Tag Archives: Latin American history

Review of Part 1 of PBS’ “Black in Latin America” – Haiti/Dominican Republic

A Tale of Two Countries: Haiti and the Dominican Republic

In a million years, I would never have thought to teach young students about their African heritage—especially as a white teacher.

One of the big roadblocks I’ve always had with students from Latin America (especially the Dominican Republic, where most of my kids are from) is recognizing their complex racial composition.  All too often, it’s a matter of observation: a scan of faces instantly shows the African blood permeating through almost all of them.  From other students, particularly from Mexico or Central and South America, one can notice the strong indigenous nature of their complexion.

Yet when this racial complexity is noted and explained by me, even as someone of Hispanic origin myself, it is met with pushback, denial and outright hostility.  “I’m Dominican, not some ugly Black!” or “I’m no dirty Indian!” is the common response.

(The former statement, by the way, is from a student whose skin is darker than that of the Black students in our school.)

Yesterday, I saw the first part of a 4-part PBS documentary that helped shed light on the complex nature of race in Latin America.  Hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—a scholar who has lately become PBS’ veritable point man on race and ethnicity—Black in Latin America highlights four areas of the hemisphere that have been shaped by African influences.  The first part was of particular importance to me, as it concerned the tense relationship between the two countries of Hispaniola: the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The difference couldn’t be more startling: on one side, a multiracial society that shuns its African roots and embraces European identity.  On the other lies a society that openly acknowledges and respects its African heritage, and has paid an agonizing price for it.

The Dominican Republic (previously the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo), the oldest Spanish possession in the New World, was also the first to import enslaved Africans as a labor force, especially in the sugar trade.  Yet sugar quickly proved unprofitable, and the economy moved towards cattle ranching.  On the range, the distinctions between enslaved and enslaver slowly dissipated, as intermarriage and cultural intermingling created a society that associated itself primarily as landowners, hence the magnetism towards Spain.

Gates points out the heroes and patriots that grace the squares of Santo Domingo—almost all are white Europeans, and the mulattos (or mixed-race persons) had their features Anglicized according to local prejudices.   Although 90% of Dominicans have some African ancestry, it is an ancestry pushed to the background in the name of national identity and consciousness.  It is only recently that many Dominicans have even begun to discover and analyze their African roots.

This “whitewashing” of Dominican identity was also influenced by its relations to its western neighbor.  Haiti occupied Santo Domingo for 22 years, attempting to Francify the population.  Upon independence in 1844, Dominican identity crystallized: anything Haitian, Creole, even African was considered low and inferior.  When sugar was re-established as a commodity in the late 19th century, it was migrant Haitians who did the cane-cutting.  Dominicans looked on these newcomers with derision, a hatred that resulted in the horrific massacre of over 15,000 Haitians in 1937.

Haiti seems almost the exact opposite.  Even amongst the rubble and poverty of Port-au-Prince, the statues of Haitian heroes are almost all Black.  Haitian culture, language and music pay open homage to Africa, whereas Dominican culture only tacitly recognized its African antecedents.  Though both countries are Roman Catholic, Haiti also is a center for voodoo, a religion based on African and Catholic influences—a religion that helped united Blacks from various parts of Africa to begin the unthinkable: a large-scale slave revolt.

Haiti, a former French colony (Saint-Domengue, once the richest in the New World), was born not out of a struggle against its neighbor, but out of a slave rebellion that had far-reaching influence.  Starting in 1791, the enslaved Africans of Saint-Domengue revolted against their French masters in the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas.   One gruesome after-effect of the revolt—the massacre of the French masters on the island—made sure that even with many mixed-race Haitians, the culture of the country would focus not towards Europe, but towards Africa.

This independent spirit just could not stand, according to the slaveholding powers of France, Great Britain and especially the United States.  Through embargoes, economic strangulation and outright military intervention, Haiti has paid a dear price for daring to exist as an independent nation of Africans.  Political instability, poverty, corruption—these are but a sampling of the abuses suffered by Haitians since independence.  Yet through all these hardships, Haitians are still immensely proud of who they are, and especially where they came from.

The show is extremely important to educators who teach multiracial classrooms, especially those with Latin American immigrants.  While the episodes are a little too short (I really wished for two hours to really go in-depth), the first episode gives an important synopsis of how race affects societies in the New World.  Thus, it also gives a window on how students view their own racial identity, and why they treat their ancestry in such complex ways.

Going back to my classroom, my Dominican students came from a culture where race was not confronted head-on, as it is in the United States.  Their identity is based on their nationality, which was based on ties to former colonial powers and shunning of more “Africanized” neighbors.  Yet it is important for them to see the complete picture of themselves, which may be very uncomfortable given their ingrained prejudices.

Race, or racial identity, often needs to be taught outright in order to be recognized.  As Dominicans, these kids may have given lip service to Africans of the past, but nothing more.  As Americans, it is important for them to acknowledge and embrace a culture that is theirs, whether they like it or not.

There is no shame in being of African descent.

Whether or not that sentiment can permeate the wall of Dominican identity remains to be seen.

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This Day in History 3/31: Ferdinand and Isabella issue the Edict of Expulsion

Copy of the Spanish edict of expulsion

The 1492 Alhambra Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion. Image via Wikipedia

The last thing I would want is to live in a place where everyone was exactly like me.

So it seems both funny and tragic that two industrious European monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, had no problem with this.

The push for homogeneity, for sameness, does often lead to traquility and a life of familiarity.   However, the overzealous iron fist of sameness can cause irreparable damage, both for the majority and for the minority that is now outcast.

This was the case on March 31, 1492, when the Catholic monarchs of Spain issued a decree that would reverberate over three continents.  Less than three months after vanquishing the last vestiges of Islamic Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella issued what was called the Alhambra Decree, later called the Edict of Expulsion.  It declared that the Jews of Spain, a community that thrived on the Iberian peninsula since Roman times, had four months to liquidate their belongings and leave the country.  Those who did not would face death.

For centuries, Jews had lived in communities in present-day Spain, first under the Romans after the Third Jewish Revolt of the 2nd century, and subsequently under the Visigoths and Islamic Moors.  Jewish Spain flourished most under Muslim rule: the caliphs of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) saw the Jews as fellow “People of the Book.”  They were given special status, allowed to operate businesses and own land, and especially to worship with little interference from Muslim authorities.  Since the Jews were an ethnic as well as religious group, there was little fear of the conversions and evangelization with Christian communities.

Even as the Christian kingdoms of the peninsula gained prominence, Jews continued to live their life and worship, providing massive contributions to Iberian culture.  Often, Jewish communities were the most literate, and local princes and sultans employed Jewish scribes that produced reams of edicts, writs and decrees–often in Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew.  Jewish bankers and merchants helped keep the warring kingdoms solvent with trade and loans (often to the irritation of local religious zealots who saw Jews as mere usurers).  Spanish Jews excelled in diplomacy, art, literature, science and philosophy through luminaries such as Maimonides, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Yehuda Halevi.

However, little by little, attitudes towards Jews in Spain began to change.

Once in a while, even during the Muslim period, occasional massacres and banishments of Jews occurred, as rulers (who often could not–or would not–repay their loans to their Jewish creditors) placed Jews under more intense scrutiny.  Land would eventually be taken away.  Jews would be restricted to certain neighborhoods in certain cities.  Jewish businesses were ransacked, synagogues were defiled, and pressure to convert or emigrate became ever greater.

Then came Ferdinand and Isabella.

The dynamic duo of medieval Iberia came with an agenda: unite the peninsula under one crown, one language, and especially one “true” Catholic faith.  As the military might of Castile and Aragon brought the neighboring states to heel (a movement known as the Reconquista), the Catholic Monarchs had to contend with large populations of minorities, especially Jews.  There is no exact number of Jews that came under Spanish rule: estimates range from 250,000 to almost 900,000.  The Christian Spaniards viewed these people with suspicion and contempt, especially since they were portrayed as collaborators to the Muslim caliphs–a gross misinterpretation since the caliphs also engaged in occasional anti-Semitic abuse.

Thousands of Jews sought to escape persecution through conversion to Christianity.  These conversos often resumed their original status with the veneer of Catholic baptism, which infuriated local Christians.  Also, many conversos were suspected of not being genuinely loyal to the church, but rather of keeping their Judaic religious practices in secret.  These crypto-Jews, known as marranos, were seen as an even bigger threat, a Fifth Column that undermined the unity of the new Catholic Spain.

Starting in 1480, the Spanish Inquisition was instituted to solve the problem of the conversos.  Headed by Tomas de Torquemada, the Inquisition’s mission was to root out heresy, including any suspected secret Jewish activity on the part of the newly converted.  Reams have been written about the horrors and abuses of the Inquisition, yet it needs to be said that not a single out-and-out practicing Jew was targeted.  The Inquisition was not concerned with Jews who stayed true to Judaism, but rather those who wanted to be Catholic out of “convenience.”

Ferdinand and Isabella would take care of the observant Jews personally.  For lack of a better pun, the Edict of Expulsion was their “final solution” to their Jewish problem.

The edict gave Jews about four months to sell all their belongings and leave Spain.  Any non-Jew who aided in hiding a Jewish person was punished by confiscation of property and rescinding of privileges.  Jews who did not leave were put to death.  During the four-month preparation period, Jews were under royal protection and could take their belongings except “”gold or silver or minted money.”

Expulsion of Jews in Europe 1100-1600. Image via Wikipedia

Of the 200,000 to 800,000 Jews who left in 1492, many settled in North Africa.  Some went to neighboring Portugal, only to be expelled five years later.  The Spanish Jews would then find refuge in Italy, in the Balkans, in Greece, and eventually in England, the Netherlands and the New World of the Americas.  In the case of the Americas, the Inquisition often followed the Jews into Latin America, thus further forcing other migrations into North America and Canada.

So what did Ferdinand and Isabella gain in this act?  Though Spain would remain a predominantly Catholic country for the rest of its history, it is a homogeneity fed by theft, torture and murder–and the loss of two rich, sophisticated cultures in the process.

There were still conversos to consider, and their allegiance would remain suspect for centuries.  The missionary zeal of Torquemada would stretch into Spain’s new colonies in America; leaving men such as Bartholome de las Casas to document the tragic results.  The property, businesses and riches of the expelled Jews mingled with new gold and silver from Mexico and Peru in the royal coffers.  Synagogues were transformed into churches.  Hebrew texts were destroyed.  In the early 1600s, it was the Muslims’ turn, as thousands of moriscos, or Islamic converts to Christianity, would go down the same dark path as the Jews.

So what happened to the expelled Jews?

Like their kindred spread across numerous continents, the Jews of Spain provided far more than they received from the countries that hosted them.  In England, Jews welcomed under Oliver Cromwell would help cement England’s maritime power.  In the Netherlands, Spanish Jews would rise in the tolerant society of the Dutch Republic, and help spread trade and ideas to Asia and the New World.  In the Americas, Jews would gain a foothold and create among the most free societies on the planet.

Baruch Spinoza, Benjamin Cardozo, Benjamin Disraeli, and many others made great advances in philosophy, in law, in politics and government.

Yet the great lesson of the Expulsion is not what was lost or gained, but what survived.  In the end, Ferdinand and Isabella failed in their xenophobic quest to rid Christendom of “heretical” influences.  They failed because the heresies–namely Judaism and Islam–are still alive and well.

The Jews were not crushed, they were not annihilated–and not for lack of trying.  They survived, and their culture survived to enrich and progress humankind even today.  None other than the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote the following:

“What is the Jew?…What kind of unique creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed; persecuted, burned and drowned, and who, despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish. What is this Jew whom they have never succeeded in enticing with all the enticements in the world, whose oppressors and persecutors only suggested that he deny (and disown) his religion and cast aside the faithfulness of his ancestors?!

The Jew – is the symbol of eternity. … He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear. The Jew is eternal. He is the embodiment of eternity.”

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The Strange Bedfellows in US Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in June 2009. Today, Egyptians are protesting to remove Mubarak from power. Photo via the San Francisco Sentinel

At one point, the United States, a beacon of democracy and freedom, turned to a despotic, autocratic tyrant for friendship and alliance during a volatile period.

As soon as the situation was resolved, however, that very same despotic regime caused mixed feelings among Americans, often leading to violent confrontation.

By the way, I’m not talking about Egypt.

It was 1778, and a young United States turned to France, an absolute monarchy almost completely anathema to the ideals of the young nation, as an ally in its war for independence against the British Empire.

When that very same regime became engulfed in revolution a decade later, the new regime divided Americans as never before—and confused US foreign policy into a “quasi-war” with France from 1798-1800.

The recent turmoil in Egypt has us looking at the often strange decisions made in the name of national interest.  In looking at the protests aimed to oust Hosni Mubarak, many classrooms will be full of questions about the situation.  They range from the mundane (“Where is Egypt?”) to the profound (“How can we resolve the situation?”) and even the profoundly dumb (“Who cares about Egypt?”).

Yet one question cannot be avoided: “Why are we friends with a guy like Mubarak in the first place?”

It’s time to teach your kids the painful truth about American diplomacy—it makes for strange bedfellows who tend to stay too long in the sack.

It doesn’t stop at Mubarak and the corpulent king of France.  Josef Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong (once he was dying), the folks in China after Mao kicked the bucket, Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, the entire Thai government, Ngo Dinh Diem, Syngman Rhee, the assholes after Syngman Rhee, Islam Karimov, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Saddam Hussein (before he got greedy),The Saudi Monarchy, The monarchies of the rest of the Gulf states, Mobutu Sese Seko, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the white regimes in both Rhodesia and South Africa, Rafael Trujillo, Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza (plus the other Somozas), Manuel Noriega (before he got greedy), Marcos Perez Jimenez, Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Banzer, Alfredo Stroessner and the host of lovable scamps involved in military governments in Brazil and Argentina.

All of these people rotting in hell (we hope).  All of these people received, at one point or another, the blessing, cooperation, and (the important part) funding from the most powerful democracy on Earth.

We were often taught that the United States was “special” amongst its brethren nations in that its high moral purpose and philosophical vision would mean its actions would also be of such moral stature.  The US wouldn’t stoop to make treaties with dictatorships, nor “torture” prisoners for information: Americans “just don’t do that sort of thing.”

Well, not only do we do “that sort of thing,” but we’re real good at it—since we’ve been doing it since our founding.

Foreign relations, one learns quickly, has very little to do with lofty philosophical ideals or moral imperatives.  To be sure, the base of diplomacy lies more in the market bazaar than the debating hall: economics and mutual security drive national ties far more than shared ideology.

Today’s diplomatic landscape certainly owes much to our wallets.  In the United States, most people worry about gas and consumer prices. Thus, we make nice with two nasty regimes that take care of our needs. The Saudis and their autocratic buddies in the Gulf take care to juice up our SUVs and assorted land monsters.  The Chinese and their sundry client states around the South China Sea make sure your little brats get everything they want for Christmas—as well as stock your shelves at Wal-Mart and Target.

During the Cold War, the United States’ biggest diplomatic priorities were thwarting Communism and spreading American ideals—in that order.  To wit, many of the people we cozied up to from the 1940s to the 1990s shared only an intense anti-Communist streak.  Being that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the US looked the other way as dissidents were slaughtered in soccer stadiums, tortured with electrodes, and subjected to inhuman conditions while everything, at least on the surface, looked rosy.

As far as Egypt goes, the mutual enemy isn’t Communism but rather Islamic fundamentalism.  The Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal Islamist group that allegedly masterminded the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 (leading to Mubarak’s accession), is the great bogeyman of the Egyptian government.  Mubarak fears that his departure would cede Egypt to the Brotherhood, thus plunging the ancient country into the darkness of an Islamic state.  I’m not completely convinced this is the case, considering the impact of the military on the country, but it’s been reason enough for the United States to stand by Mubarak for three decades.

The United States is not alone in allying itself with distasteful regimes.  Other countries, notably in Europe, have done the same thing. To an extent, these connections provide the United States with many of the products, materials and resources we need at the prices we want.  The average American has, on the whole, benefitted at least economically from these questionable partnerships.

Yet as you think about the people risking their lives in Cairo, Alexandria and all over Egypt, one can’t help wondering: is it worth it?

There’s no easy answer to that.  We cannot judge all foreign policy as a whole: relations with each country have their own characteristics.  Yet the better students can see how all aspects of national identity—economic, military, financial and ethical—affect international relations, all the better for the American diplomats of the future.

The following are some resources about US foreign policy with dictators as well as about the Egypt crisis:

An article from Salon.com featuring three authoritarian regimes that are friendly with the US.

A Report about US policy towards dictatorships from the Cato Institute made during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s.

A 2002 Global Issues article about support for dicatorships and terrorism.

YouTube compilations of news coverage of the Egyptian protests.

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Sargent Shriver’s Unlikely Contribution to Education Reform

Sargent Shriver

Image via Wikipedia

“Make mine a Courvoisier!” ~ Sargent Shriver, as working men call out their beer orders at a Youngstown, Ohio tavern during the 1972 campaign.

You wouldn’t think so, but Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Geoffrey Canada, and the rest of the education reform crowd owe a great deal to Sargent Shriver.

The longtime liberal activist, Peace Corps founder and Kennedy appendage, passed away Tuesday after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.  He deserves recognition as the charismatic, energetic political operator who, through his work with the Peace Corps and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, re-aligned Democratic politics for generations to come.  In the process, Shriver embodied a liberal idealism and ideology that reflected his times–and alienated his more pragmatic family members of the Kennedy clan.

Yet few moments describe his shortcomings more than Shriver’s 1972 faux pas at Youngstown.

As he is campaigning as George McGovern‘s running mate, Shriver attempted to endear himself to working-class locals at the neighborhood watering hole.  Instead of calling for a domestic beer, Shriver shrieks out for a Courvoisier cognac, a drink more associated with the upper classes that so often exploited these workers.  In response, Congressman Tip O’Neill exclaimed, “”That’s it.  I’m getting back on the plane and going back to Boston. There’s no hope here.”  He was right: Nixon won the election in a landslide.

This episode, while largely comic, demonstrates a dangerous notion in the minds of idealistic, wealthy reformers–that singular action by individuals of means are solely necessary for social change.  It’s paternalism at best, and class exploitation at worst.

In the Peace Corps, Shriver was a singular force, acting as a manic, always-innovating autocrat.  All the while, he is impelling young students from America’s best families to spread American democracy and values worldwide to the poorest regions on Earth.  Of course, this didn’t mean that the world (a) really wanted them, or (b) actually benefitted from these meddling preppies teaching the local children how to read the Saturday Evening Post and listen to a Perry Como record.

The Peace Corps’ ancestors have arisen today, in similar guises of mildly-patronizing philanthropy:  Teach for America,  New York City Teaching Fellows,  the KIPP Foundation,  Bill Gates, Eli Broad and their money-tossing cronies.  These groups, some of their disciples and many of their graduates have that same notion of top-down management of social action.  They believe that the “best and brightest” must manage and control the “betterment” of America’s disadvantaged–largely without the feedback of those they purport to help.

Even Shriver’s contemporaries pointed this out.  Even though he managed government programs like the Peace Corps, Head Start, and the War on Poverty with almost missionary zeal, Shriver was still viewed as a political lightweight.  Even if he was a suave, likeable leader, he never seemed to connect with people at all.  The Youngstown incident is proof positive of this.

Furthermore, it is now seen, even by liberals, that Shriver’s programs were haphazard in organization, implementation and results.  The Peace Corps made some headway in terms of health care and education, yet groups such as the World Health Organization do a much better job and are not so annoying.  The Great Society, in the beginning, was a hodgepodge of programs that were created and added at will, without planning or organization.  Today, even advocates of the War on Poverty wished that Shriver was more pragmatic in these programs, often to create better results more efficiently.

Nowhere does Shriver’s influence reflect more than on education reform’s magnum opus, the documentary Waiting for Superman.  The premise is simple: students are looking for some magic-bullet program, or individual, to save American education.  In this case, the Shriver-esque solution is charter schools funded by philanthropic captains of industry–without any input from the education professionals that actually know how to teach children.

Sargent Shriver’s life and achievements, while commendable, give us a warning about our public policy.  His accomplishments left many more questions than answers to the problems they set out to solve.  Shriver’s top-heavy, paternalistic attitude and style hindered real progress in the serious crises that demanded his attention.

The same might be said for today’s education reformers.

So in Sargent Shriver’s memory, I’ll correct his mistake.  I’ll go have a beer.

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The Historic Effect—and Potential Danger—of Julian Assange

Show me a completely honest, transparent nation, and I will show you a nation that will cease to exist.

The Persian Wars. The Peloponnesian Wars. Roman Slave Revolts. The First and Second Jewish Revolts. The Crusades. The Hundred Years’ War. The French and Indian War. The American Revolution. The Napoleonic Wars. The American Civil War. World War I. World War II. The Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Vietnam. Korea.

All of these events would have ended differently had Julian Assange’s Wikileaks existed then and disclosed classified information to the public. Some of these events would’ve ended for the better. Yet most would’ve ended for the worst.

This is the problem. This is the potential impact of Julian Assange’s manic quest.

To be honest, as I perused the volumes—and I mean volumes—of documents released by Assange’s site over the year, there is no one real opinion on their immediate danger. On the one hand, military releases of troop movements, theater tactics, and potential terror targets do pose a current threat; American lives are put in immediate risk.

Yet if you look at the diplomatic dispatches and e-mails, they rarely reveal anything Earth-shattering, at least to those familiar with foreign affairs. To many in the know, it comes as no surprise that China is ready to wash their hands of Kim Jong Il and the failed North Korean state. Silvio Berlusconi’s admiration of Vladimir Putin—and signaling of closer ties between Russia and Italy—was a long time in development. And it should shock no one that the Saudis so loudly exhorted the United States to bomb Iran in order to protect their petro-fueled theocratic fiefdom.

The information itself (barring the military documents) is not really at issue. The real crisis lies in the concept of full disclosure. Assange, at least outwardly, declares that his aim is to combat the lies, deception and dishonesty of government and big business.

Either Assange is a naïve fool—or, more probable, Assange is a canny opportunist ready to cash in on privileged information.

Can a nation-state function effectively if all their cards are on display to everyone at the table? History is not on Assange’s side.

If Wikileaks existed in 480 BCE, the Persians would have known of the other passage around Thermopylae well in advance, thereby avoiding the 300 Spartans lying in wait and heading straight for Athens and Sparta itself.

If Wikileaks existed in 71 BCE, the slave army led by Spartacus would have known of the Apennine passes that could’ve caused Roman armies to outflank him, drawing out the rebellion and depleting Roman power.

If Wikileaks existed in 1776 through 1781, it would’ve released the names and identities of the members of the Culper Spy Ring, a ring of patriot spies on Long Island that were absolutely necessary to George Washington in helping to defeat the British in the American Revolution. Those identities were so secret that the public didn’t learn of them until the late 1930s.

If Wikileaks existed in 1914, it would’ve released the secret dispatches between Germany and Mexico well before the infamous Zimmermann Note, urging the Mexican government to wage war on the United States. Our entry into World War I may have been accelerated, and who knows what would’ve happened.

If Wikileaks existed in 1941, it would’ve released the notes and research from British intelligence at Bletchley Park, especially their work on breaking the Enigma code, a secret German code used to communicate U-Boat movements at sea.

If Wikileaks existed in 1943, it would’ve released the Navajo code used by the US Marines in sending coded messages to our Marines in the Pacific theater—much to the delight of our Japanese opponents.

If Wikileaks existed in 1949, it would’ve released the flight status and schedules of cargo planes dropping supplies on a besieged Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. Don’t be surprised if squadrons of Soviet MiGs were just itching for those schedules.

If Wikileaks existed in 1962, during 13 terrible days in November, God knows what would’ve happened.

It may be unpleasant. It may be distasteful. It may even be undemocratic. Yet the brutal reality is that most of our effective policymaking happens behind closed doors outside of the public eye. If everything were held public, if everything were up for public scrutiny and debate, nothing would be accomplished.

If Assange’s motives are altruistic, then his end result would be a hyper-sized version of the New England town meeting, where every policy decision is debated, re-debated, amended, and voted on by all constituents. Even in New England, this model of direct democracy doesn’t work, especially for larger municipalities.

What then would lead a rational person to believe that this method would work for a planet of 6-7 billion people—especially since a large chunk of them don’t have access to decent electricity, let alone a computer with Internet access?

Yet Assange’s handiwork has an even more dangerous potential. His goal of undermining secrecy and subterfuge is a threat against our individuality, both our own and our respective nations.

As individuals, our identity is based on the fact that there is something about us that is unique from our neighbors. Part of that unique character is our information. Few of us, Assange included, would be willing to let our personal lives be an open book for the world to see.

Yet once our secrets are revealed, a part of our identity is lost. If Assange can create such havoc for governments and companies, what is to stop him from releasing massive lists of IRS tax returns, Social Security numbers, report cards—even e-mail addresses and passwords?

Mind you, this isn’t Facebook, a site where one voluntarily gives up some of their privacy—and can even regulate what is shown to the public. Wikileaks seems hellbent on making every person on the planet a public figure against their will. It’s tantamount to specicide, a murderous attack on all human beings.

Nations and governments, like individuals, also rely on privileged information to set them apart from their counterparts. If Julian Assange thinks that he can create a one-world government just by baring the secrets of the world at everyone’s feet, then he is in for a rude awakening.

Wikileaks will not stop secrets. Wikileaks will not stop espionage. Wikileaks will not stop closed-door meetings. It did-and will continue to-affect the security of national information. Even more ironically, Wikileaks has adversely affected the freedom of access to documents that SHOULD be accessible to all Americans.

Yet the potential dangers of Assange’s mischief are too tragic to ignore. His attacks on secrecy have already caused irreparable damage to our national security. It has embarrassed and dismantled years of diplomacy among nations.

Even more importantly, Wikileaks is an attack on national and individual identity. The nations of the world, not just the United States, must recognize this.

Julian Assange is no fool. He even has masses of followers and disciples; computer hackers, programmers and the like willing to break into any computer for the best information.

This is why his work is so dangerous: his extortion of information (potentially for monetary reasons) amounts to an act of terrorism that could pale in comparison to any missile or pipe bomb.

For the first time in this century, the nations of this planet could finally unite in a common cause: protecting their very individuality against a common threat.

That threat is Julian Assange—a man much more dangerous than Osama bin Laden or Kim Jong Il.

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This Day in History 11/29: The 1781 Zong Massacre

Print of the crew of the Zong throwing sick Africans overboard (1781)

Movements can often be sparked by the most inane and ordinary of circumstances.

In the case of abolition, one could argue that it all began with an insurance fraud case.

On November 29, 1781, the Zong, a slave ship carrying Africans to Jamaica, had a problem.  Two months before, in their zeal for profits, the crew of the Zong stuffed the hold of the ship with more Africans than it could carry.  By November, malnutrition and disease had taken the lives of seven crew members and almost 60 enslaved Africans.

Luke Collingwood, captain of the Zong, now made what he considered the best decision to stem the losses for his bosses in Liverpool.  If he continued sailing, and delivered a pile of corpses to the Kingston docks, the owners had no redress.  If, however, the sick Africans were lost at sea, then the shipowners’ insurance would cover the loss.  Under the “jettison” clause, enslaved persons were considered cargo, and their loss would be covered at £30 per head.

So on November 29, Collingwood did the “logical” thing: he ordered 54 sick Africans dumped overboard.  Another 42 perished the next day, and 26 the day after that.  10 Africans voluntarily flung themselves overboard, in an act of defiance against the captain’s decision.  In all, 122 Africans were thrown overboard.

Yet when the ship owners filed their claim with the insurance company, things went downhill.  The insurers disputed the claims of the captain and the owners–largely on the testimony of James Kelsall, First Mate on the Zong.  According to the insurance claim, the Africans were thrown overboard “for the safety of the ship,” as there wasn’t enough water for the cargo and crew to survive the rest of the voyage.  But Kelsall–who expressed doubts early on to Collingwood about the scheme–testified that there was plenty of water for the remaining leg of the journey.  Indeed, when the Zong reached Jamaica on the 22nd of December, there was 422 gallons of drinking water in the hold.

The case went to court, and the court ruled in favor of Collingwood and the owners.  During the appeals process, an ex-slave and author, Olaudah Equiano, brought the case–soon to be known as the “Zong Massacre”–to the attention of Granville Sharp, one of Britain’s leading early abolitionists.  Sharp immediately became involved in the prosecution of the appeal, even though eminent jurists such as John Lee, Soliciter General for England and Wales, dismissed the affair stating “the case was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.” This time, the court ruled that the ship owners were not eligible for insurance since the water in the hold proved that the cargo was mismanaged.

Sharp and his colleagues tried to press murder charges against Collingwood and the owners, but to no avail.  The Solicitor General, John Lee, stated that:

“What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgement of an experienced well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”

Lee hoped the matter would rest with his decision.  Instead it unleashed a firestorm.

Within a few years of the Zong Massacre, abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and James Ramsay issued pamphlets and essays condemning the conditions of the slave trade.  Together with Sharp and Equiano, they would approach a young member of Parliament from Yorkshire, William Wilberforce, to take up the cause of abolition.

Beginning in 1784, Wilberforce would lead a 50-year struggle in Parliament to abolish slavery in the British Empire.  The efforts of abolitionists such as these led to the 1807 law abolishing the slave trade.  26 years later, the British Parliament outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire.  The British abolition movement inspired similar movements worldwide–including a burgeoning anti-slavery movement across the Atlantic that would lead to civil war and eventual emancipation.

And to think…it was all sparked by insurance fraud.

For more information about the Zong Massacre, here are some helpful sites:

Information about the slave ship Zong (1781)

Lesson Plan about the Zong case

Gloucestershire, UK County Council website about Granville Sharp and the Zong Massacre

British National Archives catalog of documents relating to the Zong affair

A Jamaican perspective on the Zong incident

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Election Day 2010: Quotes on Democracy and Elections

"The County Election" by George Caleb Bingham (1852)

The Neighborhood will be on a brief hiatus as I will be consulting with the Associated Press on elections results from Election Day.  It’ll be a long night, and Mr. D needs his beauty rest.

Yet before I retire, it is important to stress, even if the kids aren’t there tomorrow, the importance of Election Day.  Our representative democracy works on only one principle: the people are the ultimate power.  The only way people can exercise that power fully is by voting for their respective political leaders.

Regardless of your political affiliaton, make sure you get out and vote tomorrow.  Take your time.  Study the candidates and issues.  But most importantly, make a decision.  The engine of government cannot run without our say-so.

To fill the mind and provide discussion, here are various quotes about elections and democracy: some in praise, many in scorn, yet still others with a keen eye on what is necessary for a lasting democratic society.

“The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.” – Lord Acton

“The 20th century has been characterized by four developments of great importance: the growth of political democracy, the growth of Online Democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting
corporate power against democracy.” – Alex Care

“One does not export democracy in an armored vehicle.” – Jacques Chirac

“All deductions having been made, democracy has done less harm, and more good, than any other form of government. It gave to human existence a zest and camaraderie that outweighed its pitfalls and defects. It gave to thought and science and enterprise the freedom essential to their operation and growth. It broke down the walls of privilege and class, and in each generation it raised up ability from every rank and place.” – Will Durant

“When people put their ballots in the boxes, they are, by that act, inoculated against the feeling that the government is not theirs. They then accept, in some measure, that its errors are their errors, its aberrations their aberrations, that any revolt will be against them. It’s a remarkably shrewd and rather conservative arrangement when one thinks of it.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

“It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government.  Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good
feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.” – Alexander Hamilton

“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” – Thomas Jefferson

“Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.” – Oscar Wilde

“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” – H.L. Mencken

“I confess I enjoy democracy immensely.  It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing.” – H. L. Mencken

“Imagine if all of life were determined by majority rule. Every meal would be a pizza. Every pair of pants, even those in a Brooks Brothers suit, would be stone-washed denim. Celebrity diet and exercise books would be the only thing on the shelves at the library. And —
since women are a majority of the population — we’d all be married to Mel Gibson.” – P.J. O’Rourke

“Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.” – Gore Vidal

“Do you ever get the feeling that the only reason we have elections is to find out if the polls were right?” – Robert Orben

“Elections are won by men and women chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody.” – Franklin Adams

“Elections should be held on April 16th-the day after we pay our income taxes. That is one of the few things that might discourage politicians from being big spenders.” – Thomas Sowell

“No part of the education of a politician is more indispensable than the fighting of elections.” – Winston
Churchill

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” – Winston Churchill

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” – Winston Churchill

“Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who’ll get the blame.” – Bertrand Russell

“You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.” – G. K. Chesterton

“Education and democracy have the same goal: the fullest possible development of human capabilities.” – Paul Wellstone

“Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

…and the last word goes to the honest one himself.  We need his words now more than ever.

“You may fool all the people some of the time; you may fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.” – Abraham Lincoln

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