It happened today – August 29, 2015

Death of Atahuallpa
On August 29, 1533, Francisco Pizarro strangled Atahuallpa, the last real Inca Emperor. And that’s the good news. The alternative was to be burned alive if he didn’t pretend to convert to Christianity in return for a relatively merciful execution.

It’s hard to defend either Pizarro’s habitual conduct or Spanish imperialism in general. And certainly Pizarro’s behaviour in this matter was belligerent and treacherous to an appalling degree, though European diseases inflicted more harm on the Inca people than human malice ever could. On the other hand it’s pretty hard to speak well of the Inca, warlike and arrogant people who considered their emperor at least a demigod and practiced large-scale human sacrifice, though at least they didn’t also practice cannibalism as the Aztec did. (By the way, Wikipedia says with typical modern multicultural delicacy that “The Incan people thought it was an honor to die as an offering.” Yeah. I bet. Especially the ones doing the killing. I still imagine it was hard to find volunteers.)

However one may settle the question of which empire was more disagreeable, the really striking thing about the fate of Atahuallpa is just how one-sided the encounter between them was. There may have been more Inca than Spaniards, around 12 million versus just under 10 million. But they were never about to cross the ocean and invade Spain. Instead, Pizarro led a laughable 180 men against tens of thousands of Inca soldiers and crushed them. Using European technology including writing, and European military organization, he overwhelmed Inca armies and stormed their capital, executed the emperor and installed his half-brother as a puppet. There was never the slightest chance of the Inca strangling a King of Spain even though their record of conquest does not suggest any greater scruples about such an action.

It will not do to point to greater European perfidy or militarism, or for that matter boldness, to explain the overwhelming, shocking imbalance of power between its civilization and that of any other part of the world by 1500, to the point that a tiny band of scruffy adventurers could overthrow a mighty empire despite insufficient resources and planning that wasn’t even done on the back of an envelope because they didn’t have any.

We sometimes take such things for granted because we know they happened. But step back for a moment and ponder the sheer implausibility of it and you find yourself facing a great mystery.

So again I urge people to consult Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel to get some sense of how the entire period since the end of the last glaciation and the emergence of agriculture, the unequal distribution of arable land and domesticable plants and animals, created this otherwise baffling military, technological, organizational and demographic imbalance, with all its vast and often horrendous consequences including the sordid end of the last independent Inca emperor.

It happened today – August 28, 2015

On August 28 we should honour Mahalia Jackson. Starting by Googling her. I had to.

It turns out that she was a very successful gospel singer in the United States whose long and successful recording career made her internationally famous as “the Queen of Gospel”. She was also an influential civil rights activist. But on August 28 1963 she did something that went virtually unnoticed except by those closest to her. Or rather it was noticed around the world; it was only her part that went unremarked.

You see, she was at the Lincoln Memorial, standing behind Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivered what would quickly be recognized as one of the greatest speeches in American history, certainly the greatest since the invention of recording technology. He famously improvised the ending to that speech, the overwhelmingly powerful and brilliant “I Have a Dream” conclusion. And apparently he did so because Mahalia Jackson leaned over and said “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream, doctor.”

He had spoken of his dream in other speeches. But he wasn’t planning to finish with it in this one until she prompted him. Then he did, in words that changed a nation and still bring tears to the eye. If you have not listened to it, or watched the classic video (you can find it on YouTube), you must do so. And then I think it might be time to rediscover the music of Mahalia Jackson, who changed the course of history in a moment of undeniable inspiration.

Why I’m voting Libertarian

In my latest National Post column, I wrap up my series on how not to vote with a simple recommendation for what to do: Cast a ballot that doesn’t leave you feeling dirty. Personally I’m voting libertarian. But if you won’t do that, choose another clean option, an independent, a protest candidate or a returned ballot, rather than marking an “X” that compromises your integrity in order to make the problem worse.