The 100th Anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti

History has not been kind to Haiti. As the world’s first black republic, and the only nation founded by a successful slave revolt, it was regarded with contempt by world powers from the very beginning. From France’s onerous debts, to the U.S.’ repeated interference in domestic affairs, this poor yet proud nation has endured countless threats to sovereignty and prosperity — and little recognition of it.

It would likely surprise most Americans to know that their small Caribbean neighbor, rarely more than a footnote in public consciousness let alone government policy, has been repeatedly invaded, occupied, or otherwise meddled with by the U.S. since the early 20th century. In fact, as the Washington Post reminds us, it was 100 years ago today that President Woodrow Wilson — who had then-recently championed liberal, democratic values, such as self-determination, in Europe initiated an almost two-decade-long occupation of Haiti.

Perhaps to its credit, the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian is pretty candid about America’s longstanding interests in the country, and the true motivations of its intervention. Continue reading

On this day in 1914…

…Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia and triggered the series of alliances and defense pacts that ignited the First World War.

Despite playing a role in setting off the war, both nations would become overshadowed by the larger players that immediately became involved, namely Germany, France, the U.K., and Russia.

After putting up stiff resistance for the first year, the Kingdom of Serbia was conquered during the course of 1915 and occupied by Austro-Hungarian forces until the war’s end in 1918. Serbia lost more than 1.1 million people, including 25 percent of all troops, 16-27 percent of its overall population and 60 percent of its males. Proportionally, it suffered more losses than any other country involved (in this regard, the Ottoman Empire ranks second, losing 13-15 percent of its population, followed by Romania, an Entente member, at 7-9 percent). Continue reading

The U.S. Postal Service Turns 240 Today

As the venerable yet beleaguered institution faces the latest in a long string of financial and political woes, The Atlantic reflects on the Post Office’s outsized role as one of America’s most important and symbolic organizations.

During the American Revolution, the post was a crucial point of contention between colonists and the Crown because it was the means for circulating not only correspondence but also newspapers, the lifeblood of intercolonial political cooperation. When British officials threatened the free circulation of news, newspaper publishers led the charge in 1774 to replace the British imperial system with a “Constitutional Post.” Without a government structure, the post would be privately funded, but newspaper publishers and allies like the Boston Committee of Correspondence made sure that reliable, safe, and secure circulation of political intelligence was a primary function.

Shortly after Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the Continental Congress took up a post office as one of the earliest institutions of national reach — making the U.S. Post Office older than the Navy, the Marines, and the Declaration of Independence. Congressional delegates therefore believed that ensuring safe communication throughout the colonies was vital to the colonies’ efforts for military, political, and commercial unity.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 saw the operation of information channels as a core function of government: the power “to establish post offices and post roads” is one of the explicitly named grants included among the enumerated powers of Congress. At the same time, new political cleavages within the United States caused tension about the Post Office’s role as an impartial circulation mechanism. During the debates over ratification in 1787 and 1788, some anti-federalist printers accused the Post Office of suppressing their publications and arguments against the Constitution. William Goddard, the mastermind of the 1774 “Constitutional Post”, ominously suggested he would once again start his own postal system. The complaints of Goddard and other printers forced Congress to re-assert that the Post Office would circulate all news and information equally. In 1792, the new Federal Congress confirmed that promise in the first Post Office Act, setting the stage for a massive explosion in the newspaper industry and providing for the circulation of information to the far reaches of the country.

Continue reading

The Man With the $10 Million African Art Collection

Brooklyn native Eric Edwards has amassed a collection of over 1,600 pieces of art from all 54 countries of Africa. Needless to say, as an aficionado of history and African culture, I am quite jealous — and not just because it is worth an estimated $10 million.

Check out the four-minute video by Mark Zemel, courtesy of The Atlantic. (Click to see full-screen version; sorry, WordPress cannot imbed certain videos.)

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Where People First Started Eating Chickens

While chicken is the leading meat of choice among most Americans, and second only to pork globally, consuming them is actually a fairly recent practice in human history. Hence why the discovery of chicken bones that appeared to have been prepared for food was somewhat groundbreaking.

As NPR reports, the emergence of chickens as a food source seems to be marked by an over 2,000-year-old site in present-day Israel. Called Meresha, the former trade city presents a turning point in our relationship with the now universally-domesticated poultry. Continue reading

The Town Where Guns Are Mandatory

Since 1982, the town of Kennesaw, Georgia, U.S. has required the head of every household to own a working firearm with ammunition. In this 12 minute short film, Canadian photographer and filmmaker Nicolas Lévesque profiled the small town of about 30,000 and captured their perspectives about the intersection of guns, culture, and American identity.

Click below to see the fullscreen version, or click here. (Sorry, videos sometimes do not embed properly.)

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Courtesy of The Atlantic.

The English Language Explained in 25 Maps

If you want a comprehensive but easy-to-read guide to the world’s most widespread language, checkout this colorful article by Vox.com. For those who love visual data (especially maps) alongside dense but digestible factoids, it is a pretty good source, covering everything from English’s origin to how it is changing to this day.

I found this particular fact to be especially fascinating:

Here’s how the English language got started: After Roman troops withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century, three Germanic peoples — the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes — moved in and established kingdoms. They brought with them the Anglo-Saxon language, which combined with some Celtic and Latin words to create Old English. Old English was first spoken in the 5th century, and it looks incomprehensible to today’s English-speakers. To give you an idea of just how different it was, the language the Angles brought with them had three genders (masculine, feminine, and neutral). Still, though the gender of nouns has fallen away in English, 4,500 Anglo-Saxon words survive today. They make up only about 1 percent of the comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary, but nearly all of the most commonly used words that are the backbone of English. They include nouns like “day” and “year,” body parts such as “chest,” arm,” and “heart,” and some of the most basic verbs: “eat,” “kiss,” “love,” “think,” “become.” FDR’s sentence “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” uses only words of Anglo-Saxon origin.

And for both native and foreign speakers perplexed by some pronunciation contradictions — why “slaughter” and “laughter” sound so different despite having the same words — here is an interesting explanation.

If you think English spelling is confusing — why “head” sounds nothing like “heat,” or why “steak” doesn’t rhyme with “streak,” and “some” doesn’t rhyme with “home” — you can blame the Great Vowel Shift. Between roughly 1400 and 1700, the pronunciation of long vowels changed. “Mice” stopped being pronounced “meese.” “House” stopped being prounounced like “hoose.” Some words, particularly words with “ea,” kept their old pronounciation. (And Northern English dialects were less affected, one reason they still have a distinctive accent.) This shift is how Middle English became modern English. No one is sure why this dramatic shift occurred. But it’s a lot less dramatic when you consider it took 300 years. Shakespeare was as distant from Chaucer as we are from Thomas Jefferson.

Pretty neat stuff.

A History of the World in 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