Sunday, April 27, 2014

The most fascinating man in American history

"My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral."

- Opening lines of Grant's memoirs, in the very first chapter

If you asked your average person what historical individual they find most interesting, you might hear an answer like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, or another Founding Father. These would be excellent choices. But the person I find most interesting would not make most people's list. Although he was voted President of the United States, he is not remembered as a statesman, but as a soldier. He may have been the finest general in American history, but he is mostly forgotten today.

A review of “Ulysses S. Grant: Warrior President”

"[T]he war between the States was a very bloody and a very costly war. One side or the other had to yield principles they deemed dearer than life before it could be brought to an end ... "

- From the conclusion of Grant's memoirs (1885)

I had heard the name "Ulysses S. Grant" as a child, and knew he was important; but did not know much about him. I had heard much criticism of Grant's generalship, with the old claim that he was a butcher - an unfavorable characterization voiced by then-First-Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. I also heard some good things about Grant's generalship, and my father was a great admirer of Grant; but everyone seemed to consider Robert E. Lee's generalship superior to his. The general, it seemed, was incompetent; and a drunk to boot. I knew also of the apocryphal story about someone complaining to President Lincoln about Grant's drinking, and then hearing the response to "Find out what he drinks, and I'll send a barrel of it to all my other generals" (or something to that effect).

Abraham Lincoln

Ken Burns' famous depiction of Grant in "The Civil War"

It was in watching Ken Burns' Civil War miniseries that I got to know Grant a little better; to hear Jason Robards read quotes from him, and to hear a brief version of Grant's postwar life. Ken Burns is a little hard on Grant's presidency in the postwar episode, I think, mentioning only its failures in the brief sentence about it. He does do justice to the story of Grant's writing his memoirs, and setting it up with the business failures that prompted his writing them; but he also ignores some important context when mentioning that Grant had someone tied to a tree for several hours for mistreating a horse - the man was ordered to stop doing it, and persisted quite openly in doing so. Mentioning this insubordination would have seemed appropriate to give context; but given the other virtues of the series, I'll let this omission slide.

The definitive film on Grant is this biography by PBS

This American Experience documentary about him is the definitive film on Grant. The Western director John Ford, I am told, wanted to do a biopic about Grant; but never got to do so. A Hollywood movie would have been something, but this documentary is quite impressive as well; making good use of the many photographs of Grant, the people he worked with, and the events he was involved in. They make good use of quotes from Grant's memoirs, and benefit from having one of the most interesting stories in American history to dramatize. I think Grant may be the most fascinating man in American history, and this documentary does him justice.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ben-Hur: My favorite Hollywood movie of all time

It's well-known to my friends that I post a lot about documentaries, particularly about history. Thus, someone reading my blog posts might conclude that I don't like Hollywood movies as much, because I don't write about them very often. (I've only written a blog review of two so far, which are Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.") Actually, I'm a great fan of many Hollywood movies, and the main reason I spend more time reviewing documentaries is because there's more history documentaries than history movies. (I may start reviewing some classic history movies, from Hollywood as well as the documentary world. More on that later.)

Fictional story with a historical setting ...

But my favorite Hollywood movie is actually not a history movie; because although it depicts real events, most of the characters are fictional; as this is based on a work of literature. Besides that, it depicts Bible events like Jesus's miracles, which lend themselves less to verifiable fact than other kinds of history - like certain areas of military history, where we can have verifiable data like numbers of troops, their positions during any given battle, and the tactical results of the engagement. I wish to make it clear that I believe in the reality of Jesus's miracles, but any media depicting them is not, in the strictest sense, a history. Rather, this is a work of cinematic literature, based on a literary work from the world of books. The movie is the 1959 classic "Ben-Hur," which was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. For me, this is the movie that most brings the New Testament to life.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Does communism cause poverty? (The two experiments that prove it does)

Karl Marx, the chief founder of communism

Does communism cause poverty? And how can this be tested?

Karl Marx

What counts as "testing"?

The short answer is "yes": it does cause poverty. But as far as testing goes, it depends on how you define "test." When hearing the word "experiment," most people have the mental image of a laboratory; but I should acknowledge in advance that experiments are hard to do in economics and politics. Even the possible ones usually require major government actions which may be unpopular, and people generally don't like to be guinea pigs. This is true of any experiment about whether communism has negative effects on prosperity.

Karl Marx

The experiments that no one wanted ...

So is there such an experiment? It turns out that there are two on a large scale, but not ones initiated by any government or university. They are natural experiments, or ones in which "the experimental and control conditions are determined by nature, or by other factors outside the control of the investigators." (source citation) While they were set in motion by human beings rather than nature, their purpose was not experimental at all; but the result of complicated political negotiations following a major war. Both sides in these negotiations - who had been allies during this war - would have preferred that their own system of government be established in the territories of their former enemies; but neither had the military power to do so for all those territories. The result was a compromise, which began two of the most epic natural experiments in the history of economics - two experiments neither side wanted, but which both sides got; and which clearly show a causal relationship between communism and poverty.

Yalta Conference, 1945

Potsdam Conference, 1945

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why the distant past isn't talked about

If you turn on the TV or go to a cinema, you'll most likely see movies and shows focused on the present. This is as it should be - the present should be lived in and understood. But one might assume from this that people aren't interested in history. To some degree, they aren't; but even though shows about the past are in the minority, you still see a sizable number of movies about World War II and other recent history. Once in a while, you even get a movie about some older history - anything from a John Adams miniseries or a Lincoln movie, to films about the Roman Empire or the medieval period.

But they're not as common as media about more modern history, like World War II or Vietnam. Even in the documentary world, talking about the more distant events is rare. Why is this?

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