Thursday, September 7, 2017

A review of David Starkey's “Elizabeth”




Queen Elizabeth the First

The most powerful queen in English history

Elizabeth the First may well be the most powerful queen in English history, because she held actual political power in a way that most later queens of England did not. Victoria and Elizabeth the Second had their power limited by the British Constitution to a degree that Elizabeth the First did not. All of them had to contend with Parliament, it is true; but the monarchy still had real power in the years that we today call the "Elizabethan Era." This power was all the greater when the state religion was still under royal control. Just years before this, you see, the church had actually been under the control of the Vatican in faraway Rome. But her father's divorce from his Catholic wife had brought him the ire of the Catholic Church, and led to England's conversion to the new Protestant faith - a faith led by the monarch personally during the lifetime of Elizabeth.


King Henry the Eighth, Elizabeth's father

Monday, August 28, 2017

The First Amendment: Protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press



"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

- Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in a statement often misattributed to Voltaire (although the author rightly viewed this as an accurate paraphrase of Voltaire's sentiments)

The first thing many people think of about the Constitution

The Constitution is filled with passages that are of the utmost importance to this country, from separation of powers in the original Constitution to the Bill of Rights in the amendments. But if I were asked which passage may be the most important to the majority of Americans, my vote might well go to this part of the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." (Source: First Amendment) This is the Constitution's famous First Amendment, and it is indeed the first of the ten amendments that make up our modern "Bill of Rights." It is also the first thing that most people think of when they talk about what's important to them in the Constitution, since the rights that we have are easier to visualize than abstract concepts of separation of powers and checks & balances. (Although these things are vitally important, too, as I detail in another post that I wrote elsewhere.)


United States Bill of Rights

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and the right to "petition the government"

The bedrock of American political life today may be the parts about freedom of speech and freedom of the press. These are both forms of a larger concept called "freedom of expression" - one in the spoken form, and the other in the written form. (Although I'm sure that sign language and other gestures would also be considered to be "freedom of speech" under this constitutional definition, and free expression on the Internet has long been held to be included under this amendment as well.) The right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances" is another specific form of this freedom of expression, which is usually written down on paper and other hardcopy material. But it is also sometimes found in the Internet form that I have mentioned as well; and it is well that this freedom of expression (in all of these forms) is protected by the First Amendment. It has been codified as a general principle in all political communication throughout this country - and other communication, for that matter.


Martin Luther King giving his "I Have A Dream" speech, 1963

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Impeachment is an important check even when it's not used



"Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office."

- President Richard Nixon, in the Oval Office at the White House, on August 8, 1974


Richard Nixon

Impeachment alone doesn't remove presidents ...

In the entire history of the United States, only two presidents have ever been impeached, which were Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon was never actually impeached by either house of Congress. He was, however, credibly threatened with it during the Watergate scandal, and thus forced to resign in this way. It takes both houses of Congress, you see, to remove a president from office. Thus, when the Senate refused to remove Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton during their impeachment trials, the fact that they had been impeached by the House of Representatives to start this process had only a symbolic value. They had to be convicted by the Senate after this to be actually removed from office.


Andrew Johnson


Bill Clinton

... although one president resigned under the threat of impeachment (and subsequent removal)

It is thus one of the ironies of presidential history that both of the impeachments of an American president in our history failed to remove their intended target, while the only president ever to be forced out of office did so only under threat of it. Besides making the point about how both houses of Congress have to be on board with this to pull off a successful removal (as with Nixon), there is one other point to be made here about the power of impeachment, which is that it doesn't have to be actually exercised to fulfill its intended purpose - the mere threat of it (when made credibly) is the only thing that has ever removed a president from office (so far, at least).


White House

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A review of PBS's “Henry Ford” movie



"A lot of guys have had a lot of fun joking about Henry Ford because he admitted one time that he didn't know history. He don't know it, but history will know him. He has made more history than his critics ever read."

- Will Rogers, comedian

An interesting anecdote about Henry Ford

During the lifetime of Henry Ford, a newspaper once called him an "ignorant anarchist" (or words to that effect), which would have been a fairly serious charge at that time. Henry Ford not only disputed this with considerable umbrage, but he sued the newspaper for libel and defamation, and managed to actually win the suit. When he was put on the stand during this trial, the opposition set out to prove his ignorance by asking him questions about his knowledge of history. Paraphrasing the conversation they had, the opposition asked: "Do you know anything about the Revolution?", and he said yes. "Do you know when it was?" "Yes," he said, "it was in 1812." The opposition seized on his error, and said: "Don't you know that there wasn't any revolution in 1812? Had you forgotten that this country was born in a revolution in 1776?" "Yes, I suppose I'd forgotten that." He was grilled with high school questions like this for several days, and his lack of formal education showed; but he won the libel suit anyway. The jury basically said that he might be ignorant, but he was no anarchist. More to the point, he actually became more of a folk hero after the trial than before, seeming more like a common man, and gaining the admiration of millions.


Henry Ford

There are many ways to be intelligent

Henry Ford may not have known anything about history, and I obviously would not agree with him when he said that "History is more or less bunk" - I am, after all, a history blogger, who has written about history extensively; and I am very invested in the importance of history. Nonetheless, I think that it would not be fair to call Henry Ford "ignorant," this man who knew so much about cars and business. When it came to machinery, assembly lines, and business generally; the man seems to have been a true genius; and if you'd talked to him about these things, you would have seen that he was a tremendously smart individual. But much like certain people I could name today (but won't at this time), this elitist newspaper had no respect for practical intelligence; and went out and praised thinkers to the exclusion of praising doers. The satisfying thing about this story was seeing their attacks on his education backfire on them - instead of permanently humiliating him, it created sympathy for him among the public. Suffice it to say that it was probably the least scandalous thing that anyone could have printed about him, and it had the opposite effect of making him a sort of folk hero - a humorous effect that must have been satisfying for Ford.


Henry Ford and Barney Oldfield with a racing automobile

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Chaos in Cuba: Communist revolution, Bay of Pigs, and a close call with nuclear disaster



Historians have dedicated much attention to the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early sixties, and for good reason - it was the time in our history when the world came closest to nuclear war, which was a dramatic event worthy of serious attention from both historians and the general public. Less visible, however, is the communist revolution that rocked Cuba during most of the fifties; and the "Bay of Pigs" incident that was fairly prominent in the minds of both sides during the later crisis. It is not often that these events are covered together, since any one of these things is a complex topic in its own right; but these events in Cuba would nonetheless seem to be linked together (at least somewhat); and by more than just their closeness in time and place. The common theme running through all of them would seem to be the great worldwide struggle known as the "Cold War" - a war that was fought in Cuba ferociously during these tumultuous times, and which had importance far beyond the island itself on more than one occasion.


Picture from the Cuban War of Independence, 1898

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A review of Alistair Cooke's “America: A Personal History of the United States”



" ... these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved ... "

- The American Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776)

The British writer George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have once told a joke about the relationship between Britain and America. "The United States and Great Britain," he said, "are two countries separated by a common language." We argue about how to spell words and how to pronounce them, I think, and the "common ground" between us can sometimes be a battleground. All kidding aside, though, there is something special about the relationship between our two countries; and our shared English language could just be the most obvious manifestation of this extreme closeness. In ways that we sometimes take for granted, I think, we understand each other's humor and share each other's values. Our love of democracy and liberty, furthermore, is a characteristic that is somewhat rare in the world; and though it is found abundantly in both countries, it is not often found elsewhere to the same degree.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt meets with Winston Churchill aboard the HMS Prince of Wales - Atlantic Charter, 1941

The divide between the Americans and the British

Our culture is much the same, I think, and our view of the world is identical in many ways. But there are some differences between us that cause us both to misunderstand the other at times. It is somewhat unfortunate that my fellow Americans, for example, sometimes see the British as stuffy and unemotional (perhaps even snobbish), while the British sometimes see Americans as unsophisticated rubes who can be impetuous (and even obnoxious). I suspect that these differences have their origins in the fact that our histories diverged somewhat after the American Revolution, when the colonies declared that "all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved" (in the words of our Declaration of Independence). Thus, we have some significant differences between us, it is true; but these differences are not insurmountable. Thus, the BBC made this series about the history of America in 1973. This series was hosted by the famed journalist Alistair Cooke. This series attempted to explain us Americans - and I am an American, as you may have guessed - to our valued brethren in Britain. Thus, it helped to bridge the occasional gap of misunderstanding that sometimes pops up between us. (Although the misunderstandings are still pretty minimal even without this, and we are still a common family that gets along well most of the time.)


Alistair Cooke, the series presenter

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A review of “Korea: The Forgotten War” (Timeless Media Group)



So I recently finished watching "Korea: The Forgotten War," which is a five-hour series from Timeless Media Group. (Not to be confused with other documentaries having the same title - there seems to be at least one other series with this name out there, which I have not seen.) This popular title is entirely correct, of course, that Korea is a "forgotten war"; but this title may be stretching it a little by calling it "the forgotten war." Many wars have been forgotten, I think; from Ancient Greece's "Peloponnesian War" to the Boer Wars in South Africa. (Many more, I think, will be forgotten in the future.) But there are worse features in a documentary than a little exaggeration for the purpose of creating interest, and this documentary has a number of redeeming features that help to compensate for this weakness. (It has many other weaknesses besides this title, to be sure; but with the dearth of media options on this topic, one hasn't the luxury of being picky about the storytelling quality.)


This series is best entered with low expectations

To be sure, the five-hour length of this documentary is part of what recommended it to me in the first place. After comparing many documentaries on the Korean War (and I searched the Internet for a number of them), I came to the conclusion that this was the longest one that I could find. (I am not aware, at least, of any others on this topic which have a comparable runtime; although if you know of any, I'd appreciate it if you left a comment below about it.) The filmmakers are to be commended for attempting to tell this story for television here, and the amount of time that they're willing to dedicate to this topic is a rarity in the world of documentaries, if not entirely unique. There are problems with this documentary, though, that necessitate going into it with somewhat lower expectations. This documentary doesn't have very high production values, for example, and the music leaves something to be desired. (It is a bit melodramatic at times, you see, and even anti-climactic.) The narration is not very well-written, either, and the delivery of the narrator doesn't really do anything for the series. Viewers used to the high production values of Ken Burns' "The Civil War" or the British series "The World at War" may find this series a disappointment in (at least some) ways.


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