Monthly Archives: May 2011

This Day in History 5/31: Treaty of Vereeniging ends the Boer War

The end of the Britsh Empire began on May 31, 1902.

On that day, the Treaty of Vereeniging ended the three-year long disaster known as the Boer War.  It began as a dispute over mining rights and sovereignty of the Boer Republics of South Africa, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.  It ended as one of the darkest chapters in British history.

The war was technically “over” in 1900, when the British occupied the Transvaal capital of Pretoria.  However, the remaining Boer commandos of the Orange Free State and the Northern Transvaal continued a war of attrition for another two years.   It would see unspeakable atrocities on both sides.  It would see “scorched-Earth” tactics and concentration camps that would result in the deaths of thousands.  It would also see continued and violent repression, mutilation and torture of the majority African native population–a situation not really rectified until almost a century later.

Finally, the Boer War would see British people start to question the need for a colonial empire.  Though a victory, the war cost thousands of lives and millions of British pounds.  Britons would then start questioning the use of British troops, the entanglement in colonial affairs–even questioning the need for an empire in the first place.

Attached is a nice 5-part synopsis of the Boer War and other African conflicts of the time.  It is very even handed, and its short length is perfect for the classroom.

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Praise for Our iCivics.org Coverage from the Creaters Themselves

Sorry I’ve been scarce lately.  Lots of business to contend with before the end of the year, so I’ve neglected the Neighborhood for a while.  Once it settles down, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Anyway, in my flurry of work I received an e-mail from someone concerning our coverage of the iCivics.org website:

Heloo there, I’m Dan Norton, Creative Director and Lead Designer at Filament Games. We’re the company that partners with iCivics to produce their learning games. Every one of these games winds up modeling my own internal battle of cynicism versus optimism in civic action, and I really appreciate that you noticed that tension. Thank you very much!

– Dan Norton
Creative Director
Filament Games, LLC

Glad to see the software designers and the Neighborhood are on the same page.  Thanks, Dan, and best of luck with your future games at Filament.

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Join Mr. D at the Save Our Schools March in DC July 30

While others may soak up the sun this summer vacation, Mr. D will be sweltering in the swamps of the Potomac–for an important cause.

This summer, the Neighborhood will be joining educators across this country in a nationwide call to save public education in America.  The Save our Schools March and National Call to Action will take place in Washington, DC this July 28-31.  It is a gathering of educators, concerned parents, activists and journalists demanding an end to the destructive policies of the education establishment–policies placed in the guise of education “reform.”

In specific, the goals of the March are (according to their website):

  • Equitable funding for all public school communities
  • An end to high stakes testing for student, teacher, and school evaluation
  • Curriculum developed for and by local school communities
  • Teacher and community leadership in forming public education policies

Now these are goals we can all get behind.  Unfortunately, much of the policies of the education reformers like Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan (both covered here at the Neighborhood) have hindered, rather than helped our goal of a quality education for ALL Americans.

The weekend features seminars, workshops, lectures and a get-together for education writers and bloggers on July 29–and yours truly will be there IN PERSON to greet all his colleagues and fans.  Join me the next day as the Neighborhood will be marching to the Ellipse at noon, where education heavy-hitters like Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Maier, Jose Vilson and many others will rile up the crowds.

At two, we then head to ol’ Arne’s office at the Department of Education, to give him a taste of that old time religion known as “public education.”

Now, Mr. D doesn’t mind tooting his own horn and beating his own drum…but if he did it alone, it would make him look like a lunatic.  Here’s where you come in.

Linked here is an RSVP site to join the March on July 30.  If you want, you can also register for events on the other days of the conference.  The RSVP doesn’t obligate you to go, but it helps the organizers get a head count so they can print numbers that would make Arne soil his enormous jock strap.

At any rate, I want the Neighborhood to have a strong presence on the Mall July 30.  Join me and thousands of others in fighting to save public education in America.

At the very least, you can meet me in person–and tell me what a bullshit artist I am right to my face ;)

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Lords of Lilliput: History’s Greatest Tiny Tyrants

“Short people got no reason to live.” ~ from “Short People” (1977) by Randy Newman

History has proven Randy Newman dead right: short people are the scourge of civilization.

Though many of our most terrible rulers could tower over us, some humanity’s greatest horrors were perpetrated by those whose size gave them a serious chip on their shoulder. One less elf or Oompah-Loompah crack could’ve made the difference between prosperity and despair.

Wars, revolutions, famine, mass genocide, executions, murder, torture, destruction, rape, pillage—its amazing what can be accomplished by someone no bigger than a garden gnome with a serious ax to grind.

We all know the guy who has a complex named after him (more on him later), but here is some other historical tyrants whose small stature belied a fearsome cruelty:

Alexander the Great

Conquer Persia, Egypt, the Near East up to India—what else can a little prince with serious parenting issues do? Alexander had serious problems as a kid: a dad that wouldn’t accept him as an heir, and a mom that could put Gypsy Rose Lee to shame. Little Alex (we know he was short, exactly how short is uncertain) decided to channel his aggression by crushing the Persian army, leading his Macedonians to the Indus River valley, and spreading Greek culture and values along the way. It was a lot to pack in 33 short years.

Genghis Khan

At 5’ 1”, Genghis Khan was lucky he could even get on a horse. Once he got on, though, Genghis laid a path of rape, murder, pillage and destruction almost unparalleled in history. Probably starting with the fellow Mongols who kept with the short jokes, Genghis attacked anyone who got in his way: Chinese, Indians, Turks, Persians, Pashtuns, you name it. He never had trouble getting on the horse again—the pile of dead bodies gave him a boost.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Yep, the guy with the complex. Napoleon (5’ 6”), funny enough, was something of an international celebrity when he took over the French government in a coup in 1799. The honeymoon ended quickly, however, as his megalomanical zeal led him to crown himself Emperor of the French in 1804. It took a continent-wide coalition to finally bring down the pint-sized general—twice. After the first exile in 1814, Napoleon just didn’t understand enough was enough, and created another army only to be crushed at Waterloo in 1815. He would die in exile in 1821, and a psychotic condition was born.

Josef Stalin

Cruel from an early age, Josef Stalin grew (not much, only 5’ 6”) to be responsible for the deaths of at least 50 million people, mostly his own. First came his bloody path to power, isolating and murdering almost all the former cohorts of his predecessor, Vladimir Lenin. Then came a forced collectivization that caused a catastrophic famine, killing millions. The purges would send most perceived opponents either to a merciful death with a bullet or a miserable death in the gulags of Siberia. He treated women like garbage, his children like street dogs, his own cabinet like farm animals (I think Lavrentii Beria actually was one) and was still feared even through his death in 1953.

Fiorello La Guardia

You may have expected another New York City mayor here (don’t worry, he’s coming) but even our greatest leaders sometimes act in a tyrannical fashion. Legendary mini-mayor Fiorello La Guardia (5’ 0”) was no exception. Much of the sweeping reforms under his administration were done largely arbitrarily, and with good reason: the city council and Board of Estimate was still populated by Tammany Hall minions. He had a penchant for a violent temper and a tyrannical rule over his staffers. By the time he stepped down in 1945, many of his policies would lead to the budget crisis of 1975, when the city declared bankruptcy—proving that a little tyrant can do both good or ill.

Francisco Franco

In 1931, Spain kicked out its king and declared itself a republic. Francisco Franco (5’ 4”), an army officer in Spanish Morocco, was not cool with having people overshadow him, literally. Along with senior officers, he led a rebellion in 1936, and took over Spain in 1939 following a bloody civil war. Then Franco went buck wild on his enemies: concentration camps, forced labor, mass executions, persecution of leftists, intellectuals, Freemasons, ethnic minorities. He even had a fully-equipped Masonic temple built in his house just to fire him up! By his death in 1975, the new king, Juan Carlos, knew where the wind was blowing and worked to undo all the damage.

Kim Jong-Il

The current despot dictator of the paranoid police state of North Korea (5’3”) is descended from rather tall stock: the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, who was over 6 feet tall. Despite that height, Kim the elder made up for it in spades with his totalitarian control, lavish lifestyle and fanatical cult of personality. Young Kim had a wonderful example, and he took Daddy’s example to new heights: developing nuclear weapons while his people starved, alleged booze-fests and orgies with multiple women, continued totalitarian control with lots of surveillance, summary executions and a cult that might even rival his Daddy’s. NOTE: I think his official height also counts his hair.

Michael Bloomberg

No discussion of minute dictators can be complete without the current Lord Protector of the Big Apple. (By the way, his official height is 5’ 8”: that’s bullshit. I’m 5’9” and I tower over him.) Michael Bloomberg took over as New York City’s mayor in 2002, promising to continue the reform policies begun by his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani. He then proceeded to cut police patrols and city services (reversing a key part of Giuliani’s agenda), flood the government with consultants at exorbitant prices, neuter the City Council and rule the school system with an iron fist. The results are noticeably mixed, and no one can doubt Bloomberg’s nasty attitude and lust for power—a lust that culminated in changing the City’s charter allowing him to run for a third term in 2009. In his last term, Bloomberg has become even more tyrannical, especially as more accounts of malfeasance and fraud continue to surface. It’s a path of destruction that’s difficult to reverse.

There are many other diminutive terrors I probably neglected to menton…as well as those who can become tomorrow’s Stalin or Franco at any moment.

It just goes to show that a short joke can be a dangerous thing.

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This Day in History 5/16: The 1771 Battle of Alamance

Site of the Battle of Alamance at Alamance Bat...

Site of the 1771 Battle of Alamance. Image via Wikipedia

For many years, many people in the Carolinas claimed that the first battle of the American Revolution did not take place on the Lexington Common, but rather in the rugged backcountry of North Carolina.

On May 16, 1771, a group of frontier farmers, known as “Regulators”, fought against the North Carolina colonial militia at Alamance Creek in North Carolina.  Since about 1760, The Regulators had waged a decade-long guerrilla war against the colonial government, claiming unfair taxation and corrupt practices on the part of colonial officials–many of which came from the wealthier tobacco plantations in the east.

The War of the Regulation, as it was called, was not a rebellion against British rule–a fact lost on many Carolinians who claim the Revolution began at the Alamance.  It was, in fact, a rebellion against local colonial government, which was perceived as corrupt, subjective and prejudiced against the poorer backcountry Scots-Irish farmers that flooded the western frontier.  By 1771, the Regulator army swelled to 2000, against the 1000-man militia of governor William Tryon.

The Regulators were confident, if poorly armed.  They had dragged the government into a long conflict it wanted to end quickly.  Yet Tryon’s massed artillery were no match for the frontier army.  After early promise, the relentless cannon overwhelmed the Regulators and the rest fled into the woods.

In a final act of savagery, Tryon ordered the forest burned with the remaining rebels inside.  It was a prelude to his better known act of arson: the 1777-1779 punitive campaigns against coastal Connecticut towns where every town from Greenwich to New Haven was plundered and burned.

Although the Alamance was not the start of the Revolution, it brought to a head many of the conflicts that would spark the bigger rebellion four years later.  Corrupt colonial officials, high taxation, the suppression and disenfranchisement of the poor: all these factors were dealt with in one way or another by all thirteen colonies.

It was in the backcountry of North Carolina, however, where these problems were first brought into sharp, deadly focus.

Attached is a video about the Battle of Alamance.  It gives a good narration of the battle itself and of the Regulator movement itself.

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Review of PBS’ “Black in Latin America”: Mexico/Peru

An 18th Century Casta Painting from Mexico, showing different racial combinations.

In my mother’s home country of Ecuador, there’s a province that is unlike any other.

Where the majority of the population is of either pure indigenous or mestizo (mixed white-indigenous) extraction, Esmeraldas appears as a stark contrast to the norm. The province, located on the northern coast abutting Colombia, appears better suited to the Caribbean than to an Andean country. Even with large white and native populations, Esmeraldas is dominated by Africans imported during the Spanish conquest of the 16th Century. Its culture and traditions point farther east than the Andes, towards the coasts of West Africa from which their ancestors were taken.

Athletes from Esmeraldas are especially successful. A glance at Ecuador’s soccer team would have one think they were from Cuba, Trinidad or Jamaica—anything but a South American mountain republic.

There are enclaves like Esmeraldas in many countries in Central and South America. In the last chapter of PBS’ Black in Latin America, Henry Louis Gates looks at two such areas: the black peoples of Veracruz and the Costa Chica in Mexico and the enclave outside Lima, Peru.

Unlike the Caribbean, Central and South America’s native population was too vast and too concentrated to be wiped out. The cultures of these areas, thus, carried a more Amerindian hue. The exception is the Southern Cone, where marginal native populations, as well as Africans, were absorbed into large European immigrant communities.

Yet according to Gates, the African influence is much larger than we realize—especially as African influences were absorbed or subsumed into the larger Hispano-Amerindian community.

More Africans were imported into Mexico and Peru than the United States. Almost half of all enslaved Africans imported to Spanish America came to Mexico. Cities such as Lima and Veracruz contained a distinct African hue, in contrast to the Spanish-native hybrid culture that surrounds them. Many Mexicans and Peruvians contain some African blood, even those that look mestizo. Furthermore, cultural aspects such as music, dance, and food contained as much African influence as from Europe and the Americas.

So apart from a few enclaves, where did all the Africans go?

In Mexico, the slave boom was early and brief, through the 17th century, and emancipation came sooner (in 1829). Blacks intermarried earlier and more vigorously, and by the 1920s it was difficult to even tell who was of African descent. Officially, scholars and politicians extolled the multi-racial “brownness” of Mexico’s people—a homogenization of all cultures that pushed black identity into the background.

A similar pattern occurred in Peru and other South American nations. Although emancipation was more gradual in South America, the overwhelming native and mestizo populations mixed just as vigorously into African families, creating a similar “brownness” to the Mexican experience.

The most dramatic—and tragic—example is on the Rio de la Plata in Argentina, where black populations were almost entirely integrated into either mestizo or, more commonly, European immigrant populations. In effect, this did in fact wipe out the African influence on the Southern Cone, with the exception of Uruguay, where blacks and mulattos from neighboring Brazil buttress their own communities.

So in looking at these groups, and the series in a whole, I’m left with one question: Is racial intermingling and color-blindness necessarily a good thing?

A common theme in this chapter, and in the series, is the mistaken benevolence of color-blindness. For many in Latin America, especially places like the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Brazil, it was thought that the mixing of races would create a new pan-racial harmony that transcended labels and heritage. Gates himself points out that this benevolent “openness” is in itself a form of racism, in that it refuses to deal with the realities of culture and especially domestic social problems.

To be honest, Gates has a point. People are not ingredients in a soup, where different flavors and textures get blended together to make one uniform concoction. There will always be shades of color among us, and whenever there is difference, there is usually some form of discrimination be it overt or subtle. Otherwise, the enclaves of Afro-Latin Americans in Esmeraldas, Veracruz, Lima and the Costa Chica would not exist.

Yet I also get a sense—and I think Gates feels it also—that even though it may be merely a pipe dream, “racial democracy” is something worth striving for. There is hope that in the future there can be a time where all people are treated equally and fairly—while at the same time acknowledging and celebrating the different cultures that have shaped the American continent.

That hope was seen in the universities in Brazil, among young people in the Dominican Republic, in the activists striving in the Costa Chica in Mexico, and even the underground rappers and artists in Cuba that fight for their identity even when official policy condemns them as treasonous.

Whatever the future holds, this much is certain: the cultures of Latin America would not be the same if it weren’t for the millions of Africans kidnapped and brought to these shores. They gave far more than they ever got in return.

In acknowledging their contributions, it goes a small way to repaying that debt.

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Can iCivics.org make Politics Fun? A Website Review

Who would’ve thought political backstabbing, smear campaigns and pandering to the electorate would be so fun?

Sandra Day O’Connor, the former Supreme Court Justice who gasped at last week’s abysmal results in the 2010 NAEP Civics Report Card, has lately lent her name and expertise to a new venture designed to get young people more interested in government.

With iCivics.org, we may have found at least the beginnings of a winning formula.

Most of us learned about our government through one, or both, of two methods. The first involved a careful reading of our founding documents, followed by meticulous listing of the powers, checks, balances and responsibilities of each part of our government. The second almost always came in the form of “Schoolhouse Rock” episodes covering the aforementioned founding documents in a zippy soundtrack and crude 1970s animation.

The good news is that it gave a student a pretty good foundation of the structure of our government on paper. Unfortunately, it left out a whole bunch of factors that not only make our democracy fun, but also effective.

I’m pretty sure your teacher never mentioned anything about the K Street lobbyists that encircle the chambers of Congress like vultures on carrion.

How about the backroom deals and handshake contracts that often seal a bill’s fate?

Did he/she mention the ideological mambo that is electoral politics? You know, the quick sashay to the right/left in the primary, followed by the mad dash to the center for the general election?

What about the backstabbing and double-dealing within the President’s cabinet—and a First Lady’s often not-so-secret desire to fire them all?

Perhaps he/she mentioned the constant shifting mood of voters, the need to pander to differing constituencies that probably hate each other, the campaign ads designed not on issues but on making your opponent the spawn of Satan, and the life and death struggle of pollsters and their “representative samples”?

Yeah, never learned any of that in school, neither.

iCivics is designed to appeal to those students who have felt distant or left out of the process of governing. Through lessons, media and especially games, students can get a taste of the murky water that is the reality of American politics. The games are the main focus, as they help enforce lessons in the classroom in a fun way, often with a refreshing honesty.

One game I particularly enjoyed is Represent Me!, where you pretend to be a Congressman, selecting and voting on bills to become law. However, don’t think for a minute you can vote on principle and get away with it. In a refreshing sense of reality, there are meters for each of the different constituencies in your district, and you have to pander to enough of them to get re-elected. By the end, you’ve created your own campaign ad and you see if you get another term.

I voted my conscience, and I got booted. That’s pretty freaking real.

Other games include arguing before the Supreme Court, serving as the President for a term, even guiding immigrants through the citizenship process. iCivics has games that cover the whole gambit of political life in this country. Furthermore, as in the Congress game, they pull few punches when it comes to the less-than-noble realities of politics. They never go whole-hog on the real-deal of Washington, but it gives students an important glimpse into a process rarely covered in textbooks.

It would be nice if some of the games went further, into the seedy underbelly of party politics, primaries, lobbyists, budget battles, etc. Wouldn’t it be fun for kids to cut a backroom deal in the cloakroom before an important vote? Or maybe to court opposing PACs and advocacy groups in order to vote for certain laws that may not benefit your voters? Or even to do “opposition research” on your campaign rival—research that’ll show up on the nightly news and next week’s attack ads?

Many educators would be shocked that I would endorse such a frank discussion of our nation’s government. They would prefer to stay to checks and balances and “I’m Just a Bill” and let our students keep believing that our system works exactly the way it should.

In a different setting, this may work. It just doesn’t work with kids who are already knee-deep in the bullshit of government.

One huge assumption that I had to overcome with students is that they have an innate sense of acquiescence to authority. To a middle-class kid like me, the government and the Constitution was as holy as the Vatican. They were both made of marble, both have old people at the helm, and both have complicated rules and consequences. It wasn’t until my older years that the picture-perfect vision of our democracy was clouded by reality.

The populations I serve, as those of many other teachers, are under no such illusions.

Many already have a deep suspicion of law enforcement and government, and for good reason. They come from countries where authoritarian tyranny or criminal lawlessness abounds. They are in contact with government agencies and bureaucracies often on a daily basis, and not always in a positive way (from food stamps to the penitentiary).

They already know the hypocrisy of civic life. It does them no good to re-hash a paper structure that’s an illusion in their mind.

The only real way for students to believe in our system is to confront openly the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that we adults see as almost inherent in the system. iCivics, in an important first step, is attempting to come to grips with these realities, while also extolling those elements that make our system unique, special and effective.

Its important for students to see our system for what it is, even if it isn’t the idealized version we expect from the Founders or Mr. Smith heading to Washington.  To be fair, it probably never was that neat and clean anyway…and that’s the fun part.

Yes, civics and government can be fun. It just needs a healthy dose of reality to make it so.

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