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Current Topic: History

The Last Americans
Topic: History 11:20 pm EST, Dec 28, 2004

Jared Diamond is Good Reading.

One of the disturbing facts of history is that so many civilizations collapse. Few people, however, least of all our politicians, realize that a primary cause of the collapse of those societies has been the destruction of the environmental resources on which they depended. Fewer still appreciate that many of those civilizations share a sharp curve of decline. Indeed, a society's demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth, and power.

Because peak population, wealth, resource consumption, and waste production are accompanied by peak environmental impact -- approaching the limit at which impact outstrips resources -- we can now understand why declines of societies tend to follow swiftly on their peaks.

Some people assume that new technologies will succeed quickly enough to make a big difference soon, but all of these major technological changes will actually take five to thirty years to develop and implement -- if they catch on at all. Most of all, those with faith assume that new technology won't cause any new problems. In fact, technology merely constitutes increased power, which produces changes that can be either for the better or for the worse. All of our current environmental problems are unanticipated harmful consequences of our existing technology. There is no basis for believing that technology will miraculously stop causing new and unanticipated problems while it is solving the problems that it previously produced.

The Last Americans

Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa
Topic: History 12:24 am EST, Dec 17, 2004

Thucydides' classic work on the history of the Peloponnesian War is the root of Western conceptions of history -- including the idea that Western history is the foundation of everyone else's.

Here, Marshall Sahlins takes on Thucydides and the conceptions of history he wrought with a groundbreaking new book.

In this most convincing presentation yet of his influential theory of culture, Sahlins experiments with techniques for mixing rich narrative with cultural explication in the hope of doing justice at once to the actions of persons and the customs of people.

And he demonstrates the necessity of taking culture into account in the creation of history -- with apologies to Thucydides, who too often did not.

Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa

The Republican Propaganda Mill, a Brief History | Harper's
Topic: History 1:03 am EDT, Sep  8, 2004

If only the "alternative weeklies" could write like this, they might be worth reading.

To a small group of activists meeting in New York City in the early 1970s, Rob Stein had brought thirty-eight charts diagramming the organizational structure of the Republican "Message Machine," an octopus-like network of open and hidden microphones that he described as "perhaps the most potent, independent institutionalized apparatus ever assembled in a democracy to promote one belief system."

In July 1968, the Republicans knew they were in trouble, but they didn't know why. Ideas apparently mattered, and words were maybe more important than they had guessed; unfortunately, they didn't have any.

Having exchanged intellectual curiosity for ideological certainty, they had forfeited their powers of observation as well as their senses of humor.

But if a set of coherent ideas was hard to find in all the sermons from the mount, what was not hard to find was the common tendency to believe in some form of transcendent truth. A religious as opposed to a secular way of thinking. Good versus Evil, right or wrong, saved or damned, with us or against us, and no light-minded trifling with doubt or ambiguity.

In place of intelligence, which might tempt them to consort with wicked or insulting questions for which they don't already possess the answers, the parties of the right substitute ideology, which, although sometimes archaic and bizarre, is always virtuous.

The dumbing down of the public discourse follows as the day the night, and so it comes as no surprise that both candidates in this year's presidential election present themselves as embodiments of what they call "values" rather than as the proponents of an idea.

The Republican Propaganda Mill, a Brief History | Harper's

American Propaganda Posters from World War II
Topic: History 1:11 am EDT, Aug 28, 2004

Which poster is your favorite?

Books are weapons in the war of ideas

What to Do in an Air Raid

Americans! Share the Meat! Use it up--wear it out--make it do! Idle hands work for Hitler! Who wants to know? Silence means security. Defense Needs Rubber! (Save yours) Men Working Together! Give 'em both barrels. Do it right: make it bite.

This war will be over some day : don't get caught with your pants down. A half-filled stamp album is like a half-equipped soldier.

Your government warns: prepare for winter now! Grow your own! Be Sure!

Ouch! The Japs don't like mosquitoes. Warning, aliens. Hon. spy say: thanks for the can you throw away!

If you talk too much, this man may die. I need your skill in a war job! What did you do today -- for freedom?

Jenny on the job: gets her beauty sleep.
Jenny on the job: wears styles designed for victory.
Jenny on the job: steps ahead with low heels.
Jenny on the job: has her fun after work.
Jenny on the job says -- let's keep our rest room clean!
Jenny on the job: keeps fresh as a daisy.

American Propaganda Posters from World War II

Why Did Washington Succeed?
Topic: History 1:42 am EDT, May 28, 2004

In 1797 King George III of England, Washington's erstwhile enemy, appraised Washington's resignation from the presidency, looking back at the dramatic 1783 resignation as Commander-in-Chief upon concluding the Revolutionary War that had won Washington world-wide fame, and concluded that they "placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living, and that he thought him the greatest character of the age."

King George doubtless had no idea of Machiavelli's advice in mind as he spoke. George Washington, however, so frequently and well used the art of resignation, that one can wonder if he were not inspired by considerations like to those advised by Machiavelli.

Washington began his career of resignations when he was still a youthful commander of the colonial militia in Virginia in the early 1750s. His objective then, however, was to pressure the colonial governor and assembly into providing more adequate provision for defense of the frontiers against Indian attacks. By the time of his resignation as Commander-in-Chief in 1783, however, he had clearly established concrete political plans that were to be advanced no less from "a private position" as they previously had been in his public role.

The gravamen of Machiavelli's advice was that a general whose great virtue had acquired for his prince or country new domain or secure liberty should anticipate suspicion. In this case he can act only in one of two ways, to resign the great powers he has acquired or to use those powers to establish himself in supreme office. Resigning would operate not only to defend against suspicion but also to build reputation.

Why Did Washington Succeed?

From Dawn to Decadence
Topic: History 2:26 pm EDT, May  9, 2004

In the last half-millennium, great revolutions have swept the Western world. Each has brought profound change. And each is too little studied or appreciated today.

To leaf through this sweeping, densely detailed but lightly written survey of the last 500 years is to ride a whirlwind of world-changing events.

A book of enormous riches, it's sprinkled with provocations.

Only after a lifetime of separate studies covering a broad territory could a writer create with such ease the synthesis displayed in this magnificent volume.

Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has now set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500.

Read this book.

From Dawn to Decadence

Spy Letters of the American Revolution
Topic: History 1:54 am EDT, Apr 13, 2004

The Revolutionary War was not fought by proclamations and battles alone. A major component of the war was the challenge of organizing military strategies over thousands of miles of battlefield.

From the very beginning of the war, a complex network of spies, double agents, and traitors began to emerge in an effort to learn the plans of the enemy before they were enacted.

The preservation and availability of the Sir Henry Clinton collection at the Clements Library provides an amazingly complete look at the everyday intelligence operations of both the British and American armies. Many of the letters highlighted in this digital exhibit were pivotal to the success and failures of sieges, battles, and surprise attacks.

Spy Letters of the American Revolution

Levittown, Pa. | Building the Suburban Dream
Topic: History 8:08 pm EDT, Apr  4, 2004

The brainchild of developer William J. Levitt, Levittown, Pennsylvania was the largest planned community constructed by a single builder in the United States. By the time it was completed in 1958, the development occupied over 5500 acres in lower Bucks County and included churches, schools, swimming pools, shopping centers and 17,311 single-family homes.

To its 70,000-plus residents, Levittown represented the American Dream of homeownership. To many others, Levittown epitomized postwar suburbia -- a place often criticized but widely copied.

In honor of its 50th anniversary, this exhibit explores the early history of Levittown from the perspective of those who built and lived the suburban dream.


"Welcome to Levittown!

You have just purchased what we believe to be the finest house of its size in America. We wish you health and happiness in Levittown for many years to come.

In order that you may enjoy your house, and derive the utmost pleasure from it, we have undertaken to prepare this handbook so that you may better understand your position and your responsibilities."

... According to the Ladies Home Journal, a favorite pastime of newcomers was "gazing into lighted homes at night to pick up decorating ideas."

Levittown, Pa. | Building the Suburban Dream

'Freedom Just Around the Corner': Rogue Nation
Topic: History 9:52 am EST, Mar 28, 2004

This unusual book by Walter A. McDougall is the first of what will be a three-volume history of America. If this volume, which covers the period 1585 to 1828, is any indication of the promised whole, the trilogy may have a major impact on how we Americans understand ourselves.

A "candid" history, its major theme is "the American people's penchant for hustling." We Americans, he claims, are a nation of people on the make.

If today we are shocked by shenanigans like the Enron debacle, insider trading, mutual fund abuses and the prevalence of special interests in politics, we need to get some perspective on our history.

His beautifully produced vignettes include not only the major figures like Hamilton and Jefferson, but also lesser ones like Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Eli Whitney and "a true American hustler," Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Calling CNN -- can we get Anderson Cooper to interview McDougall?

'Freedom Just Around the Corner': Rogue Nation

America at Work / America at Leisure, 1894-1915
Topic: History 11:34 am EST, Mar  7, 2004

The period from 1894 to 1915 was one in which workers in the United States began to have more leisure time than their predecessors.

People responded to this increased allowance of free time by attending a variety of leisure activities both within and away from the city.

Be sure to check out Edison's 1902 film of "Babies Rolling Eggs."

America at Work / America at Leisure, 1894-1915

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