Sunday, April 23, 2017

A review of Michael Wood's “Story of England”




Michael Wood, the series presenter

Even a cursory look at the British population will show that the dominant part of the United Kingdom is England, since more than 80% of its people reside in England. (That's according to the country's last census in 2011.) The rest of them are often lumped together into the term "Celtic peoples"; which come from the Celtic regions of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Each of these peoples has a long history of conflict with England, and the fact that they almost always speak English today (not to mention their smaller numbers, in comparison with the English) all testify to the degree that they were conquered by England. This is, of course, a major factor in British society today, and a painful situation for many a Celt.


It may have been England's predominance over internal British affairs that caused a prior series from the year 2000 - namely, Simon Schama's "A History of Britain" - to focus mainly on England in its political history, rather than to try to cover everything else in the British Isles. A number of Celts felt somewhat neglected by the larger Simon Schama history, and so the BBC made a few other series that focused more on Celtic history - such as Fergal Keane's "The Story of Ireland," Huw Edwards' "The Story of Wales," and Neil Oliver's "A History of Scotland". While these series may have served to pacify some of the Celtic audiences for the BBC, it is ironic that the BBC eventually decided to go back to English history (at least temporarily), and make another series about England - which is, of course, Michael Wood's "Story of England," the topic of this post.


King Henry VIII, the only person to be mentioned by name in an episode title

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

States' rights: The ongoing debate



In the 1860's, the United States fought a bloody civil war with itself, where 624,000 Americans (more than half a million people) died in a major rebellion. Slavery may have been the root cause of the Southern states' desire for secession, but the "states' rights" arguments were the ones they used to try and prove their legal right to do so - a "right" that they believed they were entitled to. Regardless of whether they were right or not (and I believe they weren't myself), they were symptoms of a deep-rooted debate within American society over states' rights, which had roots going back far before the Civil War and into the Constitutional Convention - perhaps even to the Declaration of Independence. States thought they had the right to nullify federal laws, and considered themselves as independent nations bound into a mere league of nations, rather than mere provinces of a larger nation. They saw the "United States of America" much like we see the "United Nations" - a collection of independent nations that work together when convenient, and which would never surrender their sovereignty when they work together.


Confederate dead at Antietam, 1862

When the United States was no longer perceived to be useful to the Southern states, they believed they had the right to secede from it, and win that secession by bloodshed. The Northern states believed with equal fervor that they had no such right to secede, and were willing to suppress this by bloodshed. Thus both sides were willing to fight and die for their own view of states' rights, and a bitter civil war was fought partially over that divisive issue about the role of states. (Although I should acknowledge that there were other factors at work here, and there are other root causes of this war.) The debate continues in full force today (although without the "bloodshed" part), as we continue to define the role of states in the Union. Thus, a closer look at how "states' rights" works might be useful here; answering what responsibilities states have to each other, what rights they still retain at this time, and what advantages they derive from the Union in the 21st century.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A review of “The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization” (PBS Empires)



So I once read a book history of Ancient Greece, and I've even been learning the Ancient Greek language since 2013 (as some of you already know). I'm almost done reading my intro textbook on the subject, actually, and so I've spent many hours studying this topic over these past few years. Nonetheless, I actually learned a lot from this three-hour TV program on this topic; since it is well-researched, well-presented, and it interviews the experts. I've gotten pretty deep into their culture already through these language exploits, but I nonetheless learned much from this documentary, and not just because it shows pictures of the actual places and artifacts from the time. (Although it does do plenty of that, and supplements my reading with the visuals.)


Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens

So how did I learn something from this, you might be asking? What was it that was so new to me that my textbooks hadn't shown me this information before? Why was it that I learned something from a medium that is usually brief, and occasionally superficial?


Greek statesman Cleisthenes

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Reflections on learning about history of Ancient Egypt



In 1799, one of Napoleon's soldiers discovered a mysterious stone in the Nile Delta, during the French campaigns into Egypt that year - a stone that would prove the key to Egyptology and its modern practice. The mysterious object was the Rosetta Stone, and it bore an inscription in three different languages - Egyptian hieroglyphics, a later form of the Egyptian language called "Demotic," and an ancient variety of Greek that was well-known already to Europeans. Although this soldier didn't know it then, this trilingual inscription would allow a young scholar named Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher the script when he reached adulthood, since he was only nine years old at the time that his fellow Frenchman discovered this.


The Rosetta Stone

The Napoleonic campaigns in general - and the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone in particular - ignited a wave of true "Egyptomania" back in Europe, which grew into the modern discipline of Egyptology. Many great discoveries have been made in this area by archaeological digs at various sites, and some of these have uncovered information that was not known to anyone for centuries. Perhaps because of this, the discipline of Egyptology is sometimes considered a subfield of archaeology - a field broad enough to include sites from Greece to Rome to China to Central America. This classification points out that the excavations done in Egypt are just some of the many across the world that attract the attention of archaeologists; and there is truth in this claim. Nonetheless, the study of Egyptology encompasses more than just "digging in the dirt", and embraces written records as well; with languages whose grammar must be seriously studied and understood before a proper and complete history of the Egyptian past can be written. Thus, the Europeans classify Egyptology as a philological discipline (or in other words, a "linguistic" discipline); and the controversy over its classification continues today.


Sunday, February 26, 2017

A review of Ken Burns' “Jazz” (PBS series)



I should preface this review by saying that I am a longtime fan of jazz music, as well as a longtime fan of both history and the Ken Burns documentaries about it. I freely acknowledge that I am not an expert on music history (jazz or otherwise), and do not consider myself to be a true musician - much as I would like to call myself by this distinguished title. I have played piano for a long time, it is true, and I have played jazz (and other styles) by ear; but I am neither a professional musician nor particularly talented in my performance, and consider myself only an enthusiastic fan with a sometime musical hobby. That being said, I am entitled to my opinion about it as much as anyone else, and so offer this review to any who might enjoy it.


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Japanese American soldiers in World War II




Japanese American children pledging allegiance to the United States in 1942, shortly before the internment started

Most Americans today have heard the story of Japanese American internment in World War II (at least in outline form), which was unquestionably one of the sadder episodes in this country's history (at least in the last century). But most Americans have not heard of the story of the Japanese American soldiers in World War II, who served with great distinction in the war. This is a part of the story that our schools have not told as well, and so I thought I'd venture to offer some coverage of it on my blog here. (This necessarily involves some background about the story of Japanese internment, I should note here; but I intend to focus this post on the military contributions of the Japanese American soldiers.)


"Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry," under Executive Order 9066

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