Monthly Archives: October 2011

1816: The Year Without a Summer

Mt. Tambora and its surroundings as seen from ...

Mount Tambora, site of the 1815 eruption, seen via satellite. Image via Wikipedia

Those of us sucker-punched with snow this weekend can take heart that the temperature has returned to a semblance of normal.

New Yorkers two centuries ago were nowhere near as lucky.

The year 1816 would be forever remembered by many names: The Poverty Year, Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death, and most famously The Year without a Summer. It would be most known as the time when a perfect storm of low temperatures, a lull in solar activity and a supercolossal volcanic eruption caused one of the most tragic epidemics of famine and destruction in Western history.

Those events of two centuries past still haunt us today—especially when human beings are altering the atmosphere more so than ever before.

In April of 1815, Mount Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in present-day Indonesia, erupted for approximately ten days. The explosion measured a 7, “or “supercolossal” on the Volcanic Explosivity Index—an intensity only seen about once in a millennium. Massive volumes of volcanic ash and dust spewed into the upper atmosphere.

It could not have happened at a worse time.

The Tambora eruption aligned perfectly with a lull in solar activity known as the Dalton Minimum. During this lull, temperatures around the world (already low due to Little Ice Age) further dropped from about 1790 and 1830. Furthermore, other large eruptions between 1812 and 1814 added even more volcanic material to the air, creating a further temperature drop known as a “volcanic winter.”

The atmospheric disturbance produced brown and red snows in Central and Southern Europe. The erratic, freezing summer temperatures led to crop failures, famine, epidemics and food riots from Shanghai to London.

Yet the widest social and cultural effects were in the northeastern United States.

In May of 1816, frost killed off the newly planted crops in New England, and the cold snap would grip the region by June. Snow—often of a foot or more—was reported from Quebec City to Pennsylvania between June and August. Ice floes could be seen as far south as the lower Susquehenna River. Temperatures would rise to normal summer temperatures and drop to below freezing within hours. In the winter of 1817, temperatures dropped to -26°F in New York, freezing the upper New York Bay solid.

With the destruction of the New England harvest, grain prices rose dramatically. Oats, for example, went from $0.12 a bushel to $0.92 a bushel in one season. Corn, wheat and other grains also spiked in price, creating national food shortages, hoarding and price speculation.

The most dramatic effect, however, was the actions of the survivors of 1816.

Although the western expansion of the United States was in full swing even twenty years before, the 1816 disturbances began a mass exodus from New England. Thousands of now-destitute farm families picked up sticks and moved west, to upstate New York and the Northwest Territory, today the Upper Midwest of the country. Vermont alone dropped almost half its population after 1816.

Two survivors of the Year without a Summer still affect us today. One of the families that left Vermont in 1816 were the Smiths. They moved from Sharon, Vermont to Palmyra, New York, where their son, Joseph, would engage in a series of events that would eventually lead to his founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The other is definitely more apropos to today’s holiday. A group of friends had to spend their summer vacation in Switzerland indoors due to the bad weather. To pass the time, they started a contest to see who could write the scariest story. The host, the great poet Lord Byron, wrote a poem aptly titled Darkness. Another, John William Polidori wrote The Vampyre.

Yet the clear winner of this contest, at least in the modern age, was a woman named Mary Shelley, who decided to pen a ditty with the second title of The Modern Prometheus. You know it better as Frankenstein.

It is altogether fitting that we end with this story of freakish science gone horribly wrong. If 1816 came about due to natural phenomena, then can we expect something similar with our filthy mitts in the atmosphere?

Will our meddling with the environment cause the next Year without a Summer?

Time will tell.

 

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Videos for the Classroom: History of the World in Seven Minutes

Why can’t all our units of study be this concise?!

The good folks at the Social Studies and History Teachers Blog put up an interesting little video about world history.  World History For Us All created this film to show the birth and development of our planet.

Its informative, interesting and well made.  Yet what should strike students is how the time is broken up.  In a video that is over seven minutes long, only the last two minutes are devoted to recorded human history.  It should give a sense of how infinitesimally short our existence has been on this Earth.

Enjoy.

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Thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street Movement

As a born and bred 99%-er, I have spent an inordinate amount of time among the 1%.

Going to college with many of the sons and daughters of the top tier, I absorbed many of the traits, both good and bad, that go with a life of privilege. Exposure to both plenty and want gave me a window into two worlds—and allowed me to view two sides to every social issue.

On the other hand, their carefree and blasé attitude about the world also wormed into my psyche—along with a stiflingly boring Brooks Brothers wardrobe.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement ends the month as a worldwide phenomenon, my two sides are more at conflict than ever.

Usually, throngs of people camping out, chanting, beating bongos and whatnot brings out the 1%-er in me (or at least the 99%er that became a cop). I have an inherent distaste for public disorder, and enough exposure to the powers-that-be to realize that (a) many of their suggestions probably will cause more harm than good; and (b) real power, at least in the 21st Century, rarely lies in the will of the people anymore.

Those who feel that way, mostly on the right (even the Tea Party, which I personally despise) have a point.

Then again, our country was borne out of civil unrest. Disorder was the soil that bore the fruit of the American Revolution. Protest movements have affected American policy from abolition to prohibition to civil rights. Many of the protesters today see an economic situation out of control, spiraling unemployment, and an illogical degree of political power at the hands of a precious few; negating the will of the people.

Those who feel that way, mostly on the left (even the loony Left, which I also personally despise) also have a point.

Yet the headline-grabbing slogans—the ones doing the most damage to the movement—largely do not have a point. Their pointlessness is making a legitimate movement look like a proscribed series of malcontents that habitually pop up upon every bear cycle.

Sorry to burst your bubbles, both Moonbeam O’Ganja and Reverend Cletus Killjoy, but the following will not (and should not) happen:

1. The End of Capitalism – Those who advocate the end of the market system haven’t been looking around lately. Everyone is getting into the capitalist game, for obvious reasons: it is basically how goods and services were exchanged since the beginning of time.

It even goes back to the Bible. As Moses delivers his people to their Promised Land, this new piece of real estate comes with a catch: obey the wishes of a deity that sometimes gets a little too heated for his own good. You can figure out how many times the Israelites broke the contract.

Even the Bolshie stalwarts—old reds like Cuba and new ones like Venezuela—are getting in on the act. Yes, a Cuban can be as capitalist as Daddy Warbucks: simply refusing to do business with American companies does not a Communist make. The capitalist system, in its basest form, is here to say.

2. The Return of Unfettered Capitalism – Let’s get one thing straight: in our country, there never was, nor will there ever be, an absolutely free market. Even Adam Smith himself, the supposed father of modern capitalism, argued that a completely free market was not only dangerous, but theoretically impossible.

The goal is not a free market, but a fair one: a market where everyone plays by the same rules and is governed under similar regulations. If we played by the same rules—and were governed by fair and efficient referees—there would have been no speculative bubbles, no bailouts, no “too big to fail.”

What happened was that the free market forgot how free it was, and decided that it needed to be “freer.” This is a fundamental flaw of the concept: the more freedom you have, the less freedom for those around you. If I had the complete freedom to beat the shit out of someone, that invades the other guy’s right to live peaceably—even if the other son of a bitch deserved it.

Starting in the 1980s, the largest financial and commercial interests in America decided they wanted to beat the shit out of everyone in sight. Certain companies, brokerage houses and banks were allowed to skirt the rules—often by the very governing bodies that made them.

In 2008, we all paid the price. I’m still feeling sore.

3. The Redistribution of Wealth – If the 20th century has taught us anything, it’s that the redistribution of wealth is an inherently bad idea for all involved.

For the wealthy, it means picking up sticks (and Swiss bank accounts) and heading to places where butlers, monocles and teacup poodles are more appreciated (like Greenwich, Connecticut, Bermuda, or certain parts of Switzerland).

For the poor who took the wealth, it means attempting to use the wealth for “the good of all” without succumbing to the inevitable need to line ones pockets. Sure, when you leave a bag of money in a room and you tell everyone “take what you need and leave enough so we can pay the rent”, there’s bound to be problems.

Furthermore, the theft of wealth negates any need to actually create wealth from (gasp!) work. Why do we have to make a profitable business when Mendoza’s old mansion (and his liquor cabinet) sits empty for the taking.

4. The End of Corporations – Here I speak from an all-too-personal experience. My father is the head of a corporation: a corporation of one. If he didn’t incorporate his little upholstery business, my parents would fear for their lives in every down cycle. If he didn’t incorporate his business, that slow year of 2008 could have cost my parents their house and their possessions.

Not every corporation is a multinational Leviathan bent on devouring everything in its wake. In fact, most are struggling to get by along with the rest of us.

If Moonbeam thinks stopping corporate protections will finally kill off Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and the Koch Brothers, she’ll also be killing off any vestige of innovation and entrepreneurship in America. The idea of a corporation, a separate entity apart from one’s personal assets, is what makes risk-taking and progressive thinking possible.

Again, this doesn’t mean every corporation acts in our best interest. Nor do corporations always innovate for the better. Henry Ford would probably have preferred paving the streets of Dearborn with the bodies of unionized auto workers (along with some Jews, too, apparently). Always smell for brimstone when making a deal with Donald Trump, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. This leads to the next point:

5. Complete Privatization of our Government and Society – I have many friends who are Libertarians. I also have many friends who lean towards the Tea Party. They all say the same thing: government is an inherent hindrance to the productivity of business and the entrepreneurial spirit of America. Overheated government spending has produced a debt that seems impossible to pay off. Other countries with fewer scruples than us are surpassing us in all categories. Thus, we must strip our government bare so that the borders are secure, the mail runs (only five days) and the roads are kept up (as long as construction is done on off-peak hours).

I agree that government can be a hindrance to business. The debt is, to be sure, spiraling out of control. However, the complete gutting of our government is not the answer.

Like I said before, the goal is a fair market. That fairness relies on a government that makes and maintains rules that promote growth while buttressing the general needs of society. Someone has to keep the greedier aspects of business in check, while at the same time making sure they don’t go out of business.

This requires a careful balancing act, and to be fair, neither the Tea Party nor the Occupy Wall Streeters are interested in balance. The Tea Party wants a gutted government that supposedly will allow everyone to be rich and buy a McMansion and go to a megachurch to piss away the money we make so the pastor can buy a bigger McMansion far away from us. Of course, this is done while a top-notch military (that accounts for every bullet) patrols every inch of our border while the world blows itself up.

The Occupy Wall Streeters—at least the loudest, most extreme ones—want to gut the top 1% of society to take care of a whole laundry lists of rights and wrongs, from unemployment, national health care, solving urban blight, rural blight, illiteracy, crime, immigration, migration, pollution, carbon footprints, fingerprints, handprints, and a diverse workplace. This while balancing the budget, paying down the debt and maintaining the smallest of military forces that will prop up any democratically “elected” dingdong in any putrid corner of the Third World.

A true solution to our problems—and we do have them—is (I hate to say it) a middle ground between Moonbeam O’Ganja and Reverend Cletus Killjoy. And it’ll be so middle that it pisses off the both of them.

That involves a tax code that makes sense, that makes sure everyone (including the big corporations) pay their fair share.

That involves a painstaking review of our national expenses to see exactly how we spend our money—and take it like a man when the truth isn’t pretty.

That involves regulatory agencies and rules that are fair, balanced, do not stifle the market.

That involves a government that has the balls to do all these things, plus secure our borders and maintain our missions abroad—the ones that actually matter.

If that can’t happen, we’re in for a royal clusterfuck of a future…and no amount of signs, slogans or pack of dirty hippies can stop it.

 

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Occupy Wall Street Videos for the Classroom

The Occupy Wall Street protests are obviously on many peoples’ minds lately.  In my scotch fog (more like cheap Bourbon, in my case) not only did I not take into account my lack of activity on this blog, but also my lack of real analysis of these protests.

So here’s some video to share with your students–hopefully with as little editorializing as possible.

The YouTube channel OccupyTVNY provides a pretty good snapshot of the various protests in New York, where the movement began (obviously…does anyone really want to occupy Wall Street in the middle of Montana?).  Furthermore, the Manchester Guardian’s Teacher Network provides a cool set of stats and classroom resources for teachers covering the protests.

Given the Guardian’s slant, its pretty even handed.

I’ll be giving my own take on these protests shortly.  If you read my reports on the Save Our Schools March in July, you probably get a sense of where I’m going with this.

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This Day in History 10/17: Burgoyne Surrenders at Saratoga

"The surrender at Saratoga" shows Ge...

Image via Wikipedia

Everything about the Battle of Saratoga–including its name–has been scrubbed clean by scores of textbooks.

On October 17, 1777, after a punishing four-month campaign, British general John Burgoyne surrendered almost 6,000 British, Hessian and Canadian troops to the Northern Department of the Continental Army, led by General Horatio Gates and (they should get all the credit for victory) Generals Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan.

It was a stunning victory, one that would have widespread effects on the Revolutionary War.  Yet many of the details have been lost to the chest-thumping.

Burgoyne left Canada in June of 1777 with a force that was designed to connect with two other British forces: Barry St. Leger‘s mixed army of British, Hessian and Native troops from the west, and Sir William Howe‘s main British force from New York City.  They were supposed to meet near Albany, dividing the colonies in two and effectively ending the war and the American Revolution.

It didn’t exactly go as planned.

First to punk out was Howe.  It was, on the surface, an easy choice: George Washington’s army was being driven from Pennsylvania, and the rebel capital, Philadelphia was poised for the taking.  To him, it made more sense.  Never mind that the plan to effectively end the war was fucked up from the very beginning–Washington was the bigger prize.  It would be a prize Howe would never get, and would soon be relieved by Sir Henry Clinton.

St. Leger had an even worse time.  He never had any intention of backing out: his mixed force of 2000 Loyalists, British and natives crossed Lake Ontario and landed at Oswego on July 25. The brutal campaigns of Oriskany and Fort Stanwix–where American militiamen and native allies slugged it out with St. Leger’s forces to a stalemate–changed the story.  It drained the morale of St. Leger’s native allies, who took their supplies and took off.  It didn’t help that Benedict Arnold tricked St. Leger into thinking a larger colonial force was coming to relieve Fort Stanwix.  By the time St. Leger shows up at Fort Ticonderoga on September 27, his feeble force was no help to Burgoyne.

Of the three prongs on the British plan, it was Burgoyne, funny enough, who was most successful.  By July he had retaken Fort Ticonderoga, an important strategic and symbolic fortification on the foot of Lake Champlain.  Yet from then on, his campaign slowed to a crawl, as the wagons crating the supplies–including Burgoyne’s luggage, china and furniture–got bogged down in the Hudson highlands.

In the meantime, a quick American victory over Burgoyne’s advance cavalry at Bennington boosted morale to the point that American forces would swell to close to 15,000.  It included Daniel Morgan’s Virginia sharpshooters, Benedict Arnold’s force sent to relieve Fort Stanwix, as well as the main force under Benjamin Lincoln and a new commander, British trained Horatio Gates.

Gates thought he could do a better job than Washington.  Arnold thought he could do a better job than Gates.  Both hated each other.

So how was Saratoga won?

Saratoga was not one battle, but rather a series of maneuvers and two battles over on month.  The first, the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, the British technically won, but at the cost of 600 casualties.  On October 7, the British attacked American fortified positions at Bemis Heights.  In the two actions–the second punctuated by a daring attack by Arnold who was probably drunk–the British suffered a total of 1000 casualties.

Outnumber three to one, with the Americans controlling the high ground and surrounding him at the town of Saratoga itself, Burgoyne was forced to surrender his forces.   When he discussed the terms with General Gates, Burgoyne insisted on calling the surrender a “convention” rather than a “capitulation.”

He fooled no one.

On the final ceremony, after Burgoyne offered his sword to Gates (who refused–a move that further infuriated Arnold), 6000 soldiers laid down their arms as the band played “Yankee Doodle.”

It was very clear to everyone this was no “convention.”

Saratoga would invoke the first day of Thanksgiving, decreed by the Continental Congress on December 18, 1777.  It convinced France and Spain that the Americans could actually win the war–given the right support.  Soon, both countries would sign treaties of alliance with the United States, transforming a colonial rebellion into a world war.

Below is a two-part short documentary about Saratoga narrated by Dan Roberts.

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Videos for the Classroom: 1960 Mel-O-Toons Cartoon about Christopher Columbus

Its amazing what used to pass for education in our youth.

A year ago, I wrote about the conflicting personality of Christopher Columbus, his downward spiral in the eyes of historians, and his controversial image among Americans today.  A year later, and I still haven’t found a decent answer to this problem.

So I resorted to the next best thing–making fun of how we celebrated the old myths, through video.

Today’s video is a 1960 Mel-O-Toons classic cartoon about Columbus and his exploits.  The younger kids…and I mean REALLY young…will enjoy the cartoons and songs.  Older students can sit back and laugh at the absurd notions we were taught, such as:

1. All Native Americans looked like Crazy Horse‘s extended family and lived in “huts or wigwams” (I’m not kidding)

2. White people were better because they learned to build houses and large sailing ships. (Again, I’m not kidding)

3. Columbus had doubters who thought the Earth was still flat. (Most educated people of the time understood it was round).

4. Ferdinand and Isabella were decrepit senior citizens.

5. Columbus’ sailers looked like fat gondoliers with handlebar mustaches.

6. The natives Columbus encountered were slack-jawed yokels with no personality.

7. Bad acapella singing can apparently conquer the world.

Have fun ripping this apart as I did.  Enjoy.

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Hatchets, Boardwalks and Demon Rum: Learning about Prohibition

Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcoh...

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I share my birthday with a rather prophetic event in American history.

On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. With Utah’s ratification vote, the failed social experiment known as Prohibition was killed, and Americans could once again belly up to the bar free of prosecution.

Yet the effects of that 13 year era still linger, both in our national consciousness and our collective imagination. Film and television have done much to pump up the mystique.

Yesterday, two programs dealt with Prohibition—one a multi-layered morality play, the other a social-science documentary. You can guess which is which by the networks they were on: few fact-based documentaries of glacial speed exist on Home Box Office. On the other hand, PBS rarely has a massive volume of exposed breasts and gunplay.

While Boardwalk Empire and Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Prohibition may seem altogether different, in fact they approach the Noble Experiment in two important directions—and one cannot exist without the other.

The Ken Burns documentary, a format familiar to many, lays out the larger issues of the era and the main characters involved in a familiar maudlin motif. In the first episode, alcohol takes its place as a prominent American beverage since the colonial period—only reaching crisis mode as distilled spirits become the drink of choice in saloons during the mid 19th century. The negative effects of drinking (the violence, indolence, illness, etc.) touched women and children the worst, especially at a time when their voice was largely silenced.

The groups formed to combat the spread of “Demon rum”—the Prohibition Party, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League—grew out of a larger social reform movement for abolition, workplace reform, and especially womens’ suffrage. It further split Americans along regional, class and ethnic lines: Protestants against Catholics, Episcopalians and German Lutherans, Native-born against immigrants, rural versus urban.

Yet where the documentary works to establish the greater framework for the era, it is difficult for stills and voiceovers to create an ethos or soul.

Boardwalk Empire is now in its second season on HBO. A dramatic series based loosely on real events and characters in Atlantic City in the 1920s, the program follows county treasurer and political boss Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (based on real-life boss “Nucky” Johnson) as he navigates his empire of graft and corruption—an empire grown richer thanks to Prohibition. Along the way, mobsters, mistresses, lackeys, and rival bosses struggle in the wake of Nucky’s machinations.

It is these struggles that are an important piece of the Prohibition puzzle—a piece, so far, absent from the PBS documentary.

Even in future episodes, as the rise and collapse of Prohibition is laid out in detail, Prohibition is no catch-all synopsis of the entirety of the dry days. The voiceovers, narration, grainy stills and grainier silent films of the era give much authenticity—much, but not all.

There is something in scripted drama that truly establishes an ethos, even if that ethos is almost a century in the past. Prohibition was more than just laws, agents, mobsters and speakeasies. At its heart, it was about ordinary Americans forced to make choices in a time of tremendous upheaval—a conflict well-founded in the HBO series.

Boardwalk Empire shows, in the daily conflicts of people high and low, the tough choices Americans were forced to make. Politicians like Nucky Thompson made choices that compromised morality, legality and even personal loyalty. Law enforcement officers, like sheriff Elias Thompson and Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, made choices that conflicted their sense of duty with their need for material security. Ordinary citizens, people who were once law-abiding, had to make the difficult (or often not so difficult) choice to break the law in order get even a little bit of comfort.

Like any era in history, Prohibition cannot be encapsulated in one source. Even a library of material could not encompass the necessary scholarship that defines a time in the past. In this case, however, a good basic grasp of the period requires two hands instead of one.

Documentaries provide solid material, underlying conflicts, primary sources—basically the big picture. Yet do not count out historical fiction entirely, especially if it’s done well.

Using both, you may get a more complete picture than you realize.

Enjoy them both…the next round’s on me.

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