Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

Historian and writer Andrea Wulf has written a prize-winning account of the complex personality, travels and companions of this Prussian naturalist, explorer and geographer. Alexander von Humboldt, though famous in his day, is now all but forgotten.

This is a fascinating book. Here is an excerpt from the epilogue. (more…)

from Comey to Watergate

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz predicts that Donald Trump will get away with his unprecedented firing of FBI Director James Comey. The current crisis differs from Watergate for a number of reasons, but especially because of the press. (more…)

Hugh Thomas, R.I.P.

Saturday, May 13th, 2017

British historian Hugh Thomas died May 6th, aged 85.

The best of Thomas’s many books — which ranged from The Suez Affair (1967), An Unfinished History of the World (1979) and The Conquest of Mexico (1993) to three novels — treated ideologically controversial subjects with impartiality in a sparkling style. The Spanish Civil War, published in 1961, was the first objective general study of the subject. A clandestine bestseller in Franco’s Spain, it became a colossal success after the general’s death, and helped unite Spaniards around a single historical account. It thereby made an important contribution to “reconciliation”, as Madrid acknowledged this week.

His 1,710 page Cuba: Or The Pursuit of Freedom (1998), with its wonderfully ambiguous sub-title, is equally indispensable. It locates the origin of Cuba’s turbulent modern history where it belongs: in 1762, with the English capture of Havana.

John Paul Rathbone, “Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, historian and Hispanist, 1931-2017“, Financial Times, 13 May 2017 (metered paywall).

Thomas was a member of the Labour Party until 1974, and sat as a Conservative in the House of Lords, before joining the Liberal Democrats in 1998. He is best known in the UK for his friendship with Margaret Thatcher.

Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon and the alt-right

Sunday, May 7th, 2017

This long article from The Guardian shows how Trump and the Brexit campaign were linked by Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ. The latter is an obscure company located in Victoria, BC. I found this article fascinating because I now live in Victoria. Also included in the complex plot is Trinidad and Tobago, a country where I used to reside.

This will be of interest to everyone who fears that the era of liberal democracy is coming to an end. The article is not gated, so do take the time to read it. Here is the final paragraph, and a useful flow chart.

This is Britain in 2017. A Britain that increasingly looks like a “managed” democracy. Paid for a US billionaire. Using military-style technology. Delivered by Facebook. And enabled by us. If we let this referendum result stand, we are giving it our implicit consent. This isn’t about Remain or Leave. It goes far beyond party politics. It’s about the first step into a brave, new, increasingly undemocratic world.

Infographic on how the Brexit campaigns were linked

Carole Cadwalladr, “The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked“, The Guardian, 7 May 2017.

murderous Muslim refugees

Saturday, April 29th, 2017

FT columnist Simon Kuper, a self-described liberal and globalist, responds to criticisms he has received from nationalist readers. Among the many “forcefully argued comments” he addresses, this one seems particularly important.

“Given Islamist terrorism, it’s naive to let Muslim refugees into Europe.” Anyone surveying the Crusades or the ruins of Europe in 1648, 1918 or 1945 would have been puzzled by the proposition that Islam is uniquely murderous. But it’s true that since the 1980s it’s become the only major religion in which a tiny minority has joined a death cult. The refugees of 2015 arrived in Europe unscreened, so we have no idea who among them are suspect. A study by the liberal German newspaper Die Zeit also shows that the recent arrivals are disproportionately more likely to commit violent crime.

However, almost all the refugees are peaceful people fleeing war, which seems fair enough. If we’re going to bar them because a tiny minority might be murderous, then the US should kick out all young American males, chief perpetrators of the country’s 250,000 homicides over the past 15 years. In that period, Islamic terrorists have killed somewhere under 1,000 people across the west. [Emphasis added.]

Europe cannot let in unlimited refugees. However, a continent that handled millions when at rock-bottom in 1945 can take under two million now.

Simon Kuper, “My comeback on Trump, Le Pen, Brexit, climate change …“, Financial Times, 27 April 2017 (gated paywall).

native Americans and birth of the FBI

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

This is a story that I was not familiar with. I am adding the book to my reading list.

Oklahoma was set aside as Indian Territory before the Civil War. It was opened for settlement by white farmers and ranchers around 1890. Then oil was discovered, and Indians lost not only their land, but also their lives. (more…)

China, North Korea and US foreign policy

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

Will China apply pressure on North Korea to make it behave? FT journalist James Kynge thinks this is unlikely, for it is not in the interest of China to have US troops on its border. (more…)

more on Trump as War President

Monday, April 17th, 2017

I am very worried. So is FT columnist Gideon Rachman.

President Donald Trump is signalling resolve — vowing that the US will stop North Korea’s nuclear programme and hinting heavily that he is prepared to take pre-emptive military action. ….

Any such conclusion would fly in the face of standard military advice, which holds that it is impossible to “take out” the North Korean nuclear programme with a single wave of attacks and that therefore, following any such assault, South Korea, Japan and US bases in the region, would be exposed to retaliation.

The US military is well aware of the risks entailed by a first strike on North Korea. So it is encouraging to recall that General HR McMaster, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, has written a book lambasting US generals for not giving frank advice to politicians during the Vietnam war.

Set against that is the danger that Mr Trump — after a chaotic start to his presidency — has concluded that military action is the key to the “winning” image that he promised his voters. The president lapped up the bipartisan applause that he got for bombing Syria. He dropped a huge conventional bomb on Afghanistan shortly afterwards and his son, Donald junior, tweeted his exultation — complete with an emoji of a bomb.

Gideon Rachman, “Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un and the risk of nuclear miscalculation“, Financial Times, 18 April 2017 (gated paywall).

Rachman’s position is more nuanced than this brief brief passage suggests. Read the full column to see alternative – less frightening – options open to Mr Trump.

Donald Trump as War President?

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

Dutch historian Ian Buruma has written a must-read column for Project Syndicate. His main point is that war is a way for political leaders to become popular.

Here are four paragraphs from the essay, which is ungated. Take time to read the full column, if you haven’t already done so, by clicking on the link below.

[S]eemingly on the spur of the moment, Trump ordered an attack by 59 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian air base. After years of horrendous bombings and torture by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, after adamantly refusing to allow Syrians to escape the carnage by coming to the US as refugees, and after making clear only last week that the US would do nothing to topple Assad, Trump saw pictures of children foaming at the mouth after another chemical gas attack, and changed his mind. ….

People may have grown sick of the wars unleashed by George W. Bush, but the reaction to Trump’s Tomahawks even in the august New York Times has made one thing clear: when the commander-in-chief confronts an enemy abroad, people will support him, as though it were their patriotic duty. And if bombing an air base is a mark of moral leadership, questioning it is not just unpatriotic, but also immoral, as though one does not wish to do something about those poor children subjected to Assad’s poison gas.

Even if Trump’s Tomahawks won’t solve the conflicts in the Middle East, and even if they actually make matters worse, he has achieved an important victory at home. In the eyes of many critics, he now looks presidential. And he may have repaired, if only temporarily, a serious rift among the Republicans. ….

Trump still has no strategy, not in the Middle East, and not in Asia, where North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, is doing his best to grab the news and provoke Trump by testing nuclear devices and long-range missiles. But Trump now knows what to do to be admired as a great leader. …. An attack on North Korea, unlike a runway in Syria, could actually lead to nuclear war. But Trump’s moral dimension has been restored. It will be beautiful.

Ian Buruma, “Trump the War President?“, Project Syndicate, 11 April 2017.

The column is available in translation from the original English to Spanish, German, French and four other languages. Mr Buruma (born 1951) is Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

death of a Lebanese peacemaker

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

Peacemakers, sadly, are uncommon in the Middle East.

Samir Franjieh … died in Beirut on April 11. He was 71.

He emerged from one of the country’s Maronite Christian dynasties, and was unusual in Lebanon’s parochial political arena, devoting energy to big themes and wide Arab horizons. …. He showed daring in a region where assassination is often the reward of those bold enough to be inclusive. ….

It was fitting that figures from Lebanon’s dizzying mosaic of Christian and Muslim sects flocked to his funeral mass, in concelebration of his life. ….

He believed there was a formula, tantalisingly within reach, that could reconcile broken societies. Lebanon, he thought, in light of its history of sectarian strife, as well as a state run jointly by Muslims and Christians, was uniquely placed to distil it.

David Gardner, “Samir Franjieh, Lebanese writer and politician, 1945-2017“, Financial Times, 14 April 2017 (gated paywall).

Wikipedia has a short entry on his career and personal life, spelling his family name as “Frangieh”.