Category Archives: History

Learning from the past

Books to help us see the strange new world following the revolution in gender roles

Summary: To understand the strange future that lies ahead it helps to better understand our present and past. We can do that by turning to people who have written about these things. Here are some recommendations, books about our strange world to prepare us for an even stranger future.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

This isn’t our future, although we might have the flying car:

The Jetsons: a 1950s family of the future.

The Jetsons: a 1950s family of the future.

Books should be our first stop on our journey to see the future. They can help clear away the underbrush of falsehoods about our situation. They can explain the inescapable biological basis of gender in humanity. They can show us the mind-blowing range of sexual practices and family structures in world history (however strange the future, there are always precedents). They can point us to literature, where artists explore both the reality and dreams about our lives. Here are my recommendations, places to start amongst the vast body of work about this most interesting of subjects.

Book Recommendations

  1. The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex
  2. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature
  3. Love and Friendship
  4. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty
  5. Sex in History
  6. Pink Samurai: Love, Marriage and Sex in Contemporary Japan

(1) The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex

By Warren Farrell (1993) — So many of the assumptions of feminists are factually incorrect. Farrell gives us a list. You might not agree with every one, but this point is incontrovertible.  Summary from Publishers Weekly:

“Readers of this significant study will find that they haven’t lost the ability to cry after all. While some feminists may assert that it is an attack on women, the book attempts to show areas in which males operate at a disadvantage without claiming that women are responsible for their plight. Psychologist Farrell stresses economics, pointing out that the 25 worst types of jobs, involving the highest physical risk, are almost all filled by men. He also considers warfare, in which virtually all of the military casualties are men; the justice system, where sentences for males are customarily heavier; and sexual harassment, which has become a one-way street. He concludes with helpful advice on “resocializing” the male child, adolescent and adult.”

The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex is available at Amazon.

(2) The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

By Matt Ridley (1993) — despite all our ever-growing technological power, we are anchored to our humanity by a billion years of evolution. Ridley doesn’t ask what happens when we can tinker with the biological essentials of our design.  Summary from Amazon:

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Did we win the War on Poverty?

Summary:  Despite their role in building America, a long campaign of misinformation by the Right has discredited government programs (except for war). Their top target has been the anti-poverty programs of the Great Society. Here we take a brief look at the numbers to see the actual results to this, one of America’s greatest collective efforts.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won.”
— Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union Address, 8 January 1964.

“Some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.”
— Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union Address, 25 January 1988.

LBJ

 

Excerpt from “The War on Poverty: Was It Lost?

By Christopher Jencks
New York Review of Books, 2 April 2015

Review of Legacies of the War on Poverty, edited by Martha J. Bailey and Sheldon Danziger.

Lyndon Johnson became president in November 1963. In January 1964 he committed the United States to a war on poverty. In August he sought and gained authority to expand the war in Vietnam. Of course, the War on Poverty was only a figure of speech — a political and economic promise, not a war from which young men would return in body bags. Nonetheless, most Americans look back on the two wars as kindred failures. Both have had an exemplary part in the disillusionment with government that has been reshaping American politics since the 1970s.

Asked about their impression of the War on Poverty, Americans are now twice as likely to say “unfavorable” as “favorable.” In one poll, given four alternative ways of describing how much the War on Poverty reduced poverty, 20% chose “a major difference,” 41% chose “a minor difference,” 13% chose “no difference,” and 23% chose “made things worse.”  {See this survey by the Center for American Progress}

Legacies of the War on Poverty is a set of 9 studies, edited by Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger, that assess the successes and failures of the diverse strategies that Johnson and his successors adopted to reduce poverty. The chapters are packed with evidence, make judicious judgments, and suggest a higher ratio of success to failure than opinion polls do.

… Census Bureau publishes a table every September showing its estimate of the “official” poverty rate for the previous calendar year, along with the rate in every prior year back to 1959. Figure 1 (see below) shows these estimates. They indicate that 19% of Americans were poor in 1964. Five years later, in 1969, the official rate had fallen by roughly a third, to 12.1%.

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Who overthrew the Taliban: Special Forces’ guns or CIA’s cash?

Summary: The information superhighway gives us the illusion of knowledge about our world. Yet the past 50 years teaches us that we know so little and that so much remains hidden for so long. Previous posts provide examples from the post-WWII era. Today we look at a telling vignette from our post-9/11 era, a story still shaping how we view these endless and futile interventions. As we begin a new round of wars, we should clearly see the outlines of the ones before.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
— The Editor explains in “Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962).

Our secret weapon in Afghanistan

Our secret weapon in Afghanistan.

We have to be suspicious of hidden history behind what we know. For example thirty years passed until we learned about the Allies’ secret weapon in WWII — cryptography — and had to downgrade the accomplishments of our generals (If NAZI’s had such an advantage, the swastika might still fly over Berlin). How much of our history since 9/11 remains hidden?

For example, what were the reasons for our government’s invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan (the stated reasons appear bogus)? Today we examine a smaller issue that shows two reasons why we remain ignorant. It explains how we so quickly overthrew the Taliban in our 2001 invasion, with so few troops.

The standard “narrative” tells how the Special Forces moved among the native — dressing like them, showing mastery of their skills — much as the white guy hero did in Avatar — convinced them to rebel, and with the aid of US airpower led the natives to victory.  It was a reboot of the equally almost-true story of our role in defeating the Russian in Afghanistan, right down to the heroic unconventional troops on horseback. Is this the whole truth?

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Scary lessons for America from pre-revolutionary France.

Summary: Today we look at 18thC France, and speculate about our future. They too had their 1%, hungry for wealth and power. In a time of troubles, they refused to compromise and so plunged France into a long bloody transition to a new regime. Our situation is very different, but there are a few ominous similarities.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“It’s all about power and the unassailable might of money.”
— E. P. Arnold Royalton, the great 21st century industrialist in “Speed Racer” (2008).

"Liberty Leading the People", Eugène Delacroix (1830).

“Liberty Leading the People”, Eugène Delacroix (1830).

Contents

  1. Pre-revolutionary France.
  2. America today.
  3. Differences and similarities.
  4. Books by GOP candidates.
  5. For More Information.

(1)  Pre-revolutionary France

There was desperate need for financial reform of the French government in the late 18thC, but deep institutional failure prevented reform. King Louis XVI wanted reform, especially the nobility and clergy to pay taxes, but the nobility and clergy blocked change through the parlements (high courts) and Assembly of Notables (1787) — an opposite outcome to that of the previous great crisis in 1626.

Out of easy options, the King called the Estates General in 1789. The 3 Estates each had one vote: the nobility, the clergy, the commons. This might have been the last opportunity to save France from revolution. Each Estate prepared a list of grievances (Cahiers de doléances).

The nobility desired a weaker King: limitations on royal absolutism, guarantee of individual liberties, and taxes only with approval of the Esates General. For this they were prepared to give almost nothing, and had little interest in lightening the burden on the commons. They wanted compensation for abolishing the corvée (forced unpaid labor) and capitaineries (game preserves of the King and nobility). Their opening offer to the commons: nothing.

With no room for negotiation, the Estates General immediately deadlocked. On June 17 the Third Estate, plus defectors from the other two, declared themselves the National Assembly. On June 20 the King locked them from the Salle des États. They relocated to the Royal Tennis Courts, and swore the Tennis Court Oath. The revolution had begun.

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Fears ‘R us. It makes us easy to rule.

Summary: Look at the hot debates about US public policy and you’ll see most rely on exaggerated threats. Fear has become the primary tool of political advocacy in America. It makes us stupid and easy to rule. We can do better. Understanding this weakness is a first step.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” — Good advice from Jesus in Matthew 10:16.

Moravian Seal

Doesn’t work well in this world. Moravian Seal, at Rights Chapel at Trinity Moravian Church, Winston-Salem, NC.

Panics are us. At some point in the 1980s our usual rhythm of rare panics and frequent urban legends became a drumbeat of nation-shaking panic attacks. Our reactions to our fears become a barrier to rationally dealing with our problems (worse, sometimes there is no problem, so resources are burnt for nothing). Our easily aroused and disproportionate fears make us easy to rule.

The risk of epidemics became grossly exaggerated. AIDS an existential threat to entire nations (perhaps even humanity). Routine flu epidemics (e.g., swine flu in 2009) into panic mode. A few cases of Ebola sent a nation of 300 million into hysterics.

Both Left and Right have seen our weakness and seek to exploit it. The Left uses scares about chemicals (Alar in 1989,) and climate catastrophe — about scenarios both sooner and more severe than anything considered likely by the IPCC (e.g., methane doom; see the good news). The Right deploys equally fake scares about rising crime, increased Black Mob Violence, and exaggerations about foreign foes.

Our Defense and Homeland Security Departments, and the massive private sector bureaucracies feeding off them, rest on a foundation of exaggerated threats. Fear is their business.

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Men in space: an expensive trip to nowhere

Summary: NASA dreams of manned space flight to the planets, and spends billions to do so. They focus on “how” with no thought of why, repeating the error that led to the failure of Apollo. Like the State Department (wrecked in the 1950s, never fixed) and DoD (same mistakes in a succession of failed wars), NASA seems unable to learn from its experience. For 52 years manned space programs have provided expensive entertainment for Americans and welfare for its aerospace corporations. FAILure to learn is a serious weakness for the government of a great nation.

Given time, a desire, considerable innovation, and sufficient effort and money, man can eventually explore our solar system.Given his enormous curiosity about the universe in which he lives and his compelling urge to go where no one has ever been before, this will be done.

Report by President John F. Kennedy’s advisory committee on space, 10 January 1961.

Space Dreams

Science Photo Library

Contents

  1. Men and Women in Space: a dead end.
  2. Next steps on the road to nowhere.
  3. Journalist cheerleaders.
  4. Comparing space to other big projects.
  5. For More Information.

(1)  Men and Women in Space: a dead end.

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History consists of missed opportunities and wrong turning onto dead ends. For example, what if Charles Babbage had completed his Difference Engine (a mechanical calculator) by 1850, and on that success he or his successors completed his Analytical Engine (a programmable computer) in the 1870s? What if America had not poured so much of its energy, creativity, and technical talent into the space program in the 1960s? What if we had spent it on some other form of research?

It’s not just hindsight. During the 1950s and 1960s the government commissioned numerous committees to consider the benefits of manned spaceflight; most of them repeated the conclusions of the 1960 Hornig Committee and the 1961 Weisner Committee (quoted above; the Chairman became a life-long opponent of the manned space program): the cost would outweigh the benefits.
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Space Station from "2001"

Space Station from “2001”

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The first 53 years of men and women in space validated their forecasts. It produced little useful science. The technological spin-offs have been even smaller (many commonly cited ones are myths, such as Tang, Teflon, Velcro, MRI, barcodes, quartz clocks, or smoke detectors). As for the commercial benefits of opening the final frontier, we turn to the definitive account of this wrong turn is Dark Side of the Moon by Gerard J. DeGroot (2006) — “The magnificent madness of the American lunar quest.”

Those who justified the presence of men in space argued that the early astronauts were like the medieval seafarers, looking for places to colonize. But the efforts of Columbus and Magellan were inspired by the commercial potential of new territories — exploration was pointless unless commerce followed. The Portuguese and Spanish courts would have pulled the plug on the explorers quicker than you can say Vasco da Gama if their voyages had been exclusively esoteric, or if they had brought back only worthless rocks. Instead, they returned with valuable commodities — precious metals, spices, trinkets, potatoes — which thrilled the medieval money crunchers.

In addition, the places they sought to explore were, by virtue of their existence on Earth, actually habitable. The same could not be said for colonies on the Moon or Mars. … The Moon, remember, makes Antarctica seem like an oasis.

NASA, with other nations, built the $150 billion space station that does little of commercial or scientific value. Now they plan further adventures.

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A speech by one of Britain’s greatest leaders gives a powerful start to our new year

Only the next generation can see what were the big stories of 2014, but one appears clear even now. In 2014 Americans finally became aware that the 1% has screwed us, taking most of America’s productivity gains since the 1970s. We saw it in the news about rising inequality, in new studies about inequality (e.g., by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez), and films expressing our fears about our future (e.g., “Divergent”, “The Hunger Games”, “Snowpiercer”), and news about the police oppression of the underclass.

A more interesting stage begins after we assimilate these facts; perhaps it starts in 2015. What do we do about this? Acceptance means becoming subjects, 21st century peons. Willingness to act puts us on a long road, probably beginning with a naive belief in small easy solutions — and that the 1% won’t strike back with the vast economic and political power they’ve gathered during the past 4 decades.

We’ll need inspiration during the inevitable dark days ahead, when victory seems unlikely while the cost appears high and imminent. There’s not much in Western history to draw upon. I recommend re-purposing songs and speeches, ones similar in spirit but directed to different ends than ours of today. Here’s one such speech by Lloyd George, one of Britain’s major reformers and greatest leaders (Prime Minister 1916-1922). We can take heart from his words, applying them to a better cause.

Perhaps we have become too sophisticated and too cynical so that such words no longer stir us. What then will do so? If nothing — we’ve become that passive — then perhaps we can no longer govern ourselves. Stronger people will rule and do so in their interest, not ours. We can console ourselves by tears and fantasy, as each person prefers. But I believe we remain strong when acting together, if only we realize it.

David Lloyd George (1863-1945)

David Lloyd George (1863-1945)

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Conclusion of a speech by David Lloyd George

About honor

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To the London Welshmen at Queens’ Hall, London

19 September 1914, at the start of WWI

Slightly tweaked to apply to us (changes are in italics)

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What we are fighting is that claim to predominancy of a class, a material one, a hard one, a class which if once it rules and sways the world, liberty goes, democracy vanishes … You know the type of motorist, the terror of the roads, with a 60-h.p.car. He thinks the roads are made for him, and anybody who impedes the action of his car by a single mile is knocked down.

… All I can say is this: if the old British spirit is alive in British hearts, that bully will be torn from his seat. Were he to win it would be the greatest catastrophe that has befallen democracy since the days of the Holy Alliance and its ascendancy. They think we cannot beat them. It will not be easy. It will be a long job. It will be a terrible conflict. But in the end we shall march through terror to triumph. We shall need all our qualities, every quality that Britain and its people possess.

Prudence in council, daring in action, tenacity in purpose, courage in defeat, moderation in victory, in all things faith, and we shall win.

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