A bitter triumph

illustration from the book: The Black Man's Lament, or, how to make sugar by Amelia Opie. (London, 1826) (Wikipedia)

illustration from the book: The Black Man’s Lament, or, how to make sugar by Amelia Opie. (London, 1826) (Wikipedia)

August 28 is a day to celebrate bitterly. Which might seem odd but remember we are talking about human beings here and we are an odd bunch. And what’s on my mind for this date is Royal Assent to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 which finally got rid of this blight through the British Empire (except Ceylon, Saint Helena and East India Company territories, where it was abolished in 1843).

On the one hand, it is of course much to be applauded that slavery was abolished. But how can it have taken so long. August 28 is also the anniversary of the discovery of Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus, some 500 kilometers in diameter. In 1789. How can it have taken longer to discover that slavery is evil, that racial slavery is even more evil and that the obvious answer to Josiah Wedgewood’s abolitionist pottery “Am I not a man and a brother?” is yes?

Various glib answers can be given. But it is not the sort of topic where glibness will suffice. It is not surprising that humans should have invented slavery. Hitting someone hard on the head, dragging them off and making them do your bidding is an incredibly simple wrong idea and humans have a gift for wrong ideas, simple or complicated.

What is surprising is that a people dedicated to liberty should have overlooked that slavery was wrong. And that it should have been more or less eliminated in medieval Europe, especially the north and west, only to reappear in an unprecedented and unprecedentedly ghastly form, based on race, in the Enlightenment.

One might perhaps not be surprised that slavery persisted in primitive societies where it seems to have been an almost universal institution, periodic prattle about noble savages notwithstanding. One might not be surprised that it persisted in large empires built on denial of human dignity in various parts of the world. Even the Romans were oddly blind to its essential wrongness, and even the coming of Christianity was slow in opening their eyes.

In the modern world one might even find it unsurprising in, say, Imperial Spain, whose acknowledgement of human dignity was more than a little grudging and far more evident in theory than practice. But Britain? And in Britain’s proudly free colonies that became the United States?

It did exist in what became Canada. It was rare, as much for geographic and economic reasons as anything else; it just didn’t make sense as a means of production here. But then the determined action of reformers, including those in high places, abolished it because whether or not it paid it was wrong. It should have happened anywhere.

Now to be fair, Britain gets credit for abolishing it long before other places did. Some still have not, though they are at least sufficiently shamed to lie about it except the maniacs of ISIL. And others were dragged slowly and reluctantly into following the British example, sometimes with the active encouragement of Royal Navy guns. And yet to give credit for doing so in 1833 is to admit that for some reason what we see today with such clarity was hard to see.

Especially in the United States, which really was a land of liberty and an inspiration to the world. And yet also the most important, and in a certain perverted sense successful, slave society of modern times or indeed of any times. Even as the United States navy was helping the British stamp out the oceanic slave trade worldwide (I am not making this up, a squadron of American warships was engaged in an admittedly largely ineffective patrol around Africa that only stopped about 100 slave ships despite continuing for 42 years, from 1819 to 1861), the “peculiar institution” was flourishing domestically.

To attribute it to hypocrisy has some merit. But to start tying that hypocrisy to some particular set of socioeconomic arrangements one dislikes on other grounds is glib. And if it were pure hypocrisy it would have vanished sooner. There was a genuine element of delusion about it, a conviction that it was somehow inevitable, natural, even right.

Whatever explanation one devises, taking into account the facts of the case including the greater suitability of the southern United States and Caribbean islands to slave agriculture than, say, New England or Nova Scotia, we must in the end surely admit that the jagged dividing line between good and evil that runs through every human heart is responsible both for it being abolished so late, and for it being abolished at all.

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Wish I’d said that – August 28, 2016

William James “discovered among those who had experienced the most profound religious states a virtually universal tendency toward what he called ‘monism’ and ‘optimism.’ Fundamental bedrock reality is both unified and good.”

William Bennett The Book of Virtues

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I vant to annex your province

One hundred years ago today Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary and entered World War I on the Allied side. I know. I know. Have you ever heard an ant fart in a windstorm?

No. Sorry. That was FDR’s reaction when Romania joined the Axis in the Second World War. But you might think it applied in 1916 as well. Instead it proved to be a significant boost… to the Central Powers. Poor Romania.

Its government entered the war for the noble and elevated reason that the Allies had promised them Transylvania if they won. Which prompts a sardonic question what they might have got if they’d lost but apparently they wanted it. And Dracula is kind of cool as a tourist thing. (Not only that, but the iconic Dracula actor Bela Lugosi fought with some distinction for the Austro-Hungarians in the Carpathian Mountains that extend into Transylvania. So did Erwin Rommel for the Germans. And with all due respect to Lugosi, I think the Germans did better in military terms.)

The problem is, the Romanians didn’t win. Initially it looked pretty good; the Russians in the Brusilov Offensive were laying a rare beating on the Austro-Hungarians, which doesn’t sound that hard but to the Tsar’s armies it was. In combination with the underappreciated British attack on the Somme the Germans were reeling so badly a panicky Kaiser blurted out to close associates “The war is lost” before realizing it wasn’t, at least not yet. And while the Battle of the Somme did in fact inflict a major, generally unappreciated defeat on the Germans, the tactically innovative and initially successful Brusilov Offensive wound up backfiring.

Once the Germans had managed to bail out the Austro-Hungarians and the Russians reeled backward having lost a horrifying 1.4 million men killed, wounded or captured, the entry of Romania into the war turned out to create a cavernous weakness, a much greater stretch of front for their remaining demoralized forces to try to defend.

In that sense the addition of Romania to the Allied cause, and arguably Italy, ended up causing more problems than it solved, just as the Germans were probably worse off for luring the Ottoman Empire in and even Austria-Hungary. The Romanians actually fought valiantly until the Russian Revolution and disappearance of that ally forced them to surrender.

In the final days of the war, Nov. 10 1918 to be precise, Romania managed to stagger back into the conflict following the defeat of Bulgaria. And it got Transylvania and kept it through various vicissitudes including a 1919 war with Hungary that shows just what futile bloodshed humans can get up to even in the shadow of something like World War I.

In which both sides were too prone to accumulate allies useful on paper without having a sufficiently hard look at the situation on the ground.

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Bathing suit brouhaha

So there’s this story out of France where the “top court”, the Council of State, has suspended various bans on the burkini, an arguably excessively modest form of swimwear popular among some Muslims. In a characteristic leading paragraph, NBC said “France’s top court on Friday suspended a controversial ban on full-body burkini swimsuits that has sparked heated debate both inside the country and abroad.” And I wonder: Why so much attention to this one?

Now I could write at some length about the way “controversial” is used in the press to mean “thing you should disapprove of”. Or the logic of the ban itself. Or the extraordinary French way of doing things, including that freedom of association is a largely foreign concept as opposed, in the English-speaking world, to a core right that is fast disappearing. (To give another remarkable example, this “top court” of which stories speak, the Conseil d’État, is at once the supreme court for administrative law, that is, for settling disputes about the behaviour of executive agencies, and the legal advisor to the executive branch. In the Anglosphere such an arrangement would be an unthinkable conflict of interest; in France it is seen as commendably efficient in empowering the state to run people’s lives for them.) But for now I want to ask a different question.

Why all this hoo-hah about the French ban, and not a peep about the legal and social restrictions on “immodest” swimwear and indeed clothing generally in much of the Muslim world, including extralegal violence to enforce it? Why are so many people calling the French intolerant on this issue and saying nothing about what goes on elsewhere? Where’s the “heated debate” on bans on infidel attire?

To ask this question is not to suggest that the French ban should not be debated, or that there are not reasonable arguments on both sides. Quite the reverse. And for what it’s worth, as I’ve written elsewhere, I favour considerable freedom of dress provided it isn’t obscene or likely to cause justified public alarm. But I also favour, and indeed regard as inseparable from the former, freedom of association; if I do not like how you are dressed I should be free to shun you personally and, yes, professionally. Especially if you cover your face on the grounds that if I see you, one or both of us will be soiled, which I find deeply offensive. But again, that’s not really the point here.

The point is that we seem to be holding France and the French to a much higher standard than, say, Jordan and Jordanians, let alone Iran and Iranians. For instance, a recent Daily Telegraph Travel/Advice piece said that in Jordan generally, “Women should wear loose fitting clothes, covering the arms, legs and chest area, while T-shirts are best avoided for both sexes. Women’s hair should be dry, as wet hair is said to suggest sexual availability…” What? Are you kidding me?

Obviously I would not want to be judged by that standard. I think we can do better. And the French, for all their foibles and fondness for state direction, generally do better. But for the sake of perspective about such things I also think we should be clear, in going after the French for responding to the menace of radical Islam in their own characteristic way and sometimes getting it wrong, that we are holding them to a higher standard. We might even want to fumble toward an explanation of why.

See, they’re a Western country. And while it’s politically correct to despise Western arrogance, cultural imperialism and so forth, just about everybody knows deep down that… that… that public policy in Western countries is broadly rational and tolerant whereas elsewhere it too often isn’t.

If that’s a “controversial” thing to say, well, I said it anyway.

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To Mount Triglav via the Olympics

If I had my way the Olympics would be restricted to sports for which it is the unquestioned pinnacle. It is no knock on basketball to wish it expelled from the Games. It’s just that everybody knows the world basketball championship is staged by the NBA each year, just as the Stanley Cup is hockey’s highest achievement. Which naturally brings me to Mount Triglav.

I know. That’s the point. Neither had I. But I have a profound respect for the people who show up in London or Rio or Tokyo for, say, the javelin toss. It’s incredibly hard. You have to train and sacrifice, combining endless repetition with scrupulous attention to technical details. And then once every four years instead of being alone in a field you’re in front of the whole world throwing a pointed stick a mind-boggling distance to raucous cheers and animated analysis. (By the way the 1912 Olympics had a variant where you had to throw the javelin with each hand and they added your scores. They should bring that back.) And while other track events, like swimming events, have all sorts of national and international competitions on their circuit, you still know it’s the guys and gals with Olympic gold who have scaled Parnassus.

Eh? Parnassus? When am I going to throw my javelin up this “Mount Triglav”, you cry? And the surprising answer is on August 26, 1778. You see, Mount Triglav is the highest mountain in Slovenia. Which again is like having the world record in the hammer toss. People go “Oh, that’s cool” and then they say “What is the hammer toss again?” or “Did you say Slovakia?” or some such and you have to explain the whole business.

For the record, Slovenia is not Slovakia nor is it Slavonia. It has been tossed around like a bone in a wolf pack by various powers over the years, but is now a parliamentary republic and UN member east of Italy, south of Austria, southwest of Hungary, north of Croatia and with a very small bit of Adriatic coast, having burst free of Yugoslavia in 1991 and joined NATO in 2004 and the EU. (Slavonia, by contrast, is part of Croatia, and Slovakia is the eastern bit of what used to be Czechoslovakia but never much enjoyed it.)

So back to Mount Triglav. Or to it. It’s 9,396 feet high, or 2,864 metres if you like that kind of thing, which doesn’t make it the Usain Bolt of central European mountains in the sense that the Alps has over 500 of them that exceed 3,000 metres, with Mont Blanc topping the list in both senses at 4,804. But 2,864 is pretty high if you’re trying to get up it.

Back in 1778 four guys were, specifically a surgeon, a chamois hunter, and two miners. I love the amateur spirit in which nobody went “Hey, guys, miners go down, a mountain is up, you know?” Indeed it was so amateur that records are uncertain; the most commonly cited report that lists those climbers was published 43 years later, and another account suggests it was two chamois hunters and one of their former students. I didn’t even know chamois hunters had students, among many other things I didn’t know about this business.

Including that before becoming the tallest mountain in Slovenia Mount Triglav had been the tallest mountain in Yugoslavia, another “tallest building in Witchita Kansas” sort of distinction with the added drawback that under Communism it was therefore considered a symbol of Yugoslavian “brotherhood and unity” which we learned all about in the 1990s as it descended into brutal ethnic war, just as we learned all about the other virtues of communism over the years.

For all that, and to some extent because of it, I think it’s very cool to have been among the first people to scale Mount Triglav, who by the standard account were Lovrenz Willomitzer or Willonitzer, Štefan Rožič, Luka Korošec and Matevž Kos, in case you can’t remember the Olympic hammer toss champion either.

Just kidding. There’s no such event. Oh wait. There is. And Poland’s Anita Włodarczyk won women’s gold at Rio by hurling a four kilogram sphere on a string 269 feet 11 ¾ inches, a new world record. It’s kind of a weird hammer and it wouldn’t do to try to drive a nail with it. But that’s a heck of a long distance to throw anything. Let’s hear it for Anita Włodarczyk. And Willomitzer or Willonitzer, Rožič, Korošec and Kos.

You don’t do things like climb Mount Triglav for fame or money. Not even enough fame that people are likely to be able to pronounce your name or even spell it. You do it because it is there. Like the javelin toss except even more dangerous.

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Clinton got how much?

Here’s the kind of story that inspires a mixture of rage and bewilderment. NBC reports that while Hillary Clinton has been lambasting “for-profit schools” including Trump University, “Over five years, former president Bill Clinton earned $17.6 million from the world’s largest for-profit education company, Laureate Education, Inc. In his role as “honorary chancellor,” Clinton has traveled the world on Laureate’s behalf, extolling the virtues of the school.” And doing very well indeed. We should be so, uh, lucky.

Now look. I know a lot of people like Bill Clinton, focusing more on the charming than the rogue in his makeup. I am not among them. But a lot of people do.

I also realize that Bill Clinton is a champion schmoozer and makes good connections. He pulls in huge sums for the Clinton Foundation and by no means all of them were people hoping for favours from one H. Clinton when she was Secretary of State. But $17.6 million over five years is over $3.5 million a year. That’s over $9,600 a day, even in a leap year. And it wasn’t the only thing he was doing nor, indeed, the only thing he was doing that brought in vast sums. (For instance The Washington Post says he made $104.9 million giving 542 speeches between 2001 and 2013, an average of $193,542.44 per. And that he was paid $3.13 million in “consulting fees” in 2009 and 2010 by an investment firm whose boss’s charity has given the Clinton Foundation millions more and who did at least try to contact Hillary Clinton for a favor when she was Secretary of State.)

What can anyone do for you on a part-time basis that’s worth nearly $10,000 a day? Per customer? And what has he got to say that’s worth 200 grand a pop, 45 times a year, for over a decade? I mean, we’re out there asking people to support our documentaries and commentaries and other work like the “Ask the Professor” feature with, say, $5 a month, which is about 17 cents a day. That’s less than one fifty-six-thousandth of Clinton’s haul from Laureate Education alone. I’d need 3,226 people to answer that call to make as much in a year as Clinton does for an average speech of the sort he was giving nearly once a week.

I’m not saying I’m in the wrong business. But I am saying if this news bugs you as much as it bugs me, and if you think it’s important to keep the voices that matter to you audible, please do try to find that 17 cents a day for us, and for other groups like Ezra Levant’s The Rebel, Dave Reesor’s Let’s Do It Ourselves, Danny Hozack’s Economic Education Association of Alberta (and yes, I’m professionally involved with two of them) and other similar outfits like the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Constitution Foundation and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (who helped us enormously with our Fix the Constitution documentary project).

Unlike the Clintons, we’re never going to get rich doing what we do. But that’s kind of the point.

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