Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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Boom

August 8, 2009

A letter in the paper today seems to put forth the view that the fact that nation states hold nuclear weapons may be good for world stability. The writer advocates that a “nuclear balance-of-terror may deter big wars”. Of course, this letter has been prompted by the recent passing of yet another anniversary of the catastrophic August 6th 1945 dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The letter writer then goes on to remind readers that the Japanese committed horrific war crimes during World War II and that his father was a victim of these crimes, having been held in a POW camp himself for three and half years. There is no denying this of course. It is well documented that the Japanese Imperial Forces committed disgusting and horrific crimes against humanity during World War II, particularly the rape of Nanjing, which the Chinese people will be hard pressed to forgive or forget for, one would think, thousands of years. These atrocities must be remembered and learned from, just like the myriad of other lessons that history teaches us. Furthermore, certain sections of Japanese society need to deal with them and learn from them as well as acknowledge that they happened and that they were atrocious and morally reprehensible in every way. Certain other sections of Japanese society have indeed already acknowledged all this.

However, separate from his first point, there seems a more base level claim and justification for dropping a nuclear bomb on an industrialised, densely populated city that the letter writer espouses. The only problem is he fails to link it to the first point he attempts to make in the letter – that nuclear weapon ownership among nations is a stabilising factor in the international arena of world powers.  Abandoning the pretence that a “nuclear balance-of-terror may deter big wars”, the letter writer then wraps up his ‘point’ by mentioning karma and stating that “what goes around, comes around”.

Now, is it just me or is has this letter writer not learned his lessons from history? I intend to make a few points in response to these claims below. Firstly, I’ll deal with the claim that nuclear weapons are a stabilising factor in the international arena. Then I’ll say a few things on the never ending debate about whether the nuclear bombs should have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the moral judgements that are bandied about constantly in relation to the decision to drop them. I will then say a few things about my own experience of Hiroshima and make the point that those who think that there can be ‘good’ reasons for the existence of these abominable weapons in the world are misguided, to say the least.

To say that nuclear weapons are a stabilising factor in the international arena is completely ridiculous. It’s akin to saying you can arm a substantial part of the population of a country with guns and the fact that they all own guns will stop them from shooting each other. We have hard evidence that this is not the case.  Furthermore, it creates suspicion and paranoia. Extrapolate this to the international arena. The fact that the United States developed the bomb first and used it set the Soviet Union off on a rapid nuclearisation path that plunged both these nations into the Cold War. This face-off led to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis which perched the world on the brink of nuclear war. This period was anything but stable and the so-called détente which followed it was stable only in relative terms to the period which immediately preceded it. As the Cold War wound on, nations on both sides of the divide fought proxy wars and took steps that aided in the nuclearisation of their perceived allies. Furthermore, other nations less drawn into the overarching conflict of the Cold War have also been successful in their pursuit of possessing nuclear weapons.

This proliferation has eventuated in the following countries possessing these catastrophic devices in addition to the United States and Russia: Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea. While Israel officially says it doesn’t possess any nuclear weapons, it is nonetheless the opinion of many international observers that Israel could be in possession of up to 100 such weapons. That’s an official total of eight countries with the real total probably being nine. On top of this, Iran, Syria and Myanmar are all suspected to be actively pursuing nuclear weapons to varying degrees right now.

The destabilisation and suspicion that this has caused has been so great that the United Nations, no matter how hard it tries, cannot reel it in or devise any workable solutions in regard to stopping the proliferation of these weapons. Probably the most poignant example at the moment of nuclear weapons having a huge destabilising effect does not come from North Korea (as alarming and destabilising as the North Korean regime having them is) but from Pakistan. Pakistan is thought to possess around 200 nuclear weapons and is steadily increasing this arsenal. The destabilising factor, as many have pointed out, does not come from the Pakistani state as it stands at the moment (except from India’s point of view, but that’s a whole other geo-political issue). The nightmare scenario is if the Taliban and their friends are able to mount an effective enough campaign to oust the weakened Pakistani government and arm themselves with the nuclear weapons that Pakistan has attained over the last two decades.

A nuclear armed state in the international arena has proven throughout the 20th century to be a constant threat of war and destruction on a catastrophic scale. A nuclear armed bunch of stateless fanatics who routinely practice beheadings, amputations, appalling sexism and many other lovely little cleansings of the soul in the name of their warped world view is a new threat that will cause untold destabilisation and irreversible damage to the region with ramifications worldwide. There have been recent renewed efforts from Pakistan to deal with this threat, but the political will to do so is fickle and their enemy is a resourceful, powerful and enduring one.

Not only has nuclear proliferation been a major destabilising factor for the world throughout the 20th century, but as the world grows more complex and new types of war are being fought with unconventional forces who renew their tactics constantly and are utterly unpredictable, these weapons have the potential to completely destroy the world as we know it. The idea that nuclear terror will “deter big wars” is absurd. Nuclear weapons are, after all, weapons. They are designed for a purpose and just like in the case of every other weapon, that purpose is waiting to be executed by those who are willing to push the button – and to say that such people don’t exist is naive and silly. Nuclear weapons a stabilising factor? What planet are you on?

A few things about the Hiroshima/Nagasaki debate. Should nuclear weapons have been used on these cities at the conclusion of World War II? Of course not. The war was a war between belligerent armies and Japan was steadily collapsing and being worn down by the overwhelming superiority of the American forces. Of course, some will point out that the Japanese High Command were simply not willing to surrender. This may be so, but it does not justify the dropping of a nuclear weapon on a city which caused somewhere in the vicinity of 70,000 deaths instantly, 50,000 in the following days, thousands more in the following years and a long term mutation effect on many among the local population. The war was between soldiers – and yes, Japan did not respect this and in fact carried out some of the worst atrocities against civilians of the 20th century. However, this does not mean that the Allies should have done the same. It’s like saying that terrorists blow up our cafes and nightclubs with suicide bombers, so we should go to their local communities and do the same. A “what goes around, comes around” attitude is a sadistic retributive justice stance that does not rectify a situation and has the effect of robbing people of their lives and their dignity. Punishing a people collectively for the crimes of their compatriots is ludicrous. America needed to fight in World War II, America needed to be in Europe and the Pacific and do many of the things it did. America DID NOT need to drop those bombs to win that war and doing so has been one of the monumental mistakes of modern history.

Anyone who’s been to Hiroshima will get a sense of why it was the wrong decision to drop those bombs. The Japanese in this city know all too well the devastation that nuclear weapons cause. The museum and peace park underneath where the epicentre of the explosion was are testaments to this. They offer an emotional education of why these weapons are a scourge on our humanity. The museum takes care to mention Japanese atrocities during the war and acknowledges the Japanese military regime’s role in bringing about the war in the Pacific. It also gives an informative overview of nuclear weapons around the world. The last part of the museum takes you through the devastation of the city on August 6th 1945 as well as the following days and months. It’s an emotional walk through that museum. It’s a powerful and sombre reminder and that whatever gripes humans may have with each other over whatever issue, there is no guarantee of a good outcome if nuclear weapons are used – particularly if both parties possess them.

A photo I took in Hiroshima Peace Park earlier this year. The Arch is directly underneath where the epicentre of the explosion was said to be.

A photo I took in Hiroshima Peace Park earlier this year. The Arch is directly underneath where the epicentre of the explosion was said to be.

Anyone who says that nuclear weapons can have some sort of positive effect on the world needs to re-evaluate their thinking and do some serious research before making such an absurd assertion in the future.

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Delay, Ideas, Narrative etc.

July 26, 2009

DELAY

Posts are always few and far between these days, as life in other areas online and offline takes up most of the finite time I have. Anyways, they will continue, as spurting this crap out from time to time is still fun.

First up, the post on capitalism in Japan. I’ll return to this later, as I’m going there again soon and want to look around and read a little more with that particular subject in mind. Anyways, a small sample of thoughts of late…

IDEAS

The other day, I was thinking about how stories (whatever they may be about) expressed through a number of different mediums have such an all encompassing effect on, well, everything in our culture. Not that this is a revelation or anything (for those of you thinking “well, duh”). It’s just cool to think about. The latest thoughts in regard to this were triggered whilst I was watching the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice (of all things!) which prompted me to re-read the novel. Go ahead, laugh… OK, but really… Just think about that novel.

The first thing to be said before I go on is that Pride and Prejudice completely ignores the emerging working classes of the time. I’ll say more about this below. However, it does reveal so many things about the emerging middle classes and their connection to the old aristocracy and landed gentry of England (as well as some insights on religion as well). Hence it is still an important novel to read for anyone interested in history from a general leftist point of view. It’s also simply a good read.

Jane Austen’s witty, scathing, sarcastic and ironic commentary on the society that existed during her time was first published in 1813. OK, there’s a corny love story in there as well (and there’s no doubt that she was a good story-teller as well as a good writer), but there’s so much more going on in this novel. You see the influence of all the old ideas that had dominated English culture during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance such as remnants of feudalism, inheritance of property and property owned by simply the King/Queen and a landed lord class and the like. But you also see the new emerging middle class philosophies of capitalism, entrepreneurship and new ways of controlling property and expanding the political power of the emerging middle classes. If you look a little closer, I think it becomes clear that Darcy is not just a member of the aristocracy. He is a prime example of how some aristocratic and middle class ideals and ideas started to merge during this period. He’s a business man just as much as he’s a toffee-nosed snob. These ideas and ideals manifested themselves in a new ruling class that had cemented much of their power in England (and Europe) by the time of the First World War. It is far too simple to say that the aristocracy died out. A large proportion of them merged with the middle classes over two to three generations during Austen’s time.

Many of them were making the transition from a landed aristocracy to a business savvy, property owning (and buying), money owning middle class. An exception is Lady Catherine – a die hard member of the decaying aristocracy of the time, relying on old social norms over new middle class ideas. She despises Elizabeth and her family – especially Mrs. Bennet’s middle-class background.

We all know the story of Darcy and Elizabeth’s pride and prejudice getting in the way of their true feelings for each other. These are personal, of course, but they are completely focused on class consciousness. Elizabeth constantly mocks Darcy as an upper class snob and Darcy is appalled at the middle class Bennet’s behaviour on several occasions and lumps Elizabeth into the category of crude, uncultured middle class scum. Whilst there is this definite divide between the middle and upper classes in the novel, there is also a constant merging of these two classes together which gives us a snapshot of the emerging relationship between them during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  There is a constant attempt from middle class characters in the novel to emulate and mingle with those of the upper classes. From ‘above’ there is also a reluctant admittance that as one moves through society, one must mix with this new emerging middle class. This is revealed beautifully in the novel through the Netherfield Ball episode.

The very fact that Darcy and Elizabeth are able to overcome their respective classist reservations by the end of the novel reveals an emerging middle (and working!) class ideal of personal character and hard work determining one’s lot and not simply class or wealth. While I don’t think this is all Austen was getting at, it is nonetheless front and centre in the story. If the novel was written one or two hundred years earlier, there wouldn’t have even been a middle class and Darcy would simply have married Anne DeBourgh. This change in social attitude with members of the younger generation is further revealed by the union between Bingley and Jane Bennet as well.

The Darcy-Bennet and Bingley-Bennet unions are a reflection of what was happening at large in the middle and upper classes of England at this time. There was a broad unspoken alliance of sorts between these two as over a few generations, their vested interests and new business ventures were propelled by an all-encompassing political and social will that unfolded throughout the 19th century. It is interesting to note that at a time when France was reeling from the middle class inspired revolution of 1789, England was gradually consolidating power and wealth at home and abroad through old aristocratic conventions and vigorous new middle class entrepreneurship. This is not to say that England was without political and class tension and upheaval. But the overall enduring strength of this unspoken alliance and transition is there for all to see: the royal family are still in Buckingham Palace today.

As for the working classes, anyone who’s read Austen will know that she didn’t write about them at all. She has been criticised for this by many. However, I think this criticism is unfair. Austen wrote her works with the society she grew up in and experienced in mind. Were she to write about the working class experience of her time, she would have had to live and work among workers. This was not the circumstance into which she was born and she cannot be criticised for that. She has given us valuable insights into middle and upper class society, not the working classes. If anything, this should increase the importance of her works for those of us on the left. Equipping ourselves with only a working class outlook is narrow and counter productive. Besides, there are a plethora of other sources to consult on the different dynamics of the working class experience during this period.

NARRATIVE

So, I’ve read a few good books of late. One in particular that I’d recommend is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s an excellent story with a narrative from the perspective of death. Beautifully written, it is a unique take on life in Germany just before and during the Second World War. This is a topic which has been written about many times, but this work stands out and both young adults and adults alike will get so much out of it. Go and read it… Now!

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Friedrich, Karl and the perpetual crisis

November 29, 2008

Guess who… And from where…

“The productive forces at our disposal no longer tend to further the development of the relations of bourgeois civilisation; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these relations by which they are encumbered, and so soon as they overcome these encumbrances, they bring into disorder the whole of bourgeois society, then endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The relations of bourgeois society have become too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by the enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. And by what means? By preparing the way for more general and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.”

– Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, published 1848.

Oh dear… So much insight for one small passage. Now, every monopolistic, capitalistic right-wing moron who isn’t smart enough to understand the above passage will insist that the “current economic crisis” is starting to correct itself and that the market will “come good” over the next year. No, no, no! The only reason why some of the largest corporations in the world aren’t in the hands of receivers right now is because the government has bailed them out. Yes, that “old socialistic” visible hand has come in and injected shitloads of money into the very corporations who have misled the masses, handled their money irresponsibly and then (behind closed doors) begged the government (who are indebted to these right wing bourgeois fucks) to bail them out while they walk away without a single scar.

Yes, my friends. The government is always looked at by conservative right-wing economists as the evil entity sticking its nose into the business of business and robbing citizens of their money in the form of taxation. Do I entirely disagree with this assessment? Of course not – they do have a point in certain contexts. But, on the whole, current western government is just a tool and mechanism of the essentially monopolistic capitalist system in which we find ourselves and hence they will bail out those of their ilk before they give a damn about those who have lost out and are about to lose out in this latest “crisis”. That very system that Marx and Engels describe in the depths of their (and I don’t give a shit how old and cliqued it is) brilliantly written Communist Manifesto is the system we find ourselves in. Think about it: On the one hand by the enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces”… hhhmmm, so by war (in every sense of the word) – The Empire has started two obvious ones over the last seven years. On the other by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones” . If you can’t see these, then you’ve been living in a cave forever. This wasn’t really even an insight in 1848, when the manifesto was written. The conquest and exploitation of new markets is evident in China and India, even in an extremely superficial analysis.

If you want to go deeper, look at the effect that this has had on the emerging working classes in places like China and India (where that annoying glitch of trade unions is largely avoided thanks to an overbearing alliance of business and government. Yes, China’s government has never been “Communist” – it is now a fully functioning fascist capitalistic dictatorship). So, there’s your exploitation right there… Then look at the middle classes of those respective countries… Then look at the effect that the outsourcing of jobs from the rich world has had on the working populations of places like, say, Detroit in the good old U S of A.

So, we have the conquest of new markets – China and India’s bourgeoning (oh – I know you’re marvelling at my oh so clever pun! And, yes – there are two correct ways to spell this in English!) middle classes and desperate poorer working classes. Then the “more thorough exploitation of old ones” – the outsourcing of jobs in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia which (to varying degrees in each of these countries) forces working classes into the position where they need to get more jobs to make enough to get by and/or then become more indebted to the… massive corporations who have created and perpetuated this whole “latest crisis” through their irresponsible investment, their irresponsible lending and their irresponsible borrowing… You see? The so-called “economic cycle” is precisely what Marx and Engles have described above. It is the economic cycle of perpetual crisis – it thrives on crises to survive.

So, who loses out at all of this? Most of us, it seems. The masses (in their various class forms throughout history) endure the suffering, hardship and economic (in the form of increased taxation and various depleted social government programs) cost of each crisis as it is progressively and systematically played out.  Who does well? The few who run the show: the indebted spine-less “representatives” of our respective democracies and dictatorships and the corporations who fund them in many direct and indirect ways. In a word, the bourgeoisie (and the few aristocrats who are left in the world). Call them what you will with the passing of time. They take many more forms than what Marx and Engels envisioned. But the essence of what Marx and Engels envisioned is what matters, if you have a clear enough line of sight to see it.

So, I hear you saying that you fund the government too, right? Well, you are correct madam and sir! But, how do you vote? You vote within the system… As do I… In the words of one of my favourite bands, Propagandhi:

“You can vote however the fuck you want, but power still calls all the shots. And believe it or not, even if (real) democracy broke loose, power could/would just “make the economy scream” until we vote responsibly.”

And, yes, my friends… This is where our right-wing counterparts have a point (refer to what I wrote above). Taxation is exploitation (doesn’t that sound familiar? From a distant lost past perhaps). Our simple right-wing friends get it wrong in how taxation is a problem though. And (don’t you just love artists and musicians for their ability to sprout truth in a simplistic, but beautiful light?) to quote Michael Franti: “Take a look at where your money’s gone… See? … Take a look at what they spend it on. No excuses! No illusions!”

The system is the problem people. What system? Thy name is monopolitisic, government supported, greedy capitalism.

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Worse ways to spend a Sunday

November 11, 2007

Ah, yes. I’m one of the few people who actually like living in Canberra. Spent most of the morning and the early afternoon soaking up the sunlight on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin re-reading some Roman history. The summary of my Sunday can be seen below:

Not a bad way to spend a Sunday…

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70 years on – smashing Franco’s fascism

April 24, 2007

For anyone that watched Foreign Correspondent tonight, you’ll understand. I’ve studied the Spanish Civil War in some depth both at university and on my own time. It seems that since Franco died in 1975 and Juan Carlos initiated democracy in Spain, Spanish people have been reluctant to disturb the ghosts of the past and deal with the civil war. With a whitewash of propaganda during the 36 years of Franco’s rule, Rupublican views, interpretations and memorials of the war have not even been acknowledged, let alone respected and honoured.

Of course, any historical study of this fascinating but brutal period in history reveals that there were atrocities committed by both sides during the war. Fascist Francoists as well as Republicans killed each other without a second thought – civilians included. However, the fact remains that the Fascist Francoists seized power from a democratically elected government. The Popular Front Government was elected in Spain in February of 1936. In July of the same year, Franco and his posse launched a coup that plunged Spain into a brutal civil war – a war that saw Hitler support Franco with the German Condor legion conducting the first mass aerial bombing of a civilian centre in history. This bombing campaign has since been immortalised in Picasso’s famous “Guernica”.

Franco was a great admirer of Hitler. He even met with him during the early stages of the Second World War in 1940. During his reign, Franco suppressed all Republican interpretations and views of the civil war. He paid homage to the fallen Fascists of the war but never acknowledged those Spaniards on the Left or those who were simply defending the democracy that Fracco set out to destroy. The fact that many Spaniards are now demanding to acknowledge and literally dig up the past is a sign that Spain is now coming to terms with the fact that it was ruled by a ruthless fascist dictator for the most significant part of the 20th century. This dictator set back the political development of Spain for four decades and suppressed the flowering of Spanish democratic culture.

We should all be glad that Spain is acknowledging and honouring the Republican dead. The Republican side most certainly lacked many of the virtues that it was seeking to implement into Spanish society. But the fascist dictatorship that overthrew the democratic Republic was a devastating blow to the political, cultural, artistic and social devlopment of the world both during and after the Second World War. With all their failings, we should not forget the sacrifice that Republican Spaniards made in defending the virtues of democracy in the face of an overwhelming threat from the forces of devastating fascism. Indeed, we should remember and honour this sacrifice and use it as an inspiration to carry on the fight against fascism in all its forms.

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Why don’t they…

August 21, 2006

Just adopt the NSW Year 9 and 10 Syllabus and stop wasting time and money on a series of meetings that will fuel media speculation and just tumble the teaching of history into the History Wars? You know it makes sense.

In other exciting news, Tool are playing Australia in Jan 2007. I shall be there.

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Who controls the past now…

August 4, 2006

Last weekend, Hindsight broadcasted the Whose History Forum which allowed a number of history teachers and academics (two of which I have been taught by at university) the chance to respond to John Howard’s assertion back in January that “Too often being taught without any sense of structured narrative, replaced by a fragmented stew of themes and issues…history…has succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism where any objective record of achievement is questioned or repudiated.” Mark over at Larvatus Prodeo commented on Howard’s bold new vision last week.

I don’t really think that Howard’s view of how history should be taught in Australia is practical. Besides, in NSW at least, if he reads the stage 5 syllabus, he would see that it is entirely geard around Australian history and can most definitely be taught in a chronological manner and can be introduced in a structured narrative way if that’s what floats your boat. But does Howard want us to stop there? What to do after the basic narrative? Then we interpret, fragment, categorise and find themes, problems and issues. That is what the nature of doing history is all about Johnny – enquiring, probing, interpreting, categorising and looking for thematic problems and issues so as to interpret the present and future as well.

The power of history is enormous and George Orwell’s famous saying most certainly is true. That is why it is important for history teachers to present all different interpretations, themes and issues in relation to historical analysis and allow students a maximum amount of room to move to encourage their own unique interpretation of what they are studying and what it means for us as a species. When politicians want to use history to try to create a “standard”, one-size-fits-all narrative for certain political ends, then I’m not really worried about what that will do to Australian students because it will fail simply through students not paying attention in class because of how boring and unimaginative it will be for them. History is dynamic and therefore requires a dynamic classroom. Narrative is important, but only to establish a base from which to conduct historical analysis. John Howard should keep this in mind.