Don’t Know Much About History

You’d think that people who yawp on and on about how they love this country soooo much more than the icky people on the left would know more about it. But when it comes to American History, they’re all epic fail.

Allow us to consider American Idiots: a Comedy in Three Acts.

Act I begins with a typical exemplar of Americanus ignoramus:

Susan Roesgen of CNN reports from the Chicago Tea Party:
[snip]

Ok, you’re here with your two year old and “you’re already in debt” (referring to sign he’s holding) Why do you say that?

Ditto head freak 2: Because I hear a president say that he believed in what Lincoln stood for. Lincoln’s primary thing was that he believed that people had the right to liberty.

Roesgen: Sir, what does this have to do with taxes? What does this have to do with your taxes?

DF2: Let me finish speaking!

Roesgen: Do you realize that you are eligible for a 400 dollar …

DF2: Let me finish my point. (Crowd getting surly, yelling at Rojan to shut up) Lincoln believed that people had ther right to share in the fruits of their own labor and that government should not take it. And we have clearly gotten to that point.

One slight problem with that hero worship there:

Perhaps now would be a good time to note that Tea Baggers should probably stop looking to Lincoln as a role model. Not only did Lincoln vastly expand the power of the federal government — up to and including suspending habeas — he also was the first president to impose an income tax. Worse, it was a progressive income tax, that charged wealthier taxpayers more.

Oops.

Act II opens on Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who may govern Texas to some degree, but has an extremely weak grasp of its past:

Listen to Texas Gov. Rick Perry say:

Perry: Texas is a unique place. When we came into the Union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that.

We got a great Union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it, but if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what may come out of that.

[snip]

Jon writes:

Just FYI, on Perry’s 1845 statement, Texas came into the union with the ability to divide into five states, not withdraw. After seceding during the Civil War, Texas was allowed to re-enter the union after ratifying the 13th Amendment. The 13th Amendment banned slavery in the United States and any territory subject to its jurisdiction

Putz.

And for our third act, Faux News’s premier assclown:

It’s always entertaining when the “patriotic” ones start talking up the notion of splitting up the United States again. Take, for example, Glenn Beck, yesterday.

[snip]

“I believe it was Davy Crockett, that as he was standing there in the well of the Senate and they were all yelling and screaming at him, he said — he looked them right square in the eye and said, ‘Hey, you know what? You can all go to hell. I’m going to Texas.’ About time somebody says that again.

“You’re telling me that states can’t say ‘Washington, we’re not going to commit suicide with you'”?

Now, the part about Davy Crockett is completely wrong. When he said, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas,” it was because he’d been rejected by his constituents in Tennessee after one term in the U.S. House, not because he was outraged by federal policies he disagreed with. He went to Texas to fight for secession — not from the U.S., but from Mexico.

Whelp. Add remedial U.S. History to the list of classes the Cons need to take. I think they’ve just earned themselves summer school.

Remembering What I Loved

Socializing IRL was rather a bit of a shock. I live one of those semi-hermetic lives in which I’m perfectly happy home alone, but even hermits need to kick up their heels every once in a while.

Won’t be at the Rodeo Steakhouse again, though. Who the fuck makes a margarita with Jack Daniels? And then they started blaring really awful country and western at us. It’s a good thing we were close to home, and the roomie was gone. Alas for my poor friend, he got to go waltzing down memory lane with me. Yup. I busted out the photo albums.

It was initially because we’re going to Arizona, and I was showing him some of the places we’d be visiting. Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater. The San Francisco Peaks. Places where I roamed happily through all the years of my young life. I’d subject you to those pics, too, but alas, they are not digital, and Dana has no scanner. Dana is not only a hermit, but technologically impoverished.

I left home because I’d fallen out of love. Sometimes, to love a place again, you have to leave it. Spend some years elsewhere. Now, the irritating memories are faded, and the fun ones bubble to the surface. Running flat-out over the slickrock along a mesa in Page, with nothing between me and a 100-foot fall but a ledge four inches wide and a tenuous grip on sandstone. Standing on the side of a mountain surrounded by golden aspens and gazing out over miles of wilderness in the clear Arizona skies. Roaming the rooms of ruins, wondering what it was like to live in such small spaces.

There are things I miss. Strangely, dry dirt looms foremost in my mind. I love the sound of my shoes grating through gritty soil and rock as I roam. Northern Arizona’s a place built from volcanoes. You can feel it when you run the earth through your hands. You see it all around you, in the cinder cones, the andesitic peaks, the ridge lines and the lava flows. There is a particular place at Sunset Crater where you can stand and stare into the heart of the caldera that splits the San Francisco Peaks. There is nothing like gazing into that beauty and realizing it resulted from catastrophic destruction. If there were people living there when the mountain erupted, they must have been mightily impressed.

I miss the demarcation between alpine climes and the desert. One side of the Sunset Crater/Wupatki National Monument is all Ponderosa pine. In just a few miles, you pass through juniper and piñon pine trees, and then, abruptly, the high desert looms. This Nasa Earth Observatory satellite image will give you some idea: we’re looking northeast, from the pines to the Painted Desert:


For an absolutely spectacular aerial view of Sunset Crater with the desert on the horizon, go here.

All of this awesome stuff used to be my back yard. I could roam ancient plate boundaries, see the remnants of ancient underwater eruptions and seas, visit dinosaur tracks, wander at will through forests, deserts and plains – all without driving more than an hour or two from home.

Those were the good things. I do remember the bad as well – Northern Arizona has very little in the way of big-city culture, and Phoenix is, well, Phoenix. I definitely prefer Seattle. And it’s nice not to feel dessicated all the time.

But I loves me my original home state. It’ll be teh awesome to go adventuring there again. I especially can’t wait to tramp through Wupatki one more time.

What about you lot? Any nostalgia for the places you’ve left behind, or are you of the “ran away and never looked back” persuasion? And do you believe it’s at all right for a restaurant to offer up a margarita that contains not one drop of tequila?

Dream Come True

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 19th, 2009

Dr. King,

Tomorrow, America swears in its first African-American president. He is the fruit of your labor, the fulfillment of your dream. Because of your work, your passion, and your determination, he was judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.

Tomorrow, we will watch Barack Obama take the Oath of Office. He will lead this nation as you once led a movement.

Tomorrow, we will celebrate him.

Today, Dr. King, we celebrate your life and work.

From a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955;

To a March on Washington and a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial;

From a letter from a Birmingham jail;

To the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama;

From injustice to justice, from segregation to freedom, Dr. King, you led us to a finer world.

No thanks are ever enough. Regardless: muchas gracias, Dr. King.

“I Have a Dream”

delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest — quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!


Yes, we did.

Prop 8: Bet You Didn’t Realize There’s a Lesson to be Learned from the Romans

EmperorHadrian at Daily Kos has a wicked cool diary up exploring how the tyranny of the majority ends up affecting democracy:

We might be prone to be sympathetic to the Roman assemblies, and certainly its members were not nearly as powerful as the senators. The problem, however, is that democracies then as now can be manipulated by demagogues, sometimes even those with dictatorial ambitions (as we saw in the 2004 election). This was what helped Julius Caesar rise and overthrow the republic. The constitutional balance between the democracy and the aristocracy was what prevented a tyrannical leader, with no one’s interest in mind other than his own, from seizing power. The point of any constitutional system is to place checks and balances so that no source of authority (executive, aristocratic, or democratic) can achieve unchecked power. For this, look no further than our constitution. Our constitution is designed so that, say, some 52% majority can’t just invalidate the equal protection clauses in the constitution and thus deny rights, say marriage rights, to some unpopular minority group.

[snip]

In effect, Tiberius used the same theory of popular sovereignty that Julius Caesar would later use, and that the supporters of Prop 8 in California used. The theory, that laws and constitutional mandates can simply be ignored when popular majorities disagree with them, was (is) repugnant to the genius’ of both the Roman and American constitutional systems, and if carried to their logical ends, would put the state under the absolute control of any temporary popular majority. Replace “popular majority” with “president”, and you get Nixon’s famous decree that “if the president does it, that means it is not illegal”.

Deary, deary me.

He makes a good case that following the popular will without respecting minority rights can weaken and eventually topple a democracy. Go have a read. It’s another good arrow to have in the quiver.

This Cartoon Says It All


Ratified, indeed. Fair takes my breath away, that does.

(Tip o’ the shotglass to Slobber and Spittle. I didn’t mean to get tears in your tequila, Cujo darling, but it was unavoidable. I have never felt more proud to be an American. We’re once again starting to live up to our ideals and shine a beacon for the world. And a tip o’ my shot glass to those parts of the world that kept the light shining when we were in darkness. Together, we’re going to make this a finer world. Yes. We. Can.)

Condemned to Repeat

EX PRAETERITO PRAESENS PRVDENTER AGIT NI FUTUR- ACTIONE DETVRPET


History became a living thing in Roz Ashby’s and Ken Meier’s hands.

On the first day of Western Civilization I, they handed out a quote and asked us to date it. It was a typical “kids these days” rant, full of complaints about their manners, their dress, and their stunning lack of respect toward their elders. Most of the class guessed it had been written in the 1950s or 60s. Professor Meier revealed, with a delightfully sardonic smile, that we were all wrong. The rant had been written by Socrates more than two thousand years ago.

Titian, An Allegory of Prudence

I still have the handout they gave us that day: “The Value of History” by Robin Winks. I’d signed on as a history major because I love the past. I hadn’t, until then, thought of it as something of urgent importance. But the professors’ punk, their impassioned lecture on the vitality and relevance of history, and Winks’ case for its value changed my perception entirely.

History wasn’t just curiosity. It wasn’t simply tradition and heritage, important to preserve for its own sake. It was also essential in order to understand the present and navigate the future.

“From the past the man of the present acts prudently so as not to imperil the future,” Titian inscribed on his famous painting. We should chisel that saying into every monument. Those who don’t take the past seriously, who treat history as a trivial handful of facts, interesting stories, and events that have no bearing on today, won’t have the wisdom to create a better future.

“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason. Too many don’t listen to that warning. How many times have we weathered a crisis only to discover that it had all happened before? Individuals, organizations, entire nations have rushed themselves over cliffs that others fell from before, when a safe way down had already been discovered.

It’s true that things change, and no situation is exactly the same as another. Some people seem to believe those cosmetic differences mean there’s nothing to learn. And so, mistakes get repeated. Safeguards get torn down because no one seems to remember why they were put in place to begin with. Blinded by the present, looking toward the future, we don’t see what history is trying to show us. We strip away the protections that people made wise by the events of their own day put in place in order to protect the generations to come. We’re seeing the effects of that now, in a myriad of ways: our failed imperial experiment in Iraq, the erosion of our Constitutional rights, and the crisis in our banking industry brought on by the repeal of regulations enacted to prevent another Great Depression.

That was another age, those who disregard history say. Things are different now. And they plunge in, believing they’re blazing new trails when they’re traveling down well-worn roads.

The past is never truly past. “Great events have incalculable consequences,” Victor Hugo said in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Some of those consequences echo down through ages. You can’t understand what’s happening now if you don’t understand what happened then. The effects are still being felt. What we do now will impact generations to come.

“This black page in history is not colourfast / will stain the next,” Epica warns in their song “Feint.” We can’t prevent that stain, but history can give us advice on how we can limit its spread.

Some things, perhaps, we’d rather forget. But as Chaim Weizman knew, “you cannot deny your history and begin afresh.” History comes with us, whether we will it or no. Denying it gets us nowhere. Embracing history, knowing it, allows us to accomodate its effects.

History is of great practical value, then. But that’s not the whole of its worth. It offers perspective and proportion. Knowing what others survived gives us hope for a future in dark times. It can put current events in context, just like your old dad giving you the yarn about having to walk to school barefoot in the snow uphill both ways as a kid. I often take comfort from that when the world seems like it’s coming apart at the seams. It’s frayed, often torn, before. We always manage to patch it back up somehow. Civilization has been through worse. As long as we avoid following the same paths that led other ages to worse, we’ll probably do just fine. I tell myself that a lot these days, and I have plenty of history to prove it. From history comes hope.

There’s delight in seeing ancient people behaving the same way we do. We tend to get only the broad brushstrokes of history in school. We don’t get the delightful, everyday bits, the ones that tell us people are people everywhere. Read Socrates griping about the idiot kids in ancient Athens, or abu Nawais looking for his next drink, and you realize that they were people like us. There were fart jokes in the cradle of civilization and risque graffitti in Pompeii. The more you learn of history, the more you realize that the things we consider larger than life arose not from some golden age of supermen, but from mostly ordinary people doing their best to deal with times that were no more or less challenging than now. The best days are indeed behind us – but they are also now, and they are ahead. How much easier it is when we can pick the brains of our ancestors, pluck up their best ideas, and avoid their worst mistakes. It’s practically cheating!

“He who cannot draw on three thousand years of history is living merely hand to mouth,” Goethe once said. When we neglect our history, we impoverish ourselves. History gives us a chance to live richly. When we can draw on thousands of years of knowledge and experience, we’re no longer condemned.