March 23, 2006

History, Conservative Style

I received a forwarded e-mail today, entitled "History" and subtitled "A California Lawyer's Perspective on Iraq War." I enjoy forwarded e-mails, by and large, and I thought I would share a bit of this one with my readership. I can't paste in the whole thing, because it's terribly long and there wouldn't be any room left for my own commentary.

The basic thesis amounts to this: Islam is having both an Inquisition and a Reformation right now. If the Inquisition wins, Jihadists will try to take over the world and we will have to stop them. If the Reformation wins, all trouble in the Middle East will go away. Our war in Iraq is the best chance the world has to help the Islamic Reformation win, and if we succeed in Iraq, they will win.

Plus, our only choices regarding how to handle "the Jihad" are [various choices], and the only one of those that's any good involves doing exactly what we are doing. Additionally, all you nay-sayers are wrong about the war because [various reasons]. And furthermore, you pathetic people who are complaining about [time, money, casualties] are retarded because [insert war here] was much larger and more costly, and you didn't hear our ancestors complain.

And now, a few highlights (as I feel led):

Regarding our entry into World War II after Pearl Harbor, the author (whose name happens to be Raymond Kraft) says, "It was a dicey thing. We had few allies."

Well, I suppose that's true depending on your definition of few. After all, we only had the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, China, France, Poland, Greece, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, India, and . . . a few others. These few, small countries against the combined might of enormous land masses like Japan (not to mention Germany and Italy). Now, this is something of a minor point to quibble with, I realize, but I include merely to illustrate the general tone of the entire piece. Our California lawyer friend plays fast and loose with adjectives and figures, and especially dates, in order to manipulate the audience. Moving on . . .

Now, one thing I always love to see whenever conservatives begin to hotly defend our outrageous actions in Iraq is the idea that we went there for the express purpose of [insert purpose that has nothing whatever to do with weapons of mass destruction here]. In this case, the author makes the incredible claim that we chose Iraq as our Middle East battlefield against the Jihad. Hmmm . . . I think the next battlefield of our choosing should be the Grand Cayman Islands. That sounds fun. Because remember, wherever we start fighting, terrorists will flock there to oppose us, and we can crush them all with one blow.

Furthermore, he states that, "It was our intention from the beginning to do just enough to enable the Iraqis to develop a representative government and their own military and police forces to provide their own security, and that is happening." Funny thing about our intention from the beginning . . . it keeps changing. Nowhere in the entire piece does the author cite our actual intention, which (of course) was a frantic hunt for nonexistent WMD. I have noted that conservatives these days take two approaches to WMD in Iraq. They are either in a state of denial, clamoring that they have to be there, somewhere (although even Dubya has given that up by now), or they just pretend that the entire intelligence fiasco never happened at all and our reasons for going in were entirely different, as in this case.

The piece really gets good, though, when Kraft starts trying to do history, attempting to show us how minor and short-term our sacrifices in Iraq are in comparison to other wars, and so forth. The dates fly thick and fast here:

Europe spent the first half of the 19th century fighting Napoleon, and from 1870 to 1945 fighting Germany . . . World War II, the war with the German and Japanese Nazis, really began with a 'whimper' in 1928. It did not begin with Pearl Harbor. It began with the Japanese invasion of China. It was a war for fourteen years before America joined it. It officially ended in 1945 - a 17 year war - and was followed by another decade of US occupation in Germany and Japan to get those countries reconstructed and running on their own again . . . a 27 year war.

Let's see . . . Napoleon came to power at the very end of 1804, was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and spent nearly a year in-between in exile on Elba. If you're lucky, you can squeeze a 10-year "War on Napoleon" (if you will) out of that, but considering the dude was dead by 1821 . . . Well, I guess that in the grand cosmic scheme of things, ten years is approximately half of a century. Whatever.

Speaking of exaggerations, consider what he calls a 75-year war between Germany and the rest of Europe (1870-1945). I presume he is referring to the three wars Germany fought in Europe during that period: The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), World War I (1914-1918), and World War II (1939-1945). That's eleven years of warfare out of seventy-five . . . A number far smaller than the United States has spent at war since 1941, whether you count the Cold War or not. That's hardly what you'd call a constant conflict.

Furthermore, his entire characterization of World War II is grossly inaccurate. I have never in my life seen anyone seriously place the beginning of World War II at the Japanese invasion of China in 1928. You might just as well place it with the Battle of Hastings (1066), citing the fact that somewhere in the world, someone was fighting someone else during that entire time. And experts agree that, once one side of combatants surrenders to the other side and all the peace treaties are signed, the war is over. Tacking the ten extra years of American occupation onto the end of World War II is kind of cheating . . .

And I have to say, the thought of those "Japanese Nazis" with their goosestepping and aspirations of building the master Aryan race just chills my blood. What was it they called themselves? The House of the Rising Swastika?

I have to ask, if Kraft can't get simple numbers right, and feels the need to exaggerate things that are easily refuted, what makes anyone think he's right about anything else? And, sure enough, he doesn't just get numbers wrong. He's also hopelessly confused about ideologies.

"In the 20th century, it was Western democracy vs. communism, and before that Western democracy vs. Nazism, and before that Western democracy vs. German Imperialism."

Funny thing about a few of those . . . World War I was really more a case of German Imperialism vs. Everyone Else's Imperialism, in point of fact. And if we're going to be strictly accurate, the progression was Western democracy and communism vs. Nazism/Fascism, then Western democracy vs. communism. Let's not forget who was on which side when.

There are just a few more things that I wanted to point out at random before I wrap up . . . It's difficult to give an orderly response to something that is long, chaotic, and wrong on so many levels. Kraft's ideas about "the Jihad" are obviously severely distorted, given that he seems to think it refers to a single, coherent body of extremists who are organized and rallied behind the same banner, with the same goals, etc. He repeatedly says things like, "We can surrender to the Jihad" and "If the Jihad wins" and so forth. Of course that is absurd.

Let's say I want to surrender to "terrorism" . . . where would I go and with whom would I sign a treaty? Let's say that "terrorism" wins . . . Who is that, exactly? Who is the victor, and what are they doing? The entire idea of Islamic terrorism being considered as a single entity called "the Jihad" is simply ludicrous, and (as I said), demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the situation. In other words, it's no wonder this guy supports the war in Iraq as vital to defeating terrorists . . . he's an ignoramus who hasn't the foggiest idea what's going on over there.

To further demonstrate the absurdity of the whole idea, my friend Jonathan Wilson wrote the following document, which I found rather amusing (click to enlarge):

Anyway, one final thought before I lay the thing to rest. Kraft encouraged readers to pass his work along to students because apparently we don't know anything about history, and lack perspective and stuff, thanks to our liberal educations. Having read everything he had to say, I felt it would be wrong to just let it slide by. Near the end, Kraft says the following:

We can be defeatist peace-activists as anti-war types seem to be, and concede, surrender, to the Jihad, or we can do whatever it takes to win this war against them. The history of the world is the history of civilizational clashes, cultural clashes. All wars are about ideas, ideas about what society and civilization should be like, and the most determined always win. Those who are willing to be the most ruthless always win. The pacifists always lose, because the anti-pacifists kill them.

Yes, we pacifists are a sorry lot . . . never seem to get far, do we? Consider, for instance, the early Christians, foolishly refusing to fight back against the persecution of the Roman Empire. If memory serves, their movement was entirely stamped out by . . . oh, about 313 AD or so, and they were never heard from again. So much for passive resistance. I'm sure by now you're thinking of examples yourself . . . What about the Mennonites vs. the Nazis and, later, the communists? Who lasted longer there? Ghandi and the British Empire? Martin Luther King, Jr. and the KKK?

Conservative Christians confuse me so much sometimes . . .

Posted by Jared at 02:01 PM | TrackBack

March 15, 2006

The Civil War Reconsidered

Just because I think this is a period in American history that just hasn't been examined and discussed enough, I think I'll consider the Civil War for a moment. The Southern history readings over the Civil War focused on questioning three deeply entrenched preconceptions about it: the brilliant tactics of Robert E. Lee, the incompetent leadership of Jefferson Davis, and the solid support of secession and civil war by yeoman farmers.

I did not expect the direction explored by the first author I read, Russell Weigley, in "Robert E. Lee: Napoleon of the Confederacy." At first glance, that sounds like a glowing examination of tactical genius, but Weigley actually seriously questioned the wisdom of Lee's strategy. The picture he paints is that Lee ultimately broke his own army because his strategy relied entirely too much on large gambles aimed at achieving victory from a single, crushing offensive campaign. While his campaigns may have been supremely well-planned, they were sometimes beyond the capacity of Lee's officers and troops to carry out without a great deal of good fortune. Thus, the comparison here is with the Napoleon who ultimately lost at Waterloo, not the Napoleon who successfully conquered most of Europe first.

Lee's hope, of course, was to break the North's will to fight by capturing one of their large cities (i.e. Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington D.C.), and he nearly succeeded more than once. However, Weigley wondered if the South might have faired better fighting defensively. He also noted that Lee's strategy, even when he was in charge of the entire Confederate Army later in the war, never placed any importance on the Union forces that were tearing up and down the Mississippi River. He never sent significant reinforcements or aid in their direction, hoping instead to succeed with his doomed offensive rushes northward.

There seems to be a great deal of validity to Weigley's argument, but I have to say I think Lee and the entire South was in a lose/lose situation. Fighting defensively might have prolonged the agony slightly longer, but the South would have lost. Perhaps if they had had the ability to break the northern blockade of their ports, they might have managed to fight a defensive war, but that, too, would have been impossible without the aid of the British. And, in turn, that aid could best have been secured by a decisive victory such as the one Lee was trying to achieve anyway.

As I see it, Lee had two choices: fight defensively and lose, are gamble and possibly win (but probably lose). Under the circumstances, he obviously made the right decision. Weigley's point seems to have been to suggest that Lee may not have fully understood that dichotomy at the time, and would have acted as he did in any case, for better or worse. In any case, it was a perspective I am not used to seeing.

The other two selections were closely related, discussing different aspects of the Confederate government and how it was viewed by most Southerners (which is to say, apparently not very well). The most interesting thing about this government, formed by a people who had essentially seceded over the issue of states' rights, was that, under the leadership of Jefferson Davis, it was ultimately just as centralized as the Federal government in the North. Now, considering the similar interests of the entire region and the fact that there was a war on at the time, it seems likely that criticism from hardcore states' righters was more reactionary and short-sighted than anything else. And Davis, while he may have been no politician, was not an idiot.

However, one possible (at least partial) consequence of establishing a centralized government in an individualistic region was that the largest class of whites in the South, the yeomen farmers, failed to line up in support of the new regime. Ultimately doomed to lose the Civil War or not, the numbers of disaffected Southerners are quite significant. In 1863 over 100,000 Confederate soldiers were essentially AWOL. By the end of the war, that number had risen to over 200,000, or over 55% of the total armed forces. That is, to put it simply, a staggering number.

Just as with the previous reflection on the Antebellum South, these readings provide a valuable sense of perspective that is important to retain when reading about the myths of the Lost Cause that surfaced scant decades later. People have a tendency to polarize everything, and Southerners seem particularly susceptible to this vice (although, for instance, Northerners can be just as guilty of the same thing when they generalize about the South). Entire races, periods of history, religious denominations, and countries are perceived through a homogenous lens of good or evil preconceptions which are not easily dismissed once they are in place. In the case of the Confederacy during the Civil War, the outcome, and the average Southerner's commitment to it, are not as simple as they might seem.

Posted by Jared at 03:25 PM | TrackBack

March 14, 2006

Antebellum Blues

The Antebellum South is a very difficult period for me to write about again, because I'm not entirely convinced that I have anything new to say about it. I was given some fascinating readings for this period, beginning with a second excerpt from Blassingame's The Slave Community.

I was actually somewhat frustrated by this piece because it made me think it was going to talk about actual slaves, but instead it only addressed the perceptions of their masters. Namely, what do the established negro stereotypes of Sambo (i.e. Uncle Tom and Uncle Remus), Jack (i.e. Aphra Behn's Oroonoko), and Nat (as in Nat Turner and his famed rebellion) tell us about the actual nature of the black population?

The conclusions to be drawn more or less boil down to: 1) Masters talked as though all of their slaves were Sambos, but acted as though all of them were Nats. The stereotypes were therefore somehow not an accurate or adequate depiction of reality. 2) The reality probably amounts to a case of slaves beginning to assume whatever role they felt necessary in order to survive, and (in some cases at least) ultimately becoming that role as time wore on and nothing changed.

Discussion of this phenomenon brought to mind various readings of the character of Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as Faulkner's portrayal of blacks in his novels (particularly The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!). I really ought to go ahead and read the next chapter from Blassingame's book in order to see how the author accounts for the realities of the slave personality.

Meanwhile, our next excerpt came from Grady McWhiney's Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. This piece, by far the longest I read, was my favorite due in large part to the liberal sprinkling of actual historical events (anecdotes, really) which livened up its pages. The chapters selected were, interestingly, entitled "Pleasures" and "Violence." Our printouts stopped at "Morals." As such, I probably got a slightly imbalanced view of actual life in the Old South.

Nevertheless, the picture was a very telling one. I mentioned previously the uniting of a culture of violent and extreme emotion (the Scotch-Irish) with one dedicated to the preservation of personal honor (the Virginia aristocrats). By the Antebellum period, that blend had had its chance to fully mature and was operating at its peak. The picture painted by McWhiney is of an Old South that easily rivals the Old West in its rambunctious lawlessness and toleration of vice. Sure, the Old West got all the glory for gun battles in the streets and so forth, but the Old South did it first. A dubious honor, that.

The final piece was a chapter from The Slaveholders' Dilemma by Eugene D. Genovese, and I have saved it for last for two reasons. First, it seemed like a logical progression to be working my way up step by step through the social stratosphere of the Old South. Second, I was the most fascinated by this piece. In it, Genovese essentially invites the reader to step back from the moral horror of slavery and objectively consider the writings of Antebellum "philosophers" (for lack of a better term) on the subject.

The most interesting of these was Thomas Dew, a Virginian intellectual who spent much of his life trying to interpret the development of Western civilization. His extensive examination of the various factors involved led him to conclude that eventually the cost of free labor would sink below the level of the cost of slave labor and the slaves would be freed. Meanwhile, the cost of free labor would remain at subsistence level with no way to protect the poor if that level should ever drop. Unlike slaves, the poverty-stricken free laborers would have no protection from economic depression and so forth. Dew regarded this as morally unacceptable, and further, he believed that the poorer classes would go the way of the French Revolution rather than endure such an outcome.

In short (as I understand it), Dew was very strongly in favor of progress of all kinds, but he believed that the lower classes would bear the brunt of the negative effects of progress if they were not "protected" from exploitation and starvation by . . . being slaves. Without slavery, he believed, freedom would ultimately undermined, because the poor classes in any other system would eventually revolt, forcing the rich capitalists to become military despots and quashing all variety of freedoms in the process. "Only slavery or personal servitude in some form could guarantee republican liberties for the propertied, security for the propertyless, and stability for the state and society" (18).

Dew saw the movement of Western civilization as dependent on a choice between progress and social anarchy, or slavery, social stability, and no progress. He didn't like either option, but he settled on slavery as the lesser of two evils. An interesting argument, all things considered, but I wonder how he would account for the actual movement of events. I believe, from what I have studied, that the 50 or so years following the Civil War seem to bear him out. I can't help but be curious about what he might have thought of the Soviet Union.

All that aside, I don't believe I have had the chance to encounter such lucid (and, ultimately, cautious) pro-slavery arguments before reading about Thomas Dew. Perhaps his body of work would be worthy of more study at a future date. Meanwhile, these readings on the Antebellum South provide a valuable foundation of reality for any study of Southern history prior to the elaborate fantasies that were constructed about it after the Civil War.

Posted by Jared at 02:11 PM | TrackBack

March 10, 2006

End of the . . . Mid-Semester

I've just come from the Liberal Arts offices and the atmosphere there is reminiscent of the end of the semester. I'm sweating out my last hour of work at the library watching clips from "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report." My brain has been on break since last Wednesday night (more or less). My only responsibilities this week were a test in Poli. Sci. on Monday (which I got an A on), and a group presentation in Grail Quest on "The Grail Legend" by Emma Jung and Marie-Louise Von Franz last night (which I don't have a grade for yet). I can't remember anticipating a break this much since . . . oh, at least last November.

My plans for Spring Break are:

1) Search rigorously for a job in town that I can plug into once I graduate . . . preferably something that I won't hate, but I can't really be picky.

2) Work at the library to keep the bank account afloat this semester.

3) Homework: I'm 4 or 5 weeks behind on Southern history papers, and I need to start reading my sources for the Thomas Dixon paper. I also need to catch up on the reading for Grail Quest and start preparing for my individual presentation on The Once and Future King. I have to read the book we're reviewing for the paper next issue, Liars and Saints. And I hope to have time to glance at that independent paper a bit . . .

4) World of Warcraft . . . the joy of Spring Break for me will be the complete freedom I'll have in the evening not to worry about homework or any other such obligations. I'll probably spend them playing video games with the few people who are sticking around on campus.

45 minutes left . . . I can't wait.

Posted by Jared at 02:14 PM | TrackBack

March 07, 2006

It's All So Exciting!

I am painfully aware that I have not actually updated my blog in a ridiculously long time. The factor which makes this awareness painful is that the past month has been far from uneventful, and yet I have failed to right it down. At this juncture, of course, it would be out of the question to reproduce everything as I might have done had it just transpired . . . but I'll hit a few of the highlights of the few weeks.

The Famous "Intro to Fine Arts" Field Trip

I've watched my friends trot off to spend a day in Dallas with Dr. Watson for several semesters now, and I finally got my own chance to go a few Fridays ago. I had to be at the bus by 7:30, but it was certainly worth it. The day was extremely eventful, but the real highlights boil down to an extended chance to look at pretty things (or "interact with art" as Dr. Watson would say). We went to the Texas Hall of State, the Meyerson Symphony Hall (to hear a concert on their ridiculously large organ), and the Dallas Museum of Art.

The bus broke down around the time we were supposed to leave the DMA, so I got to wander around it with Ashley for quite a bit longer than would otherwise have been possible (a fact which pleased me enormously). I saw some great stuff from all sorts of periods and cultures: Impressionist, Modern, Asian, and so forth. I especially enjoyed the chance to appreciate some more modern work. By far my favorite piece, however, was a short film by Miguel Angel Rios called "A Morir" . . . it was shot from three angles, all of which played simultaneously on three different walls. Look it up and read about it . . . it was very moving and thought-provoking.

The Infamous Review of Brokeback Mountain

Randy and I wrote a review of Brokeback Mountain for the YellowJacket and called it what it was: a magnificent and moving film which does not promote what the rabid fundies would describe as a homosexual agenda. For our pains we (and the newspaper) received a few condemnatory e-mail messages, one of which was also sent to the university president and some other higher-ups. Our review also came up in Senate in the context of a number of guys on a particular floor having had a problem with it.

The ultimate outcome of it all was a statement issued by the administration to all floor chaplains re-affirming their standing statement on human sexuality (homosexuality = not kosher) and we are printing a few of the e-mails as "Letters to the Editor" in this week's issue. Also, our esteemed editors encouraged us to brainstorm creatively with them to try and discover a way to give foolish knee-jerkers even less of a reason to complain without having to rate or describe a movie's morality (at which point I would stop writing reviews anyway). We ultimately settled on including the reason for the MPAA rating of a movie along with the rating which we had already been including, and changing nothing else.

I had a whole lot to say on this issue, I can assure you, and I have been more than a little disgusted by some of the responses I have seen and heard about. However, on the other hand, people that I actually respect have both complimented and encouraged us and our review. A certain unnamed authority figure told me today (in reference to this) to "Keep challenging." He needn't worry. I will.

The 9th Annual C.S. Lewis and the Inklings Conference

Last weekend was a whole lot of fun for me. I headed up to John Brown University with Dr. Batts, Dr. Solganick, and several other students to present a paper at the CSLIS Conference. My paper was the one I wrote last semester for C.S. Lewis about what Lewis says about the power and inadequacy of human language in his book Till We Have Faces. My paper was one of the first ones on the program, so I got it out of the way fast and enjoyed the rest of conference with no pressure. Actually, though, I wasn't even nervous about delivering it at all. I talked to fast, I'm sure, as I always do, but I got several compliments on the paper afterwards and I was quite satisfied, all in all.

And I didn't just get to present the paper, I also got to see Asa and hang out with him a bit. That was a lot of fun . . . and I owed him a visit after he came to LeTourneau last semester. I also got a lot of good thinking done on the 7-hour drives going and coming. On the way up I planned an independent paper I want to write on the effect that shifts in American culture during the past 50+ years have had on movies about King Arthur and the Holy Grail. We'll see if anything comes of that. On the way back I got quite a bit of reading done in The Grail Legend by Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz . . . I have a group presentation on the book in Grail Quest this Thursday night.

Anyway, there are a few of the highlights that I have neglected to record of late. Hopefully you'll be hearing from me some more on . . . something or other before too long has gone by again. Meanwhile, I'll stay busy and try not to have too much fun (probably won't manage that last, actually).

Posted by Jared at 04:40 PM | TrackBack