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

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

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

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Reflections on learning about history of Ancient Egypt

In 1799, one of Napoleon's soldiers discovered a mysterious stone in the Nile Delta, during the French campaigns into Egypt that year - a stone that would prove the key to Egyptology and its modern practice. The mysterious object was the Rosetta Stone, and it bore an inscription in three different languages - Egyptian hieroglyphics, a later form of the Egyptian language called "Demotic," and an ancient variety of Greek that was well-known already to Europeans. Although this soldier didn't know it then, this trilingual inscription would allow a young scholar named Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher the script when he reached adulthood, since he was only nine years old at the time that his fellow Frenchman discovered this.

The Rosetta Stone

The Napoleonic campaigns in general - and the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone in particular - ignited a wave of true "Egyptomania" back in Europe, which grew into the modern discipline of Egyptology. Many great discoveries have been made in this area by archaeological digs at various sites, and some of these have uncovered information that was not known to anyone for centuries. Perhaps because of this, the discipline of Egyptology is sometimes considered a subfield of archaeology - a field broad enough to include sites from Greece to Rome to China to Central America. This classification points out that the excavations done in Egypt are just some of the many across the world that attract the attention of archaeologists; and there is truth in this claim. Nonetheless, the study of Egyptology encompasses more than just "digging in the dirt", and embraces written records as well; with languages whose grammar must be seriously studied and understood before a proper and complete history of the Egyptian past can be written. Thus, the Europeans classify Egyptology as a philological discipline (or in other words, a "linguistic" discipline); and the controversy over its classification continues today.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A review of Ken Burns' “Jazz” (PBS series)

I should preface this review by saying that I am a longtime fan of jazz music, as well as a longtime fan of both history and the Ken Burns documentaries about it. I freely acknowledge that I am not an expert on music history (jazz or otherwise), and do not consider myself to be a true musician - much as I would like to call myself by this distinguished title. I have played piano for a long time, it is true, and I have played jazz (and other styles) by ear; but I am neither a professional musician nor particularly talented in my performance, and consider myself only an enthusiastic fan with a sometime musical hobby. That being said, I am entitled to my opinion about it as much as anyone else, and so offer this review to any who might enjoy it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Japanese American soldiers in World War II

Japanese American children pledging allegiance to the United States in 1942, shortly before the internment started

Most Americans today have heard the story of Japanese American internment in World War II (at least in outline form), which was unquestionably one of the sadder episodes in this country's history (at least in the last century). But most Americans have not heard of the story of the Japanese American soldiers in World War II, who served with great distinction in the war. This is a part of the story that our schools have not told as well, and so I thought I'd venture to offer some coverage of it on my blog here. (This necessarily involves some background about the story of Japanese internment, I should note here; but I intend to focus this post on the military contributions of the Japanese American soldiers.)

"Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry," under Executive Order 9066

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A review of PBS's “The Gold Rush”

The California Gold Rush is one of those events that tends to have been heard of by the public, but is often overlooked by popular historians today for a number of reasons, among them that it is partially an economic story, and thus considered less "sexy" than the more "traditional" topics of politics and the military. Nonetheless, the Gold Rush is a monumental event in the history of America which had massive repercussions on the history of the West, causing the rapid colonization of California by White immigrants (and a handful of Chinese immigrants), and creating the ethnic mix that California is so known for today - since it is a race relations story as much as it is anything else, fraught with interest for anyone interested in American history. (But more on the particulars of that later.)

Sutter's Fort - California, 1849 (not to be confused with Sutter's Mill)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A review of Andrew Marr’s “Modern Britain” series (1901-2007)

I should preface this review with an up-front disclaimer, which is that I am not a citizen of Britain - I am an American citizen who has never been to the British Isles, and my ancestors haven't lived in Britain for more than a hundred years - although I do have ancestors from various parts of the British Isles, I should note here, who emigrated to the United States over a period of centuries (with some branches arriving at one time, and some branches at another). Thus, I have often felt rather British in my heritage; and this feeling is shared by many Americans of all ethnic origins, because of the cultural similarity between our two countries. (And I'm not just talking about our speaking the same language, although that does help - as George Bernard Shaw once joked, we are two countries "separated by a common language.")

Winston Churchill

Monday, January 9, 2017

Top 18 reasons to vote in the Congressional elections (if you so choose)

United States Capitol, the building where the Congress meets

The elections for the president have always gotten more attention than any other in this country, and it is well and good that they do so - the president has an enormous amount of power that needs to be watched, no matter who's president; and I do not wish to downplay the importance of this when I comment on American elections here.

The White House

Of equal importance, though, is what happens with the Congressional elections; because the legislature has a great deal of power entrusted to it as well; and it is well that we pay it some attention if we want to influence what happens in Washington.

Capitol Dome

In that spirit of clarifying what our Constitution says about Congressional power here, I thought I'd quote from the most relevant section to our current topic, to give you a sense of how important the Congressional elections really are to us in this country.

Constitution of the United States

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

So what exactly are the “midterm elections,” anyway?

The Constitutional Convention, 1787

The elections for the president of the United States of America have always gotten more attention than any other in this country. This is not surprising, given that the presidency is the only office that the entire country can vote on; and as Alexander Hamilton once said, any individual serving as the president, "from the entire circumstance of his being alone, [is] more narrowly watched and more readily suspected" (Source: Federalist No. 70, with an alternate version saying "from the very circumstance of his being alone"). Your typical member of Congress can put the blame for their own actions on someone else, in other words - usually their fellow members of Congress - more easily than the president can, because they are not watched as closely as a single powerful individual (like the president) is. It is thus natural that the elections for the presidency (held every four years) would be watched more closely than any other elections.

Alexander Hamilton

Nonetheless, the elections for the United States Congress are still of importance to this country - as is testified by the part of the Constitution about the powers of the Congress (Article 1, Section 8, to be specific; which has 18 clauses in it); so these elections are held more frequently than the elections for the presidency are. The Constitution actually specifies a shorter term of two years for the members of the House of Representatives at the national level. This means that for this house of Congress, in practical terms, the whole lot of them are up for re-election every two years; and not just every four years (as it is for the presidency). I should note that half of these elections for Congress are held simultaneously with the presidential elections, with the ballot being the same one used to vote for the president. The other half of them are held at the midway point between the two presidential elections (hence the popular name that they have of the "midterm elections," since they're in the middle of the four-year term of the president). The next one is in November of 2018; so if you do want a say in who your Congressman or Congresswoman is, next year is your next chance to get it.

Constitution of the United States of America

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