Premise 1: Climate change is real.
Premise 2: To avert catastrophe we must either drastically reduce our use of fossil fuel energy or replace it with carbon-free energy, or both.
Premise 3: The worldwide demand for energy is going to grow, not shrink.
Premise 4: Solar, wind, thermal, etc., will never meet that demand.
Premise 5: Even if “green” technologies could meet the demand, their manufacture requires more fossil fuel energy than they produce.
Conclusion: Therefore the only possible way to avert catastrophic climate change is to employ nuclear power on a large scale.
To do this will require . . .
1. Fail-safe reactor designs.
2. Safe management of nuclear waste.
3. Development of advanced reactors that can use the waste from older reactors as fuel.
George Monbiot is the well-regarded author of several books focusing on environmental issues. “In 1995, Nelson Mandela presented him with a United Nations Global 500 Award for outstanding environmental achievement” (Wikipedia).
Understanding who we are and where we stand in the world is not something that happens at birth, or at any one point in our lives. It arises from questioning, challenging and reassessing ourselves every day. There is no one answer, and it does not stay still.
We acquire no useful knowledge of our world without determined study. We acquire no useful understanding of our world without constant investigation. We all have a duty, to ourselves and others, to see beyond the culture and beliefs into which we were born.
This might sound like a grind. But in truth, this quest will lead you to unimagined wonders and delights.—George Monbiot on Twitter@GeorgeMonbiot11 June 2020
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
Prologue: What Are You Angry About?
One fall when I was living in China, years ago, I had an upper respiratory infection that never quite cleared up. My asthma inhalers stopped working, even after I tried doubling my usual dose. The Singaporean doctor at the Western medical clinic finally threw his hands up. “I don’t have anything else I can do for you.” So with little to lose I went to the Traditional Chinese Medicine hospital, and after less than a week of drinking the herbal medicine prescribed by Dr. Zhou, I stopped using my inhalers altogether.
Needless to say, I became a regular patient. One day, as he felt my pulse, Dr. Zhou turned to me and said, “You’re angry.”
“Yes,” he said. “What are you angry about?”
I thought for a moment. “Injustice.”
Dr. Zhou laughed. “There’s a lot of that,” he said.
* * *
My political education began when Jack Kennedy was assassinated. I was eleven years old. Up until that point my understanding of American history came from the textbooks we read in the public schools. The Pilgrims sitting down for a convivial Thanksgiving feast with local Indians. The brave settlers clearing forests and creating rich farmland out of the wilderness. Brilliant self-taught inventors producing the machines that powered the Industrial Revolution and the growing wealth of the nation. Wise and noble leaders like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Of course there were villains and evil deeds in the story, but they were invariably defeated by the forces of justice. Slavery, that terrible mistake, was overturned in the Civil War. Corrupt politicians and businessmen were inevitably found out and punished. Abraham Lincoln followed in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers, and was followed in turn by FDR, who not only saved the nation from the Great Depression but led the fight in World War II that defeated Hitler and turned the United States into the world’s superpower. Think of it: the first modern democracy leading the world toward a future of progress, education, justice, and prosperity for all.
Then Kennedy was killed. The accused shooter was murdered while in police custody, and the official explanations made no sense. The government was almost certainly lying to us. Soon after, the Vietnam War expanded, and the lies accumulated. The U.S., it turned out, had been involved in assassinating the president of South Vietnam. Other assassinations or attempted assassinations of foreign leaders came to light, along with the complicity between the CIA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in manipulating small nations all over Latin America, Asia, and Africa for the profit of American corporations. At the same time the Civil Rights movement revealed to clueless whites like me the sordid facts about racial segregation in the South and the long history of discrimination, injustice, lynchings, and mob violence suffered by African-Americans since the end of Reconstruction in 1876 and, especially in the 20th century, in urban centers from New York to Los Angeles. As racial tensions increased and the antiwar movement grew, I was in high school and college, discovering the dark side of American history and culture. Discovering that I had been lied to, repeatedly. I felt betrayed. I was angry about the crimes committed by slaveowners, by exploitative capitalists, by the racist white majority, by the politicians and police departments and banks that perpetrated injustice at home and abroad. Langston Hughes’s searing description of the feelings of African-Americans toward the Southern homeland that so many of them had left in search of a better life resonated with my own bitter feelings of betrayal:
The lazy, laughing South
With blood on its mouth.
The sunny-faced South,
The child-minded South
Scratching in the dead fire’s ashes
For a Negro’s bones.
Cotton and the moon,
Warmth, earth, warmth,
The sky, the sun, the stars,
The magnolia-scented South.
Beautiful, like a woman,
Seductive as a dark-eyed whore,
That is the South.
And I, who am black, would love her
But she spits in my face.
And I, who am black,
Would give her many rare gifts
But she turns her back upon me.
So now I seek the North–
The cold-faced North,
For she, they say,
Is a kinder mistress,
And in her house my children
May escape the spell of the South.
—“The South,” by Langston Hughes
I had not suffered personally. I had not been an indigenous American, an African-American, an immigrant, a sharecropper. I had not been unemployed, or lived in a tenement house, or been drafted into the military and sent overseas to kill brown-skinned people for the Chamber of Commerce. But I deeply empathized with those who had, and I deeply resented their persecutors.
“You’re angry,” Dr. Zhou said.
“Yes,” he said. “What are you angry about?”
I thought for a moment. “Injustice.”
Dr. Zhou laughed. “There’s a lot of that,” he said.
More than half a century has passed since they murdered Jack Kennedy and got away with it. I am still angry. Sometimes I wonder, “Why in the world am I still angry, half a century later?” Most of the time, though, I wonder why everyone isn’t as angry as I am. Because, of course, the murder of Jack Kennedy was just one spectacular moment in a long, long series of crimes. Do nations have souls? Are they haunted by their sins, especially the ones they try to cover up and deny? It’s dishonesty, above all, that corrupts the soul. Redemption is possible, but not without repentance and confession. Since those first English freebooters arrived in Virginia hoping to find gold, America has been pretending that it has nothing to be ashamed of.
The Elephant in the Room
the elephant in the room: an obvious major problem or issue that people avoid discussing or acknowledging
Donald Trump was elected by a wave of racist reaction against eight years of America’s first African-American president; by racist fears of immigrants; by racist resentment of the decline of the white working class, especially in rural America and the Midwestern rust belt, where globalization left previously prosperous communities devastated; by racist resentment of urban centers that are invariably more multi-cultural and more inclined to vote Democratic; and by racist resentment of poor people of color, who are simultaneously blamed for taking jobs from whites and for running up the costs of social welfare programs because they are unemployed—not to mention their supposed propensities for crime and drug-taking.
Trump’s election was assisted by Russia’s stealth disinformation campaign, exploiting social media and turning the internet into history’s greatest propaganda tool. But it was made possible only by the anti-democratic Electoral College, an invention of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. My high school history books described the Electoral College as part of a compromise between “small states” and “large states” that was designed to ensure a balance of power between rural and urban communities. But it was also a compromise between the slave-holding southern states and the non-slave northern states, pushed by southerners’ fears that they would soon be outvoted by the more populous North. (The infamous Second Amendment, the sacred text underlying the nation’s unrelenting gun violence, was similarly pushed by slaveowners like Patrick Henry, who were terrified that the federal government would not come to their aid if the slaves rebelled.)
Since being elected, Trump and the Republicans have controlled the government thanks to the U.S. Senate, another anti-democratic creation of the Constitutional Convention that has kept power in the hands of—or at least within reach of—the (formerly) slaveholding states. Trump continues to play the race card whenever it suits his purposes, against immigrants from Latin America, against dark-skinned people from “shithole countries,” against brown-skinned Muslims invariably smeared as religious fanatics and terrorists, and most recently against the Chinese, convenient whipping-boys for Trump’s colossal mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis.
White resentment of the brown-skinned urban poor has been reinforced throughout America’s history by its success mythology, which holds that in America, anyone who is honest and hardworking can succeed. The obvious corollary of this deeply-engrained national myth is that poor people are poor because they are lazy and worthless. Racists have always viewed higher poverty rates among people of color as confirmation of the “white race’s” superiority. Racism has also conveniently divided poor whites from poor blacks, preventing them from uniting against the moneyed interests who have always taken a disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth and income. Trump has masterfully exploited these racist fears, resentments, and prejudices with the help of Fox News and right-wing talk-radio provocateurs whose toxic propaganda pervades rural America. As a result, Trump can lie repeatedly without losing support among his base, that 40 -45% of mostly white, mostly rural, mostly working class voters who believe fervently that he is standing up for them against brown-skinned people, foreign and domestic, who are trying to take America away from the brave, honest, hardworking white people who made it “the greatest nation on earth.”
And so now, Donald Trump—the most corrupt and incompetent President in history—is in charge while the nation faces its greatest public health crisis in at least a century. The ringing, idealistic phrases of the Declaration of Independence and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln seem little more than a thin coat of paint on a house that has been rotting from within for centuries. Slavery and the century-and-a-half of racism that has followed its abolition are not an aberration or anomaly. They are not an unfortunate and somewhat embarrassing side-note to an otherwise proud story of liberty and democracy in the New World. Rather, slavery and the decades of racism that have followed its abolition are at the core of America’s story. The same Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” was a slaveowner who, after his wife died, slept with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and fathered several children by her—children he never acknowledged as his. Racism remains at the core of America’s politics. It explains why, at a moment of crisis, the nation is being led by an ignorant con-man.
In 1675 the Wampanoags rose up against the Puritan colonizers who had first arrived in “New England” a generation earlier. The settlers called the three-year conflict that followed “King Philip’s War” because they could not pronounce the name of the Wampanoag chief, Metacom, and called him King Philip instead. Rather than recognize that indigenous Americans were justly outraged at being colonized by foreigners from across the sea, the settlers concluded that God was using the Indians to punish them for their private sins. Before organizing themselves to exterminate the Indians, the settlers went to church to pray, fast, and beg God to forgive them. They interpreted their eventual victory as a sign that their prayers had been heard. In my darkest moments, that story represents American history in miniature: ignorant, self-righteous white people committing crime after crime while believing all the while that God is on their side.
It is hard to imagine how anything less than a second American Revolution could put an end to the Electoral College, the anti-democratic Senate, the racist gerrymandering of congressional districts, the de facto segregation baked into American communities, and all the other consequences of racism that are dragging the nation toward a dismal demise. It is even harder to imagine a second American Revolution.
* * *
Of course the full story is more complicated and more nuanced. The concerns of small states were real in 1787, and those small states included non-slave states like Rhode Island. The United States has never been a nation in the French sense of the word; it is rather a federation of states, and each of those states, north and south, has always had a strong sense of independence from, and presumptive opposition to, anything coming from the central government in Washington. As for the nation’s gun-mania, the western frontier was a dominant feature of American life from the earliest settlements of the 1600s right up until almost the end of the 1800s, and remained central to the American imagination far beyond that time. The country’s continued obsession with individual gun rights certainly has a lot to do with that history. And so on.
So much depends on how the story is told. For most of my life, the story has been told in a way that has minimized and marginalized slavery and, to an even greater extent, racism. Incidents of white violence against blacks were often simply omitted from the narrative. The story of the economic impact of slavery and the 19th-century cotton trade was minimized. The nationwide institutionalized racism of police departments and banking policies like red-lining were not included. Incidents of racial discrimination or violence were always presented as deplorable but exceptional cases. Even the story of the Civil War itself was told in such a way that black people were almost totally absent. The truth is, white supremacists of the northern states—including Abraham Lincoln—did not fight to free the slaves, but to preserve the Union. (Yes, Lincoln was a white supremacist. As kind and considerate as he was, personally, he believed the only permanent solution to America’s race problem was to send the slaves and their descendants back to Africa.) Meanwhile the white supremacists of the South lost the war, but after a decade of Reconstruction they regained their footing and won the peace. And their version of events has dominated the national narrative ever since, despite the hagiography of Abe Lincoln. Northern whites turned a blind eye to Jim Crow segregation and lynchings in the South for most of a century after the Civil War because what they cared about was preserving the Union, and one way to do that was to construct a narrative of national unity that minimized racial divisions.
If, however, one looks at American history with slavery and racism in the foreground instead of putting them in the background and off to the side, the continuities become obvious and the short version of the story becomes something like what I have written above. Has there been progress when it comes to “race relations” in the United States? Of course. But the racist sentiments among white Americans, and the racist institutions of American politics like the Electoral College, the Senate, and gerrymandered Congressional districts continue. Put together, they have led to the election of Donald Trump and the dominance of a Republican Party stripped of any principle beyond holding onto power by whatever despicable means are available. Can the minority of Americans who embrace a progressive vision of social and economic justice in a multicultural nation prevail against the stubborn legacy of racism in America’s culture and political institutions? I very much doubt it.
* * *
And so we have this sordid history of slavery and racism, of lynchings and riots and mob violence, of chronic discrimination against minorities by police, by employers, by landlords, by nobodies for no particular reason. Despite this, most Americans of all races and incomes and social classes remain optimistic and patriotic to a degree that is almost childlike. A friend once asked me, “Considering all the people you have met from different cultures and nations all over the world, who do African-Americans most resemble?” I thought for a few moments, then gave up. My friend smiled. “White Americans!” And I realized immediately how right he was. Presidential candidates as different as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama find ways to appeal to the deep vein of optimism that runs through the entire nation. It’s “Morning in America!” “Hope and change!” “Yes, we can!” Optimism and sentimentality make the sale in America, every time. Critics are a downer. They’re so negative. They turn people off. Most Americans don’t want to hear about all the defects and problems and injustices. So when someone even says the word racism, the negative response follows immediately. Talking to many white Americans about racism is like talking to men in a gentleman’s club about feminism. No one wants to hear it. “If you don’t like this country, go find a better one, if you can. But you can’t, and you know it, so just shut up.” That’s basically the response.
It is dishonesty, above all, that corrupts the soul.
If the optimism were honest and clear-sighted, I could accept it, even embrace it. But because it is blind and dishonest, it provokes me. If someone mentions the Pilgrims and their “city on a hill,” I remind them of the genocide of indigenous Americans that rendered the hill largely depopulated and open for English colonizers. If they mention the can-do American spirit that created the richest nation on earth, I begin dourly to point out that millions of African slaves created most of the nation’s wealth. I make myself disagreeable. I want to push their noses in it, to wake them up.
They don’t want to wake up because they are in love with the idea of America, the Platonic ideal of America, the dream of America. The American dream. Winners and losers, rich and poor, white black brown yellow green and purple, they all dream America. Americans are dreamers.
* * *
And there is something so powerful about that dream. Martin Luther King, Jr., could see clearly, but still preached about the dream. Ray Charles sang “America the Beautiful.” And the taxi driver I once met, who was interested in history, exemplified American optimism. I spoke about the sins of Thomas Jefferson, but he was unpersuaded. “Maybe none of that is really important,” the taxi driver said. “Maybe all that matters is those beautiful words, that beautiful idea.”
I agree with Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative when he says that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Thomas Jefferson was much more than a slave-owning hypocrite. But he was, also, a slave-owning hypocrite, and the nation he helped to found has never resolved the contradictions that he embodied. America has never resolved the contradiction of being a nation whose pre-eminent value is freedom, and whose wealth was founded on slavery. History, as they say, is long, while life is short, and perhaps it is only my deficient perspective, limited by a mere human lifetime, that makes me pessimistic about America.
As one of America’s great authors once wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
I don’t know how I have overlooked Thoreau during the first two months of the pandemic’s enforced “social isolation” regime. This is from the fifth chapter of Walden (1854), entitled “Solitude”:
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert. The farmer can work alone in the field or the woods all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel lonesome, because he is employed; but when he comes home at night he cannot sit down in a room alone, at the mercy of his thoughts, but must be where he can “see the folks,” and recreate, and as he thinks remunerate himself for his day’s solitude; and hence he wonders how the student can sit alone in the house all night and most of the day without ennui and “the blues;” but he does not realize that the student, though in the house, is still at work in his field, and chopping in his woods, as the farmer in his, and in turn seeks the same recreation and society that the latter does, though it may be a more condensed form of it.
There was an old man of Victoria
Who suffered from chronic euphoria.
The doc shook his head,
And sadly he said,
“There’s no more that I can do for ya.”
I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: thats what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that hes up agen middle class morality all the time. If theres anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: “Youre undeserving; so you cant have it.” But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I dont need less than a deserving man: I need more. I dont eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything.
—G. B. Shaw, “Pygmalion” (1914)
Why is writing so difficult?
For many reasons. For example, writing is not natural, like talking or walking, so it requires a special effort. It also requires careful attention to lots of annoying details like punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Many of the ‘rules’ for English punctuation, grammar, and spelling don’t make much sense. Moreover, writing requires you to do two conflicting things at the same time: think about what you are saying, and also think about how you are saying it. And so on. To put it briefly, writing well is one of the most difficult human skills.
Why is it so frustrating?
Because usually, improvement takes a long time. Even worse, improvement is not gradual. That is, if we made a graph of writing improvement it would NOT look like this:
Instead, a graph of writing improvement would look something like this:
The second graph helps to explain an almost universal experience: you work, and work, and work, but your results don’t improve. Why? Because you are on one of those long, flat portions of the line. If you let the frustration defeat you, then you give up trying and you never reach the next level. But if you remain patient and determined and keep working, you will eventually reach that point where everything you have been working on suddenly ‘clicks’ and you jump up to the next level.
So now you want to know . . .
How does one become a good writer?
It’s not so complicated, but it’s not so easy, either.
- Read! When you read, you learn what words and sentences look like when they are written. If you read very little, your understanding of what written words and sentences look like remains weak and uncertain. How is that word spelled? Should I put a comma here? What’s the right way to use a dash, or a semi-colon? Hundreds of such questions confront a writer, and it’s impossible to learn the answers to them by memorizing a grammar book. However, someone who reads a great deal learns to answer most of those questions correctly simply by seeing so many words spelled and so many sentences and paragraphs written correctly. So there’s the first key to success as a writer: good writers are voracious readers!
- Pay attention. Once you become an enthusiastic reader—when reading is a pleasure, not a chore—you can begin noticing how writers write. After all, if you enjoy reading, then you enjoy the results of someone else’s writing. At first, and for a long time perhaps, you may be content just to benefit from other people’s hard work. But if you’re lucky you will develop an interest in the craft of writing—how do they do that?—and want to try it yourself. You may discover that, although writing well is very difficult, the satisfaction of succeeding at it is very great.
- Write! You learn to walk by walking, and not giving up even though at first you fall down a lot. You learn to play the piano by playing the piano. You learn carpentry by doing carpentry. You learn to play football by playing football. You learn to write by writing. Find good writers, and copy what they do. Then find others who write very differently, and copy what they do. Practice, practice, practice. Seek out good coaches, and take their advice.
And as Winston Churchill almost said, never, never, never, never give up.
The embrace of Donald Trump’s shameless serial lying by the Republican Party did not fall suddenly out of the sky. It began in the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency, and first surfaced in an article published in the New York Times Magazine. Wikipedia:
The phrase was attributed by journalist Ron Suskind to an unnamed official in the George W. Bush administration who used it to denigrate a critic of the administration’s policies as someone who based their judgements on facts. In a 2004 article appearing in the New York Times Magazine, Suskind wrote:
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.
International relations scholar Fred Halliday writes that the phrase reality-based community (in contrast to faith-based community) was used “for those who did not share [the Bush administration’s] international goals and aspirations”. . . .
The term was used to mock the Bush administration’s funding of faith-based social programmes, as well as a perceived hostility to professional and scientific expertise among American conservatives.
This attack on reality by the political Right developed further as “post-truth politics,” a
term . . . used by Paul Krugman in The New York Times to describe Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign in which certain claims—such as that Barack Obama had cut defense spending and that he had embarked on an “apology tour”—continued to be repeated long after they had been debunked. Other forms of scientific denialism in modern US politics include the anti-vaxxer movement, and the belief that existing genetically modified foods are harmful despite a strong scientific consensus that no currently marketed GMO foods have any negative health effects. The health freedom movement in the US resulted in the passage of the bipartisan Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which allows the sale of dietary supplements without any evidence that they are safe or effective . . . .
So after Trump is gone and Republicans want to blame him for everything, don’t let them off the hook. And don’t let the Democratic establishment off the hook, either, for their support of elitist policies that enriched Wall Street, drained the middle class dry, and turned vast swaths of rural America into a desperate, meth-lab-strewn wasteland.
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
During this COVID-19 pandemic it may be useful to try visualization to speed healing, not as a substitute for medical care but to supplement it. At any rate, the calming effects of such exercises can’t do any harm. There are a lot of somewhat goofy sites on the internet on this topic, and many trying to sell a product of some kind, but the Meditation Society of America has a pretty good take on it. Here are the first four of eight approaches to visualization for healing that they suggest:
1. In your minds eye, see aberrant or inflamed cells changing into healthy cells. If there is a damaged or corrupted area within the cells, visualize them changing and becoming free from injury. See your whole body becoming pure. Visualize yourself as perfectly healthy.
2. There are cells within your body that act as protectors and actually attack and kill damaging invader cells. See these warrior cells destroy those cells that could cause you injury. See your whole body becoming pure. Visualize yourself as perfectly healthy.
3. There are cells within your body that eat threatening cells. See them devour the harm causing structures. See your whole body becoming pure. Visualize yourself as perfectly healthy.
4. Visualize groups of healthy cells combining to replace any damaged areas of your body. For instance, if you have suffered a broken bone, see the cells come together in healing, bonding together to reform a complete structure. Visualize the bone as perfectly healthy.
The article quotes Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Harvard Medical School in 1988 and of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2006:
We know that belief can lead to healing or at least improvement in 50 percent to 90 percent of diseases, including asthma, angina pectoris, and skin rashes, many forms of pain, rheumatoid arthritis, congestive heart failure. They’re all influenced by belief. We in medicine have made fun of belief by calling it the “placebo effect,” or insisting that “It’s all in your head.” Yet, belief is one of the most powerful healing tools we have in our therapeutic arsenal.
It might be worth a try. Click on this link for the full article from the Meditation Society of America.
Fado is Portuguese folk music that is found almost exclusively in Lisbon.
I went there for a teachers’ conference in 1989 when I was working in Morocco. The guy that was supposed to pick us up at the airport was late, so I and a couple of buddies bought a map and jumped on a city bus. We talked up a friendly girl, who told us the name of a restaurant in the Bairro Alto (an old neighbourhood of the city) where we could hear good fado. That’s the first time I heard the word.
The restaurant was a family-owned greasy-fish place filled with locals drinking cheap red wine and eating greasy fish. We sat down and ordered food (and cheap red wine) with the help of Cristina, daughter of the owner, who spoke enough French for us to communicate. There was a guitar leaning against the wall, but nothing else. After a while a nondescript fellow wandered in, shook a few hands, then picked up the guitar and started singing this amazing music, with the locals singing along on the choruses. After about 15 minutes he put the guitar down, joined a table, and had his meal.
As the evening progressed this happened repeatedly, with different singers coming in, doing a set, and then either sitting down for a glass of wine or wandering off, presumably, to the next place. How or if they got paid was unclear.
Finally, about midnight, there was this scruffy looking guy with the guitar. Our waitress, Cristina, took off her apron, walked up to join him, and began singing like Maria Callas. She and the guy began doing a kind of duet, but clearly it was improvised, with lots of snarky back-and-forth between them and the crowd roaring with laughter.
We stayed as long as we could, and went back repeatedly during our three-day conference. Cristina, it turns out, had recorded an album, and she sold me a tape cassette of it. The tape was good, but in person she was magnificent.
Of course we didn’t understand a single word of the lyrics, but it didn’t matter. The music was so beautiful, and powerful, and sad. One guy told me, “Fado is the Portuguese blues.”
Here is the great Amália Rodrigues:
And here, more recently, is Carlos Manuel Moutinho Paiva dos Santos Duarte, whose stage name is Camané:
You’ve heard about the “Greatest Generation” and how Americans all pulled together in the 1940s to win the war against fascism, right? Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book No Ordinary Time (1994) tells a different story.
As Hitler occupied most of France and began attacking England, FDR appealed to business leaders to shift their production to defense materials. They refused unless they would be given preferential status in bidding for defense contracts. In the end, FDR gave in.
When the revenue bill [giving favorable terms to corporations taking on defense contracts] finally passed later that fall, the capital strike [by big business] came to an end and war contracts began to clear with speed.. . . In the months ahead . . . new legislation would be enacted to try to increase the relative share of small business in total army procurement. But by then, the basic pattern—the link between big business and the military establishment, a link that would last long into the postwar era and lead a future president to warn against the “military-industrial complex”—was already set.[pp. 158-59]
In 1940, . . . approximately 175,000 companies provided 70 percent of the manufacturing output of the U.S., while one hundred companies produced the remaining 30 percent. By the beginning of 1943, the ratio had been reversed. The hundred large companies formerly holding only 30 percent now held 70 percent of all government contracts.[p. 399]
To this day, Franklin Roosevelt remains the symbol of big government and the controlled economy. Yet, under Roosevelt’s wartime leadership, the government entered into a close partnership with private enterprise . . . . Business was exempted from antitrust laws, allowed to write off the full cost of investments, given the financial and material resources to fulfill contracts, and guaranteed a substantial profit. The leader who had once proclaimed his intention to master the forces of organized money had become their greatest benefactor.[pp. 607-08]
So angry was the outpouring of public sentiment that a resolution was introduced in the Senate requiring members to renounce their claim of special privilege. When the defiant Senators defeated the resolution by a vote of sixty-six to two, the public mood darkened.[p. 357]
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) begins his masterwork, The Decameron, with a vivid first-hand description of the bubonic plague’s arrival in Florence, Italy, in 1348. By the time it was all over, historians estimate that roughly one third of the population of Europe was dead. Boccaccio describes the disease itself—
. . . it began with swellings in the groin and armpit, in both men and women, some of which were as big as apples and some of which were shaped like eggs, some were small and others were large; the common people called these swellings gavoccioli. From these two parts of the body, the fatal gavaccioli would begin to spread and within a short while would appear over the entire body in various spots; the disease at this point began to take on the qualities of a deadly sickness, and the body would be covered with dark and livid spots, which would appear in great numbers on the arms, the thighs, and other parts of the body; some were large and widely spaced while some were small and bunched together. And just like the gavaciolli earlier, these were certain indications of coming death. . . .
. . . the rags of a poor man who had just died from the disease were thrown into the public street and were noticed by two pigs, who, following their custom, pressed their snouts into the rags, and afterwards picked them up with their teeth, and shook them against their cheeks: and within a short time, they both began to convulse, and they both, the two of them, fell dead on the ground next to the evil rags.
—and the human responses to incomprehensible suffering:
Because of all these things, and many others that were similar or even worse, diverse fears and imaginings were born in those left alive, and all of them took recourse to the most cruel precaution: to avoid and run away from the sick and their things; by doing this, each person believed they could preserve their health. Others were of the opinion that they should live moderately and guard against all excess; by this means they would avoid infection. Having withdrawn, living separate from everybody else, they settled down and locked themselves in, where no sick person or any other living person could come, they ate small amounts of food and drank the most delicate wines and avoided all luxury, refraining from speech with outsiders, refusing news of the dead or the sick or anything else, and diverting themselves with music or whatever else was pleasant. Others, who disagreed with this, affirmed that drinking beer, enjoying oneself, and going around singing and ruckus-raising and satisfying all one’s appetites whenever possible and laughing at the whole bloody thing was the best medicine; and these people put into practice what they heartily advised to others: day and night, going from tavern to tavern, drinking without moderation or measure, and many times going from house to house drinking up a storm and only listening to and talking about pleasing things. These parties were easy to find because everyone behaved as if they were going to die soon, so they cared nothing about themselves nor their belongings; as a result, most houses became common property, and any stranger passing by could enter and use the house as if he were its master. But for all their bestial living, these people always ran away from the sick. With so much affliction and misery, all reverence for the laws, both of God and of man, fell apart and dissolved, because the ministers and executors of the laws were either dead or ill like everyone else, or were left with so few officials that they were unable to do their duties; as a result, everyone was free to do whatever they pleased. Many other people steered a middle course between these two extremes, neither restricting their diet like the first group, nor indulging so liberally in drinking and other forms of dissolution like the second group, but simply not going beyond their needs or satisfying their appetite beyond the necessary, and, instead of locking themselves away, these people walked about freely, holding in their hands a posy of flowers, or fragrant herbs, or diverse exotic spices, which sometimes they pressed to their nostrils, believing it would comfort the brain with smells of that sort because the stink of corpses, sick bodies, and medicines polluted the air all about the city.
—Translated from the Italian by Richard Hooker (1993)
The entire text, in an older translation, can be found online here: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/boccacio2.asp. If your eyes are like mine, you will want to enlarge your screen’s display resolution to read it.
A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1974)
As COVID-19 wends its way through North America, I have been noticing recurrent news items regarding the behaviour of young people in the early stages of this massive public health crisis: continuing to go out to bars, movies, and restaurants; thronging beaches in Florida; and so on. Most young people, it appears, don’t vote, even when inspired by old socialists like Bernie Sanders. They like the rallies, but they don’t vote. And they don’t follow the news, which seems to account for some of their recent clueless activities.
Most of them haven’t stopped eating meat or driving cars, either, or done much of anything else to reduce their “carbon footprint,” as far as I can tell.
All of which reminds me of that internet meme, “Okay, Boomer,” mocking my generation, telling us to get out of the way since we’ve made such a mess of things. Let the younger generations take over and try to repair the damage before it’s too late.
But it’s not about generations. It has never been about generations. When my friends and I were protesting the Vietnam War and marching for civil rights and advocating for gender equality, we were always a minority among our generational peers. When we were educating ourselves about the imperialist crimes committed by the U.S. government, and becoming conscious of the racist and sexist ideas we had grown up with, and learning to prepare vegetarian meals and grow our own food, we were always a minority. Most of our fellow “Boomers” were always unenlightened, materialistic, and conventional.
In every generation, the enlightened minority sees most clearly, pays attention, raises the alarm, protests against injustice, agitates for necessary change. The majority, as Thoreau wrote in his great essay, “On Civil Disobedience,” lags always at least a step behind.
To those “woke” young people tempted to mock the Boomers: have a look first at the majority of your peers, who are just as unenlightened and clueless in the face of climate change or COVID-19 as most of my peers were in the face of Vietnam, segregation, and CIA coups all across Latin America and beyond.
Boomers are not the problem. The problem is the clueless majority—of all ages.
Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Barney Bigard.
From Wikipedia: New Orleans is a 1947 American musical romance film featuring Billie Holiday as a singing maid and Louis Armstrong as a bandleader; supporting players Holiday and Armstrong perform together and portray a couple becoming romantically involved. During one song, Armstrong’s character introduces the members of his band, a virtual Who’s Who of classic jazz greats, including trombonist Kid Ory, drummer Zutty Singleton, clarinetist Barney Bigard, guitar player Bud Scott, bassist George “Red” Callender, pianist Charlie Beal, and pianist Meade Lux Lewis. Also performing in the film is cornetist Mutt Carey and bandleader Woody Herman.
Dear Premier Horgan,
Difficult as it might be, I hope you will call for a pause on construction of the natural gas pipeline through Wet’suwet’en land—a pause during which all parties will seek a consensus.
The government has won in the courts, but there is no consensus among the Wet’suwet’en, and opposition to the pipeline remains fierce.
In the tradition of Western democracy, a majority vote and a court decision are enough to go forward. In First Nations cultures, however, the community needs consensus before going forward.
Reaching consensus will be a long, difficult process. It may not even be possible, in the end. But in such a worse-case scenario, would abandoning the pipeline project really be more costly than the damage that will be done to relations among Canadians by going forward without consensus?
With my best wishes,
So, summing up, we have a situation with multiple baked-in weaknesses:
- Major media, easily manipulated
- Social media, a cesspool of propaganda and disinformation
- A public divided into tribes
- An anti-democratic Electoral College
- An anti-democratic U.S. Senate
- An election process that costs each candidate millions and millions of dollars, i.e., an open invitation to corruption
And who, looking at all that, could possibly foresee a good result?
Rules for following the U.S. presidential election on social media:
- Any message on social media that makes you think, “That’s it, I will NEVER vote for THAT Democrat!” is, until proven otherwise, part of a disinformation campaign, and should be ignored.
- And people described as “progressive activists” who do & say disgusting things should be regarded as provocateurs working for Republicans, until proven otherwise.
If you are wondering whether the best strategy to defeat Trump is “move to the centre” or “go left!” this podcast conversation with data-nerd political scientist Rachel Bitecofer will interest you:
A century ago, shutting out distractions was already a problem. Today, perhaps, the Isolator’s time has finally come.
H/t: “The History Lovers’ Club” Twitter feed.
I’ve never understood why the seven deadly sins don’t include ignorance and cruelty. They have anger and gluttony and lust in there, but I’d much rather have a person eat three slices of apple pie but be kind and well informed. Gluttony doesn’t come anywhere close to ignorance. I’m not talking about stupidity. I’m talking about failing to be informed and to deliberately cut yourself off from knowing things. That must lead to every kind of error there is.
—Louis Naidorf, architect
Naidorf designed the iconic circular Capitol Records building in Los Angeles. He is quoted in this profile in Billboard magazine.
Most people hear the phrase “sugar addiction” as a metaphor. A new study from Denmark indicates that sugar addiction is literal. Dr. Michael Winterdahl, one of the scientists who led the study, wanted to refute the idea that sugar was physically addictive. The evidence changed his mind:
“After just 12 days of sugar intake, we could see major changes in the brain’s dopamine and opioid systems. In fact, the opioid system, which is that part of the brain’s chemistry that is associated with well-being and pleasure, was already activated after the very first intake,” says Winterdahl.
The study from Aarhus University is explained in layman’s terms in this article from MedicalXpress.com. The technical English-language summary on the Aarhus University site is here.
For more about sugar, see my post on the Good Habits blog, “Kick the sugar habit—or it will surely kick you.”
Why are crimes not called crimes if they are committed by the US government?
Can we stop calling the murder of Qasem Soleimani a “mistake” or a “blunder”? It was a crime. Murder.
Those who refuse to call it murder are complicit in excusing it.
Soleimani, we are told, deserved to die because he was a bad man who committed terrible crimes. Fine. The proper response to crime is arrest, indictment, and trial—not summary execution.
Imagine if nations behaved like citizens governed by the rule of law, instead of organized crime families trying to maximize their power and putting out hits on their rivals.
Slaveowners declaiming eloquently about freedom, and
merchants declaiming eloquently about the evils of taxation,
create a new nation
populated largely by brash, ignorant, racist know-nothings
who spin a wonderful myth about Success and the American Dream
and convince themselves that they are both the Good Guys
and (eventually) the Greatest Nation on Earth,
smugly confident that power and virtue can be perfectly aligned
Ignoring the crimes committed in their name,
they are astonished when their victims strike back.
“They hate us because we are free!” they cry,
as if that makes any sense at all.
And even now, after Civil Rights and Vietnam,
after Iraq and Afghanistan,
after Roe v. Wade and marriage equality,
after legalized marijuana and Black Lives Matter,
when everyone who’s woke gets their news
from TV comedians,
when a self-proclaimed socialist finishes second
in the Democratic presidential primaries—
even after all that, Hillary Clinton (!) gets three million more votes
but still loses the election
because of the anti-democratic Constitution
written by those slave-owning Founders,
and the anti-democratic Republicans in the Senate refuse
to acknowledge the obvious crimes committed by their president
whose re-election will depend on a few thousand votes in a handful
of white-majority midwestern states cast by
people who know nothing about
With brilliant insight and economy, Frank revealed a country that many knew existed but few had acknowledged. He showed a culture deeply riddled by racism, alienation, and isolation, one with little civility and much violence. He depicted a society numbed by a seemingly endless array of consumer goods that promised many choices but offered no real satisfaction, and he revealed a people emasculated by politicians who were fatuous and distant at best, messianic at worst.
Reading about the insane and obscene contracts being handed out to Major League Baseball’s most elite free-agents has reminded me of one of my better brilliant-ideas-that-will-never-happen.
Let’s socialize pro sports.
Crazy, eh? Read on.
Each team would be owned by its city. Players would be paid well, but not exorbitantly, according to a league-wide pay scale and salary cap. Players would have generous post-career packages that made sure they had plenty of opportunities to obtain further education and build a second career. And the biggest stars could still cash in on the side with endorsement deals, etc.
Players would cease to be nomads with a list of teams on their resumés. Trades would still happen, but not—as is so often the case today—as salary dumps. For the most part, team rosters would be stable.
Fans would be supporting their team, and cheering for their players, instead of supporting some billionaire’s team and cheering for the latest gang of rent-a-players to put on the team uniform.
Ticket prices could return to affordable levels for middle-class fans.
The bulk of the TV revenues and other profits would go to the owners—that is, the cities—and be used for roads, schools, hospitals, recreation facilities, etc.
“Objection!” you say. “My city government has messed up everything else already—I don’t want them firing coaches and GMs, too. And what about the possibilities for corruption?”
And I say: you’ve got to be kidding.
How could the hiring and firing of team management get any worse than it is now? And how could a bit more government graft be worse than a small pack of billionaires and millionaires taking everything? Maybe city ownership of teams would inspire a bit more participation in the democratic process; how bad could that be?
And I haven’t even mentioned the current scandalous conditions under which cities are extorted into subsidizing stadiums for billionaire owners who threaten to pack up and move elsewhere if they don’t get the sweet deal they demand.
To hell with all these billionaires. Socialize pro sports so we can root for teams that are really ours.
The Impeded Stream
by Wendell Berry
It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work.
And that when we no longer know
which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled
is not employed.
The impeded stream
is the one that sings.
The love of Heaven and Earth is impartial,
and they demand nothing from the myriad things.
The love of the sages is impartial,
and they demand nothing from the people.
The cooperation between Heaven and Earth
is much like how a bellows works!
Within the emptiness there is limitless potential;
in moving, it keeps producing without end.
Complaining too much only leads to misfortune.
It is better to stay in the center of serenity.
—Laozi, Dao De Jing, Chapter 5, translated by Yuhui Liang
I just resumed teaching TOK after a hiatus of four years, but I began teaching the course in 1987 and have taught it almost every year since then.
My two cents’ worth:
The major problem with TOK assessment is that there are only two marks—the essay and the presentation—whereas in other courses there are several. Result: one anomalous mark can really skew the final grade.
Solution: Add a short-answer TOK question to each of the exams in other subject areas.
Besides increasing the number of marks that go into the final grade for TOK, this would have the added benefit of involving all subject teachers in TOK (whereas in the overwhelming number of cases presently, DP teachers who do not teach TOK know nothing about it). This would help restore TOK to its intended role at the center of the DP curriculum.
I do not imagine that this suggestion will make it into the 2020 course update. It would take time, of course, to develop short-answer TOK questions for each subject area. But I hope that it will be seriously considered for future improvements to the programme.
How many stupid things can a nation do, and how stupid can its leaders and its people be, before the nation falls into an irreversible spiral of decline?
The underlying factor behind the stupidity is addiction. Modern society is an addiction culture. Everything that drives economic activity involves some kind of addiction, and addiction makes people stupid. Try using charts, data, and facts to explain to a junkie why he should stop using heroin. Now do the same and try to convince people to give up junk food and junk entertainment and junk consumerism.
Neil Postman was right in 1985 in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: in the television age, everything is entertainment. In the internet age, all the factors Postman identified have increased geometrically. So we are told that in the UK people are “tired” of hearing about Brexit, and that in the US people are “fed up” with talk about impeachment. Low entertainment value. Change the channel.
Timothy Leary’s 1960s call to the hippie generation to “turn on, tune in, drop out” has been co-opted by the commercial addiction juggernaut—as has been everything else that dissidents of any sort have put forward. The society as a whole has turned on to addictions of all sorts, tuned in to culture as entertainment, and dropped out of any serious engagement with political life.
Decline and fall, baby.
For a more technical and data-based version of this analysis, read “This is How a Society Dies,” by Umair Haque.
No ice cream was consumed during the writing of this story, and consuming ice cream of any kind is NOT recommended. If you want something sweet, eat fruit.
One Saturday afternoon my friend and I were walking down the pedestrian-only section of the main shopping district downtown. My friend looked to the left and saw a Mr. Softie vendor selling swirls of soft ice cream in three different colors, with sprinkles of various kinds available at additional cost. “Oooh! Mr. Softie!” he cried, and started toward the stand. “Wait!” I said. “Do you have any idea what’s in that stuff? It’s just air and chemicals and artificial sweeteners and artificial flavors and artificial colors. The only real thing about it is the very real damage you do to yourself when you put that poison in your body.” “I know,” he said. “It’s crap, and it’s really bad for me, but I love it anyway.” And off he went.
Waiting for him amid crowds of shoppers, I began looking around. On the opposite side of the street to the Mr. Softie stand was a Waldorf-Ritz Gourmet Ice Cream shop. The best, most expensive, and most delicious ice cream in the world! Without hesitating I walked through the ornate double doors, already salivating as I imagined a scrumptious bowl of Waldorf-Ritz Rocky Road. The moment I passed through the doors, lights began flashing, celebratory music began playing, and confetti began falling from the ceiling. The store manager rushed straight up to me, smiled happily, and said, “Congratulations, sir! You are the one millionth customer to walk through those doors!” He took me by the arm and led me to a special roped-off table that had been prepared for the occasion. “Please have a seat here, sir,” he said. Then he called to his employees, “Bring out the Prize Ice Cream!” In a kind of procession, the entire staff escorted the master ice cream chef to me as he carried, on a silver tray, a large bowl of ice cream. “There you are, sir!” said the manager. “Three scoops of our unbelievably delicious pistachio ice cream, free of charge, with our compliments. I know you will enjoy it.”
I looked at the ice cream, and then at the circle of happy employees waiting to see me take my first spoonful, and then at the manager. “I really appreciate this,” I said, “but I’m sorry to say that I don’t like pistachio ice cream.” The manager looked shocked, but then smiled. “I think you misunderstand, sir,” he said. “This ice cream is handmade in small batches by our master ice cream chef. All the ingredients are 100% natural, organic, and completely free of any artificial additives or colorings of any kind whatsoever. The cream comes from cows raised in luxury dairy farms where they are treated like movie stars. Nowhere in the entire world will you find ice cream even half as good as Waldorf-Ritz Gourmet Ice Cream!”
“I know that your ice cream is the best in the world,” I sighed. “But I don’t like pistachio ice cream!”
The moral of this sad tale, of course, is that judgments of quality are different from judgments of taste. I may love Mr. Softie ice cream, or I may love a corny movie or a trashy piece of pop music, even though I know that if I judge their quality, they all fail the test. On the other hand, I may admit that Waldorf-Ritz Pistachio ice cream or the novels of James Joyce or the ballets of Igor Stravinsky are all superb examples of ice cream, fiction, and dance, while still not enjoying any of them. In the words of the great American film critic, Roger Ebert, “Does it make a movie ‘good’ because you ‘like’ it? No, it doesn’t, and I have liked a lot of bad movies.” We can put this another way: no one can tell you that your judgments of taste are wrong. No one can say, “You are wrong to dislike pistachio ice cream!” But if someone who knows more than you do about literature and ballet says, “You are wrong to claim that the novels of James Joyce or the ballets of Igor Stravinsky are crap,” he just may be correct.
Education is an important element in the struggle for human rights. It is the means to help our children and our people rediscover their identity and thereby increase their self respect. Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today.
—Malcolm X, Speech at Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (28 June 1964), as quoted in By Any Means Necessary (1970)
Education makes a greater difference between man and man, than nature has made between man and brute.
—Letter to Abigail Adams (29 October 1775)
Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.
—John Adams, Letters to John Taylor (1814)
From “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” (1942):
The broad truth about the war is simple enough. The Spanish bourgeoisie saw their chance of crushing the labour movement, and took it, aided by the Nazis and by the forces of reaction all over the world. . . .
The Fascists won because . . . they had modern arms and the others hadn’t.
. . . the British ruling class did all they could to hand Spain over to Franco and the Nazis. Why? Because they were pro-Fascist, was the obvious answer. . . . Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time . . . .
. . . the people who support or have supported Fascism . . . are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings. . . . the simple intention of those with money or privileges to cling to them. . . .
All that the working man demands is what these others would consider the indispensable minimum without which human life cannot be lived at all. Enough to eat, freedom from the haunting terror of unemployment, the knowledge that your children will get a fair chance, a bath once a day, clean linen reasonably often, a roof that doesn’t leak, and short enough working hours to leave you with a little energy when the day is done.
The ballad seems to be having its effect on the couple in the background.
One of the truly great drummers. Always musical, always tasteful.
for all of my old friends
My old friend lives far away
from me and
I live far away
from my old friend.
We send email back and forth
from time to time,
a photo, a song, or
something in the news.
I am a part of my
old friend’s life,
only a part,
and my old friend is a
part of my life, too,
We share good memories.
One day my email will not be answered.
one day I will not
be here to open
my old friend’s message.
One of us will become
Sooner or later
both of us will
disappear into the
land of eternal forgetting.
In La gloire de mon père, Marcel Pagnol remembers one of his father’s colleagues, who graduated from teacher’s college first in his class. From there he went straight into a job in the worst neighbourhood in Marseille, a part of town where no one dared to walk at night. He stayed there, teaching in the same classroom for forty years.
Marcel overhears his father ask this man one evening,
“So, you never had any ambition?”
“Oh yes,” he said, “I did! And I think I have succeeded very well. Just think: in twenty years, my predecessor saw six of his former students guillotined. As for me, in forty years I have only seen two, plus one who was reprieved. That’s made it all worthwhile.”
I believe I have omitted mentioning that in my first Voyage from Boston, being becalm’d off Block Island, our People set about catching Cod and haul’d up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my Resolution of not eating animal Food and on this Occasion, I consider’d with my Master Tryon, the taking every Fish as a kind of unprovok’d Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might justify the Slaughter.
All this seem’d very reasonable.
But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, and when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smelt admirably well.
I balanc’d some time between Principle and Inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then, thought I, if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you. So I din’d upon Cod very heartily and continu’d to eat with other People, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable Diet.
So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.
—Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography
From the “History Doesn’t Repeat, but Sometimes It Rhymes” Dept:
In the early days of France’s Third Republic (ca. 1870 – 1890), the major political divide was between monarchists, who wanted a king again, and republicans, who favoured parliamentary democracy.
The moderate republicans, called “opportunists” because they thought new laws should be introduced only when they were expedient, wanted to avoid disruptive issues, to limit the scope of reform, and to deal with one problem at a time. “Nothing must be put in the republican program that the majority of the nation cannot be induced to accept immediately,” Gambetta had said, as spokesman of the opportunist point of view. The radicals, on the other hand, wanted to carry through sweeping reforms at once. . . .
Meanwhile, the mass of the French people remained indifferent to the republic or were becoming increasingly radicalized as a result of the government’s resistance to programs designed to improve the lot of industrial and agricultural workers. . . .
Meanwhile, in the Austro-Hungarian empire,
In 1890 militant German and Slavic nationalists combined to prevent . . . compromise on the nationalities question. In 1891 both Czech and German moderates were routed in the parliamentary elections. . . .
[Prime Minister Taafe failed] to solve the serious financial problems of the empire. . . . Instead of meeting the problem with a large-scale program of tax and financial reform, Taafe simply increased the rate of state borrowing, thereby raising the cost of servicing the national debt.
. . . [His] efforts at social reform were also ineffective. . . . Taafe’s proposals for universal suffrage and labor reform offended every vested interest in the country. . . .
The political response . . . was the spectacular growth of the Christian Socialist movement [led by Vienna mayor] Karl Lueger (1844 – 1910) [who] championed the rights of the worker, peasant, and small businessman against big business and “Jewish” capitalism. He advocated a socialist welfare state . . . where Slavs, Jews, and Protestants would not be welcome. Lueger was enormously popular and was repeatedly elected mayor of Vienna.
—Norman Rich, The Age of Nationalism and Reform, 1850 – 1890 (1977)
The obvious parallels with current events in Europe and the U.S. should concern all of us. The Industrial Revolution, the growth of the middle class, and the rise of Western democracies are not finished stories. Neither is the U.S. struggle over slavery and its transformation after 1865 into a struggle over racial equality. These stories continue; the history continues. Our era did not begin in 1945, or in 1900, but in Paris in 1789, and we still do not know how the political, economic, and racial issues unleashed in the French Revolution will finally sort themselves. A racist, authoritarian triumph is not out of the question.