Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A review of “Reconstruction: The Second Civil War”

"The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations, and claims shall be held illegal and void."

- Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (ratified 1868), Section 4

It was the end of a civil war in which four million slaves were freed, but which failed to bring true freedom to the people on whose behalf it had largely been fought. It was called the "Reconstruction Era" because its purpose was to rebuild (and heal) a war-torn nation, but which saw almost as much violence and destruction as actual reconstruction. And it brought the vote and other rights to the former slaves of the South for a time, only to see those rights taken away almost overnight when the Reconstruction Era ended in a corrupt political deal, giving the White South almost everything it wanted.

Confederate capitol of Richmond, 1865 (the end of the war)

Reconstruction period characterized by anarchy, chaos, and even (at times) armed conflict

Much has been written about the military conflict called the "Civil War" (fought between North and South), but not as much has been written about the postwar Reconstruction period, which is perhaps even more complex politically than the war itself. Indeed, some historians have even called it the "Second Civil War," because it was characterized by anarchy, chaos, and even (at times) armed conflict; between former Union soldiers occupying the South, and former Confederate soldiers joining the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations; who were trying to undo all that the North had fought and died for.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Actually, communism HAS been tried (and it doesn't work)

Tiananmen Square, China 1989

"China isn't all that bad," some say ...

The critics of communism have long pointed out the failure of states like China and the Soviet Union, which all attempted to implement Marxist doctrine. The variety of liberal responses to this is rather interesting, and the shaky nature of the premises used is rather telling. Some contend that China isn't all that bad, and make grand proclamations about how "developed" it is, and how wonderful things supposedly are there. (Obama has made this argument before - see below.) Even the most cursory examination of the actual evidence shows how wrong this is - China is extremely poor, and their standard of living lags far behind anything in the industrialized West. There is economic development in China, it is true; but it seems to do little to raise the standard of living there; and it's not all that it's cracked up to be.

"China is bad," others say, "but that's because it's 'capitalist' ... "

Others admit that China is poor and miserable, but say that it is capitalist, and thus try to put the blame for its failures on capitalism. Again, even the most cursory examination of the evidence shows that this is not the case, and that China is vastly far removed from a capitalist society, possessing no freedom of the market like that found in the West. It's hard to decide which is more lame - the attempt to find a scapegoat, or their odd choice of which one to use; but regardless of the comparison in lameness, there is plenty of lameness to go around; and their attempt to shift the blame is ultimately illegitimate.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A review of the “Founding Brothers” documentary

"[The Congress shall have the power] To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States ... "

- Constitution of the United States, Article 1, Section 8, Heading and Paragraph 17

What happened to the Founding Fathers after the Revolution was over?

Most people have some cursory knowledge of what happened during the American Revolution, and what the Founding Fathers did during this period. But what happened to them after the Revolution? What did the Founding Fathers do when the war was over, and the Constitution ratified? These are the questions that a documentary by the History Channel attempts to address, and they follow in the footsteps of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning book by Joseph Ellis - a book called "Founding Brothers," the same title as this History Channel program - and the results are more surprising, more interesting, and more moving than what you 'd think possible.

What did the Founding Fathers disagree with one another about?

If you're interested in what happened to the Founding Fathers - in the issues they disagreed over, the quarrels between them, and their postwar accomplishments - then this is the best documentary to see. It covers the administrations of our first three presidents - George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson - and does not shy away from depicting Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison as well. These guys are much more interesting than the paintings we have of them, with powdered wigs and foreign clothing; and the way they handled the early days of the Republic set the precedents for all of the democratic dialogue we've had since then. The government had been created, but it had not yet been given a trial run, and no one was quite sure how it would work in practice.

Monday, March 16, 2015

James Madison: The most underrated Founder

"[The Americans] accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe."

- James Madison, in the Federalist Papers (Federalist No. 14)

The Founding Fathers, as a group, are an underrated lot. Even Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Franklin sometimes don't get the respect they deserve; and many have never even heard of John Adams or James Madison. John Adams has been somewhat better-known since the HBO miniseries about him with Paul Giamatti, but even he is still unknown to many; and there has been virtually nothing made about James Madison. PBS has done documentaries about all five of the other Founders I mentioned, but they didn't do a single documentary about James Madison. They did one about his wife Dolley, which was quite good; but nothing about him that I can find (and I've looked). More than the other major Founders, James Madison doesn't get the respect he deserves.

Another measure of how overlooked Madison is can be found in the History Channel's "Founding Brothers" documentary, based on Joseph Ellis's Pulitzer-Prize-winning book of the same name. The documentary covers the presidencies of our first three presidents, which were Washington, Adams, and Jefferson; and they give some mention of Madison's role in these times. But they do not cover the administration of Madison, who was the only other Founding Father president. Perhaps they didn't want to get into the War of 1812 issue, since that's a subject for a documentary in and of itself; but for whatever reason, they neglected Mr. Madison's presidency. Thus, I am of the opinion that James Madison is the most underrated of the Founding Fathers; and I decided I'd write a little bit about this unknown genius.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A review of “Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil, and the Presidency”

"Andrew Jackson was a patriot, and a traitor. He was the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. He was the most candid of men, and capable of the profoundest dissimulation. He was a democratic autocrat, an urbane savage, an atrocious saint."

- Andrew Jackson's first biographer

He was a slaveholding Southerner, who stopped an early attempt at seceding from the Union. He was a champion of the "common man," so long as that common man was white. And his face is found on the $20 bill, even though he caused Indian Removal and the Trail of Tears - after the Supreme Court had ruled it unconstitutional.

His name was Andrew Jackson, and he was one of the toughest son-of-a-gun presidents that this country has ever produced. His presidency was not without its praiseworthy moments, but he had more than his share of shameful acts; and some of them taint his legacy to this day. He has been admired and hated by generations of Americans; and continues to excite controversy today. One thing both sides agree on, though - the man was extremely interesting. While his legacy is not always inspiring, it is a source of endless fascination for anyone interested in our history - and as the ongoing interest in Nazi Germany demonstrates, people are (perhaps morbidly) fascinated by Hitler, puzzled and sensationalized by how anyone could do such things. Although Andrew Jackson was no Hitler, the evils in his nature and legacy continue to have much the same effect - puzzling and sensationalizing, scandalizing and mystifying. People love him and hate him, but never lose interest in him. A documentary at PBS explains why.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Some thoughts about religious education

When I was a student at Yavapai College (the little school in my hometown), I was fortunate to take a class about world religions, in which we learned about everything from Judaism to Islam to Buddhism. The class was called "comparative religions" at our school, and it was the only time that I took a class about religion from a secular college. (We covered some world religions stuff in high school history, but I didn't have an entire class in world religions until early college.)

The value of religion classes at secular schools

My church offers some fine world religions classes through its Institute program, which are well-recommended to those with access to them; but it was good to get some instruction about this from a secular school, where I could hear perspectives from people outside my faith. (The class was taught by a Jewish lady, incidentally - someone who brought an interesting perspective to the class - and we also had a Hindu student in the class, who could read the Hindu holy language of Sanskrit. It all combined together to make an interesting class.)

The value of religion classes at private religious schools

But the finest classes I've taken in religion were not the comparative ones offered by secular schools, but the ones taught by my church about its own beliefs. I'm sure devotees of other religions can understand a bias toward one's own faith, and I am no exception to the rule - I am a great fan of my church's religion classes. I took some classes through my church's Seminary in high school, and then some classes through its Institute in college. (In our faith, Seminary classes are geared towards high school students, while Institute classes are geared towards college students.) The classes focused on topics like the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as Mormon-unique scriptures like the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants (more about that here); and I learned a lot from these classes. There are also many classes about church history as well, including one for church history since 1900. (This was a little unusual, given the church's more typical focus on earlier history; but it was an excellent class, and I greatly enjoyed taking it.)

Monday, March 9, 2015

Why is my stats class so focused on bell curves?

I would wager that many a student has taken a statistics class, and been introduced to bell curves without having the slightest idea why they're used. That was me, to some extent, when I took my first statistics class. I was told they were useful, and was willing at the time to take their word for it. But it was not until a second statistics class, many years later, that I learned why bell curves are used.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Dred Scott: The most infamous decision in Supreme Court history

"The plaintiff [Dred Scott]... was, with his wife and children, held as slaves by the defendant [Sanford], in the State of Missouri; and he brought this action in the Circuit Court of the United States for [Missouri], to assert the title of himself and his family to freedom. [skipping to a later paragraph of this decision] As Scott was a slave when taken into the State of Illinois by his owner, and was there held as such, and brought back in that charcter, his status, as free or slave, depended on the laws of Missouri, and not of Illinois...."

- Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), a decision that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court

If you asked people what was the worst decision in Supreme Court history, you would get all kinds of answers. Liberals, for example, might say something like District of Columbia v. Heller (a pro-gun-rights decision), and conservatives might say something like Roe v. Wade (a pro-abortion decision). But one thing conservatives and liberals can agree on is the notoriety of another decision - the one my own vote for the worst decision goes to. The case is an old one from 1857, four years before the Civil War broke out. This is a decision that upheld the constitutionality of slavery, and put the liberty of free blacks in the North in jeopardy, to a degree not seen in any previous decision.

Dred Scott, a fugitive slave the court refused to free

Monday, March 2, 2015

Did the Founding Fathers believe in compromise? (Answer: Only partially)

I was once in an argument with a liberal guy who claimed that Republicans should compromise because "the Founding Fathers agreed with compromise" (or some wordage to that effect), telling me to "Read the Federalist Papers" (his exact words) to find evidence that the Founding Fathers agreed with it. This was among the biggest blunders that my debate opponents have ever made; because I have read the Federalist Papers from cover to cover, and I was able to produce the quotes that debunked his interpretation.

This is a common misconception about the Founding Fathers; and like many misconceptions, there is a kernel of truth in it: there were a number of compromises at the Constitutional Convention. But these compromises were only done with the greatest reluctance, and many of them were willing to work against the Constitution unless they got everything they wanted. Anyone who's really studied what happened at the Convention knows that these men only compromised as a last resort, when they lacked the power to get all they desired, and had to choose between getting some of what they wanted or none of it.

To help debunk this myth, I will give the quotes from the Federalist Papers that I gave to this liberal guy; and follow them with a paraphrase of the liberal guy's response to them, which amounted to an admission of defeat.

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