Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘US history’

The dead end of 70s childrearing

People often raise their children with ideals that they don’t really hold themselves, either because they on some level think they would be better people if they shared these ideals and hope their children will be better (tolerance, patience), or because they think these ideals are particularly appropriate to this stage of life (sharing, studiousness, Santa Claus). But I’ve been realising that some of what I learned as I child — at home, at school, and from the general culture

I genuinely found it weird that Barack Obama was attacked for harboring a secret “anti-colonialist” agenda (inherited from his father’s experience fighting the British for Kenyan independence. If I’d had to say what the core historical experience was that Americans harked back to, that defined our national identity, that we could agree upon, it was the history as colonials fighting for independence. The people opposing Obama dressed up in colonial-era costumes, harked back to the Boston Tea Party, striking a blow against the imperial power. (more…)

Jared Kushner thinks ahead on prison reform

One of the oddest trends of the latter half of the odd 1970s in the US was the transformation of law-and-order conservatives like Charles Colson and even G. Gordon Liddy into prison-reform advocates, after they had spent some time themselves in federal prison for their role in the Watergate scandal. The President’s son in law isn’t waiting. Congress is considering a package of reform measures to improve federal prison training programmes, and increase the possibilities for early release for good behaviour. Reports are that Kushner has taken time out of his busy schedule making peace in the Middle East and solving the opioid crisis to lobby for the bill. JK is, of course, famously well behaved. What good is advocating prison reform if it comes too late for you to take advantage of it?

Horse thieves and inverse probabilities

Reading Ron Chernow’s magisterial new biography of Ulysses Grant, I came across this very correct statistical inverse reasoning from the celebrated journalist Horace Greeley (whose role in the high school history curriculum has been reduced to the phrase, “Go West, young man” — that he denied having invented):

All Democrats are not horse thieves, but all horse thieves are Democrats.

This seems like an ironic bon mot, but after he became the Democratic candidate for president against Grant in 1872 he tried to use a milder version unironically as a defence of his new party colleagues:

I never said all Democrats were saloon keepers. What I said was all saloon keepers are Democrats.

Presumably he meant to add that if we knew the base rate of saloonkeeping (or horse thievery) in the population at large, we could calculate from the Democratic vote share the exact fraction of Democrats (and of Republicans) who are saloonkeepers (or horse thieves).

Very fine people of 1863

I’ve just been reading Ron Chernow’s new biography of U.S. Grant, struck by some of the parallels to current events. As interim Secretary of War Grant was at the center of the struggle over the Tenure of Office Act that served as the pretext for Johnson’s impeachment. Johnson’s supporters charged Grant with lying and drunkenness. The New York Tribune retorted

In a question of veracity between U.S. Grant and Andrew Johnson, between a soldier whose honor is as untarnished as the sun, and a President who has betrayed every friend, and broken every promise, the country will not hesitate.

And Grant’s opponent in the 1868 presidential election, New York governor Horatio Seymour, had

Denounced the Emancipation Proclamation as “a proposal for the butchery of women and children, for scenes … of arson and murder.” During the 1863 draft riots in New York, Seymour had praised the responsible hooligans as “my friends”.

Shades of Charlottesville.

On the one hand, it might be comforting to know that the US has come through worse. On the other hand, to say that current affairs have their parallels in the extreme crisis of civil war, and in a state of division that could only be “resolved” by policies that imposed essentially a century of apartheid in the southern states, is hardly comforting.

The compromise candidate

Several years ago I wrote a post about the strikingly different place of the US Civil War and the English Civil War in the collective memories of their respective countries. The other day I alluded in a post title to William Faulkner’s famous dictum “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This things come together in the way the news from Washington was dominated for a few days by an argument over the causes of the Civil War. Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff decided to take up the white supremacist’s burden by claiming that the war was an unfortunate consequence of well-intentioned men on both sides being unwilling to compromise. (Rather in the same way that Polish intransigence over the border issue started the Second World War. Not to mention the SS guards’ well-documented failure to maintain proper air-quality standards in Auschwitz…) (more…)

The mystic electric cords of memory

I’ve just been reading Eric Foner’s masterful treatise The Fiery Trial, on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery and race. I was struck by this passage from Lincoln’s speech in Chicago, during the 1858 senate election campaign. Referring to the suggestion that citizenship was inherited by blood from the patriots of the Revolutionary era he said that half the current population had no blood tie to those English, but

when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.

So I wondered, why is he referring to an “electric cord”? This is long before any household electricity. I’m guessing he is thinking of a telegraph wire. I find it surprising that he could expect his audience to have a meaningful association with this specific element of what was then a brand new technology, and I wonder what feelings went with it.

(In case you don’t know the reference in the title, it’s in the last paragraph.)

The World’s Greatest University(TM) has a bad PR day

Pity the poor flack in Harvard’s press office that needs to deal with two remarkable instances of cravenness in a single day: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government bowed to criticism from the CIA to revoke its invitation to military whistleblower and transgender activist Chelsea Manning to come for a short stay as a “visiting fellow”. And Michelle Jones who rehabilitated herself in prison after a gruesome childhood that culminated in the neglect, abuse, and possibly murder of her own child, to emerge 20 years later as a noted historian of the local prison system, to be admitted to multiple graduate programmes in history, but had her acceptance at Harvard overruled by the university administration. (more…)

Final salute

This photograph from Helmut Kohl’s memorial service in Strassburg immediately struck me as bizarre. Normal by now for America, but bizarre. Does any other democracy — not a totalitarian state or banana republic — have its leader going around playing soldier like this? Of course, the German military people and honour guard who accompanied the coffin to the burial in Germany saluted, but that’s their job. If I remember correctly, it was Reagan — who limited his military service to making propaganda films in Hollywood — who introduced this custom. And I remember very clearly how Bill Clinton was mocked, at the beginning of his presidency, for his supposed incompetence in saluting. He learned, and it’s no surprise that he wants to show that he can still do it. But seeing it on the international stage like this highlights how inappropriate it appears.

Exponential vernacular

Like most mathematicians, I think, I’m irritated by the way “grows exponentially” has come into common parlance as a synonym for “grows rapidly”; whereas exponential growth in mathematics may be fast or slow, depending on the current level of the quantity. This has even crossed into technical discussions, as when I heard a talk by a cancer expert who objected to standard claims that cancer mortality increases exponentially through adulthood — which it does — because the levels actually stay low through the 50s, and so only “increase exponentially” after that point.

Anyway, I was under the impression that the vernacular application of this mathematical concept was fairly recent. So I was intrigued to find the cognate concept of “growing geometric”  popping up in Evan Thomas’s Nixon biography, on the Watergate tapes. In the context of cancer. Used correctly! It’s quite a famous part of Watergate lore, where John Dean refers to Watergate as a “cancer… close to the presidency”.

We have a cancer — within — close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding, it grows geometrically now, because it’s compounding.

Absence and present values: A thought on monuments

I’ve just been reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, and came upon this passage, that is relevant to current debates about maintaining monuments to once-admired figures who have now fallen into disrepute:

[The Republican Party] did gain the support of General James Longstreet, whose example inspired some Confederate veterans to follow in his footsteps… General Longstreet’s decision to join the Republican Party made him an object of hatred among Southern Democrats for the remainder of his life. When he died, in 1903, the United Daughters of the Confederacy voted not to send flowers to his funeral, and unlike other Confederate generals, no statues of Longstreet graced the southern landscape.

It’s incredibly naïve to say, monuments should stay as they are because they are part of history. They’re not. History is history, but monuments are present expressions of an attitude toward history. Sure, the statue of Robert E. Lee that was recently taken down in New Orleans was itself a historical artifact, and part of (a certain period of) city history, but the curatorial choice of what to keep is a statement about our current values. To the untrained eye, the statue was not a monument to 1884, when it was put up, but to 1863.

If you really want it to be a monument to 1884, and the intervening time when it has stood, so that the public could appreciate the “history” represented by the erection of a statue of Robert E. Lee (or of Cecil Rhodes), you would need to be able to make them see not only the statue that is present, but also the statue that is absent (of General Longstreet, say, or Olive Schreiner). But an absence can never compete with a presence in its impact on the viewer. So Lee and Rhodes must fall.

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