Monday, November 30, 2015

A review of Neil Oliver's “A History of Scotland”




For my overseas readers, I should preface this review by saying that I am an American, but one who has ancestors in both Scotland and England - meaning that in the many conflicts between Scotland and England, I have ancestors from both sides of these conflicts; which is actually not uncommon in America. My mother's maiden name is McGregor (a clearly Scottish name), and my father's last name is Sparks (a more English name). Thus, I might have a kind of objectivity about the struggles covered in this series - an objectivity which, perhaps, might possibly be somewhat harder for those whose ancestors are all on one side, or all on the other. I have great pride in both of these cultures, I should add - and in the significant portion of my ancestors who came to America from the various parts of the British Isles. Thus, I had reason to be interested in this series.


Friday, November 20, 2015

A review of “The Storm That Swept Mexico”



If your average person on the street overheard a brief mention of the "Great Revolution" in Mexico (perhaps when I'm talking about it myself), they might assume that we're talking about the war of independence from Spain (with Mexico's independence declared in the year 1810). But when most Mexicans speak of the "Great Revolution," they are referring to a revolution against their own government in Mexico, in the year 1910 - almost an exact century after their declaration of independence from Spain. It was a turbulent period, even by the standards of politics in Latin America; but it was one of the most important periods in Mexican history as well, and merits the attention of American history buffs who want to understand our southern neighbor.


Leaders of the Mexican revolt of 1910

Surprisingly, this historical subject caught the attention of some filmmakers at American PBS, who decided to make a documentary about it called "The Storm That Swept Mexico." (Because it was made for an American network, it is in English; and when it interviews people speaking Spanish, it uses English subtitles for its largely Gringo audience from north of the border.) It's not a very well-known film, even by PBS standards; but its quality is a lot higher than you might expect after hearing this. Because the revolution it depicts began in the year 1910, there exists actual footage from the time of its chosen subject - silent footage, it is true, but footage just the same - allowing them to make a pretty decent documentary about their subject, without a large budget for re-enactments. The silent footage from the time allows their film's visuals a primacy that even the best re-enactments would have difficulty achieving. (This is probably what allowed them to make the film in the first place, because it could thus be shot on the cheap; reducing the necessary funding for the project, and making their chances of getting that funding that much greater.)


Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States for much of this period


Pancho Villa

The Nuremberg trials: A comparison of two movies



Warning: This post contains some disturbing pictures related to the Holocaust.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A review of “The Great War” (1964 BBC series, about World War One)



The fiftieth anniversary of the "Great War" - a.k.a. "World War One" - saw two great television documentaries being made to commemorate it - one by the Americans; and one by three British Commonwealth nations (Britain, Canada, and Australia), working together to make this series. In virtually every way, the one made by the British Commonwealth nations is better; although there are a few things where the American-made series distinguishes itself; so I will intersperse some commentary on this as well, in this post primarily focused on the British-made series.


"The Great War" DVD (made by British Commonwealth countries)


"World War One" DVD (made by American CBS)

Monday, November 9, 2015

A review of CNN's “Cold War” series




Soviets' first atomic bomb test, 1949

It was a war that lasted forty years, which had many periods without any shooting at all. It was fought between two nuclear states, whose nuclear weapons were never fired against the other even once. And it was called the "Cold War" because of its periods without shooting, but had many "hot wars" within its complicated history, where shots were actually exchanged between the two sides.


Battle of Seoul, 1950 (during Korean War)

There are many alive today who remember the Cold War, but there are also many who don't; and even many of those who lived through it fail to comprehend its true nature. Many in the communist countries only saw their government's version of things, and were forbidden to hear anything else; and many in the capitalist countries were deceived by their own side's pacifists and communist sympathizers, who could never see the deterrence capabilities of nuclear weapons (or military power generally), and had their heads in the sand about both the failures of communism, and its threat to the free world's way of life.


Many fail to learn the lessons of these times; but the lessons are there, for those who care to hear them; and they can be obtained even from liberal stations like CNN. From the makers of "The World at War" came the classic series about the Cold War, which spent 18 hours explaining both the complicated politics and geography of the Cold War, and showing interviews with the top personnel in the governments and military of both sides. (From the regular soldiers, airmen, civilians, and diplomatic personnel to the generals, admirals, presidents, prime ministers, and communist dictators; you hear from virtually every major player alive when the series was made, and see the real footage of the events; with a narration to help make sense out of the complicated events of this time.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Communism in Russia: How the madness got started



It was a response to one failed institution called the "czars," which replaced it with another failed institution that was even worse. It was begun with the best of intentions, but it ended with the worst of results. And it was the first trial run of the communist system, which should have been the last because of the dismal results; but which was attempted time and time again with the highest of hopes, only to end in the lowest of failures every time it was tried; with few seeming to learn anything from it.


Czar Nicholas II

But in putting forth these criticisms of the Russian Revolution, let me assure my readers that I do not wish to defend the legacy of the czars. There was indeed much abuse under their regime, and the Marxist revolution was a reaction against some very real problems that Russia was experiencing at that time. I don't have time to go into all the particulars of these problems, but suffice it to say that there was a long history of repeated crackdowns on the people's liberties, with much obstruction of the kinds of progressive reforms that might have solved these problems in a more constructive way. Czar Nicholas II reminds me of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI - a monarch who could have prevented his own downfall by a few concessions to the people's wishes, but who effectively engineered his own demise by his unwillingness to do so. The parallels to the French Revolution are numerous and striking, and the Russian Revolution is eerily reminiscent of the earlier revolution in France.


Eastern Front of World War One

Monday, November 2, 2015

A review of PBS's “Marie Antoinette” movie




Ever since her execution during the French Revolution, Queen Marie Antoinette of France has excited the public imagination. There have been numerous movies about her - including a Hollywood movie from 2006 starring Kirsten Dunst, which I have not seen - and these numerous movies may be a measure of how much interest she continues to excite. Generations since then have tried to understand her, and have found that she - like the French Revolution against her - is more complicated than she (at first) appears. It's hard to come up with a simple explanation for why she acted the way she did (and why the public reaction to her was so violent - even bloodthirsty), and I don't pretend to have all the answers. The documentary I'm about to review here doesn't have all the answers, either; but it does provide a good starting point for understanding Marie Antoinette, and it may be able to provide some useful information about whether the PBS biography movie is a good film for you. (It's not for everyone, I should make clear; but for those with an interest in history - and, perhaps, with a strong stomach to go with it - this is a tale that you can learn something from, which tells you a lot about the complicated history of this time.


Francis I - Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, and father of Marie Antoinette

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A review of “TR: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt”



It's hard to imagine an American more interesting than Theodore Roosevelt - the youngest man ever to enter the White House up to that time, who stands out as one of the most remarkable peacetime presidents in American history. Mr. Roosevelt once said that "if [Abraham] Lincoln had lived in a time of peace, no one would have known his name," and there may actually be some truth in this - presidents who fight a war (particularly a just war) often get credit for this well beyond anything they receive for their other policies; and few could tell you a single thing Lincoln did unrelated to slavery or the Civil War, since these issues overshadow everything else for his presidency. I don't wish to take anything away from Mr. Lincoln (as he is my favorite president), but Theodore Roosevelt was no slouch himself; and the fact that we still remember him - even though he was a peacetime president - testifies strongly to the visibility of his legacy; as few peacetime presidents are remembered more favorably than he is - or, for that matter, remembered at all.


Theodore Roosevelt

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Why I like political philosophy



It is usually easy for others to understand why politics interests me - the market for political news is a considerable one, and the many ways that government affects our life (good and bad) create a great deal of public interest. But interest in political philosophy is not as common, so my fascination with it can be somewhat strange to others. Why would you read political works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Why would you read books about political theory, rather than focus more exclusively on how government works in practice? And why would you read something about government from Ancient Greece?


Plato, Greek philosopher

Part of it is undoubtedly an interest in history: the study of political philosophy - and other kinds of philosophy, for that matter - has a long and rich history. There are good ideas and bad ideas; theories that work and theories that fail; so one can learn a lot about history by studying these things. But why focus on this kind of history? Why not the history of art, or music, or science? It should be noted that I do have an interest in these things as well; but the reason political philosophy engrosses me so much is that the ideas found in it are all around us. It's in the values we espouse - whether we value equality of condition, for example, or prefer the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It's in the assumptions we make - both the workable and the unworkable ones. And it's in the arguments we engage in: the dialogue about politics, both among and between the different camps; and the endless discussions about the best way to govern society.


Baron de Montesquieu, a political philosopher I like

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A review of PBS's "Jimmy Carter" movie



"For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe
that the next five years will be worse than the past five years."


- Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech, 1979 (after he'd been president for two and a half years)




PBS made a three-hour documentary about the life of Jimmy Carter. The documentary was a lot like Carter himself: frequently boring (particularly in the first part).

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A review of “Mexico: A History” (by Robert Ryal Miller)



Since early 2012, I have made an effort to learn the Spanish language. The reasons for this are many (and too long to detail here), but chief among them is the local usefulness of the language - I live in Arizona (in the American Southwest); so Spanish is the most important local language besides my native English. The opportunities to use Spanish here are endless, and I have long wanted to know something about the Hispanic population of the Southwest, whom I have interacted with for years, at school and at church.


Mexican flag

In the American Southwest, most of the Hispanics are of Mexican descent - in contrast to the strong Cuban descent found in Florida, and the strong Puerto Rican descent found in New York - the other parts of the United States where Spanish-speaking populations are most often found. In the American Southwest, people of Mexican origin are the most common ones; and so I thought it might be helpful to know something about their country of origin - which is one of my country's only two neighbors, incidentally (the other being Canada); and the one that is closest to my home state of Arizona - and thus, the nation that we Arizonans do the most trade with outside of our own. (Stuff that my American audience already knows, I'm sure; but I have an international audience here, so the geography of my situation is worth going over.)


Monday, September 7, 2015

My undergraduate experience with communications



During my high school years, I had no idea what the communications major was. When I heard people talk about it, I thought that meant the study of communications technology; and I had the mental image of a radio and learning Morse code. Those who have taken a communications class are probably laughing right now, because they know it's a far cry from what the communications major is. Communications, in short, is about the art of communicating with other people. It's about the message rather than the medium, and about the humanities more than the sciences.


A classic radio, something like the mental image I had for the communications major

Saturday, August 29, 2015

In defense of John Locke: The need for private property



Karl Marx once wrote that "the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property." (Source: The Communist Manifesto, Chapter II) Much has been said for and against this theory, some of it interesting and some of it rather dull. But one of the most interesting things - for me, at least - was written by the English philosopher John Locke, over a century and a half before.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The difference between skepticism and close-mindedness



It's long been fashionable for people in the Western world to claim they are "open-minded," and so this is claimed even by people who are not that way at all. (No one says with pride that "Yeah, dude, I'm closed-minded!") Yet closed-mindedness seems to be as common as it ever was, with people refusing to entertain any number of ideas they don't agree with; and it seems to be as much a problem today as it ever was. But what does it mean to be "open-minded," anyway? The website of Princeton University defines the word open-minded as "ready to entertain new ideas," and this seems to me to be appropriate. How does one know if an idea is false, if one has not heard it? (Or in the words of the Princeton definition, "entertain[ed]" it?) How does one know if they will like this food, if they haven't tried it? And how does one know if this idea is wrong, if they haven't heard it out?


Aristotle

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A review of PBS's “Bill Clinton” movie




PBS made a four-hour documentary about the life of Bill Clinton. It has the liberal bias you'd expect from PBS, but with the exception of their coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it was a fascinating film. I don't think Bill Clinton was a good president, or even a particularly good man; but he was certainly an interesting man, with intelligence, great speaking ability, and a gift for politics to rival that of ReaganKennedy, or FDR.


Bill Clinton shakes hands with then-president John F. Kennedy


Sunday, August 16, 2015

A review of “The Panama Canal” (American Experience)



It allowed ships of all kinds to go from the Atlantic to the Pacific (and vice versa) without having to go around the tip of South America - drastically reducing the time needed to transport goods. The effects of the project were largely economic; but it was completed mainly for military reasons, with the need to move naval ships between oceans without enormous delays from increased travel time. And it revolutionized the economy and international trade of the world, allowing much trade to be done for significantly lower costs.


Panama Canal in modern times

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A review of Michael Wood's “Conquistadors”



It caused the fall of empires, and the rise of a new one in their place. It changed the destiny of continents, and left the imprint of Europe on their face. And it was a tale of cruelty and ruthlessness - a disturbing and intensely fascinating human drama - which forever changed the Western Hemisphere; and by extension, the entire world.


Machu Picchu, Peru

The event is, of course, the Spanish Conquest; and generations of schoolchildren have grown up with the story of how it happened. The story has an air of Shakespearean tragedy to it, of complicated characters who manage to be sympathetic even when callous and cruel; and even the brutality and horrors of it cannot stop it from being interesting, captivating, and utterly compelling. We may not like it, but we'll never be able to get away from it; and instead of ignoring it, there is value in learning about this epic tale; and hearing of the tremendous impact it has left on our civilization, and our world.



Moctezuma II being held captive by Cortés, circa 1519 or 1520

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Why I want to learn German



There are actually a number of reasons that I want to learn German. For starters, I am someone with a great interest in foreign languages. I talk at length in a previous post about my experience in learning French and Spanish. (If you haven't read this previous post, you might enjoy reading it first before you read this. Here's a link that leads to it.)


Mark Twain

But why German, rather than some other language? To be sure, the desire to learn German seems strange to some. It's perceived by many as the ugly language, and Mark Twain once wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay called "The Awful German Language." A girl in my first year of high school French said that telling someone "I love you" in German would sound ugly; and insulting someone in French would sound beautiful. I'm not completely sure why Americans perceive these languages this way, but it seems quite clear that they do. French is perceived as a romantic language (especially by women), and German is perceived as an angry language.


Charlie Chaplin spoofs Hitler speech in his movie "The Great Dictator" (1940)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Falling in love with Classics: How I rediscovered Ancient Greece and Rome



I have long been a fan of Classical Studies, which - in the world of academia - has the specialized meaning of Ancient Greece and Rome. I wouldn't have predicted it in my youth, but I really got into classical studies when I got older. I didn't major in it or anything - I am merely an amateur who studies Classics as a hobby - but it was something that would change my life for the better, when I really got into it.


My favorite painting of Jesus Christ

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A review of Carl Sagan's Cosmos



Let me start out with an up-front disclaimer that I am not an expert on natural science. I am a layman when it comes to this subject, as I have never even taken an introductory class about astronomy. But expertise in the subject matter is not required to enjoy this documentary, as my love of it demonstrates. This is a good documentary for laymen as well as subject experts.


This is not to say that I agree with everything that Carl Sagan says. He is both a liberal and an agnostic, which means I disagree with him about politics and religion. But when he sticks to the science, his documentaries have much to offer. And his exposition of his views tends to be interesting, even when I do not agree with him. I have enjoyed classes from a number of liberals I disagree with, and learned a lot from even the most far-out ones. And Carl Sagan is someone I have learned a lot from.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A review of “The French Revolution” (History Channel)



It is a revolution that is both celebrated and despised, sometimes even by the same people. It was begun with the best of intentions and the noblest of ideals, but it ended with the worst of results after thousands of deaths by mob violence and the guillotine. And it started out as a rebellion against one monarch, and replaced it with the de facto dictatorship of another - Napoleon Bonaparte.


Napoleon Bonaparte during this time

In the English-speaking world, the best documentary I know of about this subject is the History Channel's presentation simply entitled "The French Revolution." It has the usual problem for a History Channel program - namely, a touch of sensationalism, and excessively dramatic music at times. (The attempt to add drama through intense music is often overdone, with one feeling like they could have actually achieved greater impact through understatement.) Nonetheless, this film is a fine treatment of the events in France; and it belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in the French Revolution. Thus, I thought I would offer a review of this film here.


Marquis de Lafayette

Saturday, July 11, 2015

John Quincy Adams: A great statesman in his own right



He was the first son of a president to be elected president himself, and the only one until George W. Bush - more than a century later. Out of the fifteen presidents who served before Abraham Lincoln, he was one of only two who never owned a slave (the other being his father). And like his father, he negotiated a peace treaty with Britain that ended a major war - with his father's treaty ending the Revolutionary War, and his own treaty ending the War of 1812, nearly thirty years later.


The man was John Quincy Adams; and though he grew up in the shadow of his father, he had an accomplished life in his own right. One might think that he was only elected president because of his father being president, or because he had a similar name to his father John Adams; but this is only part of the story. He also had great experience as a diplomat, fluency in several languages (ancient and modern), and a native intelligence not unlike his father's. He was underestimated by his political enemies, much as George W. Bush was; and was a much better president than he's often given credit for.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Why I want to read philosophy in other languages



It is well-known among my friends that I am a foreign language buff. Some of my friends also know that I am a philosophy buff as well. These things might seem to be totally separate from each other, and to some degree they really are. But there is one way I'd like to combine them, which is to read some philosophy written in French, German, or Greek without the aid of translation. Why would anyone want to do this, you may be wondering? This post attempts to explain it.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The American Revolution in the television age



It was the most successful revolution in history (and the most underrated), but one in which the winning side lost almost every battle that it fought. It was a war with dramatic battles and military campaigns, but whose greatest revolution was in political thinking and good government. And it was a war with larger-than-life heroes who were immortalized in statues and monuments; but it was won by the tireless efforts of ordinary people, without whose efforts the war would surely have been lost.


John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence

The American Revolution it created became the most powerful nation in the world, but was one of the weakest nations for most of its early history. Indeed, it would never have won its independence at all without the help of foreign powers (especially France), and the war was a desperate one whose outcome was not the inevitable victory it is often painted to be. The Americans could very well have lost that war, and the country as we know it would never have existed: the world would have been a very different place.



Monday, June 22, 2015

Why we allied with Soviet Russia during World War II, and then fought against it later on



It's often cited as one of the great ironies of history - that the United States and the Soviet Union were allies during World War II, and then enemies during the Cold War. Why is this?

The answer is long and a bit complicated, but essentially it boils down to this: We in America allied with Soviet Russia during World War II to fight against a greater enemy (Nazi Germany) that had actually declared war on us, when Soviet Russia had not. Later on, we watched with horror as the poor countries of Eastern Europe were passed from one dictator (Hitler) to another (Joseph Stalin), and reluctantly realized that the Soviet Union could be every bit as threatening as Nazi Germany had been; and fought hard to prevent its expansion into any further territory.


Adolf Hitler


Joseph Stalin

These ideas might seem incompatible: Allying with the Russians during one five-year period, and being enemies with them for more than forty years after that. Yet the alliance and the later conflict both had a common theme in them, which was America's national interest. It was served by an alliance of necessity during World War II, and an opposition of equal necessity during the Cold War period.


Russian Revolution of 1917

Friday, June 12, 2015

A review of PBS's movie "George H. W. Bush"




George H. W. Bush

PBS made a three-hour documentary about the life of the first Bush president, George H. W. Bush (not to be confused with his similarly-named former-president son). The film was surprisingly sympathetic to him, perhaps because his moderate economic Republicanism was more agreeable to the liberal PBS filmmakers than the conservative economic Republicanism of his predecessor Ronald Reagan, or his son George W. Bush.


US fighter wing during Desert Storm, 1991

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What history can tell us about economics



I've had a number of people tell me over the years that with my interest in history, I should have been a history teacher. Thus, it's often surprising for them to hear that I majored in business instead. I also got a certificate in economics, which might likewise seem very different from history. And it's quite true that economics and history are two very different majors. But there is actually some overlap between the subjects - more than you might think - and so your average economics class has more history content than one might suppose.

What is the overlap between these things? In short, there are two main areas where they intersect: the history of economics, and the economics of history. The history of economics is the history of economic thought - or the history of the social science of economics, and how people have attempted to find answers to important questions about economics. It has roots going back far before Adam Smith, but the modern social science of economics began with this great individual's magnum opus in 1776 - a book called "The Wealth of Nations." It is one of the great books of history - up there with Isaac Newton's Principia - and it has had an enormous influence on the way people think about economics. (Here's my blog post about it, if you're interested.)


Adam Smith

The economics of history, on the other hand, is about the various economic problems that societies have faced; and their various attempts to find solutions to these problems. History is rife with economic case studies that show us which policies work and which ones don't, and a good economist tries to learn from the lessons of economic history. I have talked about the history of economics in a number of posts, so I will instead focus this post on the economics of history - about the economic case studies my classes have talked about, and about what history has to offer us in the way of practical experience with economic policy.


Friday, May 29, 2015

JFK and RFK: A few movies about their lives



The Kennedy brothers are among the most fascinating people in American history. When I say this, I'm not talking about Ted Kennedy (the Democratic Senator), or eldest brother Joe Kennedy, Jr. (who was killed in World War II); but rather, JFK and RFK. I'm not a big fan of Teddy Kennedy, as he represented everything that's wrong with today's Democrats; but the Kennedy president and his brother Robert (who served as attorney general) were actually quite good.


(from left ro right)
Bobby Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy


Joe Kennedy, Jr.

JFK has the distinction of being the last good Democrat president. With the chain of incompetents the Democrats have produced since these times, it's hard to fathom that there was once actual competence in the Democratic Party; but in these days, they had FDR, Truman, and Kennedy. FDR was incompetent on economic policy, but compensated for it in his handling of World War II; and Truman and Kennedy were great on both foreign and domestic policy. I won't spend too much time evaluating the Kennedy presidency, as this blog post is about the different Kennedy media; but suffice it to say here he was good.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A review of “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression”



We've all heard stories about how bad things were during the Great Depression, with extensive poverty and massive unemployment - perhaps the only economic crisis worse than our current one. But the history classes don't often go into the question of why; leaving the complicated subject of causation to economists, rather than the historians of the subject. When history classes do comment on the "why" of the Depression, they often paint a glowing picture of big government, with some economics classes not being much better in this regard.


Poor mother and children - Oklahoma, 1936

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Some thoughts about business education



I have both a practical side and an impractical side. My Facebook friends probably see the impractical side of me more, as I post about things like history and languages, and stay away from the more mundane topics of everyday life. (Maybe having Ramen noodles for dinner is interesting to someone, but I never found it that fascinating; and generally speaking, I don't post about impractical things - most people would probably find it boring if I did.)

Nonetheless, I have a strong practical side, which manifested itself in my choice of college majors. I actually majored in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing. It might seem strange that a guy who spends his time learning Ancient Greek would major in business, but it's true - I even got a certificate in Business Economics to boot. (I never took any business classes in high school, although I did take some computers classes that ended up being helpful for my business degree, since that degree required some classes in computer information systems.) Thus, I have some firsthand experience with vocational education in my academic career, and thought I'd write a post about it - thus commenting on the one subject I actually have a degree in, and the educational issues in that field.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A review of PBS's “Transcontinental Railroad” movie



It allowed a continent to be crossed in just a week, where before it had taken six months or more. It enabled fast transport for trade goods of all kinds, connecting the economies of the continent's East and West coasts. And it unleashed a wave of settlement and colonization, which would have massive effects on the population spread & distribution in the West - and by extension, the history, politics, economics, and even geography of the country.


Snow gallery (a portion of the railroad), while under construction

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Plato and Mormonism




Aristotle

"Have you ever heard of Plato? Aristotle? Socrates?" "Yes." "Morons." (Or were they?)


Plato

I felt inspired to write this piece about Plato and Mormonism. These subjects might seem to be unconnected, but there are a few quotes from Mormons' General Conferences about the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Most of them are favorable, while one of them is critical of his philosopher king idea. Mostly they're favorable, though, and I will discuss these General Conference quotes in detail now.

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