Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Robert Ingersoll — the greatest man you never heard of

August 28, 2018

We went to a Syracuse shindig celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Robert Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. Run by the Center for Inquiry, a secular humanist organization, its first day featured presentations, the second a bus tour to Ingersoll’s and other freethought landmarks. About ninety attended.

Ingersoll

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) was known as “The Great Agnostic.” A lawyer, he was America’s foremost public speaker in the late 19th century, traveling the country giving lectures, mostly anti-religious. People flocked to hear him. In those times, other kinds of public entertainments were almost nonexistent. And Ingersoll was such an engaging speaker that he always got a respectful hearing.

How different America is today. People were ignorant then, but knew they were. Now Americans are a little less ignorant but a lot more sure they know everything (regardless of empirical truth).

Ingersoll was a great humanist in every sense of the word — refuting the canard that “atheists believe in nothing.” Ingersoll believed in the power of human rationality to give us progress and good lives. That the happiness of sentient beings is the ultimate source of meaning. That the time to be happy is now, and the place is here, on Earth. That one’s happiness is entwined with that of others. And Ingersoll lived these principles, earning the love and admiration of everyone he touched.

His birthplace museum is in Dresden, NY, a tiny town. We were shown a screenshot from “Tripadvisor” labeling the Ingersoll site “#1 of 1 things to do in Dresden.”

Flynn

Tom Flynn (editor of CFI’s Free Inquiry magazine) placed Ingersoll in the context of what he called “the Braid of Reform” in 19th Century America. The two great causes were abolition and women’s rights (including suffrage). Not all these movements’ adherents were religious freethinkers, but many were; and most freethinkers were abolitionists and suffragists. “Freethought” means thinking outside the box of traditional religious dogmas.

Blumner

Robyn Blumner heads the CFI. She noted that its $5 million budget is the largest for any U.S. secular organization, but is dwarfed by funding for the Christian right. “Campus Crusade for Christ” has a budget a hundred times larger. Blumner said, however, that we have reason, science, and truth on our side. Though truth used to have a bigger constituency.

One CFI program she discussed had particular resonance for me: “Secular Rescue.” I am a fearless blogger — not courageous, but literally fearless because in America there’s nothing to fear over what one writes. Not so in other countries, especially Muslim ones, where “blasphemy” is a crime, sometimes punishable by death; a Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes (to be administered in installments). In Bangladesh there’s a vigilante crusade murdering “blaspheming” bloggers. “Secular Rescue” is engaged in protecting such people and even relocating them to safer places.

Smith

Norman Dann spoke about Gerrit Smith (1797-1874), another great figure you never heard of. Extremely rich, all Smith wanted to do with his money was to advance human rights, especially abolition. He freed a lot of slaves by simply buying them. Initially he felt “moral suasion” could end slavery. Then political activism. Finally, a fellow came to him with a different approach: violence and war. That was John Brown, and Smith funded him.

Sue Boland talked about Matilda Joslyn Gage — the third woman’s suffrage triumvir, with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, though much less famous now.

Gage

Gage was a freethinker whose battle for women’s rights targeted religion, with all its patriarchal ideas. Indeed, Christianity was the most powerful force opposing female suffrage.

Gage’s son-in-law was L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz — which Boland called a freethought fairy tale, telling us that everything we need is already inside us. (No need for that fraud behind the curtain!)

The bus tour included Gage’s house in Fayetteville, as well as, in Peterboro, the Gerrit Smith site and the National Abolition Hall of Fame.

Another program centered on D.M. Bennett, publisher of a freethought periodical, The Truth Seeker, who in 1879 fell victim to “anti-vice” pervert Anthony Comstock, being imprisoned for mailing obscenity — a book of conjugal advice. Whose author President Hayes pardoned. But, bowing to church pressure, he wouldn’t pardon Bennett.

Grube as Stanton

We also had two costumed dramatic impersonations. Melinda Grube channeled Stanton (Gerrit Smith’s cousin). A focus was how her life was shaped by her brother’s death in youth and her father’s inability to take equal pride in her, being the wrong gender. “She couldn’t change her father, or herself, so she’d have to change the world.” Like Gage, Stanton saw women’s oppression rooted in Christianity and the Bible; she authored The Woman’s Bible with plain English explanations of its pernicious passages relating to women.

Margaret Downey gave us Eva Parker Ingersoll, Robert’s wife, focusing on their love story. She quoted from a letter he wrote to Eva: “The world is getting free. I thank God every day that he does not exist.”

After dinner, the keynote speech was by Susan Jacoby, Ingersoll biographer and author of several other books (one of which I recently wrote about). Her theme: what would Ingersoll think of today’s America?

Jacoby

Jacoby stressed Ingersoll’s linking religion’s rejection of reason with the whole spectrum of social issues like women’s rights and immigration. Yes, he was enlightened even on that, battling against the onset of immigration restrictions with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. As ever, his argument was moral: Chinese are human beings who should be treated the same as any other. “A great nation,” he said, “should be bound by the highest conception of honor and justice.” (Funny how believers insist morality comes from religion, when so often religious dogmas make them morally blind.)

Jacoby sees increasingly successful efforts by today’s religionists to undermine church-state separation, using protection of religious freedom as a wedge, twisting it into a right to impose their beliefs on others. She said Ingersoll may have been too optimistic about science’s ability to overcome all this.

The word “tribal” has been invoked a lot in analyzing Trump support. Jacoby sees that tribalism as being animated more by religion than anything else (such as economic concerns). It’s a fact that the 40% of Americans who back Trump are largely the same people who are Christian fundamentalists. And just as religious faith works to seal people off from reality checks, the same seems true in the political realm, with Trumpism more like a faith cult than a mere political viewpoint.

This too shall pass

Is there hope? Yes. One writer recently called the religious right’s ascendancy “a cultural stab from the grave,” demographically speaking. Throughout the rest of the developed world, Christian religion is in sharp retreat, with belief and churchgoing collapsing. In America, the younger you are, the less religious you are apt to be. The religious right’s flame will ultimately burn out. In the long run, reason will defeat unreason.

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Was America founded as a “Christian nation?”

August 13, 2018

We’re often told that it was. The aim is to cast secularism as somehow un-American, and override the Constitution’s separation of church and state. But it’s the latter idea that’s un-American; and it’s historical nonsense. Just one more way in which the religious right is steeped in lies (forgetting the Ninth Commandment).

Jacoby

They assault what is in fact one of the greatest things about America’s birth. It’s made clear in Susan Jacoby’s book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

Firstly, it tortures historical truth to paint the founding fathers as devout Christians. They were not; instead men of the Enlightenment. While “atheism” wasn’t even a thing at the time, most of them were as close to it as an Eighteenth Century person could be. Franklin was surely one of the century’s most irreverent. Washington never in his life penned the name “Christ.” Jefferson cut-and-pasted his own New Testament, leaving out everything supernatural and Christ’s divinity. In one letter he called Christian doctrine “metaphysical insanity.”

The secularism issue was arguably joined in 1784 (before the Constitution) when Patrick Henry introduced a bill in Virginia’s legislature to tax all citizens to fund “teachers of the Christian religion.” Most states still routinely had quasi-official established churches. But James Madison and others mobilized public opinion onto an opposite path. The upshot was Virginia passing not Henry’s bill but, instead, one Jefferson had proposed years earlier: the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

It was one of three achievements Jefferson had engraved on his tombstone.

The law promulgated total separation of church and state. Nobody could be required to support any religion, nor be penalized or disadvantaged because of religious beliefs or opinions. In the world of the Eighteenth Century, this was revolutionary. News of it spread overseas and created an international sensation. After all, this was a world still bathed in blood from religious believers persecuting other religious believers. It was not so long since people were burned at the stake over religion, and since a third of Europe’s population perished in wars of faith. Enough, cried Virginia, slashing this Gordian knot of embroiling governmental power with religion.

Soon thereafter delegates met in Philadelphia to create our Constitution. It too was revolutionary; in part for what it did not say. The word “God” nowhere appears, let alone the word “Christian.” Instead of starting with a nod to the deity, which would have seemed almost obligatory, the Constitution begins “We the people of the United States . . . .” We people did this, ourselves, with no god in the picture.

This feature did not pass unnoticed at the time; to the contrary, it was widely denounced, as an important argument against ratifying the Constitution. But those views were outvoted, and every state ratified.

It gets better. Article 6, Section 3 says “no religious test shall ever be required” for holding any public office or trust. This too was highly controversial, contradicting what was still the practice in most states, and with opponents warning that it could allow a Muslim (!) president. But the “no religious test” provision shows the Constitution’s framers were rejecting all that, and totally embracing, instead, the religious freedom stance of Virginia’s then-recent enactment. And that too was ratified.

Indeed, it still wasn’t even good enough. In the debates over ratification, many felt the Constitution didn’t sufficiently safeguard freedoms, including religious freedom, and they insisted on amendments, which were duly adopted in 1791. That was the Bill of Rights. And the very first amendment guaranteed freedom of both speech and religion — which go hand-in-hand. This made clear that all Americans have a right to their opinions, and to voice those opinions, including ideas about religion, and that government could not interfere. Thus would Jefferson later write of “the wall of separation” between church and state.

All this was, again, revolutionary. The founders, people of great knowledge and wisdom, understood exactly what they were doing, having well in mind all the harm that had historically been done by government entanglement with religion. What they created was something new in the world, and something very good indeed.

Interestingly, as Jacoby’s book explains, much early U.S. anti-Catholic prejudice stemmed from Protestants’ fear that Catholics, if they got the chance, would undermine our hard-won church-state separation, repeating the horrors Europe had endured.

A final point by Jacoby: the religious attack on science (mainly, evolution science) does not show religion and science are necessarily incompatible. Rather, it shows that a religion claiming “the one true answer to the origins and ultimate purpose of human life” is “incompatible not only with science but with democracy.” Because such a religion really says that issues like abortion, capital punishment, or biomedical research can never be resolved by imperfect human opinion, but only by God’s word. This echoes the view of Islamic fundamentalists that democracy itself, with humans presuming to govern themselves, is offensive to God. What that means in practice, of course, is not rule by (a nonexistent) God but by pious frauds who pretend to speak for him.

I’m proud to be a citizen of a nation founded as a free one* — not a Christian one.

* What about slaves? What about women? Sorry, I have no truck with those who blacken America’s founding because it was not a perfect utopia from Day One. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The degree of democracy and freedom we did establish were virtually without precedent in the world of the time. And the founders were believers in human progress, who created a system open to positive change; and in the centuries since, we have indeed achieved much progress.

Mitch Landrieu and Confederate monuments

August 2, 2018

Mitch Landrieu was mayor of New Orleans, 2010-18. In 2015 he started the process of removing Confederate monuments. Landrieu expected opposition, but its ferocity surprised him. Such was the violence and intimidation that it was a big problem even getting contractors to do the work. Statue removal became something of a military operation.

We saw Landrieu interviewed on The Daily Show and were very impressed. So my wife bought me his book, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History.

The book impressed me even more, for its eloquence in expressing fundamental human good will, honesty, and decency; the values that made America great. And I wept anew at the contrast between that virtuous Americanism and Trumpist loathesomeness.

The book isn’t only about the statues. It tells Landrieu’s life story. He became mayor in 2010, five years after Hurricane Katrina. His predecessor, Ray (“chocolate city”) Nagin was corrupt and incompetent; the recovery was a shambles. Thus Landrieu came into office with huge challenges. What he’s achieved testifies to the can-do spirit that’s so central to America’s story.

One thing Landrieu talks about is the schools. Even before Katrina they were a disaster area. The storm literally destroyed most of New Orleans’ public schools. But instead of just rebuilding them, the city took a different path, going whole-hog with charter schools. The liberal rap is that they “siphon” resources from public education, cream the best students, and educate them less well. This ignores that our most disadvantaged kids are the worst served by their public schools, and they do better in charters. Landrieu relates that switching his city to mainly a charter school model has produced way better results — especially for black kids.

“Very fine people on both sides”

Landrieu sees the subject of race as central to his whole life story. I used to optimistically believe the bad old days were behind us, with racism confined to dark peripheral corners of American society. That even the South had culturally moved on. We’d elected a black president, after all. But I’ve come to realize those dark corners are larger than I’d thought. (Indeed, Trump has brought racism out of the corners.)

The canard is that statue-removers are trying to “erase history.” But ironically it’s the statue-lovers doing exactly that. Landrieu gives us a history lesson.

After the Civil War, Southern whites created “the Cult of the Lost Cause” — romanticizing it as having been a battle for states’ rights and, mainly, the noble defense of a genteel culture, contrasted against a Northern one dark with factory smoke and industrialist greed.

Truth: The war was about slavery. No slavery, no war. “States’ rights?” It was the right to enslave human beings. The supposedly refined culture being defended had its foundation in the kidnapping, brutalization, torture, and rape of human beings. So much for moral superiority. This was not some noble cause, but among the foulest in history.

Of course, southern whites didn’t see themselves as brutalizing human beings. To anesthetize their consciences they convinced themselves blacks were inferior creatures, made by God to be slaves. Thus the salience of white supremacy thinking. (Today’s white supremacists are self-refuting; their belief, contrary to biological fact, proves it’s they who are the less evolved creatures.)

After the war that freed the slaves, southern whites strove to undo that result to the greatest extent possible through a campaign of violence and terror to beat down black people and eviscerate their human rights.

That is the context for the erection of these “Lost Cause” monuments. They came in two waves: one circa 1900 when Jim Crow was getting established, and later during the civil rights era. In both cases the aim was to strut whites’ unrepentance and rub it especially into black faces, to keep them “in their place.” These were white supremacy monuments. Statues of traitors.

And there were never any memorializing slavery’s victims.

Landrieu’s tale did, again, impress upon me the depth of white racism still persisting. As he chronicles, unreconstructed whites responded regarding the monuments just as they had to emancipation, and the civil rights era, with terroristic violence. A noble cause honoring history? Yeccch.

While the former Confederate states have big black populations, they are minorities, and voting is largely along racial lines. Republicans are the white party. Not all, but a majority of southern whites who vote Republican are voting to express disapproval and hostility toward black citizens. (There’s not a single white Democratic congressman left from the south.)

America has never been a perfect country. But its greatness — exemplified by Mitch Landrieu’s story — has always been its striving toward perfection, through the efforts of people like him, with nobility of spirit. And even despite what I’ve written here, we had indeed been on an upward path, toward a more perfect union. The statues, in New Orleans, and many other southern locales, did come down.

But alas right now we’re on a radical detour from that path of human progress. A sharp lurch downwards.

Landrieu is being touted for president. He’d be the perfect candidate to beat Vile Creep. Would the Democrats have enough sense to nominate him? Would America have enough moral sense to elect him?

King Zog

July 15, 2018

Knowing nothing about the story, except vaguely its strangeness, out of simple curiosity I picked up this biography, King Zog, by Jason Tomes.

Albania was an outlying part of the Ottoman Empire. A most backward, primitive, impoverished land (which it still is). A century ago it had no railroads, hardly even any roads, and three automobiles. Scant literacy or intelligentsia. No law, apart from a tribal vengeance code.

The tale begins with the outbreak of the First Balkan War in 1912, a confusion of would-be states scrambling in a war of all against all.

Enter Ahmed Zogolli. Just turning seventeen.

His early life is murky. The bio is full of “might haves” and “perhapses.” He apparently had some schooling in Constantinople (Istanbul). But in 1912 he didn’t come out of nowhere — not quite exactly. He’d inherited the chiefdom of a small Albanian backwoods clan, the Mati, with a ragtag army of maybe a few hundred men.

Albania was actually full of petty chiefs like him. But Zogolli, despite his extreme youth, excelled them all in intelligence, self-possession, self-discipline, guile — and in his vision for nation-building. Already he was a player when a statelet of Albania emerged out of the war in 1912. The European powers put a minor German prince on the throne; Zogolli backed him; he didn’t last. When WWI soon erupted, the Austrians came in, and he aligned with them too.

They gave Zogolli, now 21, a rank of Colonel, and even brought him to Vienna to receive a medal and an audience with the new Emperor Karl. All very nice. But then he was told it would be best to just remain in Vienna.

So he sat out the rest of the war, nightclubbing — and studying history. At war’s end he finally returned to Albania where, Austrian rule having disintegrated, a provisional government emerged. Within months Zogolli was minister of the interior, and soon thereafter calling all the shots. By 1922 (now all of 27), he was also prime minister.

The next year Zogolli organized elections — the only free election Albania ever had until the 1990s. His own party didn’t do too well. In 1924, on his way to Parliament, he took three bullets from a would-be assassin but persevered to deliver his speech. Nevertheless, things were falling apart, and Zogolli was soon ousted and exiled. However, his successor was such a crackpot that by year’s end Zogolli managed to return again, raise a new army, and seize control. He rode at the head of his tribal warriors wearing a pressed business suit.

Now, he made himself president, restyled as Ahmed Zogu; and in 1928 as King Zog I.

It was not a cushy billet. Albanian politics (if it could be called such) was a morass of tribal blood feuds; and in consolidating power, Zog had stepped on many toes. He managed to hold things together, just, but foresaw an almost inevitable violent end.

A certain fearlessness had vaulted him to power, yet he lived in constant fear now, and it kept him virtually imprisoned in the palaces he built.

In these circumstances, a benevolent monarchy was not in the cards. Some repression was required. Some inconvenient characters did die violently. At least the word “torture” does not appear in the book.

However, it was not solely self-aggrandizement. As mentioned, Zog did see himself on a nation-building mission, little though he had to work with. Albania was still a collection of feuding clans with no national consciousness. Zog did do some things of a liberal, progressive nature, trying to drag the country out of the Dark Ages. But a key hindrance was simple lack of money. Obviously, these grizzled tribesmen would not submit to taxation. Indeed, what funds Zog did manage to scrape together went largely to buying off warlords.

He did not get a queen until 1938: Geraldine. He couldn’t marry any Albanian gal because of the clan rivalry factor, and mainline European royalty shunned him as an upstart adventurer. Geraldine was of minor Hungarian nobility and half American. It actually seems to have been something of a love match.

Zog’s challenge was not just to play off rival warlords but (to keep Albania in existence) also Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece. He made Albania virtually an Italian client state. Though accused of selling the country out to Mussolini, the riposte was that he’d never actually delivered it. But finally, in April 1939 — Mussolini, to keep up with the Joneses — that is, the Germans, who rolled up Czechoslovakia — invaded Albania, after an ultimatum that Zog refused.

Albania would have been totally outclassed militarily, even had anyone been willing to fight. But no one was. Zog fled into exile, yet again.

For the next 22 years he and his court flitted among various countries, financed by quite a bit of loot he’d managed to accumulate and abscond with. Unsurprisingly, Zog intrigued relentlessly for a return. During WWII, various partisan armies — none supporting him — fought over Albania. The eventual victor was Enver Hoxha’s Communists, who installed a brutal Stalinist regime, that lasted until 1991.

Zog had meantime ruined his health in numerous ways, including smoking more cigarettes than was humanly possible. He was 65 when he died in 1961.

He did not come back again.

Geraldine lived until 2002.

How to become a Nazi

July 9, 2018

You’re a nurse, and a doctor instructs you, by phone, to give his patient 20 Mg of a certain drug. The bottle clearly says 10 Mg is the maximum allowable daily dose. Would you administer the 20 Mg? Asked this hypothetical question, nearly all nurses say no. But when the experiment was actually run, 21 out of 22 nurses followed the doctor’s orders, despite knowing it was wrong.

Then there was the famous Milgram experiment. Participants were directed to administer escalating electric shocks to other test subjects for incorrect answers. Most people did as instructed, even when the shocks elicited screams of pain; even when the victims apparently lost consciousness. (They were actors and not actually shocked.)

These experiments are noted in Michael Shermer’s book, The Moral Arc, in a chapter about the Nazis. Shermer argues that in the big picture we are morally progressing. But here he examines how it can go wrong, trying to understand how people became Nazis.

Normal people have strong, deeply embedded moral scruples. But they are very situation-oriented. Look at the famous “runaway trolley” hypothetical. Most people express willingness to pull a switch to detour the trolley to kill one person to prevent its killing five. But if you have to physically push the one to his death — even though the moral calculus would seem equivalent — most people balk.

So it always depends on the circumstances. In the nurse experiment, when it came down to it, the nurses were unwilling to go against the doctor. Likewise in Milgram’s experiment, it was the authority of the white-coated supervisor that made people obey his order to give shocks, even while most felt very queasy about it.

Nazis too often explained themselves saying, “I was only following orders.” And, to be fair, the penalty for disobeying was often severe. But that was hardly the whole story. In fact, the main thing was the societal normalization of Nazism. When your entire community, from top to bottom, is besotted with an idea, it’s very hard not to be sucked in.

Even if it is, well, crazy. Nazi swaggering might actually not have been delusional if confined to the European theatre. They overran a lot of countries. But then unbridled megalomania led them to take on, as well, Russia — and America. This doomed insanity they pursued to the bitter end.

Yet they didn’t see it that way. The power of groupthink.

And what about the idea of exterminating Jews? They didn’t come to it all at once, but in incremental steps. They actually started with killing “substandard” Germans — mentally or physically handicapped, the blind, the deaf — tens of thousands. With the Jews they began with social ostracizing and increasing curtailment of rights.

This was accompanied by dehumanization and demonization. Jews were not just called inferior, genetically and morally, but blamed for a host of ills, including causing WWI, and causing Germany’s defeat. Thusly Germans convinced themselves the Jews deserved whatever they got, had “brought it on themselves.” These ideas were in the very air Germans breathed.

Part of this was what Shermer calls “pluralistic ignorance” — taking on false beliefs because you imagine everyone holds them. Like college students who’ve been shown to have very exaggerated ideas of their peers’ sexual promiscuity and alcohol abuse, causing them to conform to those supposed norms. Germans similarly believed negative stereotypes about Jews because they thought most fellow Germans held such views. Actually many did not, but kept that hidden, for obvious reasons. There was no debate about it.

Of course it was all factually nonsense. An insult to intelligence, to anyone who knew anything about anything. Yet Germany — seemingly the most culturally advanced society on Earth, the epicenter of learning, philosophy, the arts — fell completely for this nonsense and wound up murdering six million in its name.*

Which brings me to Trumpism. (You knew it would.) Am I equating it with Nazism? No. Not yet. But the pathology has disturbing parallels. The tribalism, the groupthink, the us-versus-them, nationalism, racism, and contempt for other peoples. The demonization of immigrants, falsely blaming them for all sorts of ills, to justify horrible mistreatment like taking children from parents — even saying, “they brought it on themselves.” And especially the suspension of critical faculties to follow blindly a very bad leader and swallow bushels of lies.

I might once have said “it can’t happen here” because of our strong democratic culture. Today I’m not so sure. Culture can change. That within the Republican party certainly has. Not so long ago the prevailing national attitude toward politicians was “I’m from Missouri,” and “they’re all crooks and liars.” Too cynical perhaps but the skepticism was healthy, and it meant that being caught in a lie (or even flip-flopping) was devastating for a politician. Contrast Republicans’ attitude toward Trump (a politician after all). Not only a real crook and constant flip-flopper, but a Brobdingnagian liar. That 40% of Americans line up in lockstep behind this is frightening. And as for our democratic culture, the sad truth is that too few still understand its principles and values. Germans in their time were the apogee of civilization, and then they became Nazis.

Shermer quotes Hitler saying, “Give me five years and you will not recognize Germany again.” Fortunately Trump will have only four — let’s hope. But America is already becoming unrecognizable.

* My grandfather was a good patriotic German who’d even taken a bullet for his country in WWI. But that didn’t matter; he was Jewish. Fortunately he, with wife and daughter, got out alive. His mother did not.

Are humans smarter than (other) animals?

June 27, 2018

Around 1900, “Clever Hans” was a famous German horse with seeming mathematical ability. Asked “what is four times three?” Hans would tap his hoof twelve times. He was usually right even when his owner wasn’t present; and even when given the questions in writing!

Animal intelligence — and consciousness — are age old puzzles to us. French philosopher Rene Descartes saw other animals as, in effect, mechanical contrivances. And even today many see all their behaviors as produced not by intelligent consciousness (like ours) but rather by instinct — pre-installed algorithms that dictate responses to stimuli — like computers running programs.

Clever Hans’s story is recapped in Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Homo Deus. It was eventually proven that Hans knew no math at all. Instead, he was cued to stop tapping his hoof by onlookers’ body language and facial expressions. But, Harari says, that didn’t debunk Hans’s intelligence, it did the opposite. His performance required far more brain power than simple math! You might have memorized 4×3=12 — but could you have gotten the answer the way Hans did?

This points up the difficulty of inferring animal mentation using human yardsticks. Harari explains Hans’s abilities by noting that horses, unequipped for verbal language, communicate instead through body language — so they get pretty good at it. Much better than us.

So if horses are so smart, why aren’t they sitting in the stands at Saratoga while humans run around the track? Well, for one thing, building that sort of facility would have been a lot harder for horses with hooves rather than our dextrous five-fingered hands. Our tool-making capability is a huge factor. And our intelligence, taken as a whole, probably does outstrip that of any other animal. It had to, because early humans faced far more complex survival challenges. Countless other species failed such tests and went extinct. We did not because an evolutionary fluke gave us, just in time, an extreme adaptation in our brains, unlike any other animal’s. Our equivalent of the narwhal’s huge tusk or the giraffe’s neck.

That happened around a couple of hundred thousand years ago. Yet for around 98% of those years, humans achieved little more than mere survival. Only in the last few thousand have we suddenly exploded into a force dominating the Earth as no creature before.

Why that delay? In fact, Harari notes, our stone age ancestors must have been even smarter than people today. After all, their lives were much tougher. One mistake and you’d be dead; your dumb genes would not make it into the next generation.

Harari thinks — I tend to agree — that cooperation proved to be humanity’s killer app. PBS TV’s recent “Civilizations” series illuminates how things really got going with the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. Arguably farmers were actually worse off in many ways; and maybe even humanity as a whole for about 9,800 of those years. But agriculture, and the production of food surpluses, did make possible the rise of cities, where people could specialize in particular enterprises, and interact and exchange ideas with large numbers of other people. That eventually paid off spectacularly, in terms of human material well-being, in modern times.

Harari notes that ants and bees too live in large cooperative communities. So why haven’t they developed computers and spaceships? Our super intelligent consciousness also gave us great flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. Insects have a far more limited repertoire of responses. As Harari writes, “If a hive faces a new threat or a new opportunity, the bees cannot, for example, guillotine the queen and establish a republic.”

Fear and loathing in the Sultan’s court: The Mapmaker’s Daughter

June 20, 2018

A twelve year old Venetian girl is grabbed as a slave, from her home island, and carried off to Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire, in the 1500s. The Mapmaker’s Daughter is her novelized memoir, by Katherine Nouri Hughes.*

And quite a tale it is — the girl Cecilia, renamed Nurbanu, rises to become a Sultan’s wife, effectively queen. If that sounds implausible, history actually offers other similar cases. Helena, Constantine I’s mother, started as what was perhaps euphemistically called a barmaid. She wound up not only an Augusta but a saint!

Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent

Cecilia/Nurbanu prospered because she wasn’t just another slave girl, but well educated, with a connection (albeit illegitimate) to Venetian nobility; and she caught the eye of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It was Suleiman’s son Selim II (“the Drunk”) she married. Selim was indeed a big drunk. But he’s consistently called a good man. This tells you something about the others. Life in “the good old days” wasn’t pretty.

As in, say, grabbing children as slaves. Nurbanu worried about the fate of the many others taken off that island with her, but it’s left vague. No doubt few of those others enjoyed her good fortune.

Sultan Mehmet II

But one particular bit of nastiness forms the story’s fulcrum. This part of the world had a long history of rulers’ sons contending among themselves for power, with often bloody results. So Sultan Mehmet II (“The Conqueror,” of Constantinople, in 1453) promulgated a law aimed at forestalling such rivalries and thereby protecting civic order. Each wife or concubine of a Sultan would be allowed only one son. And when a Sultan took power, any surplus male siblings would be . . . dispensed with.

The one-son-per-girl rule was hard to enforce. And there was another factor. Life in those times was precarious, even for the healthiest. So to ensure the dynasty’s continuation it was deemed vital for a Sultan to produce extra standby sons.

Sultan Selim II

On that score, Selim the Drunk was slacking off. He didn’t want any woman but Nurbanu and had only one son. So finally his dad Suleiman ordered him to get with the program. Selim then obediently sired a bunch more sons. And soon thereafter died.

Meantime, when he himself was dying, Suleiman had also given Nurbanu a command — to be the enforcer of Mehmet II’s grisly law. For years, while Selim lived, she wrestled with the moral dimensions, seemingly resolved to disobey. But when Selim died, and the time arrived, she wound up giving the order. All Selim’s small sons were killed.

They were half-brothers of Nurbanu’s own son, who became the new Sultan Murad III. He hated what she had done.

While the author had to imagine a lot about Nurbanu, the book appears to stick closely to known historical facts, based on a little checking I did — prompted by one episode I found scarcely believable. Murad III built a very advanced astronomical observatory, aimed at putting Islamic science in the vanguard, outdoing all European efforts. Then, just a few years later, Murad ordered it demolished. (The book implies this was to spite Nurbanu, over the killings; but it seems the quest to penetrate God’s secrets was ultimately deemed un-Islamic.)

Sultan Murad III

It’s often pointed out that, at one time, Islamic science and scholarship were indeed in the forefront of human progress. And the question is often posed — what happened?

One great thing evolution endowed us with is changeability. It’s often forgotten, or even denied, but societies and cultures can and do change. In 1983, Ireland voted two-to-one to outlaw all abortions. In 2018 they voted two-to-one to repeal that. The Economist commented: “In 35 years, Ireland has changed utterly.”

So too did Muslim society change. But change is not always positive. Demolishing Murad’s observatory may have signaled an epochal inflection point for Muslim society.

America’s culture of democracy, freedom, openness, and tolerance can change too. And we seem to be undertaking our own demolition.

More accurately, a big part of America is doing that. Another part is fighting them, but somewhat ineffectually, with its own head partly up its rear. Right now, the former lot is on top (arguably illegitimately, by dint of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other manipulation). Can this be overcome? America’s soul hangs in the balance.

But back to the book:

Sultan Mehmed III

Nurbanu (in Hughes’s telling at least), after years of defending the executions of Selim’s sons, eventually repented, and on her deathbed seemingly persuaded her son Sultan Murad to change the law. Yet the genealogy helpfully prefacing the story has already informed the reader that after Murad came his son Mehmed III — with “19 sons executed.” The author, in an afterword, says Mehmed’s 19 half-brothers (not sons) were executed. I checked; it is the genealogy that’s incorrect.**

Anyhow, the law was never abolished, but those 19 were the last such killings. Subsequent sultans satisfied themselves with putting half-brothers under confinement.

The Ottoman sultanate itself was abolished in 1923, followed by more or less democratic governance, interspersed by occasional military regimes, until President Erdogan made himself sultan in all but name.

Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan

* Note, there are at least six other books, by six other authors, with the same title!

**Another error I spotted: Cecilia/Nurbanu keeps in touch with her Venetian grandfather (perhaps implausibly till her death at 58). When her grandson (later Mehmed III) becomes a father, her grandfather writes to ask the name of his great-great-grandson. Of course it would have been a great-great-great-grandson!

Iraq revisited — rising from the ashes?

May 12, 2018

Iraq holds parliamentary elections today.

Conventional wisdom calls the Iraq War an unmitigated disaster rooted in lies about weapons of mass destruction.

I had supported the war. Saddam was no garden variety dictator; his regime ascended heights of monstrousness; it seriously threatened the whole region; severe sanctions were failing, even while further torturing the population.

About the “lies” — all the major intelligence services (even France’s) concluded Iraq had WMDs. Saddam had already used chemical weapons. And was trying to make it look like he had more. But casting that as a certainty was Bush’s mistake. He should have said, “We can’t be sure whether or not Iraq has WMDs, and can’t take the risk that it does.” (But maybe that would have sounded too ambiguous.)

The invasion was badly botched. It spawned much conflict, destruction, and ultimately the horror of ISIS, overrunning half the country including a leading city, Mosul.

A depressing story. But The Economist’s March 31 issue had a fascinating report on today’s Iraq — “Moving forward” — saying the country is now “righting itself.”

Abadi

ISIS had made monkeys of Iraq’s army under egregious former Prime Minister Maliki. But his successor, Abadi, is far better, and ISIS’s territorial incarnation has been destroyed by Iraq’s soldiers.

The Economist now calls them the region’s “winniest.”

In Mosul

The battle for Mosul seemingly evoked the sardonic Vietnam War line about destroying the city in order to save it. Yet Mosul is recovering with remarkable speed. Shops, hotels, and restaurants bloom; and “[t]there’s not a niqab, or face-veil, in sight.”

The UN says it takes, on average, five years after a conflict for half its displaced people to return. But Iraq’s conditions are so positive it’s taken only three months. They’re rebuilding.

Meantime, Iraq’s Kurdistan had long been a separate country in all but name. Then in September Kurdish President Barzani (no beloved figure) overreached by insisting on an independence vote. The backlash included Iraq’s army retaking some territories the Kurds had occupied, including Kirkuk, a key city. Now Kurdish separatism seems dead, and Iraq is a more united nation than in a long time.

In 2003, Bush had talked of planting a seed of democracy in the Middle East. Cynics loudly laughed. Yet even while the subsequent “Arab Spring” (partly inspired by Iraq) largely turned to fiasco, the fact is that Iraq did become a functioning democracy — and remains one. Indeed, The Economist’s report is quite upbeat on this score too.

Iraqi democracy had appeared to fall prey to sectarian enmities. Saddam’s minority Sunni regime had oppressed the Shiite majority. After his fall, Shiites sought revenge while Sunnis refused to accept disempowerment. But, in The Economist’s telling, this conflict is finally abating; Iraqis have learned its lessons; having peered into the abyss, they’re drawing back from it.

So secularism is on the rise, with a “striking backlash against organized Islam.” In Fallujah, once the “mother of mosques,” people are rebuilding homes but ignoring wrecked religious sites. “Only old men go to pray,” a 22-year-old says. ISIS’s religion-warped cruelty spoiled the brand. And whereas Iraq’s political parties used to be loudly sectarian, a recent opinion poll showed only 5% of Iraqis would now vote for anyone with a sectarian or religious agenda.

Iraq still has plenty of severe challenges. Governance is still largely shambolic and pervasively corrupt. But the country rebuts cynics who believe people never learn and never change. Progress does happen.

How ironic that while Iraq rises above tribalistic politics, America sinks into it.

Footnote: That photo is of an Iraqi woman after voting in their first post-2003 election. (Fingers are dyed purple to prevent re-voting.) I well remembered seeing the picture at the time; her look of pride and determination moved me deeply. For this blog post I googled “Iraqi woman voting” and happily it came right up. It still thrills me.

Malaysia’s election shocker: good defeats evil

May 10, 2018

In today’s world, with democracy eroding in so many countries, it’s great to see one go the other way. To see some voters, at least, stand up for democratic values, defying extreme efforts to manipulate them otherwise.

Malaysia’s election was expected to follow the trend toward rising authoritarianism, with the ruling party having cynically used every trick to make its ouster a virtual impossibility. Yet it’s been ousted.

I know that happy developments like this can turn sour (like Egypt’s 2011 revolution). Indeed, the Malaysia winner is no knight in shining armor. But still, voters behaved wisely, and this is a good day for believers in “the better angels of our nature.”

Mahathir Mohamad

Here’s the backstory (another of those long-running soap operas playing out on the world stage). Malaysia was ruled since independence (in 1963) by the UMNO party (“United Malays”), its success owing much to racialist coddling of the ethnic Malay majority (as against other ethnicities like Chinese). From 1981 till his 2003 retirement, the Prime Minister was Mahathir Mohamad, who grew increasingly authoritarian.

Anwar Ibrahim

Groomed as Mahathir’s successor was Anwar Ibrahim, until in 1998 Anwar became disenchanted and left the government to found an opposition party. The regime tried to neutralize Anwar by jailing him on what were apparently false charges of “sodomy.” Twice. He’s still in prison.

Nevertheless, Anwar’s opposition coalition remained strong at the polls. In fact, in the previous election, it got more votes than UMNO. But UMNO retained its parliamentary majority by grace of extreme gerrymandering. Malaysia doesn’t have “one man one vote,” and parliamentary districts can vary in population. The regime packed opposition voters into a few huge districts while its own Malay stalwarts are advantageously spread among many small ones.

Najib Razak

UMNO’s latest prime minister was Najib Razak. His regime was noteworthy for billions of dollars going missing from a government development fund, 1MDB. A big chunk of the money showed up in Rajak’s personal bank account. He explained it, straight-faced, as a gift from an unnamed Saudi royal.

So great was the stench that ex-leader Mohamad, now 92, came out of retirement to join, and lead, the opposition in this May’s election. But the government pulled out all the stops to thwart them. Such as a “fake news” law enabling it to jail anyone for saying anything it doesn’t agree with (including, especially, anything about 1MDB; Mohamad was among the first to be prosecuted). And the gerrymandering was made even more outrageously rigged in UMNO’s favor.

Still, for that to work would require some voters to vote UMNO. You can normally count on some voters, at least, taking the party line and doing what they’re told. But in Malaysia, this time, too few did. Despite everything, almost unbelievably, the opposition won a parliamentary majority. Malaysians are celebrating this as a national renewal.

So Mahathir Mohamad has been sworn in as prime minister, again (oldest in the world). He promises that, having little time left, he will use it to clean things up; and that within two years he’ll hand the reins to Anwar Ibrahim. (Well, we’ll see.)

But maybe there’s hope for America too.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi — not the best book I ever read

May 1, 2018

The blurbs: “powerful,” “blazing,” “devastating,” “spellbinding,” dazzling,” “epic,” “luminous,” “spectacular,” “hypnotic.” This debut novel by Ghana-born Gyasi, raised in Alabama, had provoked a publishers’ bidding war.

“Hypnotic?” More like “sleep inducing.” Ninety pages in, I said to myself, “This is a bore.”

It begins in what is now Ghana, in the 1700s, tracing two lines of descendants of one woman, through eight generations (thus sixteen in all). Maybe it could have been a good thousand-pager. Yet Gyasi does it in 300. I admire conciseness. But here, one hardly meets a character before they’re gone.

The result is not a story so much as a series of barely linked snapshots. And not only are the characters fleeting, none is a flesh-and-blood human being. Instead they’re all idealized stereotypes, each existing to make a point. They often speak, too, in stilted, tendentious declamations.

This is what makes Homegoing a bore. Even though the episodes it chronicles might seem highly dramatic. This is, after all, mainly the story of slavery, including the horrors of African slave capture, trade, and transport, and American slavery and its aftermath. In the hands of a Toni Morrison, this stuff grabs your gut. But Gyasi sounds like she’s just phoning it in.

Part of it is the writing style. Or lack thereof. Contrast again Toni Morrison, a writer with a distinctive voice. Gyasi has none. Occasional flashes of interesting prose are only occasional. Mostly it’s simply matter-of-fact. Maybe that itself was the style Gyasi was deliberately aiming for. I just found it dull.

I said the characters are idealized. Indeed, they’re almost olympian. The most beautiful; most handsome; most muscular; strongest, bravest, most virtuous. Their stories also unfold in extremes. Ness, for example, has such extreme whipping scars that the slaveowner’s wife faints upon seeing them.

And how about H (his name), arrested and sent to a coal mine in the 1880s South. Making the daily quota (and avoiding punishment) is just barely possible for the strongest. One day, a white newbie is paired with H, complaining loudly about being cast among “n—–s.” But he falls apart, unable even to pick up his shovel. H heroically saves his sorry ass by taking a shovel in each hand and filling both their quotas.

Magical realism, you say? I’ve read magical realism, I get magical realism, but this is no magical realism. It’s just overblown and silly, another way in which Gyasi’s characters have no reality, and so her book lacks impact.

The story of slavery, and of the black experience of American racism, has been told a lot. Overtold? No. I used to think we’d pretty largely moved beyond all that, but lately it’s back with a vengeance. This is a story that needs to continue being told. Gyasi’s book doesn’t live up to its blurbs, but if you don’t already know the story, you’d benefit from it. Unfortunately, that’s not her likely readership; she’s preaching to the choir.