from 1789 to 1801, they had charge of American foreign policy.  Three things then happened: the Americans and the French fell into a naval Quasi-War (1798-1800)[2]; the Democratic-Republican press made the Federalists the butt of withering attacks[3]; and the Federalists rammed through a battery of “Alien and Sedition Acts” intended to stifle opposition voices.[4]  The Alien and Sedition Acts contributed to a revulsion against the Federalists that brought the Democratic-Republicans into power in 1801.

Although not normally lumped with the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Logan Act (1799) fits well with the general Federalist effort to squash political opposition.  George Logan,[5] a Democratic-Republican with a lifetime of poor judgement behind him, had made a purely personal visit to France during the Quasi-War in hopes of patching things up.   The Logan Act criminalized private individuals interfering in relations between the United States and other countries.  Unlike the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Logan Act neither sunsetted nor was repealed.

 

How has the Logan Act been applied?  Citing the Logan Act is wrapping oneself in the flag to harass political opponents.

In 1803, France controlled the mouth of the Mississippi river and obstructed American trade through the port of New Orleans.  Western farmers became exasperated with the barrier to getting their crops to market.  A farmer gave public voice to what must have been common tavern conversation after the second mug of rye.  He wrote a letter to a newspaper arguing that Kentucky should secede from the Union and form an alliance with France.  The newspaper published it.  The outraged United States Attorney in Kentucky—a Federalist hold-over from the Adams administration–got a grand jury to indict the farmer.  It never went any further than that.  Would have had to put him in front of a jury of locals.[6]

After service with the U.S. Navy in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the Philadelphia-born Jewish-American merchant and sea captain Jonas Levy (1807-1883) stayed on in Mexico.  He came from a family of enterprising people and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  Looking for business opportunities, he proposed to the Mexican government to build a railroad from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.  The isthmus is the narrowest point of Mexico and the Pacific end passes through a gap in the Sierra Madre.  Lots of people wanted to build a railroad there, but one group was in Washington and had the ear of Secretary of State Daniel Webster.  But Levy was on the ground, spoke Spanish, and was very go-ahead.  In 1852, Levy pitched it to the Mexican government.  The Mexicans seemed inclined to go with Levy’s plan, so Webster exerted pressure on behalf of the “American” plan.  Levy wrote to the president of Mexico arguing for his own proposal.  When American diplomats reported this to Washington, Webster got Levy indicted.  The trouble was he didn’t have any evidence, just hearsay.  The indictment went nowhere.

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) made a fortune as a mining engineer, did a fantastic job organizing American civilian relief aid for Europe in the First World War, served as Secretary of Commerce, and won election as President in 1928.  Then the Depression hit and he got creamed in the 1932 election.  Hoover stomped off into retirement to sulk and fulminate against Franklin D. Roosevelt and all his works.  When the Second World War first broke out, Roosevelt offered Hoover an olive branch in the form of co-ordinating American relief for European civilians.  Hoover turned down the offer, but only because he hated Roosevelt.  He got busy organizing his own program of relief for Poland and then for Belgium.  By mid-1940, the situation had changed.  Poland and France had been defeated, Britain stood alone, and Britain’s naval blockade of Continental Europe offered an important source of pressure on Germany.  Nevertheless, Hoover pressed ahead.  In February 1941, Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles publically warned that Hoover might be in violation of the Logan Act.

More recently, a chain of people have been described as violating the Logan Act.  Some were Democrats: George McGovern, Jesse Jackson, Nancy Pelosi, and John Kerry.  Some were Republicans: 47 Senators, candidate Donald Trump, and Rudi Giuliani.  None have been prosecuted.

In December 2017, as they prepared to interview National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn, FBI agents discussed trying to get Flynn to admit he had violated the Logan Act.

[1] Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780–1840 (1969).

[2] See: Alexander De Conde, The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 1797-1801 (1966).  An oldie, but a goody.

[3] See, for example James Callender.  Michael Durey, With the Hammer of Truth, James Thomson Callender (1990). 

[4] John Miller, Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts (1951).  Same as De Conde.  The point here is that if the necessary documents are available and a good historian gives them a careful analysis, then most of the subsequent scholarly literature is just an elaboration.

[5] Frederick B. Tolles, George Logan of Philadelphia (1953).

[6] In much political theory, Senators serving six-year terms and appointed officials are supposed to have a braking effect on “populist” impulsiveness and passion.  However, the opposite may also be true.

Chronology of a Tragedy.

By 20 April 2020, 773,000 people in the United States had tested positive for the coronavirus.  Of these, 247,543 were in New York, mostly in New York City and its suburbs.  New Jersey had 88,806 confirmed cases.  That works out to about 32 percent of the cases being located in New York City and its immediate area.  If you include New Jersey’s 88,000, then New York is the center of about 43 percent of the cases.[1]

How did New York City come to be the present American epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic?[2]

“From the earliest days of the crisis, state and city officials were also hampered by a chaotic and often dysfunctional federal response, including significant problems with the expansion of testing, which made it far harder to gauge the scope of the crisis.”  The same was true of every part of the country, so that doesn’t explain why New York got hit hardest by far.

“Epidemiologists have pointed to New York City’s [population] density and its role as an international hub of commerce and tourism to explain why the coronavirus has spread so rapidly.  And it seems highly unlikely that any response by the state or city could have fully stopped it.”  The same seem likely to be true of the national government.  The question is how much government action could have limited the damage.

Nevertheless, in the view of Dr. Thomas Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, closing the schools, stores, restaurants, and other public venues one to two weeks earlier could have reduced the death toll in New York by 50 to 80 percent.

 

January-February 2020: coronavirus “devastates” China and Europe.

 

21 January 2020: first confirmed case in the United States, in Seattle, Washington.

 

23 January 2020: Chinese government seals off Wuhan.

 

30 January 2020: WHO declares a global health emergency.

 

31 January 2020: US bars entry for any foreign national who had traveled to China in the previous 14 days.

 

It now appears that coronavirus was present in New York City before the first person tested positive for it.  Infectious disease specialists had known for weeks that the federal tests were defective and that infected people were almost certainly present and circulating.  One specialist in infectious diseases for a New York hospital group said later than it was apparent by late January 2020 that cases would soon appear in the United States.

 

2 February 2020: first coronavirus death outside China—in the Philippines.

 

5 February 2020: Japanese government quarantines a cruise ship which carried passengers infected during the trip.

 

7 February 2020: Infectious disease specialists and other doctors confer on federal criteria from the CDC for testing.  The guidelines were too strict and limiting on who could be tested.  According to one of those present, “It was at that moment that I think everybody in the room realized, we’re dead.”

 

Early February 2020: Dr. Oxiris Barbot, NYC Health Commissioner states that “this is not something you’re going to contract in the subway or the bus.”

 

14 February 2020: France announces first coronavirus death.

 

19 February 2020: first two cases in Iran announced.

 

23 February 2020: Italy sees surge in cases in Lombardy.

 

24 February 2020: passenger already infected by coronavirus arrives at JFK on a flight that originated in Iran.

 

24 February 2020: Trump administration asks Congress for $1.25 billion for coronavirus response.  US has 35 cases and no deaths.

 

28 February 2020: number of cases in Europe rises sharply.

 

Late February 2020: Mayor Bill de Blasio tells a news conference that “We can really keep this thing [coronavirus] contained.”

 

29 February 2020: first US death, in Seattle.

 

1 March 2020: the passenger from Iran tests positive for the coronavirus, making her the first identified case in New York City.

 

2 March 2020: Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio address a news conference.  Cuomo says “Everybody is doing exactly what we need to do.  We have been ahead of this from Day 1.”  Cuomo told the conference that “Out of an abundance of caution we will be contacting the people who were on the flight with her from Iran to New York.”  Then everyone would be traced and isolated.  According to the NYT, this didn’t happen because the CDC would not authorize an investigation.

 

3 March 2020: lawyer in New Rochelle tests positive.  He had not travelled to any affected country, so there was reason to suspect he had contracted the virus in New York.  City health investigators traced his travels and contact to Manhattan, but the state of New York put a “porous” containment line around New Rochelle.

 

3 March 2020: US government approves widespread testing.

 

5 March 2020: New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said that “You have to assume that it could be anywhere in the city.”  However, he also said that “We’ll tell you the second we think you should change your behavior.”

 

If Dr. Frieden is correct that the city should have shut down one to two weeks before it did, then that date would have been sometime between 8 and 15 March 2020.

 

About 7 March 2020: city hospitals start reporting a sharp increase in influenza-like cases and the NYPD reported increased numbers of officers calling in sick and of 911 calls for coughs and fevers.

 

Second week in March 2020: De Blasio wanted widespread testing, but the city’s Health Department urged a public information campaign to tell those with mild symptoms to self-isolate at home, rather than infect others at testing centers.  De Blasio blocked the public information campaign for about a week.

 

At some point not stated by the NYT, de Blasio did urge New Yorkers to practice social distancing and working from home where possible; and de Blasio and Cuomo had both ordered occupancy limits on bars and restaurants.  These limits were broadly ignored.

 

Moreover, de Blasio resisted closing the schools.  The schools provide nutritious meals and a safe space, and not in some touchy-liberal sort of way either, for their students.[3]

 

11 March 2020: US bars most travelers from Europe.

 

12 March 2020: San Francisco closed the schools when 18 cases had been confirmed; Ohio closes the schools when 5 cases had been confirmed.

 

12 March 2020: At a meeting chaired by de Blasio, City Health Commissioner Barbot told a meeting of business executives that 70 percent of the city’s population could become infected.  De Blasio “stared daggers at her.”

According to one person present at the meeting, de Blasio rejected closing restaurants.  “I’m really concerned about restaurants; I’m really concerned about jobs.”  It was a legitimate concern from one perspective.  According to one estimate, tourism accounts for 300,000 jobs in New York City.  This is twice as many as does the tech jobs and vastly more than the jobs linked to the financial services industry.[4]  Closing down restaurants, bars, tourist activities, hotels, and sporting events would hammer the incomes pf poor people much than the incomes of rich people.  He appears to have thought that New York City would never have to close.  In reality, it was a choice between closing the city earlier or later.  However, in the event, the virus spread rapidly.  The health burden has not been shared equally between different social groups.[5]

 

13 March 2020: Trump declares national emergency.

 

13 March 2020: Los Angeles closes its schools after 40 cases had been confirmed.  New York City had almost 160 confirmed cases.

 

15 March 2020: City health officials give de Blasio a grim warning about the number of infections and deaths if the schools—and most businesses—weren’t closed immediately.

 

15 March 2020: De Blasio closes the schools when 329 cases had been confirmed.

 

15 March 2020: CDC recommends no gatherings of more than 50 people.

 

17 March 2020: seven California counties around San Francisco issued stay at home orders.

 

17 March 2020: France orders national lock-down.

 

19 March 2020: California issues state-wide stay at home order with 675 confirmed cases.  New York then had 4,152 cases.

 

20 March 2020: New York State issues state-wide stay at home order, effective 22 March 2020.  On 20 March, the state had more than 7,000 confirmed cases.

 

Recently, the New York Times ran a piece considering the long-term consequences of the pandemic’s impact on New York.[6]  Much of the economic basis of the city may be hollowed out.  This is particularly true if a vaccine is not developed and mass-produced very soon.  Tourists may shrink from visiting a densely-crowded city.  Tourist amenities from theaters to museums to restaurants to public transportation systems may impose social-distancing regimes that capsize the business model of the industry.  Both the financial services and technology sectors may extend their work-from-home adaptations, while many workers may decide that the home from which they are working might as well be somewhere other than high-price New York.  Demand for office and residential space could fall, clobbering the construction industry.  The city’s budget would have to deal with a huge fall in revenue.  Services to the poor would fall.

Sometimes Tragedy is born of the collision of two Goods.

 

[1] “Tracking an Outbreak,” NYT, 21 April 2020, p. A4.

[2] J. David Goodman, “How Outbreak Kept New York A Step Behind,” NYT, 8 April 2020.

[3] See: Andrea Elliott, “Invisible Child.  Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life,” NYT, 9 December 2013.  http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/invisible-child/index.html#/?chapt=1

[4] J. David Goodman, “It Could Be Years Before New York Regains Its Glory,” NYT, 21 April 2020.

[5] For one example, see: John Eligon et al, “Black Americans Bear The Brunt As Virus Spreads,” NYT, 8 April 2020.

[6] J. David Goodman, “It Could Be Years Before New York Regains Its Glory,” NYT, 21 April 2020.