The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
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Saturday, March 24, 2018
History ... Society ...

Over the past winter, I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. For those of you who haven’t had the torturous pleasure of engaging Gibbon, this book is a classic historical work that was issued in 6 volumes between 1776 and 1788, right after the birth of a future empire, the United States of America. There are several versions of this audiobook out there; my version is the narration by Philip Madoc and Jason Neville. Mr. Madoc does the Gibbon voice, and Neville provides the background color and abridgement that makes this book listenable within 8 hours (who knows how long a line-by-line reading of all 6 volumes would take). The musical backdrop consists of intermittent extracts from Schumann’s bombastic ‘Julius Caesar’ overture. The musical director for this audiobook went out of her or his way to select the most pompous and overblown clips from Schumann; thankfully they usually don’t last very long and aren’t overly frequent.

Both the historical events described by Gibbon, and his work in and of itself, are worthy topics of study for those interested in what was once considered “classical liberal education”. You know, sort of like Shakespeare (which I myself am quite deficient in — wonder if there is a “Best of the Bard” audiobook out there?). You would think that a huge history text would be quite dry, but actually, Gibbon was something of a sensationalist — he seemed to relish the details of murder, slaughter, treachery, rape and pillage, while staying within the boundaries of what a “Victorian gentleman” might say. After a while, it starts to seem as if the whole Roman Empire was one continuing bloodbath, and the Byzantine Empire which survived the fall of Rome for almost another millennium (i.e. the former Eastern or “Greek” portion of the Roman Empire) wasn’t much different. And nothing much changed after Christianity spread and became the official religion of the empire following Constantine. I noticed that the Christianized Byzantine Empire had developed forms of torture that even the early pagan tyrants like Nero or Caligula hadn’t indulged in, such as demanding plates and bowls filled with the cut-off noses of fallen opponents.

And if you become easily upset by a seventeenth century British scholar who casually and repeatedly refers to the supposed weaknesses and faults of the feminine body, mind and character, then get ready for a very rough ride with Gibbon. Ditto if you don’t enjoy the pompous Euro triumphalism of the Victorian upper class; Gibbon unthinkingly refers to Rome and then Britain as “civilization” and “the world”, while almost all other peoples and nations are related as “barbarians” and “savages”. I think that a lot of modern educated people today get offended and turned off by such relics of the past, and would not get much beyond the first few chapters of a presentation of Gibbon (especially such a grandiose and pompous presentation as my Madoc / Neville version).

And yet . . . if you stick with Gibbon and put his seventeenth century upper-crust attitudes into context, you will occasionally be surprised by some of the grand insights that Gibbon offers. For example, with regard to the Christian Crusades against the Islamic nations and empires who held “the Holy Land” in medieval times, Gibbon seems relatively sympathetic to the Muslim leaders who were attacked and temporarily overwhelmed by the Latin crusading knights. At one point, he surveys the justifications that ancient Christendom proffered for the massive death and destruction  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:17 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, March 17, 2018
Current Affairs ... History ... Photo ...

Out in front of the Essex County Courthouse, there is a bronze statute of Rosa Parks sitting on a bus seat. Rosa Parks, of course, was an American Civil Rights activist of the 1950’s and 60’s, and is famous for the December, 1955 incident in Birmingham, Alabama where she was riding in the “colored section” in the rear half of a segregated bus (there were many examples of such “Jim Crow” segregation throughout the nation). Ms. Parks refused to leave her seat after the bus driver ordered her to get up and move further to the rear of the bus, so that a white rider could sit down after the white section of the bus (just ahead of Ms. Parks’s seat) had become full. She was arrested for and convicted of disorderly conduct. While her case was on appeal, the local NAACP (in which Parks was active) and other churches and activists organized a boycott against the bus company by African Americans. About a year later, a federal court decision outlawed the segregated bus seating as unconstitutional.

I walk past this tribute to Ms. Parks just about every workday. Last week, I noticed that an overnight snow squall had left her face temporarily half white. It seems like an interesting photo, so I got a phone out of my pocket and took it. Rosa Parks, in black and white. It seemed like a good metaphor. Today, Rosa Parks and the many other brave Civil Rights activists who fought the crude and absolute segregation laws and practices that existed in the United States through the 1960s is not just a black hero; she is an American hero. Her story is woven into the fabric of what our nation is today. She belongs to white Americans of the 21st Century just as much as she does to blacks, and ditto for Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, whatever.

OK, I realize that what I just said does not fully and accurately reflect the reality of America today. I understand that blacks are still not fully free, not fully empowered to share the opportunities and advantages of living in the United States. I understand that even though the crude segregationist laws and practices of the 1950’s and early 60’s have largely been abolished, there still exist a wide range of more subtle social and economic barriers that prevent too many African Americans from being “just another American citizen, entitled to all the rights and participating in all the responsibilities that go with that”. I understand that Rosa still belongs much more to those women and men of color who struggle to flush out and overcome those barriers.

And yet, it was a good dream that I had there. In fact, it isn’t too different from the dream that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of in his famous August, 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. In fact, Dr. King’s dream specifically included Alabama, where Ms. Parks had made her stand while remaining seated:

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification”, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

Let’s hope — and act — so that one day, the entirety of Dr. King’s dream will be fulfilled.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:27 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, January 27, 2018
Current Affairs ... History ... Politics ...

The NY Times recently posted a video entitled “Is There Something Wrong With Democracy?“, and its worth a look. Throughout the 20th Century, it seemed as if more and more nations were casting aside their autocratic forms of governance and assuming the path of western enlightenment by adopting the institutions of representative democracy (e.g., free elections open to all adults, written constitutions and codes of laws, independent courts, limited executive powers directed by the will of legislative bodies, etc.). The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the new freedoms granted to its many constituent nations seemed to mark the final chapter of democracy’s victory.

Recall the attention that Francis Fukyama’s 1992 book “The End of History and The Last Man” gained, based on his claim that western democracy was the logical endpoint of humankind’s historical struggle to find the best way to govern nations and peoples. History was now over, the end had been reached (or was clearly in sight); liberal democracy turned out to be what sociocultural evolution had been working towards since the dawn of civilization 10,000 years ago. And yet, today, with populism on the rise throughout the world and right here at home in the USA, and with more and more developing nations affiliating themselves with an unrepentingly autocratic China, we see more and more think-pieces like the Times video and a recent article in Foreign Affairs entitled “How Democracies Fall Apart“.

What makes me scratch my head about all of this is that the usual suspected cause of strong-arm governments, i.e. declining economic and living conditions, isn’t really happening. For example, in 1981, 44% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty. Today that figure is about 10%. The world economic picture in 2018 is better than it has been for quite some time. Growth is expected in almost every region. So why are so many people in the world today  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:54 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, December 9, 2017
History ... Personal Reflections ... Religion ...

It’s just about time for the Winter Solstice. From now thru Dec. 12, the sun sets at 4:28 pm in my neck of the woods. The darkest day of the year is still two weeks away (Dec. 21), due to the fact that sunset and sunrise cycles are naturally out of synch. I.e., we reach the earliest sunset time this week, but the latest sunrise time doesn’t happen until the first week of January. Still, it’s the sunset time that affects me most, in terms of mood. These are the “darkest days” for me, the days that weigh most heavily upon the soul.

In keeping with that mood, let me quote a passage from Dag Hammarskjold, the former UN Secretary General from the 1950’s and early 1960s’s. Mr. Hammarskjold was a public figure, but he also had a deep spiritual life. So I am taking an entity from his book “Markings“, a collection of entries from of his own spiritual journal. Here is his entry for Oct. 12, 1958:

Day slowly bleeds to death
Through the wound made
When the sharp horizon’s edge
Ripped through the sky
Into its now empty veins
Seeps the darkness.
The corpse stiffens,
Embraced by the chill of night.

Over the dead one are lit
Some silent stars.

Ah yes, the silent stars twinkling throughout the long, cold night. Tiny sparks of hope in the long, vast, undefeatable blackness. It hurts all the more as I grow older. In the context of winter darkness and the fading light of the body (recall Dylan Thomas raging against the dying of the light), one can appreciate Christmas from a very different perspective in their later years. The usual childhood and young adult response to the holiday is the joy of getting and giving gifts, a time of gathering and celebration. But for an aging man at the start of winter,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:34 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, October 27, 2017
Current Affairs ... History ...

Every now and then I get interested in an obscure historical question, something that is only important to a handful of scholars and die-hard history buffs. My most recent point of interest regards the Hasmonean dynasty, which flourished in Judea and Israel during the second and first centuries BCE. Actually, the Hasmoneans do get some attention from Jewish people and from Bible readers, given that it is the subject of the two Books of the Maccabees. Albeit, those books are not officially recognized as a part of Hebrew Scripture, nor are they contained within the Protestant Bible. Only the Catholic Church includes “the Macs” in its Bible, where it goes almost entirely ignored and unread by most Catholics. “Maccabee” is Jewish for “the hammer”, which became a popular nickname for the original Hasmonean family leaders, especially Judah Maccabee. Judah was the son of Mattathias, who was the instigator of a Jewish revolt against the Seleucid empire in Syria; the Seleucids had controlled the land of Israel for several centuries.

As such, many Jews have at least heard about the Maccabees / Hasmoneans, given that they are the main characters behind the story of Hanukkah, the miracle that occurred after the Hasmonean Jewish forces re-took the Jerusalem Temple from the Seleucid Empire. The Temple needed to be ritually purified and re-dedicated, as the Seleucids had previously outlawed the Jewish Temple rituals (focused around animal sacrifice) and dedicated it instead to the Greek god Zeus. This occurred during the forced Hellenization of the Jews by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, which started around BCE 175.

During the Jewish re-dedication process, a candelabra was to be kept burning day and night, but a problem arose – the Jews were low on fuel (the candles burned olive oil). There was only enough oil to keep the lights on for one day, but somehow, the candelabra managed to keep shining for eight days, until the Jews could scrounge up enough new oil. Since this all happened in late November and early December (relative to our Western calendar), modern Jews have adopted this previously minor historical commemoration as their alternative  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:55 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Current Affairs ... History ...

I’ve been pondering the terrible incident that took place earlier this month in Charlottesville, VA, when radical white nationalist groups (including neo-Nazis and the KKK) gathered to protest the planned removal of the monument statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. There are plenty of terrible things to say about the radical right (or “alt-right” in modern terms) and the violence that it fomented, violence which led to the death by automotive terrorism of a young woman who was part of the crowds that came to Charlottesville to counter-protest the radical right. And since there have been plenty of writers and commentators who have already expressed those things in ways that are much more cogent and eloquent than I can, I will pretty much leave untouched the tragic events that transpired in the home of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and in more recent times, writer William Faulkner and pop-singer Dave Matthews.

What I would like to ponder a bit further is the issue of removing statues, monuments and other symbols relating to the Civil War and the Confederate movement of the 1860s. In quite a few towns in the South and also further north, local community activism has led to the removal of Confederate flags along with a wide variety of statues and monuments relating to the Confederacy. The City Council of Charlottesville had recently approved the removal of Robert E. Lee and Traveler (his horse) from the downtown pedestal where they stood since 1924, although the actual removal has been delayed by a lawsuit. There doesn’t seem to be any set plan as to where the Charlottesville statue will wind up, but other cities have moved similar statues to museums.

Although I completely agree that General Lee and other tributes to the Confederacy need to be removed from pedestalled places of honor on public grounds, I do hope that these artifacts will be preserved and made available to the public, although in a context where the great sufferings that were at the heart of the conflict (i.e., the institution of slavery) can be balanced with the “southern pride” aspects of the rebellion. The terrible nature of slavery must remain at the forefront  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:17 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, July 10, 2017
History ...

In my last post, I outlined why I got interested in the American Civil War. Today, as something of a johnny-come-lately Civil War buff, let me start out by saying some things about July 3, 1863, the date that is famous in Civil War annals for the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Not many people are aware that there was also a third major military and political thing going on in the Civil War at that time. Too bad that it is overshadowed by Gettysburg and Vicksburg, because it is really very interesting, and is just as relevant to the ultimate course of the War as those events were.

Basically, I am talking about the Union campaigns in Eastern Tennessee and Northern Georgia, which stretched between June and November, 1863. Interestingly, the people of the Appalachian hill and mountain country in those states were generally pro-Union. They were clearly not slavery abolitionists, as they were just as racist as any plantation owner. But they couldn’t put big plantations in their narrow valleys, and thus didn’t depend on cotton, tobacco and slavery for their economic livelihood. They were small farmers and lumberers and miners who wanted access to the northern cities to sell their wares. So, a lot of people in those regions maintained their contacts with Washington after Tennessee joined the Confederacy, and they weren’t all that happy about being ruled by “the rebels”. They were anxious for Lincoln to send the Union army down to their region so as to get “Old Glory” flying over them again in lieu of the “Stars and Bars”.

However, through 1862 and early 1863, the Union army had a lot of other things to do. Finally, in mid-63, Lincoln and General Halleck decided to direct General William Rosencrans and his Army of the Cumberland towards middle Tennessee, with orders to push Braxton Bragg and his Confederate forces out of that state. Rosencrans took a long time to get started, but by June he was pushing Bragg’s troops southeastward out of  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:43 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, July 4, 2017
History ... Personal Reflections ...

The Fourth of July is one of the few American holidays that celebrates the history of the nation. Yes, Thanksgiving and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day certainly have strong historical roots; and yes, there is Lincoln’s Birthday and President’s Day. But Independence Day focuses squarely on a momentous historical event, i.e. the signing and adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the document that proclaimed the end of colonization and the beginning of a new nation upon the North American continent.

For those interested in Civil War history, the Fourth is also a momentous time. On July 3, 1863, two big battlefield events marked a turning point in the War, and heralded the beginning of the end of the nation’s division. On that day in 1863, the Confederate Army suffered a punishing defeat during its second attempt to invade the North, i.e. the bloodbath at Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg, PA popularly known as “Pickett’s Charge” (even though Pickett was only one of the three generals leading the charge). Also, after a long Union campaign to re-gain control of the Mississippi River, General U.S. Grant successfully concluded a long and costly assault on the strategic river city of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The Civil War would go on for another year and ten months after this day, and would yet impose a great amount of death and destruction. But from this point on, the Union pretty much gained the initiative; it no longer spent most of its resources reacting to Confederate military thrusts (in ways that were often bungled and ineffective). In 1864, the War was pretty much a matter of attrition for the Union. Grant’s bloody Overland Campaign in Virginia and Sherman’s destructive “March to the Sea”  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:15 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, May 6, 2017
History ... Religion ...

My middle-age years were a time when I had become interested in various topics and personalities having to do with science, history, society and religious spirituality. Once I picked up such an interest, I would usually dig in by buying and (eventually) reading a handful of books, and maybe one or two Great Course audio/video lectures from the Teaching Company. When the Internet became widely available in the last few years of the 20th Century, I supplemented my research with web-site searches. I even occasionally found someone else who is also interested in the subject and exchange notes on it.

But after a few years, I usually moved on from a particular subject and took up another topic. One of the topics that I explored for awhile in the late 1990’s regarded James the “brother of Jesus”. I had previously become interested in the “Historical Jesus” movement of the early 1990’s, and had soaked up a fair amount of information on what the scholars knew or were speculating about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, along with the social, cultural and historical background of his home turf, i.e. ancient Palestine in the early Roman Empire. One of the major aims of historical Jesus research is to come up with a portrait of Jesus that is not inspired by any particular religious viewpoint, but instead “lets the chips fall where they may” by using standard historical and sociological research techniques.

(Unfortunately, too much of what was presented to the public as “historical” research on Jesus in the 1990s and 2000s was in fact driven by anti-religious motivation; there was an apparent desire to prove that Jesus had not only failed to perform miracles or rise from the dead, but that his teachings and motivations were not primarily religious or spiritual but were more philosophical or political. These views were hardly any more objective than the standard religious interpretations of Jesus. John Dominic Crossan was a notable  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:50 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, April 8, 2017
History ... Psychology ... Society ...

I recently heard an interesting report on NPR about some research being done on the psychological importance of ritual. A University of Toronto PhD student named Nicholas Hobson teamed up with some professors to examine what the practice of ritual does to the mind, especially in terms of how we relate to others. One question that Hobson and company addressed was the difference in how we relate to those who share our rituals versus those who don’t.

But first, Hobson set out how important ritual is to the human race:

. . . rituals are ubiquitous around the world. Whenever you see a behavior that occurs in different places, different times, among people who have had no contact with one another, it tells you there’s something in that behavior that’s likely woven into the hardware of the mind.

So, ritual may be more than an idea that we pick up from our ancestors; it might be part of the human genetic endowment! It certainly is interesting to see how similar rituals are for people from all over the world.

You can often find world-wide rituals focused on a similar theme. A big focal point for many public rituals is the winter solstice, i.e. the point in the year when the days are darkest, but will soon stop getting darker and getting more light (this is December in the northern hemisphere, June in the southern hemisphere). Back in November, the Teaching Company put out a catalog that had some nice info about winter solstice rituals in the northern hemisphere. The Teaching Company will mail you scads of catalogs  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:54 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
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