Tag Archives: history

On fear of art: thinking about Lum, Gaston, Schutz

So Edmonton has gotten cold feet and cancelled the installation of Ken Lum’s sculpture for reasons you can ready about here and here.

You might conclude there’s some irony here, because Lum has expressed support of toppling monuments. There is a fine distinction between the nondescript monuments of historical figures and Lum’s unique art. Too fine, perhaps. The tide sweeping out statues of Ryerson and Cornwallis have ignored such a fine distinction and swept out his work also.

This rejection of Lum is not unique. It’s one of many examples of fear of art. To be precise, fear of how some will respond to art.

For example, in reviewing the recent Guston exhibit, John Yau writes:

A lot of issues are raised by the museum’s presentation of Guston, which have been eloquently discussed by Barry Schwabsky in The Nation and Sebastian Smee in The Washington Post. My complaint is cruder. I got sick of the museum’s defensiveness, such as the “Emotional Preparedness” card by health and trauma specialist Ginger Klee, that preps visitors for the show, and of being repeatedly told by the the wall labels that Guston’s hooded figures are about America’s racist history, because I think they are more than that, and that is what makes them so powerful, necessary, urgent, and, most importantly, relevant to whatever present they live in.

Galleries are adopting a defensive crouch to avoid provoking any one from protesting the work on display. Perhaps they are thinking of what happened to Dana Schutz’s  and her 2017 work titled “Open Casket,”  of Emmett Till, and all the controversy concerning that.

Whatever is driving them, sponsors of works of art are afraid. This fear is leading them to pull works or to water them down, in a sense. And that’s a shame.

P.S. Ken Lum was recently at the AGO and it was a good show. You can see more of Ken Lum at that link.

On the passing of Queen Elizabeth II today

The Queen died today. There has been an outpouring of response to such an event. No doubt you’ve read a number of them. You will likely see many more in the days and weeks to come.

Of the ones I came across, I thought this collection by the BBC was good: Queen Elizabeth II: A life in pictures. I thought this summary by Helen Lewis also worthwhile: Queen Elizabeth’s Unthinkable Death in The Atlantic.

I have been familiar with the Queen since I was a young child. She was in post offices, on our stamps and on our money. Here’s an interesting piece on the Queen on the bank notes, from the Bank of Canada Museum.

I have written about her occasionally here. This was from 2015: What happens when Queen Elizabeth II dies? This touches on something I have always been curious about: Why did the Queen sit for a portrait painted by Lucian Freud? And finally, I will have to update this: On Liz 2 and Chuck too. (Monarchy Watch).

Rest in Peace, ER II.

(Image: link to image in Museum piece)

 

 

 

 

Historians going wild! (What I find interesting in history, September 2022)


Historian and their work usually don’t get much news. So it was a bit unusual to see them making news recently. As Noah Smith explains:

A lot of people are talking about the history profession this week. There was a kerfuffle when James Sweet, the president of the American Historical Association, wrote a rambling and somewhat opaque post criticizing what he felt was his profession’s excessive focus on the politics of the present, and singling out the 1619 Project for criticism. A subset of historians predictably flew into a rage at this, and forced Sweet to issue a stumbling apology.

Smith went on to criticize historians for wanting to have it both ways in the sense that they want to wade in on topics using the weight of history while also saying that others cannot test history writing the way you can test say economic writing.

My thought is that some historians wade into other disciplines like political science and economics, and when they do, that’s when they get into trouble. History may not be testable, but when you are a historian jumping into political science with your historical ideas, you should expect to get tested.

It’s a fascinating discussion. I encourage you to read more about it here: Noah Smith on historians .

Some other interesting pieces on the topic of history was this, Is History History, and this, Is All history revisionist?

Speaking of historians getting into trouble, here’s a sad piece on Kevin Kruse and charges of plagiarism.

Here’s something on recent history that is still…well, history!…  history of the web. Here are three interesting pieces on ancient history: A 2000-year-old postcard – Medieval manuscripts blog and the challenges of deciphering minoan script and also does-an-unknown-extraordinarily-ancient-civilisation-lie-buried-under-eastern-turkey.

If you are like me, you may have thought the Roman Empire ended many centuries ago. This article challenges that in an interesting way: When did the Roman Empire end: 1917 or 1922? – Orthodox History.

This is a story on the disturbing history of Ole Miss yearbooks and how they sometimes included lynching victims and represented racist history and other racist thought.

Finally, here’s a fascinating story on how a Tip-Off from a Nazi saved someone’s  grandparents. Surprising.

 

Sunday reads: on how to deal with racist art, Critical Race Theory, and more

I collect thoughtful pieces on a wide range of topics to educate myself, to change my mind, and to see the world in a new and better way. Pieces like those below that revolve around race, racism, anti-semitism, and related topics. They are not easy reads, but worthwhile ones, I thought.

On the topic of Critical Race Theory and educating students on race and racism,  this was good: Inside Mississippi’s only class on critical race theory – Mississippi Today, as was this Teaching about racism. More on CRT, here: What CRT is.

You may not think too much about this incident, but this essay on it is very good:  Whoopi Goldberg’s American Idea of Race in The Atlantic.

This was insightful:  Slavery and the Rise of the Nineteenth-Century American Economy. As was this: Why Southern white women vote against feminism in The Washington Post.

Speaking of race and education, this was informative to me: Segregated schools in Ontario.

There was a discussion earlier this year on whether or not Darwin was racist. On the surface, he may seem so. But to me it doesn’t seem to be the case when you dig down deeper. You can read this and judge for yourself: Was Darwin a racist and does evolution promote racism? – #DarwinDay, and Quote-mining Darwin to forward a political agenda?

Here were two pieces on anti-semitism I found worthwhile:  Art and anti-semitism and Socialism without anti-semitism.

Finally, this piece got me thinking about racism within art: Tate’s “unequivocally offensive” mural to have new work alongside it. I don’t have a problem removing public statues. For art, I think it is better to put it in context. That seems to be what the Tate is doing.

(Image: link to the image in the piece on the Tate).

 

 

 

 

 

On Bades Bake Shop and the Chip Wagon of Glace Bay

It can be notoriously difficult to find images of Glace Bay on the Internet. Google is no help: I had been searching for “Bades Bakery Glace Bay” and came up with nothing. It was only through searching for the specific phrase “Bades Bake Shop” did I find it.

I loved Bades as a kid. It was on my route to the hockey arena, and depending on the time and how much coin I had, I could drop in and get a doughnut or something sweet. I don’t recall there being any other such establishment nearby, so it was an oasis for someone like me who loved sweet things. I recall the lettering for the sign being yellow against a brown backdrop. It was a great place, long gone. (You can read more about it, here.)

Here’s a good piece on another place I loved as a kid and as an adult: the Chip Wagon. When I was a kid it was in the main part of town. Later as an adult I would line up like these people to get a sample of those delicious fries. I don’t know if it is still in operation. If not, that’s sad. Like Mike’s Lunch, it was a must visit whenever I went home to Glace Bay.

If you are feeling nostalgic like me, you can see lots more images of Cape Breton at Caperpics or here at the flickr account of the Beaton Institute. Forget Google: go directly to those two places.

(Images: links to images at the Beaton Institute and Caperpics).

The King of Jerusalem, and other Ghost Kings haunting Europe and the World

I’ve written about European Royalty, specifically on  the nine kings at Buckingham Palace at the beginning of the 20th century.

Much has changed since then. Most Kings are gone. You might even think that may of their descendants have disappeared from the world. They have not, as this piece by Helen Lewis shows: Among Europe’s Ex-Royals – The Atlantic. It’s an odd but good piece about what the Hapsburgs and their ilk are up to. They’re still around, haunting Europe like ghosts. Some have even come close to regaining their thrones and property. Others have hopes of leading their nations once again as Kings.

I suspect these aristocrats will forever be hanging around, waiting for a chance to reclaim something or other. After all, the current King of Spain also claims the title of  King of Jerusalem, a role that disappeared in the days of the Crusades! I am fascinated by that role in particular. I mean, the idea of anyone from Europe being King of that city is absurd. Yet the claim remains. Just like their other claims will last well into the Third Millenium.

The Habsburgs, their history and genetics

Yesterday I featured a painting I took of a Dutch Still Life in the National Gallery in London. Today I want to feature one of the paintings in the Gallery with royalty as a subject. Specifically, Habsburg royalty. If you don’t know anything about the Habsburgs, you might look at this painting and say: his chin is a bit odd. If you did, you would be correct! As this piece shows, centuries of inbreeding among European royals (specifically the Habsburgs) was responsible for famous facial deformities seen in historical paintings. And so you get facial features like those above (or worse). 

This is not a terribly ancient behavior: Queen Elizabeth and her husband were third cousins. So it’s not like the Habsburgs were outliers. (See also: Romanovs.) It is a behavior that can cause terrible genetic deformities, though. Deformities that the Royal Family worried about, if the stories of the Bowen-Lyon sisters locked away are any indication.

In the end such deformities in the Spanish Habsburg led to the War of the Spanish Succession, a major turning point in Europe and the World. All due to inbreeding throughout the ages. Inbreeding you can see in the portrait above.

 

 

 

 

On Davis Day, and other histories of Cape Breton

Today is Davis Day in Cape Breton. It’s now known as Miners Memorial Day, but growing up we honoured this day and thought about William Davis and all the sacrifices miners and their families suffered over the years as they struggled to live better lives. It was a solemn day. You can read more about it here: Miners Memorial Day: Davis Day | Museum of Industry. Here’s a good piece on how this day is still relevant in places like my home town of Glace Bay.

Over the last while I have been collecting these links regarding Cape Breton history which I thought worthwhile and you may as well:

(Image from a link and comes from the Beaton Institute)

On “The Computer Girls: 1967” in Cosmopolitan


One of the great shames of the IT industry has been the push to marginalize women in our profession. As this 1967 piece shows ( The Computer Girls: 1967 Cosmo article highlights women in technology– ), women had a dominant role in the early days of the computing industry. I believe as long as the the 1980s, women were at least equally represented in the profession as men. Then for various reasons, IT became dominated by the boys and not the girls. That was a shame and it will only stop being a shame when women are at least equally represented. We still have a way to go, according to Deloitte and others. Until that time comes, read what used to be in Cosmo.

(Image from here, which is also worth reading: 10 women who changed the tech industry forever – The Daily Dot)

On Time magazine making Hitler (and Stalin) Man of the Year

In 1938, Time Magazine made Adolf Hitler their Man of the Year. Since then, they have taken much abuse because of it. I have often heard people mock Time because of their lack of judgment. Yet, I have never read the actual magazine. I assumed they simply praised Hitler at the time.

So I was intrigued when I was checking out Amazon Singles and came across the chance to learn more about it, here: Amazon.com: Adolph Hitler: TIME Person of the Year 1938 (Singles Classic). In the blurb for the magazine, it states:

Führer of the German people, Commander-in-Chief of the German Army, Navy & Air Force, Chancellor of the Third Reich, Herr Hitler reaped the harvest of an audacious, defiant, ruthless foreign policy he had been pursuing for five and a half years. He had torn the Treaty of Versailles to shreds. He had rearmed Germany to the teeth— or as close to the teeth as he was able. He had stolen Austria before the eyes of a horrified and apparently impotent world.

All these events were shocking to nations which had defeated Germany on the battlefield only 20 years before, but nothing so terrified the world as the ruthless, methodical, Nazi-directed events which during late summer and early autumn threatened a world war over Czechoslovakia. When without loss of blood he reduced Czechoslovakia to a German puppet state, forced a drastic revision of Europe’s defensive alliances, and won a free hand for himself in Eastern Europe by getting a “hands-off” promise from powerful Britain (and later France), Adolf Hitler without doubt became 1938’s Man of the Year.

Nowhere in there is Time praising Hitler for his goodness or wisdom or any such nonsense. They highlight his ruthlessness and his terrifying actions. Even his stealing of Austria and his bloodless (for the time) destruction of Czechoslovakia. However horrible Hitler was and remains, he was the most significant political leader in 1938. And that significance led to him being chosen Man of the Year.

Ironically he would have been chosen Man of the Year for 1941 too, says Time, if not for another man. That man, Joseph Stalin, was chosen Man of the Year then. Another horrible person.

Both Hitler and Stalin caused monumental suffering and death with their actions, some of it well before World War II. You can argue that such men don’t deserve to be Man of the Year. But that’s not how Time goes about choosing who gets the title.  They continue to do pick people, however odious, even naming Trump Man of the Year after winning his first election. (That they put him in a chair turning seems to echo a picture Time had of Hitler at the time, which is possibly coincidental. Possibly.)

If you want to learn more about this, check out the links. Better still, if you want to read a good history book that ties Hitler and Stalin together, read Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.

Spot the robot finds useful work in Pompeii

I am not a fan of Boston Dynamics or their overhyped robots. They are often put to poor use, like harassing homeless people. And yet people seem positive about them. To which I normally reply: “meh”.

I am happy to make an exception for this use of them shown above. It’s  Spot, Boston Dynamics robot dog, working in Pompeii. It’s also a good example of where their robot is being useful and taking on risks that humans should avoid. If Spot’s manufacturer wants to make their robots do jobs like this, I’ll be more supportive of them.

(Image link to article)

AJP Taylor, on Winston Churchill

So there’s a new article/book critical of Churchill, and like most anti-Churchill work, it fails by emphasizing his faults and diminishing his accomplishments.

Of the many things I’ve read on Churchill, the one thing that convinced me of his greatness despite everything else is this 1974 essay by AJP Taylor: Daddy, what was Winston Churchill? – The New York Times. Taylor’s essay succeeds because he clearly sees Churchill for what he is. He sees a man who goes from an outcast to an unrivaled leader, his people fully behind him. He sees a leader making many mistakes but succeeding on the one essential thing he had to do. He understands how much worse the world would have been if he, and those he led, had failed. And after you read that essay, you should see and understand that too.

The criticisms of Churchill’s many failures are valid. But the one thing, the most important thing he did, leading the defeat of Hitler and Nazi Germany, should never be diminished.

Indeed, as Taylor starts his essay:

On Jan. 24, 1965, there died Winston Spencer Churchill, Knight of the Garter and, if he had not refused the title, Duke of London. Six days later he was given a state funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral, an honor previously reserved for two great men of war — Admiral Lord Nelson, victor at Trafalgar, and the Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo. What brought Churchill into this select company? The men of the time had no doubt as to the answer. He was the savior of his country, the first Englishman to be so hailed since King Alfred the Great.

Perhaps Churchill’s stature will crumble under a constant eroding criticism. It has happened to other leading historical figures of England and it could happen to him. What should not be forgotten or diminished is what he accomplished in a way only he could have accomplished it. It’s an inconvenient truth for some. But it is a truth that will remain.

P.S. That essay also appears in a fine collection of Taylor’s works, Essays in English History. I highly recommend it. Among other things, it has a great cover. Like Cromwell, Churchill will remain relevant for centuries to come. Warts and all.

(Top image from Wikipedia. Bottom image from Goodreads.)

On the complex process of electing the Doge in 14th century Venice

Last week on twitter I came across something that fascinated me: how the Venetians elected the Doge in the 14th century. It was a supremely complex process. At first I couldn’t believe it was real, but then I came across this: Electing the Doge (The Ballot Boy). Not only that, but I came across this academic article explaining why it made sense! And I thought runoff elections of modern states could be complicated.

For more on the city of Venice at that time, I recommend this site: The Ballot Boy – Venice in the 14th century. It provides a superb view of Venice at that time.

(Image link to The Ballot Boy, Diagram of Ducal Election)

A critique of the weird counterfactual history of Matt Yglesias and his case for the Austro-Hungarian Empire


Recently, Matt Yglesias wrote one of his contrarian essays arguing the case for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There’s so much wrongness about it that it’s hard to know where to start.

Perhaps the best place to start is some basic history of the empire over the 19th century. As the Holy Roman Empire was dying off, the Austrian Empire was formed from it and lasted from 1804 to 1867. From there it transformed into the Austria-Hungary Empire.  During the 19th century the Empire, led by the Hapsburgs, had stability issues. It was battered from the outside by leaders such as Napoleon of France and Bismarck of Prussia/Germany. It was torn internally, with revolutions like those in 1848. Even under less dramatic situations, it struggled to manage large parts of it due to things like the divisive actions of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Given all that, the idea that Yglesias puts forward that:

In today’s light, the idea of the Habsburg realms evolving into a multi-lingual democratic entity doesn’t seem particularly absurd.

Well, it is pretty absurd. The Emperor took all forms of actions to prevent the forces externally and internally from defeating the Empire, but those forces only grew stronger over that time. To imagine it evolving into a singular democratic entity is based on nothing and counter to the history of the Empire during that century.

Yglesias goes on to propose:

The empire wasn’t doomed by its diversity of linguistic groups — it started and then lost a major war.

Actually, it was doomed by its diversity in war and peace. In peacetime it was doomed by too many political groups it could not reconcile. In wartime it was doomed too. (This is covered in depth in the book,  A Mad Catastrophe.) The army of the Emperor was terrible for many reasons, and a key one in particular that led to their downfall was the inability of its soldiers to communicate with each other.

Yglesias drives forward:

And this, I think, is the thin point: had the continent not plunged into war following Ferdinand’s assassination, I think the empire could have survived.

This overlooks why there was a war in the first place. The Empire was looking to flex their muscle in the Balkans since they made aims to move into that area that was once part of the Ottoman Empire. After the assassination, an ultimatum of demands was put to Serbia. The demands were difficult and still Serbia made an effort to agree with them. Despite being agreeable to all but one, Austria-Hungary would not accept this and this ultimately lead up to the Great War. The continent was plugged into that war because of the Empire.

Assuming no war – a tremendous assumption – he goes on to imagine an optimistic future for the Empire:

My optimistic view is twofold:

Absent the pretext of war, the Viennese authorities would recognize the need to return to parliamentary government, even if that meant dealing with socialists as a counterweight to the grab-bag of nationalists.

Franz Ferdinand wanted to cut Hungary down to size (literally) and the Hungarian nationalists might have realized that this was actually in their interests and would have let them be masters of their own domain.

Again no. Hungary had been fighting against the leaders in Vienna for decade. There’s nothing in their history that indicates they would have changed their minds. If you are going to be a contrarian historian, at least have some facts to support your counter history.

He also has a fantastical view of how the Empire might have operated:

I think a more workable version of federalism would have been to leverage the Empire’s small administrative divisions and create a state where a lot of power was devolved to local government with the national government handling national defense and foreign policy, plus the kinds of things that are run out of Brussels and Frankfurt in contemporary Europe.

This is also counter to the facts. Facts such as how Hungary would subvert any kind of spending that was not in their interest, including defense, to name just one.

More fantasy in the form of how schools would run:

The expectation would be that schooling would be available in one or two local languages of instruction in every locality, that every non-German student would be taught German as a foreign language, and that every German student would choose from one of the other languages of the empire. I think that absent the outbreak of war, this would have proved to be a sustainable model

Again, no. Not based on history.

Finally:

And by midcentury, the script has sort of flipped on the Habsburg domains. Far from a feudal relic, the empire starts to seem progressive and modern.

That certainly wasn’t going to happen when Franz Joseph was emperor. He truly was a feudal relic, and the only purpose of the empire was for him to be Emperor. Preferably an empire that was based on those of centuries past. He and the land he ruled was notoriously conservative and antiquated. Nothing in their history would indicate this would become anything other than that, short of dissolution.

In summary, Matt Yglesias imagines an Austria-Hungary that never existed and never could exist, but if it did, it would form a model of some ideal federation within Mittel Europa. The only place that might fill that bill is Switzerland.

If you want to read what the empire was really like at the end, read A Mad Catastrophe. As well, AJP Taylor has written several essays and books on the subject, including this. I’ve found all those worthwhile The Guardian has 10 more books on the topic, here. Finally, consider reading Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.

The history of the 80s as it first appeared in Usenet groups

Images from the 1980s
Before the Web, there was Usenet. And like the web, it had everything. Just in text form. 🙂

Someone has mined Usenet to find the first cultural references in the 1980s to famous events. It’s an fascnating list of when things first started to gain prominence. For example:

  1. May 1981 First mention of Microsoft
  2. Dec 1982 First thread about AIDS
  3. Jul 1983 First mention of Madonna
  4. Nov 1989 First post from Berlin after the wall came down

Check it out for some major 80s flashbacks.

PS. If all you are thinking while you read this is “what the heck is Usenet??” then read this.

On Stonehenge and the Judean Date palm: the past is never gone

I have been thinking much on these two pieces I’ve read recently:

One thing I find interesting about them both is how something that could be considered part of the Past is now part of the Present. Stonehenge keeps being meaningful to us now by revealing things about the people of that era; the seed for the Judean date palm shows us what a long lost plant looks like now.

The past is never past. We choose not to pay attention to it, but it remains, piled up behind us, a huge closet full of things that were once in the present. They remain there until we find a reason to make them present again.

On the annexation of the Balkan regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary (or, the world needs more historical examples)

I find it sad is that whenever something happens that can be compared to history, we get comparisons only to Nazi Germany. Case in point, last week I saw Nancy Pelosi compare the attack on Ukraine to the Sudeten Crisis.

This is problematic in several ways. One problem is that it isn’t the only comparison that can be made. There are many such instances in history where military annexation takes place.  Another problem is that such comparisons lead people to think that things will progress along the same lines.

The solution is to learn more history. This can be hard for non-historians like me. Google is no help. I searched for annexations this weekend and most of my searches returned links to Nazi Germany. We have to research deeper.

When it comes to annexations, there are countless examples throughout history. Take Prussia. If you go through the history of Prussia in the 19th century and look for annexations, you can find many examples. European nations were always annexing their neighbor’s turf, and Prussia was just one such nation to do so.

But you don’t have to go back that far. For instance, you would be wise to read about  the Bosnian Crisis of 1908 – 1909.   In it you can see many parallels to what is happening in Ukraine right now. And that’s just one concrete example. There are many more.

The point is, the next time you want to reach for a comparison to Nazi Germany or you hear someone reference Nazi Germany in comparison to something that is happening in the world, try and read more history and find other examples.

P.S. Note the quote on that image: Civilization is on the March. That’s some disagreeable quote, but not a surprising one.

 

Colonialism, Churchill, and other things I find interesting in history, February 2022

Recently I’ve been reading more about colonialism, Churchill and more. Here are some links on this.

Recently there was  a controversial article that praised colonialism. This article shows colonialism’s real legacy was ugly. This piece also shows how colonialism was a disaster and the facts prove it.  More dismissal of the idea that colonialism was good: A Quick Reminder of Why Colonialism Was Bad. This argues that: All Britons Benefited From Colonialism, Regardless Of Class. While Britain was a big colonial power, there were others as well. For example, Russia: Empire of the steppe: Russia’s colonial experience on the Eurasian frontier. Finally: 500 years of European colonialism in one animated map.

Related to colonialism, here are some links on Winston Churchill. Here’s two pieces critical of him: The Case Against Winston Churchill and Why can’t Britain handle the truth about Winston Churchill? My thought is anti-Churchillians downplay his role in defeating Hitler, while pro-Churchillians focus mainly on his role in defeating Hitler and downplay everything else. Finally, for a piece that takes into account the complexity of Churchill and his legacy, there is this:  The best books on Winston Churchill.

I disagreed with the monocausal aspect of this piece, The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan, Stalin Did. Many things led to the defeat of Japan. Russia was one of them, for sure. Still a good read.

I liked this piece by TNC that  talks about Tony Judt: The Man Who Freed Me From Cant. My minor criticism is that Coates has an American centric view and this prevents him to some degree to fairly assessing Judt. But it’s a minor one: I recommend it, as I do for anything Ta-Nehesi Coates writes.

On Seneca, or good advice is good advice, regardless of whom it comes from

I’ve always thought highly of the wisdom dispensed by Seneca. Many do. However, I started to think about it more after reading this: Lucius Annaeus Seneca | Daily Philosophy.

Seneca’s advice is admirable and worthwhile. His life, less so. Read that piece and you will see what I mean.Which is once again why I will conclude that good advice is good advice, regardless of whom it comes from. Not everyone is as consistent in life and thought as Diogenes. 🙂

 

Late night thoughts on America, China and Africa

Here’s some interesting links I found on America, China, and Africa over the year that I thought worth revisited as we move from 2021 to 2022.

On American justice: There was plenty of turmoil in the American justice system in 2021. For example, the Arbery trial outcome was uncertain:  Nearly All-White Jury in Arbery Killing Draws Scrutiny while the Rittenhouse trial was not: Of Course Kyle Rittenhouse Was Acquitted. The effects of the US Supreme Court becoming more conservative was discussed in pieces like this  Five Justices Did This Because They Could and this It’s time to say it: The conservatives on the Supreme Court lied to us all. Finally a reminder of how terrible capital punishment is in many ways, as this piece shows: They executed people for the state of South Carolina. For some it nearly destroyed them.

On American history: Americans spent much time debating their history, too, in pieces like this, Date of Viking Visit to North America Pinpointed to 1021 AD,
this The Debate Over a Jefferson Statue Is Missing Some Surprising History  this Cancel Columbus Day: Sun storms pinpoint Europeans being in Canada in 1021 A.D., and this: Does America really lose all its wars?.

A special focus was put on the 1619 Project, here The 1619 Project and the Demands of Public History and here The 1619 Project started as history. Now it’s also a political program. Relatedly, this: List of last surviving American enslaved people.

Finally, this bears rereading:  Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments for Living in a Healthy Democracy.

China: like the US, China is struggling too. Struggling with it’s young people (‘Lying flat’: The millennials quitting China’s ‘996’ work culture to live ‘free of anxiety’), scandals (Beijing Silenced Peng Shuai in 20 Minutes, Then Spent Weeks on Damage Control), worldwide distrust (As Distrust of China Grows Europe May Inch Closer to Taiwan), and their treatment of  Uyghurs (U.S. Holocaust Museum Says China May Be Committing Genocide Against Uyghurs). And as Xi Jinping gains more control, he is coming under more scrutiny, as seen here China’s Xi Jinping Remakes the Communist Party’s History in His Image and here What if Xi Jinping just isn’t that competent?

Africa: For the first part of the 21st century, China and the US will be the dominant great powers. However as we move towards the 22nd century, the next great power may come from Africa. At the very least, Africa’s rising cities will be dominant.

Happy Boxing Day! Go have a snowball fight! Here’s some inspiration!

Happy Boxing Day to those that celebrate. It’s always a good day to go outside after all the festivities of Christmas. If you are fortunate to have snow, maybe you can go have a (gentle) snowball fight. Either way, this link is a collection of Snowball Fights in Art (1400–1946) over at The Public Domain Review. Dive in.

 

 

A virtual tour of Hagia Sophia


A few years ago I was fortunate to visit Hagia Sophia and get a tour of it. If you ever can get a chance, I highly recommend it. For those who cannot visit it, this might be the next best thing: 360 Degree Virtual Tours of the Hagia Sophia .

I think Hagia Sophia is one of the wonders of the world. See it if you can.

(Image via Wikipedia)

On de Klerk and Hume (and Cromwell too)

Cromwell
FW de Klerk died last week. While there were many reactions to his death, I thought this one was best. His legacy is complicated. But he has a legacy that is complicated and not one that is simply horrible because of the bold actions he took. I had thoughts on de Klerk, but that piece is better than anything I could have written.

I’d argue that almost everyone’s legacy is complicated. I especially thought that after reading about how David Hume’s tower was renamed last year. I suspect that eventually the only things that will be named after people will be for people whose lives we no longer care about. But who knows? As I wrote earlier, the naming of things (and the removal of names) is about power and eventually those newly in power want to name their things so they become their own.

Perhaps we should not erect memorials at all. Perhaps we all need to be iconoclastic. If we do cast new ones, then the memorials we erect of people need to include the “warts and all” aspects of them. Make the memorials a lesson instead of an icon to worship.

One thing I want to add on de Klerk is that when I was younger, I never thought that the Soviet Union, Apartheid, or the Troubles in Ireland would end in my lifetime. For every de Klerk there was a Paisley in Northern Ireland who would fight tooth and nail to prevent change from happening. But it did happen, because of people like Gorbachev, de Klerk and Mandela, Trimble and Hume. They should be acknowledged for the good they did.

(Image from a story on the painter who painted Cromwell, warts and all: Samuel Cooper)

 

The wonderful infographics of W.E.B. Du Bois

While W.E.B. Du Bois is acclaimed for many achievements, one that I had never heard of until I came across this was how great he was at making infographics: W. E. B. Du Bois’ Hand-Drawn Infographics of African-American Life (1900) – The Public Domain Review.

That piece has several of his works on display, including the one above. Not only are they well designed, but seeing them gives you a valuable American history lesson. For example, this one below uses text and imagery to show how the population of African Americans changed over time in proportion to the rest of the population:

Well worth checking out that article to see more of his work.

 

The fantastic recreation of the ruins of Palmyra by Abbas Akhavan

 

Many were devastated by the destruction of the ancient ruins of Palmyra by Isis. There have been attempts both small and not so small to recreate them. Above you can see how the artist Abbas Akhavan has done it using straw and clay. It’s a wonderful work, and you can learn more about it, here: Abbas Akhavan review – a poetic monument to folly | Art and design | The Guardian.

 

Consolations from the classics: Seneca and Suetonius

First up, Seneca. Here’s a good piece that summarizes some of the consolation letters he wrote to people close to him. Though they were written centuries ago, they are timeless and worth reading.

Second, Suetonius. Here’s a good piece on why you want to read him:  The Consolations of History. Essentially,  good histories like those of Suetonius give you  perspective that help you deal with your own time. Sometimes they do that by showing you things are fundamentally the same. Other times they do that by showing how much things have changed since that time. Either way you come away with a deeper understanding of your own time even as you learn about another time.

During the pandemic I have been noticing this frequently. People are looking back at the pandemic of 1918-19 and trying to draw lessons from it. That’s a good thing, I think. We can all gain perspective by looking to the past, which is never really past.

 

Great parts of Toronto: Baldwin Street

Recently there was much discussion around this famous bakery in Toronto: Yung Sing. Many people I know have fond memories of going there and eating their famous pastry. And not just people I know, as this shows: Why Chinese bakery Yung Sing is one of the most fondly remembered in Toronto

That got me reminiscing about the street that Yung Sing is on. Baldwin Street has many famous places that incorporate Toronto history. You can see one example of that  in this piece: Yiddish sign survives threat to last vestige of Jewish enclave on Baldwin | The Star. 

And John’s and Yung Sing are just a few of the great places on Baldwin. You can read about more of them here: Toronto patios: Baldwin St. | The Star. 

That’s an older piece, but there’s still some of those places. And there are other places that are new and great, like Omai.

I miss Baldwin Street. I used to go often before the pandemic. It’s easy to get to from Spadina Avenue and it’s just up from the AGO, making it a perfect destination. I need to go back soon.

If you want to learn more about the street, read this: Baldwin Village – Wikipedia

(Image linked to in the story on the Yiddish sign).

On the historic smashed guitar of Paul Simonon of the Clash

From small moments of frustration, history is made.  As the Guardian explains:

The guitar was last played on stage at the Palladium in New York on 20 September 1979. Frustrated at the stiffness of the audience, Simonon raised his guitar like a giant axe, turned his back to singer Joe Strummer, and brought it crashing down.

That moment was captured on film, made into part of the cover for the band’s London Calling record, and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history.

For more details, see: Bass guitar smashed at Clash gig to join relics at Museum of London | The Clash | The Guardian

(Image via GuitarWorld)

On my study of history in school and out of school

In the United States and Canada recently, there have been terrible events that have driven people to ask: why didn’t we learn about XYZ in school? Tom Hanks devotes an article to this line of thinking in the New York Times, here.

I just have a few things to say about that, based on my own education in history, the education of my kids, and the education I gave to myself post high school.

In Canada there was a big discussion about the Residential School System and why did we not learn about it. I didn’t, and my kids didn’t, I don’t think. What I did learn when I was younger was different aspects of history for each year I was in grade school. In the earlier grades, we studied Nova Scotian history, British history, and Canadian history. We studied ancient world history and then history of the second millenium. We did study indigenous people at the time when the focus was on North America. (As well, we studied Mi’kmaq religion in grade 7, which was interesting). Indigenous people were not invisible in the lessons, and their role was significant at times. That said, the lessons were mainly Eurocentric and mainly focused on major events like wars and politics, though.

I noticed a shift in this when my kids were studying history in grades 7 and 8. There were lessons on injustices in Canada, especially when it came to racist events such as the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II. I thought that was a good improvement in the study of Canadian history.

Of course what facts are taught in history, and what are not, changes all the time. This will depend on many factors, from school administrators, teachers, parents, and others. Even what books are available matters. I hope and expect that Canadian history will be taught in a less Eurocentric way, and that Indigenous and people of non-European origin will get more focus. Also important would be more focus given to the role of women in history. That would be a change for the better.

I think it is important to acknowledge, though, that the point of history classes in school is not just to teach facts. For example my kids were learning not just about Canadian history, they were learning how to think about history. That makes a great deal of sense (though learning the facts is good too).

I can say this because I actually stopped studying  history as soon as I could in high school, and I think that is a shame. I found grade 10 history boring, and there were alternative classes that were more interesting in the next two years, classes I took instead. I made up for that later by reading history copiously starting in my late 20s, thanks to encouragement from my brother. By reading people like AJP Taylor, not only did I learn about history, I learned how historical writing could be criticized. I also learned from Taylor how history could be presented in a way different than more mainstream historical writing. I was studying history again. Thinking about it. Thinking about the arguments historians made. Agreeing and disagreeing with historians. Getting to recognize good history from not so good history, at least in a limited way.

I think knowing how to think about history is as important as ever. We are being confronted with our past and the past of others all the time. By being able to think critically of those times, we can better understand our past, our current era, and even ourselves.

P.S. If you want to understand more about how to history is taught, at least in Ontario, see this.

(Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash)

Treadmills are horrible and have been forever

A horrific accident with a treadmill happened this week, causing lots of understandable worry. To see what I mean, see this: Peloton recalls treadmills after a child dies | CTV News

If you were wondering if treadmills were ever good, read this: The Torturous History of the Treadmill | Wirecutter

They have their uses, sure. But as equipment goes, they are one of my least favorite.

(Photo by Ryan De Hamer on Unsplash)

The fascinating history of art in the Oval Office of the White House

The New York Times does a great job of telling the story of The Art in the Oval Office. There’s a good story of how it has evolved from Kennedy to Biden, and the Times does a good job of telling it by using various interactive tools. Well worth viewing.

Personally I like how different Kennedy was than the other presidents. But judge for yourself.

Revisiting my views on the Renaissance and the Middle Ages

Growing up, I learned about the glorious Renaissance and the Dark Ages that preceded them. If you learned something similar, here are two articles to set you straight. The first one argues that the Middle Ages (not the Dark Ages, thank you very much!) were pretty interesting, actually. After you read it, I think you will agree. The second one argues not only were the Middle Ages good, but the Renaissance was not all that great. I had to agree after reading it.

I will still have a fondness and a preference for the Renaissance, but I found these two pieces were good correctives for my bias against the Middle Ages.

(Image from the first piece in currentaffairs.org)

Sodom, or when science collides with early religions and folklore

I thought this was fascinating: New Science Suggests Biblical City Of Sodom Was Smote By An Exploding Meteor.

There is an archaeological dig happening that seems to say that a meteor hit the region at some point and destroyed the place people were inhabiting. You can see how this could have been taken for divine retribution, just like the Great Flood was. Then this great event is incorporated into folklore and early religion.

Now how good is this new science? If you read the wikipedia page for Sodom, you can see at the bottom in the section Historicity that shows the claims made and how debatable they are. So maybe this isn’t the actual site and it’s possible Sodom was not wiped out by a meteor. Still, it is fascinating to think about.

(General Photo by John Ballem on Unsplash of a site hit by a meteor.)

The worst ever president of the United States of America (revised) is…

No longer this guy:

Three years ago I argued Buchanan was the worst president, here:
The worst ever president of the United States of America is… | Smart People I Know

But a lot has happened in three years, and I now agree with Tim Naftali who argues that: Trump Is the Worst President in History – The Atlantic.

He makes a strong case. Not only that, but we haven’t even begin to know all the bad things Trump has done.

There have been many bad presidents, from Harding to Johnson to Nixon. But Trump takes the “prize” for being the worst.

One of my favorite photos: nine kings at Buckingham Palace

This may be one of my favorite photographs of all time:


Nine Kings at Buckingham Palace – Iconic Photos

It pictures the nine European Kings gathered together for the funeral in 1910 of England’s King Edward VII.

What I love about it is the illusion of power and permanence it holds. All nine men were soon to shaken by the changes brought on by the upcoming war. All nine would fall from the height they stood on in this photo.

If you go to the link in Iconic Photos, you can get a who’s who of the Kings as well as what happened to them.

More on it here including some wonderful detail, such as the seating list for dinner. Of those gathered around the table, everyone was royalty save the heads of state of the USA and France.

Four good pieces on my hometown, Glace Bay

Anyone with an interest in Glace Bay will find these worth reading:

  1. A COAL TOWN FIGHTS FOR ITS LIFE | Maclean’s | MARCH 15 1954: this was fascinating. A story from Maclean’s Magazine in the 1950s that documented Glace Bay at the crossroads. So much in this piece explains my home town and the people who lived there.
  2. Glace Bay hockey rink’s new name closer to its roots | CBC.ca: a mainstay of Glace Bay is the hockey rink. When I was a kid I lived about 100 meters from it. I spent most of my early days (until grade 10) going to it. So many memories back then revolved around that building.
  3. KEN MACDONALD: Remembering the miners | Local-Lifestyles | Lifestyles | Cape Breton Post: a good piece from the local paper on the mines of Glace Bay and the miners who lived and sometimes died in them.
  4. Miners’ houses: Lawren Harris in Glace Bay – Nova Scotia Advocate: finally this piece on Glace Bay with a focus on a famous painting of Glace Bay by Lawren Harris (shown above). It used to be in the AGO and I often paused to reflect on it, and my hometown. Just like I am doing now.

A short introduction to Ulysses S. Grant

If you are not familiar with Grant, I recommend this piece. Grant’s life makes for fascinating reading. If you agree after you read that, then I highly recommend this biography by Ron Chernow. It’s superb.

Grant is a deeply flawed and deeply great man. He deserves to be better recognized today. Here’s hoping he is.

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A history degree is still worthwhile and this shows why

More than ever, post secondary institutions are dropping various humanity degrees from what they offer. History is one of them. No doubt part of the reason is because people are not studying history when they attend post secondary schools. I imagine part of the reason people are not studying it is because they believe one or more of these statements:

  1. History Majors Are Underemployed
  2. A History Major Does Not Prepare You for Gainful Employment
  3. History Majors Are Underpaid

That’s too bad. Anyone who things that should read this piece. It makes the case that those statements are myths: History Is Not a Useless Major: Fighting Myths with Data | Perspectives on History | AHA

There is economic value in attaining a degree in history. After reading that piece, no one should be able to say a history degree is worthless.

It goes without saying that there are non-economic benefits to a history degree too. The more I read history the better sense I have of my own time and my place in it. By studying history and the arguments that historians make, I am better able to think for myself. I regret not studying more history when I was younger. I make up for it now by reading history often. I hope you will too. Perhaps even study it in university.

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Mary Beard on Statues


Mary Beard brings her unique perspective to statues and what to do about them, here: Statue wars | blog post by Mary Beard – The TLS.

Good food for thought on people for or against the disposal of statues.

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You’ve heard of Pompeii and Troy, but have you heard of the lost city of Merv?


If not, then you might want to read of the city that was wiped out by Genghis Khan with the result of 700,000 deaths. That’s a gruesome statistic, but this is a fascinating story:  Lost cities #5: how the magnificent city of Merv was razed – and never recovered | Cities | The Guardian.

It’s part of a series on Lost Cities, which includes Troy and Pompeii and much more.