Saturday, May 20, 2017

A review of PBS's “Dolley Madison” movie



Most women who marry heads-of-state seem forever destined to languish in obscurity. They are usually known by those who study their husbands' lives, but few are ever fortunate enough to escape the shadows of their husbands. They seem relegated to some kind of second-class status in the history books, unfortunately, and the role that they play in the success of their husbands' administrations is too often forgotten by history. Dolley Madison is a fortunate exception to this pattern, and one surmises that if PBS did something about her life without a comparable film about her husband's life, they must consider her pretty important (and rightly so). Their neglect of her husband James Madison strikes one as somewhat strange, I must admit, since he is the Father of the Constitution and a prominent Founding Father. Nonetheless, it is fortunate that they did not treat his wife with the same neglect that they treated him, and there is enough in this film (I think) about both individuals to satisfy fans of either one.


Dolley Madison

Monday, May 15, 2017

Learning the basics of Ancient Greek from a book



For three and a half years, I have read C. A. E. Luschnig's "An Introduction to Ancient Greek: A Literary Approach," 2nd edition - some 280 pages of it. Specifically, I read it from 28 September 2013 through 13 May 2017, at which time I completely finished it. I did so completely from a book, and never had the benefit of a classroom, a professor, or a native speaker - or even a recording of one, for that matter! I've never heard so much as one hour of audio of the language, even from non-native speakers, and this made it somewhat daunting at times. It may have increased the difficulty level in at least some ways, and I don't recommend it to others unless other options are not available (as they were not for me). It was a long process that was sometimes tedious (though usually not at all so), but I'm nonetheless glad that I read it. It's given me access to the world of Ancient Greece, and may one day give me access to various parts of the Bible in the original.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

The conservative who liked philosophy



It's a funny thing about philosophy majors - none of them knew they wanted to major in it when they were kids. The reason is actually quite simple: With a few possible exceptions somewhere, none of them even knew what philosophy was when they were growing up. Even after graduating, many are hard-pressed to give you a good definition; because philosophers themselves argue about it until they're blue in the face (and I exaggerate only slightly). As kids, their confusion about it must be even greater.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A review of “A History of Japan” (by R. H. P. Mason & J. G. Caiger)



This might seem a strange way to begin a blog post about Japan; but in the politics of Islamic terrorism, some have claimed that a Western-style democracy would not work in most Islamic countries, because their values and beliefs are so dramatically different from those found in the West. A liberal friend of mine in college made this argument to me; and I pointed out to him that people had once said the same thing about Japan - which was another culture where suicide was glorified for religious reasons, and used as a deliberate tactic in wartime. People in the West would not have predicted that Japan would modernize as well as it did; and yet it became one of the world's great economies, with its economic success deeply rooted in Western-style democracy and free-market capitalism. How did the Japanese become so successful, it might be asked; when countries in the Islamic world languish in such poverty, and even factional conflict?


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



States' rights was a major issue in the Civil War

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

People were willing to fight and die for their views on the subject

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

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