A History of the World in 12 Maps

The Atlantic has brought to my attention a book that definitely piques my interest as both a map aficionado and history buff: Jerry Brotton’s A History of the World in 12 Mapswhich catalogues maps that reflect key periods and developments in the human understanding of the world. You can learn a lot about a time, place, or culture by the sorts of maps it produces.

And setting aside their historical, these maps are absolutely beautiful. They may not be the most elegant or accurate, but there is something visually intriguing and deeply appreciable about humanity’s efforts to understand this big and difficult-to-grasp world of ours.

From the works of the father of geography, to the latest satellite-graphed maps, here are just some of the cartographic endeavors that span civilizations across centuries (courtesy of The Atlantic). Continue reading

Should Americans Be Celebrating the Second of July?

It may not roll of the tongue as well as Fourth of July, but technically, the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain – e.g. independence – did not occur on this day in 1776, but two days earlier, when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve formal independence. (Note that the American Revolutionary War had already begun over a year before we got around to formally declaring independence!)

A draft of the declaration had already been commissioned almost a month earlier: on June 11, the Committee of Five – comprised of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston – was appointed to get to work on such a document for a future vote. After discussing the general outline of the document, the Committee decided that Jefferson should write the first draft, which was subsequently amended in some parts by Adams and Franklin (the Committee, including Jefferson himself, had wanted Adams to write the draft, but the latter convinced them otherwise and promised to work closely with Jefferson). Continue reading

John Locke — Far From the Paragon of Classical Liberty

If Locke is viewed, correctly, as an advocate of expropriation and enslavement, what are the implications for classical liberalism and libertarianism? The most important is that there is no justification for treating property rights as fundamental human rights, on par with personal liberty and freedom of speech.

The true liberal tradition is represented not by Locke, but by John Stuart Mill, whose wholehearted commitment to political freedom was consistent with his eventual adoption of socialism (admittedly in a rather refined and abstract form).

Mill wasn’t perfect, as is evidenced by his support of British imperialism, for which he worked as an official of the East India Company, and more generally by his support for limitations on democratic majorities. But Mill’s version of liberalism became more democratic as experience showed that fears about dictatorial majorities were unfounded. By contrast, Locke’s classical liberalism has hardened into propertarian dogma.

As Mill recognized, markets and property rights are institutions that are justified by their usefulness, not by any fundamental human right. Where markets work well, governments should not interfere with them. But, when they fail, as they so often do, it is entirely appropriate to modify property rights and market outcomes, or to replace them altogether with direct public control.

Received ideas change only slowly, and the standard view of Locke as a defender of liberty is likely to persist for years to come. Still, the reassessment is underway, and the outcome is inevitable. Locke was a theoretical advocate of, and a personal participant in, expropriation and enslavement. His classical liberalism offers no guarantee of freedom to anyone except owners of capitalist private property.

— , “John Locke Against Freedom

On This Day, July 1st…

In addition to Canada Day — of which I wish a happy one to my friends in the Great White North — today is the anniversary of several important and/or interesting events. [All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

First, a shoutout to Canada Day: it commemorates the “British North America Act” of 1867 (officially the “Constitution Act”), in which most of Britain’s remaining North American colonies — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada — were united into a federation of four provinces (the Province of Canada being divided into Ontario and French-dominated Quebec). This new “Dominion of Canada” was a largely independent constitutional kingdom in its own right, though it remained under nominal and limited British governance, the last vestiges of which were ended in 1982 with the Canada Act (though such powers had long since been mostly symbolic).

In 1874, after a slow and inauspicious start, the Remington No. 1 typewriter, designed by American inventor Christopher Latham Sholeswent, went on sale, becoming the first commercially successful typewriter. Its ability to facilitate rapid correspondence and communication helped expand industrialization and modernity. The typewriter’s proliferation was met with anxieties we could relate with today, such as people opting for cold and impersonal communication, and privacy being jeopardized by so much information going around (hence why it took time to be adopted.

The typewriter also unwittingly advanced the social and economic prospects of women, since it was marketed with attractive women as tradeshows (a now novel advertizing approach) and was presented as being simple enough for a woman to do. Sexist as this is by our standards, it nonetheless meant women could enter the relatively more respectable clerical industry, opening the door into greater financial and professional opportunity.

Painting by Jan Matejko.

In 1569, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania signed the Union of Lublin, merging into a single state: the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Lasting until the late 18th century, the multiethnic empire was one of the largest in both population and size in European history. Its complex and comparatively free political system featured proto-concepts of democracy, federalism, constitutional governance, and individual liberty (known collectively as “The Golden Liberty). Until the emergence of the United States and Republican France – ironically around the time of its demise – the Polish-Lithuanian state would be one of the most sophisticated and free political entities in the world.

In 1915, World War I German fighter pilot Kurt Wintgens became the first person to shoot down another plane in aerial combat using a synchronized machine gun (e.g. a gun engineered to shoot through a spinning propeller without the bullets striking the blades). Prior to this achievement, plans were strictly for reconnaissance, with pilots at most having to use personal armaments to shoot at each other (imagine that sight). For better or worse, this event marked the beginning of militarized airplanes and aerial combat as we know it.

In 1935, Grant Park Music Festival was kicked off in Chicago’s Grant Park, remaining the only annual, free, and outdoor classical music concert series in the U.S. The ten-week series began as an effort to lift the spirits of residents during the Great Depression. It has since become a nonprofit and a staple in Chicago and its iconic urban park.

Finally, in 1999 the Scottish Parliament gained legislative governance over Scotland, solidifying the region’s increasing autonomy within the United Kingdom. This process of devolution means that Scotland’s democratically elected legislature has almost full control over matters such as education, public health, agricultural policy, and justice (things such as defense, foreign policy, social security, and other national concerns remain the purview of the British Government).

Sir Nicholas Winton, The “British Schindler”, Dies At 106

Winton saved 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia destined for the concentration camps, and worked to get many of them adopted. His heroism remained unknown for fifty years. From ABC:

Born in London in 1909 to parents of German Jewish descent, Winton himself was raised as a Christian. He was a 29-year-old clerk at the London Stock Exchange when a friend contacted him and told him to cancel the skiing holiday they had planned in late 1938 and travel instead to Czechoslovakia.

Alarmed by the influx of refugees from the Sudetenland region recently annexed by Germany, Winton and his friend feared — correctly — that Czechoslovakia soon would be invaded by the Nazis and Jewish residents from there would be sent to concentration camps.

While supporters in Britain were working to get Jewish intellectuals and communists out of Czechoslovakia, no one was trying to save the children, so Winton took the task upon himself.

Returning to Britain, Winton persuaded British officials to accept children, as long as foster homes were found and a 50-pound guarantee was paid for each one to ensure they had enough money to return home later. Their stays were only expected to be temporary.

Setting himself up as the one-man children’s section of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Winton set about finding homes and guarantors, drawing up lists of about 6,000 children, publishing pictures to encourage British families to agree to take them.

The following video, in which he unknowingly meets those he saved, still gets me.

America’s Early Alcoholic History

Though alcohol is a billion-dollar industry in the United States (as in many nations) — and its consumption is virtually customary in nearly all events, festivities, and social gatherings, public and intimate — Americans’ love of drink is not what it once was. As The Atlantic reports:

Early America was also a much, much wetter place than it is now, modern frat culture notwithstanding. Instead of binge-drinking in short bursts, Americans often imbibed all day long. “Right after the Constitution is ratified, you could see the alcoholic consumption starting to go up”, said Bustard. Over the next four decades, Americans kept drinking steadily more, hitting a peak of 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol per person per year in 1830. By comparison, in 2013, Americans older than 14 each drank an average of 2.34 gallons of pure alcohol—an estimate which measures how much ethanol people consumed, regardless of how strong or weak their drinks were. Although some colonial-era beers might have been even weaker than today’s light beers, people drank a lot more of them.

In part, heavy alcohol consumption was a way to stay hydrated: Often, clean water wasn’t always accessible. Hard liquor, on the other hand, was readily available, Bustard said; farmers frequently distilled their grain into alcohol. Rush “may have been observing what’s going on on the frontier”, Bustard said, “thinking, you know: What’s the country going to come to?”

This love of drink was not just perceived as public health problem (though the concept would not emerge until the late 19th century), but even a political one. Continue reading

To Understand Russia, Read Its Literature

If you are both a Russophile and lover of literature, you will appreciate James Stavridis’ piece for Foreign Policy,  which recommends several Russian books across the last 150 years that offer a look into the nation’s soul, psyche, and condition. Whether or not you care to learn more about this enigmatic — and still highly consequential culture — the following literary works are well worth considering for their value alone.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

It is the blackest of black humor, a story in which a mysterious businessman moves through the Russian countryside “buying up souls” (i.e., taking away a tax burden from the estate owners). It is an absurdist construct, and the novel functions as a satiric portrait of the dysfunctional Russian landowner society that eventually fell in the 1917 revolution. It tells us that Russians see the world as somewhat absurd and contradictory, and hardly a place where overarching humanist value systems triumph. For a nation whose leader struts around the world stage without a shirt on, plays with a pet Siberian tiger, and flies in a motorized mini-plane chasing white storks, there is a certain appeal to the absurd. It is a novel that evokes the most skeptical and cynical in the human condition and appropriately ends abruptly in mid-sentence — a signal of the inability to predict a coherent future.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

…shows us how the Russians think about their ability to fight, and illuminates the deep patriotism that fuels today’s nationalist tendencies. Tolstoy makes clear the largest landmass under national sovereignty in the world is literally unconquerable, even by the brilliance of Napoleon. Moscow might burn, but the Russian military will never give up. Tolstoy also debunks the 19th-century theory of world events once-called “the great man” approach, arguing instead that events are driven by the collision of thousands of small events coming together. And when it comes to leaders, Russians throw the cosmic dice: One time they get an Ivan the Terrible, the next a Peter the Great. They know that eventually the dice will roll again, and a new leader will emerge. The bad news is that what comes after Putin may be even worse, given the growing xenophobia and ultra-nationalism. As we look at Putin’s dominance, we should remember that the dice will roll again. The Russians do.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (my personal favorite)

…a tale that captures the Russian sensibility perfectly: A deeply troubled protagonist chooses to kill, but then is haunted by guilt and — encouraged by the good people around him — eventually confesses. He is then purified and ultimately achieves redemption. The central character, Raskolnikov, is a largely sympathetic figure, full of tragic contradictions, who strays into a brutal crime but is redeemed through punishment and faith. While it is hard to see Putin as a Raskolnikov, perhaps there is a touch of that pattern of redemption in the life and times of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch turned political opposition leader, who was jailed and then finally released. The next chapter of his journey will be an interesting one. Russians have a deep belief in their own goodness and justness, recognizing mistakes will be made along the road to righteousness. They believe in both crime and punishment in a very literal sense.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Think the Russians will crack under sanctions? [The] protagonist, a convict in a Siberian gulag, finds a hundred ways to scrape through the day, dealing with the petty corruption, laughing at the predicaments, occasionally reveling in the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, and powerfully exhibiting the ability to overcome adversity. Like Denisovich, Russians will find an ironic pleasure in overcoming the pain of sanctions, and we should not put too much faith in our ability to break their will through imposing economic hardships.

One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko.

It’s a foot soldier’s memoir set in Chechnya during the height of the war there in the 1990s waged by the Russian conscript military against the rebellious population. This is counterinsurgency turned upside down — the Russians aren’t trying to win the hearts and minds; they are quite content with putting a bullet into each. The book is a good view into the mind of any conscripted force sent to Ukraine — which explains why it is the Spetsnaz special forces, not regular troops, who are operating across the border. There is much to learn here about the Russian military’s operational approach: The Russians have learned from their mistakes in Chechnya and in Afghanistan, and the new so-called hybrid war is full of lessons they took away. In Ukraine, the use of social media, strategic communications, humanitarian convoys, insurgent techniques, and cyber dominance all come from the Chechnya experience.

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

…To understand the view of the Russian émigré, the brilliant Russian-American novelist … captures the post-Soviet space better than any book of nonfiction. Set in Moscow and a thinly disguised Azerbaijan (a former republic of the USSR, in case you forgot), it serves up a portrait of Russian “capitalism” with a huge dose of black humor. It echoes Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a magical realist novel written in the 1930s, in its evocation of the Russians’ ability to exist quite happily in a world where everything is half a beat off the music.

While these represent a mere fraction of the vast body of Russian literature out there (indeed, the country is the fourth-largest publisher of books in the world), they are a great way to understand what shapes one of history’s most significant civilizations. The literature, art, and creative expression of any culture can go a long way in helping us bridge the gap between different languages, perspectives, and conditions.

The 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta

Widely considered to have been a watershed in the conception of political rights and the rule of law, the 800-year old Magna Carta — Latin for The Great Charter — is credited with having introduced proto-democratic principles to the United Kingdom and beyond, inspiring even the seminal U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights many centuries later. To this day, the 13th century document — drafted to make peace between rebellious nobles and their unpopular king — is subsequently revered by lawmakers, scholars, and jurists across the world (especially in the Anglosphere).

Among the many then-radical concepts Magna Carta introduced was the promise for the protection of church rights, the prohibition of illegal imprisonment of barons, the provision of formal justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. Though it applied only to a very small percentage of the population — the notion of civil rights for all humans was still a long way off — for its time, limiting the arbitrary power of the monarch was a pretty big deal.

Or so the myth of Magna Carta would suggest. As The New York Times reports amid many commemorations of the document, many scholars believe the Great Charter’s legacy is overblown. Continue reading

Happy 86th Birthday Anne Frank

Anne FrankOn this day in 1929, Anne Frank was born. Had her life not been cruelly cut short, she would be 86 today, and probably one of the foremost writers of our time.

It was also on this day in 1942, her thirteenth birthday, that she first began keeping her diary. Her father gave her a book that she had pointed out in a shop window a few days earlier. Although it was an autograph book, Frank decided she would use it as a diary, and began writing in it right away.

Sure enough, her father Otto Frank, the family’s only known survivor, would be the one to publish the diary he had given his daughter. When he returned to Amsterdam from Auschwitz in 1945, he sought out his protectors in the hopes of finding his family. The diary and other personal papers had been kept safe by Miep Gies, one of the family’s protectors, who resolved to give them back to Anne. Instead, they were given to Otto when the death of Anne had been confirmed.

Of all her deep and well-written insights, the following resonates with me most. It was written July 15, less than a month before she and her family had been betrayed, arrested, and deported to their deaths.

It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!

If someone hiding out from one of the most vicious regimes in history could maintain such a humanistic and compassionate spirit, I have little excuse. What better inspiration do I need? I would like to imagine that although she could not realize her ideals directly, her kindness, sincerity, and hope continue to influence others to carry it all on for her.

A Sobering Visualization of WWII Fatalities

It is widely known that the Second World War is one of the deadliest and most destructive conflicts in history, claiming the lives of 50 million to 85 million people. Given such an unfathomably large number of deaths (not to mention the many tens of millions maimed and/or psychologically scarred) it is difficult to truly comprehend the staggering level of human suffering that can be expressed only in cold, dispassionate numbers.

In light of this, filmmaker Neil Halloran has created a short film that presents a stark and highly detailed breakdown of all civilian and military deaths in the war, including those attributed to the Holocaust. Deaths are categorized by country, theater of war, front, and cause. Each human figure shown in the tally represents 1,000 individuals — a 1,000 personalities with hopes, dreams, life experiences, and loved ones. It is incredible to behold.

Vox.com, my source for the video, summarizes the emotional impact of this presentation perfectly:

It’s the starkness of Halloran’s video that really hits home. He simply represents the total death tally with a series of human figures, each standing in for 1000 deaths. So when the gigantic column of dead Soviet soldiers flies by, dwarfing every other combatant, you get a chilling sense of just how immense the conflict on the Eastern Front was. And when you see the column of Jews murdered by the Nazis, broken down by where and how they were killed, you understand the true enormity of the Final Solution’s apparatus of murder.

It’s an extraordinary film. And once you’ve watched it, you’ll appreciate just how lucky we are to be living through the most peaceful time in human history.

Though that last assertion remains disputed, there is no doubt that the Second World War stands out as one of the most calamitous and consequential conflict in human history, and one that is thankfully unlikely to occur again (or so one would hope).