Britain’s imperial dream catchers

Erik Linstrum writes:

Every state needs to know about the people it rules. Censuses, property surveys and tax records are familiar and tangible expressions of the state’s need to maintain power by accumulating knowledge. This is not just a matter of tedious bureaucratic record-keeping: especially when confronted with unfamiliar problems, states often turn to cutting-edge technologies and forms of expertise to make sense of the populations under their authority. In the early 20th-century Age of Empire, when European colonies stretched across the world, psychoanalysis was the novel technique of the moment. In an attempt to better understand their colonial subjects in those years, officials in the British empire undertook a curious and little-known research project: to collect dreams from the people of South Asia, Africa and the Pacific. The results were not what they expected.

Take, for example, the dream of Lhuzekhu, a man from the Naga Hills of Northeastern India who worked as an interpreter for the colonial administration. Lhuzekhu’s boss, a British district officer, recorded this dream in 1924:

I went alone down to the school. An elephant with no one on its back came up from the bazaar. I felt it was yours. I was frightened it might hurt me and threw a stone at it … Then I found myself in my house with my family … We all sat round the fire. There was a sudden gale of wind. I held the post fearing my house would be blown over. The gale stopped. I looked at all my posts and especially at the carved one in front of the door, and said: ‘If it had not been for this post, my house would have fallen and I should have had a lot of trouble.’

Lhuzekhu’s dream was among hundreds collected from across the British empire – from the Indian subcontinent, Nigeria, Uganda, Australia, the Solomon Islands and elsewhere – on the instructions of an anthropologist at the London School of Economics (LSE) named Charles Gabriel Seligman. Seligman was a longtime adviser to colonial governments, which funded his research and helped to train colonial officials at the LSE. Seligman made his career as a physical anthropologist at the height of racialist science. That meant defining human groups on the basis of physiognomy and locating them in evolutionary hierarchies. Seligman was, in short, an imperialist and a classifier par excellence. So what did he hope to accomplish by amassing dreams such as Lhuzekhu’s? [Continue reading…]

Trump’s ignorance about history could get us into a war with Iran

Fred Kaplan writes:

One difference between the Cuban crisis of 1962 and the Iranian crisis of 2019 is that, in the former, the American president wanted to avoid war, had read some history on how past leaders got locked into war, and thought deeply about how he might avoid the same trap. It also turned out that Khrushchev, his adversary in that crisis, proved to be an eager partner in the quest for a way out; he knew, from the outset, that if the Americans saw him putting missiles in Cuba before they were up and ready to go, he would lose a confrontation.

By contrast, in the crisis with Iran, Trump seems clueless on how to go about avoiding war; at least two of his aides—national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—seem keen on turning up the pressure, and we have no idea what the Iranian leaders, or their various factions, want. [Continue reading…]

The Independent reports:

Donald Trump has said he “doesn’t care about the Europeans” when it comes to dealing with Iran as the feud between Washington and Tehran escalates.

The US president said he had called off an attack against Iran in response to the shooting down of an American drone because he “didn’t think it was proportionate”.

Yet Mr Trump also said the US military had identified Iranian targets for air strikes. “I have so many targets you wouldn’t believe … We have targets all over,” he told interviewer Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press.

“I’m not looking for war and if there is, it’ll be obliteration like you’ve never seen before. But I’m not looking to do that.”

Mr Trump dismissed European leaders’ efforts to uphold the Iranian nuclear deal forged between world powers in 2015.

“I don’t care about the Europeans,” he said. “The Europeans are going out and making a lot of money … In France, they’re selling cars to Iran. They’re doing other things.” [Continue reading…]

Nicholas Kristof writes:

President Trump applied maximum pressure on North Korea, and it is continuing to produce nuclear weapons.

He applied maximum pressure on China, and we may be facing a trade war.

He applied maximum pressure on Venezuela, exacerbating hunger in the streets but leaving the dictatorship in place.

He applied maximum pressure on Palestinians, who responded by refusing to meet administration officials.

Most worrying of all, Trump applied maximum pressure on Iran, and we may now be on the brink of war.

In each of these cases, Trump pursued aggressive tactics without any obvious strategy. The tactics themselves often proved quite successful at inflicting misery, but this simply led several countries to double down on belligerence in ways that endanger the United States — and that is particularly true of Iran. [Continue reading…]

How World War II almost broke American politics

Joshua Zeitz writes:

The story of how Americans surmounted their fractured political culture to mobilize for D-Day remains a trenchant example, in our own age of discord and division, of how a country desperately wanting for consensus can rally together in a moment of common purpose.

“Our bond with Europe is a bond of race, and not of political ideology,” the famed aviator and outspoken isolationist Charles Lindbergh told a national radio audience in October 1939. “Racial strength is vital, politics is a luxury.” Urging listeners to close ranks with Germany in a common struggle against “Asiatic intruders”—Russians, Persians, Turks and Jews—who would defile America’s “most priceless possession: our inheritance of European blood,” Lindbergh tapped into a deep well of popular nativism. It was a theme he hammered relentlessly from his perch as a spokesman for the America First Committee, an anti-interventionist organization that marshaled considerable support from prominent names in business and industry to oppose aid to Britain and France. The “three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration,” he intoned in a speech two years later.

It wasn’t just Lindbergh. The anti-interventionist movement enjoyed widespread support in 1939 and 1940, and Lindbergh’s brand of anti-interventionist politics—bordering on being pro-Nazi, and laced with a conspiratorial distrust of Jews—was common in circles opposed to Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policies. The America First Committee ounted among its ranks outspoken anti-Semites such as Avery Brundage, the former head of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had visited ignominy upon the athletic community when he booted two Jewish runners from the track team at the Berlin games in 1936. In Kansas, the America First state chairman told followers that first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the leading liberal light in FDR’s White House, was Jewish that and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a “half-Jew.”

Even the most respectable opponents of Roosevelt’s mobilization policy verged on extremism. In an editorial titled “A Plea for Realism,” the Wall Street Journal argued in 1940 that “our job today is not to stop Hitler,” who had “already determined the broad lines of our national life at least for another generation.” Instead, Americans would better direct their focus to “modernize our thinking and our national planning,” a none-too-subtle nod to Nazi state planning and central power. [Continue reading…]

A divisive president landing in Normandy

Rachel Donadio writes:

[On the 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings, Ronald Reagan] spoke of how the rangers had scaled the cliff, and also of “a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.” That line reads differently today, after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where liberation has proved more vexing.

Reagan also spoke out against isolationism. “We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars: It is better to be here, ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.” Here, too, it’s hard to read these lines in 2019, as a president seems intent on taking American foreign policy down a different path.

It’s anyone’s guess what Trump will say here on June 6, but I can’t easily imagine him saying, as Reagan said to America’s allies in 1984, “Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny.” Trump, who did not serve in Vietnam, has expressed contempt for the late Senator John McCain, who was held in captivity during that war. Trump is the president of a divided country, traveling to a divided continent, rife with internal divisions.

Before the Normandy invasion, the War and Navy Department issued “A Pocket Guide to France,” with some useful vocabulary and a succinct analysis of the French character and mores. “They are not back-slappers. It’s not their way,” it said, and cautioned soldiers to be respectful of Frenchwomen and not to expect “modern American plumbing.” It offered this advice: “No bragging about anything. Bragging is never more than a means of offending someone. No belittling either. Be generous; it won’t hurt you.”

And then: “You are a member of the best dressed, best fed, best equipped Liberating Army of a former Ally of your country. They are still your kind of people who happen to speak democracy in a different language. Americans among Frenchmen, let us remember our likeness, not our differences. The Nazi slogan for destroying us both was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.’” [Continue reading…]

The lure of Western Europe

Anne Applebaum writes:

By the spring of 1952, the “iron curtain” that Winston Churchill had described as descending on the eastern half of Europe—“from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”—already felt impenetrable, even permanent. In that year, Czech courts condemned to death Rudolf Slansky, the secretary-general of the Czech Communist Party, for alleged participation in a “Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist” conspiracy. The East German Communist Party adopted a new economic policy, the “Planned Construction of Socialism.” Harry Truman warned the US Congress of the “terrible threat of aggression” from the Soviet Union; across the Atlantic, the brand-new NATO alliance was preparing to accept a rearmed West Germany.

But 1952 was also the moment when the concept of “the West”—the liberal democratic bloc, unified by economic ties and a military alliance, staunchly opposed to the Communist regimes—came the closest to collapse. In March 1952 Stalin made a final attempt to set West Germany on an alternative course. Unexpectedly, he made a peace offer to America, France, and Britain, the powers then occupying Germany along with the Soviet Union. He proposed to unify Germany—and to keep it neutral. He declared that this unified, nonallied Germany could be open to the “free activity of democratic parties.” A few days later, he suggested that a neutral Germany might also have free elections, and even its own army.

Kurt Schumacher, the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, was tempted: he wanted to accept Stalin’s offer, as did many other Germans. But the man who was then West Germany’s chancellor, the Christian Democrat Konrad Adenauer, refused. He had good reasons: by 1952, it was already clear that “elections,” for Stalin, were a charade, a public relations exercise that could be manipulated or ignored. The West German economy was also several years into a boom of historic proportions, while the East German economy was falling behind. The deep contrast between the two halves of Germany—one prosperous and free, the other a poor dictatorship—was already visible. Thousands of Germans were moving across the border from east to west in larger numbers every year, an exodus that would end only in 1961, with the construction of the Berlin Wall.

The memory of Hitler, and of the recent war, haunted Adenauer and his compatriots too. The chancellor was afraid that West Germany’s new democracy might prove fragile, especially if it were put under direct pressure from the USSR. He thought that its survival required it to be bound tightly to the other nations of the West. And so Adenauer rejected the Soviet offer of unification. This decision, writes Ian Kershaw, was “highly controversial since it had a direct corollary: accepting that for the indefinite future there could be no expectation of East and West Germany uniting.” Adenauer not only accepted the division of his country, he also agreed to a permanent US military presence and to the deep integration of his country with the rest of Europe, especially Germany’s old enemy France.

In a sense, Kershaw’s The Global Age: Europe 1950–2017, an adept and useful synthesis of an extraordinarily complex era, is the story of what happened next. For roughly forty years, the nations of what we used to call Western Europe were all bound together by a similar decision: as a group, they chose democracy over dictatorship, integration over nationalism, social market economics over state socialism. In the name of fighting Soviet communism, and with the memory of World War II hanging over them, they accepted a set of liberal principles that some of them, most notably Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, had rejected only a decade earlier. [Continue reading…]

Muslims lived in America before Protestantism even existed

Sam Haselby writes:

Muslims came to America more than a century before the Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Muslims were living in America not only before Protestants, but before Protestantism existed. After Catholicism, Islam was the second monotheistic religion in the Americas.

The popular misunderstanding, even among educated people, that Islam and Muslims are recent additions to America tells us important things about how American history has been written. In particular, it reveals how historians have justified and celebrated the emergence of the modern nation-state. One way to valorise the United States of America has been to minimise the heterogeneity and scale – the cosmopolitanism, diversity and mutual co-existence of peoples – in America during the first 300 years of European presence.

The writing of American history has also been dominated by Puritan institutions. It might no longer be quite true, as the historian (and Southerner) U B Phillips complained more than 100 years ago, that Boston had written the history of the US, and largely written it wrong. But when it comes to the history of religion in America, the consequences of the domination of the leading Puritan institutions in Boston (Harvard University) and New Haven (Yale University) remain formidable. This ‘Puritan effect’ on seeing and understanding religion in early America (and the origins of the US) brings real distortion: as though we were to turn the political history of 20th-century Europe over to the Trotskyites. [Continue reading…]

Vladimir Nabokov, literary refugee

Stacy Schiff writes:

In February 1917 riots had delivered a revolution. The czar abdicated, replaced by a liberal government, swept into power on a tide of popular support. Nabokov’s father, Vladimir Dmitrievich, played a prominent role in that administration. Months afterward Lenin returned from exile, disembarking at St. Petersburg’s Finland Station. Within the year, what had begun as an idealistic, progressive uprising would end — like Iran’s, like Egypt’s — in totalitarianism. With Lenin arrived another 20th-century staple: a one-party system in which hacks and henchmen replaced the competent and qualified.

The terror began immediately. On seizing power the Bolsheviks made their first victims the intellectuals who had preceded them. In a scene that sounds to have been lifted from one of his son’s future novels, Nabokov’s father managed a narrow escape; he turned out to have been high on the Bolshevik list of deputies to be shot. From Russian shores that year began one of the great exoduses that would mark the century. Nabokov was never to mourn the immense wealth from which he had been separated, only the lost, liberal chapter of Russian history, obliterated by Soviet propaganda.

The family made their way across Europe to England. Nabokov had on his side the gift of privilege: As he liked to put it, he had been raised “a perfectly normal trilingual child.” At the same time, he had fled without the documents required for university admission. He would matriculate at Cambridge thanks to a borrowed (and no doubt opaque; it was in Cyrillic) transcript. On graduation he joined his family — and the greater part of the Russian emigration — in Berlin. There Nabokov met Vera Slonim, his future wife, who had made a harrowing St. Petersburg escape of her own, compounded by the fact that she was Jewish. In 1919 even Russian liberals were infected with anti-Semitism, the Jews having been credited — in their customary role amid populist unrest — with having turned the country upside-down. Slonim had traveled through Ukraine at a time of widespread pogroms. Also in Berlin, Nabokov would lose his father, assassinated at a political meeting by a right-wing fanatic. (The meeting topic was “America and the Restoration of Russia.”)

In the 1920s Berlin absorbed a Russian community so large that the city supported not only Russian grocers but Russian pawnshops, soccer teams and orchestras. Eighty-six Russian publishers set up shop there. To some it seemed the émigrés had taken over the town. There was no need to venture beyond the expatriate community, and Nabokov did not: He never learned more than a few words of German. (Fortunately Vera had led a perfectly normal quadrilingual childhood.) Theirs seemed in any event a provisional existence. Married in 1925, the couple expected to return as soon as the Bolsheviks fell; into the early 1930s, they still faced impatiently east.

In the meantime Nabokov wrote and wrote, in a void. [Continue reading…]

Technology in deep time: How it evolves alongside us

Tom Chatfield writes:

Plenty of creatures can communicate richly, comprehend one another’s intentions and put tools to intelligent and creative use: cetaceans, cephalopods, corvids. Some can even develop and pass on particular local practices: New Caledonian crows, for example, exhibit a “culture” of tool usage, creating distinct varieties of simple hooked tools from plants in order to help them feed.

Only humans, however, have turned this craft into something unprecedented: a cumulative process of experiment and recombination that over mere hundreds of thousands of years harnessed phenomena such as fire to cook food, and ultimately smelt metal; as gravity into systems of levers, ramps, pulleys, wheels and counterweights; and mental processes into symbolic art, numeracy, and literacy.

It is this, above all, that marks humanity’s departure from the rest of life on Earth. Alone among species (at least until the crows have put in a million years more effort) humans can consciously improve and combine their creations over time – and in turn extend the boundaries of consciousness. It is through this process of recursive iteration that tools became technologies; and technology a world-altering force.

The economist W Brian Arthur is one of the most significant thinkers to have advanced this combinatorial account of technology, especially in his 2009 book The Nature of Technology. Central to Arthur’s argument is the insight that it’s not only pointless but also actively misleading to do what most history books cannot resist, and treat the history of technology as a greatest-hits list of influential inventions: to tell stirring tales of the impact of the compass, the clock, the printing press, the lightbulb, the iPhone.

This is not because such inventions weren’t hugely important, but because it obscures the fact that all new technologies are at root a combination of older technologies – and that this in turn traces an evolutionary process resembling life itself.

Consider the printing press, the invariable poster-child for anyone wanting to offer a quasi-historical perspective on the dissemination of information. The German inventor Johannes Gutenberg was, famously, the first European to develop a system for printing with movable type, in around 1440. Yet he was far from the first person to realise that using individual, movable components for each character in a sentence was a good way to speed up printing (as opposed to laboriously carving every page of text onto wood or metal).

Printing using individual porcelain characters had been developed in China in the 11th Century, and using metal character in Korea in the 13th Century. Gutenberg benefited, however, from the far smaller number of letters in German; from his knowledge of metal-smelting as a blacksmith and goldsmith, which helped him create a malleable-yet-durable alloy of lead, tin, and antimony; and from his insight that the kind of wooden presses used for centuries in Germany to make wine could be repurposed for pressing type against paper (itself a technology developed in China 1,500 years previously).

Wooden wine-presses, metal alloys, the Roman alphabet, oil-based ink, paper – every piece of the puzzle assembled by Gutenberg and his collaborators was based in a pre-existing technology whose origin could itself be traced back through previous technologies, in unbroken sequence, to the very first tools. [Continue reading…]

The forgotten campaigns of racist terror targeting Latinos in the American West

The New York Times reports:

Arlinda Valencia was at a funeral when an uncle told her a bewildering family secret: An Anglo lynch mob had killed her great-grandfather.

“A mixture of grief and shock overwhelmed me since this was the first I heard of this,” said Ms. Valencia, 66, the leader of a teachers’ union in El Paso. “The more I looked into it, the more stunned I was at how many Mexicans were lynched in this country.”

Ms. Valencia and other descendants of lynching victims are now casting attention on one of the grimmest campaigns of racist terror in the American West: the lynching of thousands of men, women and children of Mexican descent from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th century.

Some victims were burned alive, like Antonio Rodríguez, 20, a migrant worker who was hauled from a jail in Rocksprings, Tex., tied to a tree and set ablaze in 1910. Other mobs hanged, whipped or shot Mexicans, many of whom were United States citizens, sometimes drawing crowds in the thousands.

Lynchings have long been associated with violence against African-Americans in the American South, and these atrocities are remembered at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. Lynchings of Hispanics have faded into history with less attention. Often, they have been portrayed as attempts to exercise justice on behalf of white settlers protecting their livestock or claims to land.

But a new movement is underway to uncover that neglected past. It has unleashed discussions about the scramble for land or mining claims that frequently influenced these lynchings, as well as the traces of such episodes in resurgent anti-Latino sentiment and the question many parts of the United States are confronting: Who gets to tell history? [Continue reading…]

Sorry, y’all, but climate change ain’t the first existential threat

Mary Annaïse Heglar writes:

Dear Climate Movement:

I’m with you when you say that climate change is the most important issue facing mankind. I’ll even go so far as to say it’s the most important one ever.

But, when I hear folks say — and I have heard it — that the environmental movement is the first in history to stare down an existential threat, I have to get off the train. This game of what I call “existential exceptionalism” is a losing one. It is not only inaccurate, short-sighted, and arrogant — it’s dangerous. It serves only to divorce the environmental movement from a much bigger “arc of history.”

And for me, as a Black woman from the south, it’s downright insulting.

Now, I’ll grant you, we’ve never seen an existential threat to all of humankind before. It’s true that the planet itself has never become hostile to our collective existence. But history is littered with targeted — but no less deadly — existential threats for specific populations.

For 400 years and counting, America itself has been an existential threat for Black people. I want you to know that slavery didn’t end with freedom. It just morphed into a marginally more sophisticated, still deadly machine.

I want you to know that Jim Crow — far too tame a name for its reality — was never about water fountains or bus seats or lunch counters. It wasn’t about “integration.”

Instead, I want you to imagine living in constant, crippling fear of humiliation, rape, torture, murder. In a word: terrorism. Lynching was not some abstract threat or a one-time event. It was omnipresent. It hung in the air like humidity. Or the stench of burning flesh. [Continue reading…]