Sunday, September 11, 2016

Colonial American women in burqas

Philip Fithian was a recent graduate of Princeton in 1774 when he took a job as tutor at Nomini Hall, home of one of the richest families in Virginia. His journal is an important source for information about daily life in colonial America during the time of poltical agitation just before the Revolution, at least among the1%.

In a letter of August 1774, he advised his replacement about the odd (to a Jersey Presbyterian) customs of the locals:

The Balls, the Fish-Feasts, the Dancing-Schools, the christnings, the Cock fights, the Horse-Races, the Chariots, the Ladies [go] Masked, for it is a custom among the Westmorland Ladies whenever they go from home, to muffle up their heads, & Necks, leaving only a narrow passage for the Eyes, in Cotton or silk handkerchiefs; I was in distress for them when I first came into the Colony, for every Woman that I saw abroad, I looked upon as ill either with the Mumps or Toothache!

From "Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian: A Plantation Tutor in the Old Dominion 1773-1774," University Press of Virginia

Sunday, September 4, 2016

An evil saint

I was aware, from a short passage in "Hitch-22," that Christopher Hitchens considered Mother Theresa a fraud and an inhuman proponent of mutiplied human suffering; but I never inquired further, as I know plenty already about the Catholic church and its despicable record regarding the poor.

However, today, on the occasion of her canonization I watched his full indictment made over 20 years ago. I had no idea what an evil woman she was.


As I watched the Hitchens expose, little of it surprised me, but one incident shocked me: when Theresa laid flowers on the tomb of Hoxha. There was a stalinist murderer that even other stalinists could not stand. Out of 7 billion people in the world, only one could be found to give him flowers.

And then I thought further about the hospices that Theresa founded in Calcutta, where the poor die alone and untended on the streets. Or do they?

Visitors are shocked by the poor workers sleeping in culverts and on the streets in Calcutta and they are right to be appalled by the way the Indian economy works, but to some extent the sleeping on the streets is customary. It is a way for migrants from the countryside to save more money to send home. A local custom, you could call it, and not impractical in a place as hot as Calcutta, at least in the dry months.

It is not necessarily the case, either, that the poor are dying alone. Their situation is miserable but poor people in cities have their own networks, hard for a passerby to detect. I will bet that, in some cases at least, the squalid sick are being visited by neighbors with water and a chapatty or two.

Dying, as living, on the streets is a way of life.

So what does Theresa do? Carries the sick away from their homes to die alone and untended in bleak warehouses. They get water and a little food and, obviously, no other nursing or medical care to speak of.

How do I know this, who have never been to Calcutta? Because in the video all the dying people are wearing brown clothes. The garments of a poor Bengali are white. The poor wear brown because their garments have not been washed.

It would cost nothing, but sympathy and work, to bathe the dying and wash their garments. A bit of delousing would cost little more in trouble or money but would ease the discomfort of the dying considerably. One of the things that First World people tend not to realize is how irritated poor people are by the parasites, vermin and skin diseases they spend their lives with. 

If Theresa and her pious friends really cared even a little about the sick, they would not dump them in a warehouse to die but would, at least, wash and tend them and perhaps bring a little dignity to the last days of people who were accorded none of that during their working years.

Finally, something was nagging at the back of my head while watching the videos of Theresa hobnobbing with people who  were notoriously uninterested in the state of poor people, like the Reagans. Later I realized what it was; Theresa acted just like that other pious fraud from India, Gandhi.

Real problems, unreal solutions.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Is Trump's physician Jewish?

Yes, according to The Forward, which ought to know.

And why would we care? I don't, but this is Restating the Obvious, and while there was much comment from the antiTrumpeters about his alleged antisemitism,  I didn't notice any of those people noticing that his personal physician is Jewish. It isn't obvious that he is, but Harold ben Jacob Bornstein, from New York City -- it's an obvious hint he might be.

Any real reporter would have checked.

Does having a Jewish physician clear Trump of charges of antisemitism? Not necessarily. 

In the weird minds of bigots strange things occur. No one doubts that Hermann Goering was a Jew-hater and Jew-murderer. But he was also a feverish art collector whose favorite dealer was a Jew.

When some daring Nazi challenged Goering with breaking the Nuremburg Laws, which as police-president of Prussia he had helped create, he answered, "I will decide who is a Jew."

Monday, August 29, 2016

Book Review 372: Over the Edge

OVER THE EDGE: Death in Grand Canyon, by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers. 586 pages. Puma paperback, $24.95

Chuck Jones wouldn’t have subjected even Wile E. Coyote to what Californian John Presley did to himself in 1968: while hiking a rough trail Presley slipped on loose gravel and, instead of just plotzing, ran out of the slip. He kept upright but could not stop as he approached the edge of a cliff.

At the last moment he wrapped his arms round a barrel cactus but it pulled out by the roots and both fell 50 feet. Presley died.

This seems to be more a case of hard luck than the rank stupidity and carelessness that characterize most of the 700 or so deaths of visitors to what Michael Ghiglieri and Thomas Myers, both experienced hikers and rescuers, call the most unforgiving place on earth.

That seems excessive. Actually, the toll over a century, while high, is not enormous, and over half the deaths came in crashes of helicopters and planes, including a 1956 collision of two airliners that was the worst peacetime civil aviation disaster to that date.

Despite spectacular opportunities, people fall or jump off the rim to their deaths only about once a year. Falls from below the rim, plus deaths from heart attacks in out-of-shape middle-aged men about double that toll.

Drownings are somewhat more common. Still, the body count doesn’t come close to what Hawaii enjoys.

Some things that might seem dangerous have so far failed to kill any visitors: animals and poisonous plants or running the rapids of the Colorado on commercial oared rowboats.  (Rafts and private trips have been more dangerous.)

Lee Whittlesey inaugurated the morbid book about deaths in our western parks with “Death in Yellowstone.” There are more ways to die in Yellowstone than in Grand Canyon (but not nearly as many as in Hawaii), and Whittlesey’s book is still the best of the genre. “Over the Edge,” while admirably complete, suffers from Ghiglieri’s purple prose and a somewhat phony public service justification.

Nobody really reads these books for deep insight into safety considerations. Walking into the desert without water is not a topic that requires deep reflection to avoid. Likewise, stepping over safety barriers to teeter on the edge of a cliff in order to get a dramatic photograph does not require 500 pages of explication in order to discern the risk.

(I never reviewed Whittlesey's book, but I did write about it in the context of deaths at Haleakala National Park.)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The big kill

Although I said I wouldn’t have more to say about guns, reflecting on the book “Bloodlands” got me to thinking. “Bloodlands” didn’t add anything to my knowledge about gun deaths but it did inspire me to compare three facts I already knew, and that is the method implied by “restating the obvious”: We know more than we think we know.

The NKVD shot something over 1,000,000 people. The SS shot closer to 2,000,000.

Neither – nor even both combined – shot to death as many people as American gun nuts have.

Possibly the Second Amendment was a bad idea.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Mass guilt

Here is an episode I was not aware of but that resonates today: From Politico Magazine, a story about rounding up Muslims in America.

Read the whole thing.

It was a nice touch to name it Amt IV; shows historical sensitivity

Book Review 371: Bloodlands

BLOODLANDS: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder. 524 pages. Basic paperback, $19.99

“Bloodlands” has enjoyed wide, even extravagant praise, and in many ways it deserves it; but reading it is something like coming into a performance of “Hamlet” at the fifth act: There is plenty of gore, drama and treachery, but the discerning playgoer will suspect that something went on before.

And indeed it did.

However, for what it does cover, “Bloodlands” is outstanding. It is directed towards readers generally unfamiliar with eastern Europe and its history and so deliberately simple and direct. It also has a moral dimension, engaging (gently) with other commentators like Hannah Arendt. In the end, Snyder says, he is trying to restore the individuality of the people done to death – all 14,000,000 of them.

Memory and memorials that lump them all together are, he says, a trap, tending to confirm the Hitlerian or Stalinist vision of guilty groups. No, says Snyder, the liberal and humanist view must be that each was a life and each deserves (but cannot get) its own story.

He also emphasizes the interaction of the two dictatorships, which allowed or drove each to actions that neither would have taken on its own. Most dramatically, the German Final Solution was not originally eliminationist (in the sense that Daniel Goldhagen uses that term) but exclusionist: Hitler wanted to ship Jews away. Stalin and the USSR declined, in peace and in war, to become that place, so by late 1941 the policy of dliberate and total mass killing was resorted to.

This does not mean that Germans were driven to mass murder by outside forces. They had already resorted to it many times, against the mentally handicapped and against Jewish women and children in the territories of western USSR they had just invaded.

As it happened, the death toll was much lower than the German plan had forecast. Before the Holocaust there was the Ostplan, which envisaged the death (by starvation and overwork) of 30 million to 40 million people, mostly Slavs, to make room for German farmers. This is a spectacular number, although Snyder says he has used conservative counts and estimates for the various killing actions.

This is true. For example, he gives the death total for the construction of the White Sea Canal as around 600,000. A.J.P. Taylor thought it was 2 million.

The two regimes killed extravagantly but for different reasons. The Soviets generally went after class or national enemies (or imagined enemies), while the Germans went after subhuman races. There ended up being a great deal of overlap, and a man or woman could be murdered for any of several reasons – if reason is the correct term.

Snyder emphasizes that the killing regimes declared categories (kulak, wrecker, spy, partisan, Jew) that were often arbitrary and in any case applied carelessly.

Still, while it was dangerous to live anywhere in the Bloodlands (the area comprising Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and eastern Poland where both Hitlerian and Soviet governments were in power at various times from 1933 to 1945), it was probably most dangerous to be an educated Belarussian nationalist or a Polish communist – most of all to be a Jew.

The scale of death was unimaginable. More Poles died in the bombing of Warsaw than in the bombing of Dresden or in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and that was a minor component of the total.

Snyder comes up with 14 million, divided about 10 million by Germans and 4 million by the Soviets, with another 8 million or 9 million deaths as a direct result of battle. These latter are not the subject of “Bloodlands,” which is focused on deliberate murders as a result of policy.

And because he limits himself to the area where the Germans and Soviets alternated control, he does not include the 300,000 Jews murdered in Croatia, an impressive total – 5% of the total victims of the Holocaust of the Jews by a government with far less than 5% of the power and capacity of Germany or the USSR.

And here is where I find “Bloodlands” lacking. The killing did not start in 1932-33; nothing that was done had not been done in the same place before.

The famine in Ukraine, in which 3 million starved while trainloads of grain moved to Odessa for export, had happened under the tsar, exactly the same way, in 1892.

For that matter, a million Irish had starved during the Potato Famine of the 1840s while food was shipped from Ireland to England.

The Ostplan, in which 30 million to 40 million Slavs were to be enslaved and worked to death to make room for racially superior farmers, was exactly what Americans had done in order to colonize what is now the state of Tennessee.

Snyder mentions that Hitler thought of the Ostplan – the use of starvation and slavery to build a prosperous colony – as no different from what the United States had done, and he was right.

Snyder does not ask, was there a difference? There was, but not as much as Americans would like to think, if they were capable of thinking about it.

However, it is doubtful Hitler had more than a vague notion of American history; and besides he had a closer model. From about 1200 the crusade of the Teutonic Knights against the pagan Prussians (and Livonians etc.) was exactly the Ostplan: extermination and enslavement of non-Germans to occupy their land.

It did not take the emergence of supposedly modernizing regimes to turn that part of the world into Bloodlands. They had been for nearly a millennium.

(Other parts of Europe were also Bloodlands and, proportionately, more dangerous to the targeted peoples than even Poland or Belarus in the ‘40s. Few know of the extermination of the Muslims by Christians in western Sicily but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.)

The scale of the killing was so monstrous that anyone confronting it has to ask, what caused it, what could prevent it in the future? In a thoughtful coda Snyder does not really say.

In this coda is the one point upon which I seriously disagree with him. People in the Bloodlands had limited choices. In the end, for many, the only possible fate was to be murdered. By collaborating, that fate might be postponed but not avoided.

Others collaborated for lesser but weighty reasons. Snyder says, “it is hard to find political collaboration with the Germans that is not related to a previous experience of Soviet rule.”  This is not true of Ukraine where, in the short period after the withdrawal of the kaiser’s armies there was an independent Ukrainian state. It had many difficulties to face but instead made a priority of murdering Jews. Offered a chance again to murder Jews, Ukrainians were eager to help. The same probably applies to some Lithuanians.