Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: NYT (6-29-11)
YESTERDAY, the whole world was watching Greece as its Parliament voted to pass a divisive package of austerity measures that could have critical ramifications for the global financial system. It may come as a surprise that this tiny tip of the Balkan Peninsula could command such attention. We usually think of Greece as the home of Plato and Pericles, its real importance lying deep in antiquity. But this is hardly the first time that to understand Europe’s future, you need to turn away from the big powers at the center of the continent and look closely at what is happening in Athens. For the past 200 years, Greece has been at the forefront of Europe’s evolution.
In the 1820s, as it waged a war of independence against the Ottoman Empire, Greece became an early symbol of escape from the prison house of empire. For philhellenes, its resurrection represented the noblest of causes. “In the great morning of the world,” Shelley wrote in “Hellas,” his poem about the country’s struggle for independence, “Freedom’s splendor burst and shone!” Victory would mean liberty’s triumph not only over the Turks but also over all those dynasts who had kept so many Europeans enslaved. Germans, Italians, Poles and Americans flocked to fight under the Greek blue and white for the sake of democracy. And within a decade, the country won its freedom.
Over the next century, the radically new combination of constitutional democracy and ethnic nationalism that Greece embodied spread across the continent, culminating in “the peace to end all peace” at the end of the First World War, when the Ottoman, Hapsburg and Russian empires disintegrated and were replaced by nation-states....
Posted on: Thursday, June 30, 2011 - 19:04
SOURCE: NYT (6-29-11)
David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers, is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
After Barack Obama announced new troop withdrawals from Afghanistan last week, it was no surprise to hear rebukes from the mushrooming field of Republican presidential candidates. The surprise came in what they said: although some predictably implied that he was looking to cut and run, several others declared the move too little, too late....
Modern Republican isolationism began with the 1919 battle over joining the League of Nations, when Senate Republicans, led by so-called Irreconcilables like William Borah of Idaho, killed the deal — even though without American guidance, European affairs were doomed to explode again. A pattern emerged, as liberal Democrats, along with Northeastern Republicans, wanted America to actively manage world affairs, while the Republicans’ powerful Midwestern and Western factions viewed cooperative international ventures as dangerously entangling alliances....
Given the Republican chest-thumping after 9/11, it was easy to assume that the party had finally and completely jettisoned its isolationist tendencies. But a decade later, with fear of Islamist terrorism subsiding, they are again in evidence, at a moment when the world needs America to play a stabilizing role. And this time, the G.O.P.’s old Eastern wing, which used to provide internationalist ballast, is almost nonexistent.
A healthy democracy needs critics, particularly when it engages in risky overseas adventures. But the doctrinaire call to drastically scale back our global leadership role has usually led us into error, making the world a more chaotic and dangerous place. Following the path of isolationism today won’t serve America well. Nor will it help the Republicans.
Posted on: Thursday, June 30, 2011 - 15:51
SOURCE: Guardian (UK) (6-29-11)
Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist. His personal website is www.timothygartonash.com.
We are approaching the anniversary of America's Independence Day. As we all know, 15 years ago an alien invasion, deploying giant saucer-shaped warships hovering over earth, was repulsed by the ingenuity, true grit and heroism of US forces, leading a worldwide coalition of the willing. President Thomas J Whitmore declared that 4 July would henceforward be celebrated as Independence Day not just for the US but for the entire world. His speech was described by one reviewer as "the most jaw-droppingly pompous soliloquy ever delivered in a mainstream Hollywood movie" – which, given the competition, is saying a lot.
It's just a movie, of course, but the 1996 blockbuster is also a document of its time. It returns us to a moment when America seemed to rule supreme, all-powerful, irresistible, in life as in the movies. The new Rome, Prometheus unbound, boasting the mightiest military the world has ever seen: here was the hyperpower at the heart of a unipolar world.
What a difference 15 years make. The mightiest military the world has ever seen has since fought two major wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither of them can be said to have ended in resounding victories. Iraq, which dominated US debate for so many years, is largely forgotten in the media here. It's history – in the American usage of the phrase.
Afghanistan is not over yet. The suicide attack on the Kabul Intercontinental this week showed how far that country still is from basic security, let alone liberal democracy. But, despite mutterings from his military commanders, Barack Obama has declared that American troops will be pulling out according to his preordained timetable. The US, he says, needs to concentrate on nation-building at home. Most Americans seem to agree. The latest Pew poll has 56% of them saying US troops should be brought home from Afghanistan as soon as possible. A recent blog compares Obama with another leader who pulled out of Afghanistan after a decade of military action so as to concentrate on economic and social reconstruction at home. It describes the US president as "Barack Gorbachev".
Well, hang on. To compare the US in 2011 with the Soviet Union in 1988 is to highlight the huge differences between them. Maybe a comparison with Britain in 1911 would be nearer the mark...
Posted on: Thursday, June 30, 2011 - 04:08
SOURCE: Illinois University Press Blog (6-21-11)
Grace Palladino is codirector (with Peter J. Albert) of the Samuel Gompers Papers and a member of the history faculty at the University of Maryland. The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 12: The Last Years, 1922-24 was just published by the University of Illinois Press.
For the first time since 1981—the year President Ronald Reagan famously broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers strike—organized labor is back in the news. And this time the headlines are just as discouraging. In Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Jersey, collective-bargaining rights are under attack. In Maine and Missouri, child labor is making a comeback. Even in Montgomery County, Maryland, probably the most reliably liberal section of the state, arbitration awards are being revoked. Despite vigorous and united protests, union members haven’t been able to turn things around, probably because they represent less than 12 percent of the nation’s wage earners. That’s about the same proportion they represented a century ago, when Samuel Gompers led the American Federation of Labor, which raises the question: Would Gompers be turning in his grave today or would he be saying “I told you so?”
One of the founding fathers of the American labor movement and the nation’s leading labor statesmen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Samuel Gompers never underestimated the critical value of political power and support. As AFL president between 1886 and 1924 he spent years lobbying state, local and federal representatives to improve work place safety, promote the eight-hour day, prohibit tenement-house workshops, regulate immigration, and secure labor’s right to organize (a right that wasn’t won until 1935, a decade after his death). But Gompers was a realist: He knew that labor’s political voice was only as strong as its economic power, so what he called “thorough” organization came first. “Wherever trade unions . . . are most firmly organized,” he wrote in 1885, “there are the rights of the people most respected,” a position he maintained for the rest of his life.
A strong believer in education and self-help, Gompers urged wage-earners to look to each other—not to the government—to improve their lot, and to learn how to move forward by actively participating in union business. The very process of organizing, identifying interests, and then fighting for rights, developed an “invaluable spirit of independence and self-responsibility,” he argued, “that really makes for progress and betterment.” It was one thing to seek political help when it came to protecting child laborers or abolishing the labor injunction, but quite another to cede control of industrial relations to politicians, friendly or not. As far as Gompers could see, relying on government to secure fair wages and decent conditions only fostered a spirit of paternalism and dependency that would weaken labor at its roots. “Unless the working people are organized to express their desires and needs” he said, “any other method tends to weaken initiative.”
No doubt Gompers would have been pleased to see the growth in today’s public employee unions. In his day, these workers had no right to organize, as Boston’s police force learned the hard way in 1919. But he certainly would have been disappointed, and perhaps gravely so, to realize that private sector unions had not kept up. As of 2010, less than 7 percent of private sector employees belonged to unions, versus 36 percent of the public work force—which means the vital core of today’s labor movement rests on the good-will of friendly politicians. That doesn’t bode well for the future; as we have seen over the last two years, political friendship does not count for much when government deficits are rising and tax increases are off the table.
Considering these circumstances, perhaps it’s time to revisit Samuel Gompers and the ideas he developed through a life time of struggle. After all, despite labor legislation like the Wagner Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, in the 1930s, and Executive Orders that empowered public sector unions in the 1960s, in 2011 workers’ bargaining power is at all-time low, and so is their share of the national income. “Grit your teeth and organize,” Gompers roared a century ago, advice that seems particularly pertinent today.
Posted on: Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - 23:26
SOURCE: Middle East Online (6-28-11)
Christopher J. Lee is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was recently a faculty fellow of the Palestinian American Research Center, an affiliate of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers.
On June 5, I witnessed a protest against Israel’s “separation” wall in the West Bank. This non-violent demonstration was organised by Stop the Wall to mark Naksa Day, an annual commemoration of Palestinian displacement after the 1967 Six Day war. Stop the Wall is a grassroots organisation that campaigns to end the new form of Israeli apartheid that has taken hold with the construction of the purported security barrier -- reaching up to 8 metres and hundreds of kilometres long.
The mid-day confrontation did not remain non-violent for long. As hundreds of marchers from Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority (PA), gathered near the traffic circle in front of the Qalandia checkpoint, Israeli police and military wasted no time before firing tear gas into the crowd. This speed of response was frightening. A sense of apprehension informed the day: a few weeks before, the protests of Nakba Day on May 15 had resulted in at least 15 Palestinian dead along the Syrian border. No one knew how far the police and soldiers of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) were willing to go to disperse the demonstrators.
After the immediate, unwarranted reaction, the push back was for the most part restrained. In contrast to views of Israel’s security being under constant threat, the military units present appeared wholly confident, even blasé, about the situation. Within an hour, the soldiers had secured the roof of a building, from where they could fire tear gas on the crowd with little fear of reprisal.
At this point, the situation evolved into political street theatre. With the IDF unit firmly ensconced in its rooftop position, a handful of young Palestinian men approached from the street to launch stones with homemade slingshots. Taking turns, they taunted the soldiers on the roof with their nimble skills and youthful courage. And when they looked too confident, the IDF fired another volley of tear gas, with Red Crescent ambulances at the ready to help those who had inhaled too much. An eclectic group of photojournalists were in position at the bottom of the building, equipped with gas masks and body armour, ready to capture this iconic image....
Posted on: Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - 13:43
SOURCE: Chronicle of Higher Ed (6-26-11)
"Faculty productivity" is hot. In part, that's due to what I think of as "the Texas wars." First came the skirmish at Texas Tech University in 2008, when faculty objected to a report commissioned by the chancellor on whether tuition was rising because faculty weren't in the classroom enough. Next was a controversial report last year on the Texas A&M system, comparing faculty salaries with the amount of money generated through teaching. Now the Regents' Task Force on University Excellence and Productivity has created its own metric, published recently online as an 821-page spreadsheet for the University of Texas system.
But the issue isn't limited to Texas. During the A&M uproar, a spokesman for the American Association of University Professors was quoted as saying that tough times are leading a number of states to look at faculty productivity. And it is important to remember that the topic is part of a larger public concern with accountability in higher education. This month the Miller Center of Public Affairs, at the University of Virginia, released a report calling on colleges "to focus on productivity." Echoing the message of the Obama administration, it noted that "at a time of budgetary stresses, colleges must be rewarded by both state and federal governments for producing more graduates." It isn't clear, however, how such productivity is to be measured. By the annual number of degrees awarded? Within how many years after matriculation?
The same kind of confusion is at the root of debates on faculty productivity.
Concern for faculty productivity actually goes back further than the recent focus on academic accountability. In the past, the questions were usually whether professors were overpaid, since they spend so few hours in face-to-face teaching. The comparison was to schoolteachers, who spend most of each day in the classroom. Of course, the faculty response has always been that this seemingly simple metric misses much of the real work of professors: out-of-class student contact, class preparation, research, and administrative duties....
Posted on: Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - 13:33
SOURCE: LA Times (6-28-11)
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War. A longer version of this piece appears at tomdispatch.com.
At periodic intervals, the American body politic has shown a marked susceptibility to messianic fevers. Whenever an especially acute attack occurs, a sort of delirium ensues, manifesting itself in delusions of grandeur and demented behavior.
By the time the condition passes and a semblance of health is restored, recollection of what occurred during the interval of illness tends to be hazy. What happened? How'd we get here? Most Americans prefer not to dwell on the questions. Feeling much better now! Thanks!
Gripped by such a fever in 1898, Americans evinced an irrepressible impulse to liberate oppressed Cubans. By the time they'd returned to their senses, having acquired various parcels of real estate between Puerto Rico and the Philippines, no one could quite explain what had happened or why.
In 1917, the fever suddenly returned. Amid wild ravings about waging a war to end war, Americans lurched off to France. This time the affliction passed quickly, although the course of treatment proved painful: confinement to the charnel house of the Western Front, followed by bitter medicine administered at Versailles.
The 1960s brought another bout (and yet more disappointment). An overwhelming urge to pay any price, bear any burden landed Americans in Vietnam. The fall of Saigon in 1975 seemed, for a brief interval, to inoculate the body politic against any further recurrence. Yet the salutary effects of this "Vietnam syndrome" proved fleeting. By the time the Cold War ended, Americans were running another temperature, their self-regard reaching impressive new heights.
Then came 9/11, and the fever simply soared off the charts. The messiah nation was really pissed and was going to fix things once and for all...
Posted on: Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - 10:37
SOURCE: Newsweek (6-26-11)
Niall Ferguson is a Newsweek columnist and Harvard professor.
Bring the troops home. Considering how polarized American politics is supposed to be, the consensus on this one point verges on the supernatural.
President Obama recently announced a new schedule for scaling down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. A total of 10,000 men will come home this year and a further 20,000 by the end of next summer. The surge is over.
This is not a declaration of victory. It is a declaration of bankruptcy. “From a fiscal standpoint, we’re spending too much money on Iraq and Afghanistan,” a senior administration official told The New York Times. “There’s a belief from a fiscal standpoint that this is cannibalizing too much of our spending.”...
The United States certainly needs to get its fiscal house in order. But any serious analysis of the benefits of defense cuts needs to consider the potential costs of walking away from countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. If radical Islamism is a declining force around the world, I hadn’t noticed....
Posted on: Monday, June 27, 2011 - 17:12
SOURCE: NYT (6-26-11)
Geoffrey R. Stone is a professor of law at the University of Chicago and chairman of the board of the American Constitution Society.
AS a longtime supporter and colleague of Barack Obama at the University of Chicago, as well as an informal adviser to his 2008 campaign, I had high hopes that he would restore the balance between government secrecy and government transparency that had been lost under George W. Bush, and that he would follow through on his promise, as a candidate, to promote openness and public accountability in government policy making.
It has not quite worked out that way. While Mr. Obama has taken certain steps, notably early in his administration, to scale back some of the Bush-era excesses, in other respects he has shown a disappointing willingness to continue in his predecessor’s footsteps.
In the years after 9/11, the Bush administration embraced a series of policies, including torture, surveillance of private communications, and restrictions on the writ of habeas corpus, that undermined the fundamental American values of individual dignity, personal privacy and due process of law. Its most dangerous policy, though, was its attempt to hide its decisions from the American public.
In an effort to evade the constraints of separation of powers, judicial review, checks and balances and democratic accountability, the Bush administration systematically hid its actions from public view. It promulgated its policies in secret, denied information to Congress, abused the process for classifying information, narrowly interpreted the Freedom of Information Act, punished government whistle-blowers, jailed journalists for refusing to disclose confidential sources, threatened to prosecute the press for revealing secret programs, and broadly invoked the state secrets doctrine to prevent both Congress and the courts from evaluating the lawfulness of its programs....
Posted on: Monday, June 27, 2011 - 09:12
SOURCE: Commentary (6-22-11)
Mr. Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is writing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.
Posted on: Thursday, June 23, 2011 - 08:46
SOURCE: Guardian (UK) (6-22-11)
Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist. His personal website is www.timothygartonash.com.
Posted on: Thursday, June 23, 2011 - 08:42
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog) (6-22-11)
Breaking news: CNN is reporting that President Obama has decided to take 30,000 troops out of Afghanistan over the next
year eighteen months, including 10,000 by the end of this year. Military commanders had requested that he limit this first draw down to as little as 5,000, so this step was unexpected.
There are 100,000 or so US troops in that country, so even this drawdown will leave many there, and, indeed, their numbers will be higher than during most of the war. But symbolically, Obama’s move indicates that he is now moving to wind up US involvement in that war. It is a testimony to what a trauma the September 11 attacks were that the US public has put up with this, the longest war in American history, for so long. But opinion polling shows that most of the public now wants out, including 60 percent of Republicans. And the Republican presidential candidates are beginning to run against the war....
Posted on: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 - 14:26
SOURCE: NYT (6-21-11)
MONDAY’S Supreme Court decision to block a class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart was a huge setback for as many as 1.6 million current and former female employees of the world’s largest retailer. But the decision has consequences that range far beyond sex discrimination or the viability of class-action suits.
The underlying issue, which the Supreme Court has now ratified, is Wal-Mart’s authoritarian style, by which executives pressure store-level management to squeeze more and more from millions of clerks, stockers and lower-tier managers....
There used to be a remedy for this sort of managerial authoritarianism: it was called a union, which bargained over not only wages and pensions but also the kind of qualitative issues, including promotion and transfer policies, that have proved so vexing for non-unionized employees at Wal-Mart and other big retailers.
For a time it seemed as if the class-action lawsuit might be a partial substitute. By drastically limiting how a class-action suit can be brought, the Supreme Court leaves millions of service-sector workers with few avenues to escape the grinding work life and limited opportunities that so many now face....
Posted on: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 - 11:07
SOURCE: National Review (6-22-11)
NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern
The incoming hope-and-change Obama administration advanced the narrative that at home and abroad it cared far more for people than profits. Its “reset” diplomacy (all in the past “bad,” all in the future “good”) was supposed to be about multilateral consensus instead of Bush-era unilateral hubris. But after almost 30 months, it is now clear that in our dealings abroad values like human rights, constitutional government, free-market liberal economics, and transparency do not matter much to the Obama administration.
In all the acrimony over the Israeli-Palestinian open sore — forget disputed lands, past history, even the matter of an ally versus an entity that is in league with our enemies — no one in the Obama administration has once reminded the American people that Israel is a liberal democracy that respects the rights of minorities, women, homosexuals, and the other in a manner that is still impossible on the West Bank or in Gaza. That Israel is prosperous and wealthy without in a way that most of its neighbors are not means little — and why that is so means nothing at all.
When President Obama voted present on the Iranian uprising and Secretary Clinton described the monstrous Assad as a “reformer,” completely absent was any awareness that both countries are repressive, cruel, and intolerant of dissent — in a that even our past dictatorial and autocratic partners like the odious Mubarak or Ben Ali did not. I am not suggesting that the latter should have escaped condemnation, only that repulsion for the former two regimes should have been even more pronounced. And, again, it simply was not.
Whatever the respect that must be accorded to Putin’s Russia — given that it is vast, nuclear, rich with oil, and still a strategic player — it is hardly a society analogous to the new democracies of Eastern Europe such as Poland or the Czech Republic. But in all discussions about the thorny issues of missile defense, that fundamental fact was lost. It was almost as if Russia’s past anger at the U.S., and Eastern Europe’s support for the Bush administration, earned the one respect from the Obama administration, and the other suspicion. It seems too surreal to even suggest the following, but it is nevertheless likely: The degree to which a nation opposed the United States between 2001 and 2009 now wins it exemption from judgment; the degree to which it once supported us earns it present distrust....
Posted on: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 - 08:19
SOURCE: WSJ (6-22-11)
Mr. Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is writing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.
Posted on: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 - 07:34
SOURCE: Newsweek (6-19-11)
Niall Ferguson is the Laurence A. Tisch, professor of history at Harvard and a contributing editor of The Financial Times.
Posted on: Monday, June 20, 2011 - 08:36
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog) (6-17-11)
Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, March, 2009) and he also recently authored Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
Very unfortunately, President Obama just signed a four-year extension of the so-called PATRIOT Act, with three central provisions that permit warrantless spying by government agencies on US residents. This extension was rushed through the Congress with parliamentary maneuvers and opponents of it who wanted a public debate were shut down by Reid and Boehner.
If the Bush White House blithely picked up the phone and asked the Central Intelligence Agency to gather information on my private life for the purpose of destroying me politically– a set of actions that was illegal every which way from Sunday– then imagine how powerful government officials are using the legal authorization they receive from the PATRIOT Act to spy on and marginalize perceived opponents.
The act is clearly unconstitutional and guts key Bill of Right protections. Among its disturbing aspects is the access it gives government agencies to individuals’ library records, business records and other personal effects without requiring probable cause of a crime being committed. And while the wiretap provisions target non-US citizens, they extend to any conversations the latter have with US citizens. The framers of the constitution in any case believed that the liberties they proclaimed extended to “all men,” not just citizens....
Posted on: Friday, June 17, 2011 - 12:40
SOURCE: NYT (6-17-11)
Posted on: Friday, June 17, 2011 - 10:17
SOURCE: The End is Coming (History Blog) (6-16-11)
(Jonathan Tremblay is a historian and a Breaking News Editor for the History News Network)
Thousands of years ago, what we know as Libya today was a land of ancient civilizations. From Phoenician and Carthaginian dominion to Hellenistic kingship and finally to Roman hegemony, Vandal colonization and Arab expansion, the land formerly known as the Cyrenaic Peninsula has known millennia of various cultures that left undeniable imprints in the country’s culture and archaeology.
With the civil war raging on in Libya for the better part of four months now, we have mostly focused on rebels versus regime change, Qaddafi versus the West, NATO versus whatever is under their bombs. What we have yet to talk about are the standing treasures of history that, through no fault of their own, now stand on a battlefield.
Between Qaddafi’s stronghold in the Libyan capital of Tripoli and the Rebel position in Misrata stands Leptis Magna, a UNESCO world heritage site, one of the best preserved site of Roman ruins on earth, and a potential hiding place for Qaddafi and his weapons.
Indeed, speakers for NATO have proposed rumours that the ruins may be used as we speak as a refuge for the tyrant, despite that hiding weapons in such a location would constitute a grievous breach of international law. That being said, NATO could not say that they WOULDN’T bomb the hell out of Leptis Magna if these reports became confirmed. They won’t exclude the destruction of the ancient site as a possible option to achieve their (vague and changing) goals.
The historian in me weeps at the possibility but the realist in me sees that if NATO indicates Leptis Magna as off-limits, it would be akin to an invitation for international terrorism to set up headquarters in the Great Pyramid, Angkor Wat and Leptis Magna.
As they stand today, the ruins are directly between Tripoli and Misrata and we would need a miracle for the fighting to simply go around it in a civil war seemingly devoid of much “rules of engagement”. I can only hope that NATO nations, going against the mandate agreed upon of simply protecting civilians, actually find a way to “incapacitate” Moammar Qaddafi in the next few days and then immediately leave the place a stable democracy much like North Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq. As long as my ruins still stand (and they will, long after the seven billion people on earth right now pass away), I’ll be happy. I agree that it would be nice to bring the right to self-determination to the country as well.
Blast in the past
War has not been friendly to vestiges of the past. Here are two examples of great architectural carnage, one is apocryphal and actually never happened but it’s a fun story so I’ll add it anyway.
Germany may have been the aggressor during the Second World War but the historical treasures it lost to strategic bombardment by the Americans and British were truly losses for everyone. By July of 1945, the city of Cologne (Köln) was a flattened mass of rubble with air raid bunkers the only thing left standing. No wait, the bunkers were left along with a massive gothic cathedral. The two jutting towers of the Cologne cathedral had even been used as a landmark for bombardment for years but the old girl never fell, never collapsed despite its 800 years of age and the rather sad state of everything else for miles around it. Sure it wasn’t a pretty sight but a decade of renovations following the war left the cathedral standing mightily against the non-existent Cologne skyline. Once again, the city was built around it as the cathedral continues to fascinate in the centre of modern buildings.
Further back in 48 BC, Alexandria, Egypt was still a bastion of Greek-controlled Egypt. It boasted something that had rarely existed prior or since, a manuscript library holding encyclopedic knowledge of everything and everyone in human history up until then (up to 3200 years, more than history since). We are told that Julius Caesar, wanting to trounce his enemies preemptively set fire to his ships at dock…inadvertently burning down half the city and a good share of human knowledge accumulated until then. We barely even know what we lost that day since we have never found the library catalogue but we know it was a lot and we know we may never know it again.
(So the library is still referenced in several sources for several centuries after that “event” and it probably was destroyed in skirmishes between the Romans and local tribe-kingdoms during the fourth century AD. The fake story is actually more detailed and interesting, as fiction, but still.)
All in all, I wave goodbye to the tyrant of four-decades and I ask the rebels to put a tarp over the ruins or something and to take their shoes off around Leptis Magna.
Posted on: Thursday, June 16, 2011 - 16:46
SOURCE: Boston Globe (6-16-11)
Brooke L. Blower is assistant professor of history at Boston University and the author of Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars.
Thanks to Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris and David McCullough’s book The Greater Journey, summer crowds are again satisfying their appetite for that guilty pleasure: the Americans-in-Paris romp. Such celebrations of the adventures of Americans in the City of Lights are certainly fun. But they evoke a version of the city that’s rooted as much in fantasy as fact. Like many guilty pleasures, they actually tell us a lot more about who we are, and about our yearning for an elusive American innocence, than they do about the gritty realities of the French capital.
In his chronicle of artists and apprentices who journeyed to France during the 19th century, McCullough gives us his trademark vignettes, so richly descriptive that you can feel the tight clothing and smell the candles going out. The Americans are well-meaning and hard-working. In turn, Paris is obliging, with picturesque rather than menacing poverty, and where, the author tell us, no drunks stagger through the streets.
With Allen we also get postcard Paris and a parade of illustrious expatriates ripped from history as we follow Owen Wilson’s character on his fantastical journey back to the 1920s. The film’s opening montage sets the tone: shots of Fouquet’s café on the Champs Elysées; the wind-milled Moulin Rouge; squares magically empty of traffic jams; and alleys mercifully free of noise, drug deals, or urine. While Wilson plays the incredulous but enthusiastic initiate, the French serve as scene shifters and helpful guides....
Posted on: Thursday, June 16, 2011 - 16:29