Monday, May 30, 2011

Henry Ford's Boundless Practical Imagination

Because the job description of "leader" requires men and women to make tough decisions, they often become controversial figures, loved or loathed.  Partisan accounts magnify their traits until they become bigger-than-life characters – their white shades brighter, their gray shades darker, than in the rest of us.  These exaggerations compensate for the ultimate unknowability of human beings.  The task of untangling the motives of another person becomes all the more difficult because, to survive public scrutiny, leaders often develop a tough hide and case-hardened personality.  All these factors influence what biographers can accurately say about them.  It is thus up to discerning researchers to detect hidden agendas, score settling, and ideological bias from the Left or Right.  To learn what really makes a leader tick, it pays to search out the most objective accounts available.
Two years ago, the Detroit Historical Society put on display one of the most controversial leaders of the twentieth century, native son Henry Ford.  Their leadership exhibit confronted head on the raft of contradictions inside this one complex individual.  On the one (positive) hand:
“Henry Ford was perhaps the most famous man in the world during the first half of the twentieth century.  He was greatly admired for bringing the Model T Ford to the masses and for providing good-paying jobs to immigrants and African Americans.  He was also an innovator in many areas outside of the automobile industry. 
“Many of Ford’s innovations radically changed the lives of working class people.  By developing mass-production methods at his Highland Park plant, Ford lowered the price of a Model T Ford and produced a ‘car for the multitude.’  His path-breaking $5 a day pay (1914), which was double what factory workers earned at the time, enabled unskilled workers to enter the middle class.
“In a revolutionary move, Ford offered jobs at his River Rouge plant in Dearborn to African-American workers in the 1920s, where they toiled side-by-side with white workers and received equal pay.  Ford became the single largest employer of African-Americans in the United States.”[1]

Edsel Ford
 On the other (negative) hand:
“Henry Ford was one of the most reviled men in Detroit and Michigan, mainly because of his treatment of his employees, his vehement opposition to labor unions, his political views, and his abusive treatment of his top managers, including his son, Edsel.  Ford ran his automobile company in an extremely rigid and autocratic manner, routinely firing subordinates with no warning or explanation.
“In order for Ford’s workers to receive his famous $5-a-day pay rate, they had to prove themselves ‘worthy’ to inspectors of the Ford Sociological Department, which gave Henry Ford paternalistic control over his employees.  To prevent his employees from forming labor unions, Ford created the Ford Service Department, a small army of strong-armed thugs who used violence and intimidation to prevent unions from developing in Ford’s factories.
“Ford didn’t shy away from making political statements.  Through articles published in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, Henry Ford made anti-Semitism ‘respectable’ in the 1920s.  In 91 consecutive issues, his paper blamed Jews for all of the world’s ills, a barrage that exposed Ford’s radical views and forever marked him as anti-Semitic.  He also opposed American involvement in both world wars, yet secured lucrative military contracts once war was declared, leading some to view him as opportunistic.”[2]
In short, Ford’s complex character provides apprentice leaders with a case study that can teach much.
Henry Ford’s leadership best expressed itself in a boundless imagination -- an imagination that helped launch the so-called automobile revolution that in turn would be the catalyst for other major changes in the 20th century.   It is difficult to overestimate the impact of Henry Ford on our modern world when it’s realized that he was active in so many areas:  (1) In perfecting the moving assembly line – to six feet per minute – he raised mass production to a level that would make products affordable and ubiquitous to most citizens, thus changing our material world.  (2) In paying much higher wages than was the norm, he helped workers enter the middle class, thus creating the blue-collar aristocracy that really could pursue the American dream.  (3) In envisioning River Rouge, he created an entire industrial ecology – a totalist project that affected social organization, geography, etc. – on a scale never before seen.  River Rouge was more than extending the logic of the assembly line; it was an Olympian feat, transgressing boundaries where only the gods had hitherto dwelled.  (4) And in driving the automobile into the center of modern life, Henry Ford
-       transformed the layout of cities,
-       helped Americans conquer the vast spaces of their country both physically and psychologically,
-       allowed individual men and women to make social as well as geographic declarations of independence,
-       and even changed dating and courtship rituals, since young couples could escape the well-supervised Victorian parlor and sexualize the relationship much sooner.
Aerial view of the River Rouge complex south of Detroit.
Little wonder that Henry Ford is considered one of the most influential men in human history.
As with all good stories, there is a context to Henry Ford's too. The 1890s were a pivotal decade in our nation’s history.  Hardly breaking a sweat, the U.S. fought a war against Spain and found it had become an international empire.  But the seeds of a different kind of empire were being sown – a technological, economic empire.  (Walter Lippmann had seen it coming.)  Automobiles were fundamental to the transformation.  In 1895 only four horseless carriages were on America’s streets.  In 1917 there were almost five million; the new automobile was pioneering the way to “mass production” and dramatically changing social mores.
How did it happen?  Men like Henry Ford came along, with remarkable imagination and passion and technical know-how.  Ford was one of the pioneers of American “big business.”  While he did not invent the assembly line, his way of manufacturing Model T’s took cotton gins and hog butchering to the next level.  Ford tells us that his assembly line developed out of the “disassembly lines” that Chicago meat packers had developed in the 1870s, especially by Gustavus Swift and Philip Armour in Chicago [Divine 524-25].  And competitor Ransom Olds in Lansing, Michigan, adopted the assembly line, and in 1904 rolled out 5,000 Olds Runabouts.
Ford was indebted to all these pioneers yet would take the assembly line to the next level and thus change the auto industry and American manufacturing along with it. When you look at his humble beginnings, you could hardly have imagined.  He had tried farming and hated it.  In the 1890s he worked as an engineer for Detroit’s Edison Company but spent his spare time designing internal combustion engines and mounting them in horseless carriages.  That is passion.  In 1896, Ford produced a two-cylinder, four-horsepower automobile, the first of the famous line that bore his name.  In 1903 he and several partners formed the Ford Motor Company.  It would transform the business.
By the mid 1920s almost half of all the cars produced in the world were Model T’s, which Ford had been building since 1908.[3]

Postscript: Ford’s story unfolded in the last hundred years.  Yet as I write these words, the American automobile industry is in crisis – in need of bold, creative vision to reinvent itself.  In need of a new Henry Ford.  One of the tragedies of the American story is how Detroit lost its imagination, vitality, and preeminence in shaping the world.  Just one hundred years ago, Detroit was the Next New Thing.  It was the technological frontier, the Silicon Valley of its day, forward looking, a young person’s laboratory of opportunity.  The nascent auto industry was exciting.  It attracted people of imagination and practical intelligence.  The automobile changed the look of our cities, where we lived, how we worked, even the way we courted.  Automobiles were mini declarations of independence.  They gave ordinary people, for the first time, the means to challenge traditional limits of time and space.  So it was revolutionary and it was chic.  The birth of the auto industry was the beginning of a great American romance, and no man is more central to this romance than Henry Ford.

[1] “Hero?” in Hero or Villain? Metro Detroit’s Legacy of Leadership, Detroit Historical Society museum exhibit, 2009.
[2] “Villain?” in Hero or Villain? Metro Detroit’s Legacy of Leadership, Detroit Historical Society museum exhibit, 2009.
[3] Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (New York: Henry Holt, 2009), p. 1.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Most Dangerous Man in America

On May 26, 2011, WGVU hosted a program on the downtown campus of GVSU. Serving on the panel with me were Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, Congressman Pete Hoekstra, and Cooley Law School Professor Devin Schindler. The audience was first shown a 30-minute excerpt from the documentary film, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. I then gave the panel's opening statement, based in part on the following talking points.

1. Bravo to WGVU for hosting this event about the Vietnam War era. Polls today reveal that too many people -- especially younger people who have no memory of the War -- are not in possession of the most basic facts
  • 1/3 of Americans do not know who won the war.
  • 1/5 think we fought on the side of the North Vietnamese.

2. The Most Dangerous Man in America (what Kissinger once called Daniel Ellsberg) is a highly sympathetic portrait of the first person prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 for leaking government secrets to a newspaper. The Obama administration, by the way, has been prosecuting five people under the Espionage Act for leaks to the media -- more than all previous administrations combined.

3. The documentary raises questions about the constitutional duties of public servants and the moral duties of citizens. In this modern-day morality play, Richard Nixon, as usual, is the villain. On college campuses, there are usually snickers when Richard Nixon's words and image come up, and to an extent it is understandable -- the man was his own worst enemy. Yet the historian in me wants to see an honest airing of the issues. Whatever side one takes regarding the Vietnam War and the unrest in the 'Sixties, this evening let's avoid the tendency to demonize and caricature the other side. Let's be open to expanding our awareness and understanding. History that merely ratifies our prejudices or demonizes our opponents does not take us very far.

4. My first reaction to the documentary is to feel more sympathetic to Daniel Ellsberg than my parents did. They wanted him shot for treason. Dr. Ellsberg: Even if I have serious questions about some of your actions, let me assure you that the only shot from me will be out of a good bottle of scotch that we should share.

5. My second reaction to the documentary is to smile at Americans' innocence. In the 'Sixties and early 'Seventies, we still expected our leaders to tell the truth. It's a lovely quality, however naive. I don't think it has been the reality or even the expectation in other world powers. During wartime lying is considered de rigueur. Prime Minister David Lloyd George said in the First World War -- I paraphrase -- We have one set of figures to fool the public, one set of figures to fool the Cabinet, and one set of figures to fool ourselves. During the years leading up to the Second World War, Winston Churchill had it on good authority that Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was deliberately lying to the British people and to the world when he said that the Luftwaffe was not reaching parity with the RAF [Martin Gilbert, Churchill. A Life, pp. 537–38].

6. My third reaction is that I wanted the documentary to show more context.

6 (a). Take Nixon's popularity. Polls of the American people conducted during the Vietnam War showed substantial support for the Nixon presidency. From mid-1971 to January 1973, Nixon's overall job approval rating went up -- after publication of the Pentagon Papers. According to Gallup polls, by the time of his second inaguration in January 1973 -- 19 months after the public learned of the Pentagon Papers -- Nixon's approval rating hit 66 percent: 2/3 of Americans thought the president was doing a good job. (Of course, over the next year and a half his approval rating would plummet precipitously, and by August 9, 1974, he was forced to vacate the presidency.) Now, as Daniel Ellsberg is quick to point out, the Pentagon Papers cover America's involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967 -- before Nixon was in the Oval Office. And yet Ellsberg wanted Nixon's lies to be exposed by extrapolation and implication if not outright. It didn't happen by the Election of 1972. 

6 (b). What about the Gallup poll question of Nixon's handling of Vietnam? On the eve of publication of the Pentagon Papers, a little more than 40 percent of respondents approved of Nixon's handling of Vietnam. 19 months after the New York Times and others began publishing the Pentagon Papers, approval of Nixon's handling of Vietnam zig-zagged up and peaked in January 1973 at 58 percent. During the 19 months following publication of the Pentagon Papers, disapproval of Nixon's handling of the Vietnam War zig-zagged down from about 45 percent to 33 percent. Correlation is not causation, but here is the biggest surprise of all. Aggregate polling shows that "Young people were more likely to support the war at the beginning, when it was popular, and more likely to support it at the end, when it was not." Again, the Nixon administration is not in the Pentagon Papers, but any reasonably suspicious citizen would likely assume that he was lying about the war as much as his predecessors did. Ellsberg wanted Nixon to be punished for his lies. It didn't happen by November 1972.

6 (c). As Marvin Gaye famously asked, "What's going on?" Why the support for President Nixon and his handling of Vietnam when the number of casualties mounted, and especially when documents proved that Nixon's four predecessors had been lying to the American people about U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, and when the inference was that Nixon must be lying too. (Ellsberg knew it.)  A big part of the answer -- and I would have appreciated more in the documentary regarding this context -- is that Americans were worried about the spread of communism. Today we forget how tense the world was during the Cold War. In the 50 years between the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) and Secretary Robert McNamara commissioning the "Pentagon Papers" (1967), many events contributed to tension and insecurity in the West: 
  • Central and Eastern Europe went communist after the Second World War, with liberation movements brutally suppressed in Berlin, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.
  • China went communist in 1949.
  • Khrushchev bellowed at Western diplomats in 1956: "We will bury you" -- an allusion to Marx's statement at the end of Chapter One of the Communist Manifesto.
  • John F. Kennedy had warned of a growing missile gap between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the 1960 presidential campaign.
  • The Berlin Wall went up on August 13, 1961.
  • Cuba in our hemisphere -- off the coast of Florida -- became communist in 1959 through violent revolution.
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 kept tensions high.
  • American children were drilled in the civil defense strategy, Duck and Cover!
  • Middle-class Americans started building bomb shelters.
  • Laos was in danger of going communist from the mid 1950s on, and North Vietnam did, leading to a proxy war between the U.S. on one side, and the U.S.S.R. and "Red" China on the other.
  • If you looked at the spreading red on a world map, the Domino Theory did not seem implausible to many, many Americans.
  • Studies like The Haunted Wood, by historian Allen Weinstein and former KGB agent Alexander Vassiliev, detail the extent to which Soviet spies infiltrated the U.S. government during the early Cold War. It was a real problem that made Americans jittery in a nuclear age.
6 (d). Another context: Go back more than 70 years before the Pentagon Papers were published. Once Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt set the U.S. on the path to empire, the national government would take on a 24/7 foreign policy. World War I, World War II, and the Cold War added to the burden and necessarily enlarged the power of the presidency at the expense of the Congress (justified constitutionally since he is the commander-in-chief). Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called it the "imperial presidency." You can trace this development in Congressional debates. As the years passed, a greater percentage of time was taken up with foreign as opposed to domestic affairs.

6 (e). The growth of the "imperial presidency" helps us better understand the Nixon presidency itself. The 37th president and all the president's men leveraged fear of communism into greater executive power. In the documentary, you saw Bud Krogh suggest that Nixon believed that there was an ongoing national security crisis -- it amounted to a rolling Red scare -- and only the "imperial presidency" could keep Americans safe. As a result, according to Krogh, there was "a collapse of integrity of the first order" in an administration that had grown defensive and paranoid.

6 (f). I should mention one final context (although there are numerous others): the American tradition of civil disobedience:
  • Thoreau famously taught us about civil disobedience more than a hundred years before the Nixon administration. He argued that Americans should not pay taxes when the nation's policies aided and abetted evil. Citizens should not permit government to overrule or lull their conscience into acquiescence when moral and constitutional principles are at stake. People have a duty not to cooperate with government when it tries to make them an agent of injustice. Thoreau was motivated by his opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War. 
  • Gandhi and Martin Luther King tutored us in satyagraha -- Truth Force -- nonviolent resistance to a government that is violating a people's rights.
  • Less heroic is the more orthodox path for somebody working in government. If you develop qualms about a policy, you go through proper channels and try to keep your complaint within the Department by talking to your superiors or to the legal counsel within the Department or perhaps to the Inspector General.
  • A person could also opt to resign and throw himself into the political process to influence the outcome of the next election.
  • Believing that the imperial presidency is a menace to the republic, someone could opt to take the papers to another branch of government. Ellsberg did approach U.S. senators (e.g., Fulbright, McGovern) who ultimately turned him down because they were politicians who wanted strength in numbers. But Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel took the Papers and read them from the floor of the U.S. Senate. As stipulated in Article I, Section 6, of the U.S. Constitution, he was immune to prosecution for what he said on the Senate floor. Gravel made sure what he read was entered into the Congressional Record. Having already "stolen" the Papers, Ellsberg could have stopped there, but he did not.
  • Daniel Ellsberg chose a riskier and more controversial path -- one even he suspected was illegal. He took the Pentagon Papers to the Fourth Estate. He shone a light on what he perceived to be evil, with the hope of shaming people into changing. There are respectable precedents for exercising this option going back to the famous trial of John Peter Zenger in 1735, and principled opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. But the problem with using the "fourth branch of government" is: Who elected them? Since when did we entrust national security decisions to journalists and editors? Such an extra-constitutional remedy was tested in Ellsberg's case. His was the first time the Espionage Act of 1917 was brought to bear against someone who leaked government secrets to the press.
    7. Once Daniel Ellsberg secreted a copy of the Pentagon Papers out of the filing cabinets of the Rand Corporation (1969), and gave copies to people in influential positions, several major sectors of American life sprang into action and insured that there would be a public debate:
    • The fourth estate used its front pages and editorial pages -- beginning with the New York Times on June 13, 1971. (But who elected them? We cannot have an ad hoc foreign policy made outside the executive branch and U.S. Senate. Chaos would ensue. Besides, are the media truly competent to judge U.S. foreign policy. Isn't this dicey?)
    • Members of the U.S. Senate took up the gauntlet -- above all, Alaska Senator Mike Gravel -- and insured that many of the Papers would be in the Congressional Record.
    • Lower courts and then the Supreme Court took up the case.
    • The private sector took up the gauntlet when an independent book publisher, Beacon, published parts of the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers.
    • Even conservative opponents of Daniel Ellsberg, like William F. Buckley Jr, who thought he gave aid and comfort to the enemy, nevertheless hosted highly visible debates that gave Daniel Ellsberg a platform to make his case. (See the Firing Line debate that took place on July 25, 1972.)
    8. So the system in a sense "worked." A whistle-blower was exonerated. America's institutions did their job to insure there would be a public debate over the so-called imperial presidency and its unconstitutional acts. Given our tradition of civil disobedience, and given the tense conflict inside American society in the late 'Sixties and early 'Seventies, Ellsberg achieved one of his goals: Citizens were informed of a succession of presidents who had lied to the Congress and to the public, and who had likely acted unconstitutionally.

    9. So in 1971 the nation experienced the tension between two camps. In the one camp was the majority of the American people who, based on the information they had, understandably wanted to defend themselves against what they perceived to be an aggressive enemy; they wanted to stop the spread of communism in the Cold War. In the other camp were war protesters who vehemently opposed what they considered to be an illegal proxy war in Southeast Asia, a war that administration after administration had lied about. They sought greater transparency in government, and the veto power that comes from changing public opinion.

    10. Daniel Ellsberg thought he could force the administration's hand. But in the documentary, you see how disappointed he was that more citizens did not take the Pentagon Papers to heart and turn vigorously against the war after they were published. Au contraire, in the short term, voters re-elected Richard Nixon in the landslide election of 1972. Again: What's going on?
    - a growing fatigue with all the upheaval and unrest?
    - or maybe a majority thought Ellsberg was treasonous?
    I would be interested in knowing how Daniel Ellsberg explains the rising support for Nixon and his handling of the Vietnam War during the 19 months following publication of the Pentagon Papers.

    11. What surprised me as I was preparing for this evening and querying colleagues is the depth of feeling to this day among Americans who remember the early 'Seventies and were politically active then. To some, Daniel Ellsberg is an extraordinarily courageous man, a beacon who four decades later raises critically important questions about the constitutional duties of leaders and the moral duties of citizens. To others he remains a thief and a traitor who betrayed his country by stealing sensitive documents and giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

    12. This episode in U.S. history 40 years ago moves us to ask a host of questions that are central to our civic republican traditions. I would hope that students who see the film explore these questions.
    • Even Ellsberg concedes that there is a need for operational, tactical, and strategic secrets. So to what extent do we permit a closed "society" to operate inside an open government?
    • In a nation with a 24/7 foreign policy, what are the limits of the “imperial presidency”? When is official deception justified? What are the limits of transparency in government when it comes to foreign policy and foreign operations?
    • What are the limits of a free press under the rule of law?
    • What are the limits of our civic republican tradition? If a citizen who has worked on a policy decides that that policy is immoral, when is whistle-blowing defensible? When, by contrast, does whistle-blowing reveal too much in the public square? [At the very least, if people will die as a result.]
    • Is it moral courage or opportunism to choose the form of civil disobedience Daniel Ellsberg did? When is it ethical for a consultant to publish confidential papers that do not belong to that consultant?
    • Ellsberg seemed headed toward conviction. Was he "saved" when Nixon overreacted and created the Plumbers who would break into his psychiatrist's office?
    • What role did Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers play in the downfall of Richard Nixon?
    13. Final thought: Winston Churchill observed that, in the end, war doesn't determine who is right -- only who is left to write about it.

    *     *     *

    P.S. -- Toward the end of our panel discussion, Dr. Ellsberg wondered aloud if documents will be leaked that reveal U.S. frustration with the war in Afghanistan. I replied that those documents were leaked long ago. Our libraries are filled with stories of empire after empire that set its sights on Afghanistan but failed to conquer her people -- not the Romans, not the British, not the Soviets. The only conqueror who succeeded in winning the hearts of the Afghan people was Alexander the Great, arguably the most brilliant general who ever lived. But he did not subdue Afghanistan by force of arms. He took Afghanistan by marrying a Bactrian princess, Roxane, the daughter of Oxyartes. Take it from a general who knew what he was doing in Afghanistan. His best strategy ever, as co-panelist Devin Schindler quipped, was to "Make love, not war."

    "The Wedding of Roxane and Alexander the Great," by Sodoma

      Monday, May 23, 2011

      World History - the 5 Big Things

      It has been said that there are two kinds of students. Those who hate history, and those who really hate history. Let me play the contrarian. I'd wager that young people who have the chance to grapple with the world's most powerful forces and learn about the men and women who made the world we live in do not hate history.

      But apparently historians have not done a good job making the point. Although the U.S. dominates the world, most of our freshly minted college grads wouldn't dominate international tests measuring knowledge of the world. Americans can and should do better. We send treasure, troops, and things around the globe. We are at war in two countries in the Middle East. We are part of a number of international alliances and organizations -- the UN, NATO, World Bank, G6/8/20, etc. China, the UK, and Germany bankroll our debt. A number of foreigners are buying American real estate and equity in U.S. corporations. We should not be ignorant of the peoples who have such estimable influence in, and over, our nation.

      College graduates are, by definition, citizen-leaders. At Grand Valley we say that students are educated "to shape their lives, their professions, and their societies." To be responsible citizen-leaders who can participate knowledgeably in civic discussions and make informed votes in the board room and voting booth, there are five Big Things history can help you know about our world: (1) the impact of threshold events that changed humankind forever, (2) the engines of historical change, (3) the universals in the human condition, (4) the rise of modernity in Western civilization, and (5) America's place in history and in the world. The effort to master this material is intrinsically rewarding and will take you far on the path to becoming a liberally educated citizen.


      1. THRESHOLDS  "Recorded history" is two things -- (a) the past itself for the last 5,500 years, and (b) our chronicling, descriptions, analysis, interpretations, and debates about the past. In this second sense, history is not about the tedious memorization of names and dates. History is a great conversation -- about you. It starts with asking, Who are you? and Where did you come from? Grappling with these two questions may lead you to ask another question, Where are you going? As you debate these questions, as your understanding grows, you will find yourself creating a bigger and bigger narrative about yourself and others. The more you think about others and where they came from, the more historically minded you become. All good historical narratives shed light on beginnings, things that change, things that stay the same, meaningful moments, redemption, and endings.

      Drawing from David Christian's work in Big History, we first examine threshold events, the biggest passages that humankind has experienced. Threshold events forever alter the human conditionThey introduce greater complexity in our lives. Between great thresholds like the agricultural and industrial revolutions are numerous "turning points" that decisively change a people's existence -- e.g., the invention of democracy, printing press, voyages of discovery, etc. Typically these turning points do not have to be reinvented.

      Threshold events and turning points require different scales to measure time -- from eventful moments, to a day, to a season, to a year, to a human life, to a nation's existence, to a species' existence, even to geologic time. The different scales give us necessary perspective.

      A course in world history requires that we become familiar with major religions and mythic systems, and I would argue that religion and myth provide a valuable if unscientific scale that puts our minds in the largest manageable framework of all, helping us fit everything meaningful to human life between the act of creation and the end of time. Religion and myth do not use the currency of "clock time" -- the Greek sense of chronos -- the unit adoped by industrial peoples. Time in religion and myth is more closely associated with "readying" and "ripening" -- the Greek sense of kairos -- the flow of time among an agricultural people. History is not religion nor is it myth. But these three ways of organizing our understanding of the world -- history, religion, and myth -- give human beings insight into beginnings, things that change, things that stay the same, meaningful moments, redemption, and endings.

      To get an initial feel for threshold events and turning points, it is useful to plot them chronologically on a timeline. At the start of the semester, I like giving students a brief overview of all the major turning points plotted on a timeline. As a class we return to this timeline frequently. If students can keep the major turning points in mind, they will not lose sight of the forest for gazing at a tree. The following are some thresholds (in boldface type) and turning points that occurred before 1500 A.D. Page numbers are keyed to one of the resources we shall use in this class: Craig, Graham, Kagan, Ozment, Turner, The Heritage of World Civilizations, 8th ed.:
        Ziggurat in the Middle East
        • mastering fire: our human ancestors mastered fire before the appearance of anatomically modern Homo sapiens appeared. Evidence from colder parts of Europe indicates that this threshold occurred at least 400,000 years ago. The effect of cooking may have been to make our gut smaller and our calorie-hungry brain larger.
        • the appearance of anatomically modern Homo sapiens in Africa, the cradle of humankind; studies comparing human beings and higher animals (e.g., chimps who use language and wage war)
        • cultural "big bang"; Afro-Eurasian cave paintings; differentiation between brain and mind begins
        • Agricultural or Neolithic Revolution after the retreat of Pleistocene glaciers. The cultivation of plants is probably begun by women; settlement -- an invented lifestyle; invention of pots to store food, and thus the appearance of large-scale organized theft, another name for war. The Agricultural Revolution was arguably the most important revolution ever in the human experience and accounts for more than 50 percent of our lifeways today. We will also explore Gerda Lerner's thesis about the origins of patriarchy.
        • invention of civilization. These first civilizations are agricultural civilizations. The rise of Sumer, Egypt, India, and China are on great rivers, not coasts. This was the Bronze Age. Civilizations are fragile: in all, 25 of 30 have fallen, according to Arnold Toynbee. Egyptian continuity vs. Mesopotamian change; invention of epic poetry -- e.g., Epic of Gilgamesh praises wise men of Uruk for their city planning [Guelzo 2].
        • invention of what Victor Davis Hanson calls the "Western way of war," a controversial thesis about a far-reaching cultural innovation of the Greeks between 700-600 B.C. This way of war sought the decisive frontal engagement with the enemy, bringing to bear maximum force in a concentrated and frightful encounter. Because this approach to warfare is not found earlier or elsewhere, it helps explain why the Greek/Western way of war has proven so much more lethal than the combat techniques of other cultures. This way of war would lead to battles that forever changed the human estate, so it is a threshold event. (Behind the question of the "Western way of war" is an even more basic question -- Is war genetic, and if so, is it DNA destiny or merely a proclivity, or is war a learned cultural trait?) 
        • invention of empire; and Homer's warnings about empire in the Iliad.
        • "Axial Age" (Karl Jaspers), which occurs after the "tutorial" of a long dark age in Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. In this course, we stretch Jasper's chronology to include Hebrews (monotheism), Greeks (reasoning through answers), Indians (Vedic traditions and Buddhism), Chinese (Confucius, Lao Tsi), and Hellenized Jews (prophets and the invention of ethical history); religious, ethical, and intellectual developments; the remarkable 6th century B.C.E. "India's greatest contribution to world civilization was the Buddhist tradition" (p. 61). Jesus and Paul invent Christianity. Ponder the fact that these ancient religions and worldviews are not irrelevant but still dominate the religious and philosophic outlook of the majority of human beings living today.
        • first thallasocracy, Crete
        • first democracy, war-loving Athens
        • first republics, war-loving Rome ... and Carthage, which practiced child sacrifice by roasting them in tophets
        • Alexander the Great and the idea of one dominant, cosmopolitan, worldwide culture (For an analogy today, think of Coca-Cola, Levis, jazz, Hollywood, Mac, and computer games.)
        • Rome -- significant as both a city and an empire, culturally inspired by Alexander the Great; also, Rome is the last empire to unite Europe
        • rise of China
        • Silk Road(s) and the idea and reality of globalization
        • fall of the Western Roman Empire (Edward Gibbon and others)
        • Rise of the last three civilizations -- Byzantium, Islam, Christendom
        • Christendom as a clashing, creative synthesis of (1) Judeo-Christian spiritual aspirations, (2) Greco-Roman philosophical quests, and (3) Anglo-German political arrangements. This synthesis nourished the seedbed out of which the most powerful civilization -- the West -- ever would grow. See Christopher Dawson; also Russell Kirk, Roots of American Order
        • Crusades (humankind's first mass social movement, as H. G. Wells asserted?)
        • Ghengis Khan -- world's greatest conqueror
        • Italian communes keep republican polities alive
        • Magna Carta and the beginning of political rights (such as due process) and of Parliamentary rule to check the power of the monarch
        • Gutenberg's printing press. NB: Printing with movable type on paper reduced the cost of producing a book by orders of magnitude compared with the old-fashioned ones handwritten on vellum. A Bible required vellum made from 300 sheepskins and untold man-hours of scribe labor. Before printing arrived, a Bible cost more than most European houses to build. There were perhaps 50,000 scribe-produced books in all of Europe in 1450. By 1500 there were 10 million books. When you have that much of anything suddenly in demand, a revolution is afoot.
        • Italian and Northern Renaissances, led by numerous clerics who rejected Scholasticism
        • Muslim blockade of overland routes to the Orient, leading to European frustration
        • European voyages of discovery at the dawn of the modern age; the Columbian Exchange (Alfred Crosby), the most far-reaching manipulation of nature since the Neolithic Revolution; contemporary Chinese voyages -- the threshold that wasn't 
        • the beginnings of modernity and of the gap between the West and the Rest
        The Buddha --
        Indian civilization's greatest gift to the world
        It turns out that c. 1450 is an important date not just in Western Europe, but also in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and China. So it is a natural watershed in world history. Anticipating some threshold events after 1450, students might add:
        • commercial revolution; reintroduction of slavery in the West
        • Machiavelli on what is; not necessarily what should be
        • Reformation
        • Scientific Revolution
        • Enlightenment
        • Glorious Revolution of 1688
        • American Revolution -- a revolution not made, but prevented?
        • French Revolution -- tearing down the ancien regime; but to what degree was it truly successful?
        • Industrial Revolution I & II; steam, railroads, telegraph, electricity, chemicals, assembly lines; replacing kairos with chronos; increasingly complex organizations in cities.
        • end of chattel and debt slavery with breathtaking speed in the West
        • colonization of Africa and Asia 
        • urbanization 
        • World War I, World War II, Cold War, fall of the Berlin Wall
        • women's rights spread
        • Era of space exploration; human beings walk on the Moon
        • World wars that weakened the West; Bandung; decolonization; closing of the European era in world history; Civil Rights in the U.S.
        • globalization of goods, services, and ideas
        • personal computers, the digital revolution, Wikipedia, and the democratization of knowledge
        • What thresholds are you living through now?
        For what it's worth, it is fascinating to play the parlor game, What if? Some thresholds almost did not happen. What if, at the Granicus River, the Persian cavalryman Spithridates had finished his death blow against Alexander the Great, cutting short his brilliant career? What if Cleitus the Black had not intervened in the split second before it was too late? No Hellenistic Age? 

        Grappling with thresholds on a timeline will help you intelligently address two of the most important questions you'll ever encounter: What is it to be human? What is it to be Western?

        2. CHANGE  We need to acquire a sense for why some things change, and other things stay the same. Continuity and change are bread-and-butter themes for historians. The thresholds noted above are both indicators of wholesale change and catalysts for further change. A thematic sampling of "engines" of historical change:
        • The first observation is that not all civilizations welcomed or embraced change -- e.g., there were long periods in which ancient Egypt, China, Islam, and Christendom did not. In early modern Europe, for a variety of reasons, a revolutionary transformation would occur: There would be a new attitude toward change itself. Apparently for the first time in human history, a civilization would embrace change for its own sake, and the West would become different from the Rest. Change would become the new norm. The revolutionary attitude toward change would itself become an engine of historical change. The attitude is embodied, for example, in open-ended scientific inquiry, Darwinism and other new philosophies of Becoming (as opposed to Being), Madison Avenue, and the early auto industry. Despite a culture's attitude toward change, in the end, change happens.
        • religion (Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order; Christopher Dawson, on what puts the "cult" in culture; Arnold Toynbee, Study of History); civilizational mission. The founding of a new religion, or the revitalization of that "good old religion," is a powerful engine of establishing a civilization and/or changing one that already exists. 
        • the quest for material security and betterment through long-distance trade; cultural exchange; migration, globalization, manipulation of nature (p. 434)
        • battles, wars, and the lust for power -- domination over nature and over others -- the libido dominandi (Herodotus on Xerxes whipping the Hellespont on his way to Hellas; Thucydides; Alexander the Great's quest to conquer the world although he couldn't conquer himself; Machiavelli.) Consider how decisive battles can be in just a few hours and over a few square miles. On the outcome of these "crucibles of history" hangs the fate of entire peoples, nations, and civilizations.
        • revolution
        • the quest to be free
        • leadership of significant individuals
        • the intellectual quest, winning the debate, changing the climate of opinion (e.g., William Wilberforce eventually wins the debate over slavery); ideas and ideology. Does a culture value intellectual openness and inquiry? Periods in which diverse ideas were more openly debated include Hammurabi's Babylon, 4th-5th century Greece, republican Rome, imperial Rome, China's Sung Dynasty, the Moorish caliphate in Syria and Egypt, medieval Cordoba, the Italian Renaissance, the founding of the great constitutional polities of the modern age, and throughout much of modernity. 
        • natural catastrophes  They can be geologic: the civilization in Crete was obliterated due to a volcano, earthquakes, and accompanying tsunami. They can be biological: epidemics like the Bubonic plague swept across Europe in the 14th century and wiped out 1/3 of the population, with enormous social, economic, and political consequences. They can be climatic: the little ice age shortened the growing season in Europe during the Middle Ages, arresting civilizational progress.
        • other causes of the decline or declension of civilizations, leaving a void -- experienced, for example, by the periodic dynastic contractions that occurred in Chinese history, or the contraction of the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. The void invites migration and introduces other significant changes throughout a region.
        • frustration
        • self-preservation
        • As this inquiry demonstrates, historians frequently ask about change vs. continuity. Yet, in the human family, are there Permanent Things, aspects of our quest that do not change (T. S. Eliot's term)? For example, can you think of any values that are universal across time and place?
        Eugene Delacroix, "Liberty Leading the People"
        Grappling with the engines of change will help you develop the habit of thinking like a historian, which will equip you to handle diverse cultural situations and to think more rigorously.

        3. UNIVERSALS IN THE HUMAN CONDITION  Two-dozen additional topics of universal significance to the human estate that the study of world history informs.
        • The problem of presentism. How do we view the past, on our terms or its terms -- or some combination of both? On what basis do we make sound ethical judgments about people who lived in the past and who have not shared our civilizational experience? (Examples: Jewish stoning, Aztec human sacrifices, Sub-Saharan female circumcision, English court whipping boys, African slavery, Hindu custom of sati.) Are there any practices of our civilization that future cultures will judge harshly? This is a variation of the debate between historical relativism and philosophical/ethical absolutes.
        • The pursuit of happiness. What is happiness (centered on the personal or the public and communal)? How is it achieved? See my July 17, 2011, blog post, "Happiness," especially the discussion of the American founders. ...At the end of Sophocles' play, Antigone, the chorus instructs us in the happiness we seek. Happiness is (my paraphrase) not power, profit, prestige, pleasure, or pride in getting our way. The main ingredients of happiness are virtue and wisdom. How do we become virtuous and wise? For most of us, punishment and suffering pound the foolishness out of us. Suffering schools us until we learn the lessons we need to live the good life. Experience teaches that wisdom mostly comes from keeping a clear conscience, worshipping God rightly, and learning from mistakes, our own and others'. If we are mindful of these things, we have a shot at being happy. We are smart about "the pursuit of happiness." ... I also believe the pursuit of happiness is linked to a primordial urge deep within us -- it's a mythic return to Eden as the vestibule to the Heaven that awaits. This leads humans in all cultures to redeem their time and sanctify their place. 
        • What is a great man/great woman? Heroes, saints, and leaders. What criteria would you use to rank the greatest human beings who have ever lived? Who are the heroes, saints, or leaders you know?
        • Consider how leadership traits and styles change with a new threshold. Publius led in a much different way at the founding of the Roman Republic than did the overbearing Etruscan kings who preceded him. Also, did not the American founding end leadership in this part of the world by conquest and dynastic succession, and instead cultivate men and women who had more ability to listen, cooperate, compromise, and accommodate others in a democratic culture?
        • Why did humankind's greatest teachers never write their teachings down? Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Muhammad. This lacuna has led to interpretive challenges. Can you imagine how our interpretation of the New Testament might change if ever archaeologists discovered Aramaic "transcriptions" of Jesus' teachings?
        • Search out simultaneity in any given period; ponder that mystery -- e.g., the Chinese and Europeans set out on major voyages in the same century, but with very different results.
        • Causation and the post hoc fallacy; also, correlation is not causation.
        • Knowledge (of one thing) versus higher-order understanding (of an additional thing, leading to comparison and thus depth of insight). World history empowers you to acquire understanding by juxtaposing civilizations. 
        • With understanding comes the higher order of thinking analogically, comparing events, leaders, situations, and civilizations mutatis mutandis. Why did so many early civilizations, for example, build pyramidal structures (Sumerians, Egyptians, Aztecs, Mayans, Incas)?
        • Wisdom: It is hard to read textbook chapters about past civilizations. To focus on the value of a distant civilization that is otherwise difficult to relate to, what is the wisdom that that civilization added to the collective wisdom of the species? It was purchased through dear experience. How does that wisdom apply to you personally?
        • Globalization's first manifestations -- Persian Empire, Roman Empire, Han Dynasty, Silk Road
        • Tension between local or regional lifeways and global forces
        • Quest for the Third Rome
        • Does any given nation or civilization have a mission beyond its boundaries that is consciously expressed or implicitly understood? How does such a mission manifest itself? Buddhism and Christianity are missionizing religions. Islam spread aggressively in the 7th-8th centuries. Christendom launched the Crusades. Was a clash of civilizations inevitable? Or -- compare the purpose of Spain's voyages of discovery with that of China's voyages. Or -- does our nation or civilization have a "mission"? (Orestes Brownson thought so.)
        • What happens when a people have their history altered or erased by a totalitarian ruler? Isn't one of the first things a dictator wants to do is throw a people's politically incorrect past down the "memory hole" -- a term from George Orwell's distopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four; recall that the protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the Ministry of Truth! If the past is destroyed or forgotten, then a people cannot remember better days when patriot heroes threw off similar dicators, or when able leaders with sound principles sustained them through tough times and empowered them to stand proud among the nations of the earth.
        • Eric Hobsbawm wrote of the reinvention of tradition or invention of meaning when surveying something from the past. In ancient times, Nubian rulers reinvented the grandeur of Egypt's Old Kingdom by building pyramids of their own. Some sects of the Protestant Reformation tried to reinvent the experience of the early church. Historical reinactors at Colonial Williamsburg and Civil War battlefields literally reinact the past to keep it "alive." Are there examples of the invention or reinvention of tradition in your life?
        • Related to the totalitarian obliteration of politically incorrect history on the one hand, and the reinvention of traditions on the other, is selection. Of all that happened in the past, historians must choose what themes, events, people, and details to construct a narrative from [Guelzo 1]. Tough-minded professionalism and honesty are required. Military history, for instance, has fallen out of favor. But how much violence do we do to the past if we refuse to talk about battles and wars because we fear that it will militarize students [Fagan 1]?
        • Role of geography: In the 1790s Immanuel Kant described geography as the “foundation of history,” and considered the two of them basic to all inquiry because they “fill up the whole span of knowledge; geography that of space, history that of time.” See Kant’s Physische Geographie [1802] in Tim Unwin, The Place of Geography (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992), pp. 70-73. Is geography destiny, merely a stage, or something in between? (See Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel.)
        • Why do civilizations arise? Greater control over the natural environment, its processes and threats? Economic efficiencies? Religious inspiration? Power in the possibilities of hegemony or empire over other cultures? Male dominance that seeks to establish patriarchy?
        • Why do civilizations decline and fall? Rome's fall has been paradigmatic and contemplated over the centuries. In what ways might our American civilization show signs of decadence and decline? What can be done about it?
        • Students should seek out multiple accounts and diverse viewpoints (if they exist) of an event and know how to evaluate the quality of the evidence. What historical evidence is available to us to construct an accurate, insightful narrative of the past? For example, if we want to know how ancient wars were conducted, say, among the rival city-states of Sumer in the 3rd millennium, we must find and interpret the evidence: (1) human remains with signs of lethal trauma, especially in mass graves; (2) carvings and paintings of battles, such as on the Vulture Stele; (3) discovery of weapons, shields, and chariots; (4) defensive structures like walls and moats surrounding communities; (5) writing that includes inventory lists and narratives of what happened; maps and bird's eye views of the action. 
        • What are the limits of the Western mind's grounding in the Enlightenment in dealing with non-Western cultures, especially those that transmit their stories orally instead of in writing, as in Africa? Does Western thinking bias what we see and hear?
        • Hilaire Belloc wrote that "Europe is the faith." We Westerners tend to identify Christianity with Western civilization. But this is a narrow view that a world history course challenges and corrects. Increasingly the West grows secular and Christianity is identified with developing peoples in Africa and Latin America. See Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom.
        • What should we preserve from our past? Should some changes be opposed even if they seem progressive? Introduce UNESCO's World Cultural and Natural Heritage sites, accessible here
        • Debate over whether history, as a discipline of inquiry, belongs more to the social sciences that are concerned with predicting the behavior of larger populations, or to the humanities that are concerned with unpredictable, singular occurrences in the human condition -- the wild card. To what degree should historians rely on the explanatory power of both methods?
        • History as tender-minded celebration of one's nation (Herodotus and Xenophon) vs. history as tough-minded analysis of causation (Thucydides) 
        • What does history reveal about human nature -- for example, the seemingly universal differences between men and women? A common exercise at marriage encounters is to ask women, "On a sinking ship, who would you save first, your spouse or your child?" 95 percent of women would save their child first. When asked the same question, 95 percent of men would save their spouse first, figuring they can conceive again! This response holds cross culturally; it's as true in Africa as it is in the U.S.
        • Are women almost universally oppressed? 80 percent of the world's work is done by women; 10 percent of the world's income is earned by women; 1 percent of the world's property is owned by women; 1/2 of the world's population does not have the right to vote, and most of them are women; 65 percent of the world's illiterate people are women; 1/2 of the world lives on less than $2/day; 1/6 of the world lives on less than $1/day.
        • Luck. What if? Historians sometimes ponder what might have been. This exercise is valuable for showing how fragile, how contingent, our way of life is. E.g., a single battle can take place in a few hours on a few acres, yet dramatically change a nation or civilization. What if the battle had gone the other way? E.g., Soon after Alexander the Great crossed into Asia, in the very first battle at the Granicus River, he was almost killed. A Persian cavalryman named Spithridates stunned Alexander with an blow to the head. The Persian had raised his sword to finish off the dazed general when Cleitus the Black suddenly chopped off his smiting arm -- and Alexander was saved to become the greatest general ever, one whose conquering armies bequeathed to the world the Hellenistic idea of the cosmopolitan empire. Later, Rome tried to fulfill the dream.... What if William was not the conqueror and had lost at Hastings? What if Washington had lost at Brooklyn? Napoleon had won at Waterloo? Lee had won at Gettysburg? Hitler had won at Stalingrad? Eisenhower had lost on D-Day? We'd be living in a different world.
        • Organizing principles of a culture/civilization. It is useful to try to discover such a thing. For example, if you seek to understand the worldview of Roman Catholic medieval Europe, you could do no better than to read Christopher Dawson, Russell Kirk, or John Senior. They explain why the cult -- the cultus -- is the basis of culture. They thus help us understand the origin and rise of certain civilizations. John Senior, a founder of the famous Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, condensed the organizing principle of Christendom in a striking passage. According to his student, Robert Wyer, "He understood that Christian culture is the seedbed of the Faith. Though the Faith can (and does) endure amidst a culture antithetical to it, it cannot flourish under such conditions. Archbishop Lefebvre, in a statement Dr. Senior loved to recall, told him, La messe est l’Eglise ["The Mass is the Church"]. In The Restoration of Christian Culture, Dr. Senior elaborated on this most important truth preserved by the courageous archbishop:
          "'Whatever we do in the political or social order, the indispensable foundation is prayer, the heart of which is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the perfect prayer of Christ Himself, Priest and Victim, recreating in an unbloody manner the bloody, selfsame Sacrifice of Calvary. What is Christian culture? It is essentially the Mass. That is not my or anyone’s opinion or theory or wish but the central fact of 2,000 years of history. Christendom, what secularists call Western Civilization, is the Mass and the paraphernalia which protect and facilitate it. All architecture, art, political and social forms, economics, the way people live and feel and think, music, literature ―all these things when they are right are ways of fostering and protecting the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. To enact a sacrifice, there must be an altar; an altar has to have a roof over it in case it rains; to reserve the Blessed Sacrament, we build a little House of Gold and over it a Tower of Ivory with a bell and a garden round it with the roses and lilies of purity, emblems of the Virgin Mary ―Rosa Mystica, Turris Davidica, Turris Eburnea, Domus Aurea, who carried His Body and His Blood in her womb, Body of her body, Blood of her blood. And around the church and garden, where we bury the faithful dead, the caretakers live, the priests and religious whose work is prayer, who keep the Mystery of Faith in its tabernacle of music and words in the Office of the Church; and around them, the faithful who gather to worship and divide the other work that must be done in order to make the perpetuation of the Sacrifice possible–to raise the food and make the clothes and build and keep the peace so that generations to come may live for Him, so that the Sacrifice goes on even until the consummation of the world.'
          "Elsewhere, Senior explained that not all of these elements of civilized human life have to preach the Faith explicitly, but they should echo it in their order and beauty, and even (especially!) in their simple elegance...."
        • Other fundamental tensions and struggles: between generations, the old and the new, civilization and nature, core and periphery, innovation and conservation, etc.
        Why did Rome fall? Ruins at Tyre.
        Grappling with these topics of universal significance to the human estate will take you far on the path to becoming a liberally educated citizen.



        4. MODERN WEST  You need to be able to understand modernity, give an account of why it arose in the West, show how the gap between "the West and the Rest" came about, and discuss not only the causes but the various consequences of that gap. Premodern and modern thresholds should be depicted chronologically on a timeline. A sampling of topics:
        • See the brief list of post-1500 thresholds on the first-semester timeline.
        • Note the nature of the civilization that gave modernity birth and give students a chronological sense of its elements: Christendom is a merging, clashing synthesis of (1) Judeo-Christian spiritual aspirations, (2) Greco-Roman philosophical quests, and (3) Anglo-German political arrangements. This synthesis created the seedbed out of which the most powerful civilization ever would grow. (See Russell Kirk, Roots of American Order.)
        • Might the rise of modernity in the West be explained in part by the notion that there is more social tolerance for boundary transgressions in the West compared to the Rest? (See Daniel Bell, Romanes lecture at Oxford University on boundary transgressions.)
        • Might the rise of modernity in the West be explained in part by the notion that there is more social tolerance for paradigm shifts in the West compared to the Rest? (See Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.)
        • decentralizing authority: Protestant Reformation and North Atlantic revolutions
        • Wars of Religion, Westphalia, and the international order
        • state and imperial competition
        • four paths to the scientific revolution: Arabic learning and Western monotheism, voyages of discovery that promote a greater field of observation, and (prompted in part by wars of religion) Enlightenment freedoms
        • invention of the calculus, one of the most powerful mathematical tools ever
        • industrial might and military power
        • the social revolution that results from the Industrial Revolution: the rise of the modern middle class and challenge of the working poor
        • post French Revolution rise of ideologies expressed in isms: nationalism, liberalism, conservatism, anarchism, communism, fascism, ultramontanism, etc.
        • alienation (Copernicus, Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Durkheim) 
        • The Little Ice Age was contemporaneous with the rise of modernity in the West. Is any causation at work?
          • 3 national responses to modernity: embrace it as Japan did; reject it as the Taliban do; or find some selective accommodation as Egypt did
          • clash of civilizations? Islam and the modern West; changing nature of war
          • rise of the BRIC nations 
          Newton's Principia -- one of the texts that launched the European Enlightenment

          [Where opportune, revisit the two-dozen topics of universal significance introduced in the previous semester.]
          Puccini's Madame Butterfly -- emblematic of the dominant West over the passive or submissive Orient
          Grappling with modernity will enable you intelligently to address another of the biggest questions that you will ever encounter: What is it to be Western? And -- What is it to be modern? Grappling with the additional topics of universal significance to the human estate will take you far on the path to becoming a liberally educated citizen.

          5. UNITED STATES  You need to be able to understand your nation, the United States, in a global, historical context. A sampling of topics:
          • Compared to other nations, what is exceptional (as expressed in de Tocqueville's thesis), and what is typical, of America? For example, our origins are not mythic, tribal, or ethnic as with most other nations; our origins are deliberative and constitutional, based on debating the idea of what a republic should look like. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the first Federalist Paper, our nation was created out of conscious choice, deliberation, and debate over ideas.
          • roots and shoots of our civilization
          • The founders' thought brought together two major streams of thought: the civic republican tradition of antiquity, Renaissance humanism, and certain Whig thinkers that emphasizes the individual's duties to his community; and the natural law tradition of William of Occam, John Locke, and the Enlightenment that emphasizes the community's duty to the individual.
          • the founders as latter-day Roman republicans
          • the critique of the founders in recent years -- e.g., Ray Mark Rinaldi, "Pennsylvania Exhibit Exposes Washington's Cruel Secret," Cincinnati Examiner, July 10, 2011.
          • the fear of direct democracy and small republics
          • America and empire
          • factors in the rise of the imperial presidency; implications
          • how did the rise of America change the nature of leadership?
          • The Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Thomas Jefferson, Dumas Malone, once told journalist Hugh Sidey, "So much of recorded history is about the struggle of individuals and families to feed themselves. That changed dramatically in this country. The greatness of this country was rooted in the fact that a single farmer could produce an abundance of food the likes of which the world had never seen or imagined and so free the energies of countless others to do other things." Sidey believes that it's the greatest story never told.
          • We Americans are a bundle of contradictions between the desire for the new, the Next Big Thing, the latest fashion ... and clinging to the old. I will prove why in a classroom exercise.
          Grappling with this Big Thing called the United States will enable you intelligently to address another of the key questions: What is it to be American? You can better answer the question about being an American once you have some basis of comparison, which comes from world history. It's like the experience of learning a foreign language, which most students find helps consolidate their understanding of English grammar.
          The U.S. at night

          CODA  History is not a spectator sport. History should be engaged here, now. We started with David Christian's concept of Big History, but we should not neglect our own back yard, our own region, our "local history," to learn more about ourselves and others. Following is a framework for asking better questions of a region or metropolitan area that you are interested in.
          • Define a region. What are the distinctions between, say, the urban core and the rural periphery? Between civilization and nature? Between old and new? 
          • Landforms: Given the fundamentally opposing forces of tectonics vs. climate and gravity, why does this region's land look the way it does?
          • Why did people come here? Were different groups competing for the same resources? What were the groups' cultural norms as they affected each other and the region's natural resources?
          • Why did people stay here? (When did people begin settling permanently here? Who were they? Were there successive waves of different peoples? Why did they come when they did? What were the decisive resources -- economic, ecologic, geographic, political, social, aesthetic, spiritual -- that people valued, and what were the overlapping ecological resources they harnessed?)
          • What names did various people give to the things of this region?
          • When challenges mounted (Arnold Toynbee's notion), when decline threatened, how did they respond (again, Toynbee)? Did people fail, move away, or stay and reinvent themselves and their region?
          • What individuals made a difference to the region's fortunes? What were their leadership traits? What was their leadership style? (Great Man theory)
          • What groups made a difference to the region's fortunes? What was in their cultural outlook?
          • What threshold events (David Christian's Big History) changed the human estate in this region and when did they occur?
          • What constitutions, laws, and local, state, national, or international policies have made a difference to the region's fortunes? To what extent did larger markets and globalization shape the economic decisions in the region? 
          • What institutions made a difference to the region's fortunes?
          • What accidents of geography and history made a difference to the region's fortunes? 
          • Are there analogies that present telling similarities/differences between this region and another comparable region of the earth, and do such analogies help us think usefully about the future of the region?

          Sunday, May 22, 2011

          World History - ancient Egypt

          The great limestone pyramids -- royal tombs for pharaohs and their families -- were sited on the west bank of the Nile since Egyptians associated death with sunset, and future resurrection with sunrise. And you thought it was just cowboys who ended the story by "riding into the sunset."

          Today in the United States, people take it for granted that our economy and culture are supposed to change, to progress. Americans are conditioned to expect the Next Big Thing. We eagerly await medical and technological advances that make material life better. In our postmodern iCulture, the most anticipated events are the annual unveiling of Apple's latest toy, the roll out of concept cars, and the latest round of Super Bowl commercials. As Penn's Walter McDougall has opined, we are a "republic of hustlers." With the exception of Coca-Cola and Kleenex, product lines that do not change seem destined for the ash heap of history.

          Our attitude toward change is not the norm. Modern civilization is not the norm. Change for its own sake was not universally embraced by our ancestors or by other civilizations. Most early civilizations were so conservative that their rulers suppressed change. Ancient Egypt is Exhibit "A" of a governing elite who, generation in and generation out, resisted change. Egypt's religion, governance, and art remained essentially static for almost 3,000 years -- a staggering length of time spanning almost 3/5's of all humankind's experience with civilization. (China's civilization has endured even longer.)

          Indeed, Egypt was already ancient by the time Alexander the Great came to be crowned pharaoh there, and by the time Julius Caesar and Cleopatra began their torrid love affair on a boat on the Nile.

          Egypt's Geography

          Egypt is the gift of the Nile. ~Herodotus
          There is an unusually close relation between Egypt's history and geography. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus famously observed that Egypt is the gift of the Nile [History 2:5]. The Nile is the longest river in the world; it is also the most audacious since it flirts with extinction by daring to meander through the second largest desert in the world, the Sahara. (The largest desert in the world, measured by low annual precipitation, is the continent of Antarctica.)

          The fact that Egypt was one of the world's first civilizations is mostly explained by the Nile River. Its annual floods carpeted broad floodplains with rich soil. Moreover, pharaohs had extensive irrigation canals dug, making it possible to direct water to the best farmland after the floodwaters receded. The annual supply of fresh floodwaters kept the soils from building up too much salt in an otherwise torrid environment. Wheat, flax, and other crops thrived.

          The river also provided hundreds of miles of easy transportation north of the cataracts to its outlet in the Mediterranean Sea.

          The combination of annual floods, irrigation works, and replenished soil made food surpluses possible in most years. (But not in all years: The story of Joseph and his brothers, at the end of the Old Testament Book of Genesis, describes a drought that brought suffering to Egypt.) The fact that the river is easily navigated meant that food could be shipped where needed at home, or exported to support troops or allies abroad.

          Speaking of troops: Thanks to its geography, Egypt's national security was much enhanced by the barriers surrounding it. Few early civilizations had the "moats" Egypt did. Seas to the north and east, barren deserts insulating the Nile Valley, a long series of cataracts south of Aswan -- all provided natural defenses against the designs of invading armies. The combination of dependable food surpluses plus significant barriers around its heartland set the stage for Egypt to become one of the most long-lasting civilizations in history. Egypt was already nearly 3,000 years old when Alexander the Great came to be crowned pharaoh, and older than 3,000 years when Julius Caesar and Cleopatra began their love affair on the Nile.

          To put such mind-bending antiquity in perspective: When Julius Caesar and Cleopatra toured the wonders on the Nile, the pyramids were as remote in time from them ... as David and Goliath are from us.

          The friendly geography not only helps explain Egypt's rise, but also certain qualities of its gods and culture. With food surpluses, Egypt's population could grow larger than neighboring peoples in the Middle East and Mediterranean. When Athens and Rome were still obscure villages, Egypt had already become one of the mightiest nations on earth, counting more than 7 million people along the Nile corridor. For some 3,000 years, this "gift of the Nile" could support a king, coterie of priest, and standing army that were freed up from devoting energy to herding or farming. Because of its large, full-time army, Egypt could -- and did -- bully its neighbors for thousands of years.

          There are three major geographic frontiers or boundaries in Egypt.

          (1) Most obvious is the land-sea boundary, formed where the northeastern part of the African continental plate meets the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Gulf of Suez and Red Sea to the east.

          (2) The Egyptians made a distinction between the fertile Nile floodplain (black land) called Kemet, and the inhospitable desert (red land) called Deshret, stretching to the east and west. Each year the rains near the Equator in central Africa feed the Nile's extensive tributaries, causing the downriver stretch to rise over its banks and inundate the floodplain. The river crests in September and October and, once the silty waters recede, they leave behind fertile soils.

          (3) The Nile's 4,100 mile course makes it the longest river in the world -- a rare north-flowing river at that. Only a portion of the Nile is associated with ancient Egypt. The source of the White Nile near Lake Victoria and the source of the Blue Nile in the Ethiopian highlands, near the Equator, were not historically under Egyptian rule. Nor was the confluence where the White and Blue Nile meet, at Khartoum, typically under Egyptian control; historically Khartoum was associated with Nubia. The stretch of the Nile associated with ancient Egypt lay between Aswan and the Mediterranean Sea. Aswan, the ancient frontier town where the green floodplain of the Nile narrows to the riverbanks, is built alongside the granite bluffs that loom over the water. Upper Egypt describes the area north of Aswan where the Nile Valley narrows. Lower Egypt mostly includes the delta that fans out in the Mediterranean Sea.

          Fourth Cataract of the Nile, in ancient Nubia (today Sudan)
          The river is easily navigable from Aswan to the Mediterranean, a stretch of 750 miles. It was arguably the greatest freeway in the ancient world for transporting people and goods. Today one can see lateen-sailed feluccas glide along the river.

          Navigation is much more difficult above Aswan, where the six classical cataracts hinder shipping. These six cataracts and many lesser rapids churn the waters of the Nile between Aswan and Khartoum. Historically, this is the land of the Nubians, who often influenced Egyptian history. Again, geography matters.

          South of Aswan, the cataracts or rapids made navigation difficult in ancient times and even for a modern British army, discussed here, with vivid passages by a young Lieutenant Winston Churchill, included below:
          Winston Churchill in the Hussars
          The best description of cataracts comes from The River War, written in 1899 by Winston Churchill, then 25 years old. The book details the exploits of the British in 1896 through 1898 to return to the Sudan after they were chased out by the Sudanese people in 1885. The British tried to reconquer the Sudan by steaming in gunboats up the Nile, so they were very interested in how the water flowed through the cataracts. They knew that the only time that ships could move upstream through the cataracts was during the summer flood, and then only with great difficulty. Churchill describes the Second Cataract (now submerged beneath Lake Nasser) as being about 9 miles long and having a total descent of sixty feet. The river flowed over successive ledges of black granite. During the summer floods, the Nile flowed swiftly but with an unbroken surface, but the granite ledges were exposed when the annual flood abated. During this time, Churchill reported that the river tumbled violently from ledge to ledge, its entire surface for miles churned to white foam. There are several other small cataracts between the Second and the Third Cataracts (Churchill shows cataracts near Semna, Ambigol, Tanjore, Okma, and Dal) but none of these posed any problems to the British moving upstream. According to Churchill, the Third Cataract is "a formidable barrier." There is smooth water for 200 miles upstream from this in all seasons.
          The Fourth Cataract lies in the Monassir Desert, and Churchill reported the following about this portion of the Nile: "Throughout the whole length of the course of the Nile there is no more miserable wilderness than the Monassir Desert. The stream of the river is broken and its channel obstructed by a great confusion of boulders, between and among which the water rushes in dangerous cataracts. The sandy waste approaches the very brim, and only a few palm-trees, or here and there a squalid mud hamlet, reveal the existence of life." The British gunboats El Teb and Tamai in 1897 attempted to go up the river at the Fourth Cataract, but in spite of being helped by 200 Egyptians and 300 tribesmen, the Tamai was swept downstream and almost capsized in the great rush of water. Four hundred more tribesmen were assembled to help the El Teb, which was capsized and carried off downstream.
          The great pyramids in Egypt were constructed of limestone. Nubian leaders also wanted to build pyramids like their great neighbors to the north. But Nubian pyramids were smaller and did not have burial chambers deep inside. The Nubians did not have the excellent limestone building material that the Egyptians had.

          Speaking of Nubians, the woman's name "Candace" comes from the Nubian word for "queen."

          Egypt's leaders (including a shout out to at least three great Hebrews)

          It was not just geography that propelled a great riverine civilization out of prehistory. It was also leadership. As Egyptologist Bob Brier takes pains to demonstrate in Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, the nation produced leaders who, at critical times, successfully confronted the challenges that sent other civilizations into decline. Narmer, Sneferu, Hatshepsut, Ramses the Great -- collectively these leaders were able to keep their civilization alive for more than 3,000 years -- an almost impossible feat unmatched by any other people on earth but the Chinese.

          The Hebrews Joseph, Moses, and Aaron should also be counted among the great leaders of Egypt. Joseph, a man of great integrity, was a visionary governor and strategic planner who saved Egypt from starvation. Moses was rescued from the Nile River as an infant and grew up as an Egyptian prince. He became one of humankind's greatest lawgivers when he led his people out of Egypt in the Exodus, the most referenced event in the Old Testament. The Exodus was the mother of all freedom marches. Lasting some 40 years, the Exodus was only made possible by the strong leadership of Moses and his brother Aaron.

          What were some of the qualities that these remarkable leaders possessed?

          1. Egypt's pharaohs and governors made the most of the geographic advantages of the insulated Nile Valley. They understood how to harness the forces and rhythms of nature -- the annual floods that crested each September and October, the renewal of the soil, the potential of water transportation.

          The pharaoh smiting his enemies.
          2. Egypt's leaders were not passive but assertive and often aggressive toward their neighbors. The pharaohs and governors enjoyed peace through strength; compared to Mesopotamia or the Levant, few conquerors in the ancient world had the resources and/or audacity to cross the sea or the desert to take on such a mighty nation. But the pharaohs did not just sit back and wait for foreign armies to test their resolve. With their large standing army, pharaohs routinely led their armies into foreign lands to bully and dominate them -- with great success, we should note. That's what pharaohs and their armies were supposed to do. In Egyptian art, the smiting stance is the archetypal way warring pharaohs are depicted.

          3. Pharaohs and governors also had a keen sense for continuing what worked. Aside from Akhenaten, it was rare for a pharaoh to be charmed into innovation when it came to the three basic institutions of Egyptian society: religion, the army, and the monarchy. They avoided change when possible, and they certainly eschewed change for its own sake. The proof that their conservative approach worked? Continuity served them well for some three millennia -- longer than any other civilization but the Chinese. For purposes of comparison, if we date the origins of Western civilization back to the Merovingians, who built up their culture on the ruins of the fallen Roman Empire in the west, then our civilization is about 1,500 years old -- just halfway around the track compared to the Egyptians.

          Egyptian religion

          Ever since I was a boy, I have read that the Nile's benign, predictable behavior had an impact on Egyptian religion and culture. The Nile gave rise to kinder, gentler gods than those of, say, Mesopotamia, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were more violent, unpredictable, and challenging to live with. I will leave this interesting point of comparison for the ethnographers to settle.

          The big point for me is that Egyptians did not believe in reincarnation (except in the case of the Apis Bulls), but in resurrection. Did this affect the thinking of Jesus, who spent his early childhood in Egypt?

          Osiris, the father of civilization, with his sister and wife, Isis
          The central myth in Egypt is that of Isis and Osiris -- sister and brother, wife and husband. According to legend, they came to teach Egyptians the arts of civilization made possible, first, by farming and herding. Egypt then became the font of civilizations around the world (a classic ethnocentric story). The soap opera started when Osiris was slain by his evil brother Seth, who had fallen in love with Isis but could not have her. Seth symbolized deserts, storms, and chaos. Isis, distraught over the loss of her brother, took the form of a bird and hovered over him, causing him to be resurrected. They then conceived a child-god named Horus. Thereupon Osiris became the god of the dead because he is the first being to resurrect.


          The Egyptians invented papyrus -- the origin of our word "paper."

          They were the first, according to Herodotus [History, 2: 4], to create a solar calendar based on 12 months.

          Hellenistic Egypt under the Ptolemies

          One of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Lighthouse in Alexandria's harbor
          When Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great, the Macedonian brought with him a civilization that embraced something radically new. Egypt was in for a shock. The people of the Nile River Valley had never experienced any cultural transformation like it. From Thales of Miletus to Ptolemy I, the Greek spirit, open to new ideas, spread into the Egyptian court and the new city of Alexandria. Ptolemy I's example is particularly striking because when he ruled Egypt, it was already a 3,000 year-old civilization; the pyramids he toured were more than 2,000 years old. Ptolemy brought an entirely new spirit to the land of the Nile. At Alexandria, he (1) commissioned the world's then-largest library that housed 700,000 papyri and humankind's first think tank; (2) engineered a harbor to hold 1,200 ships, and (3) erected a lighthouse that guided ships from as far away as 30 miles. In all these projects, Ptolemy exuded Hellenism's openness to the world. That spirit would powerfully reemerge in the European Renaissance some 1,700 years later.

          The Ptolemies were the successors of Alexander the Great in Egypt. They continued the Egyptian tradition of intermarrying. Often the kings married their sisters to keep power in the family.

          Alexandria was the city to the Greeks and had a population of about 300,000. They didn't mingle with the Egyptians. Everything to the south was agrarian and called "Egypt," which had a population of about 7 million. Alexandria was the administrative center of the country with a large bureaucracy.

          The Greeks in Alexandria loved their books, their papyri. They wanted every book in existence. Anytime a ship came into the harbor, the library would send somebody to search the ship for any books that were not already among the 700,000 in the collection. If they found a new book, a scribe would copy it. Then the library would keep the original and give the copy to the ship.

          The Last Ptolemy and Pharaoh -- Cleopatra VII, the Cleopatra

          Cleopatra, one of the most fascinating women who ever lived, became queen of Egypt at the age of 18. Although her passion was to unite the world under Egyptian rule -- or at least the Greek-speaking world, as Alexander had -- she instead earned the dubious distinction of being the last pharaoh of Egypt. After her death, Egypt was incorporated as a Roman province. Her end is ironic considering her efforts to reach out to her people and restore their greatness. She was (1) the only Ptolemy who bothered to learn Egyptian, (2) the only Ptolemy who respected Egypt's traditional religious customs and tried to revive them, and (3) she remained allies with the powerful Romans for as long as she could, as her father did. But history is written by the victors, and Cleopatra chose the losing side in a Roman civil war. The Romans on the winning side did not characterize her favorably, but as a femme fatale.

          Rome's political interest in Egypt was strategic -- controlling the Nile delta meant controlling the southeast Mediterranean Sea. Rome's economic interest in Egypt was its breadbasket. The banks of the Nile supplied Rome with dependable quantities of grain. Rome's historic interest in Egypt was as a rich supplier of the imagination. Rome was built of mud bricks, but Egypt was built of stone and had many ancient temples and pyramids.

          Queen Cleopatra is forever associated with three Roman leaders, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian. Cleopatra and Julius Caesar's boat tour up the Nile is a love story for the ages. Going south past Giza, Thebes, and Aswan, he was blown away by the sights. He had never seen such intimations of immortality -- in the stone temples, towering pyramids, and well-preserved mummies. Sharing such heady experiences along the Nile, the couple became enamored with each other, and by the time they reached Aswan, Cleopatra was pregnant. She gave birth to Caesarion, "Little Caesar." Even though he was married to Calpurnia, Caesar returned to Rome determined to summon Cleopatra and Caesarion to him. When they came to Rome he put them up in a villa just outside the city. This act raised Roman eyebrows, but he outraged the republicans in the Senate by placing a statue of Cleopatra dressed as the goddess Isis in a Roman temple. It made the Senate think that Caesar wanted to rule Rome as a god. So much for his profession of republican virtues. They plotted his death and assassinated him on the Ides of March. Queen Cleopatra, alone in a hostile city, faced a situation not unlike that of Isis, after she lost Osiris. She managed to escape with her son back to Egypt.
          Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) and Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert)
          But it was Cleopatra's affair with Marc Antony that both Plutarch ("Marc Anthony") and Shakespeare (Antony and Cleopatra) made immortal. Marc Antony, prior to his encounter with Cleopatra, was a no-nonsense general with many battles to his credit. Had he worked with Octavian to restore order to Rome, he could have had a good life. But once he succumbed to Cleopatra's flirtations, it was only a matter of time before his life began to waste away. Neglecting his duties, Marc Antony first lost his self-control, then his war, then his army, then his life. The story of the fall of one of Rome's greatest generals is a cautionary tale for powerful men in all times and places. It seems that Cleopatra did not love him so much as she loved her ambition for empire -- he just did not realize it. Cleopatra made Marc Antony a tool. He could not see that the queen was driven to make Egypt great again, and she sought to do it by uniting the Greek-speaking world under Egyptian rule. Perhaps an opportunity would present itself to conquer Rome even. The ambition of this remarkable stateswoman recalls the glory of Alexander the Great, and it anticipates the rise of Byzantium. For a delightful account of Marc Antony and Cleopatra's love affair, listen to classicist Rufus Fears.

          When the last of the Roman triumvirs, Octavian, defeated Marc Antony's navy at Actium and brought his army to heel near Alexandria, the star-crossed lovers began to run out of options. In despair Antony ran himself through with a sword. He died in Cleopatra's arms, and now she was alone. If Queen Cleopatra lived, she would be humiliated by Octavian by being displayed in a triumph before the mocking Roman public -- an unacceptable option for a pharaoh. If she died, the dream of reviving Egypt would die with her -- but at least she would cheat Octavian out of his triumph. She arranged to have a viper hidden in a basket of figs. Once it was sneaked into her apartment, she committed suicide through its venomous bite.

          Historians have speculated what would have happened had Marc Antony defeated Octavian at Actium (as he nearly did) and in subsequent battles. If Antony had dominated Rome and taken Cleopatra back to the city as his queen, then both Egyptian history and Roman history would have turned out much differently, and European history, too. There would have been no "Age of Augustus."

          Roman Egypt

          Jesus lived in Egypt when it was a Roman province. What did he see of Egyptian civilization? What did he learn about Egyptian history and myth? What would he have thought, for example, of the resurrection myth of Osiris?

          *     *     *


          From the perspective of world history, what thresholds and turning points did ancient Egypt contribute to humankind's betterment? [one of the four original riverine agricultural civilizations, irrigation channels, papyrus for writing]

          Every civilization has a "genius" and contributes something significant to humanity. What was the genius of Egyptian civilization? [There are several possible answers: (1) Egyptian leaders mastered continuity, retarded change; (2) they wonderfully adapted to and used the natural environment; (3) they had a different vision of the afterlife than others -- they believed not so much in reincarnation as resurrection, and the pyramids and books of the dead are emphatic statements about anticipating the resurrection of human life -- a precursor to Christian teaching.]

          What wisdom did the Egyptians give to humankind? [Greeks credited Egypt with being the font of their civilization]

          Why does Shakespeare conclude Antony and Cleopatra (Act V, scene 2) with this observation by his rival Octavian?
          "She shall be buried by her Antony: / No grave upon the earth shall clip in it / a pair so famous."

          What Egyptian history, literature, and myths would Jesus have learned when he spent his childhood there?

          What traits does a succession of leaders need to keep a civilization going 3,000 years? [understanding the best of the culture and having the ability to teach it to the rising generation and thus carry it forward; adapting successfully to challenges]