Tag Archives: History

The Castro Retirement: Passing of the Guard, or a Prelude to Counter-Revolution?

Fidel and Raul Castro (Photo courtesy of AP)

Fidel and Raul Castro (Photo courtesy of AP)

Rare is the tyrant that manages a graceful exit.

In Cuba, the second tyrant in a row is attempting just that.

At the announcement of his re-election as Cuba’s president, Raul Castro, who took over from his brother, former president Fidel Castro, announced that he will step down as leader when his new term ends in 2018.  It is part of the slow process of handing over power over Cuba’s socialist system to a generation of leaders with no connection to the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Yet even more surprising is the follow-up.  Castro planned some serious changes for Cuba’s political system: term limits, age caps (even for president), even constitutional amendments subject to popular consent via referendum.

Have the Castro brothers thrown in the towel?  Hardly.

Over the past decade, as the 26th of July generation have died off one by one, young apparatchiks within Cuba’s Communist Party have been jockeying for position in the new order.  Those disloyal or harboring counterrevolutionary sympathies were cast aside, as young loyalists gradually filled in top jobs in the Politburo, the armed forces and the cabinet.

Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the new top vice president selected by Raul, is a perfect example of the tumult among the cadres.  An electrical engineer, Diaz-Canel’s 52 years make him a fetus to the gang that fought in the Sierra Maestra toppling Batista.  He rose quickly, as a local party boss in tourist-heavy Villa Clara and Holguin provinces where important connections were made.  Diaz-Canel was formerly minister of higher education, and has already been influential in talks with key ally Venezuela.

So the new blood is simply that…new.  It doesn’t necessarily mean a change in mentality, unfortunately.

This transition reminds me of another blood-soaked tyrant that attempted a gradual fade: Augusto Pinochet.  His conditions to step down were ludicrous in hindsight: commander-in-chief of the armed forces for another ten years, and a senator for life, free from prosecution.  In the face of growing popular opposition, the general wanted to make sure the future governments would be under his ideas, if not his more velvet-gloved iron hand.

It didn’t help him, though.  We saw him for the tyrant he was.

Castro’s announcement, honestly, left me with more questions than answers.  In the end, I’m left with two conclusions:

First, the Castros have an even worse situation than Pinochet.  To be sure, the move to gradual withdrawal seems shrewd.  However, unlike Pinochet’s Chile, which was severely polarized, Cuba’s rank and file has been fed up with the Castros for at least two decades.  The loyalists can hold the socialist line to a point—that point being the end of Fidel and Raul’s funeral procession.  I just don’t see how Diaz-Canel can command the loyalty of a people who were clearly betrayed by two predecessors more powerful—and more charismatic (at least in Fidel’s case)—than he.

Yet even more important, as the list of potential reforms rings in my head, I cannot help but glimpse at Raul’s little sneer.  The whole reform process, even the constitutional changes, seem less a transformation of Cuba and more a stalling tactic to keep the Castros and the Communist Party in power.

The reason?  If these reforms—age caps, term limits, referenda—were so important to Cuba’s body politic, what took the Castros so long to introduce them?  Are the Castros special?  Do they not merit the same guarantees AND limitations placed on all Cubans through their constitution?

Part of the success of the American system is the realization by our founders that dictatorships don’t work—even for those who blaze the trail.  George Washington relinquished command of the Continental Army after the American Revolution.  He only served two terms as President when he could’ve been in office for life.

To make a republican system work, its founders needed to lead by example: an example of restraint.

The Castros are hardly a model in this case.  For most of its history, their regime lacked any hint of restraint institutionally, legally and practically.  Restraint meant a loss of power, at least in Fidel and Raul’s mind.  It ultimately cheapened the Revolution into a personality cult where the Castros were above any law even they conceived.

Therefore, to saddle the future generations of loyal Companeros with institutional burdens the founders lacked makes the whole exercise seem ingenuous.

These so-called reforms will turn the house of cards into a bigger house of cards—one that can fall much more easily.

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Videos for the Classroom: What the Ancient Greeks Did for Us

Since I work double-duty as a social studies AND science teacher, I’m always looking for ways to combine the two…sometimes out of piquing interest, often out of laziness.

Today’s offering is just plain fun.

I’ve seen various episodes of this BBC series over the years.  What the Ancients Did for Us is a 2005 series on  BBC that detailed the accomplishments of various ancient societies and their impact on our lives today.  It was derived from earlier shows that looked at contributions from earlier periods of British history, such as the Tudor period, the Stuart era or the Industrial Revolution.

Yet this is no ordinary history documentary.  Ancients was produced in conjunction with the Open University, the largest British university by student enrollment and a pioneer in distance learning.  As such, it not only provides information on the civilization (names, dates, and whatnot) but also practical demonstrations of the kind of technology used at that time period–often with amazing results.

I’ve attached the episode on the Ancient Greeks, as this is the next unit we will be studying in my class.  I’ve already previewed the film to a few students of mine, and they all saw the experiments (from Archimedes’ screw to Hero’s steam Jet engine) as great ideas for science fair projects.  One even wanted to try out Archimedes’ famed “Death Ray” – the mirrored weapon used to angle the sun’s thermal energy towards wooden galleys with devastating results.

I’m not sure that will fly with the principal (nor the fire chief) but the series is a great connection between science and history.

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The Revolutionary Age – the Winter Edition of History NOW

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, 13 Septembe...

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, 13 September 1782″. By John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), c. 1783 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revolution is truly like a pox, spreading from person to person.

This particularly human sickness is the subject of this winter’s issue of History NOW from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.  Ten essays from a collection of eminent historians detail how the revolutionary fervor of the Americas would spread globally, to France, to Haiti, to Cuba and beyond.

Several of the essays caught my eye.  First was Patrick Spero’s interesting piece on the truly global nature of the American war of independence.  Unbeknownst to many on this side of the pond, the longest and largest battle of the War of Independence did not occur on American soil and involved no US lives: the Spanish seige of British-held Gibraltar from 1779 to 1783.  The British victory was celebrated in a painting by John Singleton Copley, demonstrating the US struggle’s overall limited place in what became a global war.

Susan Dunn’s comparison of the French and American Revolutions is also of note.   The analysis is hardly new–that the moderating nature of the American Revolution made for a long-lasting, yet flawed system, while the increasingly radical French Revolution would self-destruct.  What is new is the view of the American Revolution from the French point of view, particularly how the French perspective changes from that of doting admirers to critical ascendant revolutionaries bent on correcting and improving on the American model.

I would be remiss if I forgot the contributions of my old friend, UCLA professor emeritus Gary Nash.  In an article recovered from Gilder Lehrman’s arch, Nash examines the social and intellectual roots of the Revolution, particularly the various movements advocating for independence and social change.  The ideals of revolution manifested itself through various avenues, as Americans of all stripes struggled to create a new society–a society that would be on the backburner as forces of reaction and stability placed the war and the ensuing Constitution as a priority over social change.

As with any Gilder Lehrman product, History NOW is laden with primary sources for educators to utilize the ideas of the authors.  This issue contains the Stamp Act, Jefferson’s letters on the Haitian and French Revolutions, the Monroe Doctrine, even the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence.

The Neighborhood is usually very enthusiastic of Gilder Lehrman resources, and History NOW is no exception.  Take your time and really sift through the treasure trove of analysis and insight…it’s among the best issues yet.

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This Day in History 2/5: Jean Baptiste Bernadotte becomes King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden

English: King Carl XIV John of Sweden and Norw...

English: King Carl XIV John of Sweden and Norway (1763-1844) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of many ways I like to annoy my beautiful fiancée is to poke fun at her Swedish ancestry.

What’s not to love about Sweden–the near-arctic temperatures, the overtaxed welfare state, modular furniture, a penchant for experimental pornography and a cuisine that has had few true winners since the days of the longship.

Yet of all the things to knock the Swedes for, I always come back to one—deep down, the King of Sweden isn’t even a Swede.

He’s the descendant of a down-on-his-luck field marshal from Gascony.

On February 5, 1818, Field Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, former Marshal of the Empire, former Minister of War, former governor of Hanover, Prince of Ponte Corvo, became King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden and King Karl III Johan of Norway.  He would be the first of the House of Bernadotte, the royal family that still reigns over Sweden today.

The story of Bernadotte’s peculiar rise to a Scandinavian throne is something out of a Hollywood comedy.

Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was a son of a tailor and small-town lawyer in the town of Pau in southwestern France.   He had the good fortune of reaching manhood at the cusp of the French Revolution: a perfect time for an ambitious boy with no apparent prospects.  By the time of the rise of Napoleon to power in 1799, Bernadotte had risen from tailor’s son to accomplished general and Minister of War under the Directory (the government in power before Napoleon’s coup).

Napoleon knew a good general when he saw one, and made Bernadotte a Marshal of the Empire in 1804.  He distinguished himself in the 1805 campaign at the victories at Ulm and Austerlitz.  As a reward, Napoleon made Bernadotte Prince of Ponte Corvo, a hick town in central Italy that was only good as a strategic location (which didn’t help its fate…it was flattened during World War II).  He was even married to the sister of Napoleon’s sister-in-law.

It looked like Jean Baptiste had it made.  So why would he hightail it to the fjords five years later?

Bernadotte was never easy to figure out.  He never went along with Napoleon’s coup d’etat, and rumors were circulating that he was an erratic hothead and a closeted Jacobin (rumors Bernadotte never refuted).   Unlike the other field marshals, Bernadotte made his bones during the early years of the Revolution—he was already a name before Napoleon rose to power and never needed his short coattails to rise to anything.  Loud, impulsive, fun-loving, Bernadotte would never have the best of relations with Napoleon, who saw him as a bulldog of a general but possibly as a potential rival.

Furthermore, Bernadotte’s battlefield behavior was growing more erratic, at least from Napoleon’s low horizon.  On an expedition against the Danes in the northern European port of Lubeck, he treated Swedish prisoners with kindness and respect, making connections that would prove fortunate for him (and not for Napoleon).  The Lubeck expedition was supposed to lead to an invasion of Sweden which never materialized.  In 1806 Bernadotte took his sweet time bringing up reinforcements at Jena and Auerstadt.  He led a contingent from Saxony in the 1809 Battle of Wagram, and on his own, issued an Order of the Day crediting his Saxon regiments with the victory.  Never mind that Bernadotte’s men, exhausted and ill-trained, had retreated against the Emperor’s instructions—even while Bernadotte himself tried to rally the men forward.

It was during Wagram that Napoleon stripped Bernadotte of his command.

Demoralized and notably pissed off, Bernadotte returned to Paris a dejected has-been.  He was to prepare defenses in the Netherlands against a British invasion which wasn’t happening (most of the invading forces died of fever).  Then came the meaningless post of governor of Rome.  It appeared Jean Baptiste’s best days were behind him.

Then, a letter arrived that would change everything.

It seems that Bernadotte’s antics made waves across the Baltic.  In Sweden, the aging King Karl XIII Johan was childless, as his heir unexpectedly died of a stroke.  Frantic, the Swedish ministers searched across Europe for a new presumptive heir to the Swedish throne.  Their main rival was Russia, so a man with a military background was preferred.  However, Napoleon was an ever-looming threat, so maybe a French general would work so that the Emperor would back off.

Bernadotte arose as the ideal candidate.  He was an accomplished general, who still ( at least on paper) had Napoleon’s support.  Furthermore, his kind actions towards the Swedes at Lubeck made him immensely popular with the Swedish army.  After much debate, on August 21, 1810, Bernadotte was elected the new Crown Prince by the Swedish Estates General, and subsequently made Generalissimus of the Swedish Armed Forces.

When the letter came that fall, Bernadotte didn’t believe it.  He never saw it coming.  Napoleon thought the whole thing was a joke.  He didn’t support the move, but didn’t oppose it either—he probably though Bernadotte would fuck this up like the retreats at Wagram.

Looking at the situation, you have to agree with Napoleon to a point.  It sounds like a bad fish-out-of-water movie.  You could hear the awkward first time Bernadotte walks the streets of Stockholm (“Bonjour mon peuple, je suis votre nouveau roi … me prendre à votre …smorgasbord.),

or his first Swedish winter (“Sacre bleu…It’s so cold I’m freezing my boulettes off!”),

or his first encounter with local cuisine (“Lutfisk?  Merci…[sniffs]…Merde!!!”).

Yet the fuck up didn’t happen.  On the contrary, it was the beginning of Bernadotte’s spectacular second act.

Somehow, he must have seen this as a new lease on life.  When Bernadotte arrived in Stockholm on November 2, 1810, he figured if he was going to do this, he would do this right.  He received the homage of the Estates General, and the old king officially adopted him as his son, naming him Karl Johan.    He didn’t have long to get used to the job.  With a dying king and a council of ministers divided, Bernadotte became the most powerful man in Sweden.

His first act?  Turning on his old boss.

In 1813, Sweden joined the Sixth Coalition, the alliance of countries opposing Napoleon led by Great Britain.  Obviously, there was a selfish end to all this: Sweden hoped to solidify its claim on Norway.  Regardless, as commander of the Northern army, Crown Prince Karl Johan defeated two of his old buddies, Marshals Oudinot and Ney.  Later on, he decided to ditch the coalition and focus on taking Norway, which he finally did after beating up the Danes in 1814.  After the allies recognized his claim, Karl Johan was now the heir to the thrones of both Norway and Sweden.

1818 saw death of the old king and the coronation of King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden and Karl III Johan of Norway.  Even though he never learned a word of Swedish (nor Norwegian), Karl Johan worked hard to be a good king.  He became a Lutheran, which made him even more popular among the people.  His reign witnessed the completion of the Gota Canal, and he managed the country’s postwar finances.  He kept both Russia and Great Britain as allies, keeping Sweden in an almost perpetual period of peace to this day.

Arms of Sweden. Note the central Arms of the House of Bernadotte. Jean Baptiste’s arms are to the right with the eagle.

His brash ways were also gone.  Over time, Karl Johan went from fiery Jacobin to firm ultra-conservative monarch.  His restrictions on freedoms and his hesitance to modernize Swedish commerce or to institute liberal democratic reforms made him less popular as time wore on.  Yet his intellect, his experience, and his personal charm kept him in power until his death in 1844.  He was astoundingly mourned as a savior of the nation, and one of Sweden’s greatest kings.

That blustery Gascon still affects us today.  His descendants not only reign in Sweden.  There are Bernadottes in Norway, Belgium, Luxemburg and Denmark.  The Swedish coat of arms still carries Jean Baptiste’s old arms as Prince of Ponte Corvo, complete with Napoleon’s eagle under the big dipper.

Finally, it just goes to show how crazy life can be, even for a slightly off French field marshal from the Pyrenees.

I wonder if he ever did try that lutfisk.

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Why don’t they want history taught right? A response to a History Commentary on Education Week

Cartoon - Why Study HistorySometimes it isn’t about whether someone is right or wrong.

Sometimes you’re just in the wrong conversation altogether.

That’s the vibe I got as I read a recent article in Education Week about how history is taught.   Even though the arguments in the piece are largely plausible and totally defensible,  I got a sense that the debate was altogether needless: the blame is completely misplaced, and the wrong questions are asked.

The article, by volunteer tutor and grant writer Vicky Schippers, stands as a polemic that history shouldn’t be taught as “a litany of disconnected names, dates, and events to be memorized before an exam.”  Rather, teachers should take her example and make history connect with students.

As a tutor, she has the rarefied opportunity to work one-on-one with a student, in her case a 20-year old named Tony with a four-year-old son.  She uses Tony’s situation, his fears, and his worries as a struggling young parent looking for work to connect with American government, the development of American democracy, the need for taxes, tariffs, and especially the abortion debate, which troubled this young father.

Schippers ends by stating that:

“History is not boring. More important, it is relevant to the lives of every student, but none more than our most disadvantaged. Rather than teaching it as a series of eye-glazing events, it should be presented in a way that affords students the opportunity to delve in; question; and, above all, see in history’s unfolding, how we, the people, have traveled from there to here; and how that journey is relevant to all of us.”

To regular readers of the Neighborhood, this isn’t Earth-shattering.

A slew of comments followed, mostly from history teachers sneering at Schippers’ lack of “real” classroom experience, her rosy-glassed view of history education, her complete lack of understanding of the realities of teaching in the secondary classroom.

I’ve got to be honest.  Both sides are kind of full of shit.

The slew of educators slamming this poor woman are rightfully swamped, but they shouldn’t crucify her simply for stating what all of us history guys already know—that the parade of names and dates is a better  anesthetic than chloroform.

Then again, Schippers really should’ve taken a look around.

If she really took a hard look at how history teachers, good history teachers, are plying their craft today, she would notice that nary a one bothers with textbooks, outlines of dates, events, names of old white men, etc.

We already know how history should be taught.  We’ve been trying to do it for years now, and anyone who hasn’t realized it is either past saving or a complete ignoramus.

The question to ask isn’t “How is history taught?”

The real question is “Why does the education establishment not give a shit about how history should be taught?”

History teachers, often in isolation or in small groups, have been reinventing history education for a while now.  Our classrooms are our laboratories, where lessons, units, projects and assessments are tested, re-tested, evaluated, and celebrated—often to the bewilderment of administrators perplexed at how learning how to think critically could ever get those state test scores up.

The powers that be, the education policy idiots and the talking heads in charge of education administration in this country, were never too swift on the uptake.

Programs that can really reach out and spread our skills and knowledge are first on the chopping block.  Anything related to social studies, especially history, is shoved way to the back burner   History is often forced to “integrate” into other subjects where the content and ideas are buried in reading skills and long division.

We know how the past should be taught.  Why not share the secret so that everyone can teach history the right way?

Schippers herself addressed this in a rebuttal comment on the Education Week site.  Obviously not wanting to shit on veteran teachers, she realized the limitations of the classroom and that “You all do what you must do to get your kids through their coursework. It’s up to education policy makers to make the changes that will allow you to teach history differently.”

Knowing how those policy makers think and operate, I doubt any change is coming soon.  Their conversations will never involve history in a serious way.   They see it as a means to an end—an end that can be charted and graphed.

Again, the wrong conversation is going on…and I’m skeptical about any chance of change.

So…we better teach history the best way we can, as long as we can.

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ORBIS: The Coolest Map of the Roman Empire Ever, thanks to Stanford University

Orbis

ORBIS view, courtesy of Stanford University

If all roads led to Rome, then how many roads must a man walk down to get to Rome…

or Athens…or Alexandria…or Jerusalem for that matter?

The folks at our west coast Ivy, Stanford University, came up with one of the most interesting solutions to this problem.

Meet ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Model of the Roman World.  In layman’s terms, meet the Google Maps of the Roman Empire.

ORBIS was designed by a team of historians, classicists and IT specialists.  Walter Scheidel, a Roman historian in the Classics and History departments, painstakingly mapped out roads, routes, sea lanes, settlements, obstacles, mountain passes, and anything else used for transportation in the Roman world.  His research further helped calculate distances, travel times, travel costs, adjustments for wind currents, altitude, population…just about anything you need to travel around 200 CE.

With IT experts Elijah Meeks, Karl Grossner and Naomi Alvarez, Scheidel and company created a model that calculates time and cost for various transportation routes  throughout the Empire.  According to their website, ORBIS uses about 751 sites (cities, towns and prominent landmarks), of which 268 are sea ports.  There are 84,631 kilometers (52,587 miles) of roads and desert tracks, 28,272 kilometers (17,567 miles) of navigable rivers and canals, as well as 900 sea routes which averages a total distance of 180,033 kilometers (111,864 miles).

Never mind all that.  I had loads of fun playing with the ORBIS mapping application.

One of the tabs is Mapping ORBIS, which allows someone to map a distance between Roman settlements using various forms of transportation.  For example, to travel from Rome to Londinium (today’s London) in January, on foot or on riverboat, would take about 41.8 days covering 2436 kilometers.  It also gives shipping and travel costs in denarii, or Roman currency, per kilogram of wheat by donkey (25.53), by wagon (31.46), or per passenger in a carriage (a whopping 1624.24).  ORBIS even provides the settlements where you stop along the way.

I cannot wait to use ORBIS in my class when the Ancient Rome unit gets around.  This application is an incredible tool for the classroom, especially for students that still cannot get around the complexities of travel in the ancient world.  ORBIS provides, using the most accurate research, a first-hand look at travel in the Third Century CE.

Please let me know how you’re doing with it…and make sure to tell them the Neighborhood sent you.  Enjoy.

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Democracy Distilled – an Infographic on Voting Rights produced by eLocal


Source: Democracy DistilledbyeLocalLawyers.com

In honor of Inauguration Day, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the folks at eLocal produced an interesting, evocative Infographic video about the history of voting rights in this country.  It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when even white men were restricted from the ballot box–the ones who were poor, that is.  The video follows how far we have come in the 237 years since independence, showing progress by state and demographic group.

This is a great resource for the classroom to show the big picture of American democracy, and to discuss where we need to go in the future.

Enjoy, and make sure to watch the Inauguration on Monday…even if you voted for the other guy.  The process of government is what makes us great, not the people in it.

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