Columbus on Columbus Day — History, Pseudohistory, and Cargo Cult History

Christopher Columbus

As an historian who specialized in the Age of European Seaborne Exploration I find it difficult when I come upon discussions about a national holiday like this one.  It is difficult because, of late, the history of Christopher Columbus (actually Cristoforo Colombo) has been associated in the minds of the non-historian public with agendas and pseudohistorical beliefs not related to the man or the facts of his life.  To people who oppose the holiday associated with Columbus Day, they usually base their objections by laying on one man’s doorstep the depredations that were to come to the existing American cultures and nations when he arrived at Hispaniola.  Such an interpretation and reading of history is not history–it is posturing.

For a good argument on why the Christopher Columbus holiday is still relevant in understanding who we are as a people I recommend this article by William J. Connell in The American Scholar.  The purpose of the holiday, which is different from the history of the man and his life, was intended to include not only new immigrants and the descendants of European settlers, but also first cultures and civilizations.  From the roots of this cross-discovery of a world vastly different than the people at the time conceived, a new concept of democracy and inclusiveness has grown.  I will elaborate on these differences below.  But, needless to say, without the concept and imagination of a “New World”, I think it is very probable that the Enlightenment would not have happened.  We will never know this, but the antecedent events contributing to it would not have unfolded as they did.

As to the man, Cristoforo Colombo was born in the Republic of Genoa in 1451.  Like many boys and young men of his generation who grew up near the Mediterranean Sea during this time in history, he heard many stories of far off lands and riches to be claimed.  He apprenticed on small boats plying the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, and the North Atlantic as far as England and, it seems, Iceland.  After a youth of travel and adventure he settled for a while in Portugal.

During this time Portugal had long been the leader in seeking a sea route to the Spice Islands.  The fall of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Empire had closed off the land routes to Asia and the spice trade.  In the late 14th and 15th centuries Europe began to awaken from the 1,000 year old age of discontinuity and chaos that had been brought on by the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  By the time 1453 rolled around, Europe had reorganized itself politically and socially, inspired by the reintroduction of the long lost Greek writings into centers of learning, that then sparked a new scientific and Humanist movement known as the Renaissance. But Christian Europe saw itself surrounded and under siege by a new enemy–Islam–which stretched from Spain (the remnants of Moorish Al-Andalus), across northern Africa, to Vienna, and then beyond to the borders of the Mogul empires of India and Asia.

Many non-historians today wonder why connecting with the Spice Islands was so important to the Europeans.  The reason was that spices had become essential to the preservation of food, the elimination of many household pests, and key ingredients in medicine.  So precious were spices in Europe that families who could afford them would lock them in special boxes in their homes.  Spices to Europe at the time was as important as oil is today to modern civilization.

Under Henry the Navigator the Portuguese began seeking routes around the Horn of Africa to the Indian Ocean in order to by-pass the Ottoman blockade, setting up trading forts and towns along the coasts where they sought an understanding with the Muslim traders so necessary to commerce.  But Portugal’s closest neighbor, Spain, had a different agenda.

Born in the crucible of a long war in which its various kingdoms, sometimes in league and sometimes alone, sought independence from the Moors under the banner of Catholicism, Spain’s motivations were revolutionary, strongly motivated by Millenarianism.  In 1479 Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, known as the Catholic Monarchs, established themselves as the vanguard not only for a united Spain, but in the vanguard of expanding European Catholic influence around the world.  They thus became a competitor to Portugal in the search for a path to the trading posts of Asia.

As an aside, the year 1492 is significant in this history in both tragic and victorious terms depending on one’s point of view: it was the year Columbus landed in the New World (though he didn’t know it at the time, but more on this later), Granada–the last Moorish outpost on the peninsula–fell to Spain, and it was the year of the ordering of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

The rule under the Catholic Monarchs objectively, even for the time, can only be described as constituting a reign of terror.  The closest modern equivalents that compare are probably Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union during the forced collectivization of the farms, and the Cultural Revolution under Mao in China.  Warfare at the time was very personal and close, involving swords, piercing weapons, crushing weapons, and crude explosives.  Enforcement of religious and civil authority was barbaric and these measures, with some variation, existed in just about every major civilization in the world at the time, but the Catholic Monarchs employed these measures with great liberality.

Because Spain saw itself as needing to purify itself from both internal and external enemies, everyone was under suspicion of betrayal to the One True God.  Under the Catholic Orders under the Inquisition children denounced their parents, neighbor condemned neighbor, brother and sister betrayed brother and sister for not being truly devout.  In a world lit only by fire, superstitious beliefs ran rampant.  Belief in witches, demons, and evil spirits infected every facet of daily life.  Punishment for crimes against both society and religion were dealt with cruelly and savagely by modern standards: dunking, the Iron Maiden, flaying, piercing, dislocation of limbs, racking, being drawn and quartered, and other methods were commonplace.  The only limits to such officially sanctioned methods was the imagination of the civil authority.

It was under this backdrop that Columbus approached the Catholic Monarchs with his idea of sailing to the west across the globe in order to reach Asia.  Contrary to the 19th century legend, explorers, navigators, and educated people of the time did not reject his idea because they believed the world was flat and his ships would fall off.  Instead, in order to gain support for his voyage he pitched an idea that the circumference of the earth was much less–about 6,000 to 10,000 miles less–than the 25,000 miles calculated (almost correctly, around the equator the distance is 24,902 miles) by the ancient Greeks.  At first Spain rejected his request.  He then pitched the idea to Portugal and England unsuccessfully.  Finally, seeing that Portugal was about ready to access the Indian Ocean after successfully navigating the Horn, Spain called Columbus back and agreed to fund his expedition.

It is thus one of those great comedies of the human condition that a man who was wrong about just about everything managed to engineer such a history altering achievement.  Even after landing in the New World Columbus did not know that he had not reached “the Indies” as the Asian outer islands became known.  The term “Indian” to describe the first American cultures and civilizations encountered, was based on this misunderstanding.  So convinced was he that he had simply skirted the outer islands of Japan that he returned on subsequent voyages to prove his achievement.  He died thinking that he had proven a western route to Asia.

There is much that is troubling in his behavior when he came across the civilizations he encountered.  By modern standards these actions are seen as barbaric, though many of them are used to conflate subsequent actions by others.  Furthermore, entire portions get their history wrong, like this article that typify the genre.  Once again, it is necessary to bring some fact and historical context into the times.  Slavery was a common practice, particularly since the Portuguese began to engage in trade after their contact with the Azores and Africa.  The depredations visited on the average person once considered to be part of a conquered people were completely arbitrary.  Women and girls were raped, men when not killed, were used as beasts of burden.  It must be mentioned here, however, that later it was also the Catholic countries in Europe that first acted against the slave trade, though only particular aspects of it.  Pope Paul III first forbade the practice of enslaving the first people found in new lands in 1537.  Spain, under tremendous pressure from Rome, and thanks largely to the efforts of Bartolome De Las Casas and others, passed laws forbidding the enslavement of the “Indians.”  Unfortunately, these laws allowed for labor to be supplemented by the African Slave Trade.

One must keep in mind that sea voyages in the 15th century were extremely dangerous.  Crews were often impressed into service, oftentimes taken from prisons in order to rid the country of its criminal population.  Conditions on ship were unsanitary and dangerous.  Being well before the age of the disease theory of illness or any understanding of bacterial or viral infections, attrition at sea was staggering.  Some ships lost 95% of their crews on voyages.  Many voyages ended in shipwreck or mutiny.  The Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria were not built for the open sea.  They were trading vessels meant for the confines of the Mediterranean.  Their lengths are estimated to have been from 50 to 58 feet.  After a few days onboard ship both food and water went bad.  Both human- and ship-born vermin was the norm.

Thus, Columbus had to possess outstanding qualities of leadership and discipline in order to make such a voyage, and contemporaneous accounts attest to these traits.  Furthermore, using his knowledge of trade currents and winds, Columbus managed to cross the ocean without the benefit of charts or knowing what lay ahead.  That he did this in three small ships or large boats makes his voyage significant both for its singular achievement, but also because he extended human knowledge of the earth and human existence on it.

Much has been made about the tragedy of the first American civilizations in succumbing to what are believed to have been diseases introduced by Columbus or his men.  While tragic in very real terms, one cannot objectively attribute this to intentional human agency on the part of Columbus.  Nor were Columbus and his men the only Europeans in contact with those cultures after the results of the voyage were known.

Even in what was thought to be more recent and traceable actions, there is even a great deal of reasonable doubt regarding the more modern charge that the U.S. Calvary distributed smallpox tainted blankets in North Dakota in 1837.  What we do know is that when isolated civilizations come in contact with each other disease oftentimes follows, perhaps because of differences in exposure to a greater and wider number of pathogens.  Even in more modern times, the catastrophe of the First World War was followed by the flu epidemic of 1918-19.  So virulent was the outbreak that it probably contributed to the defeat of Germany in the war more so than the entry of U.S. troops.

So in introducing previously isolated civilizations and peoples to each other, and contributing to human geographical knowledge, Columbus is rightly honored for his achievements.  Furthermore, history has also documented his actions which, by modern standards, are seen as cruel and questionable at best.  That he did so as a matter of fact speaks more to the barbaric norms of his times than they do to any special failing on his part.

But history, like any area of learning in seeking truth, is always open to revision and reinterpretation.  But in discussing Columbus this revision and reinterpretation oftentimes is based on factors other than those allowed by the discipline of history, falling into the category of ideology, pseudohistory, or what I am calling cargo cult history.  Science is a field in which uncertainty is a given.  The same is the case with history.  We can prove certain things as near as they can be proven to be true.  But those wishing to deal in absolutes need to restrict themselves to logic or mathematics.

The basis for advancing human knowledge is not limited to the schoolbook version of the scientific method, where a hypothesis, test, and control is used to determine validity or falsity of the hypothesis.  Life is not that simple, nor is science that tidy.

In the words of Michael Shermer, science is a collection of methods aimed at building “a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.”  But our knowledge through this method is always contingent, given new evidence.  Of course, there comes a time when the preponderance of the facts and data is so overwhelming that it is highly improbable that the conclusion will be overturned.  When new observations or tests are made, the fact that they confirm the strong hypothesis adds additional credibility, leading us closer to what we can call a fact.  But what can be proven must also be able to be proven false.  There has to be a test that determines falsity, since you cannot prove true what you cannot prove false.

In the words of evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne in the book Faith vs. Fact, “I see science, conceived broadly, as any endeavor that tries to find the truth about nature using the tools of reason, observation, and experiment.  Archaeologists use science when they date and study ancient civilizations.  Linguists use science when they reconstruct the historical relationships between languages.  Historians use science when they try to discover how many people died in the Holocaust, or refute the claims of Holocaust deniers.”

In history we are dealing, sometimes, with events that occurred some time ago.  Oftentimes physical evidence has been lost, altered by time, or is inconclusive.  We also deal with human weakness and frailty.  People are often dishonest, even with themselves, or their perspectives are colored by unintended filters or by being overwhelmed by the events being experienced.  Witnesses to the same event oftentimes record different details.  This is a common phenomena documented by several controlled studies which has become known as the Rashomon effect.

In the end we must avoid fooling ourselves through preferred explanations, ideology, or emotion.  If we begin with a belief and then collect evidence to prove that belief, excluding all contradictory information, then we are not practicing either science or history.  We are practicing propaganda or self-deception, or some variation in between.  This is what I mean by the term pseudohistory.

Along these same lines, but slightly different, in referring to cargo cult history, I am borrowing from the late physicist Richard Feynman in which he uses the term “cargo cult science.”  We are engaged in cargo cult history if we rely solely or overwhelmingly on secondary sources for our knowledge, without either independently verifying those sources, nor augmenting them with primary sources or original research.

For example, in the probable apocryphal story of smallpox blankets of 1837, all too many scholars and historians have repeated the charge without verifying the veracity of the original story.  There is, however, direct evidence of smallpox being used as a weapon (or, at least, an attempt to do so) against a tribe during the French and Indian War.  In the last two cases it is possible that the earlier story, whether the attempt was successful or not, became a legend regarding measures used against the North American tribes, leading to conclusions that any outbreak of smallpox was attributed to human intent.  Thus, both pseudohistory and cargo cult history oftentimes are self-reinforcing.

In the end we honor Columbus with a holiday not for everything he did–both Washington and Jefferson were slaveholders after all–but for the opening of the concept of a New World which eventually allowed for the development of the idea of a government based on the consent of the governed, of the rule of law, against arbitrary and cruel punishment, and inclusive of all people regardless of ethnicity, religious or non-religious observance, gender, and national origins.  We still have a way to go in achieving many of our stated ideals–and in righting past wrongs, especially as it relates to the first civilizations and cultures, who were early immigrants themselves–but that’s why this holiday, for me at least, is still relevant.  It highlights the truth, stupidity, and tragedy of human history–both its negative and positive aspects–as it relates to the Americas, without the need to sink into cultural posturing or pseudohistory.

Note:  The final version of this post has been modified to correct for one big chronological error (such is the consequence of blogging on the fly sometimes), and for clarity.

Legitimacy and the EU Democratic Deficit

Turning to political science again, Kevin O’Rourke has an important article regarding the democratic deficit and types of legitimacy in Critical Quarterly, particularly in light of the events surrounding the Greek crisis.  He cites the late political scientist Peter Mair’s book, Ruling the Void, as providing a solid framework for understanding what is happening in Europe, and to some extent within all democracies as a result of wealth and power concentration among an increasingly transnational economic elite.

The issue that O’Rourke tackles based on Mair’s insights, is one of democratic legitimacy.  For economists and financiers who seem to have (I would argue) taken an illegitimately outsized role in determining what is good for Greece, even if Greece disagrees, the dichotomy here seems to be between what has been called input vs. output legitimacy.  I understand what he is saying here, but in political science “legitimacy” is not the same as “democratic legitimacy” and, in the end I think, this is his point.

O’Rourke, an economist himself, tackles how using this argument, particularly in regard to output legitimacy, has been hijacked so that concerns about distribution have been stripped out of the definition by the application of technocrat-speak.  I have a backlog of items for the Devil’s Phraseology from “Structural Reform” to other euphemisms for, essentially, screwing working people over, especially right now if they are Greek, Italian, Spanish, or Irish.

His article is important in tracing the subtle transformation of legitimacy over time.  For those unfamiliar with this terminology, legitimacy in this sense–if you remember nothing else but your Lincoln or Jefferson–in democratic societies is properly derived by the people.  This concept, which can be measured on the input side, is reinforced by processes and institutions that support it.  So clean elections which seek to maximize participation of the adult population; freedoms that support human rights, particularly those concerning speech, free association, and free movement; institutions that are largely responsive to the democratic will but which possess limitations to prevent the denial of human rights; and an independent judiciary that metes out justice based on due process; the absence of corruption, undue influence, unequal treatment, or graft in these institutions, etc. are all indicators of “legitimacy.”  In the context of the European debate this is known as “input” legitimacy.

Then there is “output” legitimacy.  This is the type of legitimacy on which the EU rests, since it obviously–especially since the last Greek referendum on the terms of the Troika’s terms–doesn’t seem to be based on any kind of “input” legitimacy.  Here legitimacy is based on a utilitarian measure–the ability of the EU to raise the aggregate euro value at any one time.  This is the “rising tide lifts all boats” trope.  Nice imagery, what with the JFK connection and all, but the rules of the game and economic environment have changed since 1963 to the extent that the analogy no longer applies.  A rising tide lifts all boats only if everyone has a stake in the tide rising.  Feel free to add any additional analogies now that we are beginning to understand the effect of rising tides on coastal cities as the earth warms.  An actual rising tide certainly didn’t do anyone in NOLA’s Lower Ninth and Lakeside neighborhoods any favors, but we do know that it impacted people residing in different economic strata differently.

Furthermore, output legitimacy as a utilitarian project sounds a lot like “we made the trains run on time”.  Furthermore, it wasn’t all that long ago that more than half of Europe suffered under authoritarian regimes.  Output legitimacy, I would argue, by definition is the opposite of democratic legitimacy, not one of two types of democratic legitimacy.  As O’Rourke points out, one cannot take politics out of policy, so the way in which decisions are made is important in defining the type and level of legitimacy.

Post-1989 generations have not had to come to an understanding of the fact that even oppressive regimes can possess political legitimacy that is sufficient for them to survive.  From an historical standpoint, all of those German people in the streets chanting “Heil Hitler” weren’t doing so at gun point.  The block captains and those others who denounced family members in the old Eastern Block countries largely acted independently and voluntarily.  Many Russians today pine for the days under the old Soviet Union and have a leader in Putin that channels that nostalgia.  Autocratic and authoritarian regimes simply possess legitimacy through institutions and processes that are more restrictive than those found in democratic societies, but which rests on elites, centers of power, and pluralities that allow them to function.

Thus, whether the EU will admit it publicly or not, one need only do a Google search to see that this is a generally recognized issue that the European countries seem unwilling or unable to address.  The recent charging of Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek minister, of treason at the instigation of Greek and European elites raises the ante and strips whatever remaining veil there was to hide the anti-democratic roots of the Greek crisis.  Apparently the 60% of the Greek people who voted “No” to the Troika were also traitors.

That this is happening is Greece is also problematic due to its geographical location in the eastern Mediterranean and its fairly recent transition to democratic processes and institutions.  De-legitimization of democracies is an all too familiar event in the history of the European continent and can only lead to radicalization, especially given the pain being inflicted on the Greek people.  What Europe’s technocrats have done is turn an economic recession and market failure–that could have been ameliorated and solved given the proper solutions learned by hard experience from the 1930s and immediately following the Second World War–rejected those methods and, as a result, though obstinance, tyrannical actions, corruption, and greed, have created a political and economic disaster that threatens the legitimacy of the EU.

Time to reform the reformers.

Welcome to the Hotel (Euro) — You Can Vote “Oxi” Anytime you Like but you Can Never Leave

The recent events in Greece and their ramifications for the European project have been the subject of a good many blogs and news articles lately.  From an economic perspective the most noteworthy are those by Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Dean Baker, Yanis Varoufakis who was on the ground as Greece’s Finance Minister, and Joseph Stiglitz, among others.

If one were to read the news in the manner of the U.S. press through its sources of record: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, not to mention the major news networks with CNN thrown in (avoiding avowedly polemical sources like Fox, MSNBC, and the Huffington Post), one would think that the Greek issue is one caused by a profligate country that borrowed a bit too much and allowed Greeks to live over their heads.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The bottom line is that Greece and the EU decided to bail out the banks and investors who crossed the line in investing in junk paper by using public funds.  Sound familiar?  Think a Eurozone TARP.  But in the case of the EU the banks and bad paper investment houses–the inmates in this scenario–run the asylum.  With the constant drumbeat from our own oligarchs we have become as a people brainwashed to think that investors and creditors have a right to their money.  Our own more draconian bankruptcy laws imposed by the last financial industry-tainted Congress institutionalized many of these attitudes in law.  But this has not always not been the case and is not part of our legal or economic traditions.  It is certainly not anything like what Adam Smith had in mind.

The operational term in this case is “moral hazard.”  The rhetoric of the moneyed interests and their armies of lawyers have deftly tried to invert the meaning of the concept, but as Steve Waldman clearly explains in his excellent interfluidity blog, “moral hazard” is a concept that overwhelmingly falls on investors and creditors.  It means, quite simply, that you as an investor are responsible for where you put your money at risk–and that risk includes it being completely lost.  There are no guarantees.  This was the original rationale of Glass-Steagall: it was accepted that regular working people don’t have the information, time or resources to place their funds, which are meant for savings, under moral hazard.  Same goes for things like the Social Security Trust Fund.  Play with your own “play” money if you have it, but guaranteed deposits and retirement pensions are off-limits since they are backed by the sovereign currency.  Seed corn is not open to being manipulated by cheap paper–that is, until Glass-Steagall was repealed.

The European condition is a bit more complicated only because the EU has never had a consistent separation between its financial elites and civic institutions, given the differences in national traditions and political systems.  But one should be able to clearly see the connection between what is happening in Europe within the EU and in other places around the world: the attack on democratic legitimacy by oligarchs and economic elites.

As Joe Stiglitz points out in the post cited above, Greece–emerging from years of autocratic rule and third world-like conditions–was doing quite well economically until the financial bubble burst across the developed western world.  Many of the banks that invested in hyper-inflated Greek real estate and other development projects were situated in other countries.  The EU under the Euro project is a currency union, and under the Maastricht Treaty that formed this union there were some economic harmonization rules required, mostly pushed by Germany and France, but there is no lender of last resort, no central banking authority equivalent to our Federal Reserve, no centralized budget authority, nor political or cultural ties that would keep old ethnic or nationalist conflicts from flaring up in a crisis.  As Waldman explains, what these other countries did–in particular Germany–was to bail out the banks and investment houses making the debt on these bad investments public obligations.  This sleight of hand politicized what should otherwise should have simply been written off bad investments.  If the Germans wanted to have their own TARP they should have done so.  But it was so much easier to push the consequences onto the Greeks given their weaker position in the EU.

Jared Bernstein in his Washington Post article following the Greek “no” vote quoted an unnamed German economist asserting: “How do you think the people of Manhattan would like bailing out Texas?”  As Krugman rejoined upon reading the article, Manhattan (and other areas of the country) do that all the time as a matter of course.  It was done during the Savings & Loan crisis that was largely a Texas affair back in the late 1980s.  Anyone who looks at the net benefits of federal tax payments and expenditures by state can see that the southeastern states–in particular those that made up the old Confederacy, including Texas, get more in federal benefits than they pay in.  To Americans this is not a big deal–and my use of the term American to identify my countrymen is at the heart of the question.  I don’t know anyone who in reality is a Floridian.  Only buffoons and idiots identify themselves as Texans over their identity as Americans.

Here we tend to put resources where they are needed, hence the United States of America.  More than two hundred years involving waves of immigrants, over one hundred and fifty years of increasing population mobility, and two major world wars and a cold one–two of these existential in nature–during the 20th century, not to mention 9-11, has militated against the old regionalism.  It is not surprising that the assertion that displays such deep ignorance of our own system and society would come from a German economist.  I mean this as no mean insult.

When I was on active duty as a young U.S. Naval officer I met a Scottish couple in Spain who worked at the U.K. embassy there.  They were amazed by my nonchalance in moving my family from California to a home base in Virginia as part of my assignment.  “Do you now identify yourself as a Virginian?” they asked.  When I explained that–no–it was all part of the U.S., they explained that they would always identify themselves as Scots, and that within Scotland that people associated themselves with a particular village or region.  This was almost 30 years ago, and I am told that such attitudes are changing, but it does point to a weakness in the “European” project, especially given that in the most recent U.K. parliamentary elections that the Scottish nationalist party was overwhelming elected to the House of Commons.

Given my own expertise in history and political science, my concern is directed more to the consequences of Greece capitulating to the EU’s economically and politically disastrous demands.  Just ten days ago 60% of the Greek people voted against the conditions imposed by the EU, yet their parliament just approved a package that is punitive by any reasonable and objective measure.  Even the IMF has belatedly–and in a largely dishonest manner which I can only explain as some type of EU face-saving approach–clearly stated that the conditions imposed are unsustainable.

The role of Germany is certainly one of the main issues in this condition.  Given the way they handled the bad paper of their bankers, Merkel and her party have backed themselves into a corner.  So they have done what all desperate politicians do–they have demonized the Greeks.  This is all for mercenary purposes, of course, and without consideration for the long term consequences for both the Greek people and the EU.  What they have done is show the contradictory fault lines in the entire “European” project.  German Finance Minister Schaubel, by attempting to co-opt the Greek threat of a Euro exit by making such terms seem disastrous, has inadvertently made such an exit virtually inevitable.  Greece, not wanting to be left out of “Europe” has just voted against its own best interests, its government never really having a strategy for a “Grexit” because they assumed that their negotiating partners were both rational and well-meaning.  The government very well may fall as a result.

For what the Greek crisis has shown is that the European project under the Euro is neither a completely democratic one nor is it “European.”  The elites in Brussels certainly felt that they had no obligation to consider the Greek referendum on the bailout terms.  To them only the banks, the oligarchs, and the political survival of the political parties in the main assemblies of the nations that support them matter.  The “democratic deficit” of the EU, in the words of the late historian Tony Judt, and the damage that it can cause, is now on full display.  It is not yet clear what will happen, given the contradictory impulses of countries wanting to stay within the single market that “Europe” afford them, the cultural and psychological association to be part of the project, and the punishing loss of national autonomy and democratic legitimacy as the price that must be paid. (Aside from the economic depression and poverty conditions imposed by the EU as the Greeks follow the conditions imposed on them).

One final note:  I can’t help but be impressed by the ideological arguments being used as a matter of course for “helping” the Greek people in the long run.  As John Maynard Keynes noted, in the long run we are all dead.  The tremendous amount of suffering imposed by the EU on the Greek people for their own long-term good sounds much like the fabrications of the old Communists of the former Eastern Block countries who inflicted all sorts of horrors on their own populations for the “long term” good of reaching the perfect socialist state.  Now such arguments are deployed in favor of the perfect capitalist state.  It is “reform” turned on its head, like “moral hazard.”

 

 

 

 

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” –Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker is not a household name in the 21st century–and needless to say his name also wasn’t one near the end of the 20th.  But given the extraordinary week that the country just experienced it seems apropos to write a short post about Unitarian Minister Parker.  His life was a relatively short one.  He was born in 1810 in Lexington, Massachusetts, and died in 1860 in Florence, Italy while seeking a cure for tuberculosis.  Yet, he influenced social reformers as varied as Abraham Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Martin Luther King, and Betty Friedan.  The quote that opens this post was later paraphrased by Dr. King in his book Where Do We Go From Here?

Parker was a controversial figure in his time as a minister, but also very popular and influential, drawing thousands to his 28th Congregational Society church and to his lectures around the country.  He eschewed all claims of supernaturalism and revelation in scripture and viewed the world through the lens of Transcendentalism: that the world and universe itself was divine.  Thus, rather than an unbending scriptural interpretation of creation, Parker saw that the Universe would reveal its truths if people were wise enough to use the tools at hand to see it.  Writing as he did on the cusp of the first discoveries under the modern conception of science–as well as the lectures and views of Ralph Waldo Emerson–he came to view the religious writings of a more primitive people by nature flawed, with religious experience having to be directly experienced by the individual through one’s direct connection with nature.  Interestingly, one can see some of these ideas expressed in the recent Encyclical “Laudato Si'” by Pope Francis.

In 1843 he took a sabbatical to Europe and there saw first hand political despotism and great inequality of wealth and condition.  Combined with his conception of Transcendentalism he began thinking about the relationship of the individual to civil society, and what a democratic society meant.  He came to advocate just about every type of social reform that came to the forefront of the later social movements: the abolition of slavery, the equality and improved social condition of women, free public education, prison reform, and the alleviation of class inequality.

The distillation of his philosophy is best found in his lecture now known as “The American Idea”, which he gave to the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston on May 29, 1850.  A distillation and comparison of this speech can be found here, though the citation for the speech is wrong.   The citation for the actual sermon can be found here, thanks to Project Gutenberg.  In it he said:

There is what I call the American idea. I so name it, because it seems to me to lie at the basis of all our truly original, distinctive and American institutions. It is itself a complex idea, composed of three subordinate and more simple ideas, namely: The idea that all men have unalienable rights; that in respect thereof, all men are created equal; and that government is to be established and sustained for the purpose of giving every man an opportunity for the enjoyment and development of all these unalienable rights. This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom.

That is one idea; and the other is, that one man has a right to hold another man in thraldom, not for the slave’s good, but for the master’s convenience; not on account of any wrong the slave has done or intended, but solely for the benefit of the master. This idea is not peculiarly American. For shortness’ sake, I will call this the idea of Slavery. It demands for its proximate organization, an aristocracy, that is, a government of all the people by a part of the people—the masters; for a part of the people—the masters; against a part of the people—the slaves; a government contrary to the principles of eternal justice, contrary to the unchanging law of God. These two ideas are hostile, irreconcilably hostile, and can no more be compromised and made to coalesce in the life of this nation, than the worship of the real God and the worship of the imaginary Devil can be combined and made to coalesce in the life of a single man.

Whether one accepts his theological views or not, his proposition, borrowed by Lincoln famously in the Gettysburg Address, is a simple, direct, and perpetually expanding and evolving view of freedom.  It hews to no ideology that promises some future nirvana or pie in the sky, or acts as an artificial brake on human action, demanding “sacrifices” in the short term for some long term achievement of perfection, nor does it accept the presumption of superiority of one over another.

Plain Yankee common sense is clear here:  the world is imperfect, our experience in it is immediate, our solutions must be real and practical, opening oneself up to that which is around us opens our minds and allows us to see more clearly than we otherwise would, given this information we must dedicate ourselves to doing what is right and good and just given the proposition of human dignity, and that this demands a type of democracy that eschews not only slavery, but feudalism, oligarchy, monarchy, and any form of class rule, authoritarianism, or subjugation.  Thus, one can see in Parker’s own growth and evolving philosophy the evolution and connections in the American experience from Transcendentalism to American Pragmatism.  His ideas are as vital today as they were when he was alive.

Over at AITS: The Medium Controls the Present: Is It Too Late to Stop a Digital Dark Age?

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” ― George Orwell, 1984

Google Vice President Vint Cerf recently turned some heads at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, warning the attending scientists that the digitization of the artifacts of civilization may create a digital dark age. “If we’re thinking 1,000 years, 3,000 years ahead in the future, we have to ask ourselves, how do we preserve all the bits that we need in order to correctly interpret the digital objects we create?” Cerf’s concerns are that today’s technology will become obsolete at some future time, with the information of our own times locked in a technological prison.

To see the remainder of this post please go to AITS.org.

Holiday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — W. E. B. Du Bois

WEB_DuBois_1918

”There can be no democracy curtailed by race and poverty. But with all we accomplish all, even peace.”  — W. E. B. Du Bois

This weekend is capped by Martin Luther King’s birthday holiday, so it seems fitting to derive the wisdom from one of the most prominent precursors to Dr. King whose work still influences us to this day.  The photo and quote that begin this post have been on a poster that has followed me in the various I have lived across the United States.  It hung in my office when I taught at the old Navy School in Athens, Georgia.  It hung in my office at the Naval Air Systems Command in Arlington.  It hung in my office at the Pentagon.  And it has hung in my offices since leaving the Navy.

I keep it with me so that I can look at the portrait of the man who penned them, see the quiet desperation in his eyes to be recognized for the man that he is.  I have studied the formality of his clothing and the fastidiousness of his grooming, all outward devices to show:  “look at me, I am a person of accomplishment and intelligence, worthy of acknowledgment and decency.”  I read his words as a reminder of the connection between the two great unresolved issues born into our societal DNA when we were formed as a nation–those of race and class.  We embraced democracy and republicanism, but not so much on these two issues that would threaten the powerful institutions and people that could undermine the whole undertaking.  And so the founders punted them down the road, leaving them to later generations, and to us.

To me, were it not for W. E. B. Du Bois the impact of Martin Luther King’s actions would not have been successful.  King was the embodiment of the emotional and moral urgency behind civil rights.  Du Bois provided the intellectual and ethical foundations upon which King acted.  Political movements often rely on propaganda, but when they only have propaganda and no firm basis in the world of fact to give them foundation, they must either fail or devolve into some great tyranny.  As such, W. E. B. Du Bois was part of the great American Pragmatist line of philosophical thought, which continues to be a powerful force for advancement, progress, and socio-economic change.  All of us owe a great depth of gratitude to W. E. B. Du Bois.

Both Dr. Du Bois and Dr. King came to the conclusion that the attainment of civil rights for African Americans was only one revolution in the chain of American revolutions extending American freedom and the promises inherent in the Declaration and the Preamble of the Constitution.  The first of these revolutions was the original War for Independence which marked the slow undoing of the Divine Right of Kings and the presumptions of lordship and ladyship, which continued with the extension of universal male white suffrage.   The second was the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery.  The third was the extension of the franchise and civil rights to women, who were chattel up until that time.  The fourth was the completion of the work of emancipation to extend full civil rights to African-Americans and other previously disenfranchised groups.  We still see the work of that revolution working today in the extension of human and civil rights to the LGBT community.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, which contained a small free black population for some time.  According to his own autobiographical reminisces in “My Evolving Program For Negro Freedom” published in 1944, his early life and schooling was free of racial prejudice, but he did experience a growing awareness of his own “differentness.”  He demonstrated great intellectual ability and had many friends among the wealthier families of the town. He graduated high school with high honors at the age of 16.  The mother who had nurtured him, however, suddenly died from a stroke.  Finding himself an orphan and with no relative to assist in his desired educational pursuits, the people of the town and his relatives raised the money for him to go to college.  Since he graduated at a relatively young age–and with no financial resources–it was determined by the adults around him that he would work for a season, which he did as a timekeeper for the building of a mansion by the widow of a local millionaire.  There he experienced his first taste of the world of work and labor, and the stratification of society.

Du Bois had selected Harvard as his choice of school but the father of one his friends, the Reverend C. C. Painter, who had worked in the Indian Bureau, had seen the failure of Reconstruction and felt that Du Bois could best apply his intellectual talents to the problem of the American South.  The town thus arranged for him to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, from funds donated by his neighbors and the members of the First Congregationalist Church of Great Barrington.  It was during his time in Nashville, from 1885 to 1888, that he experienced southern racism for the first time, institutionally borne of the Black Codes and Jim Crow, and its de facto racism in societal interaction; both enforced by the threat of vigilantism.

After receiving his Bachelor’s degree at Fisk, he then attended Harvard College back in Massachusetts from 1888 to 1890 by raising funds through his own labor, loans from friends, scholarships, and an inheritance.  He completed a second degree at Harvard in history, graduating cum laude.  It is during this time that he was greatly influenced by the philosopher William James and the historian Albert Bushnell Hart, who were his professors.  It was James who convinced him to change his concentration from philosophy to history in order to make a living.  He pursued additional degrees from Harvard in sociology that was interrupted by some time at the University of Berlin in Germany.

He his first teaching engagement at the African Methodist Episcopal Church-run Wilberforce University in Ohio where, due to his things did not go as well as he had hoped.  According to his interview by Moses Asch in 1961, which informs a good deal of this post, he spent two years there but it was at that point that he received the opportunity that would change both his life and the arch of history.

The Year That Changed History

That year was 1896.  It was the year in which he became the first African-American to receive a PhD. from Harvard with the publication of his thesis entitled The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, which became the first volume of the Harvard Historical Series.  It is still considered to be the definitive work on its subject, so meticulous its research and methodology.  In it Du Bois outlines the southern plantation economy, the role of Northern traders and industrialists in the slave trade, and the efforts to eliminate it.

It was also the year he was invited by the University of Pennsylvania to provide a study on the Philadelphia Negro population of the city’s 7th ward.  Philadelphia was a city with the reputation of being one of the most poorly run and corrupt cities in the country.  Despite this widespread acknowledgment, it was the opinion of many of the city’s politicians and citizens that the actions and living conditions of the Negroes in this slum area was the basis of many of the city’s ills.  While it was widely believed that this was the case, there was no scientific basis for the belief.  The University of Pennsylvania could not offer Du Bois a position to teach on the faculty, so they made him as “Assistant Instructor” of Sociology and gave him great freedom to conduct his study, which was his only assignment.

The result was the first sociological study of African-Americans, later published in 1899 entitled, The Philadelphia NegroAside from the subject matter Du Bois’ methods were revolutionary for the time, applying quantitative methods and statistics to derive his conclusions.  His use of bar graphs and charts, delineation of the population characteristics, and the application of empirical methods to the field of sociology were unique for the time, admired, and used as the analogue for similar studies for many years.  Du Bois’ experience in Philadelphia had its challenges.  He was not entirely welcomed by the African-Americans of the 7th Ward, who viewed him with suspicion.  Despite these frustrations, he was able to objectively and scientifically identify the social conditions of the population and offer suggestions at amelioration through education, and overcoming the effects of slavery and discrimination.  Rather than accepting the deterministic sociology of Spencer, Du Bois refuted this quasi-ideological assertion masquerading as science through the use of empirical methods.

In “Strivings of the Negro People,” which appeared in the August 1897 edition of Atlantic Magazine, he outlines the combined weight of slavery and other injustices on African-Americans that came out of his study.  “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. He felt the weight of his ignorance, — not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet. Nor was his burden all poverty and ignorance. The red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race, meant not only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of filth from white whoremongers and adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the Negro home….A people thus handicapped ought not to be asked to race with the world, but rather allowed to give all its time and thought to its own social problems.”  He goes on later that “while sociologists gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes, the very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair. Men call the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as the natural defense of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the “higher” against the “lower” races. To which the Negro cries Amen! and swears that to so much this strange prejudice as is founded on just homage to civilization, culture, righteousness, and progress he humbly bows and meekly does obeisance.”

In these words Du Bois clearly outlines the desired explanation that is defeated by the facts.  These words also expose the artifice in similar writings in our own time such as the execrable 1994 book, The Bell Curve, by Herrnstein and Murray; which attempted to reintroduce the discredited ideas of social Darwinism and racial determinism.  Old playbooks and old cons sometimes find themselves introduced by new cons to a later, less vigilant, generation that has forgotten or never learned about those of the past.

After the University of Pennsylvania, Du Bois received an offer from Atlanta University in 1897 for his next teaching assignment.  There he developed a curriculum dedicated to the “history of the American Negro.”  But it is in Georgia, where for many years lynching averaged one a week, that, in his own description, his emphasis changed from that of “knowledge” to one of advocacy with the lynching of a man by the name of Sam Hose.

Thus Du Bois represented a different set of African-American voices than the reassuring one Booker T. Washington provided to racist society.  Under Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” that grew out of his 1895 speech at the Atlanta Exposition, the limitations dictated by Jim Crow would go unopposed in exchange for African-Americans receiving the bare essentials of citizenship–not including the franchise or personal safety, of course.  Instead a very basic definition of the concept of education would be provided, and a modicum of economic opportunity.  Washington himself advocated for such an education for African-Americans restricted to practical disciplines in business, education, agriculture, and the industrial arts.

Washington’s rationale was that taking this position was the only acceptable course of action after the failure of Reconstruction.  He feared that a more aggressive stance in white society would only create a backlash that the African-American minority could not withstand.  This accommodationist stand was a Devil’s bargain, of course, and Du Bois saw it as such.  Instead he advocated full equality, but–unlike what he saw as the full assimilationist position of Frederick Douglass in which black identity is completely obliterated in favor of white European norms–one in which black people maintain their ideals and identity in gaining a seat at the table of American society.  This was not black nationalism or separatism, which he vehemently opposed during his lifetime.  It was, instead, the advocacy that the nation in embracing equality had to accept people simply as they were.

The Souls of Black Folk

Thus this was a very fertile and active time for Du Bois.  In 1903 he published his classic, The Souls of Black Folk.  This treatise consists of a thirteen essays and one work of fiction, sandwiched between a foreword and an afterword.  Some of the essays had been published in periodicals previously, but were revised and expanded for the book.  Each of the chapters is headed by a poem by a white author or a passage from a black folk song which he calls “Sorrow Songs,” that has the effect of showing both similarity and separateness.   This is a theme that is common to all of his writings: the two identities of being black in America–both black and separate but American and the same.  “It is a peculiar sensation,” he writes in Chapter 1, “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

The book begins very powerfully in the foreword in which he lays out the thesis of the book which he labels “The Forethought”:

“HEREIN lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”  — W. E. B. Du Bois, Foreword to The Souls of Black Folk

He describes black people as living within the “Veil.”  This Veil is what separates white from black–the perspective of each toward the other borne from the color line and prejudice–which distorts the way in which the world is viewed: its possibilities, its limitations, its fears.  For African-Americans this Veil is both a blessing and a curse because it both limits them but also provides them with comfort and “second sight.”

In the first two chapters he discusses the effects of emancipation on African-Americans, what it meant to them, and its aftermath.  In the third chapter he takes on the accommodationist stance of Booker T. Washington, carrying on the argument “both within and without the Veil” in the next two chapters regarding education to include the liberal arts in order to create leaders.  This position went on to support his concept of the “Talented Tenth,” the 1 in 10 members of the African-American community that would pursue a classical education in order to write and become active in social change.

The next three chapters concern a historical overview of the slave trade and sociological studies of African-Americans, the negative stereotypes of them that are belied by the facts, and the deleterious effects of segregation, racism, and terrorism from white vigilantism.

He then steps within the Veil and in Chapter X discusses the central and essential role of the black church to African-Americans: it’s organizing principles and characteristics in maintaining black social structure and black hope against overwhelming odds.  He follows this with a heartbreaking autobiographical essay on the untimely death of his small son that explores the meaning of life and death within the Veil and a short biography of Alexander Crumwell, a black Episcopal priest lost in a white world.

Chapter XIII, “Of the Coming of John,” is a fictional work about a black man from Altamaha, Georgia, which lies near the Atlantic coast, who is sent north to be educated and soon begins to become aware of the condition to which he was born.  He returns to his home to work, which he been part of his long term plan, only to find that he is isolated from the world of his people and hated by the white society around him for his education.  A chance encounter with his white playmate from when he was a child, who does not recognize him, results in an act of racial discrimination that hastens his return to Altamaha.  Another encounter in the town with that same childhood friend ends in tragedy.  The last chapter discusses the black music, the Sorrow Songs, which he defends as not simply an artifact from slavery to be discarded, but the only native music of the nation that deserves preservation and continued development.  That this did occur in what today we identify as jazz and blues demonstrates once again the prescience of this powerful mind.

It is amazing to me that Du Bois could, in the space of such a small volume, so effectively sum up the complicated history and sociology of the black condition in America.  It is also a lesson in history that, despite such honest and powerful depictions and arguments, that it would be another 60 years before many of ills about which he writes would not be addressed–and then only with concentrated commitment and persistence, and the additional spilling of blood sacrifice.

From Scholar to Civil Rights Leader

Thus we see the development of a first rate academically-centered mind to someone who is becoming a leading voice of the civil rights movement.  After the publication of The Souls of Black Folk his already sizable reputation blossomed.  He helped to create the Niagara Movement in 1905, which organized to place into action the alternative course from that laid out by Washington.  The next year President Theodore Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 black soldiers based on the specious allegations of the racist white citizens of Brownsville, Texas, who resented the presence of black troops.  Later that same year in September, Atlanta was overwhelmed by riots by white males, who hunted down, beat, shot, lynched, and raped black citizens, burning their houses and their businesses over allegations of the rapes of several white women–a charge instigated by competing candidates for governor.

The ramifications from these events had both short-term and long-term effects.  Most immediately, it was viewed by the African-American community as a breach and repudiation of Washington’s accommodationist approach, which placed Du Bois and other more aggressive advocates of civil rights at the forefront.  Roosevelt’s action began the long disassociation of African-Americans from their support of the Republican Party, which they had overwhelmingly supported up to that time due to the actions of Lincoln.  This shift was a swift one, coming as it did with the simultaneous abandonment of the party by the progressives toward Democratic candidates in the north, the farm states, and in the west, presaging their long domination of 20th century American politics, combined with Republican Progressives, that revealed itself briefly with the election of Woodrow Wilson, but which overwhelmingly dominated American politics for more than two generations beginning in 1930.

The flowering of Du Bois during this period cannot be completely summarized without taking note of two additional works that he authored that have since been viewed as groundbreaking.  The first was John Brown, published in 1909, in which he traces the roots of Brown’s antislavery views and actions, countering the “Lost Cause” legend promulgated by southern historians who dominated the period, which characterized Brown as either a dangerous fanatic or madman, or both.  The book was largely ignored by his contemporaries not only for its contrary stance but also because, according to one of his biographers, the editor of The Nation, who was working on his own Brown biography, gave it a scathing review.  But it was influential within the civil rights movement, which saw their work as completing the emancipation project begun by Brown.

Du Bois was the first African-American to be invited to attend the annual convention of the American Historical Association (AHA).  At the December 1909 annual conference he presented his paper, Reconstruction and its Benefits, which would become the magisterial Black Reconstruction, published in 1935.  As with his work on John Brown his research and conclusions went well against the grain of the dominant view at the time, which characterized Reconstruction as proof of the inability of African-Americans to handle full citizenship or to govern.  So controversial was his presentation, that laid the blame for the failure of Reconstruction squarely on the inability of the federal government to effectively support the Freedman’s Bureau, the AHA would not invite another African-American to their conference for another 31 years.  In addition, he pointed out that the state legislatures that came to be dominated by newly elected African-Americans expanded the intent and meaning of the Declaration and the Constitution, expanding democratic participation, instituting public education, and addressing socio-economic ills.  Today, with additional research and scholarship–and the passions of the time long since gone–it is Du Bois’ view that is the dominant one in historical interpretation.

By 1910, Du Bois’ position in Atlanta, due to his criticism of Washington and his strong advocacy for civil rights, was in peril.  He then moved to New York and in attending the National Negro Congress he helped to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People–the NAACP.  Du Bois specifically the word “colored” in lieu of black to include the hues of all dark skinned disenfranchised groups.  This universal acknowledgement of the civil and human rights of everyone is a theme that was to continue to the remainder of his life, to include his opposition to the European colonial empires.

Beginning that year and for the next 23 years served as the Director of Publicity and Research for the NAACP, which included editing The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the organization.  From there it is very difficult to summarize the life of this man.  So involved was he in effort major issue of the 20th century that one must write about each of those issues in order to fully address the influence and impact that he had on American thought and action.  His giant intellect and amazing perspicacity served not only his cause but the nation as a whole.

His detractors and those who tried to slime him as a radical and Communist, especially on the right during the McCarthy years and under the psychopathy of J. Edgar Hoover, fall away before the achievements and humanity that he demonstrated, his commitment to education and the advancement of knowledge wherever it leads, to human rights, to peace, to democracy, to human dignity.  He passed away on August 27, 1963, in Ghana working on his “history of the Negro,” one year before the Civil Rights Act would achieve his life’s work.

“Where Do We Go From Here”

But the work is not over, which will go against the grain of the many self-congratulatory speeches and editorials that have come to mark this day.  Not simply because of the issues of societal separateness that we still see among the ethnic groups within our own society in places like Sanford, Florida; Ferguson, Missouri; and New York City–and the fear that these differences apparently spawns; but also the tremendous issues of economic inequality that the latest economic revolution–the Information Revolution–has created.

Both Du Bois and King saw the strong linkage between the enjoyment of civil rights once attained and the ability to exercise and enjoy those rights in the economic system.  Thus, we are back to the issue of class, after race.  The fact that recidivist and reactionary groups–using the money power, police power, the surveillance power, and the war power–would turn the clock back, provides sufficient evidence that the democratic experiment and its series of revolutions that have expanded human rights and dignity, must continue to move forward into the economic realm.  Only then can human conflict deriving from the instincts of fear borne of self-preservation and survival be overcome.

To me, just as Lincoln observed that “a house divided against itself cannot stand…permanently half slave, and half free,” so too the contradiction between a political system founded on democratic processes and republican institutions, and an economic system based on a command system build under the presumptive oligarchy of money and power.  It is left to this generation to grapple with this contradiction–all under the shadow of the existential threat of global warming, which has a direct link as well to that issue.  These are the overriding problems of the 21st century.

Upper Volta with Missiles — Overreach, Putin, and the Russian Crash

Starting out the new year with some additional notes on international affairs.

The reference in the title is from a comment from former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in once referring to the Soviet Union.  Of course, as Tony Judt noted in his magisterial book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, there are those missiles.  Thus, this is a topic of concern to everyone, particularly in regard to the events surrounding Crimea and Ukraine.  This past April I noted the threat implicit in Putin’s actions and the need for European solidarity in opposing his actions to maintain the peace and stability of the region.  When combined with Russian violations of nuclear arms treaties this is cause for concern.

Since April much has happened, including measured sanctions by the European Union and the United States, to prevent the Russian Federation from leveraging its economic power to gain an advantage over Ukrainian sovereignty.  In addition, the depressed state of the world economy, among other factors, has created an oil glut that has also reduced Russia’s ability to leverage its oil reserves against any countries that would oppose it.  As a result, the ruble has taken a hit and Russia has made all of the wrong moves to bolster its currency.

On the middle point, certain notable voices here in the United States have pointed to an increase in oil production as the main cause but the numbers do not support this contention.  Instead, a combination of factors: alternative energy production, more efficient fuel consumption, and a drop in consumer demand have all conspired to, well, act as a market is supposed to behave.  Combine this with the refusal of major producers to reduce output to manipulate the market in order to prop up the price and you have what commodities do most often–rise and fall on the whims of the demand of the moment.  I have no doubt that eventually the world economy will recover, but keep in mind that the very real threat of Global Warming will continue to drive societies to find alternatives to fossil fuel.  That is, given that they continue to recognize the existential threat that it poses to humanity (aside from the dysfunctional geopolitics that fossil fuels seem to drive).  In the meantime, seeing the handwriting on the wall, net exporters like Saudi Arabia have little incentive to reduce production when they can sell as much as possible and gain a larger share of the market against their competitors.

For the uninitiated like Fifth Column blogger Patrick Smith at Salon.com, who apparently only sees conspiracies and control of a kind that–well–actually exists in Putin’s Russia, this is known as market competition.  Nary a peep from Mr. Smith has emanated lately (or from our own right wing plutocrats) about the Russian oligarch being a statesman running rings around our democratically-elected U.S. president or his decorated former U.S. Navy officer (and later antiwar activist) Secretary of State.  Were it only possible for the state controlled Russian press to have the freedom to make such alternative observations of its own leadership in their country.  Okay–enough sarcasm for today, but I think I made my point: mendacity and irrationality make for strange bedfellows.

Along these lines some interesting insights about Putin’s Russia have come out in the book entitled Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? by Karen Dawisha.  This is a brave undertaking given that a lot of critical writing about Russia, apart from the abolition of a free press there, has been taken down from websites.  This is not because of some mysterious ability on the part of Putin and his cronies but because of their immense international (until recently) financial power and the expensive lawyers that such money can buy.  Cambridge University Press, for example, because of the U.K.’s lax libel laws, declined to publish the book.  Thus, a U.S. publisher had to be found.  In addition, Russia has bought off columnists and politicians around the world to muddy the waters about the reality of the regime.  A very enlightening review of the book and the history surrounding it appears in The New York Review of Books by Washington Post and Slate columnist Anne Applebaum.

In summary, Dawisha’s book demonstrates that during the period when Gorbachev was desperately attempting to reform a crumbling and inefficient system that had plodded along under the Brezhnev doldrums, that KBG agents like Putin were moving Russian currency assets aboard in Europe with the intent of eventually using their economic leverage to retake the country when all of the hullaballoo blew over.  Thus, rather than a failing attempt at liberalization and democracy, what we see is the reinstitution of authoritarian rule after a brief respite.  The same old corrupt elites that had run the old Soviet Union under central planning are now simply wearing capitalist oligarch clothing.  This probably explains why the Russian central bank is moving to bolster the ruble through higher interest rates, which will only exacerbate the economic collapse.  But the general welfare is not their concern.  It’s all about the value of Russian reserves and the economic leverage that such value and power lends to control.

Globalization has made this a small world, but one still fraught with dangers.  For companies in my industry and policymakers here in the United States, I would recommend that a wall of separation be established from companies–particularly those technology companies in information systems–with ties to Russian oil and its oligarchs.