Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Recent Reading - Aristocracy, Empire, War, England

When my son entered the Peace Corps in 2010 and went to Africa - Swaziland - for 2.5 years, I read Africa: A Biography of the Continent by John Reader (1997). Reader's work begins "in the beginning" - what is Africa as a continent, and its weather, and human origins. It's a "big" book, as I say, ranging far and wide over this remarkable landmass and its diverse peoples, much of it with a tragic history.

Reader's book introduced me to the colonial world in Africa, beginning with the Portuguese in the 15th Century, and from there, we know the rest of the story, so to speak, with the Dutch, British, French and Germans quickly laying claim to huge territories.

It was then that I began to think: to understand today's world, one has to begin with Africa and the European nations that fought for its resources, and the most important colonial need: cheap labor.

What with my son in Swaziland (NE part of South Africa), I read Into the Silence: the Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis. While Davis' book focuses on the English (and it was English, not British) to scale the mountain, Davis begins in South Africa and the Boer War, and then moves to Europe for WW1 - the men, and it was men, who were involved in the effort to climb Everest, were all veterans of the War in the Trenches, more horrible than I previously had understood - this experience, along with the English character shaped in boys' schools, sports, militarism, and Empire, made these men unbelievably tough, self-confident and often arrogant.

I then found in a used book store The Reason Why by Cecil Woodham-Smith (1953), an exploration of 19th English Aristocracy - their sense of place and power, ordained by God, and their right to rule the world - and their role in the Crimean War (1853-56) - mostly a series of bungled efforts led by men who loved to play military games at home, with commands purchased rather than won. From this war, Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, his poem celebrating and questioning a tragedy of misunderstood commands and a willingness to send men and horses into the jaws of death for Britain's glory.

For me, the Crimean War is essential background to Russian's current interests in Syria (Russia, the defender of the Orthodox Church), World War 1 and the break up of the Ottoman Empire after WW1.

Then, Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 by Ann Hagedorn, one of the most profound and disturbing books I've ever read - America was a mess in 1919 - the fear of Red Agitators, unions (Communist inspired thought America's powerful people) and foreigners "determined to undermine America's democracy," the rise of Edgar J. Hoover, and racism (lynchings and burnings) - fueled in strange ways by President Wilson and his idealism in international relations and his conventional views at home. I learned about the Michigan Regiment left in Russia to "fight Communism" after the Great War ended and the troops were recalled. There were left there for nearly a year - often referred to as the "Polar Bear Expedition.

I have recently purchased:

The Destruction of Lord Raglan: A Tragedy of the Crimean War (1962) by Christopher Hibbert.

Empire by Mandate by Campbell L. Upthegrove (1954), exploring Great Britain and the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations which created the Middle East as we know it today.

Heaven's Command: An Imperial Progress (1992) by James Morris, vol. 1 - the Victorian Years, years of Empire. I am presently reading chapter 16: "Ain't the Pentateuch Queer?" - the role of religion, and specifically, Christianity, in Empire thinking and behavior - a very disturbing read.

I've come to believe:

1. To understand today's world, we have to understand the Colonial Experience in Africa.
2. To understand the pretentions of America's self-anointed "aristocracy," we have to undertand the English Aristocracy.
3. To understand WW1, we begin with Crimean, and then to WW2 - it was the Great Powers struggling for hegemony that racked the world with war and bathed it in blood, directed by men, often of limited education, but filthy rich and imbued with strong views of themselves, their position and privilege, handsome faces and strong bodies - and their love of horses and military hoohah.

Friday, February 15, 2013


I think, for much of my adult life, I've had a sense of fairness - what it looks like, and what it's like when it's missing. So much of my current interests and work with CLUE, for example, are all about fairness for people who are otherwise targets of those who would strip away what's fair and replace it with a system that degrades the worker, humiliates them in front of fellow-workers, threatens them with termination, decreases or takes away benefits and job-security, reduces wages, and cuts back on full-time work and substitutes part-time work instead. There's something about all of this that smells to high heaven; it's unfair, and that means it's wrong, contrary to our creation as fellow-creatures, one to the other, and sharing the image of God with one another. And it's all driven by money, the God Mammon, the god of greed. How weird it is that these days the takers are not the poor, but the rich, and the companies they control, and the government agencies they have populated with their own kind, and the rich have convinced millions of Americans to praise greed and condemn the poor. I love America, and we've always loved money, but there was some restraint, even shame. But these days, starting with Mr. Reagan, greed has become good, kindness a waste of time, social justice defined by "I'll keep mine, and you and you can keep yours, and generosity limited to charity, which can mitigate suffering, of course, but does nothing to alter the system that perpetually creates suffering. More than anything, I'm saddened by huge segments of American Christianity that closes its eyes to the growing unfairness of American labor practices and environmental degradation, while singing praise songs and doing Bible study, "to know Jesus all the more." To which Jesus says, "I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers" (Matthew 7.23).

Some thoughts after walking a picket line at the LAX Hilton Hotel, February 15, 20123