Who Survived The Titanic: A Story of Chivalry Not Class

Tuesday, April 17, AD 2012

There’s something about the magnitude and timing of the sinking of the Titanic that makes it almost irresistible for people to turn it into a sort of fable. The sinking of the “unsinkable” ship, the largest ship of its kind built up to that time, seems like a perfect example of hubris, and the fact that the wreck occurred just two years before the outbreak of the Great War (which perhaps more than any event defines the beginning of “Modern Times”) allows the Titanic to serve as a symbol of all that was bad and good about the world before the world before the War.

One of the things that most people are pretty sure they know about the sinking of the Titanic is that many of the first class passengers survived while those traveling third class were kept below decks and perished in far greater numbers. This fits well with the image of rigid class stratification in the pre-War years.

It is certainly true that a much greater percentage of third class passengers died in the sinking than first and second class passengers, however, the images popularized by James Cameron’s movie of third class passengers being locked below decks by the viciously classist crew appear to be fiction. The question of whether third class passengers were actively kept from the lifeboats was examined during Lord Mersey’s official investigation of the wreck and his conclusions were as follows:

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13 Responses to Who Survived The Titanic: A Story of Chivalry Not Class

  • Astor was by far the richest man onboard. He left 150 million dollars in his will which would be 11.92 billion in 2011 dollars.

  • To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
    Is nothing so bad when you’ve cover to ‘and, an’ leave an’ likin’ to shout;
    But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill
    is a damn tough bullet to chew,
    An’ they done it, the Jollies — ‘Er Majesty’s Jollies —
    soldier an’ sailor too!
    Their work was done when it ‘adn’t begun; they was younger nor me an’ you;
    Their choice it was plain between drownin’ in ‘eaps
    an’ bein’ mopped by the screw,
    So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill, soldier an’ sailor too!

    We’re most of us liars, we’re ‘arf of us thieves,
    an’ the rest are as rank as can be,
    But once in a while we can finish in style
    (which I ‘ope it won’t ‘appen to me).
    But it makes you think better o’ you an’ your friends,
    an’ the work you may ‘ave to do,
    When you think o’ the sinkin’ Victorier’s Jollies — soldier an’ sailor too!
    Rudyard Kipling

  • “it was seen as the duty of society as a whole to protect the lives of women and children in such a situation,” an authentic “Right to Choose”

  • …the images popularized by James Cameron’s movie… appear to be fiction.

    Almost the whole flick is fakery of one kind or another – most egregiously its attempt to woozily merge feminism with female privilege via the duties chivalry imposes on men alone.

  • Don,

    Thanks for remembrin’ the “Birken’ead drill.”

    More “mixed” sea stories: this date in 1942 a small group of daring airmen who took off from the aircraft carrier Hornet in B-24 (bombers!) and took the first counter-punch at Dai Nippon.

  • The 1958 film “A Night to Remember” , a far better film than Cameron’s absurd epic, and done when many of the survivors were still alive, also buys into the myth that third class passengers were deliberately kept below. Third class (not ‘steerage’ please note) on Titanic was as well-appointed as second class on most liners, and represented good value for money – then, as now, the class you travelled in depended on how much you were prepared to, or could afford to pay. In the 1950s, when traditional notions of social class were being eroded, it was fashionable to portray the pre-1914 era as class-ridden. The same film also belongs to the stiff-upper-lip British officer war movie genre of the time, exemplified by Kenneth More who played Lightoller in the film. In reality the ship’s officers had no clear idea of what they were supposed to do and Captain Smith seems to have had some sort of nervous breakdown. Costa Concordia anyone?

    Incidentally, Charles Lightoller came out of retirement to command one of the ‘little ships’ in the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.

    BTW, does anyone have an explanation for the low survival rate among second class male passengers?

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  • Just like on a plane, first class gets you more privileges/comfort. You get what you pay for.

  • No amount of truth can penetrate prejudice. Cameron’s “Titanic” was appalling. Drives me batty to see history (or even good novels, for that matter) gutted to serve somebody’s social agenda.
    God knows what heroes died that day, and why.

  • And the unsung ones were Wilde (Chief Officer) and Murdoch (First Officer) who saw all their boats away full, before going down with the ship. A rumour (no more than that) on Carpathia was that Murdoch shot himself in remorse as he had been the the Officer of the Watch when the berg was struck. The Cameron film had him shooting a third class passenger (Irish of course). No wonder Murdoch’s family objected. For all the millions of dollars spent on it the Cameron film was one of the worst I have seen in my life.

  • I don’t think Astor should be cited as an example of chivalry.
    He tried to finagle his way on (in place of who else but a woman or a child – who were to be given preference) and only when the powers-that-be put the kibosh on it did he accept his fate.
    His second wife (he divorced his first), a teenage girl 30 years his junior, was fine – she inherited millions and married her childhood sweetheart a few years later.

  • Good article. Minor nitpick to one comment. The Doolittle Raid used B-25’s, a twin engined medium bomber, not the 4 engined, B-24, a heavy bomber.

  • Mr. Onge,
    I think it is perilous to cast aspersions with respect to the actions of Mr. Astor since it is difficult to reconcile the account of Mrs Astor with that of Officer Lightoller. It is possible that Lightoller misconstrued Mr. Astor’s selfless efforts to assist his wife, just as it is possible that Mrs. Astor contrived a face-saving explanation for her husband’s selfish actions. We simply cannot know, although Mr. Garrett’s account gives one reason to want to favor Mrs. Astor’s rendering.

Of Social Darwinists, Robber Barons and Libraries

Tuesday, April 17, AD 2012

Jonah Goldberg has a great column in which he takes apart the myth of the Social Darwinists.

This raises the real problem with the AP’s analysis. It has the history exactly backwards. The topic was not popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is now. And it’s not suddenly “making its way” into modern politics. Liberals have been irresponsibly flinging the term Social Darwinism rightward for decades. Mario Cuomo, in his famous 1984 Democratic Convention keynote speech—which “electrified,” “galvanized,” and “inspired” Democrats, who went on to lose 49 states in the general election—declared that “President Reagan told us from the very beginning that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism.” Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee that year, insisted that Reagan preferred “Social Darwinism” over “social decency.” Even Barack Obama’s April 3 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors was so much recycling. In 2005, then-senator Obama denounced the conservative idea of an “ownership society,” charging that “in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism—every man or woman for him or herself.”

Meanwhile, the myth that Social Darwinism was a popular term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely created by the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, whose 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought didn’t merely transform our understanding of the Gilded Age, it largely fabricated an alternative history of it.

Go here to read the brilliant rest.  Richard Hofstadter was a professor of American history at Columbia University.  In his youth he was a Communist, breaking with the party in 1939 over the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.  However, his hatred of capitalism remained, and his  Social Darwinism in American Thought was a mere polemic with an academic wrapper.  Hofstadter did almost no primary research in the documents of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and relied on the research of other historians as support for the conclusions he wished to reach.  Almost throughout his entire academic career Hofstadter was a fairly reliable man of the Left, always ready to slam conservatives as provincial and paranoid.  His 1964 The Paranoid Style in American Politics and other Essays is fairly typical.  Ironically, by the time of his death in 1970 Hofstadter was no longer popular on the Left, due to his criticisms of the New Left, and especially the antics of student radicals on campus.

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13 Responses to Of Social Darwinists, Robber Barons and Libraries

  • Social Darwinism is “ever man for himself”?
    How is that a bad concept? Anyone can see that playing out in life.

  • “Anyone can see that playing out in life.”

    And with usually disastrous consequences. Anyone who is simply out for number one leads a life to be pitied.

  • Giants of industry? Carnegie painted himself as a Captain of Industry, himself, so I do not have to. Robber Baron yes, murderer yes, I was having a good day until I read this post. The Robber Barons robbed and killed their competition if they had to. I read in Andrew Carnegie’s biography (?) tell me that I am wrong, that Andrew Carnegie hired Pinkerton guards from England to shoot to kill any underpaid striking employee. Americans would not shoot to kill their own. The Pinkertons from England killed nineteen men. The word went out that anyone who did not share their Thanksgiving turkey with the striking families “ought to choke on it”. When Carnegie became a pariah and realized that he was going to hell, as his friend Harvey Firestone told him, he built the University at Pittsburg (The Steelers) for the sons of his workers whom he had murdered. Then, Carnegie went about donating to every large city a library. The City of New Brunswick, New Jersey, has one such library with Andrew Carnegie’s portrait in the entrance, kind of a mausoleum for his memory. A fascinating place I frequented until I learned about the man. I could not even look at his portrait in the entrance and soon refused to go there.

  • “In 2005, then-senator Obama denounced the conservative idea of an “ownership society,” charging that “in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism—every man or woman for him or herself.” Of public property, each and every person owns it all, in joint and common tenancy, and holds it in trust for our constitutional posterity, all future generations, not yet born but to be born. Ownership of private property is held in trust as an inheritance for the heirs. Rural Councils Executive Order 13575 removes anyone’s claim to ownership of private property. Obama’s czars, every one of them, from Timothy Geitner to Cass Sustein are in charge of administering Rural Councils, Obama’s abrogation of all ownership of private property, unauthorized arrogation to himself of all our unalienable civil rights. What may I ask is “social” about being impoverished so that somebody else can steal your children’s inheritance?

  • I read Father Robert Barrons and I thought we could not have enough. God bless.

  • Amazing that people who are typically extremely supportive of abortion for almost any reason, and who virtually insist upon it when a child may be born with Downs Syndrome or some other disability – in other words, the modern left – can then complain about “Social Darwinism.”

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  • @ Student: Forget The Catcher in the Rye, read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, if possible at the same sitting. An interesting dichotomy of contrast and congruence.

    As for “. . . every man for himself, How is that a bad concept?,” moral purpose is a deliberate desire to love. Love is not accomplished by isolated individuals.

  • Glad to see that Goldberg’s got a new book coming out.

  • Wasn’t Carnegie into eugenics? That was a little scary.

  • Brian,

    No offense, but you really need to offer better articles than the ones you usually recommend. The folks and crooksandliars hardly offered a meaningful rebuttal of Jonah’s article, instead cherrypicking statistics and offering strawmen arguments.

    I will say it’s a step up from Little Green Footballs.

  • May I show this?

    No. That site is vulgar and stupid. If you wish to read gliberal and leftoid literature, your time is properly invested in Dissent, the Boston Review, The Atlantic Monthly, the Utne Reader, or perhaps the New York Review of Books.

Brits Vote for Washington as Greatest Enemy

Monday, April 16, AD 2012

No, not our government, the general. (Though they’d be forgiven for thinking so based on some things this administration has done.)

He’s one of our Founding Fathers, but according to the Brits, George Washington is public enemy #1.

Our nation’s first president, who led the 13 colonies in the Revolution against England’s tyrannical rule, was picked by a wide margin in a National Army Museum in London poll as the greatest foe ever faced by Britain.

Washington delivered one of “the most jarring defeat(s)” ever inflicted upon the British Empire at the time, said author and historian Stephen Brumwell, according to London’s Telegraph.

“He was a worthy opponent,” he said.

Washington was selected among five other finalists, who were picked during an online poll that received at least 8,000 votes. The four other potential British foils were Ireland’s Michael Collins, France’s Napoleon Bonaparte, Germany’s Erwin Rommel, and Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

At least somebody still respects winners.

H/t: Stacy McCain.

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15 Responses to Brits Vote for Washington as Greatest Enemy

  • Great minds and all of that Paul. I have a post on this for Almost Chosen People on this later in the week. King George III of all people paid the ultimate accolade to the Father of Our Nation:

    “The king asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”

    “If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.””

    The first Catholic Bishop in the United States, John Carroll, from his eulogy on the death of Washington:

    “The last act of his supreme magistracy was to inculcate in most impressive language on his countrymen… his deliberate and solemn advice; to bear incessantly in their minds that nations and individuals are under the moral government of an infinitely wise and just Providence; that the foundations of their happiness are morality and religion; and their union among themselves their rock of safety… May these United States flourish in pure and undefiled religion, in morality, peace, union, liberty, and the enjoyment of their excellent Constitution, as long as respect, honor, and veneration shall gather around the name of Washington; that is, whilst there still shall be any surviving record of human events!”


  • I knew this one would be up your alley, Don.

    Of course Washington’s model was Cincinnatus. The Society of the Cincinnati is not far from my office.

  • For our part, side ways sort of, do we forgive Benedict Arnold?

  • I tend to agree with a captured American sergeant who Arnold asked in 1781 what would happen to him if we captured him. The sergeant replied that the leg he had wounded at Quebec and Saratoga would be cut off and buried with full military honors. The rest of him would then be hung on a very tall gibbet.

  • Shows how Britain is, sadly, a hollow shell of its past when we see this sort of thing. Fortunately, there is still a minority of people there who still remember the great days of “Rule Brittanica”, and hopefully will pull them out of the mire that is engulfing them.
    Of that list, Washington, Collins and Ataturk were fighting on their own land, in defense of it, or attempting to expel an aggressor – which Brittain was in those cases.
    Bonaparte and Rommell were agressors against England, and I suspect Bonaparte was the worst of the two.
    Had they said Hitler instead of Rommel, then he would have surpassed Bonaparte.

  • “Shows how Britain is, sadly, a hollow shell of its past when we see this sort of thing.”

    I actually took pride in it Don! A great nation like the UK needs a worthy greatest enemy. A homicidal maniac like Hitler or a jumped up Corsican lieutenant of artillery simply do not fill the role!

  • In my mind, Washington’s personal qualities set him head and shoulders above the others.

    His greatness was in his possession (in spades!) of all the human virtues. He was not a military genius nor a conqueror, a la Alexander or Atla.

    The image of Washington praying at Valley Forge. Read the history of the War of Independence and I think one must conclude that the Divine Assistance always was with the Continental Army and Congress.

    Supposedly, King George said, “Washington was the greatest man of his time.” when he was informed that Washington refused a crown.

    Michael Collin did not live long enough. The other nominees’ personal attributes pale in comparison to the Father of our Country. Yes, I am a “little” prejudiced.

  • Kiwi – the difference is in the use of the word “Greatest.” Not in the sense of “largest threat” but as in “Which of Britain’ victorious opponents would be held most admirable?”

    Had the question been “Who was Britain’s worst foe?” then Der Fuhrer would have certainly topped the list, followed somwhere closely by King Phillip II of Spain and Oliver Cromwell, methinks.

  • Just a point of clarification: the rankings are of military commanders only, so Hitler would not be eligible for this listing. And yes, the #1 ranking in this context is definitely a compliment.

  • It is as silly to sanctify Washington as it would be to canonize the Duke of Wellington. But as far as the USA is concerned he was the man for the hour, as Churchill, despite his shortcomings, was for England in 1940. Michael Collins is a more ambiguous figure. His statesmanship in the 1921 treaty negotiations is recognized, but his earlier assumption that Ireland’s freedom could only be achieved by bloody revolution has been questioned, and rightly so. Most of the victims of his terror campaign were Irish Catholics – the Royal Irish Constabulary was referred to disparagingly by Ulster protestants as the ‘Fenian Force’ . And the problem with Irish nationalism, that it is intimately bound up with extreme violence, is part of the Collins legacy which should not be glossed over.

  • The Iron Duke did not have the difficulties that Washington had John in simply keeping his army in existence, a point that I address today at Almost Chosen People.


    Also, unlike Washington, Wellington in his personal relations could be a nasty piece of work, as I am sure his wife would attest.

    In regard to Collins, Home Rule was never going to be granted to Ireland as long as Ulster was prepared to revolt against it, this being graphically demonstrated just prior to the onset of World War I. Churchill’s father’s quip in 1891 that “Ulster Will Fight, and Ulster Will Be Right” demonstrated just how long enduring and intransigient this sentiment was. Independence simply was not going to be granted without fighting, and Collins led the guerilla campaign which was the only avenue the Republicans had since a conventional conflict was hopeless for the Irish. Winston Churchill, who negotiated the peace with Collins, paid him this tribute after Collins’ death:

    “Successor to a sinister inheritance, reared among fierce conditions and moving through ferocious times, he supplied those qualities of action and personality with-out which the foundations of Irish nationhood would not have been re-established.”

  • One more feather in George Washington’s cap – he indirectly benefited Canada, Australia and New Zealand. After losing her thirteen American colonies, Britain became more lenient towards her colonial subjects.

  • Don, it’s ironic that Collins was more respected by the British than he was by many of his own countrymen. Having worked in England he had no animosity towards the English and had none of the religious bigotry which sadly still exists in the North. The point I was making was that what Collins settled for in 1921 was effectively what would have happened anyway (by 1914 the HR Bill had passed both houses of Parliament and the Unionists knew that the best they could hope for was an opt-out for Ulster protestants). In British political circles it was expected that partition would not last and that the six counties would merge with the rest of Ireland sooner rather than later.

    This point was not lost on the Ulster Unionists who with an eye on the demographic situation in the six counties, and ever-fearful of a sell-out by Westminster, spent the next fifty years entrenching their position by effectively treating the Catholics as second-class citizens. The hands-off approach of successive British governments (who after all had a duty to ensure that all citizens were treated fairly) unravelled in 1968. Even then, it was nearly four years before direct rule was imposed, by which time NI had descended into a vortex of terrorism and counter-terrorism, the main driving force for which was a newly resurgent IRA. This delayed the inevitable political settlement for over a quarter of a century.

  • I have long thought John that De Valera set Collins up by sending him to negotiate the peace. He knew that any peace that the British would agree to would be unacceptable to many Republicans which is why he did not go. Collins understood this, which is why as he was signing the peace treaty he said that he was signing his own death warrant. De Valera never said truer words than these:

    “I can’t see my way to becoming patron of the Michael Collins Foundation. It’s my considered opinion that in the fullness of time, history will record the greatness of Collins and it will be recorded at my expense”.

  • As, Don, I think it has been. I have on my bookshelf biographies of Collins and Dev by Tim Pat Coogan which I think are well-reseached and balanced. When Collins negotiated the treaty in 1921 he knew better than anyone that he was in no position to resume military operations against the British, although he soon had to undertake operations against the anti-treaty faction in Ireland – and it should be remembered that the ‘civil war’ claimed more lives than the so-called ‘war of independence’.

    Fast-forward seventy years. Gerry Adams, who had imbibed Irish republicanism and irredentism with his mother’s milk (but was as much a politician as a terrorist) realized that the ‘armed struggle’ was not only futile but counter-productive, and worked for a political settlement. He was the only man who could bring the Army Council round, and the stark truth was that PIRA had shot its bolt; riddled with informers, compromised by an increasingly sophisticated intelligence apparatus, its ‘military’ operations more and more difficult to execute, its lack of sophisticated weaponry, its lack of funds; this amounted to a comprehensive defeat.

Memoriae Positum

Sunday, March 11, AD 2012

He leads for aye the advance,

Hope’s forlorn-hopes that plant the desperate good

For nobler Earths and days of manlier mood;

James Russell Lowell

Memoriae Positum, memory laid down.  The Latin phrase is a good short hand description of  what History accomplishes.  In 1864 the poet James Russell Lowell wrote a poem entitled Memoriae Positum in tribute to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw who died heroically at age 25  leading the unsuccessful assault of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black Union regiments, on the Confederate stronghold of Fort Wagner at Charleston, South Carolina on July 18th, 1863.  The poem predicts that Shaw’s memory will live forever and feels sorrow only for those, unlike Shaw, who are unwilling or unable to risk all for their beliefs.  It is a poem completely out of step with the pre-dominant sentiments of our day which seem to value physical survival and enjoyment above everything else.  Here is the text of the poem:

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3 Responses to Memoriae Positum

  • Good post. We owe men like Shaw a debt we can hardly understand, much less repay. Ideals higher than one’s personal appetite are foreign to many modern minds. I had a discussion recently about how different the characters from the movies “Casa Blanca” and “The English Patient” placed their personal passions in relation to the sacrifice required for higher ideals. Worth pointing out.

  • Lisa couldn’t have said, God Bless you, to Rick if she didn’t get on the plane.
    Both the Hunters of Kentucky standing up with Jackson for New Orleans and the determination to help free fellow man seen in Shaw’s 54th are reminders of what noble means – from history and art as opposed to from deeds forming the history of 2012.
    Hoping for some as yet unknowns, probably never to be known in the same way, to stand in the unnamed war with present day evil. The field is open to us all.

Why Most Academic Histories Today Are Rubbish

Thursday, February 2, AD 2012




As longtime readers of this blog know, I have a deep and abiding passion for history.  I lament the fact that most histories produced today by academic historians are usually politicized drek, often written in a jargon that makes them gibberish to the general reader.  Historian K C Johnson has a superb post lamenting this situation:

The study of U.S. history has transformed in the last two generations, with emphasis on staffing positions in race, class, or gender leading to dramatic declines in fields viewed as more “traditional,” such as U.S. political, constitutional, diplomatic, and military history. And even those latter areas have been “re-visioned,” in the word coined by an advocate of the transformation, Illinois history professor Mark Leff, to make their approach more accommodating to the dominant race/class/gender paradigm. In the new academy, political histories of state governments–of the type cited and used effectively by the Montana Supreme Court–were among the first to go. The Montana court had to turn to Fritz, an emeritus professor, because the University of Montana History Department no longer features a specialist in Montana history (nor, for that matter, does it have a professor whose research interests, like those of Fritz, deal with U.S. military history, a topic that has fallen out of fashion in the contemporary academy).

To take the nature of the U.S. history positions in one major department as an example of the new staffing patterns: the University of Michigan, once home to Dexter and then Bradford Perkins, was a pioneer in the study of U.S. diplomatic history. Now the department’s 29 professors whose research focuses on U.S. history after 1789 include only one whose scholarship has focused on U.S. foreign relations–Penny von Eschen, a perfect example of the “re-visioning” approach. (Her most recent book is Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War.) In contrast to this 1-in-29 ratio, Michigan has hired ten Americanists (including von Eschen) whose research, according to their department profiles, focuses on issues of race; and eight Americanists whose research focuses on issues of gender. The department has more specialists in the history of Native Americans than U.S. foreign relations.

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9 Responses to Why Most Academic Histories Today Are Rubbish

  • In my business, we talk about “fairy tale value” (versus fair value) and “mark-to-make-believe” (vs. mark-to-market) when we discern questionable asset accounting and valuations.

    Once, I thought intellectuals studied their subject areas to discern truth, as close to truth as fallen man can approach.

    Now, similar to the guys that put together subprime mortgage securitizations, I think they data-mine, distort, exaggerate, manufacture false comparisons, omit material that doesn’t support the issue to advance ideology.

    I would not waste a second of my numbered days with any of it.

    Saturday, I read a WSJ book review of a some thing on or about the Spanish Inquisition. The reviewer (not sure about the author) went into a Bush Derangement Syndrome tripe-fest stating something about “both depended on anonymous denunciations” (not true) and “at least the inquisitors understood they were torturing people”, WTF? Arguably, someone with knowledge of the Inquisition would identify numerous other false comparisons.

    “The truth is that which supports [fill in the blank].” What is that stuff? Is it history? Is it allegory?

  • The book you are refering to is God’s Jury by Cullen Murphy T.Shaw. He is not an academic historian but an editor at large at Vanity Fair. He wrote the scripts for years for the Prince Valiant comic strip which his father drew. I assume that he got his comic book level view of history from this experience. He is a liberal Catholic with the emphasis always on liberal. His book allowed him to bash the Church and the Bush administration, a twofer.

    A good review of this worthless tome:


  • ” . . . the ideological conformity of most history departments in this country, and the constant resulting focus on race, gender and class, is destroying the ability of academic historians to perform their traditional function of giving readers access to the world of the past in order to aid them in making sense of the present.”

    At $35,000 a year plus state subsidy. How? I find no conclusion that can be delivered kindly.

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  • Blogger and philosophy prof Lydia McGrew has said that it’s an open secret that universities advertise for race and gender specialists because that’s how they’re likely to get more minority and women applicants. I wouldn’t be surprised that this process completely transforms history.

    Check out the 1982 interview with Norman Dodd, who headed one of Congress’ McCarthy-era investigations of the charitable foundations. He found evidence that the foundations were packing elite history departments with their partisans even back before WWII.

  • As the author of three books of military history and a lifelong student of history the decline of the teaching of history at every academic level has concerned me since my own contact with college level history programs in the late 1970’s. At the time I realized, since I didn’t want to teach, history would be an avocation rather than a career. On the positive side there are very good histories being written, including military history…the problem is that very few of them are being written by academics and as a result very little of the real history is being included in textbooks or taught in universities.

  • College education excepting specialised degrees such as engineering or medicine are chock full of Whiggish propaganda. It takes quite a few years to understand that the professors had ruined one’s mind in preparation for our role as minions of the state or the Commisariat – enlightenment dawns from the age of thirty onwards – this leaves one embittered for years afterwards. This is particularly so in matters concerning Catholic history.

  • “On the positive side there are very good histories being written, including military history…the problem is that very few of them are being written by academics and as a result very little of the real history is being included in textbooks or taught in universities.”

    Quite right dcb.

  • Not only college credentialed cretins, semi-literate idiots that populate so-called journalism spin the news to support the progressive, libertine narrative.

    African-American studies, Gender Studies, GLTB Science, Why-I-Hate-America: anyone know what was Obama’s college major?

Howard Zinn, Neo-Confederate

Tuesday, January 31, AD 2012

While I disagree with him on a host of political issues, I follow Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog at The Atlantic closely because of his consistently well written and fascinating posts on history and literature. Many of these are on the Civil War, which has in recent years become a topic of great interest to him.

There was a particularly interesting pair of these a couple weeks ago in which Coates and his commenters discussed (in the context of Ron Paul’s repeated statements that the Civil War was unnecessary) the fact that left wing icon Howard Zinn actually peddles the several of the neo-confederate tropes: that the Civil War was fought for Northern economic domination and had little to do with slavery, and that a the Civil War clearly wasn’t necessary in order to end slavery anyway. [First post on Ron Paul, Howard Zinn and the Civil War. Second, followup post.] The specific Howard Zinn text that they go after (because it’s conveniently online) is a lecture he gave called Three Holy Wars, in which he tries to make a case for why people should not see the Revolutionary War, American Civil War or American involvement in World War II as moral or just — something he argues is important because seeing any past wars as just allows people to justify other wars on analogy.

Zinn proceeds to run through most of the standard complaints against the “War of Northern Aggression”:
It was really, really bad:

Slavery. Slavery, nothing worse. Slavery. And at the end of the Civil War, there’s no slavery. You can’t deny that. So, yeah, you have to put that on one side of the ledger, the end of slavery. On the other side, you have to put the human cost of the Civil War in lives: 600,000. I don’t know how many people know or learn or remember how many lives were lost in the Civil War, which was the bloodiest, most brutal, ugliest war in our history, from the point of view of dead and wounded and mutilated and blinded and crippled. Six hundred thousand dead in a country of 830 million. Think about that in relation today’s population; it’s as if we fought a civil war today, and five or six million people died in this civil war. Well, you might say, well, maybe that’s worth it, to end slavery. Maybe. Well, OK, I won’t argue that. Maybe. But at least you know what the cost is.

The Civil War didn’t meaningfully free them anyway:

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44 Responses to Howard Zinn, Neo-Confederate

  • In the interests of precision:

    1. Howard Zinn is peddling nothing. He is dead.

    2. He was not a pacifist. He was as a young man a vigorous member of the Communist Party, later taking on the protective coloration of the remnant of the American Labor Party in New York. He never broke faith with that. The wars he did not care for were the ones fought by this country.

    3. He was not a Civil War scholar. His original research was in early 20th century American history. His dissertation (a biography of Fiorello LaGuardia) was published; after 1959, he was the author of or contributor to two or three minor histories of the labor movement. Beyond that, all of his work as a professor was devoted to the production of commentaries on topical matters and the many editions of his teaching text.

  • “I remember having similar “aha!” moments reading Paul Johnson’s Modern Times,”

    Paul Johnson in his book on American history wrote that it was the Texas Rangers and not the Army Rangers that came ashore on Utah beach, and in the Civil War section he kept confusing Albert Sydney Johnston and Joe Johnston. I had thought highly of him as a historian until he wrote about subject matter that I knew quite a bit about.

  • Thanks Art.

    I did know he was dead, though I tend to refer to all authors as if they’re active when talking about their work. Sloppy writing, but otherwise I’d have to admit a lot of the people I spend my time with are dead.

    I’d known he had communist attachments, but I hadn’t realized he’d held onto the warlike aspects of the system throughout his career. I guess this was partly a bad assumption on my part (his work having always been recommended to me to explain “the real nature” of various wars by pacifists) and partly based on having read various short pieces of his (plus as much as I could stand of People’s History of the United States — which was about 100 pages) in which he seemed always to be making the point that various wars only served to solidify the hold of the powerful and make things worse. But I shouldn’t have used the term “pacifist” without more to go on than that.

    I hadn’t had the impression he was much of a scholar period. People’s History is tremendously shoddy and only seems to keep trucking along through being ideologically convenient for some people. But sadly, he does seem to have outsized influence among the far left and to pass for a “historian” there.

  • In regard to Zinn, he was a dishonest far left hack masquerading as a historian. That this charlatan was taken seriously in academia is a damning indictment of academia.

    A critique of Zinn from the right:


    A critique of Zinn from the left:


  • “I did know he was dead”

    Easy mistake to make. By all evidence Zinn’s brain stopped functioning decades before his body did. (Yes, bad historians do greatly arouse my ire!)

  • Well, you know, when the ambulance pulls up, and the so-called rescuers use the jaws of life to pull you out of your damaged vehicle, what do they do next? They put you into another vehicle. They strap you onto a bed in the back of the ambulance. You may not be able to move any better there than you could in the wrecked car. You’re free, but not free.

    And a lot of rescuers die in vehicle fires, so you have to look at the loss of life. And who’s to say that you wouldn’t have made it out of the car on your own? I mean, sure, the door was crushed in, but a lot of other people get out of cars all the time. So I don’t see a reason why we should assume that the paramedics really did anything to help you.

  • Some points that may or may not matter:

    1. Hostilities did not commence until the Confederates in Charleston fired on Ft. Sumter, a full 4 months after South Carolina’s secession. Between Dec 1860 and Apr of 1861, 7 states had seceded, the CSA itself had been founded and a number of Federal forts had been seized peaceably. So it wasn’t the act of secession itself, or even ‘confiscation’ of property that motivated war.

    2. The economic value of chattel slavery was enough to make its threatened destruction frightening to even the lowliest Southerner. Estimates of stock value of chattel slaves in 1860 run close to CSA$3 billion; although such comparisons can’t be accurately charted (think rubles, circa 1972) the potential loss of labor capacity represented somewhere around 25-30% of the country’s GDP. This would translate into a $4-5 trillion dollar loss today.

    3. So, the impetus for war was retaliation to unprovoked hostility, and, as any good war leader can tell you, the main aim in making war is to ruin your opponent’s economy and will to fight as quickly as possible. It took a bit for Lincoln et al. to get that point, but once they hit on it, they went for the throat.

  • I think that serfs on a feudal estate had it pretty good compared to slaves in the antebellum South.

  • If Chomsky and Zinn had examined the Lord of the Rings:

    “CHOMSKY: Have you noticed that there are few consonants in any of these names? What we see—or perhaps I should say, “What we hear”—is a kind of linguistic hierarchy.

    ZINN: Between that of an Orcish name such as Grishnák and a Mannish name such as Eowyn, you mean?

    CHOMSKY: Eowyn is hardly a name at all—it’s just a series of dipthongs. When the Elves or wizards or their deluded human pawns have consonants in their names at all, they’re mostly alveolar approximants or labiodental fricatives. Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas.

    ZINN: Whereas the Orcs—

    CHOMSKY: They get saddled with clotted sequences of nasals, velar plosives, and occasional palato-alveolar affricates. It’s quite extraordinary. The abstract vowels in the overlords’ names are clearly being valued at the expense of the more earthly consonants.

    ZINN: Another case of Elves and wizards not wanting to get their hands dirty.

    CHOMSKY: Or their tongues. I mean, could you imagine an Orc being named, say, Lewahoo or Horaiowen? It would be unheard of.”

  • WK Aiken,

    1. True, it’s clearly the firing on Fort Sumter that was the actual inciting incident for the war — and a rather blithe one on the part of Southern fire eaters. That four month spacing, however, was also related to the power vacuum that reigned from the election till Lincoln’s inauguration. The firing on Fort Sumter was only a month after Lincoln actually became president.

    2. Indeed, the huge economic value of slavery at the time is something I think people don’t understand nearly well enough. Not only was the dollar value of slaves huge at the time, but it dwarfed any other type of capital asset in the US (the US being so much poorer at the time). So for comparison, while the value of all slaves in the US in 1860 was $3Billion, the total capital value of all US railroads at the time was only $1Billion. This underscores why the Southern states with the highest slave populations jumped the gun and seceded so quickly, even though Lincoln was far from being a radical abolitionist. They simply had so much too hold on to.

    3. Yes, striking at the Southern economy was definitely one aim of the Emancipation Proclamation, but in acknowledging that it’s important to also keep in mind that Lincoln had been against slavery (that was, after all, why his election sparked secession) for a long time, and the war was already being seen increasingly as being “against slavery”. As it would continue to be throughout the war. By the end, Blacks make up 10% of the Union army.


    Now you can’t quote that snippet without providing a link to the glorious whole. I’ve seldom laughed so hard:





  • Mike:

    I think medieval serfs, on a feudal estate, had it better than taxpayers in America in 2012. Serfs were not born owing $48,000 each. And, they gave the lord a smaller percentage of their harvests than does Buffett’s secretary.

    And, I thank God I am not an intellectual.

  • “Now you can’t quote that snippet without providing a link to the glorious whole. I’ve seldom laughed so hard:”

    That was parsimonious of me Darwin! It is twice as funny when one recalls that Chomsky is a humorless ideologue and Zinn’s idea of a laugh was: “And then the conservative fascist opressor of the people choked to death!”

  • T. Shaw:
    I agree. I’ve read that in several places over the years plus they had a lot more time off with all the holydays and feasts.

  • “I think medieval serfs, on a feudal estate, had it better than taxpayers in America in 2012.”

    “Plus they had a lot more time off with all the holydays and feasts.”

    Yeah, other than the constant threat of famine, plague, marauding invaders, and maternal/infant/child mortality, they had it pretty good, if they actually lived to adulthood, that is.

  • Elaine:
    Compare the mortality rates for serfs in the 1300s with our own laborers in the 1800s. You’d be surprised (or shocked).

  • A modest proposition: one does not have to celebrate the institution of slavery or defend it in the slightest in order to support the proposition that the states have the right to secede under the constitution; that the Civil War was in fact an unconstitutional war of agression by the North, and that its result was a severe blow to Federalism as envisoned by the Founders.

    The two ideas–non-support of slavery and support for the principle of secession and Federalism– are not logically inconsistent. The attempt to conflate support for secession with support for the institution of slavery is nothing but cheap ad hominem.

    The demise of slavery was the good outcome of a bad (and yes, uneccessary) enterprise. Does that position make one a dreaded “Neo-Confederate?” My, my, my, I hope not.

  • one does not have to celebrate the institution of slavery or defend it in the slightest in order to support the proposition that the states have the right to secede under the constitution; that the Civil War was in fact an unconstitutional war of agression by the North,

    No, you’d just simply be wrong.

    and that its result was a severe blow to Federalism as envisoned by the Founders.

    Including, evidently, founding fathers such as James Madison who very clearly said secession was unconstitutional.

    The attempt to conflate support for secession with support for the institution of slavery is nothing but cheap ad hominem.

    I’m not sure you are quite familiar with what the expression “ad hominem” means, at least based on the context in which you are using it here. The over-arching divide in America at the time of the Civil War was the issue of slavery. Now, neo-Confedrates may wax poetic about states rights, but make no mistake about it, what they were defending was the right of states to continue the legal protection of slavery.

  • “what they were defending was the right of states to continue the legal protection of slavery.”

    Not just that, but they were attacking the right of free states to set their own rules. Cf. the Fugitive Slave Act.

  • “Neo-Confederates may wax poetic about states rights, but make no mistake about it, what they were defending was the right of states to continue the legal protection of slavery.”

    I agree that’s what defenders of “states’ rights” in the 1850s were doing, the same way defenders of “reproductive rights” today are, 99.9 percent of the time, defending abortion. But one could interpret “reproductive rights” in a broader sense to include, for example, the right of women in China to have more than one child, or the right not to be sterilized or forced to use contraception against one’s will or moral convictions.

    Likewise, one could TODAY interpret “states’ rights” in a broader sense to mean that the federal government shouldn’t be trumping state or local authority as much as it does today. It doesn’t necessarily HAVE to include the right to secede. However, as Paul points out, the term “states’ rights” has become so closely associated with slavery, secession and racial segregation that it’s practically impossible to use it today and be taken seriously.

  • It’s simply a flat out lie that southern states seceded over slavery. Some, like SC and other deep south states did. Virginia emphatically did not secede because of slavery. She actually voted against secession UNTIL Lincoln made it clear that he intended to impress soldiers from Virginia to wage a war of invasion against the deep south. Virginia seceded on the principle that she would not be a party to the President’s unconstitutional decision to raise armies and invade states.

    As to the constitutionality of secession, Paul, it can be argued endlessly, and my point was a narrow one, that arguing for secession does not imply support of slavery; but in response to your assertion that I’m wrong, I must state in reply, “no, you are wrong.” 😉

  • Tom,

    Your first two sentences appear to contradict. As you admit in the second, clearly the states of the deep south that seceded first did so utterly and clearly because of slavery. Here, for instance, are the first two paragraphs of Mississippi’s declaration of secession:

    In the momentous step, which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

    Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. [emphasis added]

    At most, it sounds like you’re trying to get some distance for the second round of secessions, including Virginia, by claiming that they weren’t motivated by slavery but were instead willing to fight a war over the principles that states should be able to secede whenever they want. (Which is odd, because the Confederate States that they put together did not, in fact, end up protecting the rights of it’s constituent states to secede.) However, even Virginia started off their declaration of secession:

    AN ORDINANCE to repeal the ratification of the Constitution of the United State of America by the State of Virginia, and to resume all the rights and powers granted under said Constitution

    The people of Virginia in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States

    So clearly protection of slavery as an institution is a major concern for them.

    The constitution which the CSA wrote was pretty close to being a xerox of the US constitution, with one of the few changes being the permanent enshrinement of slavery in the constitution. It does not specifically enshrine a right for states to secede, which if that was the real cause of secession seems like a really odd omission. It does however remove the right of any state to ban slavery within its borders. So much for states rights…

  • Virginia Secession was in defense of slavery Tom, as the Virginia Ordinance of Secession indicates:

    “The people of Virginia in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States:”

    Of course in the vote on secession, most of non-slaveholding western Virginia voted against it:


    At the time, everyone knew what the war was all about. It is only in hindsight that what was clearly a war in defense of slavery by the Confederacy is argued to be something else.

  • “It does not specifically enshrine a right for states to secede, which if that was the real cause of secession seems like a really odd omission.”

    South Carolina delegates wanted such a right to be inserted in the Confederate Constitution. They were voted down. Instead this provision is in the Confederate Constitution:

    “We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government,”

    As far as the Confederacy was concerned, it was to be permanent.

  • I’m sorry, guys, but the simple fact remains: no threat of northern invasion and Virginia stays in the Union. That’s just historical fact. Virginia was not prepared to secede simply on the issue of slavery. They only did so in response Lincoln’s call for armed invasion of southern states.

    Of course as a slave-holding state Virginia shared the same concerns about northern radicalism, but the fact remains: Virginia decisively rejected secession when the issue was solely preservation of slavery vs. the radical Republican regime in Washington. It was only when the people of Virginia were to suffer “injury” from threatened invasion, that secession won out.

    As to the constitutional issue, I’m amazed that conservatives otherwise knowledgeable about the constitution suddenly become blinkered when this issue is discussed: the federal government is one of limited, delegated powers. Any power NOT expressly given the federal government is retained by the states. Since there is NO express power given to the federal government to maintain the union by force against the wishes of a state or states, the federal government does not have that power of coercion.

    It is backwards to argue that since there is no express grant of a right of secession that the states therefore have no such right. The correct constitutional view is that since the federal government is given no authority to bind the states to the Union, that power does not exist, and the states retain the right to separate.

  • “no threat of northern invasion and Virginia stays in the Union.”

    There was no invasion Tom, it was all one country. Virginia was content, temporarily I am sure, to stay in the old Union so long as the United States did not lift a finger to keep the nation one. That provisional commitment to the Union was completely worthless, as noted by unionists at the time in western Virginia.

    “Any power NOT expressly given the federal government is retained by the states.”

    Yes, Tom, and in order for them to retain a right to secede from the Union, you have to first establish that right. I think it is impossible to do so for the original 13 states, which became states courtesy of the Second Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence, having no separate existence as states, as opposed to colonies subject to the British Crown, outside of the Union. The Union is older than the Constitution and the Constitution clearly grants no new-fangled right to the states to secede from the pre-existing Union. As for the other states, except for Vermont and Texas, they were all created by the Federal government. How could the Federal government create entities that had an inherent right of secession from it?

  • Also, frankly, I just can’t see the “it was all about the right to secede” argument passing the laugh test. Are we really to believe that Virginia did not think it was worth fighting a war to protect slavery, but did think it was worth fighting a war to protect the right of other states to secede in order to protect slavery? For real? That would have to be the most destruction a state ever let itself in for in order to stand up for an abstract principle being applied in a way it disagreed with. If a Human Life Amendment passed and California seceded in protest, would you argue that Texas should secede as well in protest over California not being allowed to proceed? And then form a union with California with a constitution specifically guaranteeing the right to abortion on demand? Seriously?

    Besides, one of the explicitly listed power of the US Government is:

    “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union,
    suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;”

    What Lincoln did is call for the raising of troops after a US fort had been unilaterally fired upon by insurrectionists.

  • No, again, you have it exactly backwards, on two counts. First, as a government of only enumerated powers</i, the burden is on the proponent of forced, cumpulsory union to point to the authority for such a thing in the text of the Constitutioin. Second, as to the origin of government in America, the original thirteen colonies became, according the Declaration, “free and independent states.” They pre-existed the federal government, created it by entering into a voluntary union, and therefore retained the primordial right to exit from the union (the same Declaration which itself recognized the right of the people to alter or abolish the government when it became despotic, by the way)

    Of note is how the people of Virginia, for example, framed the issue when they ratified the Constitution:

    We the Delegates of the People of Virginia duly elected in pursuance of a recommendation from the General Assembly and now met in Convention having fully and freely investigated and discussed the proceedings of the Federal Convention and being prepared as well as the most mature deliberation hath enabled us to decide thereon Do in the name and in behalf of the People of Virginia declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will.

    Notably, the committee of five that wrote this ratification was Edmund Randolph, George Nicholas, James Madison, John Marshall, and Francis Corbin — all of them Federalists and Madison and Randolph, of course, members of the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787.

    Presumably, the smart men who wrote the constitution could have easily stated “this is a perpetual union” or “no state may withdraw from this union.” They didn’t, so absent that express grant of perpetuity or power to compel union, such a power does not exist.

    That the north succeeded by bloody compulsion in enforcing an unwanted “union” does not disprove anything stated here.

  • oops, didn’t close the tag correctly.

  • “First, as a government of only enumerated powers, the burden is on the proponent of forced, compulsory union to point to the authority for such a thing in the text of the Constitution.”

    No, Tom, the burden is on the proponents of secession to show that the power existed to be retained by the states, especially states created purely by the fiat of the Federal government. One would think that if such a power existed, the Founding Fathers would have mentioned it. James Madison of course, the Father of the Constitution, held that no such power existed.

    “Second, as to the origin of government in America, the original thirteen colonies became, according the Declaration, “free and independent states.”

    You have to read the whole paragraph Tom:

    “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

    The indepence of the colonies was undertaken solely in the context of the creation of a new nation, the United States of America. The Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War was between Great Britain and the United States of America, not between Great Britain and each of the 13 states.

    “Presumably, the smart men who wrote the constitution could have easily stated “this is a perpetual union” or “no state may withdraw from this union.” ”

    Already done Tom. Just as the Constitution did not rename the country which the Declaration had already named, it was not necessary for the Constitution to state that the Union was perpetual, as the Articles of Confederation had already noted that.

  • Don, you conveniently ignore the ratification statement of Virginia, which serves as an example of the obvious fact that the thirteen colonies had, as an original matter, gather to form a federal government. If they had chosen not to, they would have continued on under the loose Articles of Confederation. No power forced them to sit down and decide on the Constitution, they came to the table as equal parties. If not, then why would each state have to bother ratifying the thing?

    No, the states went into the Constitutional convention free and equal; they were not “created” by any central force before their voluntary union, which arose out of their unique and individual character as separate colonies.

    Tellingly, when the delegates got together to draft a new Constitution they omitted</i the phrase “perpetual union” which appeared in the Articles of Confederation. As to the Articles of Confederation, which preceded the Constitution and was the governing document of the united colonies, it expressly stated:

    Article II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

    No, the states were independent entities, then entered into the Articles of Confederation, which expressly referenced the retention of sovereignty.

    In drafting the Constitution, then, the states came to the table with that sovereignty intact, and as the Virginia adoption resolution states, they maintained that sovereignty, having ceded to the new federal government only those expressly enumerated powers mentioned, and specifically retaining all else.

    Civics 101– the states were independent and created the federal power, not the reverse. Or more specifically, the original 13 states, since after-admitted states stood in a different posture vis-a-vis the federal government.

  • Tom,

    I hate to be playing the annoying game of repeating the questions people don’t want to answer, but again:

    What exactly do you call a full out artillery attack against a United States fort if not an “insurrection” or “invasion”?

    And again: If a Human Life Amendment passed and California seceded in protest, would you argue that Texas should secede as well in protest over California not being allowed to proceed? And then form a union with California with a constitution specifically guaranteeing the right to abortion on demand? Seriously?

  • No power forced them to sit down and decide on the Constitution, they came to the table as equal parties.

    Arguably, the force that caused them to sit down and decide on the constitution was that they knew that the colonies were incapable of surviving on their own, and that the original Articles of Confederation has been unsustainably weak. Without a strong union, the country and its constituent parts were unable to thrive.

  • Darwin, there were obviously reasons that the states felt it was in their interest to cede some of the powers for the purposes of effective joint action. Don however, denied that the states had any existence before being created by some form of federal power. Clearly, they were sovereign before the Constitution and did not surrender that sovereignty except as specifically noted in the text of the Constitution.

    As it turned out, the union was not strong after all. Eleven states wanted to withdraw and peaceably go their way. Lincoln and the radical Republicans stifled their desire for independence, and forcibly compelled them to remain in the Union. Not much of a “glorious union” when it has to be maintained by bloody invasion and loss of 600,000 lives.

    Don: we’re talking theory. Understanding the origins of the Constitution and the aboriginal sovereignty of the states helps us to understand how federalism ought to look. There have historically been extremely few issues impelling states to consider withdrawal from the union. The southern states were not the only ones to consider the notion!

    I prefer to look at it this way: If Roe were overturned and half the states retained abortion law, and half did not, would our moral objection to abortion (a much greater evil than slavery) justify armed invasion of the other states in order to enforce our (admittedly superior) moral judgment on them? Clearly not. And slavery, however evil it was, did not justify armed invasion of slave-holding states.

    And if California, in your example, wanted to go, I’d say “adieu.” It’s subsidiarity at it’s best, to allow people to chart their own course, at the most local level possible, and not to have them bound to one overarching federal authority. But it’s highly unlikely, as demonstrated by our history, that even highly contentious issues would impel a state to throw away the benefits of union for the sake of that one solitary issue.

  • And of course, no state now would dare attempt secession when the precedent has been set that the result is going to be a federal army killing your people, burning your property, and forcing your local government to conform to the dictates of the conqueror.

    So to that extent, the issue of secession has been settled. But by main force, not by force of argument or right.

  • And if California, in your example, wanted to go, I’d say “adieu.” It’s subsidiarity at it’s best, to allow people to chart their own course, at the most local level possible, and not to have them bound to one overarching federal authority.

    But that’s the thing. Virginia, by your account, didn’t just say, “adieu” to the Deep South. By your account even though Virginia was not willing to fight to retain slavery, they were so incredibly enthusiastic over the idea of the right of states to secede that they decided to secede on their own and fight a war in order to protect that right. I find that impossible to credit.

    there were obviously reasons that the states felt it was in their interest to cede some of the powers for the purposes of effective joint action. Don however, denied that the states had any existence before being created by some form of federal power. Clearly, they were sovereign before the Constitution and did not surrender that sovereignty except as specifically noted in the text of the Constitution.

    Well, at that point, what’s so special about just the states? They also had not existed since time immemorial. Why not simply have any group or person who doesn’t like any decision “secede” until we reach a point of virtual anarchy?

    We don’t do that because we know that when we ignore or break the law at some point a guy with a gun and flashing lights on his car will fine us or take us to jail. And at root, that’s how nations work as well. Nations exist by virtue of the fact that if they are invaded or if parts of them rebel, their rulers will use their monopoly on legal force to defend the existence and order of the nation. (That’s why we had to fight a revolutionary war in order to get our independence in the first place.)

    That’s why I do not see the 600,000 lives it took to preserve the union and end slavery as any less glorious than the 400,000 US lives it took to win World War II. In both cases the United States defended itself against attack — the one internal, the other external.

  • Uh, no…. Virginia did not fight for a vague right to secede; they did not WANT to secede… what Virginia wanted was for the feds to allow the deep south to secede and leave the states alone. They would have stayed in the Union but for Lincoln’s demanding them to raise troops for an impending invasion of those states, that would take place by traversing Virginia’s territory. THAT is what tipped the scales and led Virginia into secession.

    Well, Darwin, you might think “what’s the big deal about states” and that slavery abolition was “worth it.”

    But we were supposed to be a nation of laws, and governed by those laws. If what Lincoln did was in violation of those laws, we should honestly acknowledge that While we can celebrate the good consequence of emancipation, we ought at the same time to take pause at the serious erosion of federalism as envisioned by our Founders which resulted from Lincoln’s war. After all, the diminution of our federalist system has not been working out too well for the last hundred years or so.

    Oh, and we do owe a duty to the truth, even if the approved government version of events does not correspond with it.

  • But we were supposed to be a nation of laws, and governed by those laws. If what Lincoln did was in violation of those laws, we should honestly acknowledge that While we can celebrate the good consequence of emancipation, we ought at the same time to take pause at the serious erosion of federalism as envisioned by our Founders which resulted from Lincoln’s war.

    Well, but that’s the thing: I see no legal basis for this claim that a state (or any other part of a nation) should have the right to walk away whenever it feels the desire to. All I’m seeing in support of it is the vague claim that membership in a nation should somehow not be binding, which seems to me contrary to the very existence of a nation. And on the contra side is not only the force of history and the actions of the founders, but the very mode for approving the Constitution which the Constitutional Convention wrote, which did not require the consent of all the states in order to impose the constitution on the whole of the union.

    I guess the farthest I would go towards your position would be: To the extent that there was any illusion in anyone’s mind that there was a right of states to secede, I believe that one of the good effects of the Civil War was that this illusion was permanently disabused, because I think such a right would only be destructive to a nation.

    But really, having read a fair amount of Civil War history including primary sources, I just don’t think the war was over secession. Secession was just the means. The war was about slavery and everyone knew it. The other rationale has only come to prominence in a “the losers write history” sense — as people who don’t like the fact that the south as a region and as a culture was defeated search for a more attractive rationale than slavery to excuse the fact that the South chose to rebel on probability that they would see their slaveholder “rights” diminished.

  • Of course the deep South did not secede because Lincoln violated any laws, especially since the first wave of secession occurred before he even took office. It took place simply to defend slavery from a phantom menace. Lincoln and his Republicans lacked the votes in Congress to enact any anti-slavery legislation as long as the Southern Senators remained in Congress. Once secession occurred Lincoln had all the legal authority he needed to supress the rebellion under the terms of the Insurrection Act of 1807:

    Ҥ 332. Use of militia and armed forces to enforce Federal authority

    Whenever the President considers that unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States, make it impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States in any State or Territory by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, he may call into Federal service such of the militia of any State, and use such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to enforce those laws or to suppress the rebellion.”

  • Mac,

    Was that also the year the Embargo and Alien and Sedition Acts passed?

    Was there was a difference between the economy of the north and the economy of the South?

    Obama’s job killing policies are destroying the evil, racist American private sector. Lincoln’s election was perceived to mean be the end for the evil, racist (depended on slave labor) Southern economy.

  • The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in 1798 T.Shaw by Federalist dominated Congress. The Sedition Act ended by its own terms the day before Jefferson became president. The Republicans benefited greatly by the hostility generated by these acts towards the Federalists.

    The Embargo Act passed in 1807 was Jefferson’s way of trying to avoid war with England. It was immensely unpopular and ended in 1809.

    In regard to Lincoln he had pledged during the campaign not to interfere with slavery in the Southern states. More to the point he lacked the power to do so, until the powers that be in the South decided to start a war to protect their precious right to hold other human beings as slaves, and withdrew their representatives and senators from the Congress, thereby placing the Republicans in complete control of Congress. Never have a braver people been led with more consumate folly than were Southerners in 1860-1865.

  • Well, we’re back to slavery was evil, so the war was good.

    No one in this discussion has laid a glove on the point that the states, sovereign from the beginning, retained their sovereignty but for the express grant to the federal government in the constitution. States thus retained, because the power was never ceded, the right to withdraw from the union.

    That you don’t like WHY they did it is utterly irrelevant. Sadly, the sanctimonious north has succeeded over the years in framing the issue as a fight over slavery. It was decidedly not. It was a fight over who had the right to organize their societies: states or the national government. The national government won out, with consequences we sadly live with today.
    The civil war truly began the transformation of our country from one of limited national authority to ultimately, today, virtually unlimited national authority. That, with the added evil of the Yankee doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” has wreaked havoc on small government, local rule, and individual liberty.

  • “No one in this discussion has laid a glove on the point that the states, sovereign from the beginning, retained their sovereignty but for the express grant to the federal government in the constitution. States thus retained, because the power was never ceded, the right to withdraw from the union.”

    No Tom, you haven’t even begun to establish that the states possessed such a power to begin with for them to retain. I am certainly curious to hear your explanation how states created by the Federal government under the Constitution could have an inherent power which they retained to secede from the government that created them.

    “That you don’t like WHY they did it is utterly irrelevant”

    Rubbish. Secession occurred because the powers that be in the South wanted to protect the right of rich whites to own blacks. Yeah, that is a superb reason to attempt to destroy the Union, and start a war that killed 640,000 Americans. It was an idiotic, tragic blunder and many innocents paid for their lives because of the blind selfishness of the political leadership of the South. What is also tragic is that the old political leadership largely got back in the saddle shortly after the War and, with a very few honorable exceptions, continued to treat black Americans as helots in their own land for the next eighty years.

    Your comment about Manifest Destiny being a Yankee doctrine Tom is truly hilarious. It was the slave-owning South that was most in favor of expansionism, from the annexation of Texas forward. It was the dream of the South to seize Cuba and northern Mexico, and if the Confederacy had achieved its independence I have little doubt that they would have conquered these areas.

  • That, with the added evil of the Yankee doctrine of “Manifest Destiny”

    Other historical evils of the same kind:

    The Jewish doctrine of lebenrsaum.

    The Catholic doctrine of re-incarnation.

    The neoconservative doctrine of isolationism.

    The Burkean doctrine of the compact theory of government.

    If what Lincoln did was in violation of those laws, we should honestly acknowledge that While we can celebrate the good consequence of emancipation, we ought at the same time to take pause at the serious erosion of federalism as envisioned by our Founders which resulted from Lincoln’s war

    Federal spending as a percentage of GDP basically stayed at the same level for 50 years following the Civil War. Until the beginning of World War I, it never even approached double digits. The erosion of federalism did not take place until the Great Depression and the New Deal.

    Also, you have failed (like most confederate apologists) to provide a detailed list of a “long train of abuses” carried out by the Lincoln administration to justify secession. You can’t, because 7 of the 11 confederate states seceded before Lincoln took office. So they rebelled against a theoretical usurpation of liberty that never actually took place. In fact, had the states not seceded Lincoln would not have been able to emancipate the slaves absent a sudden conversion of a large number of slave-holding states.

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Was the Declaration of Independence Legal?

Wednesday, October 19, AD 2011

American and British lawyers squared off recently in a discussion over whether the Declaration of Independence was legal. The BBC reports as follows:

On Tuesday night, while Republican candidates in Nevada were debating such American issues as nuclear waste disposal and the immigration status of Mitt Romney’s gardener, American and British lawyers in Philadelphia were taking on a far more fundamental topic.

Namely, just what did Thomas Jefferson think he was doing?

Some background: during the hot and sweltering summer of 1776, members of the second Continental Congress travelled to Philadelphia to discuss their frustration with royal rule.

By 4 July, America’s founding fathers approved a simple document penned by Jefferson that enumerated their grievances and announced themselves a sovereign nation.

Called the Declaration of Independence, it was a blow for freedom, a call to war, and the founding of a new empire.

It was also totally illegitimate and illegal.

At least, that was what lawyers from the UK argued during a debate at Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Hall.

(The rest of the article can be read here.)

It strikes me that this misses a crucial distinction: The Declaration was essentially an announcement that if certain demands were not met, the colonists would fight a war for their independence. Such things are not intended to be legal. No sane country is going to provide legal basis for its sub-regions to secede at will — and as the British lawyers point out further on in the article, the US certainly didn’t give it’s Southern half that right under Lincoln. Instead, the colonists were making a last ditch appeal and (more realistically) an appeal for public and international sympathy as they prepared to fight a war of independence. If the British had won, the signers would probably have been hung as traitors. Given that they won, they are considered to be founders of the republic.

Rather than trying to put forward some theory under which the document was legal within the context of the British Empire, it seems to me that the correct answer is that the Declaration was legal by right of conquest — an aged yet still apt concept. This also, of course, answers the question of the why the South was not allowed to secede: Because they lost the Civil War.

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19 Responses to Was the Declaration of Independence Legal?

  • Of course it was legal! We won! The pettifogging nonsense of this approach to the Declaration illustrates one of the absurdities of our present time: the treatment as legal questions of things which clearly are not legal questions. I think this is done because too many people are uncomfortable making moral arguments, but quite comfortable telling other people what to do if a legal case, no matter how strained, can be made.

    English history had been replete with rebellions and revolutions, some of which succeeded and some of which had not. The sides in those contests always attempted to make the case that their cause was moral and just, the same sort of case Mr. Jefferson made in the Declaration. To attempt to address this as a legal question is to completely miss the point. Darn lawyers, they have much to answer for! 🙂

  • I did think it was nicely clever of the American lawyers to cite the “Glorious Revolution” as creating a precedent for overthrowing the legitimate government:

    “The English had used their own Declaration of Rights to depose James II and these acts were deemed completely lawful and justified,” they say in their summary.

    But that’s really just another variant on the “because we won” justification.

  • I had deleted my order post because Don said basically the same thing, only better. I still think the DoI and the War of Independence are a bit different. The founders knew what they were doing was illegal by English law, but the DoI was only meant to be a “legal” document in that it was a formal notice from one political body to another, even if the former was illicit. They were making a case on based on natural law and morality (which even the Church recognizes a difference between legal and lawful.

    It could be judged that their demands were or were not justified or even that their grounds weren’t sufficiently rooted in necessity (there have been a lot worse occasions of injustice by rulers before and since). It could be argued that even if just, the harm caused would outweigh the benefit. Aside from being grateful for having born in this time and place as a Catholic looking back I tend to sympathize with the founders’ cause. I don’t necessarily think they were as terribly oppressed as they acted, but I appreciate that they were quite unique in that they were full British subjects, but in some ways were being exploited, and were having whatever benefits from their status being eroded. I view it as justified because:

    1.) they did NOT really overthrow the king (think of the evil in France).

    2.) They were subjects of George, but that’s all they had in common with the English. They had their own culture and society by that time and the common good would be best served if they governed themselves.

    3.) We always ask if they were justified in declaring their independence, but it can just as easily be asked if George was justified maintaining such an empire – especially since it was capable of being self-sufficient. [I actually enjoy thinking about this last one. It seems the most antagonist people to the founders usually rail on about the evils of jingoism. The irony escapes them.]

  • I swear, I get sloppier and sloppier in my writing by the day. I really need to proofread before hitting the send button. Sorry for my horrible grammar and typos.

  • Of course, the American revolutionists stood in a different relationship vis-a-vis England than the South did to the Federal Union: The Colonies were just that: politically subordinate units of the empire of England.

    The individual states, on the other hand, were sovereign prior to entering into the federal union. Having ceded only so much sovereignty as they deemed needful to effectuate the purposes of a federal union, they retained all other aspects of sovereignty, and did not become mere colonies of the federal government.

    Moreover, the federal Constitution, which is one of only expressly enumerated powers, did not include the power forcibly to compel membership in what was designed to be a voluntary union of sovereign states.

    That the federal government militarily conquered the seceding states does not establish the principle that there is no right to withdraw from the Union, it merely establishes that the north was militarily more powerful than the south.

  • The patriots contended that their legislatures stood in relationship to the King in each colony as Parliament stood in relationship to the King in the United Kingdom. The fact that they were living in their colonies did not abrogate in the slightest their traditional rights. When the King attempted to rule them against their wishes, and paid not the slightest heed to their legislatures, they revolted, as did the majority of Parliament in similar circumstances in 1642.

    In regard to the Civil War, the states had no political existence except as part of the United States. They went straight one day from being colonies to being states, a fact that was recognized by Great Britain at the conclusion of the American Revolution when there was one peace treaty signed rather than 13. The Articles of Confederation, approved by each of the states during the Revolution, spoke of perpetual union. The Union pre-dates the Constitution and dates from the Declaration. A new nation was then created, not a mere temporary alliance. The states of the Confederacy had no right to withdraw from the Union without the consent of the people of the Union as a whole. A majority of the people of the United States opposed secession, and their wishes were brought to fruition through the successful outcome of the Civil War.

  • The individual states, on the other hand, were sovereign prior to entering into the federal union.

    Would point out that 35 of the 50 states were artifacts of Congress.

  • In regard to the Civil War, the states had no political existence except as part of the United States. They went straight one day from being colonies to being states

    Well, for the original 13 perhaps, but Texas was its own sovereign state prior to joining the union. Also, would that mean if the EU signed some treaty with a hypothetical Arab state to end a war of conquest over Europe, that the individual european countries are not sovereign states? Not an expert on the EU, but it seems that would not be correct. Perhaps the EU charter (or whatever it’s called) has some sort of exit clause.

  • Regardless, there are few debates that could be as academic as whether the DoI was legal or not. Might may not necessarily make right, but it often makes rights (that is, obligations or conditions that can be enforced).

  • The states had to ratify the Constitution; if they were not independently sovereign, it would be a useless exercize to engage in ratification, which necessarily implies the choice of NOT ratifying, and hence, remaining outside the union.

    The Articles of Confederation, likewise, implicitly by their consensual nature recognized the primordial sovereignty of the states.

    I’m not aware that nationwide polling was conducted to establish that most Americans wanted enforced union. Certainly the majority of southerners did not, realizing that it is indeed not much of a union that has to be imposed by the slaughter of 600,000 souls.

  • The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were governing instruments for the pre-existing Union Tom, they did not create the Union. In regard to the South, I would assume that almost all Black slaves and free Blacks were against the experiment in Rebellion to continue to hold them in bondage. Every state in the Confederacy, except for South Carolina, eventually raised white regiments to fight for the Union. Kentucky and Maryland elected legislatures that were strongly Unionist. Delaware was completely Unionist in the War. Even in the slave holding states taken as a whole I doubt if a solid majority existed for secession. Add in almost all the people of the North except for some renegade Copperheads, and the people of the Union were clearly opposed to secession. Of course this is why secessionists did not simply go to Congress in 1861 and raise the issue of secession there for the whole country to debate and vote on.

  • Although George III was technically still head of the executive, Britain by the 1770s had Cabinet government. A hundred years previously Charles II had responded to the jibe that “he never said a foolish thing, nor ever did a wise one” by remarking “true, since my words are my own, and my actions are my ministers’ “. It is worth remembering that George was the first of the Hanoverians to enjoy genuine popularity. Unlike his grandfather and great-grandfather he ‘gloried in the name of Briton’ and referred to Hanover as a ‘despicable electorate’. Nor did he lack the common touch, and his interest in agricultural improvement earned him the sobriquet ‘Farmer George’. It was the high-handedness of the Westminster parliament, rather than that of the King, which precpitated the revolt (this is not to say that the King was without influence, but the relationship of Crown, ministers and parliament had changed greatly since 1642).

    A Declaration of Independence is an act of defiance, a manifesto and a call to arms. As such it is bound to be illegal in the strict sense of the word. Had England succeeded in bringing the rebellious colonists to heel, it would still have stood as a symbol of nationhood. In 1916 Pearse proclaimed the Irish Republic from the General Post Office in Dublin at the start of the Easter Rising. Lacking public support and with no chance of foreign intervention, the rebellion was doomed to failure, and the leaders knew it. As a devout Catholic and a lawyer Pearse would also have known that it contravened the ‘just war’ principle. In the event the rising was crushed in six days. But the 1916 Declaration is the key document in the emergence of Ireland as an independent nation.

  • .

    “As such it is bound to be illegal in the strict sense of the word.”

    “A rebellion is always legal in the first person, such as “our rebellion.” It is only in the third person – “their rebellion” – that it becomes illegal.” Ben Franklin, 1776

  • Who cares if anyone from Great Britain thinks the Declaration of Independence was illegal?

    Was England’s centuries-old occupation of and its suppression of the Catholic Church throughout the British Isles legal just because might made right?

    Was England’s privateers who harassed Spanish shipping legal? Not to Spain, it wasn’t.

    England has a lot to answer for in its own history without judging that of the US – including establishing slavery in its colonies who told King George to take a flying leap.

  • Obama has been cow-towing to most leaders throughout the world.

    Surely, he could go cap in hand to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and humbly submit himself and the Unired States of America to British suzerainty, and all the citizens of the USA would happily join hands and sing “God Save the Queen” and “Rule Brittania” and go Morris Dancing.

    Imagine the money you’d save on not having presidential elections?

    And best of all, you could all be called British subjects along with the Canucks and Aussies and Kiwis.
    Now wouldn’t that just make for a wonderful world 🙂

  • Don, I think the Texans toyed with the idea of joining the British Empire but were cold-shouldered by Palmerston. To reverse your scenario, when the UK joined the then Common Market some wag suggested it might be better to apply to become the 51st state and have the Duke of Edinburgh run for President. Unlike continental Europe the USA has a legal system based on Common Law and we speak (almost) the same language.

    Penguins Fan, you certainly have a point; there are good laws and bad laws, and just when we thought the bad ones had all been repealed, a raft of equality laws, badly drafted and threatening both freedom of speech and freedom of conscience is being foisted upon us. Privateering was legally dubious even in the 16th century, but the Elizabethan government did not recognize the Treaty of Tordesillas which established a Spanish-Portuguese monopoly in the New World. Drake could never be sure that on his return from a voyage of plunder he would not be executed as a pirate, but then as now money talks.

    A few lawyers holding an academic discussion is hardly going to change the balance of power. The general tenor of your remarks about English history betrays a strange inferiority complex which I have noticed before and which is very unusual in a superpower. Don’t forget that England was a Catholic country for a thousand years (the evidence is all around us) and no serious historians now buy into the Whig interpretation of the protestant ‘Reformation’. Say what you like about the British Empire, but its most enduring legacy remains the United States of America.

  • The Texans were never serious about joining the Empire John. They feinted towards England in order to overcome anti-annexation sentiment in Congress that had been blocking their admission, and the stratagem worked.

  • Donald,

    Count on Ben Franklin to sum it up pithily.

    Don the Kiwi,

    But then we wouldn’t get to come in late to every war…

  • Although we would still be oversexed, hopefully overpaid, and over there no doubt! 🙂

    “Fowler: Pushy Americans, always showing up late for every war. Overpaid, oversexed, and over here.”

945th Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings

Friday, October 14, AD 2011

Today, October 14 Anno Domini 2011, the Battle of Hastings occurred between the Anglo-Saxon King Harold and Duke William of Normandy.

The following is an animated version of the Bayeux Tapestry [1].

King Harold had a depleted force of 5,000 foot soldiers from a decisive victory of the combined Viking forces of Tostig and Harald Hadrada in the north of England the previous month.  Whilst Duke William had a force of 15,000 infantry, cavalry, and archers.  Facing superior numbers King Harold took up a defensive position that nearly won the day if it wasn’t for Duke William’s resilient command of a deteriorating situation.

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6 Responses to 945th Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings

Te Deum, Triumphalism and History

Saturday, August 27, AD 2011

Something for the weekend.  Te Deum (To God) sung by the Benedictine monks of Saint Maurice and Saint Maur.  A song sung by Catholics in moments of triumph and thanksgiving, it was probably written by Saint Nicetas in the late Fourth century or early Fifth century.

One of the swear words common since Vatican II in the Catholic Church is triumphalism.  We are to avoid it at all costs, and it is a bad, bad thing.  In a small way this makes sense.  The Church is both a divine and a human institution.  As a divine institution the Church is always victorious and triumphant as result of the Triumph of the Cross, and proceeds serenely through time and eternity.  As  a human institution the Church consists of we sinful individuals here on Earth, and meets with victories and defeats as she seeks to spread the message of Christ, often on very stony fields indeed.  To view the Church here on Earth through rose colored glasses and to assume that simply because the ultimate victory will be claimed by the Church against the Gates of Hell that all is well within the Church is to mistake the Church Triumphant for the Church Militant.

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3 Responses to Te Deum, Triumphalism and History

  • Te Deum laudamus . . .

    By the blessings and graces of Almighty God, we got through the storm. Prayers answered.


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  • Macaulay was a Whig historian who believed the Church of Rome to be in error, and wrote a famous put-down of Gladstone, then a High Church Tory, in what must be one of the best polemics in the English language. In the article you quote he shows an understanding of Catholicism which would have evaded most of his contemporaries, stressing the Roman Church’s inclusivity in contrast to Anglicanism (for example, he says John Wesley would have founded a religious order and been canonized had he been a Catholic). He was too good an historian to let his prejudices cloud his judgement, and should stand as a corrective to those (many of whom claim to be Catholic) who see fit to criticize the Church while at the same time being woefully ignorant of history.

Over There

Friday, August 19, AD 2011

When I was 12 or so, my father picked up a newly released album of World War One music entitled, after the most famous American song of the war, Over There. It is now long out of print (though still occasionally available used). As is sometimes the case with highly singable songs one heard as a youth, several of these songs had been on my mind lately, and so when the breakdown of the dishwasher the other night set everyone to washing and drying dishes, I put it on and we sang along to the oddly cheerful songs inspired by one of the world’s darker interludes.

“Over There”, written in 1917 by George M. Cohan (I didn’t like the historical versions I found on YouTube as much, so I made my own with the Feinstein rendition of the song.)

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Tolstoy’s Theory of History

Tuesday, March 1, AD 2011

I’ve been really enjoying listening to the unabridged War and Peace (I’m listening to a reading by Neville Jason) as a commuting book. It’s episodic enough to be good when listened to in half hour increments, and it’s good enough to be a pleasure to hear while not so stylistic in its prose as to be make one feel as if one ought to be reading it rather than listening. However, this morning I hit one of Tolstoy’s chapter long theory-of-history sections, and was startled at how little sense it made. This is a chunk of Book 9, Chapter 1:

From the close of the year 1811 intensified arming and concentrating of the forces of Western Europe began, and in 1812 these forces—millions of men, reckoning those transporting and feeding the army—moved from the west eastwards to the Russian frontier, toward which since 1811 Russian forces had been similarly drawn. On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

What produced this extraordinary occurrence? What were its causes? The historians tell us with naive assurance that its causes were the wrongs inflicted on the Duke of Oldenburg, the nonobservance of the Continental System, the ambition of Napoleon, the firmness of Alexander, the mistakes of the diplomatists, and so on.

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11 Responses to Tolstoy’s Theory of History

  • I concur, DC… wait until you get to the second epilogue… he elaborates at length on his theory of history, and it’s similarly curious.

  • Heh. I mostly remember the “diaper epilogue” as we called it when we speed read it in college. I don’t remember the other as much, possibly because I skimmed it pretty shamelessly in order to hit a deadline. At this rate, I should be there in another month or so.

  • Tolstoy proves he’s a novelist.

    Here’s one historian’s “take”: “History . . . little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Gibbon.

    Tragically, no “great leader” has learned its (history’s) lessons.

    Hard experience is a merciless teacher, but the fool will have no other.

  • What bothers me is that while Napoleon certainly had greater moral culpability, everyone who goes along with an unjust war while knowing its an unjust war is, in my understanding of Catholic teaching, also morally culpable. So while Tolstoy might be wrong in equating the two, the soldiers who followed the unjust orders are also wrong. So the decision by the bulk of his army to go along with Napoleon is relevant and is a cause of the war, even if not the main cause.

  • “The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words the event seemed to hang, were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier who was drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription.”

    To paraphrase Orwell, only an intellectual could write something that silly. Tolstoy was a great novelist, but one of the problems with reading him is that one constantly encounters his crack brained nostrums about every topic under the sun. In fact, Napoleon was basically a free agent in regard to foreign policy and the disastrous invasion of Russia was his baby from start to finish. Alexander, imagine a Russian Prince Charles, was autocrat of all the Russias in deed as well as in theory, and he had a free hand in foreign policy likewise.

  • I actually agree with Tolstoy here, really, I do. 😉

    Tolstoy’s position, I take it, is that history–and especially history on a grand scale, princes and potentates, etc.–gives us a picture of the essential irrationality, absurdity, and incomprehensibility of human activity. There can be no “explanation” for this history because, essentially, it’s all bad–much as there can be no “explanation” for evil. This is a particularly dark account of history (and of politics), and it’s not one that Christians have to agree with, of course. But it’s not essentially different from that found in Augustine’s in De Civitate Dei in his account of the history of the earthly city; and in Tolstoy’s “fatalism” we can detect a quasi-secularized version of Augustine’s Divine Will. For Augustine, it is quite certain that history is incomprehensible from any point within history itself; it only becomes intelligible once we have escaped it.

    There are problems with this account, I grant. But I don’t think it’s as foolish or simple a position as a cursory reading might suggest.

  • “only becomes intelligible once we have escaped it.”

    That is God’s prerogative not ours, which was rather the point of Saint Augustine, always bearing in mind that he was a mere mortal, albeit a brilliant one and illumined by faith, attempting to ferret out what God intends in human history. I rather doubt that it is ours to discern His plan, although Saint Augustine’s City of God deserves an A for effort, if not historical accuracy, which of course was not a concern of Saint Augustine.

  • “That is God’s prerogative”–Well, of course that’s true, but it’s also the prerogative of the elect, who after Christ’s Second Coming will no longer exist *in* history and so will be able to understand it for the first time.

    “historical accuracy, which of course was not a concern of Saint Augustine”. This begs the question in favor of one understanding of what constitutes “accuracy.” Suppose that historical accuracy depends upon one’s seeing all human events in light of the Incarnation and Second Coming. Then Augustine’s accuracy is perhaps unparalleled. I suspect that your notion of “historical accuracy” is informed by an inchoate commitment to some kind of positivism.

  • I’ll admit, it’s been a decade since I read City of God, and when I did it was on a college course deadline so I was reading way too fast, but my recollection is that St. Augustine is talking about it being unclear to us what the direction of history is in the sense of it’s purpose, why it’s happening in a final cause sense. We don’t know if the Roman Empire will last another three hundred years because we don’t know what purpose the Roman Empire has in the drama of salvation.

    What Tolstoy seems to be saying, by comparison, is that at the level of actual occurrence, history is without clear cause, and that someone like Napoleon had no choice as to whether or not to invade Russia, was not really the maker of that decision, because he was being swept along by a tide of history — no more or less the author of the invasion than a single sergeant who chose to enlist for another term in the Grande Armee rather than retiring.

  • “I suspect that your notion of “historical accuracy” is informed by an inchoate commitment to some kind of positivism.”

    Only if positivism is defined in regard to history as fidelity as close as possible to a rendition of what actually occurred in history as opposed to what we wish had occurred. Saint Augustine was writing a work of theology and was using the history of the Roman Empire for polemical purposes. Some of his positions from a historical standpoint are simply risible, including his contention that the military defeats suffered by the Republic were greater than the defeats suffered by the dying Empire he was living in, part of his response to pagans claiming that Christianity was causing the decline of the Empire. As I have said however, fidelity to the actual historical record was not a concern of Saint Augustine.

    It is of course impossible for humans to step outside of history this side of the grave. The fact that we know that at the end of time awaits the Final Judgment tells us quite a bit about how we should live our lives, but tells us next to nothing as to how to seek an accurate record of the events that took place before us.

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History and Rashomon

Sunday, February 13, AD 2011

Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece Rashomon in which a murder is told from four differing perspectives, including that of the ghost of the murdered man, details a problem that always plagues historians:   whenever you have more than one source for an event, they are probably going to differ, sometimes in small particulars, although not uncommonly in large ones.  The larger the event, a battle for example, and the more sources, the more differences.  What one reads in a typical history book often glosses over questions on particular points with the writer, assuming he is aware of the differing materials, picking, choosing and interpreting source material rather like an individual putting together a puzzle where some of the pieces have gone astray and some have been savaged by the family dog.  It is not easy work, and that is why some “historians” merely repackage the various books on the subject they have skimmed and eschew actual research by themselves.  If you read a lot on a particular topic of history, you can often tell what source is being used for a particular event.

On February 11, 1861, Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois with his family to travel to Washington DC to be sworn in as President of a very Disunited States of America.  He made a short and, for him, fairly emotional and personal speech to his friends and well-wishers at the train station.  Three versions of his speech have come down to us:

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21 Responses to History and Rashomon

  • Don, there are major discrepancies among Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, so who do we believe? I read Mencken’s ‘Treatise on the Gods’ many years ago and much of it stuck with me.

    Thomas Paine tackled this matter two hundred years ago in The Age of Reason, stumbling across dozens of New Testament discrepancies:

    “I lay it down as a position which cannot be controverted,” he wrote, “first, that the agreement of all the parts of a story does not prove that story to be true, because the parts may agree and the whole may be false; secondly, that the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true.”

    Here is the link as source:


  • Ah, Thomas Paine, that “filthy little atheist” to quote Teddy Roosevelt. His statement “secondly, that the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true.” is laughable to any historian or attorney. I have litigated many traffic cases and the details are often confused by witnesses. It is when witnesses are completely in sync on all points that I get suspicious since that is often an indication of collusion. The synoptic Gospels have just the type of disagreement that I would expect from witnesses honestly attempting to recall what was seen and heard. The Gospel of John is a theological tract by the Apostle that Christ loved and was written with a different purpose in mind than the rather straight-forward narratives of the other Gospels.

  • Don, didn’t mean to thread hijack. But you said you preferred the third version of Lincoln’s speech. Napoleon said, “What is history but a fable agreed upon.” Yes, as a lifelong journalist, I realize that witness accounts can vary widely. As “reporters,” Mark, Matthew and Luke differ enough in particulars as to raise legitimate questions as to their powers of accurate observation.

    As to your point, judges and juries give greater weight to witness testimony that is unimpeachable and corroborated while discounting or ignoring those whose credibility is suspect. I have covered many trials and have seen cases thrown out because witnesses lied or otherwise were not credible.

    The “hearsay” evidence of the synoptic Gospels is further undermined by the disagreements in timing, quotations, places, etc., cited in the link I provided and by many other objective inquirers. In other words, the burden of proof is on those who assert events as “facts,” rather than mere speculation.

  • As the resident agnostic of TAC, I do not wish to stir the pot nor anger all believers, but merely to serve as a devil’s advocate of sorts and provide some grist for discussion.
    Herewith more to chew on:

    Rebuttals welcome.

  • Hearsay is a legal term Joe. It does not mean that a statement is not trustworthy. Much hearsay is dead on accurate. It merely means that it cannot be admitted into evidence since it refers to a statement given outside of court, for the truth of the matter asserted, and does not come within a hearsay exception. Outside of legal proceedings it has little meaning, especially in history, since most history is hearsay. The synoptic Gospels were written within a few decades of the events described, relying on eye and ear witnesses of Christ. They are among the most trustworthy historical written documents we have from antiquity. Atheists prior to the last century would try to cast aspersions on their accuracy and even the fact of Christ’s existence. The advance of historical research into this time period over the last century has largely relegated this type of attack to the more ill-informed advocates of atheism and agnosticism, and I do not count you among that number.

  • Don, a “few decades” perhaps was as much as 140 years, or 14 decades. Now that is hardly contemporary. So other than the Four, and Paul, who never met Christ in the flesh, the “evidence” appears to be rather thin. On the other hand, I am willing to grant that “the greatest story ever told” has not yet been superseded by any other fiction.

  • No Joe, that is incorrect. Most scholars believe that the Gospel of John, the final Gospel, was written no later than 95 AD, some six decades after the events related, with the other Gospels being written between 60-80 AD, some three to five decades after the events related. In comparison, our best sources for the career of Alexander the Great were written several centuries after he lived.

  • Don, granting that point for the sake of further discussion, such a distance between events and the telling are still quite apart.

    Now, I am sitting in the jury box to hear the evidence. You represent the defense and will call Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. The nameless prosecutor in this case, after you have “deposed” your 4, will cross examine. Here is a possible exchange:

    PROSECUTOR: Now, Mr. Mark, you say that there was one young man at the tomb when you arrived. Is that correct?
    MARK: Yes.
    PROSECUTOR: We’ve had testimony from three other witnesses — Matthew, Luke and John — who gave different accounts. Matthew said he saw an angel, Luke said he saw two men and John said he saw two angels. Can you explain that?
    MCCLAREY: Objective, argumentative.
    JUDGE: Overruled. You may answer.
    MARK: Well, all I know is what I saw.
    PROSECUTOR: Did you actually see the young man or did you just hear about it from someone else?
    MCCLAREY: Objection. Hearsay.
    JUDGE: Overruled.
    MARK: Well, I didn’t actually see him, but that’s my best recollection.
    PROSECUTOR: Isn’t it true, Mr. Mark, that everything you say and those of your fellow witnesses, was all written down at least 50 years after these alleged events happened?
    MARK: Well, we all have excellent memories and none of us would lie.
    PROSECUTOR: Now, for those of us who weren’t there, when did Jesus first appear to his disciples?
    MARK: As I recall, it was out in the country, first two a couple of us and then to 11 of us.
    PROSECUTOR: Your fellow witnesses gave different accounts as to time and place. Matthew said it was on a mountain in Galilee, Luke says it was in Emmaus and later Jerusalem. John says it was in a room somewhere sometime in the evening.
    MCCLAREY: Objection. Irrelevant. He met them, of that there is no question, you honor. As to details, they are not important for the purposes of this case.
    JUDGE: Overruled.
    MARK: Once again, I only know what I saw or heard. I can’t speak for the other witnesses.
    PROSECUTOR: Indeed. No more questions for now. But I reserve the right to call this witness again, and the others.
    JUDGE: Let’s adjourn for the day.

  • Courts aren’t used to determine historical truth Joe for obvious reasons. The rules of evidence have developed over centuries, and the trustworthiness of the evidence presented is often not why a particular piece of evidence is allowed in or kept out.

    In regard to Mark, we know that his main source was the Apostle Peter. We have that piece of information from Bishop Pappias who was born in 70 AD:

    “Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”

    Joe, you being an atheist currently, or an agnostic, is your misfortune. I will not allow you much more latitude to recycle weak arguments from atheist websites. This site does not exist to allow people to attempt to breath life into arguments that were old and tired when Voltaire was young and tired.

  • As you wish. No more from me.

  • One last request: If possible, please remove me from this website and all my previous postings, leaving a tabula rasa.
    Thank you. Good luck to all of you.
    Joe Green

  • I like to watch samurai movies. For years early on Saturday mornings, the IFC channel on DIRECTV aired slice and dice suey movies. One series was about a blind swordsman who never lost. hahahaha. It’s better, now, they air “The Three Stooges.” We can learn a lot from the bushido boys . . .

    I don’t have anything positive to say about Lincoln. So, . . . Just that it seems he rated himself up there with Washington before he even left the “sticks.”

    “Swear there ain’t no Heaven and pray there ain’t no hell.” That’s agnosticism, isn’t it?

  • Lincoln is not, in these words calling himself the equal of Washington. He is saying (in all three versions) that the task at hand is the greatest since the one put before Washington. In that I think he was correct.

  • Okay.

    It tells me he was headed to DC “loaded for bear” and ready for the most difficult task.

  • Joe – Years ago I read a book called “Who Moved the Stone?”. The author was an agnostic lawyer who decided to examine the Gospels (specifically, the final days of Jesus’ life) as one would examine courtroom testimony. He started the project an agnostic and ended it as a Christian. He found the Gospel accounts were easy to reconcile.

    If one witness saw one person at the scene, and another witness saw two, the court wouldn’t assume that one of them was lying. The fair juror would note that it was dark, or consider that the first witness noticed only one person or forgot to mention the other. Holding the Gospel accounts to the same standard, they blended for the author sufficiently for him to accept them as true.

    I’m sure that if you’re looking to reconcile the Gospels, or if you want the discrepancies to convince you of their error, you’re going to find what you’re looking for. It was the author’s contention that if you approach them neutrally, you’ll find they tell a coherent story.

  • Oops. I didn’t notice the semi-official departure of Joe. I hope he reads this anyway.

  • I do have one question in reference to the original article, but still a bit off-topic. There are a few AC regulars who are Civil War buffs. What is it about that particular era that appeals to you? I understand and share the interest in history; there are certain eras that interest me, but I’ve never really committed to one. I’m curious how you made that decision, or if you made a decision (you guys could be polymaths).

  • There are many eras of history that interest me, Pinky, but I am especially interested in the Civil War for the reasons noted by Shelby Foote:

    “Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads. “

  • I’m an American history buff, and the Civil War is the seminal moment in our history. There’s also something to the fact that many of the battlefields are either wholly or at least partially preserved. You can go to Gettysburg, spend a couple of days there, and still not see everything. So being able to stand on the fields and see how the battles played out is something that is unique to the Civil War, as I don’t believe the Revolutionary War battlefields are as ubiquitous.

  • While I have done a good bit of study of the War Between the States (though quite miniscule compared to the voluminous reading that Don has done on the subject), it is NOT one of my favorite eras of American history. I prefer studying the colonial to early Federal periods (especially French & Indian War, Rev War, and Founding period), with a smattering of War of 1812 and Texas Colonial and Revolutionary period mixed in. My interest in American history wanes considerably after circa 1840.

    Quite honestly, the Late Unpleasantness is too depressing a subject matter to which to devote much of my time and energy.

  • The Revolutionary War era I have always found fascinating Jay. The War of 1812 has always been bland to me, perhaps because it was fairly ineptly conducted from our side. The Mexican War I have always found fascinating, especially comparing and contrasting it with the Civil War in terms of tactics and strategy. Although he could have given MacArthur lessons in ego, Winfield Scott was also a certified military genius and one of the overlooked Great Captains of our history. I think Robert E. Lee said after the Civil War that much of how to be a general he learned from serving closely with Scott during the Mexican War.

Considering American Exceptionalism

Tuesday, February 8, AD 2011

There has been discussion in the public square lately about American Exceptionalism. The term is one of those which, it seems, causes visceral reactions in many people, either positive or negative. Some immediately declare that the United States is one of the greatest nations that has ever existed. Others insist either that the US is entirely un-exceptional (and its inhabitants delusional for thinking otherwise) or that it is exceptional only in that it has been an unusually bad influence upon the world.

One of the problems is that there are a couple of different meanings one can assign to the term “American exceptionalism”. Some use the term to mean that 19th century Protestant idea that the United States is uniquely selected by God as a new Israel to play some pivotal role in the world. This view strikes me as sufficiently wrong as to be uninteresting, so I won’t discuss it further. However, this does not necessarily leave us to conclude that the US is either unexceptional or evil.

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47 Responses to Considering American Exceptionalism

  • Bill Whittle’s video essays on YouTube discuss this, among other things, in describing the Tea Party movement.

    Among his assertions is that the U.S. is exceptional in having decided to ground its principles of governance in Natural Law and in the tragic vision of human fallibility rather than the utopian vision of human self-perfection. This resulted in the wisdom of constitutionally limiting the power and role of government, and also of dividing government authority among two legislative chambers, among three federal branches, and between the federal government and the states through federalism/subsidiarity.

    Whittle’s view, then, is that the U.S. is exceptional in these ways, but that any other country could easily join us in being “exceptional” by choosing the same path. “Exceptionalism” is not therefore a birthright or a racial statement about blood and soil. It is an assertion that some principles upon which a society might be governed are more moral than others; and that sadly it is rare — it is an exception — for a society to select the principles of Natural Law and constitutional governance, and reap the benefits thereof.

  • “and if some countries cannot claim to have had such widespread effects upon the world as a whole, they are spared blame as well as praise.”

    On the contrary, I hold Luxembourg responsible for most of the world’s ills! 🙂

  • All this is true, so far as it goes, but the following cannot be left to stand:

    “The City of God learned much from the City of Man.”

    This is, as I’m sure you know, an impossibility, seeing as the City of God (which is not identical to the Church) is structured around the love and worship of the Triune God and the City of Man is structured around the love and worship of the self.

  • Who can match English and Russian literature, Italian music, painting and sculpture, German science and philosophy, French style and fashion? If America is exceptional it is only because it has stood on the shoulders of European civilization, and other than jazz and baseball, is more a copycat than an innovator.

  • How about English cooking, Russian technology, Italian government, German jazz and French driving? 🙂 All cultures and peoples stand on the shoulders of their predecessors Joe. One of the unique things about America is the way in which so much derived from other peoples has been taken and transformed by America.

  • I’ll give you one of those, Don; in fact, all, but they are not important. In matters that truly count, America can boast of airplanes and computer chips and nuclear weapons, but not much else. In the essential spheres of art, architecture and culture, I’d contend, you can’t win the argument.

  • RC,

    Agreed to an extent, but one doesn’t want to take the approach of saying that because we can read the thoughts of Socrates and think the same thing, that therefore we are as insightful a philosopher as Socrates. Also, while I’d agree that American institutions and political philosophy are, to an extent, a part of it’s exceptionalism, there could be a country with very good political philosophy and civic institutions which was not a particularly exceptional actor in history.

    In the same sense, Athens and Rome were not necessarily unique or event the best in their institutions — yet their influence on world history far exceeded more modest states which may have exceeded them in those respects.


    the City of God (which is not identical to the Church) is structured around the love and worship of the Triune God and the City of Man is structured around the love and worship of the self.

    And yet we understand the Triune God, to a great extent, through the originally pagan philosophies which were learned from the Greeks and Romans. We worship in languages spread by Hellenistic and Roman culture. And the institutional Church, which is not identical to the City of God, yet certainly is not unrelated to it, is ruled by a descendant of Roman Law and Roman political institutions.

    Truth is worthy, even if it is found among pagans — and much truth was found in the Greek and Roman cultures emanating from Rome and Athens by the early Church.

  • Joe,

    I’ll give you one of those, Don; in fact, all, but they are not important. In matters that truly count, America can boast of airplanes and computer chips and nuclear weapons, but not much else. In the essential spheres of art, architecture and culture, I’d contend, you can’t win the argument.

    Well, first off, note that I listed a half dozen exceptional nations in history, not just one. I would not, for instance, claim that the US was more exceptional than Rome or the British Empire, though it possesses some virtues those lacked (and lacks some those possessed.)

    That said, the nations which have the greatest impact and influence are not necessarily those who excel in every field. The Brits and Romans were both considered pretty dull and stolid folks in their way, yet had far more lasting impacts on the world than their flashier contemporaries.

  • Yes, Yes, of course that’s all right. But none of that has anything to do with the “City of Man”–the civitas terrena. By definition, the civitas terrena (which, again, can’t be confused with any one polity) is the collection of individuals at all times and in all places devoted to the idolization of the self. You are conflating two issues here. The first issue, that Truth is one and is not limited to the Church (though of course the Church contains a fuller plenitutde of truth), is different from the second issue, which pertains to the radical separation between two ideal typical regimes, across which there is no bridge.

  • We are “poor banished children of Eve.” To our Holy Queen, Mary, we “send up our sighs mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” The best we can hope for is that “after this our exile” we may be found worthy (through grace, prayer, repentence, and Mary’s intercessions) of the “promises of Christ.”

    Look at other countries. Name one that possesses a more just political system led by the consent of the governed. Name one that gives its citizens the opportunity to rise from rags to president or millionaire. Name one that had the power and ever and always gave more than it took in its relations with all the rest of the world.

    Now, if Nate or MM can’t stomach evil, unjust America. They know what they can do. There are no walls or border police keeping them here.

    I wonder why ten of millions want to come to America.

    And, stop listening to comprehesively ignorant, intellectually incompetent lying, aged hippie college prof/VC-sympathizers that revise history to continue in their useful idiocy even into weed-sotted senility.

  • Name one that has a higher crime rate and commits more abortions.

  • As Chesterton said, America was unique in that it was founded on a creed, namely that all men were created equal.

    It was the first country in modern history, and one of the few ever, countries were an indigenous uprising resulted in a long standing democracy, instead of trading one tyrant for another.

    It is unique in the extraordinary potential for upward mobility. It really does not matter that much to whom you were born. As an example the airplane was invented in America, not by some idle rich duke of this or that, but by a couple of bicycle mechanics. Carnegie went from being an poor immigrant to being one of the richest men in the world.

    America invented the AC electrical system, high speed steel, automobiles for the masses, TCP/IP, the personal computer, the radio, and the telephone. America, with aid from the British, did invent nuclear technology to end a war and then offered to hand it over to an international body–how many other countries in a similar position, with absolute asymmetrical power at the time, would have done that?

    As far as culture goes, Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses people liked living in. Mark Twain wrote books that people still read without them being a class assignment. America invented Jazz while Europe invented classical music–well Europe had a two or three hundred year head start on classical, and what has it done since then?

    Churchill joked that America always did the right thing, after it tried everything else first–well, how many other countries of similar size and relative power is or was even interested in the right thing? Damn it for not being perfect, but what other superpower or other country has even tried? The Greeks, the Romans, England of the 1800’s, there was no real concept of trying to do the “right thing”–it was build the biggest empire at any cost, because that was what powerful countries did. If a new country becomes the new superpower, how hard do you really think they will try to do the right thing?

  • “Name one that has a higher crime rate and commits more abortions.”

    Actually quite a few nations have a higher abortion rate than the US:


    There are also quite a few nations with higher crime rates, starting with the five featured below:


  • This “upward mobility” canard has got to be called out. Consider that:

    Children from low-income families have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of the income distribution, versus children of the rich who have about a 22 percent chance.

    Children born to the middle quintile of parental family income ($42,000 to $54,300) had about the same chance of ending up in a lower quintile than their parents (39.5 percent) as they did of moving to a higher quintile (36.5 percent). Their chances ofattaining the top five percentiles of the income distribution were just 1.8 percent.

    Education, race, health and state of residence are four key channels by whicheconomic status is transmitted from parent to child.

    African American children who are born in the bottom quartile are nearly twice as likely to remain there as adults than are white children whose parents had identical incomes, and are four times less likely to attain the top quartile.

    The difference in mobility for blacks and whites persists even after controlling for a host of parental background factors, children’s education and health, as well as whether the household was female-headed or receiving public assistance.


    By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of
    intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark.

    (From http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2006/04/b1579981.html)

  • Joe,

    Name one that has a higher crime rate and commits more abortions.

    What, name one country with a higher crime rate than the US and more abortions?


    In fact, despite having a population less than half that of the United States, their absolute number of abortions per year is about twice that of the US. More than half of pregnancies in Russia end in abortion.

    Not like being better than Russia in these two respects is anything to be particularly proud of. But ask an easy question and get an easy answer. 🙂

  • WJ,

    This is perhaps splitting hairs, but showing that inter-generational mobility doesn’t happen as much in the US as in other countries doesn’t necessarily prove that it’s not as possible or more possible here than elsewhere. It just shows it doesn’t happen as much.

    So for instance — it might be that there are societal forces which actually deny people born into low income families entry into opportunities that would result in their reaching the top 5% of incomes, or it might be that there just aren’t a whole lot of things to help you along the way and so despite a lack of barriers few people make it.

    That doesn’t make declining mobility something not to worry about, but it leaves open a wider range of possible problems.

  • Donald,

    The abortion rate in the US, per your link, is almost exactly the same as Canada and only slightly more than England and France. How can this be given that social welfare programs are supposed to eliminate abortion? Can it be possible that there are other reasons other than economic ones that people?

  • Darwin,

    I don’t understand that response. I suppose that I agree that it’s not a *necessary truth* that the fact of lower intergenerational mobility in the U.S. entails there being a lower “possibility” of intergenerational mobility in the U.S.

    But as I see it, the important thing is exactly what you state: intergenerational upward mobility “doesn’t happen as much” in the U.S. as in other (roughly comparable) countries. Who cares whether it’s hypothetically more “possible” that in happen in the U.S. if it doesn’t actually happen? (And I’d like to see the concrete explanation as to how upward mobility could be simultaneously (a) more likely to happen in the U.S. than in other countries and (b) not happen as much in the U.S. as in other countries.) But if you want to take this up later, that’s fine.

    I don’t mean to hijak the thread, but the myth of the actual existence of upward mobility in the U.S. dies hard, and needs to be corrected.

  • WJ: Now, I am a myth.

    Guys like me likley are rarer than before. Why is that?

    Try: confiscatory taxation; ruinous regulations; gluttony; state licensing for many crafts, e.g., dog groomer; sloth; promiscuity; single parent households; lust; public school brainwashing instead of education; hate rich people; wrath; envy; drugs; alcohol; etc.

    It is not America that keeps people dependent and desperate. It is the immoral, liberal progressive movement that controls the democrat party, the Senate, the WH, vox nobrains, and the lying liberal media.

    Joe Green:

    Solution to abortion and crime: DO NOT VOTE DEMOCRAT, BUILD MORE PRISONS.

  • WJ,

    What the heck, I’ll support a mild thread hijak. As it happens, it’s a topic I’ve been meaning to write about soon, I just haven’t had a chance to sit down with the links I’ve collected on the topic and do some thoughtful analysis. So accept this with the understanding it’s rather off-the-cuff.

    First off, let’s just define a few terms. Looking at the report you link to, they say that children born to low-income families have only a 1% chance of ending up in the top 5%. They define “low income” as being in the bottom 20%. If you’re are in the bottom quintile in the US, your household income is less than $20k. To be in the top 5%, your household income has to be above $166k.

    Now, I think our question primary is: If you work hard and have exceptional ability, is it possible for someone born into a family making less than $20k per year to grow up to make more than $166k per year.

    A related question is: How often does this actually happen?

    I think we can easily think of a number of things which might keep someone from being able to “make it big” even if they worked hard. For instance, suppose we had a rigid class/caste system, and people simply refused to hire you for high paying work if your father hadn’t had similarly high paying work. Or suppose that high earnings were heavily dependent upon education, but colleges simply refused to accept non-rich students. Or imagine you had a society in which the only rich people were big land owners, and these landed estates were hereditary. All of these, would arguably represent cases where it simply isn’t possible for people to advance even if they work hard.

    Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument that there are few barriers to entry into the richest 5% in the US, and that anyone with exceptional ability and a willingness to work very hard is able to make it into the top 5%. Does this necessarily mean that we would see lots of people doing this?

    Well, not necessarily. It might be that we’d see very few people making that jump because not many people were willing to work that hard. Perhaps that seems unlikely, but let’s imagine (and again, I’m going strictly theoretically here) that the US has had so much opportunity for so long that most people willing to work hard did pretty well as long as four generations ago. These people may not be in the top 5% by any stretch, but maybe they’re nearly all at least in the top 60%, not the bottom 40%. This might mean that for those born into the bottom 20%, they do not receive any cultural encouragement from their parents to work hard, study, etc.

    If this is the case, we might find that few people make it from the bottom 20% to the top 5% simply because very few people from the bottom 20% actually work hard enough to achieve that much success. According to this theory, they could have if they had tried, but they’re not encouraged to (perhaps they’re even encouraged not to) and so they don’t try and they don’t make it.

    (By similar token, it’s highly unlikely that any of my kids will be professional baseball players. I’ve never played baseball, I don’t watch baseball, I don’t discuss baseball with them, and I don’t play baseball with them. So although it’s theoretically possible that one of them has the ability to be a pro baseball player, it’s unlikely that he’d achieve it anyway since he never would have received any encouragement. Not because anyone’s stopping him, but because no one is encouraging him.)

    In this regard, it might be that countries which have had a great deal of opportunity for a long time would actually show less mobility now, if ability and work habits are highly heritable.

    Imagine if a country has had a locked-down keptrocracy for a long time, and suddenly it gets an open economy. There would have been all sorts of people who worked incredibly hard and had all sorts of ability who had been kept down by the system for a long time who suddenly had the ability to excel and leaped forward. You’d see a lot of income mobility.

    However, if there’s been this much opportunity for a long time, and if ability and habits are highly heritable, it’s possible that after a while you’re see fairly little mobility for the simple reason that most people in the bottom 20% were just there because they weren’t trying very hard and didn’t want to try hard.

    I don’t know if I’d assert that this is definitely what’s happening. I suspect that there’s a mix of some people being hit with lack of opportunities and a lot of people also being already sorted. But it does strike me as interesting that the least mobile countries as the US and UK — two countries which have had highly mobile economies for a long time.

  • A good post on the subject by Thomas Sowell:


    This country is just as socially mobile as it ever was, but it helps if a few simple rules are followed, which I have gleaned from 28 years at the bar:

    1. Graduate from high school.

    2. Have kids in wedlock.

    3. Actually show up when hired to perform a job.

    4. Try your best not to look like a ganster or a whore on the job.

    5. Realize that having a surly attitude and mumbling tends to displease bosses and customers.

    6. Master basic literacy and math.

    7. Don’t become an alcoholic or a druggie.

    8. Be ready to move to be employed.

    9. Save as much of your pay as you can and invest it.

    10. Go to church on a regular basis and pay attention.

  • 1. Graduate from high school. (…and ‘Welcome to Wal-Mart’)

    2. Have kids in wedlock. (…so you can get a tax deduction)

    3. Actually show up when hired to perform a job. (…if you can find one)

    4. Try your best not to look like a ganster or a whore on the job. (…unless you’re Christina Aguilera or Lady Gaga)

    5. Realize that having a surly attitude and mumbling tends to displease bosses and customers. (…after all, why be like them?)

    6. Master basic literacy and math. (…so you can read the want ads)

    7. Don’t become an alcoholic or a druggie. (…but a little wine and Viagra never hurt anyone)

    8. Be ready to move to be employed. (…see No. 3)

    9. Save as much of your pay as you can and invest it. (…so you can be conned by Bernie Madoff & and the rest of the Wall St. crooks)

    10. Go to church on a regular basis and pay attention. (…so you don’t miss the Bingo announcement)

  • Well Joe, all I can say in response to your cyncism, is that in my practice the people who obey those ten rules tend to be doing pretty well, and those who do not are doing pretty poorly. Or, as Kipling put it so long ago:

    “AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
    I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
    Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

    We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
    That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
    But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
    So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

    We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
    Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
    But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
    That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

    With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
    They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
    They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
    So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

    When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
    They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
    But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

    On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
    (Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
    Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”

    In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
    By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
    But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”

    Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
    And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
    That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

    As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
    There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
    That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
    And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

    And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
    When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
    As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
    The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!”

  • just tweaking you, Don. Don’t take me seriously. I’m just a jaded misanthrope obviously and mean no harm. If everyone on here wants to think they are ‘exceptional,’ that’s fine…I used to be a Christian and I read “…there is neither Greek, nor Jew, male nor female…etc” but people everyone, no matter where they live and what they believe, think they’re better than the other guy.

    It’s human nature unfortunately. We’re such a sad pathetic species.

  • “We’re such a sad pathetic species.”

    Yes Joe, except when we’re not.

  • To quote Mark Twain:

    Such is the human race, often it seems a pity that Noah… didn’t miss the boat.

  • Hi Darwin,

    Well, I don’t mean to be crass, but it seems to me you’re answer boils down to: “basically they’re lazy and dumb.” I don’t think this fits the data very well at all, but I suppose it’s an answer.

    I think the data supports the opposite conclusion, namely, that the “for the sake of the argument” conditions you construct at the beginning of your response don’t hold: that there are, in fact, a higher amount of barriers at work in the post 1970s states than just after the war, and that these do impede talent and hardworking workers from moving up, and that these barriers are getting harder, not easier, to overcome. (Although for minorities this general statement might not be true.)

    I should state that I’m not a command economy kind of guy, but I do think it’s a cause for concern whenever you have the inequality conditions that presently exist in America, as it undermines any sense of a common good and creates factions of interest that are dangerous to the republic. I don’t think either the Democrats or the Republicans are interested in this problem, as they both benefit from the condition itself.

  • You wrote “people everyone, no matter where they live and what they believe, think they’re better than the other guy.”

    However often this is true, the exact opposite must be said of a Christian. There are a lot of examples of humble greatness and all of them begin with the humble acknowledgment that our hero knows that he has earned no good thing and deserves far worse than he has received.

    I am sorry that you perceive that you “used to be a Christian.” Fortunately for all of us, rejecting that label does not change the reality of His love.

    Flawed though we are, there is a force for good, it is overwhelming, and it is the undeniable truth of and reason for our existence. His existence is the only rational answer to our nagging fears but his law is as hard to follow as the tracks of a mouse in blowing sand. We run and hide as Adam but His voice breaks through all of our deceits.

    I wish you well, brother.

  • C-Veg…Like the Prodigan Son, I’m off the reservation, hoping the Hound of Heaven comes and gets me. For now, though, I think He is rounding up others.

  • Doesn’t sound like you are terribly far from home though. We’ll leave the lights on.

  • Sheesh….Prodigal…typo…Just to clarify: Like the character in The Brothers Karamazov, “I love humanity, but I can’t stand people.”

    Can someone explain to me how God wants us to love one another when we are so unlovable?

  • “Well, I don’t mean to be crass, but it seems to me you’re answer boils down to: “basically they’re lazy and dumb.” I don’t think this fits the data very well at all, but I suppose it’s an answer.”

    Some people are WJ. They come in all classes too, except that what is simply disgusting in someone who is rich tends to be a complete disaster for someone who is poor.

    In any case I don’t think that is what Darwin is saying. What really can hamper upward mobility is single parent families, or no families and endless foster parents, a lousy education, no work ethic, involvement with drugs and alcohol, and having kids out of wedlock. With a black illegitimacy rate of 70%, a hispanic illegitimacy rate of 47% and exploding white illegitimacy rates

    the slowing of social mobility is not really surprising.

  • “Children from low-income families have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of the income distribution, versus children of the rich who have about a 22 percent chance.”

    Who cares?

  • “Can someone explain to me how God wants us to love one another when we are so unlovable?”

    By attempting to love each other as God loves us. Tough to do, but not quite as tough as dying on a cross. A sense of humor also helps.

  • Don, I’m still working on liking people including me. It ain’t easy.

  • Can someone explain to me how God wants us to love one another when we are so unlovable?

    Well, among other things, it’s perhaps worth while to keep in mind that loving in the Christian sense means wanting the best for someone. It’s not necessarily the same was wanting to hang out with someone all the time because they’re just so darn swell.

    In this sense, living and loving someone is not necessarily the same thing. Indeed, wanting the best for someone is often easier than liking him.

  • “Just to clarify: Like the character in The Brothers Karamazov, “I love humanity, but I can’t stand people.’”

    Maybe you should comment at Vox Nova. 🙂

    “Can someone explain to me how God wants us to love one another when we are so unlovable?”

    I guess I look at my son and think about how unlovable he is sometimes. Then he is away for a night and I miss him terribly. Then I realize he is really lovable even if sometimes he is unlovable – or maybe its just that he seems unlovable. And then I realize I adopted him even when he is unlovable at times – or at least seems that way. Just as God makes us his adopted children even when we seem unlovable.

  • “Don, I’m still working on liking people including me. It ain’t easy.”

    Like and love are too separate things. The Good Samaritan showed that he loved his neighbor by helping him. That did not mean that he wanted to be best buddies with him and sing camp fire songs late into the evening. I always felt awkward speaking to my father after my mother died, because he tended not to be very communicative, a skill my mother had in spades. I often felt that the calls were a duty and were glad when they ended. However that did not mean that I did not love my father. Of course now that he is dead also, how much I wish I could have one of those conversations again.

    Harder to love people who do monstrous things. I really can’t say that I love the murderer in one of my cases who shot to death his two little kids, but I do not think that God expects the impossible out of us.

  • Then again, Don, the Greeks had about 5 definitions of “love”. It’s a word that’s tossed around loosely these days and usually distorted. How far we are from “agape”, eh?

    Perhaps God did not command us to do the “impossible,” but sometimes it seems that way. I wish I could pray like St. Theresa, “Lord, let me suffer or Lord, let me die.”

  • WJ,

    Well, I don’t mean to be crass, but it seems to me you’re answer boils down to: “basically they’re lazy and dumb.” I don’t think this fits the data very well at all, but I suppose it’s an answer.

    Well, not necessarily. I don’t think one need necessarily be either dumb or lazy to make less than 166k one’s whole life. (Heck, I still make well under 166k, and it’s possible I’ll never get there — and I like to think of myself as somewhat other than dumb and lazy.)

    I guess the thing is, I read your hypothesis:

    there are, in fact, a higher amount of barriers at work in the post 1970s states than just after the war, and that these do impede talent and hardworking workers from moving up, and that these barriers are getting harder, not easier, to overcome.

    and aside from the atrocious state of our education system, I’m not clear what exactly it is that would have made it significantly harder to go “rags to riches” over the last 50 years, aside from that there’s already been a lot of sorting.

    Now, I would lay a fair amount of reduction in actual income mobility on the doorstep of our public schools, and I think that’s something which everyone right and left (except perhaps the teachers unions) would agree should be seriously improved. But that wouldn’t be so much an indication that people who work hard can’t get ahead, but rather that our schools often don’t encourage people to work hard and don’t give them the proper tools to do so.

    I will try to get a post on this topic up before much longer so we can discuss at greater length.

  • Okay, Darwin. Thanks. By the way Donald, the statistics I cited adjusted for the conditions you mentioned.

  • “Well, not necessarily. I don’t think one need necessarily be either dumb or lazy to make less than 166k one’s whole life.”

    The whole 166 k business, and a division of the population based on annual earnings, is a bit tricky. 166k up in many parts of Chicago and the suburbs would merely be getting by, especially if that is the sole household income. Go 70 miles southwest to Dwight, Illinois and a person is doing quite nicely on 166 k a year.

    “By the way Donald, the statistics I cited adjusted for the conditions you mentioned.”

    I’ll take your word for that WJ, and I mean that sincerely, but that would take some pretty tricky statistical adjustment to compensate for those factors, especially since France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark have pretty homogenous populations compared to the US. A better comparison would be say between Minnesota and Sweden or Montana and Finland.

  • There is one exceptional American:

    KUNDUZ, Afghanistan – A 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldier with 1st Brigade Combat Team received the Silver Star Medal – the nation’s third highest award for valor in combat – during a ceremony Jan. 26 at Forward Operating Base Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan.

    First Lt. David Provencher, an infantry platoon leader with 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, is credited with saving the lives of three wounded Soldiers and refusing to leave two others who were mortally wounded.

    Greet them ever with grateful hearts.

  • As one who was not born in this land and blessed to come of legal age as a citizen of this country, thanks be to God in the South, I can tell you that it is exceptional. I have the ability to go live just about anywhere on Earth and yet, I don’t leave. Why? In what other country can one accuse his own of committing atrocities that his country did not and disdain her for not being exceptional and yet still live and engage in debate? The answer is none before the USA. All other free places in this world are free because of the exceptional work done here.

    Do I accuse the USA for not being perfect? Absolutely. Is there great evil in the USA? Without doubt. Do our government, public and private institutions, etc. do great evil in the world? No doubt about it.

    So what?

    America is made up of sinners and Divine ideas filtered by sinners. In this regard we are not exceptional and if this is the fault one has against the USA then one has to destroy the whole world.

    What we do, what we believe and what we stand for on balance is the greatest force for good this world has ever seen, taken from a purely natural perspective. America is not the Catholic Church and frankly the Founder of the Church is perfect, but our Holy Church is made up sinners and prone to screwing things up just was well as anyone or any other institution – save for the negative protection of the Holy Spirit and guarantee by our Founder that the gates of hell will not prevail against her. Heck who needs hell anyway, we do a good enough job of trying to tear down our own Church and we can’t succeed at that awful endeavor. America has no supernatural guarantee and yet we get it right more often than not and when we don’t, we keep trying.

    America is exceptional and for those that don’t think so and want to blame her for all evil, I am not taking about beneficial self criticism, I am talking about disdain. Please go and trade places with some poor soul born in some one of the numerous hell holes in the rest of the world. The amazing thing is that this country is filled with Americans, born here and naturalized, and yet there are so many unAmericans here too, many born here. The nice thing is there are Americans all over the world and we should be actively trading the traitors who live amongst us with the foreigner who desires to be American – not merely live in American, but to actually be American, many already are. The world will be better for it.


Ethnic Nationalism and the End of History

Thursday, February 3, AD 2011

One of the ideas which has, perhaps more than any other, led to war and suffering in the modern age, is the idea that countries should have clear ethnic/national identities which define their borders. This is something that we in the the US, which has been heavily defined by immigration and thus lacks a distinct ethnic national identity, but it is something which comes into stark relief when we look at conflicts in other parts of the world.

Of these, the one that gets the most press is, of course, the conflict over the Holy Land, where different factions insist that the same ground should belong to either a Jewish State or a Palestinian State. This leads to strife because obviously if the state in a given area is specifically intended to belong to one ethnic or cultural group, then members of other groups must either leave or see themselves as living in someone else’s country.

This would work very well if various ethnic groups had spontaneously generated from the soil of different regions, but this is not the case. (After all, if you trace it back far enough, we’re all Africans.) Recorded history is one long story of migrations, conquests and assimilations.

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19 Responses to Ethnic Nationalism and the End of History

  • And of course the only way an international organization, the farcial UN for example, can do this is if it has member states willing to supply the military muscle to accomplish it. Prior to 1945 of course the West colonized most of the planet. This is now regarded as a cardinal sin. Israel is treated at the UN as one of the western colonizers, whereas it is as much a successor state of the Ottoman Empire as the Arab states which confront it. The truly hilarious aspect of this affair is that the same people who are hot for a Palestinian state in one breath, are often the same folks who talk ceaselessly about open borders, so long as it is third world immigrants, legal and otherwise, flooding into a Western country. Beneath the surface of all this, I discern no general principle, but merely fairly nasty ethnic politics and strife dressed up in new names.

  • I don’t see the conflict between national self-determination and a right to migration. National self-determination doesn’t have to involve expulsion and it shouldn’t. But really what’s wrong with South Sudan seceding? In fact, I think we need more of it.

  • If what a groups with national self determination wants is a state which “belongs” to their particular ethnic/cultural group, then naturally they will be afraid of large numbers of other people moving in, since then the immigrants might self determine and make “their” state.

    This is, for instance, why Palestinians don’t want Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and why hard core Zionists don’t want any Muslims in Israel.

  • The struggle against the authority of ethnic and national identities is – as is modernism in general – a struggle against human nature. And modernism has slaughtered far greater numbers of human beings than tribalism.

  • Maybe open migration is asking for too much but we can support the right to self-determination without supporting expulsion.

  • The struggle against the authority of ethnic and national identities is – as is modernism in general – a struggle against human nature. And modernism has slaughtered far greater numbers of human beings than tribalism.

    The idea that each ethnic/culture group deserves its own country via national self determination is itself a very modern concept. After all, the whole of the Holy Land used to be ruled quite successfully by the Turks.

    In a sense, I wonder if democracy creates the situation for this kind of problem. After all, if you’re all ruled by the Turkish autocracy, it doesn’t really matter if your neighbor is a Jew or a Palestinian or a Copt or an Egyptian. But if you all vote and that determines how the country is ruled, then suddenly you want the country to mostly be composed of people like you.

    The way out of that, arguably, is having a national sense which is based on something other than ethnic identity. The US, for instance, has this to a large extent. But I’m not clear this is something one can just summon up because it seems like it would be a good idea.

  • Maybe open migration is asking for too much but we can support the right to self-determination without supporting expulsion.

    Agreed, I guess, so long as we’re realistic about the fact that self-determination usually results in expulsion, whether we support it or not.

    For instance, with Sudan splitting, I was listening to a BBC interview the other day with people of South Sudan elasticities are getting ready to leave Northern Sudan, and fearing reprisals now that they’re “foreigners”. I would imagine the same is happening in the South as well. Though it’s not like Sudan has been a beacon of peace lately anyway…

  • The idea that each ethnic/culture group deserves its own country via national self determination is itself a very modern concept.

    Substitute “will form” for “deserves”, and “community” for “country via national self-determination”, and you have the human condition.

    I agree that nationalism is relatively new: a product of Protestant Divine-right theology as much as anything else.

    But the attempt to abolish authoritative ethnic and cultural communities through nationalization (and now globalization), to force-fit all of humanity into a uniform (while called “diverse”) modernist schema of formal political equality (often though not always with democracy as a the instantiation of this principle), is quite peculiar to modernity.

    Furthermore, since it goes against human nature it cannot but ultimately fail; though it can do (and does) lots of killing in the meantime.

  • Belloc quoted Cardinal Manning that all wars are, at bottom, religious.

    Belloc also noted the anomaly of the League of Nations [“Masonic rubbish”], which did not allow for representation of one of the largest groups on the planet: the Muslims.

    He also pointed out that nationalism was taking the place of religion.

  • As much as we on the right sometimes deride the primacy of “diversity and tolerance” among American values, there is a core nugget of this which we would do well to export to the rest of the world.

    Like, “yes, it is possible to have a stable state composed of people who differ widely in religious practice or non-practice, ethnic makeup, and political opinions, and yet do not take machetes to each other on a regular basis. You should try it sometime.”

  • “I agree that nationalism is relatively new: a product of Protestant Divine-right theology as much as anything else.”

    Actually it isn’t. During the Hundred Years War, the English used to say that Jesus was English and the Pope was French due to the Babylonian Captivity of the Church with the series of French Popes at Avignon. Nationalism is old as the city-states of Sumer.

    “Belloc also noted the anomaly of the League of Nations [“Masonic rubbish”], which did not allow for representation of one of the largest groups on the planet: the Muslims.”

    Belloc never tired of making an ass out of himself in regard to the Masonic bogey-man. In regard to Islam he was prescient enough back in the Thirties in his book on the Crusades to predict that Islam would awake and be a deadly threat to the West.

  • Maybe one of you guys could post this Super Bowl ad, which Fox rejected:


  • “Belloc never tired of making an ass out of himself in regard to the Masonic bogey-man”.

    Insert after Belloc “and the popes” and correct the numbers.

    Belloc’s most prescient study of Islam comes in his THE GREAT HERESIES.

    In his THE BATTLEGROUND, he predicted that Syria [Palestine] would continue to be a battleground. He also asked after the British guarantee of Palestine whether England would continue to guarantee that declaration. It certainly did not continue with Poland.

    The “ass” seems to have foreseen the current state of the world and the growing dominance of Islam.

  • You are correct Austin that more than a few popes saw masons under every bed also. The Brits tended to be more attuned to potential threats from Islam since they ruled so many muslims. Churchill made similar observations about Islam. This is from his The River War( 1899), his history of Kitchener’s Sudan campaign in which he participated:

    “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy.

    The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live.

    A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.

    Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.

    No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”

  • It is a great curiosity that the name of Belloc arouses so much irritation. Possibly because he was accurate in his political assessments.
    “Masons under every bed” echoes the 1940s/50s comment about seeing Communists under every bed. Then the Soviet empire collapsed. Their archives demonstrated that there were, indeed, Communists under many beds.
    More to the point [if one wishes to stick to the point] is Belloc’s assessment of Islam and the reason for its astonishingly rapid spread: simplification.

  • Not irritation Austin but simple understanding. I’ve read most of what Belloc wrote for publication. At his best he was superb. At his worst he was an early charter member of the tin-foil hat brigade. This was normally elicited when he wrote on three of the great bug-a-boos of his life: Masons, Jews and Capitalism. For a sample of Belloc at his worst I would recommend reading his 1922 book The Jews in which he recommends treating all Jews as a separate nation.


    The tome was certainly not in the league of the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, a movement that Belloc was an early opponent of, but is crack-brained enough on its own terms.

  • I suppose “it all depends”.

    Many Jews applaud Belloc’s book THE JEWS. His fictitious account of the meeting of a young Jew with Our Lord is a marvelous profession of faith. Of the Jews themselves, he commented “Poor dears, they rejected their Savior”.

    You might give an example of one or two of his “crackpot ideas”.

    You sidestep the matter of his book THE BATTLE. He noted that Palestine [Syria] continues to be a major battlefield as it has been for many centuries [even millennia]. He also gives a fine outline of the military geography of the area.

    I note that Israel was founded as a nation for Jews. And in our own country, Jews tend to congregate together. Indeed they seem to prefer to be noted as different. Intermarriage is a great lament of many thoughtful Jews, with its attendant loss of Jewish identity.

    I am uncertain of the meaning of “the tin-foil hat brigade”.

    But I leave off this pointless discussion. Like the husband of the editor of COMMONWEAL you seem determined to depict Belloc in an unflattering light. I have never understood the rationale behind this aversion to Belloc. He was kindly man, and a good and humorous writer “who never lost a friend except to death”.

  • Actually Belloc was a self-described curmudgeon, and often earned his nickname of “Old Thunder”. He could be a brilliant conversationalist and a great friend; at other times he could be a pain in the rump to all and sundry. “Tin-foil hat brigade” is a reference to someone who embraces looney-tune ideas, like treating Jews as if they were foreigners in the nations they are citizens of.

    Oh, and your quote in reference to Belloc is from a conversation he had with Hugh Kingsmill and Hesketh Pearson. Here is the full quote:

    “Belloc: It was the Dreyfus case that opened my eyes to the Jew question. I’m not an anti-Semite. I love ’em, poor dears. Get on very well with them. My best secretary was a Jewess. Poor darlings — it must be terrible to be born with the knowledge that you belong to the enemies of the human race.

    Kingsmill: Why do you say the Jews are the enemies of the human race?

    Belloc: The Crucifixion”

  • A nation or state needs something by which it can define itself. At one time matters of religion, or tribal affiliation (not quite the same as ethnicity, since you can certainly marry into a tribe), or allegiance to a king, and the like could define a nation-state. Physical boundaries, borders, and the like can also be the defining point.

    Ethno-nationalism just happens to be the dominant theme in these definitions over the last hundred years or so, and this has a lot to do with the decline of traditional powers and identities.

    The US alternative was a state based on a common set of ideals, and laws, and a degree of shared culture, history, politics, and morality. As the ties that bind the US grow ever weaker, our culture degrades, our morality becomes ever more varried, our politics becomes less common, and we neglect our common history some other thing will need to take its place. I think much of the partisanship is related to this. As those old ties have faded the affiliation of party is taking up some of the slack. In certain areas a virtual ethno-nationalism is alive in well, in the extreme cases the gangs show this.

    Nations with a clear sense of identity and strong bonds can deal with immigration rather more easily and with far less danger than can a nation with weaker identity. I suspect when a nations identity is weak, or is shifting or being challenged, would be the times that anti-immigration views would be the strongest.

    Ultimately a country has to be held together by some sort of common way of seeing and identifying itself. After all, human society, and in fact all human social contact and communications, is grounded in what we hold in common, not our differences.

Rewinding Taxes to the Good Old Days

Friday, January 28, AD 2011

For decades, progressives tended to accuse conservatives of wanting to bring back the ’50s, but in recent years the shoe is on the other foot, with some prominent progressives saying they yearn for the good old days when unions were strong, manufacturing was the core of the economy, and the top marginal tax rate was over 90%. I wanted to see what the real tax situation was for people in a number of different income situations, so I decided to pull the historical tax tables and do the math.

Luckily, the Tax Foundation publishes the income tax tables for every year from 2010 back to 1913. I decided to compare 2010 and 1955. Here are the 2010 tax tables:

I then got the 1955 tax tables and adjusted the income brackets to 2010 dollars using this inflation calculator. (For those interested, the inflation factor from 1955 to 2010 is 713%) The result is as follows:

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19 Responses to Rewinding Taxes to the Good Old Days

  • So our tax burdens are all lower today, but the federal government is spending more in constant dollars (presumably).

    No big surprise, but it is a reaffirmation of why we’re running huge deficits.

  • To an extent, yes. But it’s also a factor that the population is much larger than it was in 1955 and real incomes have also grown quite a bit.

  • In 2010, standard deduction for married filing jointly was $7,300. In 1955, adjusted for inflation, it was $9,764.

    So the poor paid less in 1955. The middle class paid a little more. The rich paid much more. Overall, it was more progressive back then.

    There are huge fluctuations depending on the year. In 1942, when the insanely high 50’s era brackets were introduced, the deduction was $16,053, adjusted for inflation. In 1981, the last year of >50% tax brackets, the deduction was $4,798. So everyone was paying more taxes during the Carter years. Interestingly, I see the Kennedy tax cuts went almost entirely to the wealthy.

  • RR,

    I think you’re confusing the standard deduction with a tax credit.

    If you take $9,764 off 40k, that gets you $30,236 in adjusted gross income, which with the 20% tax bracket (on income up to 32,544) in 1955 makes for $6,047 in tax.

    If you take $7,300 off 40k, that gets you $32,700. You hit the bottom two tax brackets and pay a total of $4,067 in 2010 taxes.

    So it looks like even assuming the standard deduction you’d pay a lot less in 2010. And that’s ignoring the per child income tax credit, if you have kids, which can be a huge deal at that level. The last year when I made 40k we had two kids, and once we did deductions and tax credits I had a net tax liability of negative four hundred dollars — as in, they paid me rather than me paying them.

    That’s way more progressive than anything in 1955. (In part because the country was a lot poorer then than now, making 40k in 2010 inflation adjusted income was much more middle class then than it is now.)

  • Wow, now I try it, it looks like even with the $16,053 standard deduction of 1942, you still would have paid $4789 in 2010 dollar taxes on an income of $40k in 2010 dollars — versus the $4067 you would pay with the $7300 standard deduction in 2010. It must just be really hard to have enough of a deduction to make up for that 20% bottom tax bracket versus the 10% and 15% brackets for 2010.

  • Oops. I forgot to apply the deduction to 2010. Still, it might affect your multiples enough to make taxes today no more progressive than it was in 1955.

  • Now, I only applied the deduction on the 40k, I didn’t try it on the others.

  • It really is surprising how big a deduction you need to make up for lower brackets. I graphed a 33% flat tax and found that for it to look more or less like our current system, we’d need a $30K deduction for single filers! And yet, I’d prefer that. Or an ever higher flat tax and deduction so that only half the country even files.

  • Okay, I graphed all the incomes I’d tried, and you always pay less in 2010, but the difference in progressiveness mostly goes away with a blip in the low 100k range:

    At 40k you pay 1.5x more in 1955
    At 80k you pay 1.4x more
    At 120k you pay 1.26x more
    At 1.2M you pay 1.9x more

    I want to say the flat tax proposals I’ve seen have had 30k+ standard deductions — though I think there’s also an extent to which people would be willing to pay a bit more if the tax code were just simpler.

    Frankly, if my taxes were something I could fill out simply on one sheet of paper, I’d happily pay a bit more than I do now. As it stands, I always spend a whole weekend with TurboTax and still worry that I got something wrong and the IRS will come after me. (After moving to a state and city with income tax, I may break down and hire a tax guy this year. Sucks.)

  • I always do my own taxes, as with two businesses they tend to get fairly convuluted, and I think I understand the Code as well as most accountants, although my math skills are appalling. (I have my wife, who has excellent math skills, check everything.)

    I am not a big fan of flat tax proposals. I have never seen any proposed that I think would keep the virtue of simplicity for more than a few years, before the tinkering of politicians would destroy that key feature. I certainly am also not a fan of the current system either. The problem though is not really the tax code, but the fact that we simply have far more government than most people are willing to pay for, and too many politicians eager to spend money in order to ensure their re-elections.

  • I am curious – do the differences between the 1955 and 2010 tables also reflect other payroll deductions, such as FICA (SS and Medicare – 7.6% of paycheck up to $108,000, if my research is correct)?

    “So while the rich pay less in taxes in 2010 than in 1950, the middle and working classes pay much less as well. And overall, we have a significantly more progressive tax code now than we did then.”

    It seems to me that one would have to take into account sales tax and spending habits as well in order to make a true comparison of this (in addition to FICA deductions, etc.). Indiana, for instance, levied its first state sales tax of 2% in 1963.

  • Any idea how much they paid into Social Security back then? I don’t pay that much in actual income tax today, but being self-employed, SS really hammers me. And you can’t deduct any of it away with charitable giving or anything like that; the only way to pay less is to make less.

  • Ah, that’s a really good point about social security. (And Medicare, which didn’t even exist in 1955.)

    According to this table, it looks like the difference is pretty big.

    In 1955 the rate for employees was a total of 2% (just SS, there was no Medicare) while in 2010 the total rate is 7.65%

    It’s far worse for the self employed. In 1955 they paid only 3% total, now they pay 15.3%.

    Since the entitlement taxes are not progressive at all, that pretty much evens up the field on tax progressiveness between 1955 and 2010.

  • And the non-self-employed still pay that 15.3%. Half of it doesn’t show up on their pay stub, but their employer has to pay it, so it comes out of their productivity one way or another.

    That does far more than even up the progressiveness. On 40K, assuming the standard deductions you mentioned earlier, I get:

    1955: 40K – $9,764 = $30,236 * .03 = $90.71
    2010: 40K – $7,300 = $32,700 * .153 = $5003.00

    So you might be paying half as much income tax now, but 50 times more FICA. And that money is for the programs that even the Tea Partiers don’t want to cut.

  • You slipped a digit there, the 1955 social security taxes would have been $907.10, not $90.71, but the point is dead on. (Actually, it would be a little more than that, because in 1955 the self employed effectively got a discount, for those who were employed it was 2% from the employee and 2% from the employer, so 1208.)

    Also, that underlines how the supposed era of fiscal responsibility in fact (though arguably unknowingly) was no such thing. The social security tax rates have gone up so much because the structure of social security was based on bad demographics, and so those of us paying 15.3% now are effectively subsidizing the low tax rates which people working in the 50s and 60s paid.

  • There’s more to the story than that. In 1955 they didn’t have the Earned income tax credit. This is particularly helpful for lower income families and making the current tax brackets more progressive than they appear compared to 1955. Also, a big part of Reagan’s tax package was to close many tax loopholes that were widely used by and only beneficial to those with very high incomes. Despite how many leftists like to characterize it, the rich didn’t receive as huge of tax decrease as the tables would indicate. It was just a more straightforward approach and shift in emphasis regarding where taxes were paid – relaxing capital gains to encourage investment, was the largest relief the rich saw. However, many middle class folk benefit from that as well.

  • There is no question that the able producers and earners (those who can invest and work and do) are paying much higher taxes now than in the 1950s. The ‘poor’ and by that I mean the able unproductive (those who can work and choose not to) are paying far, far less or are actually net receivers of wealth transfers thanks to LBJ’s New Deal on steroids from the 60s.

    We can discuss rates of taxation, deductions, capital gains, etc.; however, the fact is that we have to count FICA (payroll taxes) as ordinary income taxes. FICA is not a separate account funded like a pension, FICA taxes are general revenue – there are no segregated funds. FICA is just a ploy to collect more in taxes while allowing people to think they are being taxed less. This also increases the entitlement mentality to the middle-class. By making people think their money is being held to be paid out as an annuity, people who otherwise disdain ‘welfare’ begin to defend it. This was also foisted on senior citizens (who have more time to be politically active) in the 60s with Medicare. It was intended by Roosevelt that people feel that they are ‘owed’ their OASDI benefits in order to keep the program alive forever (at least politically speaking, it was economically dead from the get go) and to make it untenable for politicians to repeal it – the so-called ‘political suicide’ of unprincipled politicos.

    When you factor ordinary income, FICA and capital gains (taxes that affect many more in the middle class today than in the 50s) we are paying more in taxes now and for far less of anything except more government, more that is not enumerated in the Constitution.

    The biggest tax of all though is unseen. The devaluation of the dollar by the political spending addicts and their drug dealer the Fed has cost ALL, but the small clique of connected bankers and corporatists, more than any other tax.

    The real question is how much of the taxes from all sources, and there are many more today, now go to service the usurious debt than in the 1950s. Taxes are supposed to fund the general purpose of government for the common good within the Constitutional constraints. This is not why we pay taxes now. We are all debt-slaves and more so now than in the 1950s. People are always regarding themselves as ‘taxpayers’ or exclaiming their loyalty to the country by stating that “I pay my taxes so I am entitled to such and such” – this is a slave mentality. Americans prior to 1913 would NEVER have referred to themselves as such, in fact, they would have likely killed the tax-farmer than call themselves a taxpayer. We have been conditioned to think our taxes pay for ‘necessary’ services, yet so-called services are funded by debt and we are servicing the debt. We may as well live in Goshen.

    I know this seems dramatic, and the reality is this is not as bad as I am presenting it, yet – but, we are on a path that will make all of us wage-slaves to cover taxes that only serve to service debt. Since wages represent time working, we become slaves rendering our tribute to Caesar by servicing ‘our’ debt. If we are rendering all of labors to Caesar, what do we render to God?

    The primary culprit here is that despite the fact that the 50s were not the Utopia ‘conservatives’ paint it to be, as a people, we Americans, were far more moral then than we are now and that is why we are slaves. It is as St. Augustine told us centuries ago, as many vices as a man has, he has masters.

    We can say as many government handouts, subsidies, programs, tax-incentives, etc – basically debt for perceived benefits as we have, we have a master and that master is our Federal (feudal) overlord and his banker (the Fed).

  • Your analysis is interesting, but why do you stop at a mere 1.2 million? All the action in the last half century has been in the stratospheric range. Today’s hedge fund managers would have paid much much more under the 1950’s system. Here’s a little food for thought, courtesy of a commenter at the NYT:

    “In 1968, the largest American corporation was General Motors. The CEO of GM made 66 times more than the average GM worker. He paid a top marginal federal income tax rate of 70%. By 2005, the largest American corporation was Wal-Mart. The CEO of Wal-Mart made 900 times more than the average Wal-Mart worker. He paid a top marginal federal income tax rate of 35% (and probably really only paid about 15% if he was paid mostly in “dividends”)

    I would like to see a more thorough analysis than what you have presented here.

  • Doug,

    The 1.2M figure was semi-arbitrary, but also because the standard tax rates are on salary-type income. As you point out, executives and hedge fund managers and such often make much of their income in some other form than salary income.

    For instance a CEO may be given a stock grant or set of stock options worth $40M, but not be able to sell those shares (or exercise that option) for a certain amount of time. The taxes on those kind of earnings work differently, so it was simpler to not deal with them.

    Similarly, hedge fund managers get much of their money via getting a share of the profits of their fund, which is taxed as capital gains rather than salary.

    But my question here is in whether a regular guy actually paid less in taxes back in the “golden age” of the 1950s, not how much CEOs pay. After all, it’s not really any skin off my nose if some other guy I never meet makes more than me.