When The Beatles Sang About Killing Women

Move over, Johnny Cash and “Cocaine Blues.” Sure, “Early one mornin’ while making the rounds / I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down… Shot her down because she made me slow / I thought I was her daddy but she had five more” are often the first lyrics one thinks of when considering the violent end of the toxic masculinity spectrum in white people music. (Is this not something you ponder? Confront more white folk who somehow only see these things in black music, you’ll get there.) But The Beatles took things to just as dark a place.

Enter “Run For Your Life” from their 1965 album Rubber Soul, a song as catchy as it is chilling: “You better run for your life if you can, little girl / Hide your head in the sand, little girl / Catch you with another man / That’s the end.” Jesus. It’s jarring, the cuddly “All You Need Is Love” boy band singing “Well, I’d rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man” and “Let this be a sermon / I mean everything I’ve said / Baby, I’m determined / And I’d rather see you dead.” But jealous male violence in fact showed up in other Beatles songs as well, and in the real world, with the self-admitted abusive acts and attitudes of John Lennon, later regretted but no less horrific for it.

This awfulness ensured The Beatles would be viewed by many of posterity as a contradictory element, with proto-feminist themes and ideas of the 1960s taking root in their music alongside possessive, murderous sexism. That is, if these things are noticed at all.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

Hegemony and History

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, writing in the early 1930s while imprisoned by the Mussolini government, theorized that ruling classes grew entrenched through a process called cultural hegemony, the successful propagation of values and norms, which when accepted by the lower classes produced passivity and thus the continuation of domination and exploitation from above. An ideology became hegemonic when it found support from historical blocs, alliances of social groups (classes, religions, families, and so on) — meaning broad, diverse acceptance of ideas that served the interests of the bourgeoisie in a capitalist society and freed the ruling class from some of the burden of using outright force. This paper argues that Gramsci’s theory is useful for historians because its conception of “divided consciousness” offers a framework for understanding why individuals failed to act in ways that aligned with their own material interests or acted for the benefit of oppressive forces. Note this offering characterizes cultural hegemony as a whole, but it is divided consciousness that permits hegemony to function. Rather than a terminus a quo, however, divided consciousness can be seen as created, at least partially, by hegemony andas responsible for ultimate hegemonic success — a mutually reinforcing system. The individual mind and what occurs within it is the necessary starting point for understanding how domineering culture spreads and why members of social groups act in ways that puzzle later historians.

Divided (or contradictory) consciousness, according to Gramsci, was a phenomenon in which individuals believed both hegemonic ideology and contrary ideas based on their own lived experiences. Cultural hegemony pushed such ideas out of the bounds of rational discussion concerning what a decent society should look like. Historian T.J. Jackson Lears, summarizing sociologist Michael Mann, wrote that hegemony ensured “values rooted in the workers’ everyday experience lacked legitimacy… [W]orking class people tend to embrace dominant values as abstract propositions but often grow skeptical as the values are applied to their everyday lives. They endorse the idea that everyone has an equal chance of success in America but deny it when asked to compare themselves with the lawyer or businessman down the street.”[1] In other words, what individuals knew to be true from simply functioning in society was not readily applied to the nature of the overall society; some barrier, created at least in part by the process of hegemony, existed. Lears further noted the evidence from sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathon Cobb, whose subaltern interviewees “could not escape the effect of dominant values” despite also holding contradictory ones, as “they deemed their class inferiority a sign of personal failure, even as many realized they had been constrained by class origins that they could not control.”[2] A garbage collector knew the fact that he was not taught to read properly was not his fault, yet blamed himself for his position in society.[3] The result of this contradiction, Gramsci observed, was often passivity, consent to oppressive systems.[4] If one could not translate and contrast personal truths to the operation of social systems, political action was less likely.

To understand how divided consciousness, for Gramsci, was achieved, it is necessary to consider the breadth of the instruments that propagated dominant culture. Historian Robert Gray, studying how the bourgeoisie achieved hegemony in Victorian Britain, wrote that hegemonic culture could spread not only through the state — hegemonic groups were not necessarily governing groups, though there was often overlap[5] — but through any human institutions and interactions: “the political and ideological are present in all social relations.”[6] Everything in Karl Marx’s “superstructure” could imbue individuals and historical blocs with domineering ideas: art, media, politics, religion, education, and so on. Gray wrote that British workers in the era of industrialization of course had to be pushed into “habituation” of the new and brutal wage-labor system by the workplace itself, but also through “poor law reform, the beginnings of elementary education, religious evangelism, propaganda against dangerous ‘economic heresies,’ the fostering of more acceptable expressions of working-class self help (friendly societies, co-ops, etc.), and of safe forms of ‘rational recreation.’”[7] The bourgeoisie, then, used many social avenues to manufacture consent, including legal reform that could placate workers. Some activities were acceptable under the new system (joining friendly societies or trade unions) to keep more radical activities out of bounds.[8] It was also valuable to create an abstract enemy, a “social danger” for the masses to fear.[9] So without an embrace of the dominant values and norms of industrial capitalism, there would be economic disaster, scarcity, loosening morals, the ruination of family, and more.[10] The consciousness was therefore under assault by the dominant culture from all directions, heavy competition for values derived from lived experience, despite the latter’s tangibility. In macro, Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, to quote historian David Arnold, “held that popular ideas had as much historical weight or energy as purely material forces” or even “greater prominence.”[11] In micro, it can be derived, things work the same in the individual mind, with popular ideas as powerful as personal experience, and thus the presence of divided consciousness.

The concept of contradictory consciousness helps historians answer compelling questions and solve problems. Arnold notes Gramsci’s questions: “What historically had kept the peasants [of Italy] in subordination to the dominant classes? Why had they failed to overthrow their rulers and to establish a hegemony of their own?”[12] Contextually, why wasn’t the peasantry more like the industrial proletariat — the more rebellious, presumed leader of the revolution against capitalism?[13] The passivity wrought from divided consciousness provided an answer. While there were “glimmers” of class consciousness — that is, the application of lived experience to what social systems should be, and the growth of class-centered ideas aimed at ending exploitation — the Italian peasants “largely participated in their own subordination by subscribing to hegemonic values, by accepting, admiring, and even seeking to emulate many of the attributes of the superordinate classes.”[14] Their desires, having “little internal consistency or cohesion,” even allowed the ruling class to make soldiers of peasants,[15] meaning active participation in maintaining oppressive power structures. Likewise, Lears commented on the work of political theorist Lawrence Goodwyn and the question of why the Populist movement in the late nineteenth century United States largely failed. While not claiming hegemony as the only cause, Lears argued that the democratic movement was most successful in parts of the nation with democratic traditions, where such norms were already within the bounds of acceptable discussion.[16] Where they were not, where elites had more decision-making control, the “received culture” was more popular, with domination seeming more natural and inevitable.[17] Similarly, Arnold’s historiographical review of the Indian peasantry found that greater autonomy (self-organization to pursue vital interests) of subaltern groups meant hegemony was much harder to establish, with “Gandhi [coming] closest to securing the ‘consent’ of the peasantry for middle-class ideological and political leadership,” but the bourgeoisie failing to do the same.[18] Traditions and cultural realities could limit hegemonic possibilities; it’s just as important to historians to understand why something does not work out as it is to comprehend why something does. As a final example, historian Eugene Genovese found that American slaves demonstrated both resistance to and appropriation of the culture of masters, both in the interest of survival, with appropriation inadvertently reinforcing hegemony and the dominant views and norms.[19] This can help answer questions regarding why slave rebellions took place in some contexts but not others, or even why more did not occur — though, again, acceptance of Gramscian theory does not require ruling out all causal explanations beyond cultural hegemony and divided consciousness. After all, Gramsci himself favored nuance, with coexisting consent and coercion, consciousness of class or lived experience mixing with beliefs of oppressors coming from above, and so on.

The challenge of hegemonic theory and contradictory consciousness relates to parsing out aforementioned causes. Gray almost summed it up when he wrote, “[N]or should behavior that apparently corresponds to dominant ideology be read at face value as a direct product of ruling class influence.”[20] Here he was arguing that dominant culture was often imparted in indirect ways, not through intentionality of the ruling class or programs of social control.[21] But one could argue: “Behavior that apparently corresponds to dominant ideology cannot be read at face value as a product of divided consciousness and hegemony.” It is a problem of interpretation, and it can be difficult for historians to parse out divided consciousness or cultural hegemony from other historical causes and show which has more explanatory value. When commenting on the failure of the Populist movement, Lears mentioned “stolen elections, race-baiting demagogues,” and other events and actors with causal value.[22] How much weight should be given to dominant ideology and how much to stolen elections? This interpretive nature can appear to weaken the usefulness of Gramsci’s model. Historians have developed potential solutions. For instance, as Lears wrote, “[O]ne way to falsify the hypothesis of hegemony is to demonstrate the existence of genuinely pluralistic debate; one way to substantiate it is to discover what was left out of public debate and to account historically for those silences.”[23] If there was public discussion of a wide range of ideas, many running counter to the interests of dominant groups, the case for hegemony is weaker; if public discussion centered around a narrow slate of ideas that served obvious interests, the case is stronger. A stolen election may be assigned less casual value, and cultural hegemony more, if there existed restricted public debate. However, the best evidence for hegemony may remain the psychoanalysis of individuals, as seen above, that demonstrate some level of divided consciousness. Even in demonstrability, contradictory consciousness is key to Gramsci’s overall theory. A stolen election may earn less casual value if such insightful individual interviews can be submitted as evidence.  

In sum, for Gramscian thinkers divided consciousness is a demonstrable phenomenon that powers (and is powered by) hegemony and the acceptance of ruling class norms and beliefs. While likely not the only cause of passivity to subjugation, it offers historians an explanation as to why individuals do not act in their own best interests that can be explored, given causal weight, falsified, or verified (to degrees) in various contexts. Indeed, Gramsci’s theory is powerful in that it has much utility for historians whether true or misguided.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

[1] T.J. Jackson Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 3 (June 1985): 577.

[2] Ibid, 577-578.

[3] Ibid, 578.

[4] Ibid, 569.

[5] Robert Gray, “Bourgeois Hegemony in Victorian Britain,” in Tony Bennet, ed., Culture, Ideology and Social Process: A Reader (London: Batsford Academic and Educational, 1981), 240.

[6] Ibid, 244.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 246.

[9] Ibid, 245.

[10] Ibid.

[11] David Arnold, “Gramsci and the Peasant Subalternity in India,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 11, no. 4 (1984):158.

[12] Ibid, 157.

[13] Ibid, 157.

[14] Ibid, 159.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lears, “Hegemony,” 576-577.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Arnold, “India,” 172.

[19] Lears, “Hegemony,” 574.

[20] Gray, “Britain,” 246.

[21] Ibid, 245-246.

[22] Ibid, 276.

[23] Lears, “Hegemony,” 586.

How Should History Be Taught?

Debate currently rages over how to teach history in American public schools. Should the abyss of racism receive full attention? Should we teach our children that the United States is benevolent in its wars and use of military power — did we not bring down Nazi Germany? Is the nation fundamentally good based on its history, worthy of flying the flag, or is it responsible for so many horrors that an ethical person would keep the flag in the closet or burn it in the streets? Left and Right and everyone in between have different, contradictory perspectives, but to ban and censor is not ideal. Examining the full spectrum of views will help students understand the world they inhabit and the field of history itself.

While there was once an imagining of objectivity, historians now typically understand the true nature of their work. “Through the end of the twentieth century,” Sarah Maza writes in Thinking About History, “the ideal of historical objectivity was undermined from within the historical community… The more different perspectives on history accumulated, the harder it became to believe that any historian, however honest and well-intentioned, could tell the story of the past from a position of Olympian detachment, untainted by class, gender, racial, national, and other biases.” Selecting and rejecting sources involves interpretation and subconsciously bent decisions. Historians looking at the same sources will have different interpretations of meaning, which leads to fierce debates in scholarly journals. Teachers are not value-neutral either. All this is taken for granted. “It is impossible to imagine,” Maza writes, “going back to a time when historians imagined that their task involved bowing down before ‘the sovereignty of sources.'” They understand it’s more complex than that: “The history of the American Great Plains in the nineteenth century has been told as a tale of progress, tragedy, or triumph over adversity,” depending on the sources one is looking at and how meaning is derived from them.

But this is a positive thing. It gives us a fuller picture of the past, understanding the experiences of all actors. “History is always someone’s story, layered over and likely at odds with someone else’s: to recognize this does not make our chronicles of the past less reliable, but more varied, deeper, and more truthful.” It also makes us think critically — what interpretation makes the most sense to us, given the evidence offered? Why is the evidence reliable?

If historians understand this, why shouldn’t students? Young people should be taught that while historical truth exists, any presentation of historical truth — a history book, say — was affected by human action and sentiment. This is a reality that those on the Left and Right should be able to acknowledge. Given this fact, and that both sides are after the same goal, to teach students the truth, the only sensible path forward is to offer students multiple interpretations. Read A Patriot’s History of the United States (Schweikart, Allen) and A People’s History of the United States (Zinn). There are equivalent versions of these types of texts for elementary and middle schoolers. Read about why World War II was “The Good War” in your typical textbook, alongside Horrible Histories: Woeful Second World War. Have students read history by conservatives in awe of a greatest country in the whole wide world, as well as by liberals fiercely critical of the nation and many of its people for keeping liberty and democracy exclusively for some for far longer than many other countries. They can study top-down history (great rulers, generals, and leaders drive change) and bottom-up social history (ordinary people coming together drives change). Or compare primary sources from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth demanding or opposing women’s rights. Why not? This gives students a broader view of the past, shows them why arguments and debates over history exist, and helps them understand modern political ideologies.

Most importantly, as noted, it helps students think critically. Many a teacher has said, “I don’t want to teach students what to think, but rather how to think.” This doesn’t seem possible without exploring varying perspectives and asking which one a young person finds most convincing and why. One can’t truly practice the art of thinking without one’s views being challenged, being forced to justify the maintenance of a perspective or a deviation based on newly acquired knowledge. Further, older students can go beyond different analyses of history and play around with source theories: what standard should there be to determine if a primary source is trustworthy? Can you take your standard, apply it to the sources of these two views, and determine which is more solid by your metric? There is much critical thinking to be done, and it makes for a more interesting time for young people.

Not only does teaching history in this way reflect the professional discipline, and greatly expand student knowledge and thought, it aligns with the nature of public schools, or with what the general philosophy of public schools should be. The bent of a history classroom, or the history segment of the day in the youngest grades, is determined by the teacher, but also by the books, curricula, and standards approved or required by the district, the regulations of the state, and so forth. So liberal teachers, districts, and states go their way and conservative teachers, districts, and states go theirs. But who is the public school classroom for, exactly? It’s for everyone — which necessitates some kind of openness to a broad range of perspectives (public universities are the same way, as I’ve written elsewhere).

This may be upsetting and sensible at the same time. On the one hand, “I don’t want my kid, or other kids, hearing false, dangerous ideas from the other side.” On the other, “It would be great for my kid, and other kids, to be exposed to this perspective when it so often is excluded from the classroom.” Everyone is happy, no one is happy. Likely more the latter. First, how can anyone favor bringing materials full of falsities into a history class? Again, anyone who favors critical thinking. Make that part of the study — look at the 1619 Project and the 1776 Report together, and explore why either side finds the other in error. Second, how far do you go? What extreme views will be dignified with attention? Is one to bring in Holocaust deniers and square their arguments up against the evidence for the genocide? Personally, this writer would support that: what an incredible exercise in evaluating and comparing the quantity and quality of evidence (and “evidence”). Perhaps others will disagree. But none of this means there can’t be reasonable limits to presented views. If an interpretation or idea is too fringe, it may be a waste of time to explore it. There is finite time in a class period and in a school year. The teacher, district, and so on will have to make the (subjective) choice (no one said this was a perfect system) to leave some things out and focus on bigger divides. If Holocaust denial is still relatively rare, controversy over whether the Civil War occurred due to slavery is not.

Who, exactly, is afraid of pitting their lens of history against that of another? Probably he who is afraid his sacred interpretation will be severely undermined, she who knows her position is not strong. If you’re confident your interpretation is truthful, backed by solid evidence, you welcome all challengers. Even if another viewpoint makes students think in new ways, even pulling them away from your lens, you know the latter imparted important knowledge and made an impression. As the author of a book on racism used in high schools and colleges, what do I have to fear when some conservative writes a book about how things really weren’t so bad for black Kansas Citians over the past two centuries? By all means, read both books, think for yourself, decide which thesis makes the most sense to you based on the sources — or create a synthesis of your own. The imaginary conservative author should likewise have no qualms about such an arrangement.

I have thus far remained fairly even-handed, because Leftists and right-wingers can become equally outraged over very different things. But here I will wonder whether the Right would have more anxiety over a multiple-interpretation study specifically. Once a student has learned of the darkness of American history, it is often more difficult to be a full-throated, flag-worshiping patriot. This risk will drive some conservatives berserk. Is the Leftist parent equally concerned that a positive, patriotic perspective on our past alongside a Zinnian version will turn her child into someone less critical, more favorable to the State, even downplaying the darkness? I’m not sure if the Leftist is as worried about that. My intuition, having personally been on both sides of the aisle, is that the risk would be more disturbing for conservatives — the horrors still horrify despite unrelated positive happenings, but the view of the U.S. as the unequivocal good guy is quickly eroded forever. Hopefully I am wrong and that is the mere bias of a current mindset talking. Either way, this pedagogy, the great compromise, is the right thing to do, for the reasons outlined above.

In conclusion, we must teach students the truth — and Americans will never fully agree on what that is, but the closest one could hope for is that this nation and its people have done horrific things as well as positive things. Teaching both is honest and important, and that’s what students will see when they examine different authors and documents. In my recent review of a history text, I wrote that the Left “shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging, for instance, that the U.S. Constitution was a strong step forward for representative democracy, secular government, and personal rights, despite the obvious exclusivity, compared to Europe’s systems.” Nor should one deny the genuine American interest in rescuing Europe and Asia from totalitarianism during World War II. And then there’s inventions, art, scientific discoveries, music, and many other things. The truth rests in nuance, as one might expect. James Baldwin said that American history is “more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” (What nation does not have both horrors and wonderful things in its history? Where would philosophy be without the German greats?) I’ve at times envisioned writing a history of the U.S. through a “hypocrisy” interpretation, but it works the same under a “mixed bag” framing: religious dissenters coming to the New World for more freedom and immediately crushing religious dissenters, the men who spoke of liberty and equality who owned slaves, fighting the Nazi master race with a segregated army, supporting democracy in some cases but destroying it in others, and so on. All countries have done good and bad things.

That is a concept the youngest children — and the oldest adults — can understand.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

Famous Bands That Sang About Kansas City

One’s city pride quickly swells upon perusing Spotify for songs about Kansas City. There’s much to hear, from the gems of local talent (“Get Out – The KC Streetcar Song,” Kemet the Phantom) to the fantastic artists from afar (“Train From Kansas City,” Neko Case) to the biggest names in music history:

The Beatles sang of Kansas City beginning in 1961 with “Kansas City / Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” which they took from Little Richard’s work of the late 1950s, itself a version of the 1952 classic “Kansas City” by Leiber and Stoller (“I’m going to Kansas City / Kansas City here I come…”). Other famous musicians to record Leiber and Stoller’s song include Willie Nelson, James Brown, and Sammie Davis Jr.

Frank Zappa performed the “Kansas City Shuffle.” Van Morrison had “The Eternal Kansas City”: “Dig your Charlie Parker / Basie and Young.” Yusuf (Cat Stevens) sang “18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare).” Clearly, and sadly, he did not have a pleasant stay.

Jefferson Airplane was “gonna move to Kansas City”; for Rogers and Hammerstein, in their 1943 musical Oklahoma!, everything was “up to date in Kansas City.” More recently, The New Basement Tapes, The Mowgli’s, and of course Tech N9ne have joined in.

I have created a public playlist on Spotify of four hours of songs about KC. It has a bit of everything, from the jazz and blues of yesteryear to the folk and Americana and hip hop of today. It includes famous artists and the obscure, and everyone in between, with some repeats so one can hear different artists tackle the same song. “Kansas City Hornpipe” by Fred Morrison and “Kansas City, Missouri” by Humbird are particularly enjoyable. Some songs, naturally, are better than others, but the most subpar or campy of Spotify’s selection have been excluded (many local artists go nowhere for a reason). Finally, and unfortunately, one of the best hip hop songs about the city, Center of Attention’s “Straight Outta Kauffman,” is not available on Spotify, so it must be listened to elsewhere.

Find some of that “Kansas City wine” (Leiber and Stoller) and enjoy.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

Review: ‘A History of the American People’

At times I read books from the other side of the political spectrum, and conservative Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People (1998) was the latest.

This was mostly a decent book, and Johnson deserves credit for various inclusions: a look at how British democracy influenced American colonial democracy, the full influence of religion on early American society, Jefferson’s racism, U.S. persecution of socialists and Wobblies during World War I, how the Democratic Party was made up of southern conservatives and northern progressives for a long time, and more.

However, in addition to (and in alignment with) being a top-down, “Great Men,” traditionalist history, the work dodges the darkness of our national story in significant ways. That’s the only way, after all, you can say things like Americans are “sometimes wrong-headed but always generous” (a blatant contradiction — go ask the Japanese in the camps about generosity) or “The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures” (what a wonderful adventure black people had in this country). It’s the pitfall of conservative, patriotic histories — if you want the U.S. to be the greatest country ever, our horrors must necessarily be downplayed.

Thus, black Americans don’t get much coverage until the Civil War, whereas Native Americans aren’t really worth discussing before or after the Trail of Tears era. Shockingly, in this history the internment of the Japanese never occurred. It’s simply not mentioned! Johnson offers a rosy view of what the U.S. did in Vietnam, believing that we should have inflicted more vigorous violence on both Vietnam and Cuba. Poverty doesn’t get much attention. The Founding Fathers’ expressions of protecting their own wealth, class interests, and aristocratic power when designing our democracy naturally go unmentioned. Likewise, American attacks on other countries are always from a place of benevolence and good intentions, rather than, as they often were in actuality, for economic or business interests, to maintain global power, or to seize land and resources. To Johnson, the U.S. had “one” imperialist adventure, its war with Spain — this incredible statement was made not long after his outline of the U.S. invasion of Mexico to expand its borders to the Pacific.

Other events and people given short shrift include LGBTQ Americans, non-European immigrants, and the abolitionist movement — until the end of the book when the modern pro-life movement is compared to it in approving fashion. The labor and feminist movements aren’t worth mentioning for their crucial successes, or intersectional solidarity in some places, only for their racism in others. Johnson is rather sympathetic of Richard Nixon, and somehow describes his downfall with no mention of Nixon’s attempts, recorded on White House tapes, to obstruct the Watergate investigation — the discovery of which led to his resignation. If anything, the book is a valuable study on how bias, in serious history and journalism, usually manifests itself in the sin of omission, conscious or no, rather than outright falsities, conscious or no (not that conservatives are the only ones who do this, of course; the Left, which can take the opposite approach and downplay positive happenings in American history, shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging, for instance, that the U.S. Constitution was a strong step forward for representative democracy, secular government, and personal rights, despite the obvious exclusivity, compared to Europe’s systems).

Things really start to go off the rails with this book in the 1960s and later, when America loses its way and becomes not-great (something slavery and women as second-class citizens could somehow never cause), with much whining about welfare, academia, political correctness, and the media (he truly should have read Manufacturing Consent before propagating the myth that the liberal media turned everyone against the war in Vietnam). Affirmative action receives special attention and passion, far more than slavery or Jim Crow, and Johnson proves particularly thick-skulled on other matters of race (Malcolm X is a “black racist,” slang and rap are super dangerous, no socio-economic and historical causes are mentioned that could illuminate highlighted racial discrepancies, and so on). Cringingly blaming the 1960-1990 crime wave on a less religious society, one wonders what Johnson would make of the dramatic decrease in crime from the 1990s to today, occurring as the percentage of religious Americans continues to plunge — a good lesson on false causation.

All this may not sound at all like a “mostly decent” book, but I did enjoy reading most of it, and — despite the serious flaws outlined here, some unforgivable — most of the information in the space of 1,000 pages was accurate and interesting. It served as a good refresher on many of the major people and events in U.S. history, a look at the perspective of the other side, a prompt for thinking about bias (omission vs. inaccuracy, subconscious vs. conscious), and a reminder of who and what are left out of history — and why.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

The Great Debate Over Robert Owen’s Five Fundamental Facts

In the early 1830s, British social reformer Robert Owen, called the “Founder of Socialism”[1] by contemporaries, brought forth his “Five Fundamental Facts” on human nature and ignited in London and elsewhere a dramatic debate — in the literal sense of fiery public discussions, as well as in books, pamphlets, and other works. While the five facts are cited in the extant literature on Owen and his utopian movement, a full exploration of the controversy is lacking, which is unfortunate for a moment that left such an impression on witnesses and participants. Famous secularist and editor George Jacob Holyoake, at the end of his life in 1906, wrote, “Human nature in England was never so tried as it was during the first five years” after Owen’s writings, when these five facts “were discussed in every town in the kingdom. When a future generation has courage to look into this unprecedented code as one of the curiosities of propagandism, it will find many sensible and wholesome propositions, which nobody now disputes, and sentiments of toleration and practical objects of wise import.”[2]

The discourse continued into the 1840s, but its intensity lessened, and thus we will focus our attention on its decade of origin. This work will add to scholarship a little-explored subject, and argue that the great debate transcended common ideological divisions, not simply pitting socialist against anti-socialist and freethinker against believer, but freethinker against freethinker and socialist against socialist as well. The debate was nuanced and complex, and makes for a fascinating study of intellectual history in Victorian Britain, an overlooked piece of the Western discourse on free will going back to the ancient Greek philosophers and nature-nurture stirred up by John Locke and René Descartes in the 17th century.

The limited historiography of the “Five Fundamental Facts” recognizes their significance. J.F.C. Harrison of the University of Sussex wrote that Owen, in his “confidence in the discoverability of laws governing human action,” thought as immutable as physical laws, in fact “provided the beginnings of behavioural science.”[3] Indeed, “in an unsophisticated form, and without the conceptual tools of later social psychology, Owen had hit upon the crucial role of character structure in the social process.”[4] Further, Nanette Whitbread wrote that the school Owen founded to put his five facts into action and change human nature, the New Lanark Infant School, could “be justly described as the first in the developmental tradition of primary education.”[5] However, the facts are normally mentioned only in passing — works on Owen and his movement that make no mention of them at all are not unusual — and for anything close to an exploration of the debate surrounding them one must turn to brief outlines in works like Robert Owen: A Biography by Frank Podmore, not an historian at all, but rather a parapsychologist and a founder of the Fabian Society.[6]

Robert Owen, to quote The Morning Post in 1836, was “alternately venerated as an apostle, ridiculed as a quack, looked up to and followed as the founder of a new philosophy, contemned as a visionary enthusiast, denounced as a revolutionary adventurer.”[7] He was born in Wales in 1771, and as a young man came to manage a large textile mill in Manchester and then buy one in New Lanark, Scotland. Influenced by the conditions of the working poor and the ideas of the Enlightenment, and as a prosperous man, he engaged in writing, advocacy, and philanthropy for better working conditions and early childhood education in Britain after the turn of the century. Adopting a philosophy of cooperative, communal economics, Owen purchased an American town, New Harmony in Indiana, in 1825 and ran a utopian experiment, inspiring many more across the U.S. and elsewhere, that was ultimately unsuccessful. He returned home in 1828, living in London and continuing to write and lecture for broad social change.

Soon Owen brought forth his Outline of the Rational System of Society, in circulation as early as 1832 — and by 1836 “too well known to make it requisite now to repeat,” as a Mr. Alger put it in the Owenite weekly New Moral World.[8] The Home Colonisation Society in London, an organization promoting the formation of utopian communities with “good, practical education” and “permanent beneficial employment” for all, without the “present competitive arrangements of society,” was just one of the work’s many publishers.[9] Owen, not one for modesty, declared it developed “the First Principles of the Science of Human Nature” and constituted “the only effectual Remedy for the Evils experienced by the Population of the world,” addressing human society’s “moral and physical Evils, by removing the Causes which produce them.”[10]

The text from the Home Colonisation Society began with Owen’s “Five Fundamental Facts,” the key to his rational system and therefore the prime target of later criticism.[11] They assert:

1st. That man is a compound being, whose character is formed of his constitution or organization at birth, and of the effects of external circumstances upon it from birth to death; such original organization and external influences continually acting and re-acting each upon the other.

2d. That man is compelled by his original constitution to receive his feelings and his convictions independently of his will.

3d. That his feelings, or his convictions, or both of them united, create the motive to action called the will, which stimulates him to act, and decides his actions.  

4th. That the organization of no two human beings is ever precisely similar at birth; nor can art subsequently form any two individuals, from infancy to maturity, to be precisely similar.

5th. That, nevertheless, the constitution of every infant, except in the case of organic disease, is capable of being formed into a very inferior, or a very superior, being, according to the qualities of the external circumstances allowed to influence that constitution from birth.[12]

As crucial as Owen’s five facts were to the subsequent arguments, he offered no defense of them in the short Society pamphlet, stating them, perhaps expectedly, as fact and immediately proceeding to build upon them, offering twenty points comprising “The Fundamental Laws of Human Nature.” Here again he explained that the character of an individual was malleable according to the environment and society in which he or she developed and existed — and how by building a superior society humanity could allow its members to flourish and maximize well-being. This was the materialism of the early socialists. That section was followed by “The Conditions Requisite for Human Happiness,” “The Principles and Practice of the Rational Religion,” “The Elements of the Science of Society,” and finally a constitution for a new civilization.

This paper will not explore Owen’s specific utopian designs in detail, but at a glance the rational society offered a government focused on human happiness, with free speech, equality for persons of all religions, education for all, gender equality, communal property, a mix of direct and representative democracy, the replacement of the family unit with the larger community structure, an end to punishments, and more. Overall, the needs of all would be provided for collectively, and work would be done collectively — the termination of “ignorance, poverty, individual competition…and national wars” was in reach.[13] Happier people were thought better people — by creating a socialist society, addressing human needs and happiness, “remodelling the character of man” was possible.[14] The five facts aimed to demonstrate this. While this pamphlet and others were brief, in The Book of the New Moral World, Owen devoted a chapter to justifying and explaining each of the five facts, and wrote of them in other publications as well. In that work he clarified, for instance, that it was an “erroneous supposition that the will is free,” an implication of the second and third facts.[15]

The reaction? As Holyoake wrote, in a front-page piece in The Oracle of Reason, “Political economists have run wild, immaculate bishops raved, and parsons have been convulsed at [Owen’s] communities and five facts.”[16] The facts, to many of the pious, smacked of the determinism rejected by their Christian sects. An anonymous letter on the front page of a later edition of the same publication laid out a view held by both Christians and freethinkers: “‘Man’s character is formed for him and not by him’ — therefore, all the religions of the world are false, is the sum and substance of the moral philosophy of R. Owen.”[17] With biological inheritances and environmental influences birthing one’s “feelings and convictions,” one’s “character,” free will was put into question. What moral culpability did human beings then have for their actions, and how could an individual truly be said to make a “choice” to believe or follow religious doctrine? Any religion that rested on free will would be contradictory to reality, and thus untrue. But, the anonymous writer noted, Calvinists and other determinists were safer — they believed in “supernatural” causes that formed one’s character, thus it would be disingenuous to say “all the religions of the world” were fiction, solely on the grounds that individuals did not have mastery over who they were.

The writer then offered further nuance and assistance to ideological opponents (he or she was clearly a freethinker, not only given the journal read and written to but also revealed by lines such as: “But what care religionists for justice in this world or the next? If they cared anything about ‘justice,’ and knew what the word meant, they would have long ere this abandoned the doctrine of an eternal hell”).[18] It was pointed out that “original sin” was found in non-deterministic and deterministic Christian sects alike — a formation of character before birth. “How then can the ‘five facts’ refute all religions…?”[19] If human beings were, from the universal or at least near-universal Christian point of view, shaped by supernatural forces beyond their control after Adam and Eve’s storied betrayal, it was a non sequitur, in the anonymous author’s mind, to say the molding of character invalidated common religions. Here we see an introduction to the complex ways the British of the Victorian era approached the debate.

Yet others were not always so gracious. In 1836, The Monthly Review wrote that “No one doubts the sincerity of Mr. Owen” and his desire to “create a world of happiness,” but “no man who takes for his guides common observation, and common sense — much more, that no person who has studied and who confides in the doctrines of the Bible, can ever become a convert to his views.”[20] The five facts were “intangible” and “obscure,” the arguments “bold, unauthorised, unsupported, ridiculous,” the vision for society as a whole “fanciful, impractical, and irreligious.”[21] How was it, the periodical asked, that these views could be “demonstrably true” yet had “never found acceptance with the mass of sober intelligent thinkers,” only the “paltry, insignificant, uninfluential, and ridiculed class of people” that were the Owenites, and Owen himself, who was “incompetent”?[22] The writer (or writers) further resented how Owen centered himself as something of a savior figure. Ridding the world of evil could be “accomplished by one whose soul like a mirror was to receive and reflect the whole truth and light which concerned the happiness of the world — and I, Robert Owen, am that mirror” — and did not the New Testament already serve the purpose of outlining the path to a more moral and happier world?[23] Overall, it was a scathing attack, an example of the hardline Christian view.

The January 1838 volume of The Christian Teacher, published to “uphold the religion of the New Testament, in contradistinction to the religion of creeds and parties,” included a writing by H. Clarke of Chorley.[24] To him the facts were “inconsistent and fallacious”: facts one, two, and four contradicted the fifth.[25] The first, second, and fourth facts established that a “man’s self” at birth “has at least something to do with forming his character,” but then the fifth established that “by the influence of external circumstances alone, any being” could be transformed into a “superior being.”[26] To Clarke, the facts at first emphasized that one’s biological constitution played a sizable, seemingly co-equal, role in forming one’s character — then the fifth fact threw all that out the window. If anyone could be made into a superior being, just via environment, what sense did it make to say that biology had any effect whatsoever on an individual’s nature?

Owen did seem to view circumstances as the predominant power. Though he firmly believed there existed, as he wrote, a “decided and palatable difference between [infants] at birth” due to biology, he indeed believed in bold, universal results: “selfishness…will cease to exist” alongside “all motives to individual pride and vanity,” and as “all shall be trained, from infancy, to be rational,” a humanity of “superior beings physically, intellectually, and morally” could arise.[27] Clarke was not alone in this critique. J.R. Beard wrote something similar in The Religion of Jesus Christ Defended from the Assaults of Owenism, which further held the common blank slate view of human nature (“at birth there is no mental or moral development”), meaning environment was all that was left: “What is this but to make ‘external circumstances’ the sole creator of the lot of man?”[28]

Clarke further took issue with what he viewed as the contradictory or hypocritical language of the Owenites. “So I learn from the votaries of Owenism…man’s feelings and convictions are forced upon him irrespective of his will, it is [therefore] the extreme of folly to ask a man to believe this or that.”[29] The Christian believed in belief, but “Owenism denies that man can believe as he pleases…yet strange to tell, almost the first question asked by an Owenite is, ‘Do you believe Mr. Owen’s five fundamental facts?’”[30] Belief in the five facts, Clarke pointed out, was required to be a member of Owen’s association, which an “Appendix to the Laws and Regulations” of the association printed in The New Moral World in 1836 made clear.[31] If one’s convictions were formed against one’s will, what sense did it make to ask after or require beliefs? Clarke’s own beliefs, one should note, while against Owen’s views of human nature, were not necessarily hostile to socialism. He prefered “Christ to Mr. Owen, Christian Socialism to the five-fact-socialism.”[32]

There were some who saw a distinction between the value of Owen’s theories on human nature and that of his planned civilization. In 1836, The Morning Post found Owen, in his Book of the New Moral World, to be “radical” and “destructive,” wanting to dissolve civilization and remake it; the idea that humanity had for millenia been living in systems contrary to their own nature and happiness was “almost incredible.”[33] But the Post came from a more philosophical position and background than theological (“the Millenium [is] about as probable a consummation as the ‘Rational System’”).[34] Owen had therefore “displayed considerable acuteness and ability” regarding “metaphysical discussions,” making the book worth a read for ontologists and those who enjoyed a “‘keen encounter of the wit.’”[35]

As we saw with the anonymous writer in The Oracle of Reason, the five facts divided not only freethinkers and Christians, but also freethinkers as a group. There was too much intellectual diversity for consensus. For example, Charles Southwell, who was “rapidly becoming one of the most popular freethought lecturers in London,” debated Owen’s facts with well-known atheist Richard Carlile in Lambeth, a borough of south London.[36] The room “was crowded to suffocation, and hundreds retired unable to attain admittance. The discussion lasted two nights, and was conducted with talent and good feeling by both parties.”[37] Southwell defended the facts, while Carlile went on the offensive against them. 

The agnostic Lloyd Jones, journalist and friend of Owen, had much to say of Richard Carlile’s lectures on this topic.[38] In A Reply to Mr. R. Carlile’s Objections to the Five Fundamental Facts as Laid Down by Mr. Owen, Jones remarked that Carlile had called Owen’s Book of the New Moral World a “book of blunders” during his talk on November 27, 1837, but the audience “certainly could not avoid observing the multitudinous blunders committed by yourself, in endeavouring to prove it such.”[39] Carlile, according to Jones, insisted that individuals had much more power to steel themselves against circumstances and environments than Owen was letting on, throwing facts one and two into doubt. This is all rather one-sided, as Jones did not even bother to quote Carlile directly, but instead wrote, “You tell us we have a power to adopt or reject [convictions and feelings]: you have not given us your reasons for so saying; in fact, you did not condescend to reason upon any of the subjects broached during the evening’s discussion.”[40] Carlile should “try the question… Can you, by a voluntary action of your mind, believe that to be true which you now consider to be false; — or believe that to be false which you now consider true?… Certainly not.”[41] Jones also defended the idea that conviction and will were distinct, rather than one and the same as Carlile insisted.[42]

For the socialists, many of them of course Owenites anyway, there was much acceptance of the five facts. James Pate, for the Socialists of Padiham, wrote that an Owenite named Mr. Fleming came to their organization and, to a full house of about 300 people, “proved, in a plain yet forcible manner, the truth of the five fundamental facts; and…showed how little difficulty there would be in the practical application of Mr. Owen’s views to all classes of society.”[43] The audience was “so fully convinced” that few “dared venture to question any remarks.”[44] But here divergent thoughts existed too, as we saw with H. Clarke. The branches of religious socialism and secular socialism made for varying thoughts on human nature among the radicals, or simply those sympathetic to or not offended by the idea of socialism. Frederick Lees, for instance, secretary of the British Association for the Suppression of Intemperance, castigated the “infidelity” of Owenism and his five facts but had little to say of socialism, save that it was a front for the former: “In the fair name of Socialism, and in the mask of friendship, Judas like, she [untruth, especially as related to infidelity] seeks to ensnare and betray.”[45] Owen’s followers, while they professed to desire the “establishment of a ‘SOCIAL COMMUNITY,’ their chief and greatest object is the ascendancy of an ‘INFIDEL CREED.’”[46] Lees, striking a sympathetic note once more, added that Owenites should “dissolve the forced and arbitrary union between their absurd and infidel metaphysics, and the practical or working part of Socialism, which association of the two excites the rightful opposition of all lovers of christian truth…”[47]

For a forceful defense of religious socialism, take T.H. Hudson’s lengthy work Christian Socialism, Explained and Enforced, and Compared with Infidel Fellowship: Especially, as Propounded by Robert Owen, Esq., and His Disciples. It was up to “the Christian Religion to secure true socialism,” whereas Owen’s views were “more likely to serve the purposes of the Prince of darkness.”[48] Hudson spent one chapter, about forty pages, attacking the five facts, followed by three chapters, over 120 pages, advocating for Christian Socialism. The five facts were “based on the false assumptions, that man is good by nature” and were “decidedly irreligious.”[49] Hudson lambasted the “disguised atheism” of the first fact: it did not mention God as man’s creator, nor his spirit or soul, and left him helpless before nature, without free will.[50] The “infidel Socialist,” in believing facts two and three, deepened trust in fatalism and the irresponsibility of individuals, but also fell for a “gross contradiction.”[51] Hudson pointed out that the second fact established feelings and convictions were received independently of one’s will, yet the third fact stated the will was made up of, created by, one’s feelings and convictions.[52] Initially presented as distinct phenomena, subsequently as a unified phenomenon. J.R. Beard echoed this: it would have been better to say feelings and convictions were received “anteriorly ‘to his will’; for it is obviously his notion that man’s will is not independent, but the result, the creation of his feelings and convictions.”[53]

Like the atheist Carlile, Hudson thought one could put up “resistance” to external influences, could decide whether to “receive” or reject feelings and convictions — an exercise in willpower, which was thus independent of and prior to feelings and convictions; a person was not a “slave to circumstances.”[54] This was a refrain of Owen’s critics, with the added element at times of the impossibility of personal change under Owen’s theory (indeed the impossibility that changing circumstances could change people). For instance, Minister John Eustace Giles, in Socialism, as a Religious Theory, Irrational and Absurd (1839), based on his lectures in Leeds, wondered how Owen could believe that “‘man is the creature of circumstances’” yet “professes to have become wise” — did that not show Owen had “resisted” circumstances?[55] Did not this, plus Owen’s desire to “change the condition of the world…thus shew that while man is the creature of circumstances, circumstances are the creatures of man”?[56] After focusing on semantics and perceived ambiguities in the fourth fact, but not closed to the possibility it was a simple truism, Hudson saw the improvement of individuals in the fifth fact true but was insulted that Christianity, no longer “being alienated from God” and addressing humanity’s “depraved nature,” was not thought necessary to this improvement alongside changing environments.[57] Indeed, most egregious was the Owenite belief that people were fundamentally good.[58]

Whether due to varying personal beliefs or simply varying cautions about driving away potential converts in a pious age, the actual presentation of the fundamental facts as irreligious was not consistent. Lloyd Jones, in an 1839 debate over whether socialism was atheistic with Mr. Troup, editor of The Montrose Review, asked some variant of “Where is the Atheism here?” after reading each of the five facts.[59] Whereas Owen, also an unbeliever, in an 1837 debate with Rev. J.H. Roebuck of Manchester, called religions “geographical insanities” that could be wiped away by the five facts.[60] “Mr. Roebuck stated…that the two systems for which we contend are opposed to each other, and that both, therefore, cannot be true. Herein we perfectly agree.”[61] The national discourse so intertwined the facts and the question of God that a person, on either side of the debate, could not help but assume that one would accompany the other. When a debate on “the mystery of God” was proposed to Owenite J. Smith in January 1837, “the challenge was [mis]understood by myself and all our friends, to be the discussion of the five fundamental facts.”[62]

Overall, perhaps Robert Owen’s facts flustered the religious and irreligious, and socialists and anti-socialists alike, because they were simply so counterintuitive — not to mention theoretical, without contemporary science to back them up. Owen wrote, in The Book of the New Moral World, for instance: “Man is not, therefore, to be made a being of a superior order by teaching him that he is responsible for his will and his actions.”[63] Such blunt statements turned on its head what many, across ideologies, judged common sense. Owen’s ideas were “contrary to common sense” for Hudson, Christian socialist, in the same way they were “opposed to the common sense of mankind” for Giles, anti-socialist.[64] Would not teaching individual moral responsibility enable personal change and create a better society? Not so for Owen. The will was formed by circumstances — thus true personal change came about by purposefully changing environments. Create a better society first, and the positive personal change would follow. These were, according to Owen, “the laws of nature respecting man, individually, and the science of society,” and few posited laws of nature, proven or otherwise, do not provoke intense philosophical debate.[65]

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

[1] J. Eustace Giles, Socialism, as a Religious Theory, Irrational and Absurd: the First of Three Lectures on Socialism (as Propounded by Robert Owen and Others) Delivered in the Baptist Chapel South-Parade, Leeds, September 23, 1838 (London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., Ward & Co., G. Wightman, 1838), 4, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiuo.ark:/13960/t63560551&view=1up&seq=10&q1=founder.

[2] George Jacob Holyoake, The History of Co-operation (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1906), 1:147.

[3] J.F.C. Harrison, Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 66.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nanette Whitbread, The Evolution of the Nursery-infant School: A History of Infant and Nursery Education in Britain, 1800-1970 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007), 39:9-10.

[6] Frank Podmore, Robert Owen: A Biography (London: Hutchinson & CO, 1906), 481-482, 499-502.

[7] The Morning Post, September 14, 1836, cited in “The Book of the New Moral World,” The New Moral World (Manchester: Abel Heywood, 1836-7), 3:6, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31970026956075&view=1up&seq=18&size=125&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22.

[8] The Westminster Review (London: Robert Heward, 1832), 26:317, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433096159896&view=1up&seq=329&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22; The New Moral World (London: Thomas Stagg, 1836), 2:62, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31970026956117&view=1up&seq=74&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22.

[9] Robert Owen, Outline of the Rational System of Society (London: Home Colonization Society, 1841), 2, retrieved fromhttps://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hnsp9t&view=1up&seq=6.

[10] Ibid, 1.

[11] This was explicitly stated by critics. Dismantle the five facts and the rest of the system goes down with it. See T.H. Hudson, Christian Socialism, Explained and Enforced, and Compared with Infidel Fellowship, Especially, As Propounded by Robert Owen, Esq., and His Disciples (London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1839), 52, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433075925721&view=1up&seq=62&q1=%22fundamental%20facts%22.

[12] Owen, Outline, 3.

[13] Ibid, 14.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Robert Owen, The Book of the New Moral World (London: Richard Taylor, 1836), 17, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015003883991&view=1up&seq=47&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22.

[16] The Oracle of Reason (London: Thomas Paterson, 1842), 1:113, retrieved from https://archive.org/details/oracleofreasonor01lond/page/112/mode/2up?q=five+facts.

[17] Ibid, 161.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] The Monthly Review (London: G. Henderson, 1836), 3:62, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=umn.319510028065374&view=1up&seq=80&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22.

[21] Ibid, 62, 67-68.

[22] Ibid, 63.

[23] Ibid, 62-63.

[24] The Christian Teacher and Chronicle of Beneficence (London: Charles Fox, 1838), 4:219, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.ah6jrz&view=1up&seq=255&q1=%22five%20facts%22.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid, 220.

[27] Owen, Book, 22-24.

[28] J.R. Beard, The Religion of Jesus Christ Defended from the Assaults of Owenism (London: Simpkin, Marshall and Company, 1839), 233, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hnmy5r&view=1up&seq=243&q1=%22second%20fact%22.

[29] Christian Teacher, 220.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid, 220; New Moral World, 2:261.

[32] Christian Teacher, 220.

[33] New Moral World, 3:6.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791-1866 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974), 69.

[37] The New Moral World (Leeds: Joshua Hobson, 1839), 6:957, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31970026956133&view=1up&seq=361&size=125&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22.

[38] Regarding Jones’ agnosticism, see: Report of the Discussion betwixt Mr Troup, Editor of the Montrose Review, on the part of the Philalethean Society, and Mr Lloyd Jones, of Glasgow, on the part of the Socialists, in the Watt Institution Hall, Dundee on the propositions, I That Socialism is Atheistical; and II That Atheism is Incredible and Absurd (Dundee: James Chalmers & Alexander Reid, 1839), retrieved from shorturl.at/pvxM1.

[39] Lloyd Jones, A Reply to Mr. Carlile’s Objections to the Five Fundamental Facts as Laid Down by Mr. Owen (Manchester: A. Heywood, 1837), 4, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89097121669&view=1up&seq=12&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22.

[40] Ibid, 9.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid, 10-11.

[43] New Moral World, 3:380.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Frederick R. Lees, Owenism Dissected: A Calm Examination of the Fundamental Principles of Robert Owen’s Misnamed “Rational System” (Leeds: W.H. Walker, 1838), 7, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112054157646&view=1up&seq=7&q1=%22socialism%22.

[46] Ibid, 16.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Hudson, Christian Socialism, 4, 13.

[49] Ibid, 50-51.

[50] Ibid, 53-63.

[51] Ibid, 63-64, 66.

[52] Ibid, 66.

[53] Beard, Religion, 234.

[54] Hudson, Christian Socialism, 65-66.

[55] Giles, Socialism, 7.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Hudson, Christian Socialism, 72-81, 87-88.

[58] Ibid, 89.

[59] Report of the Discussion, 12.

[60] Public Discussion, between Robert Owen, Late of New Lanark, and the Rev. J.H. Roebuck, of Manchester (Manchester: A. Heywood, 1837), 106-107, retrieved fromhttps://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.c080961126&view=1up&seq=111&q1=%22fundamental%20facts%22.

[61] Ibid, 107.

[62] New Moral World, 3:122.

[63] Owen, Book, 20.

[64] Hudson, Christian Socialism, 65; Giles, Socialism, 36.

[65] Owen, Book, 20.

On the Spring-Stone Debate

While finding a decisive victor in debates on semantics and historical interpretation often proves difficult, in the lively clash between historians David Spring and Lawrence Stone on social mobility into Britain’s landed elite, the former presented the strongest case. The discourse, of the mid-1980s, centered around the questions of how to define “open” when considering how open the upper echelon was to newcomers from 1540-1880 and, most importantly, to newcomers who came from the business world. On both counts, Spring offered a more compelling perspective on how one should regard the historical evidence and data Stone collected in his work An Open Elite? Namely, that it was reasonable to call the landed elite open to members of lower strata, including business leaders.

The debate quickly obfuscated lines between the two questions. In his review of An Open Elite?, Spring noted that Stone showed a growth in elite families from 1540-1879, beginning with forty and seeing 480 join them, though not all permanently. Further, “Stone shows that regularly one-fifth of elite families were newcomers.”[1] In his reply, Stone declined to explore the “openness” of a twenty percent entry rate because it was, allegedly, irrelevant to his purpose: he was only interested in the entry of businessmen like merchants, speculators, financiers, and manufacturers, who did not come from the gentry, the relatively well-off stratum knocking at the gate of the landed elite. Spring “failed to distinguish between openness to new men, almost all from genteel families, who made a fortune in the law, the army, the administration or politics…and openness to access by successful men of business, mostly of low social origins.”[2]

True, Stone made clear who and what he was looking at in An Open Elite?: the “self-made men,” the “upward mobility by successful men of business,” and so on, but leaned into, rather than brushed aside or contradicted, the idea of general social immobility.[3] For instance, observe the positioning of: “When analysed with care…the actual volume of social mobility has turned out to be far less than might have been expected. Moreover, those who did move up were rarely successful men of business.”[4] The notion of the landed elite being closed off in general was presented, followed by the specific concern about businessmen. Stone went beyond business many times (for instance: “the degree of mere gentry penetration up into the elite was far smaller than the earlier calculations would indicate”[5]), positing that not only was the landed elite closed to businessmen but also universally, making his protestations against Spring rather disingenuous. Stone insisted to Spring that an open elite specifically meant, to historians and economists, a ruling class open to businessmen, not to all, but Stone himself opened the door to the question of whether the landed elite was accessible to everyone by answering nay in his book. Therefore, the question was admissible, or fair game, in the debate, and Spring was there to provide a more convincing answer. A group comprised of twenty percent newcomers from below, to most reasonable persons, could be described as relatively open. Even more so with the sons of newcomers added in: the landed elite was typically one-third newcomers and sons of newcomers, as Spring pointed out. Though it should be noted both scholars highlighted the challenge of using quantitative data to answer such historical questions. The collection and publication of such numbers is highly important, but it hardly ends the discussion — the question of openness persists, and any answer is inherently subjective.

However, it was the second point of contention where Spring proved most perceptive. He pointed out that while the gentry constituted 181 entrants into the landed elite during the observed centuries, those involved in business were not far behind, with 157, according to Stone’s data. This dwarfed the seventy-two from politics and seventy from the law. As Spring wrote, Stone’s quantitative tables conflicted with his text. Stone wrote in An Open Elite? that “most of the newcomers were rising parish gentry or office-holders or lawyers, men from backgrounds not too dissimilar to those of the existing county elite. Only a small handful of very rich merchants succeeded in buying their way into the elite…”[6] Clearly, even with different backgrounds, businessmen were in fact more successful at entering the landed elite than politicians and lawyers in the three counties Stone studied. What followed a few lines down in the book from Stone’s selected words made far more sense when considering the data: businessmen comprised “only a third of all purchasers…”[7] The use of “only” was perhaps rather biased, but, more significantly, one-third aligned not with the idea of a “small handful,” but of 157 new entrants — a third business entrants, a bit more than a third gentry, and a bit less than a third lawyers, politicians, and so on. Spring could have stressed the absurdity, in this context, of the phrase “only a third,” but was sure to highlight the statistic in his rejoinder, where he drove home the basic facts of Stone’s findings and reiterated that the landed elite was about as open to businessmen as others. Here is where quantitative data truly shines in history, for you can compare numbers against each other. The question of whether a single given number or percentage is big or small is messy and subjective, but whether one number is larger than another is not, and provides clarity regarding issues like whether businessmen had some special difficulty accessing Britain’s landed elite.

Stone failed to respond directly to this point, a key moment that weakened his case, but instead sidetracked into issues concerning permanence of newcomers and by-county versus global perspectives on the data, areas he explored earlier in his response, now awkwardly grafted on to Spring’s latest argument. Yet the reader is largely left to pick up on what is being implied, based on Stone’s earlier comments on said issues. He noted that only twenty-five businessmen of the 157 came from the two counties distant from London, seemingly implying that Hertfordshire, the London-area county, had tipped the scales. Merchants and others were not as likely to rise into the landed elite in more rural areas. What relevance that had is an open question — it seemed more a truism than an argument against Spring’s point, as London was a center for business, and thus that result was perhaps expected. Regardless, he did not elaborate. The adjacent implication was that Spring was again seeing “everything from a global point of view which has no meaning in reality, and nothing from the point of view of the individual counties.”[8] In the debate, Stone often cautioned that it made sense to look at counties individually, as they could be radically distinct — one should not simply look at the aggregated data. But Stone’s inherent problem, in his attempt at a rebuttal, was that he was using the global figures to make his overall case. He took three counties and lifted them up to represent a relatively closed elite in Britain as a whole. It would not do to now brush aside one county or focus heavily on another to bolster an argument. Spring, in a footnote, wrote something similar, urging Stone to avoid “making generalizations on the basis of one county. [Your] three counties were chosen as together a sample of the nation.”[9] To imply, as Stone did, that London could be ignored as some kind of anomaly contradicted his entire project.

Stone’s dodge into the permanence of entrants was likewise not a serious response to Spring’s observation that business-oriented newcomers nearly rivaled those from the gentry and far outpaced lawyers and politicians. He wrote that “of the 132 business purchasers in Hertfordshire, only 68 settled in for more than a generation…”[10] The transient nature of newcomers arose elsewhere in the debate as well. Here Stone moved the goalposts slightly: instead of mere entrants into the landed elite, look at who managed to remain. Only “4% out of 2246 owners” in the three counties over these 340 years were permanent newcomers from the business world.[11] It was implied these numbers were both insignificant and special to businesspersons. Yet footnote five, that associated with the statistic, undercut Stone’s point. Here he admitted Spring correctly observed that politicians and officeholders were forced to sell their county seats, their magnificent mansions, and abandon the landed elite, as defined by Stone, at nearly the same rate as businessmen, at least in Hertfordshire. Indeed, it was odd Stone crafted this response, given Spring’s earlier dismantling of the issue. The significance of Stone’s rebuttal was therefore unclear. If only sixty-eight businessmen lasted more than a generation, how did that compare to lawyers, office-holders, and the gentry? Likewise, if four percent of businessmen established permanent generational residence among the landed elite, what percentages did other groups earn? Again, Stone did not elaborate. But from his admission and what Spring calculated, it seems unlikely Stone’s numbers, when put in context, would help his case. Even more than the aggregate versus county comment, this was a non-answer.

The debate would conclude with a non-answer as well. There was of course more to the discussion — it should be noted Stone put up an impressive defense of the selection of his counties and the inability to include more, in response to Spring questioning how representative they truly were — but Spring clearly showed, using Stone’s own evidence, that the landed elite was what a reasonable person could call open to outsiders in general and businessmen in particular, contradicting Stone’s positions on both in An Open Elite? Stone may have recognized this, given the paucity of counterpoints in his “Non-Rebuttal.” Spring would, in Stone’s view, “fail altogether to deal in specific details with the arguments used in my Reply,” and therefore “there is nothing to rebut.”[12] While it is true that Spring, in his rejoinder, did not address all of Stone’s points, he did focus tightly on the main ideas discussed in the debate and this paper. So, as further evidence that Spring constructed the better case, Stone declined to return to Spring’s specific and central arguments about his own data. He pointed instead to other research that more generally supported the idea of a closed elite. Stone may have issued a “non-rebuttal” not because Spring had ignored various points, but rather because he had stuck to the main ones, and there was little to be said in response.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

[1] Eileen Spring and David Spring, “The English Landed Elite, 1540-1879: A Review,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 17, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 152.

[2] Lawrence Stone, “Spring Back,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 17, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 168.

[3] Lawrence Stone, An Open Elite? England 1540-1880, abridged edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 3-4.

[4] Ibid, 283.

[5] Ibid, 130.

[6] Ibid, 283.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Stone, “Spring Back,” 169.

[9] Spring, “A Review,” 154.

[10] Stone, “Spring Back,” 171.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lawrence Stone, “A Non-Rebuttal,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 17, no. 3 (Autumn 1985): 396. For Spring’s rejoinder, see Eileen Spring and David Spring, “The English Landed Elite, 1540-1879: A Rejoinder,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 17, no. 3 (Autumn 1985): 393-396.

How to Write and Publish a Book (Odds Included)

My experience with writing books and finding publishers is extremely limited, but a few early insights might make it easier for others interested in doing the same. The following, it should be noted, relates to nonfiction works — the only world I know — but most of it could probably be applied to novels.

First, write your book. Take as much or as little time as needed. I cranked out the first draft of Racism in Kansas City in four months and promptly began sending it out to publishers (April 2014). Why America Needs Socialism I wrote off and on for six years, at the end throwing everything out (300 pages) and starting over (though making much use of old material), finishing a new version in five months. Just make your work the absolute best it can be, in terms of content and proper grammar. But you can reach out to certain publishers before your manuscript is wholly finished. Pay attention to the submission guidelines, but for most publishers it’s not a big deal (many ask you to explain how much of the work is complete and how long it will take you to finish). I feel safest having the manuscript done, and it would likely be risky to reach out if you didn’t have over half the piece written — your proposal to publishers will include sample chapters, and if they like those they will ask for more: the whole manuscript thus far.

You’ll scour the internet for publishers who print books like yours and who accept unsolicited materials, meaning you can contact them instead of a literary agent. If you want the big houses like Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, or HarperCollins, you’ll need an agent, and I have no experience with that and thus have no advice. But a million small- and medium-sized publishers exist that will accept unsolicited queries from you, including significant places like Harvard University Press or Oxford University Press.

Following the firm’s guidelines on its website, you’ll generally email a book proposal, which offers an overview, target audience, table of contents, analysis of competing titles, author information, timeline, and sample chapter. If there’s no interest you won’t usually get a reply, but if there is you’ll be asked for the manuscript. It’s an easy process, there’s simply much competition and varying editor interests and needs, so you have to do it in volume. Keep finding houses and sending emails until you’re successful. From March to May 2018, I sent a proposal for Why America Needs Socialism to 91 publishers. Eight (about 9%) requested the full manuscript, and two (about 2%) wanted to publish it. The terms of the first offer were unfavorable (walk away if you have to), but by September, after seven months of searching, a home for the book was secured, Ig Publishing in New York City.

The same technique and persistence is required when seeking blurbs of praise for the back cover and promotional materials. You simply find ways to call or email a dozen or so other authors and prominent people, explain your book and publisher, and then four of them accept your manuscript and agree to write a sentence of praise if they like it (or write a foreword, or peer review it, or whatever you seek). It is very convenient for nonfiction authors that so many of the folks you’d want to review your book are university professors. You simply find Cornel West’s email address on Harvard’s faculty page. Similarly, you shotgun emails to publications when the book comes out and ask them to review it. I sent a query to 58 magazines, papers, journals, and websites I thought would be interested in reviewing Why America Needs Socialism, offering to send a copy. Seven (12%) asked for the book to do a review; two others invited me to write a piece on the work myself for their publications.

I didn’t keep such careful records of my Racism in Kansas City journey, but after I began submitting proposals it took three months to find a publisher who agreed to publish the work — temporarily. I made the mistake of working for 10 months with a publisher without a contract. At times, publishers will ask you to made revisions before signing a contract, a big gamble (that I wasn’t even really aware of at the time). This publisher backed out due to the national conversation on race sparked by Mike Brown’s death and subsequent events through late 2014 and early 2015, which was seemingly counter-intuitive for a publisher, but they were more used to tame local histories than what I had produced, a history of extreme violence and subjugation. So the search continued.

Writing a local story, at least a nonfiction work, certainly limits your house options. There are some, like the above, that are out-of-state that will take interest, but generally your best bet lies with the local presses. And unfortunately, there aren’t many of them where I reside. The University of Missouri Press was shutting down, the University Press of Kansas (KU) wanted me to make revisions before they would decide — and I wasn’t looking to repeat a mistake. I didn’t approach every Kansas City-area publisher, but rather, feeling the pressure of much wasted time, decided to stop looking for a house and instead to self-publish (with Mission Point Press, run by the former head of Kansas City Star Books).

A traditional publisher pays all the costs associated with the book and you get an advance and a small royalty from each copy sold. (With Ig Publishing, I gave up an advance for a larger royalty — a worthwhile option if the book sells well.) With self-publishing, everything is in reverse: you pay a “nontraditional publisher” to birth the book — editing, cover design, maybe marketing and distribution — and you keep most of the profit from each copy sold (not all, as someone is printing it). There’s also the option of skipping a nontraditional publisher altogether and doing everything yourself, working only with a printer. A traditional house is the big prize for a writer, because it offers that coveted validation — a firm accepted your piece instead of rejecting it, like it rejected all those other authors. It’s about prestige and pride, and not having to say “Well…” after someone calls you a published author. But self-publishing can give you more control over the final product, in some circumstances more money over time, and it works well for a local book (it’s Kansas City readers and bookstores that want a book on Kansas City, so I don’t have to worry about marketing and distribution in other cities).

The whole process is an incredible adventure: the intense learning process of researching and writing, the obsession, the hunt for and exhilaration over a publisher, the dance and give-and-take with editors who see needed changes (“murder your darlings”), the thousands of footnotes you format (kidding, it’s hell), finding key individuals to write a foreword or advanced praise, getting that first proof in the mail, releasing and marketing your work, winning coverage and reviews in the press, giving book talks and interviews, hearing a reader say how much what you created meant to him, learning your book is a classroom text, being cited by other authors or asked to give advanced praise yourself, being recognized by strangers, seeing your work in libraries and bookstores across the city, and the country, and even the world.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

A Religious War

The Taiping Revolution was a devastating conflict, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of people, between a growing Christian sect under Hong Xiuquan and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) government. While the political forces within Hong’s “God Worshipers” wanted to solve the internal turmoil in China, and certainly influenced events, the Taiping Rebellion was a religious war. It was more the influence of the West, not the problems at home, that prompted the violence. While many revolutions had occurred before this with no Christian influence, examining the viewpoint of God’s Worshipers and the viewpoint of Qing militia leader Zeng Guofan will make it exceedingly clear that without the influence of Western religion, the Taiping Rebellion never would have occurred. 

From the point of view of Hong Xiuquan, religion was at the heart of everything he did. The origins of his faith and his individual actions immediately after his conversion explain his later choices and those of his followers during the rebellion. According to Schoppa, Hong had a vision he was vanquishing demons throughout the universe, under orders from men whom Hong later determined to be God and Jesus Christ. Hong believed that Christ was his older brother and Hong was thus “God’s Chinese son” (71). Hong studied Liang Fa’s “Good Works to Exhort the Age,” which we examined during our discussion. Liang Fa emphasized that his conversion stemmed partly from the need to be pardoned of sin and partly from a desire to do good deeds to combat evil and eradicate it from his life (Cheng, Lestz 135). Reading Liang’s writings after the life-changing vision brought Hong to Christianity. It is essential to note that, as Schoppa puts it, “In his comprehension of the vision, Hong did not immediately see any political import” (71). All Hong was concerned about at this point was faith, not the Manchu overlords. He was so impassioned he would “antagonize his community by destroying statues of gods in the local temple” (Schoppa 71). What Hong would have done with his life had he not become a Christian is impossible to say. He had repeatedly failed the civil service examination; perhaps he would have had to take up farming like his father (Schoppa 71).

Instead, he formed the God Worshipping Society. According to Schoppa, certain groups that joined declared the demons in Hong’s vision were the Manchu, and had to be vanquished (72). It was outside influences that politicized Hong’s beliefs. Yet even through the politicization one will see that at the heart of the matter is religion. The very society Hong wished to create was based on Christian ideals. Equality of men and women led to both sexes receiving equal land in Hong’s 1853 land system, the faith’s sense of community led to family units with shared treasuries, and church was required on the Sabbath day and for wedding ceremonies (Schoppa 73). Christianity brought about the outlawing of much urban vice as well, such as drinking or adultery. One might argue that behind all these Christian ideological policies were long-held Confucian beliefs. As we saw in “Qian Yong on Popular Religion,” eradicating gambling, prostitution, drugs, etc. was just as important to the elites and literati (those who have passed the examination) as it was to Hong (Cheng, Lestz 129-131). While there were heavy indeed Confucian influences on Hong’s teachings (evidenced by their Ten Commandments and the proceeding odes found in “The Crisis Within”), Schoppa makes it clear that “the Taiping Revolution was a potent threat to the traditional Chinese Confucian system” because it provided people with a personal God rather than simply the force of nature, Heaven (75). The social policies that emerged from Hong’s Christian ideals, like family units and laws governing morality led Schoppa to declare, “It is little wonder that some Chinese…might have begun to feel their cultural identity and that of China threatened by the Heavenly Kingdom” (76). The point is, Hong never would have become a leader of the God Worshippers had Western Christianity not entered his life, and even after his growing group decided to overthrow the Manchu, the system of life they were fighting for and hoping to establish was founded on Christian beliefs. Just as Hong smashed down idols in his hometown after his conversion, so everywhere the God Worshippers advanced they destroyed Confucian relics, temples, and alters (Cheng, Lestz 148). The passion of Hong became the passion of all. 

It was also the opinion of the Manchu government that this was a religious war. As the God Worshippers grew in number, Schoppa writes, “The Qing government recognized the threat as serious: A Christian cult had militarized and was now forming an army” (72). Right away, the Manchu identified this as a religious rebellion. “It was the Taiping ideology and its political, social, and economic systems making up the Taiping Revolution that posed the most serious threat to the regime” (Schoppa 73). This new threat prompted the Qing to order Zeng Guofan to create militia and destroy the Taipings. “The Crisis Within” contains his “Proclamation Against the Bandits of Guangdong and Guangxi” from 1854. Aside from calling attention to the barbarism of the rebels, Zeng writes with disgust about Christianity and its “bogus” ruler and chief ministers. He mocks their sense of brotherhood, the teachings of Christ, and the New Testament (Cheng, Lestz 147). Zeng declares, “This is not just a crisis for our [Qing] dynasty, but the most extraordinary crisis of all time for the Confucian teachings, which is why our Confucius and Mencius are weeping bitterly in the nether world.” Then, in regards to the destruction of Confucian temples and statues, Zeng proclaims that the ghosts and spirits have been insulted and want revenge, and it is imperative that the Qing government enacts it (Cheng, Lestz 148). This rhetoric is not concerning politics and government, Manchu or anti-Manchu. Zeng makes it obvious what he aims to destroy and why. He views the rebellion as an affront to Confucianism. The Christians, he believes, must be struck down. 

With the leader’s life defined by Christianity, with a rebellious sect’s social structure based heavily on Christianity, with the continued destruction of Confucian works in the name of Christianity, and with the government’s aim to crush the rebellion in the name of Confucius and Mencius, can anyone rationally argue that the Taiping Rebellion was not a religious war? A consensus should now be reached! The rebellion’s brutality and devastation is a tragedy when one considers the similar teachings of both sides of the conflict, the Confucian call for peaceful mediation of conflicts and the Christian commandment not to kill. 

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

Reference List

Pei-kai Cheng and Michael Lestz, and Jonathan D. Spence, eds., The Search for Modern China, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 128-149.

R. Keith Schoppa, Revolution and its Past (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 71-76.

The Declining Value of Art

What gives art value? That is, inherent value, not mere monetary value. Perhaps it is actually quite similar for artist and spectator. The artist may impart value on her work based upon how much joy and fulfillment the process of its creation gave her, how satisfied she is with the final product if it matched or came close to her vision, how much pleasure others experience when viewing (or listening to) it, or how much attention, respect, and fame (and wealth) is directed her way because of it. Likewise, the spectator may see value in the work because he knows, perceives, or assumes the joy and satisfaction it might give the artist, he’s interested in and enjoys experiencing it, or because he respects a successful, famous individual.

There are various forces that impart value, but a significant one must be effort required. This is, after all, what is meant by the ever-present “My kid could do that” muttered before canvases splattered with paint or adorned with a single monochrome square in art museums across the world — pieces sometimes worth huge sums. People see less value in a work of art that takes (on average between human beings) less effort, less skill. Likewise, most artists would likely be less crushed were a fire to consume a piece they’d spent a day to complete versus one they’d spent a year to complete. To most people, effort imparts value.

I’d be remiss, and haunted, if I didn’t mention here that this demonstrates how most people think in Marxian ways about value. (If you thought, dear reader, that in an article on art you’d find respite from socialist theory, you were wrong.) Marx wrote that “the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour” needed to create it (Value, Price, and Profit). Again, not mere monetary value. This doesn’t mean “the lazier a man, or the clumsier a man, the more valuable his commodity, because the greater the time of labour required for finishing the commodity.” Rather, Marx was speaking about the average labor needed to create something: “social average conditions of production, with a given social average intensity, and average skill of the labour employed.” Labor, effort, imparts value on all human creations, whether it’s art, whether it’s for sale, and so forth. Doesn’t it follow, then, that what takes less effort has less inherent value?

This train of thought — how the effort put into paintings, drawings, writings, photographs, sculptures, music, etc. affects their value — arose during an interesting conversation on how much respect should be awarded to each of these forms. Respect was based on effort-value. In other words, does a “good” photograph deserve the same respect as a “good” painting? Does a “great” piece of writing, like a book, deserve the same admiration — does it have the same value — as a “great” sculpture? One may feel at first that they shouldn’t be compared. But all forms have value because they require effort, and thus if we can determine how much effort, on average between human beings, is required for two compared art forms and then decide one takes more effort we will have also found a difference in value. (One need not worry about “great” being subjective, because we are only talking about how each individual personally views the value of different art forms; perceived effort will also be subjective, which is the whole point, as it determines one’s view on value.)

If it helps make this clearer, we might start with a comparison within a single form. Which takes more effort on average: to record a single or an album? Cartooning or hyperrealist drawing? Most people would say the latter finished products have more value because of the greater effort typically required (work may be a breeze for some hyperrealist artists, as easy as cartooning for cartoonists, but remember we are speaking of averages).

Now what about the average effort to create a “good” photograph versus, say, a “good” (let’s say realist) painting? It seems like it would certainly take more effort to make a good painting! The technology of photography always advances, making tasks easier and more accessible, and thus grows more widespread. After film yielded to digitalization and computerization, it became much easier to take a nice photograph — it’s easier to do and easier to do well. Exposure, shutter speed, aperture, ISO sensitivity, focus, white balance, metering, flash, and so on can now be manipulated faster and with greater ease, or automatically, requiring no effort at all. Recently it’s become possible to edit photographs after the fact, fixing and improving them. You just need a program and know how to use it. Because the form has never existed without technology, the average effort to create a great photograph has probably never rivaled the average effort to create a great painting, but the gap was smaller in the past. Today anyone with the right technology can produce a great photo; true, it requires know-how, but surely the journey from knowing nothing to mastery is shorter and easier than the same journey for realist painting. (Film — now digital video — production is a similar story.) Because the effort needed for the same result — a good photo — has declined over time, the value of the form overall has also decreased. (This does not mean some photographers aren’t more creative, skilled, or knowledgeable than others, nor that there doesn’t remain more value in the work of hardline traditionalists who refuse to use this or that new technology.) But painting — the technology of painting — hasn’t really changed much through the ages; it still requires about the same effort to produce the same quality work, therefore its value holds steady. If “painters” start having robots paint incredible works for them, or aid them, there would obviously be a reduction of value. No one is as impressed by robot paintings or machine-assisted paintings.

Music is facing a smaller-scale attack on the value of the form with digitally created instrumentals, autotune, and so forth. Perhaps the value of writing declined slightly as we shifted from penmanship to typewriting to computer-based writing (with backspace and spell-check!). It will decline again as voice transcription programs are perfected and grow in popularity.

Sculpting, painting, and drawing — the forms least infected by technology — still essentially require the same effort to do, and same effort to do well, as they have throughout human history. The tools and equipment have changed some, yes, but not nearly as much as those of other forms. Their value will remain the same as long as this state of affairs persists. If music, writing, film, and photography continually grow easier to do well, their value, by this metric, will decrease, slowed only by those who valiantly resist the technological changes. This does not mean a splatter painting automatically has more value than a beautiful photo — remember we’re each personally comparing the value of what we subjectively see as “good” paintings versus “good” photographs; you may not see a splatter painting as good. Rather, it may simply mean that what you see as a good painting takes more effort on average to create, and thus has more value, than what you see as a good photo. Perhaps also more than a good book, song, or video, depending on the size and scope of the projects being compared (it may surpass a good video but not a good film, or a good short book but not a good tome; up to you).

It could be that effort required is somewhat rule-based, too, rather than just technology-based. Music, writing, film, and photography rely on more rules. That’s probably why technology is encroaching quicker on such forms. In music, keys, pitches, quarter-notes, half-notes and so forth are rules. Build a program that knows and follows them and you don’t need human players or singers anymore at all. Writing has spelling, grammar, and punctuation rules. So spell-check and A.I. can help you or do it all for you. Film has frames per second, photography f-stops, and together a thousand other rules. Devices can handle them. Artists break the rules all the time, but that doesn’t mean their form doesn’t rely more heavily on them than other forms.

Sculpting marble or clay into something recognizable, adorning a canvas with life, or sketching a convincing face perhaps are not activities that rely as much on rules. This does not mean there are none; for instance there are drawing guidelines to make a face proportional and grids to help you transfer reality to the paper. Again, the rules may or may not be followed. And this does not mean an A.I. couldn’t do such activities, because it could. It’s just hard to define what rule you’d use to draw something so perfectly it looks like a photograph; but you know you have to hit certain notes to sing something perfectly. You have to be talented to do either — but maybe one has more foundational rules to get you there.

I’ve sometimes wondered if closing the “effort gap” or “talent gap” between novices and incredible artists is easier in some art forms than others. Meaning, is the gulf between an inexperienced writer and an incredible writer smaller than the gulf between an inexperienced painter and an incredible painter? What about the gap between a new photographer and masterful one compared to the gap between a new sculptor and a highly advanced one? On average, that is. I would suppose the art forms that in any given era take more effort would have the largest chasm to cross. So it would be harder to become a master painter than a master photographer. Perhaps harder, also, than becoming a master cinematographer, writer, singer, or even musician. (I think this view explains why I personally respect and admire the best works of sculpting, painting, and drawing more than the best works of other forms, though music is high up there too. And that’s coming from a writer.)

If so, perhaps rules have something to do with it. We know that practice makes perfect. Some are born with unique gifts, no question, but others go from zero to hero through practice. Might more rules make it easier? Do human beings learn better, faster, with those defined rules? If you stripped away the aforementioned technology of singing, music, and writing (it’s impossible to do this with photography and film), would the rules of the forms alone make these things easier to master than art forms with fewer rules? It’s interesting to consider.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

How the Founding Fathers Protected Their Own Wealth and Power

Extremely wealthy landowners, merchants, and slave-owners held political power both long before and long after independence from Britain.[1] As we have already seen, many of the founding fathers battled to keep religious power out of government,[2] but they saw not the need for separation of State and business interests. Most of these wealthy men opposed democracy, and designed the Constitution to ensure the aristocracy would continue to rule society.

Historian Howard Zinn wrote, “The Continental Congress, which governed the colonies throughout the war, was dominated by rich men, linked together in faction and compacts by business and family connections”[3] and that the Constitution

illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law—all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity…

When economic interest is seen behind the political clauses of the Constitution, then the document becomes not simply the work of wise men trying to establish a decent and orderly society, but the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support.[4]

The aristocrats made their desire for political power quite clear, in their pre- and post-Revolution repression of poor people’s revolts (Bacon’s Rebellion, Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion) and democratic movements aimed at redistributing property or abolishing debts. (Shay’s Rebellion, an uprising against debts and taxes, took place at the time the new Constitution was being written, in 1787, and certainly influenced its formation; see Zinn, Truth Has a Power of Its Own.) Nathaniel Bacon said, “The poverty of the country is such that all the power and sway is got into the hands of the rich, who by extortious advantages, having the common people in their debt, have always curbed and oppressed them in all manner of ways.”[5] The rich also structured their new government in a very specific way. Most of them believed the wealthy, the “well-born,” deserved decision-making power, not the common man. Alexander Hamilton revealed the common sentiment of class hostility and prejudice against the poor when he wrote:

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people… The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government… Can a democratic assembly who annually revolve in the mass of the people be supposed steadily to pursue the common good? Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy…[6]

So only rich representatives could determine what was best for the common American people, not the common American people themselves. As Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote, a “representative system, far from being a guarantee for the people, on the contrary, creates and safeguards the continued existence of a governmental aristocracy against the people.”[7] Many other founders echoed Hamilton, as is to be expected from those in the same socioeconomic stratum. John Jay, who helped write the Constitution and later served as the first Chief Justice of the United States, often said, “The people who own the country ought to govern it.”[8] James Madison argued senators should “come from, and represent, the wealth of the Nation.” He wrote the “turbulence and contention” of pure democracy (the people voting on public policy) threatened “the rights of property,” and sneered at politicians who supported giving all men “perfect equality in their political rights.”[9] He worried a growing population of laborers would “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of [life’s] blessings.”[10] “The danger to the holders of property can not be disguised, if they be undefended against a majority without property,” dangers including “agrarian laws” and “leveling schemes” and “the cancelling or evading of debts.” It was important to “secure the rights of property agst. the danger from an equality & universality of suffrage, vesting compleat power over property in hands without a share in it.”[11]

He warned that in a democracy,

When the number of landowners shall be comparatively small…will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.[12]

In other words, if you give democratic decision-making power to the landless, to the poor, to the majority, they might come for the wealth of the opulent (“agrarian law” is explained further below). John Adams believed, writes David McCullough, that

inequalities of wealth, education, family position, and such differences were true of all people in all times. There was inevitably a “natural aristocracy among mankind,” those people of virtue and ability who were “the brightest ornaments and the glory” of a nation, “and may always be made the greatest blessings of society, if it be judiciously managed in the constitution.” These were the people who had the capacity to acquire great wealth and make use of political power…[13]

To his credit (not really), Adams believed these men should serve in the Senate but the executive branch should be protected against their interests.

These men wrote of the need to protect the minority against the tyranny of the majority, but saw no threat in a minority of wealthy men withholding political and economic power from the majority. No great surprise, as they themselves were the rich, enlightened few. Though the Constitution and Bill of Rights granted unprecedented individual rights, the common citizen had little political power. Popular vote had almost no place in the government they designed. The popular vote did not appoint judges (it still does not), nor the president (it still does not, as the Electoral College has yet to be dismantled), nor Senators (until 1913; Madison himself said that “the Senate, therefore, ought to be this body” that protects “the minority of the opulent against the majority”[14]). The people only directly elected members of the House, yet only property owners were allowed to vote, further disenfranchising the poor and keeping power in the hands of the better off. Only in 1856 did the last state, North Carolina, do away with property requirements to vote. And of course, most aristocrats had few qualms about failing to protect the groups they were personally subjugating, such as black slaves, free colonists of color, and women. In fact, with Britain beginning to dismantle slavery, its preservation was a motivating factor for independence among the colonial elite — another instance protecting their wealth.

Granting decision-making power to the masses was out of the question. The founding fathers had interests to protect, their own minority interests. Thomas Jefferson noted that

Where not suppressed by the rod of despotism, men, according to their constitutions, and the circumstances in which they are placed, differ honestly in opinion. Some are whigs, liberals, democrats, call them what you please. Others are tories, serviles, aristocrats etc. The latter fear the people, and wish to transfer all power to the higher classes of society; the former consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them therefore, & wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competents. This is the division of sentiment now existing in the US.[15]

Jefferson, perhaps the most democratic of the founders, also denounced “the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country”; the aristocrats wanted to create for themselves a “government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed incorporations.”

As James Madison wrote, “Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”[16] He wanted “representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice” to check the “rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project” the rabble might think up.[17] For Madison and others, it was vital for presidents, congressmen, and justices to come from the upper class, which was and is overwhelmingly the case.[18] The most dangerous ideas circulating in the poor majority were those of redistributing property and wealth, forgiving debts, and so on, to end poverty and suffering—the “agrarian law” Madison feared. Thomas Paine supported such redistribution—he wrote in 1795 in Agrarian Justice:

To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe. Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. On the other hand, the natural state is without those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science and manufactures…

Civilization, therefore, or that which is so-called, has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state…. The first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period…

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal…. Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.

In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for…. Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds…[19]

Paine then suggested the creation of a national fund that would grant each person, man or woman, 15 pounds sterling at the age of 21, to compensate for his or her loss of a share in the common property of the earth. He also called for social security, suggesting 10 pounds be granted to each individual per year after the age of 50. Paine envisioned a one-time guaranteed income payment, social security, taxes on the rich, free public schooling, child welfare programs, public housing, and public works programs. His thoughts later inspired many socialists, like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen.[20]

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.


[1] See Zinn, The Politics of History, p. 57-71, for a discussion on the rule of the rich in pre-Revolution America

[2] See Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution

[3] Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 81

[4] Zinn, People’s, 99, 97

[5] Zinn, Politics of History, 61

[6] Zinn, People’s, 96

[7] Geurin, Anarchism, 17

[8] Frank Monaghan, John Jay, chapter 15, p. 323 (1935)

[9] James Madison, Federalist No. 10, “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued),”  Daily Advertiser, November 22, 1787

[10] Chomsky, Common Good, 7

[11] http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch16s26.html

[12] Yates, Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787

[13] McCullough, John Adams

[14] Yates, Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787

[15] http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/mss/mtj.old/mtj1/054/054_1139_1141.pdf

[16] Federalist 10

[17] Federalist 10

[18] See Zinn, People’s, 260-261 for information on how class interests affected Supreme Court decisions

[19] Paine, Agrarian Justice

[20] Nichols, The “S” Word, 33, 46, 53; https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/03/thomas-paine-american-revolution-common-sense/

Colonial Courting Rituals Would Be Creepy As Sin Today

Finding a mate just isn’t what it used to be. Back in the “good ol’ days,” the parents were more parental, the sexism was more sexist, and the hysteria over sex was more hysterical. The courting rituals were truly bizarre, and we can thank our lucky stars they no longer exist. Of course, most of these rituals were only practiced by white straight people, and some only by wealthier colonial or Victorian-era Americans. But today we can all mock them relentlessly together. Let’s get to it.



Gone are the days when your old man could get together with his buddy at the tavern, kick back, down a few cold ones, and decide who you’re going to spoon for the rest of your f*cking life. Yes, if you were unwise enough to be born in colonial times, dorky dads would arrange your marriage for you, hearing not your sobs but rather the jingling of cold hard cash wrought from your dowery or inheritance (depends on your gender). End up with some ugo disgustor? If you didn’t have any Freudian reason to think of your dad during business time, you certainly had this reason.



When you see a well-to-do Victorian gal cooling herself with her fan, she ain’t cooling herself with her fan, son. She’s engaged in a complex system of signals ranking somewhere between the high-step strut of the Blue-Footed Booby and the third base coach of the New York Yankees. Is she fanning herself slowly? Sorry, she’s engaged. Quickly? Single. Fanning with the right hand? Oh my God / look at that face / you look like / my next mistake. Left hand? F*ck off. Fan open, then shut? Kiss her, bro. Fan open wide? She loves you. Fan half open? You’ve just been friend-zoned. Legs shut — I mean fan — fan shut? She hates you. Good luck remembering all that. Don’t mess this up.



The age at which most colonial women married hovered around 19-22 (men were usually in their late twenties). So not too different from modern times. But remember, that’s an average. Some girls did marry when they were teenagers (others were married off as children). The age of consent in the American colonies was usually 10, though sometimes 12. Eventually, states started raising it. California raised it to 14 in 1889, then 16 in 1897. Others followed suit after that, though one technically kept the age at 7 until the 1960s (looking at you, Delawarean sickos).



Remember your middle school and early high school dances and the agonizing embarrassment of the ever-present, complex surveillance apparatus made up of moms, dads, older siblings, teachers, and Principal Bacon? Well, back in the olden days, chaperones weren’t something you could just wait out as the years ticked by. When a man came a-calling, he had to sweep the girl off her feet in front of the potential mother-in-law. There was no one-on-one time. You went over to her house and, if f*cking Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly is any indication, make boring conversation while drinking tea, playing cards, or abusing a piano. Want to come back again? You’ve got to impress the ‘rents.



Yes, one courting ritual was called “handfasting” or “spousing.” If you wanted to be married (by law, mind you), all you had to do was just hold hands and say you were married. You could do this anywhere and at any time, during this age that now sort of sounds like a Libertarian paradise. Apparently (to absolutely no one’s surprise), men would often be all for this, getting married on the spot to a nice yet sexually repressed girl, having sex, and disappearing into the night. Then daddy had to hunt you down — not to kill you for sleeping with his little angel as might happen today, but to force you to actually be her husband.



It was a simpler time, when religious parents knew that kids would mess around and knew there was nothing they could do about it, so they decided to pretend to do something about it while willfully facilitating it. We’re talking bundling, people. When parents said Yes, you kids can have a sleepover as long as you promise not to have sex, let ma sew boyfriend up in bag, and let pa install an impervious one-foot-tall bundling board between your sides of the bed. Not letting Nathaniel sleep over was, apparently, deemed an ineffective way of preventing two lovebirds from engaging in smash game in the room adjacent to mom and dad’s.



Just like today, when lovers send texts to each other while snuggling on the couch together after Christmas dinner so relatives can’t overhear them, colonials found a way to keep things spicy with secretiveness. The courtship stick was a six-foot-long hollow stick that allowed young men and women to whisper some sexy messages to each other in a world of zero privacy. Small homes with parents or parents-in-law, especially those that think touching is a no-no, mean there’s just no way to tell your gal her butt looks great in that dress she wears daily or your man that his plowing is an incredible turn on.



If you lived among the Puritans, you didn’t have to get your woman an engagement ring. Instead, you could give her a helpful piece of sewing equipment. Puritans weren’t showy people, so a little thimble could be offered to the woman (in their defense, it would later be fashioned into a ring; cheap-ass Puritans), presumably as a sign of all the trousers she will have to repair over the course of her lifetime. That’s how you really blow away the ladies.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

Fictional Rosa Parks Speech

First off, let me say there are many folk who could give a speech better than I. On top of that, there are many better men and women who walked the halls of this fine institution who should be standing here before you instead. Highlander Folk School shines on as a beacon for equality, a garden that continues to grow the best civil rights activists and labor organizers in the country. I am very happy to be back here and honored to speak on the bus boycott that occurred in Montgomery just a few years back. Seems people are under the impression these days that the boycott happened because of me. I would like to assure you this is untrue. I can’t take credit for the crusade that occurred in Alabama. I was just the last straw. There were others who would not give up their seat on a bus and were arrested long before me. On the day it happened to me, I just couldn’t bear the thought of giving up my seat on a city bus to another white man and standing in the back for the rest of the long ride home. I would rather be hauled off in handcuffs than face that humiliation and degradation again. As Mrs. Virginia Durr once wrote to you, Highlander gave me a taste of freedom and equality; I thought of this place while the officers dragged me off the bus and to the station.

Look ahead a single year, and our world is changed for the better. A boycott occurred, and it succeeded. After a single year, no black man or woman has to feel the burn of embarrassment or the injustice of segregation on a city bus again. The boycott didn’t succeed because we were organized, though that was part of it. It didn’t succeed because we were angry, though that was part of it as well. It succeeded because we had perseverance. Organization defines the road, anger gets you on the road, but making the long journey to the end of the road, that is perseverance.

Activists like Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, demonstrated what perseverance really is, and indeed so did her members. Mrs. Robinson wrote Mayor of Montgomery W. Gayle in 1954, with a polite request for more fair policies on city buses. She did not even ask for desegregation, but instead requested that blacks begin sitting at the back of the bus and whites begin sitting at the front, and when they meet in the middle and all the seats are occupied, that would be it. She asked that the buses make more stops in black neighborhoods and that we wouldn’t have to pay at the front of the bus and make the humiliating trudge to the back entrance.

Her message fell on deaf ears, for that same “honorable” judge she wrote to would two years later speak at the rally of the Central Alabama Citizens Council about how to preserve segregation. His presence supported and offered legitimacy to ten thousand angry white racists encouraging the killing of black men, women, and children. Jo Ann Robinson would not take no for an answer, however. Briefly mentioning the possibility of a boycott in her letter, she later organized it and made it a reality in December of 1955. She and her WPC members worked tirelessly into the early morning of the fifth to distribute tens of thousands of leaflets calling for a boycott all over Montgomery. Mrs. Robinson and fellow activists were arrested quickly after the movement began, but even in the face of harassment, imprisonment, and threats of violence, they did not yield.

If any two men showed us true strength of character and steady perseverance, it was the two reverends, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. They held Montgomery Improvement Association meetings every week until the boycott succeeded. Dr. King was unequivocally our leader. If I was the spark, he was the fire. He, under the same death threats and mistreatment we all faced and experienced, ignited a passion in our hearts that helped us see this thing through. At one MIA meeting, Dr. King said, “With every great movement toward freedom there will inevitably be trials. Somebody will have to have the courage to sacrifice. You don’t get to the Promised Land without going through the Wilderness. You don’t get there without crossing over hills and mountains, but if you keep on keeping on, you can’t help but reach it. We won’t all see it, but it’s coming and it’s because God is for it” (Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaks to the Crowd). We did what Dr. King called us to do. We kept on keeping on. We braved the wilderness. Dr. King, in his wisdom and his own depth of perseverance, inspired us to stay the course.

Then there was everyone else; every man, woman, and child who refused to ride the Montgomery buses. This boycott began as a one-day movement. Instead, it lasted a year, because the black folk of Montgomery united and persevered together. At the first mass meeting of the MIA, Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy had to fight their way into the church through a joyous crowd of seven thousand people. In February 1965, activist Bayard Rustin noted that “42,000 Negroes have not ridden the busses since December 5” and that two men “walked 7 miles and the other 14 miles” to work each day (Bayard Rustin’s Diary). They weren’t the only ones walking those distances, either. Moreover, during this period dozens of taxi drivers and car-pool drivers were arrested. Yet we did not yield. All the while white folks talked about using “guns, bows and arrows, sling shots and knives” to “abolish the Negro race” and act on white people’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers” (Handbill from Central Alabama Citizens Rally). Yet we did not yield. We persevered together. As one black maid said during the second month of the movement, “When you do something to my people you do it to me too” (Interview About the Boycott). That is true unity of spirit.

 Our spirit went unbroken, and in November 1956 the Supreme Court upheld what we fought for in Browder v. Gayle. Bus segregation was rejected as unconstitutional and the next month buses in Montgomery were integrated. It was a glorious day when I again road a city bus. True equality is still a long way off. We are not out of the wilderness yet. However, the boycott victory has kept us going. As Dr. King said, “Let us continue with the same spirit, the same orderliness, with the same discipline, with the same Christian approach” (Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaks to the Crowd). There will be a day when prejudice and hate are not tolerated in this country. It is only a matter of time. Until that day, we will continue to persevere. We draw closer to the Promised Land.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

Fictional New Deal Editorial

In this month of January 1935 Congress will vote on the Social Security Act. While the debates are waged in our national legislature, in barbershops and department stores, and at kitchen tables across the country, it is the intention of this paper to shed light on several key areas of the bill in drastic need of revision. The Social Security Act, if passed as-is, would create an unjust burden on American workers in trying times. By implementing change to the means by which we achieve a noble end, working men and women can look forward to a brighter future rather than a darker.

The Social Security Act will enact much-needed care for our underprivileged countrymen. The elderly, the unemployed, the handicapped, and dependent children will all benefit greatly from welfare. This paper has no bones to pick with President Franklin D. Roosevelt concerning the admirable and necessary measures this bill will take. The act will create insurance, a pool of money that can be tapped into for relief to the poor, dependent, and unemployed.

One component of the bill that must be revised, however, is who will be included (or more importantly, excluded) from the benefits of social security. The act primarily benefits white males. What about the other factory workers? What about the other farmers, and working women? Mr. Roosevelt is leaving them in the dust, to fend for themselves. The NAACP criticizes the Act, pointing out occupations such as cash tenants, sharecroppers, and domestic servants will be excluded from social security, simply because blacks dominate those jobs. Mr. Roosevelt has bowed to the wishes of prejudiced southern congressmen, and as a result most blacks, and especially black women, will never see minimum wages, unemployment relief, or money for retirement. This, in our view, is unacceptable.

A graver issue is how Mr. Roosevelt plans to pay for this pool of relief money. Employers and employees will both pay a one percent tax on the first annual $3,000 earned. This will allow the Federal government to send monthly checks to retirees. Meanwhile, unemployment hovers at 25 percent. Millions of Americans who are bringing in a small income still live in poverty. The shacks in Hooverville did not disappeared when Hoover did. The United States economy has never been more severely crippled. And Mr. Roosevelt wants to take money from workers’ paychecks? From businesses? A business that is not burden with such a tax will have more money for innovation that could stimulate the economy, or can hire a new worker and get someone off the streets. A worker with a bit more discretionary income will spend it during these hard times, saving his or her family from starvation and kick starting the economy at the same time. The Los Angeles Times has declared that the current method of funding will slow recovery. The American people want reduced taxes, and have written Mr. Roosevelt pleading for such a motion. Now is clearly not the time to burden the American family, nor American business, with an extra tax.

Instead, consider the views of Huey Long and Francis Townsend, who thought it would be better not to burden the poorest, but the richest. Does that not sound more reasonable? Redistribution of national income continues to receive huge numbers of supporters. The Townsend Plan alone has five million members, with a petition of 20 million names. People see this plan as their salvation. Long suggests capping an individual’s income at a few million dollars and collecting the rest to use for the welfare system. The top one percent of America owns a hefty percentage of the nation’s wealth. Those millionaires would do right to give more. Mr. Roosevelt says that a worker paying into the system gives him (and in this case, it is almost certainly a him) the moral right to receive money once retired or laid off. This paper would ask, what about the moral right of the rich? The moral right of Mr. Roosevelt? In our view, the wealthiest would be immoral to say five million a year is not enough, immoral not to care for the elderly and the poor when the common man, the forgotten man, cannot. Long, Townsend, the Congress of Industrial Organization, this newspaper…we do not ask that millionaires give up their millions. Just their discretionary millions.

The Social Security Act should be passed, there is no question. However, it must be made more inclusive, refusing to stoop to the levels of older generations by enforcing Jim Crow laws on welfare. The plan must also be funded not on the backs of those suffering, but by those in mansions with new cars, who never have to fear for being out of work, out of money, or out of food. The common man deserves freedom from such fear. Mr. Roosevelt understands this. If Mr. Roosevelt wishes to drive the money changers from the temple, as it were, it is the opinion of this paper that he do so not with a stick, but with a sword.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

George Sakoulas

Learning a new language can be very difficult. There is grammar to learn and tenses to master. Becoming fluent is an even greater challenge. Some day I hope to speak Spanish fluently; I think that would be impressive. But have you ever met someone fluent in five languages? There is a man I know who has unique talents and skills, and lived through amazing history. He is George Sakoulas, my grandfather (“Popoule” in Greek).

“Everyone has a hidden ambition,” George says. His own was to work with words. He had a dream of being a freelance writer. George came to speak English, Spanish, Greek, Italian, and German fluently, with a little Portuguese on the side. He says English was his best language—not bad for knowing no English at all for years, speaking only Greek with his family and community. The inspiration for the remarkable achievement of becoming a master linguist? He flunked kindergarten. He could not speak English, and he couldn’t go to a Greek school—there were none. After that, his pursuit of languages began.

His father was an impoverished Greek immigrant who sailed to America in 1910. His father opened a restaurant in downtown Kansas City, called the Triangle Grill, because of its location between three streets. It no longer exists, but curiously a sculpture of many different triangles is erected where it once stood. George’s mother immigrated later. She was about thirteen when they married. George’s father left his wife for America and lived there for eleven years before he had enough money to send for his wife (and, unexpectedly, his preteen daughter Nicoletta, George’s older sister).

“I was just a boy on my bicycle,” George once told me, summarizing his childhood. His bicycle story always makes me wonder at life fifty or sixty years ago. He had a bicycle delivery route. Helping those in need, he delivered medicine all over the Kansas City. He was paid 50 cents a week, and was paying off his bicycle, which cost $22.50. His mother was worried a car would hit him. He was hit twice, but did not quit.

The Great Depression dominated George’s boyhood, when money was scarce, foodstuffs, oil, and materials were strictly rationed, and unemployment was high. George spent a good deal of time making his own toys. He remembers making a scooter from roller blades, a two-by-four, and an orange crate. He made toy guns using wood, clothespins, and rubber bands.

George was athletic, and was one of the fastest runners in track, which he did at school and at a junior college in KC. He played basketball in grade school. He remained very small in high school, and was therefore unable to participate in many sports. We Greeks are not known for our height. He later got into boxing, and was a champion in his weight division. “I got a lot of respect,” he says.

His generation was into Frank Sinatra and others. He felt too old for Elvis when “the king” became popular, telling me he considered Elvis to be a “weirdo” and a “hillbilly.” When the Beatles came over to the US, he thought they “looked like girls,” and made fun of them. George says, “So many changes come” and that modern singers “sound like they’re dying.”

When World War II began in September 1939, the age for new recruits in the United States dropped from 21 to 20. Years later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the age dropped to 18. In January 1943 George Sakoulas joined the army, interrupting his junior year in college. In 1943 the Allies invaded Italy, and the US began shipping Italian prisoners to stateside POW camps. Some were sent to a camp in Tooele, Utah, near Salt Lake City, which had been holding German prisoners already.

George was put in the infantry at first. There his linguistic skills were discovered and he was reassigned to the POW camp in Utah before he saw any fighting. “I hated it,” George tells me. While he was there he made applications to leave. He wanted to fight, not stay in the US. “Everyone wanted to fight,” he says.

“Other forces kept me from the war,” George says.

The army sent him to language school at Stanford (where he wishes he had finished, since Stanford is a prestigious school nowadays), where he improved his Italian. After that he was taken to Utah. As a translator, his primary job was to translate the commander’s orders. When he arrived at the camp, only Germans were being kept there—no Italians had yet arrived. George’s “baptism of fire,” as he calls it, came when a troop of Italian prisoners was finally brought into the compound. An old colonel who stood by him as the column of soldiers marched through the games.

The colonel pushed George towards them and ordered him to make them halt. George ran out in front, but did not remember the word for “halt.” So instead he shouted out “Stop!” in Italian, and the column obeyed. He later realized “halt” would have done fine; the Italian equivalent is “alt.”

Popoule wants it to be known how well the prisoners were treated. They were not abused in any way. He remembers life at the POW camp well. The Italians were allowed to cook their own food, and he would sometimes go down and eat alongside them, because their food was better than his own. He said he became friends with a lot of nice men.

The POWs were given tools for activities, and George received gifts like paintings. He was amazed to see a few Germans had constructed a small radio. The prisoners, if they attempted to escape (which happened rarely), were locked up for a whole week, with nothing to eat but bread and water. This was the only time prisoners were not treated well.

George oversaw a company of 200 Italian soldiers for the rest of the war. While the Geneva Convention prohibited hard prison labor, the Italians had plenty of tasks to keep them busy.

George never became a freelance writer. When he got back from Utah, he finished college at UMKC, receiving a degree in history and language. He then went into the restaurant business, where he was needed by his family. He married Goldie, my “Yia-Yia” (grandmother) who was also Greek. They met at a picnic at the Greek Orthodox Church, which they now attend regularly.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

The Little Rock Nine

ED 6010 is the most racially diverse classroom I have ever been in. Let that disheartening statement sink in a moment. It is in part because Foundations of Education is a small class, without a doubt the smallest I have ever known, with 11 students. Three black students, eight white students, one white professor. I have never attended a class in which 25 percent of those present were African-American, a sad testament to the lack of diversity in both Overland Park, Kansas, where I grew up, and Springfield, Missouri, where I attended undergraduate school. These thoughts stirred within me because a memoir, Warriors Don’t Cry, was still fresh in my mind when I first entered ED 6010.

Warriors Don’t Cry is Melba P. Beals’ harrowing account of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. She and eight other black students attended the formerly all-white Central under the statutes of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, which determined the unconstitutionality of racial segregation in public schools. While it is perhaps a miracle the “Little Rock Nine” survived the unimaginable terrors of physical and verbal abuse inflicted during their year at Central, the Supreme Court case that made it possible was a miracle in itself. Amazingly, the Brown case of 1954 was a unanimous decision. It shocked the white world. “Chief Justice Earl Warren worked hard to achieve the compromises necessary for a unanimous decision because he believed that the full court should be behind such a dramatic order” (Fraser, 2010, p. 293). The rulings of many court cases balance on the edge of a knife,with a single deciding vote tipping the rulings one way or the other. How monumental, that such a controversial case, arguably the most controversial in decades, would be without dissent.

The Court declared, referring to black students, “to separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone” (Fraser, p. 294). While the decision determined that separate could never be truly equal,a great step forward to be sure, the Court did not immediately order desegregation. “A year later the Court finally ordered school desegregation, but only ‘with all deliberate speed.’ The lack of a timetable encouraged the southern states to resist” (Norton et al., 2005, p . 810). And resist they did.

Little time needs to be spent explaining why white crowds gathered around Central High to protest and physically prevent integration, or why whites from other states journeyed to swell their numbers, as did local cops, or why Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus sent 250 National Guardsmen to block Melba and her friends from entering the high school. Centuries of racial prejudice and hatred explain that. Each generation taught the next how to think and behave towards blacks. Melba was struck, bruised, and burned with acid. She was ridiculed and tormented and spat on. Most of her abuse was inflicted by white students within Central. The other eight suffered just as badly. Melba recalls being cornered and persecuted in a school bathroom:

I looked up to see a flaming paper was coming right down on me. Girls were leaning over the top of the stalls on either side of me. Flaming paper floated down and landed on my hair and shoulders….

“Help!” I shouted. “Help!” The door wouldn’t open. Someone was holding it—someone strong, perhaps more than one person. I was trapped.

“Did you think we were gonna let niggers use our toilets? We’ll burn you alive, girl,” a voice shouted through the door. “There won’t be enough of you to worry about.”

I felt the kind of panic that stopped me from thinking clearly. My right arm was singed. The flaming wads of paper were coming at me faster and faster. I could feel my chest muscles tightening. I felt as though I would die any moment (Beals, 1994, p. 164).

I was struck by how much worse each day became for Melba. Perhaps it was my knowledge that her efforts would lead to change and would better the lives of African-Americans in the long term, but I fully expected conditions to improve for the Little Rock Nine given enough time. How wrong that assumption was. The death threats continued and intensified. The name-calling persisted. Efforts to physically and mentally harm the black students only became more organized, more desperate, more sinister. After hundreds of pages depicting such abuse, it hurt to read more, yet it continued. Melba and the others went through hell, and their struggle naturally evokes pity.

I did not at all expect to feel pity toward the white students, the abusers themselves. Do not misunderstand me, each tormentor is responsible for his or her horrific actions, and justice should be wrought upon them all. They will have God to answer to. At the same time though,those kids were indoctrinated. They were not born with a hatred for the black race. Their parents and teachers taught them to hate. They taught them that blacks were inferior to whites, that it was acceptable to disrespect, cheat, and abuse them. I pity the kids because they were brainwashed,molded into bigots by people who were molded in the same fashion. Researcher Kenneth B.Clark’s findings, which influenced the Brown case, stated, “Children learn social, racial, and religious prejudices in the course of observing and being influenced by the existence of patterns in the culture in which they live” (Fraser, p. 297).

The cycle continues today in some families. Perhaps that will be the most important thing to keep in mind when I am an educator. Besides parents, teachers are the strongest influences and role models to children. It will be my responsibility to inspire attitudes of equality and respect and understanding, even—no, especially—if it challenges what students are hearing at home.

In her own home, Melba received support from her brother, her mother, and especially her grandmother. It was a different story in the black community as a whole. While some neighbors approved of the Nine’s actions as a catalyst for change, others opposed it and ostracized Melba and the others. After the school year ended and the Nine had spent time around the country being honored for their accomplishment, Melba recalls, “We had come home, to Little Rock, back to being called ‘niggers’ by the segregationists and those ‘meddling children’ by your own people. Our friends a neighbors resented not only the school closure but most especially the negative economic impact our presence in that school had on our community” (p. 307). Some African-Americans, like Melba’s distant father, opposed what the Nine were doing because it made Little Rock even more dangerous for their people. Vandalism and violence against blacks increased, and neighbors saw Melba as only inflaming an already tense relationship. Not only was it more dangerous on the streets of Little Rock, blacks were rejected in grocery stores and employment positions even faster and more harshly than usual, in retribution for integration.

Melba felt the strain of ostracism as keenly as that of racism. She was abandoned by her old group of friends, who were “not willing to die” (Beals, p. 216) with her. She was not invited to parties, and her sixteenth birthday party was a lonely one. She found strength and friendship in the other members of the Nine: Elizabeth, Ernest, Gloria, Carlotta, Minnijean, Terrence,Jefferson, and Thelma. Unfortunately, the situation grew more dire for Melba. Her mother was fired from her teaching position. “Her superiors told her they were taking away her contract because she had allowed me to participate in the integration of Central” (p. 286), Melba writes. Only through exposing the mistreatment to the press did Melba’s mother get her job back (p.294). Throughout the integration process, the press would prove to be a primary force in raising awareness, stirring sympathy for the Nine, and keeping the situation at Central from spiraling into chaos. With the world watching, perhaps white supremacists were held back from their most evil designs.

Melba’s faith throughout this crisis was astounding, and it clearly sustained her. She declares on page two, “The experience endowed me with an indestructible faith in God.” Her diary entries are often prayers to God, and she often mentions times when she prayed for Him to keep herself and her family safe. Trusting God during times of crisis and pain is possibly the most difficult thing to do as a Christian; it is often easier to blame God. Melba’s reliance on Him is as admirable as it was steadfast.

Melba and the other eight would never have gotten in the front door of Central without President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalizing the Arkansas National Guard and sending in the101st Airborne Division to protect the students and see to it integration took place. Governor Faubus challenged the authority of the Court and of the federal government in his effort to enforce segregation, and Eisenhower made a bold move in sending troops to demonstrate the power of federal over local government. There is controversy over the president’s thoughts and motivations, but Melba, her mother, and her grandmother looked upon him favorably for the decisions he made. Melba herself appreciated the Screaming Eagles’ protection, particularly that of her bodyguard Danny, and was sad to see them go (Beals, p. 162). Melba understood that Eisenhower was enforcing the decree of the Court (Beals, p. 145). However, I believe writing off Eisenhower as solely standing up for the federal government’s authority, as some might, is too simplistic.

After World War II, “Ike” was the most popular man in America (Kunhardt et al., 1999,p. 36) and throughout his presidency, he would avoid strong stances on controversial issues to protect that popularity (p. 40). He wanted to avoid dealing with civil rights directly, preferring to let race relations improve without government interference, but it is clear that Ike “disapproved of racial segregation” (Norton et al., p . 810). Ike was concerned about losing party votes in the South by acting on civil rights (Norton et al., p . 810). Boldly stepping in to force integration upon an angry southern populace ran counter to Ike’s way of doing things. He put aside concern for politics, a graver concern with popularity, and an aversion to controversial issues to do what he knew was right. Melba writes, “He had stepped over a line no other President dared cross” (p.309).

According to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, Ike disliked racism, purposefully appointed federal judges who believed in civil rights, forced civil rights legislation through Congress, officially integrated the White House and the Army, and fought discrimination in the workplace (EMC website, 2011). In 1953 Ike said, “I believe as long as we allow conditions to exist that make for second-class citizens, we are making of ourselves less than first-class citizens” (EMC website, 2011). There was more to Ike’s decisions than the federal-state battle. He honestly wanted change and cared about the fate of the Nine.

So did Melba’s protector, a young member of the 101st Airborne named Danny. Judging from Melba’s accounts, Danny proved to truly care about her well-being. Though a soldier under orders, Danny’s commitment to Melba surpassed his instructions. This is possibly due to the soldiers being from the North, where more respectful attitudes toward African-Americans existed. “He looked me directly in the eye” (p. 135) is the first description Melba offers of Danny. A short, poignant sentence. If nothing else, it speaks of respect, even before they knew one another. Danny would later make sure Melba’s tormentors saw him and would stare them down (Beals, p. 136). He washed out her eyes when a student doused them in acid (Beals, p.173). He protected her at every turn, but also offered her advice. That was certainly not in his job description. “’Patience,’ Danny said. ‘In order to survive this year you will have to become a soldier. Never let your enemy know what you are feeling’” (Beals, p. 161). Melba writes:

I feel specially cared about because the guard is there. If he wasn’t there, I’d hear more of the voices of those people who say I’m a nigger…that I’m not valuable, that I have no right to be alive. Thank you, Danny (p. 145).

Clearly, Melba thought much of Danny and cared about him. I believe their relationship was special to both. Danny could easily have withheld advice or not spoken and looked upon her with respect. Those were not his orders. He did them anyway. Though Melba admits, “I will never know if he only behaved that kindly because he was a great soldier or a good person or both” (p. 202), Danny’s actions indicate he sincerely wanted to help and protect a student fighting for change.

Change was Melba’s aspiration. Throughout Warriors Don’t Cry, Melba often mentions the northern city of Cincinnati, which she visited before integration began. It implanted a vision in her mind of what life in the South could be like:

For me, Cincinnati was the promised land. After a few days there, I lost that Little Rock feeling of being choked and kept in “my place” by white people. They weren’t in charge of me and my family in Cincinnati. I felt free, as though I could soar above the clouds (p. 30).

She refers to Cincinnati in her dairy on September 3, 1957, the first time the Little Rock Nine attempted to enter Central High:

Dear Diary,

It’s happening today. What I’m afraid of most is that they won’t like me and integration won’t work and Little Rock won’t become like Cincinnati, Ohio (p. 46).

Melba discovered in Ohio that African-Americans could walk with pride, without having to step off the sidewalk for white people, that bathrooms and other facilities were integrated, and that white people smiled at her and treated her family with decency (Beals, p. 30-31). She found equality. Her aspiration was to bring similar change to Little Rock. In the beginning, Melba believed that just by crossing into the white world she could present herself and show whites there was no need to treat her differently. She was young, and her naïve belief that change could come quickly is understandable. How devastating it must have felt, after Melba survived an entire year at Central, when “Governor Faubus had the last word. He closed all of Little Rock’s high schools” (Beals, p. 306-307) to prevent another year of mixed classrooms. Personally, I felt a twinge of relief reading that. Melba and her friends would be spared another year of hell. The move, from a certain point of view, also reeked of desperation and defeat on Governor Faubus’ part.

Despite the setback for integration, Melba can rest assured today in the knowledge she was a significant part of the civil rights movement. She wrote Warriors Don’t Cry based on her diary entries, local newspapers kept from the time period, and her memory. Though memory can fade and change over time, I believe the story she has told is accurate and trustworthy, and is supported through other sources. Besides, far worse things have been done to African-Americans in this country’s history. Melba writes, “I marvel at the fact that in the midst of this historic confrontation, we nine teenagers weren’t maimed or killed” (p. 309). Her purpose in writing this gripping narrative was not to glorify herself.

I believe she wrote this because most history textbooks devote mere sentences to the story of the Little Rock Nine. The college textbook A People and a Nation provides a paragraph (Norton et al., p . 810). One paragraph can never explain what truly happened at Central High, and Melba knew the need existed to tell the whole story, no matter how painful it was for her and regardless of how painful it is to read it.

Melba writes:

I began the first draft of this book when I was eighteen, but in the ensuing years, I could not face the ghosts that its pages called up. During intervals of renewed strength and commitment, I would find myself compelled to return to the manuscript, only to have the pain of reliving the past undo my good intentions. Now enough time has elapsed to allow healing to take place, enabling me to tell my story without bitterness (p. xvii).

It took over 30 years to write. It took hours to read.

Melba Beal’s legacy can be seen in ED 6010, a peacefully integrated course. This Foundations of Education class is welcoming and respectful. I am blessed by both where I live and the time in which I live. In 1954, de jure integration was achieved. In 2011, de facto integration is incomplete in many parts of the nation, but much improved in 60 years, with significant thanks owed to Melba Beals, the rest of the Little Rock Nine, and their struggle.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

Reference List

Beals, M. P. (1994). Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Fraser, J. W. (2010). The School in the United States. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kunhardt Jr., P. B., Kunhardt III, P.B., Kunhardt, P. W. (1999). The American President. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

No author. (2011). Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission website. Retrieved from http://www.eisenhowermemorial.org/Civil-Rights.htm

Norton, M.B., Katzman, D. M., Blight, D. W., Chudacoff, H.P., Logevall, F., Bailey, B., Paterson, T. G., & Tuttle, W. M. (2005). A People and a Nation. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

The Taiping Rebellion

The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) was a devastating conflict in China between a growing Christian sect under Hong Xiuquan (1815-1864) and the Qing Dynasty government (1644-1911) that resulted in the deaths of over ten million people. Opinions differ as to whether this was a religious or political war, and while elements of both are generally agreed to be involved, an understanding of the overwhelming significance of religion’s role seems nonexistent. While the political forces within Hong’s “God Worshippers” did want to solve the internal turmoil in China, and certainly influenced events, the Taiping Rebellion was a religious war. It was more the influence of the West, not the problems at home, that sparked the violence. While many revolutions had occurred before this with no Christian influence, examining the viewpoint of the God Worshippers and the viewpoint of Qing militia leader Zeng Guofan (1811-1872) will make it exceedingly clear that without the influence of Western religion, the Taiping Rebellion never would have occurred.

From the point of view of Hong Xiuquan, religion was at the heart of everything he did. The origins of his faith and his individual actions immediately after his conversion explain his later choices and those of his followers during the rebellion. According to Chinese scholar R. Keith Schoppa, Hong had a vision he was vanquishing demons throughout the universe, under orders from men whom Hong later determined to be God and Jesus Christ. Hong believed that Christ was his older brother and Hong was thus “God’s Chinese son” (71). Hong studied “Good Works to Exhort the Age,” in which Christian author Liang Fa emphasized that his own conversion stemmed partly from the need to be pardoned of sin and partly from a desire to do good deeds to combat evil and eradicate it from his life (Cheng, Lestz 135). Reading Liang’s writings after the life-changing vision brought Hong to Christianity. It is essential to note that, as Schoppa puts it, “In his comprehension of the vision, Hong did not immediately see any political import” (71). All Hong was concerned about at this point was faith, not the Manchu (Qing) overlords. He was so impassioned he would “antagonize his community by destroying statues of gods in the local temple” (Schoppa 71). What Hong would have done with his life had he not become a Christian is impossible to say. He had repeatedly failed China’s all-important civil service examination; perhaps he would have taken up farming like his father (Schoppa 71).

Instead, he formed the God Worshipping Society. According to Schoppa, certain groups that joined declared the demons in Hong’s vision were the Manchu, and had to be vanquished (72). It was outside influences that politicized Hong’s beliefs. Yet even through the politicization one will see that at the heart of the matter is religion. The very society Hong wished to create was based on Christian ideals. Equality of men and women led to both sexes receiving equal land in Hong’s 1853 land system, the faith’s sense of community led to familial units with shared treasuries, and church was required on the Sabbath day and for wedding ceremonies (Schoppa 73). Christianity brought about the outlawing of much urban vice as well, such as drinking and adultery. One might argue that behind all these Christian ideological policies were long-held Confucian beliefs. According to the 1838 work “Qian Yong on Popular Religion,” eradicating gambling, prostitution, drugs, etc. was just as important to the elites and literati (those who have passed the civil service examination) as it was to Hong (Cheng, Lestz 129-131).

While there were indeed heavy Confucian influences on Hong’s teachings (evidenced by their Confucian adaptations to the Ten Commandments and the proceeding hymns found in Cheng and Lestz’s “The Crisis Within”), Schoppa makes it clear that “the Taiping Revolution was a potent threat to the traditional Chinese Confucian system” because it provided people with a personal God rather than simply the force of nature, Heaven (75). The social policies that emerged from Hong’s Christian ideals, like familial units and laws governing morality led Schoppa to declare, “It is little wonder that some Chinese…might have begun to feel their cultural identity and that of China threatened by the Heavenly Kingdom” (76). The point is, Hong never would have become a leader of the God Worshippers had Western Christianity not entered his life, and even after his growing group decided to overthrow the Manchu, the system of life they were fighting for and hoping to establish was founded on Christian beliefs. Just as Hong smashed down idols in his hometown after his conversion, so everywhere the God Worshippers advanced they destroyed Confucian relics, temples, and altars (Cheng, Lestz 148). The passion of Hong became the passion of all.

On the other side of the coin, it was also the opinion of the Manchu government that this was a religious war. As the God Worshippers grew in number, Schoppa writes, “The Qing government recognized the threat as serious: A Christian cult had militarized and was now forming an army” (72). Right away, the Manchu identified this as a religious rebellion. “It was the Taiping ideology and its political, social, and economic systems making up the Taiping Revolution that posed the most serious threat to the regime” (Schoppa 73). This new threat prompted the Qing to order administrator Zeng Guofan to create militia units and destroy the Taipings. “The Crisis Within” contains his “Proclamation Against the Bandits of Guangdong and Guangxi” from 1854. Aside from calling attention to the barbarism of the rebels, Zeng writes with disgust about Christianity and its “bogus” ruler and chief ministers. He mocks their sense of brotherhood, the teachings of Christ, and the New Testament (Cheng, Lestz 147). Zeng declares, “This is not just a crisis for our [Qing] dynasty, but the most extraordinary crisis of all time for the Confucian teachings, which is why our Confucius and Mencius are weeping bitterly in the nether world” (Cheng, Lestz, 148). Then, in regards to the destruction of Confucian temples and statues, Zeng proclaims that the ghosts and spirits have been insulted and want revenge, and it is imperative that the Qing government enacts it (Cheng, Lestz 148). This rhetoric is not concerning politics and government, Manchu or anti-Manchu. Zeng makes it obvious what he aims to destroy and why. He views the rebellion as an affront to Confucianism. The Christians, he believes, must be struck down.

With the leader’s life defined by Christianity, with a rebellious sect’s social structure based on Christianity, with the continued destruction of Confucian works in the name of Christianity, and with the government’s aim to crush the rebellion in the name of Confucius and Mencius, can anyone rationally argue that the Taiping Rebellion was not a religious war? A consensus should now be reached! The rebellion’s brutality and devastation is a tragedy when one considers the similar teachings of both sides of the conflict, the Confucian call for peaceful mediation of conflicts and the Christian commandment not to kill. The Taiping hymn that accompanies the Christian sixth commandment says, “The whole world is one family, and all men are brethren / How can they be permitted to kill and destroy one another? / The outward form and the inward principle are both conferred by Heaven / Allow everyone, then, to enjoy the ease and comfort which he desires” (Cheng, Lestz 142).

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books. 


Cheng, Pei-kai, Michael Lestz, and Jonathan D. Spence, eds. The Search for Modern China, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 128-149.

Schoppa, R. Keith. Revolution and its Past (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 71-76.

Qing Dynasty and Language

If your homeland were conquered by a foreign power, which would you expect: your occupier to force its foreign tongue upon you or to adopt your language and operate its new government under it? Language is a powerful cultural identifier. For the Manchu people that conquered Ming Dynasty China and established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the seventeenth century, language was the most important factor in establishing the legitimacy of their rule. Careful analysis of Evelyn Rawski’s “Reenvisioning the Qing” reveals the Manchu sought to preserve and spread their own language and embrace the language identity of the Han Chinese, with intriguing historic consequences. Whether or not this possibly counterproductive policy helped or hurt the Manchu maintain their empire is ready for examination.

The Manchu had a history of interesting language interaction before seizing China. According to Rawski, “Mongol allies were vital to the Manchu conquest. Since these alliances were usually cemented by marriage exchanges, early Qing emperors claimed Mongol as well as Manchu ancestry. Mongolian and Manchu were the primary languages during the crucial conquest decades before 1644” (834). Even before they took Beijing, the Manchu were accustomed to adopting other tongues and sharing their own. Rawski calls attention to “the ability of the Manchus to bind warriors from a variety of cultural backgrounds to their cause” (834). Language was key to their success. Perhaps the ease of which the Manchu allowed a mutual exchange of language served as a precedent for their seemingly contradictory policies in China.

When the Qing Dynasty began, the Manchu immediately set to work dispelling the view that they were foreigners and establishing themselves as acceptable rulers. “The adoption of Ming state rituals was a crucial way for Manchu rulers to assert their legitimacy by linking themselves to the former legitimate imperial state” (Schoppa, 32). Religious, political, and household rituals were included. Rawski claims “the determination of the rulers to present themselves to their Chinese subjects as Confucian monarchs is evident in their acquisition of Chinese” (834). Among adoption of other Confucian rituals, the Manchu made a point to learn the Chinese language. As the empire expanded, so the embracing of local language increased. The Qianlong emperor of the eighteenth century spoke Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian, Uighur, and Tibetan, and declared these to be the official state languages (Rawski, 835). Rawski notes, “The emperor commissioned translations, dictionary compilations, and other projects to promote each language” (835). It is evident that the Manchu leaders wished to make the tongues of Han China a part of their own identity.

On the other side of the coin, they also aimed to preserve and teach Manchu. Rawski writes, “Northeastern peoples like the Daur, who had no written language of their own, learned Manchu” (836). The Manchu encouraged use of native languages throughout China, but here one sees the Manchu also sought to spread their own. The Daur, Ewenk and Oroqen eventually spoke and wrote Manchu script (Rawski, 836). The Manchu also sought to teach their language to allied leaders residing in the capitol: “Living in Peking, surrounded by the splendors of Han Chinese culture, they developed in the eighteenth century a definition of Manchu identity that stressed…fluency in the Manchu language” (Rawski, 838). Furthermore, the Manchu had many works translated into their tongue, and kept their government records and history in Manchu.

To the casual observer, it would seem that employing both strategies—preserving Manchu and embracing Chinese languages—would prove counterproductive. One might think that the Manchu should have required the use of their tongue in an effort to solidify their rule, or perhaps one would expect the Manchu to give up their language altogether to fully “sinicize,” to blend into Chinese culture. After all, its writing system was indeed in its infancy, having just been created by Nurgaci and his son Hongtaiji (Rawski, 840). One could make the case that sinicization would have been more complete had they let their native tongue die out. However, the Manchu maintaining their language and encouraging native languages established a balance of power that was the key to preserving their rule. It allowed them to demonstrate the legitimacy of their rule and hold a multiethnic together.

While the Manchu did not only spread their language, rituals and traditions (such as mounted archery) do not create a balance of power. Language is key. What better way to show the Han people that life can resume as normal after a hostile takeover than to allow the people the right to continue, and even spread, their own language? Other empires of history have not shown the same wisdom. Additionally, holding on to Manchu within government circles and using it to fill in the gaps of literacy (as noted before, with the tribes on the outer regions), carefully allows the invaders to preserve their identity. It distinguishes them, yes, but not in a way harmful to their rule, not in a way that marks them as aliens. They do so in a way that blends their tongue and thus their culture seamlessly into the multiethnic realm that is China. Whether one accepts that sinicization allowed the Qing Dynasty last so long, or that it was by building cultural links with multiple ethnic groups as Rawski believes (831), the balance of power the Manchu created through language was instrumental.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.


Evelyn S. Rawski, “Reenvisioning the Qing: The Significance of the Qing Period in Chinese History,” The Journal of Asian Studies 55, no. 4 (November 1996): 829-850.

R. Keith Schoppa, Revolution and its Past (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 32.

Chen Village


Chan, Anita, Richard Madsen and Jonathon Unger, pp. 1-40, 74-168, 186-212 in Chen Village: Revolution to Globalization (1984)


The three authors of this text provide a captivating narrative of a small community called Chen Village under the government of the Chinese Communist Party, which enacts various reform efforts upon China with often harrowing effects. From the Great Leap Forward to the campaigns to the Cultural Revolution, Chen Village suffers and struggles to survive under Mao’s and then Deng Xiaoping’s policies. The authors’ argument (or one of them) is that Chinese village leaders, such as Quingfa of Chen Village, often found themselves in a cruel irony: they came to power seen as opponents of class and were removed from power seen as supporters of class. So it is with Chen Quingfa. Commune leaders were looking for a man of words, a man of action, and a man of wisdom. Party leaders also wanted to select someone with a “clean” class background; Quingfa was extremely destitute and had been his whole life. He was illiterate with humble beginnings. He was their man, and was thus appointed secretary.

Quingfa would later come under fire, transformed into an image of a hated landlord. His relations to former removed landlords would incite criticism. He would be accused of giving the best land to himself and his kin, and eating finer foods than were available to the common man. He was disgraced under the accusation that he received foreign capitalist gifts and thus supported capitalism. Overall, having a better life or having a leadership role was often seen as being of higher class. This impossible situation Quingfa found himself in meant in addition to the turbulent nature of China’s economy and the CCP’s campaigns and policies, leadership roles such as his would be severely unstable and in a state of flux. This only hurt China and slowed its recovery.

The authors use concrete evidence. As many Chinese who lived in this time period are still alive today, there is a plethora of direct quotes from interviewees. Written documents from the time period are also used as primary sources. This book is convincing and effective in showing the reader what Chen Village went through during those trying days.

One thing that struck me was how the sense of identity according to kinship refused to budge even in the face of communist reforms and its new ideology. Quingfa was most helpful to his relatives and neighbors, even going so far as to rig the land distribution lottery to ensure they got better land. He grouped his closest friends into the same work team. Even amongst all the talk of communes, equality and classlessness, older ingrained beliefs and traditions remained. It seems to me that Quingfa did create a higher class for himself, his family and his friends. The ancient sense of identity undermined communism, ensuring that the creation of a classless society would ultimately fail.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

China’s Communist Movement


Perry, Elizabeth. “Rebels Meet Revolutionaries: The Communist Movement in Huai-pei” pp. 208-247 in Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945 (1980)


In chapter six’s opening paragraph, Elizabeth Perry poses a series of questions concerning the relationship between battle-hardened peasants and the Chinese communist movement in the early twentieth century. She introduces her work by asking how these groups would relate: would they join forces or stand at odds with one another? Would peasants, who were so accustomed to fighting for their local interests, support or impede the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to reform the country on a national level? It appears, as she introduces us to a multitude of peasant organizations, that Perry believes it depends on the interests of each group. Reactions will vary by organization because there are too many complexities of circumstance.

For instance, the CCP was most interested in gaining the help of the Red Spears society, which had millions of armed supporters and could thus have a heavy impact on the revolution. Although the CCP disliked the religious practices and other aspects of the Red Spears, they were willing to ignore those for the sake of the greater communist good. However, the Red Spears were totally loyal to their rich landlords of Honan (who sought to maintain their power and wealth), which sat at odds with the communist call for peasants to overthrow corrupt landlords. Potential for an alliance disintegrated over this issue, and even led to violence between the two groups.

So the communist party focused instead on the Bare Eggs society. Unlike the Red Spears, the Bare Eggs were what Perry calls a “predatory” organization, one made up of poor, unemployed members who suffer under that status quo. The Red Spears and others were “defensive” organizations, opposing redistribution of wealth. Therefore, Perry concludes, the CCP had much greater success with predatory groups. Indeed, the Bare Eggs sent hundreds of troops to join the Red Army.

Other barriers to CCP efforts included the Divine Strike Corps, which became a communist enemy because of suggested land reforms. The two sides also differed on their attitudes toward bandits. The communists wanted any allies they could get to battle the invading Japanese (though overall the bandits mostly posed a barrier to CCP success in the region), but the Divine Strike Corps opposed all bandits and aimed to punish and destroy them. Communist efforts at reorganizing bandits therefore displeased both the Divine Strike Corps and the bandits themselves.

The CCP did have some success when they realized that defensive (or “protector”) groups were more receptive to communist ideas. Groups like the Big Swords joined their side. However, Perry concludes by saying old forms of peasant violence were the greatest obstacle to communist success. They were able to have limited success with protective groups and great success with predatory ones. Essentially it was the preexisting interests of each group that determined if they would help the CCP, whether those be political, social or economic reasons, or something as simple as security.

I find it interesting that such a complex web of alliances, so to speak, developed. With warlords, landlords, communists, nationalists, bandits, the Japanese, protective societies, predatory societies and individuals all fighting and scrambling for support, if one allies with another group he is sure to inadvertently make a few new enemies.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

China’s 1911 Revolution


Dutt, Vidya Prakash. “The First Week of Revolution” p. 383-416 in China in Revolution: The First Phase, 1900-1913 (1968)


In chapter 9 of China in Revolution, Vidya Prakash Dutt describes the events of the Wuchang Uprising, which kick-started the Revolution of 1911. The author’s thesis is that the New Army was instrumental in the success of the rebellion; without army membership the effort would have certainly failed. Dutt’s purpose is to illuminate the steps taken that led to the army playing a major role in the conflict, and to reveal how that fact makes this rebellion distinct and remarkably successful. The chapter introduces rebels leaders, from the initial organizer Huang Hsing to the reluctant leader Li Yuan-hung, and chronicles the formation of groups that organized the movement, such as the Literary Institute. It also mentions multiple failed rebellions that preceded the one in Wuchang.

The author then describes the beginning and the end of the violence in Wuchang, when the republican forces wrestle control away from Qing soldiers. The differences Dutt found between this conflict and previous ones from China’s history are startling. Secret societies did not play a large role, power in Wuhan was given to an assembly made up of constitutionalists without republican leanings, and the army began crushing the Manchu city by city, until even the capital fell. It fascinating to note that low ranking soldiers, not their commanders, instigated the revolution. Dutt’s sources, according to the footnotes, include multiple autobiographies of participants and other documents provided by the victors, but also many biographies and secondary works written in the 1940s by various scholars. Based on the evidence provided and the excellent, straightforward writing, the author makes a convincing case.

I find it ironic that the Manchu almost bring about their own destruction. They send many students, such as Wu Lu-chen, to Japan for military education, where the students are exposed to radical, revolutionary ideas. The desire to survive in a modernizing, industrializing world will eventually come back to haunt the Qing leaders. I find that to be quite humorous.

I was struck by the fact that the rebels aimed to turn over power to those who were not even revolutionaries. To me, that is unheard of and somewhat counterintuitive. I understand that they needed a well-known leader, someone who could turn public opinion in favor of the rebels, but still. Li Yuan-hung was so hesitant and uncooperative; I am surprised the army continued pushing him into the leadership role for as long as they did. His conversion from a puppet to the actual leader of the Hupeh Military Government is equally fascinating, and something I would like to study further. Dutt does not go into much detail on how he changes his mind and begins working for the republican cause. To me this seems like a missing piece of the puzzle in Dutt’s narrative.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

China’s Self-Strengthening Movement


Debary, Theodore and Lutrano, Richard. “Moderate Reform and the Self-strengthening Movement” p. 233-249 in Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 through the 20th Century (2000)


In chapter 30 of Debary and Lutrano’s work, the authors offer several excerpts from primary sources to introduce the debate over whether China should embrace Western learning and modernization. Arguments for the self-strengthening movement come from officials who witnessed the Taiping Rebellion first-hand or leaders of provisional armies that brought the revolution down, such as Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang. These men saw the weakness of the Qing state during that rebellion, other revolts, and throughout two Opium wars; it was logical they would feel the need for reforms to bring China back to glory. Opposition arose from orthodox Confucians in the Qing court like Grand Secretary Woren, who argued that learning Western ideas of mathematics and astronomy would corrupt the Chinese people and would fail to strengthen the state. Though the courts knew as well as the generals how badly European powers could outgun them, they were more hesitant to modernize because Western education might replace traditional studies.

However, it seems to me that Woren, in his “Principle Versus Practicality” opposition to the self-strengthening movement, omitted that Westernizing threatens the power of men of the courts like him more than it might threaten traditional Confucian learning. Woren’s arguments come across as muddled, incoherent, and unconvincing. He begins by claiming mathematics itself is a noble subject, but turns around and says two sentences later that if Westerners teach it to the Chinese, the damage will be great. Is not math the same no matter who teaches it? He claims that there is no way mathematics can strengthen a nation during a period of weakness.

He then immediately and inexplicably jumps to Christianity and declares that his people are ignorant if they believe in Christ. His argument is weak and disjointed, which stands in stark contrast to the logic and reasonable tone of Feng Guifen, who suggests making Confucianism the foundation and building upon it using the example of foreign powers. Does Woren honestly believe that mathematics cannot benefit China? Does he bring up Christianity just to use a hated group to prompt sympathy from his audience? He is trying to link Christians with the self-strengtheners, make them one enemy, when they are not. Perhaps the subtext of Woren’s speech is that Woren sees Western teachings a threat to his power, as leader of the Confucian court. Perhaps, like a sorcerer might do, a Westerner could just as easily disrupt the government’s mandate to rule. Woren claims that nontraditional teachings will prompt the Chinese to ally with foreigners, barbarians. Woren might fear that what begins in education, a slow seeping-in of the West’s influence, might just spread upwards and infect administration and government. So he stands against reform. Those with power will usually try to maintain the status quo.

What struck me as especially odd about Woren’s opposition is when he claims that Christianity has fooled half the people. If I recall correctly, Christianity did not see conversion in such numbers in China. Is Woren simply exaggerating for effect, or is he misinformed?

Overall, an intriguing read. I have a bit of background knowledge on the industrialization of Britain, the rest of Europe, Russia, and the United States. I was aware that China began to fall behind in the nineteenth century, and I had been very curious as to why. This battle over whether or not modernization meant turning against Confucian teachings and traditions provides the answer.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

China’s Soulstealers


Kuhn, Philip. “The Roots of Sorcery Fear” p. 94-118 in Kuhn’s “Soulstealers – The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768”


In chapter five of his book, Philip Kuhn aims to examine the fears that existed in ancient China that preceded the panic of 1768. He describes the chapter as an exploration of Chinese sorcery in connection with the soulstealing crisis. Kuhn’s thesis is that two distinct fears existed that ensured chaos would stem from both the upper classes and lower classes of society simultaneously. The first fear, experienced by the common man, was that evil sorcerers would steal one’s soul. A natural event such as trauma could also sever the fragile bond between body and soul, but it was the terror of the supernatural that would be the spark for the great panic. The second fear, held by the imperial elites, was that sorcerers would disrupt the bond between the elites and the heavenly powers, weakening or destroying their mandate to rule. Like the popular fears, natural events could also bring about such things, but were not the primary concern.

Kuhn’s argument seeks to explain the coming crisis. These fears are the roots of the crazed witch-hunt and mass lynching in 1768. According to him, there is yet no detailed study of Chinese sorcery, so Kuhn is truly blazing his own trail in this book, rather than arguing against other scholars or building on previous research. Indeed, the reader will note no reference to other modern scholars within this text. Kuhn builds a convincing case from the ground up, detailing Chinese beliefs in the biodynamic powers of sorcerers, rituals of soul-calling, the use of charms and amulets to save one’s soul, and preexisting suspicions that builders, beggars, the clergy, and strangers in general were involved in black magic. He then dives into how these beliefs formed the two structures of fear than drove people to paranoia. He uses direct quotes from Dutch sinologue J. J. M. de Groot, Henri DorÈ, and writings of Chinese charms and counter-charms from the period. The exhaustive evidence presented powerfully supports Kuhn’s argument.

I had some knowledge of Chinese beliefs on the severability of body and soul, as it has been a basis for their religious beliefs involving honoring and worshiping ancestors for centuries. I found the stories at the beginning of the chapter most interesting; they served as an excellent hook and introduction to the topic. He also weaved those stories into his work here and there, making connections I had not considered. I was very interested in the body-soul connection to the well-known belief of yin and yang.

I was most surprised by the concept of involuntary soul-loss. That was unexpected. The idea that a sudden fright could make one’s soul break from its body was fascinating. Heavenly spirits and vengeful ghosts, along with the results of soul-loss (illness, sleeplessness, madness, death, etc.) were also aspects of this topic that captured my attention. The concept of involuntary soul-loss was not the main fear that led to the panic of 1768, but its belief was just as strong as the idea that evil men would steal one’s soul. It served to support and exacerbate the approaching chaos.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

The Division of the Ottoman Empire

On May 16, 1916, French and British diplomats put the finishing touches on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided up the terminated Ottoman state into territorial zones controlled by the British, French, and Russians.

Negotiators George Picot of France and Sir Mark Sykes of Britain drafted the original document from November 1915 to February 1916, but Sir Edward Grey of Britain and M. Paul Cambon of France hammered out the portion that detailed the fate of the Arabs and their place in the British and French empires. The British aimed to carve up Arabian land that could bridge its European and Asian territories, allowing easy transportation from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, and thus the crown jewel of the empire, India. The British further desired a French buffer zone between themselves and Russia, and wanted Palestine controlled by international forces to prevent a French takeover. France wanted a land bridge to Persia and the Mosul oil fields, as well as control of the Mediterranean coast and southern Turkey.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement reflected the British and French policy of partition adopted during World War I aiming to dismantle the Ottoman Empire. While they previously wished to maintain the “sick man of Europe” to recover debts, the war provided an opportunity to gain strategic advantages and vast amounts of territory and resources. The Agreement also exemplified the British policy of making assurances concerning Arabs it never intended to keep. It hints at preparing Arabia for one independent state, an empty promise already made by the British government to the Sharif of Mecca as justification for the ensuing land grab; the Anglo-French section begins by declaring: “France and Great Britain are prepared to recognize and uphold an independent Arab State or a Confederation of Arab States.”

Of course, the rest of the document made it plain the aim was actually to increase European imperialism in the region, as the powers outlined their right to “establish direct or indirect administration or control as they may desire” in their zones. Rights were given in the form of “priority of enterprises” such as commerce and shipping, control over ports, management of water, restrictions on railroad construction, freedom of troop transportation and goods movement, management of tariffs and custom barriers, control of weapons, and a ban on granting any other imperialist nation power in the Middle East. In the weak guise of fulfilling Arab hopes, the Sykes-Picot Agreement declared the heart of the Ottoman Empire belonged to France and Britain. The Arabs were outraged when the document was leaked by the Russians.

This was not a formal treaty, but rather a policy statement: a simple clarification of France and Britain’s goals and an arrangement that could satisfy both while keeping the other in check. Sir Mark Sykes was not even an official diplomat (he was a Member of Parliament), and while the negotiators had the backing of their respective governments, national leaders did not sign it. Its intended secrecy and the later embarrassment over its exposure suggests it was never meant to be anything more than a quiet, unofficial plan between two untrusting allies.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement changed the face of the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire disappeared, replaced by European-controlled spheres of influence. Britain gained territory in the modern regions of Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait, and benefited more from their acquisitions than did the French. France occupied Syria, Lebanon, and parts of Turkey. Palestine was placed under international rule.

The spheres of influence were later the basis for the mandate system, wherein a foreign nation developed (occupied) another until self-government was possible (yet in practice never granted). The development of the mandate system in the early 1920s would lead to the creation of the Middle East’s modern-day national borders, most determined without much consideration of the religious and ethnic animosities that would be suddenly thrown into a country together. However, the fight for Arabian independence would be long and hard, as foreign occupation would continue for decades after the borders were drawn.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

Griffin’s Book Recommendations


Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen

A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley

The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould

Punished by Rewards: The Problem with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, Alfie Kohn

The Bomb, Howard Zinn

Terrorism and War, Howard Zinn

Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, Jonathon Kozol

The Historic Unfulfilled Promise, Howard Zinn

Give Me Liberty!, Eric Foner

Who Owns History?, Eric Foner

The Future of History, Howard Zinn

Liberty Defined, Ron Paul

The Revolution, Ron Paul

A History of Knowledge, Charles Van Doren

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang

What Does it Mean to be Well-Educated? And Other Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies, Alfie Kohn

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, Ronald Takaki

A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, Howard Zinn

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell

Teaching What Really Happened, James Loewen

The Slave Community, John Blassingame

Black Boy, Richard Wright

Sundown Towns, James Loewen

The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, Vijay Prashad

Communism and the Negro, Max Shachtman

Savage Inequalities, Jonathon Kozol

Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, Noam Chomsky

How Marxism Works, Chris Harman

The Seventeen Solutions, Ralph Nader

Declarations of Independence, Howard Zinn

Socialism: Past and Future, Michael Harrington

The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire, Noam Chomsky

Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World, Noam Chomsky

What We Say Goes, Noam Chomsky

A People’s History of Poverty in America, Stephen Pimpare

A People’s History of the World, Chris Harman

9-11, Noam Chomsky

Economics of the Madhouse, Chris Harman

The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature, Noam Chomsky and Michael Foucault

God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens

The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Bart Ehrman

The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins

The Lessons of History, Will and Ariel Durant

Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, Tim Wise

Occupy the Economy, Richard Wolff

Wage-Labour and Capital, Karl Marx

Value, Price, and Profit, Karl Marx

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

Agrarian Justice, Thomas Paine

Anarchism, Daniel Guerin

Race Matters, Cornel West

All About Adam and Eve: How We Came to Believe in Gods, Demons, Miracles, and Magical Rites, Robert J. Gillooly

Why I am Not a Christian, Bertrand Russell

The Case for Socialism, Alan Maass

Why Not Socialism?, G. A. Cohen

Essential Works of Socialism, Irving Howe (editor)

The “S” Word: A Brief History of an American Tradition…Socialism, John Nichols

The Evidence for Evolution, Alan Rogers

Envisioning Real Utopias, Erik Olin Wright

Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA, Goldin, Smith, & Smith

The Common Good, Noam Chomsky

Edutopia, Winston Apple

The Godless Constitution, Kramnick and Moore

Climbing Mount Improbable, Richard Dawkins

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn

Questioning the Millennium, Stephen Jay Gould

Social Studies for Secondary Schools, Alan Singer

Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris

The End of Faith, Sam Harris

Hopes and Prospects, Noam Chomsky

The Politics of History, Howard Zinn

Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Bertrand Russell

Godless, Dan Barker

On Anarchism, Noam Chomsky

Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Randall Kennedy

Malcolm X Speaks, Malcolm X

What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank

Life Driven Purpose, Dan Barker

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. du Bois

Looking Backward, 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy

Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky

Dear White America, Tim Wise

Who Rules the World?, Noam Chomsky

Guild Socialism, G.D.H. Cole

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

Because We Say So, Noam Chomsky

Democracy Matters, Cornel West

Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond

Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau

How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell

Free Will, Sam Harris

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens

The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris

Arguably, Christopher Hitchens

On Prejudice, Daniela Gioseffi

Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky

God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, Dan Barker

Mad in America, Robert Whitaker

The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer

Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, Arundhati Roy and John Cusack

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking, Daniel C. Dennett

Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne

Global Discontents, Noam Chomsky

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Michael Wolff

Understanding Power, Noam Chomsky

The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan

A Short History of Progress, Richard Wright

Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell

Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen

Inside Animal Hearts and Minds, Belinda Recio

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Frans de Waal

The Four Horsemen, Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett

Outgrowing God, Richard Dawkins (for young people)

The History of the World, J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad

Truth Has a Power of Its Own, Howard Zinn and Ray Suarez

Mortality, Christopher Hitchens

Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett

Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit

Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari

Is This the End of the Liberal International Order?, Fareed Zakaria v. Niall Ferguson

Superfreakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Hitchens vs. Blair, Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair

Original Zinn, Howard Zinn

This Idea is Brilliant, John Brockman (editor)

Language and Politics, Noam Chomsky

Making Sense, Sam Harris

Love in the Time of Victoria, Françoise Barret-Ducrocq

The Inner Life of Animals, Peter Wohlleben

A History of the American People, Paul Johnson (review)

Jesus, Interrupted, Bart Ehrman

The History of Philosophy, A.C. Grayling

Thinking About History, Sarah Maza

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot


For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

KC’s Cathay Williams Said She Was a Man to Join the Army

Cathay Williams became William Cathay
And no one was to know
The secret of her identity
As a soldier she did grow.

So wrote Linda Kirkpatrick in her 1999 poem “Cathay Williams,” about the first black woman (that historians know of) to enlist in the U.S. Army — in the guise of a man.

Williams was born a slave in Independence, Missouri, in 1842. A grown woman enslaved in Jefferson City at the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, she was taken by a Union regiment and put to work, like many other slaves “freed” by the Army. She told the St. Louis Daily Times in January 1876:

[When] United States soldiers came to Jefferson City they took me and other colored folks with them to Little Rock. Col. Benton of the 13th army corps was the officer that carried us off. I did not want to go. He wanted me to cook for the officers, but I had always been a house girl and did not know how to cook. I learned to cook after going to Little Rock…

Williams traveled through Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Iowa, and other places, serving as a cook and laundress. The war ended in 1865, but Williams was not done with the military.

Female soldiers being unlawful, she disguised herself as a male (she was tall, at five foot nine) and enlisted in St. Louis. She called herself “William Cathay” (at times spelled “Cathey”). An Army surgeon, whose job seemingly did not entail a thorough physical examination, declared her fit for duty. She joined the 38th U.S. Infantry, a black regiment (“Buffalo Soldiers”), on November 15, 1866. She remembered:

Only two persons, a cousin and a particular friend, members of the regiment, knew that I was a woman. They never ‘blowed’ on me. They were partly the cause of my joining the army. Another reason was I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.

What followed is believed to be an uneventful two years in the military. Williams marched from Missouri to Kansas to New Mexico, but likely did not see combat. She was hospitalized five times for various medical problems — joint pain, nerve pain, severe itching — but somehow was not discovered immediately. According to her, some ailments were faked:

I carried my musket and did guard and other duties while in the army, but finally I got tired and wanted to get off. I played sick, complained of pains in my side, and rheumatism in my knees.

Then a doctor had the surprise of his life: “The post surgeon found out I was a woman and I got my discharge.”

That was at Fort Bayard, New Mexico. Interestingly, neither her commander nor the surgeon mentioned anything about her gender in the discharge papers. The commander said Williams “has been since feeble both physically and mentally, and much of the time quite unfit for duty. The origin of his infirmities is unknown to me.” The surgeon said Williams was of “…a feeble habit. He is continually on sick report without benefit. He is unable to do military duty… This condition dates prior to enlistment.”

Whether these men were too embarrassed to admit a woman had pulled the wool over their eyes is a matter of speculation (though her “condition” dating “prior to enlistment” seems a wonderfully humorous comment on her gender; otherwise, one might ask just how a surgeon at a New Mexico fort knew her “feeble habit” dated prior to enlistment in St. Louis, where a surgeon declared her fit for duty).

In any case, Williams faced immediate harassment: “The men all wanted to get rid of me after they found out I was a woman. Some of them acted real bad to me.”

She served as an army cook in New Mexico for a time, then spent the rest of her days in Colorado and St. Louis. She was hospitalized again, and applied for a disability pension based on her military service. Her application was rejected. She died in 1892.

A monument for Williams can be found in Leavenworth, Kansas.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

Inconvenient Truths About the First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of the most popular holidays in the United States (and Canada), a day to reflect on and be thankful for all we have, while delighting in childhood dramas of the First Thanksgiving, a feast shared by Pilgrims from the Mayflower who landed at Plymouth Rock and American Natives in the fall of 1621.

But how accurate is our collective memory of this event? How much is mythology and how much is fact, meaning the best conclusion based on historical evidence? And are we forgetting details that might make the holiday much more meaningful, a chance to celebrate both Indian culture and generosity?

Let’s consider some awkward truths about the First Thanksgiving. Much of this information can be found in Lies My Teacher Told Me, by historian James Loewen, which I encourage everyone to read.


There was no such thing as “Plymouth Rock” and no such thing as a “Pilgrim”

At least not by the diction of the time, anyway. The term “Pilgrim” was actually not in common usage until the 1870s. It is used today to describe the English Separatists, who broke from the Church of England. (These were not, bear in mind, the Puritans, who desired no such break from the Church.) The Mayflower had 102 passengers onboard, but only about 35 were Separatists. The rest were ordinary settlers seeking wealth and land in the New World, devoid of religious motivation for their travels.

The “Plymouth Rock” part of the story, that is, the exact spot where the Mayflower passengers supposedly disembarked, originated over a century after the event. Further, they made landfall at Cape Cod a month before going on to what would become the Plymouth area.


Natives saved the Plymouth colonists from starvation, despite horrific white-Indian relations…and still may not have been invited to the First Thanksgiving

In the winter of 1620, half the Plymouth colonists died of disease and starvation. They knew nothing of how to survive in this strange new world. One the other hand, Native American tribes developed half the crops on the globe today, according to Loewen.

Only the intervention of Natives like Hobomok and Squanto saved them. Squanto was enslaved by English invaders in 1614 and had somehow escaped from Spain and made it back to his Patuxet village, to find everyone dead of disease and war. Whites enslaved him, yet he took pity on the Plymouth colonists. William Bradford called him “a special instrument sent of God.”

The Plymouth colonists were grave-diggers. They ransacked Massachusett, Narragansett, and Nauset graves, taking anything of value. To the Natives, this was desecration. The colonists were also thieves, stealing Indian corn, beans, and other crops from the Wampanoags and others.

Nearby, the Europeans had already gone to war with Indian tribes, such as in 1585 when Richard Grenville’s forces destroyed an entire Indian village in present-day Virginia after one Indian stole a silver cup, or in 1611, when Jamestown attacked the Powhatan Indians for refusing to return English settlers who had joined the Powhatan tribe to avoid starvation; the English destroyed a village, slaughtered about 15 Indians, stabbed the queen of the tribe to death, threw children into the river and began “shoteing owtt their Braynes in the water” (Zinn, A People’s History of the United States).

Despite this, the Wampanoags befriended the Plymouth colonists. Though admittedly, according to Loewen, this was in part because the Wampanoags had been decimated by the plague and desired allies to survive.

In the fall of 1621, the colonists celebrated their first successful corn harvest, and may have invited their saviors and allies, the Wampanoags, to feast with them for three days. (They did not celebrate annually, though they did have a similar feast in 1623.)

However, some historians doubt the Natives were invited. Tobias Vanderhoop, an Aquinnah Wampanoag, says his ancestors heard celebratory gunfire during the colonists’ feast, and marched to investigate, concerned their fragile peace treaty with the whites was on the verge of collapse. Vanderhoop says only when they arrived were they invited to join… and it was a “tense” meal.  

About 50 years later, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony waged war on the Wampanoags to seize their lands, and the Wampanoags were all but destroyed.


Was the First Thanksgiving actually in Florida?

Native Americans had a long history of celebrating the autumnal harvest before Europeans invaded their shores, and “both the Separatists who came over on the Mayflower and the Puritans who arrived soon after brought with them a tradition of providential holidays—days of fasting during difficult or pivotal moments and days of feasting and celebration to thank God in times of plenty.”

But even before the November 1621 feast of the Wampanoags and the Mayflower settlers, there was Pedro Menéndez de Avilé and crew, the Spanish who landed in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, held a mass to thank God for their safe voyage, and feasted with the local Timucua.

There is also some evidence of a “thanksgiving to God” at Baffin Island, Canada between Englishmen and Natives in 1578.

The English celebrated a “day of thanksgiving to Almighty God” on December 4, 1619, without any Natives, when 38 British settlers landed at Berkeley Hundred on the James River. The Spanish may have similarly celebrated by themselves at San Elizario on the Rio Grande, in present-day Texas, in 1598.

In any case, days of thanksgiving became common practice in the New England colonies.

The first official “Day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men.

The Continental Congress set aside a few days a year during the American Revolution for thanksgiving, George Washington declared a national day of thanksgiving in 1789, Sarah Josepha Hale (creator of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) campaigned from the 1820s to the 1860s for a national holiday, and Abraham Lincoln declared the final Thursday of November Thanksgiving Day in 1863, the most dire year of the Civil War, “when the Union needed all the patriotism such an observance might muster.”

Not until the 1890s did the feast of the Plymouth settlers and Wampanoags become part of the modern American tradition.


English settlers were most thankful for the plague

Native American peoples, their immune systems unprepared for European diseases, died by the millions. Smallpox, bubonic plague, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, typhus, and so on, began wiping out entire tribes as soon as the invaders arrived in the Americans in the late 15th century. 90% of the original Indians in New England died from disease.

While this is well-known, less known is how it delighted New England settlers. Today religious Americans give thanks for God for all they have on Thanksgiving; the prayers of our forefathers were far more disturbing.

William Bradford, a founder of the Plymouth colony, wrote, “It pleased God to afflict these Indians with such a deadly sickness, that out of 1,000, over 950 of them died, and many of them lay rotting above ground for want of burial…” He described the Indians with small pox:

[T]hey fall into a lamentable condition as they lie on their hard mats, the pox breaking and mattering and running one into another, their skin cleaving by reason thereof to the mats they lie on. When they turn them, a whole side will flay off at once as it were, and they will be all of a gore blood, most fearful to behold. And then being very sore, what with cold and other distempers, they die like rotten sheep.

John Winthrop, governor of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony that came after the Plymouth colony, called the Native American epidemic “miraculous,” writing, “But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the smallpox… God hath thereby cleared our title to this place…”

Speaking of a land dispute in 1631, Puritan minister Increase Mather said, “God ended the controversy by sending the small pox amongst the Indians. Whole towns of them were swept away, in some of them not so much as one Soul escaping Destruction.”  

This view laid a firm foundation for the enduring American belief that the formation and success of the United States was God’s will, no matter how many other people were killed or cultures destroyed in the process.

Meanwhile, Native Americans have held a National Day of Mourning on the final Thursday of November since 1970.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

What the Guy Fawkes Mask and Confederate Flag Have in Common

The appropriation of symbols is interesting indeed.

Today being the fifth of November, much attention will be paid to the Guy Fawkes mask, popularized in the U.S., like the “Remember, Remember” rhyme, by the 2006 film V for Vendetta, in which a vigilante wearing the mask battles to overthrow a fascist dictatorship in Britain in a dystopian future.

The vigilante is the protagonist, murderous toward his enemies but compassionate toward his friends, with enough humanity to allow the British Parliament building time to empty before he blows it up.        

Since the film, the Fawkes mask has become a symbol of anti-government resistance, used by the hacker group Anonymous, which publicizes State secrets, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which opposes how corporations and the wealthy control the State, and popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and Asia.

Of course, there exists a serious disconnect between the modern use of this symbol and the historical person on whom it is based, as I will explain. The dichotomy reminds me, actually, of the appropriation of the Confederate flag and the embarrassingly anhistorical justification of its use.

It’s an interesting comparison because on the one hand we have a symbol that might be associated with the most radical of leftists, and on the other a symbol usually associated with the far right.

After a young white racist tried to spark a “race war” by massacring nine black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015, fierce debate over the Confederate flag (which the shooter displayed in his personal life) shook the U.S. It led to the removal of many Confederate flags from government buildings in the traditional South.  

The debate over the flag was fierce. True, flying the Confederate flag doesn’t necessarily make you a racist, but it is a racist symbol regardless. These things are in no way mutually exclusive.

Many whites who fly it likely do carry conscious anti-black prejudice (nearly all whites have subconscious biases), but surely not all, in the same way many whites who use “nigger” are racist, but not necessarily all of them (Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, by Randall Kennedy, explores this).

So we have non-racists who fly the flag, actual racists who fly the flag, and progressives who despise the flag.

Regarding the first of these, American whites (and even blacks) who display the Confederate flag say liberals who hate the flag (and actual racists who love it) are misrepresenting it, that it really represents “heritage, not hate.”

This is somewhat vague. By heritage, I suppose this means all Southern culture, tradition, and history besides slavery, insurrection, Jim Crow laws, white terrorism, lynching, etc. In reality, it’s only these non-racists who fly the flag that misrepresent it (appropriate it), in a “positive” way: ignoring its white supremacist origins. They are sugarcoating, whitewashing it.

It is well-known that the symbol originated as a battle flag for traitorous states that sought to preserve black slavery, and was popularized by a white terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan, after the war. According to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s

…foundations are laid…upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth…   

The creator of the flag (which originally had the stars and bars in the corner, the rest white) was quoted in the Daily Morning News on April 23, 1863 as saying:

As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.

It’s nonsense to claim progressives or actual bigots misrepresent its true meaning. It has evolved to mean something else, something benign, for some whites, which absolves them of blatant racism but also threatens to breed historical amnesia.

The Guy Fawkes mask is a similar story.

Fawkes was a Catholic terrorist who, along with co-conspirators, tried to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605. Unlike the hero of V for Vendetta, he did not seek to destroy an empty building. He and his companions wanted to assassinate King James I, a Protestant, no matter how many innocent people died beside him. The plot was uncovered in time and Fawkes was executed.

It was an act of religious and political terrorism, as Fawkes opposed decades of persecution of Catholics by the British royal family, a small act in an era of unspeakable religious violence, both within European nations and between them.

In the early 1500s, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others broke from the Roman Catholic Church to create a more “pure” Christianity. Northern Europe became dominated by Protestant states (like Britain), Southern Europe by Catholic states. Central Europe (primarily Germany) plunged into violence that lasted more than a century. Torture was widely used. It all then culminated in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which devastated Europe and killed some 8 million people.

Perhaps one will justify Fawkes’ actions as being acceptable because of State oppression of Catholics (predictably, a justification more likely if the one making it is Catholic). Yet I wonder if one would say the same of a Sunni terrorist attempting to assassinate an oppressive Shiite ruler in a Middle East nation, an attempt that would massacre innocent bystanders. Would one not be quick to call that terrorism?

The Fawkes mask is a symbol of the violence bred by religion–both State violence against a minority religious group, and group violence against the State out of revenge. It symbolizes violence as the answer to religious conflict.

I support the actions of the groups mentioned above that today wear the Fawkes mask. Yet like the Confederate flag, their symbol should be buried. Why would decent human beings hold a flag created to represent the superiority of the white race, or wear a mask of a religious terrorist willing to kill innocent people to get to one enemy?

Put bluntly, it’s because they do not study history.

Remember, remember!

The fifth of November,

The Gunpowder treason and plot;

I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes and his companions

Did the scheme contrive,

To blow the King and Parliament

All up alive.

Threescore barrels, laid below,

To prove old England’s overthrow.

But, by God’s providence, him they catch,

With a dark lantern, lighting a match!

A stick and a stake

For King James’s sake!

If you won’t give me one,

I’ll take two,

The better for me,

And the worse for you.

A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,

A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,

A pint of beer to wash it down,

And a jolly good fire to burn him.

Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!

Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!

Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

Christopher Columbus’ Genocide

A handful of American cities in the U.S. have abolished Columbus Day and replaced it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Apparently some think it makes more sense to celebrate the history and culture of Native Americans than the mass murderer who launched the campaign that nearly exterminated them.

As documented in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, when Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492 and was greeted by Arawak Indians with food and gifts, he wrote in his journal, “They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…they would make fine servants…with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

And so the Atlantic slave trade began. Columbus, noticing the gold ornaments the Arawaks wore on their ears, took several aboard his ships as prisoners to extract information from them.

After all, Columbus’ mission was not one of simple exploration and discovery. His mission was to find gold and spices in Asia. In return, Spain promised him governorship over all the lands he discovered, the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and 10% of all profits from the loot.

Columbus, moving from the Bahamas to what is now Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, sent several dozen Indians as slaves back to Spain in February 1494. In 1495, he rounded up 1,600 Indians in Haiti, selected the 550 “best males and females,” and sent them to Spain as slaves; two hundred died during the voyage. The remainder of the 1,600 back in the New World were handed out as slaves to his men.

Columbus, like the European invaders of the Americas that followed him, justified his atrocities with religious platitudes, saying, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

Indians were also rounded up and put to work on New World plantations called encomiendas. The death toll was catastrophic, and many women were raped.

After an Indian woman “treated me with her finger nails” because “she did not want it,” one Spaniard said, “I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard of screams…” The woman then complied like she had “been brought up in a school of harlots.”

Columbus gave sex slaves to his men, saying girls “from nine to ten are now in high demand.”  

As it became clear that gold was in very limited supply on these Caribbean Islands (quite the opposite of what Columbus told the king and queen of Spain), Columbus grew more brutal.

All Arawaks over fourteen were ordered to collect a specific amount of gold every three months. Those that did not (and most could not) had their hands cut off, and left to bleed to death. Indians who fled were hunted down with dogs, who devoured them alive.

Dogs were also used when the invaders participated in monteria infernal: hunting Indians for sport.

Indians tried to mount a defense against Columbus, but were wiped out. They had no iron, no guns, no horses. Prisoners taken by the Spanish were hanged or burned to death.

A Spanish priest, Bartolemè de las Casas, wrote that Columbus’ men “thought nothing of knifing Indians by the tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” He saw two soldiers decapitate two Indian boys “for fun.”

He wrote, “They attacked towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women…cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughterhouse.”

Many Arawaks committed suicide with cassava poisoning, and parents killed their babies to keep them away from Columbus. The invaders “took infants from their mothers’ breasts…pitching them headfirst against the crags or…threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter.”

After two years on Haiti, half of the estimated 250,000 original inhabitants were dead. By 1515, there were about 50,000 left. By 1550, 500. By 1650, they had been exterminated completely for a long time.

Las Casas estimated that by 1508, “over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this?”

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.