Brooklyn and Jackie Robinson II

The Dodgers met the awesome New York Yankees in the 1947 World Series, the first fall classic ever with a Black ball player and the first to be televised – people didn’t have TVs at home yet and the bars of Brooklyn were packed as resourceful publicans showed the game on early Motorola and RCA TVs; announcer Bob Stanton did the TV play-by-play; broadcasting legends Mel Allen and Red Barber made their AM radio broadcasts on WINS and WMGM respectively.
This was a world series that went seven games and one that had moments that have become part of baseball lore and legend (at least in Brooklyn ). There was Cookie Lavagetto’s breaking up Claude Bevens’ no-hitter attempt with a double off the Ebbetts Field scoreboard with two outs in the 9th inning of game 4. In the bottom of the 9th, the score was Yankees 2, Dodgers 1 – the Dodger run being the result of two walks, a sacrifice bunt and a fielder’s choice in the 5th inning. In the Dodger 9th, the first two batters went down quietly. But then Carl Furillo walked and speedy Al Gionfriddo was sent in as a pinch-runner for Furillo; Pete Reiser pinch–hit for pitcher Hugh Casey; Gionfriddo then stole second and the Yankees deliberately walked Reiser putting runners on first and second – ominously the potential winning run was now on base; Eddie Miskis ran for Reiser. Eddie Stanky was due up next; Red Barber, known for his Southern charm and country vocabulary, announced things this way:
    Wait a minute … Stanky is being called back from the plate and Lavagetto goes up to hit … Gionfriddo walks off second … Miksis off first … They’re both ready to go on anything … Two men out, last of the ninth … the pitch … swung on, there’s a drive hit out toward the right field corner. Henrich is going back. He can’t get it! It’s off the wall for a base hit! Here comes the tying run, and here comes the winning run! … Friends, they’re killin’ Lavagetto… his own teammates… they’re beatin’ him to pieces and it’s taking a police escort to get Lavagetto away from the Dodgers! … Well, I’ll be a suck-egg mule!
Lavagetto’s game-winning hit kept the Dodgers from making baseball history as the first team to be on the wrong end of a no-hitter in a World Series game – a point we will sadly return to.
For a video of Red Barber and Mel Allen’s reminiscences about Lavagetto’s hit, click HERE .
And there was Al Gionfriddo’s incredible catch, snaring a Joe Dimaggio blast, racing with his arm stretched out over the low fence in left-center field in Yankee Stadium, 406 feet from home plate, to save game 6.
Here’s how Red Barber reported Gionfriddo’s catch:
    Here’s the pitch, swung on, belted … it’s a long one … back goes Gionfriddo, back, back, back, back, back, back … heeee makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen! Oh, Doctor!
For a video of that catch, click HERE .
So the Dodgers won game 6 setting up the 7th game in Yankee Stadium. But the Yankees won that final game and all Brooklyn fans could do was to find comfort in the cry “Wait till next year,” yet once again.
Full Disclosure: This writer was seven years old in 1947 and did not really follow the Dodgers yet – that would happen big time in 1949; but, in 1950 he had a sports bio-comic entitled Jackie Robinson which covered Robinson’s life and Dodger highlights such as the 1947 World Series in detail; this writer read it so often that it was pretty much committed to photographic memory – emotionally speaking it has been a much more important source even than the invaluable internet.
Alas 1948 was not to be that “next year”: although Leo Durocher was back at the helm after his one year suspension, this was to be a trading and rebuilding season as the Dodgers would finish in 3rd place. To start the season, star right-fielder Dixie Walker was traded to Pittsburgh. But the core group of Roger Kahn’s hagiography The Boys of Summer was being put in place. Brooklyn had Carl Furillo ready to take over in right-field and the Walker trade brought sly spit-ball pitcher Preacher Roe and sure-handed 3rd baseman Billy Cox to the Dodgers as well. Duke Snider soon took over for the oft injured Pete Reiser in center field; Roy Campanella joined the team as the new first-string catcher; the trade of Eddie Stanky to the Boston Braves opened the 2nd Base position for Robinson; Gil Hodges came up from the minors as a catcher but was soon on 1st Base. Burt Shotton came back as Durocher himself left the team in midseason and, shamelessly, took over as manager of the Dodgers’ Manhattan based rivals, the unspeakable Giants.
BTW It is said that Stanky demanded to be traded because of a salary dispute with Branch Rickey and Durocher; in any case, he went to the Boston Braves where he paired up with hard-hitting shortstop Alvin Dark to form a powerful keystone combination. The Braves also had 1947 National League MVP Bob Eliot playing 3rd and the legendary pitching pair Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain on the mound: the Braves’ pitching strategy was famously summarized by “Spahn and Sain, and pray for rain.” And the Braves did win the National League Pennant that year. Then in the American League race, the Boston Red Sox heroically caught the Cleveland Indians on the last day of the regular season to force a one game playoff with the chance to make history by having the first ever BeanTown Series: as was their wont, the Red Sox let Boston and Baseball History down by losing woefully 8-3, the Curse of the Bambino at work yet again. One more thing, the one pitcher who could pick the daring Jackie Robinson off 1st Base with alarming regularity was that same Warren Spahn, a left-hander with a high kick who brilliantly disguised whether he was going to pitch to the plate or throw over to first – in Brooklyn we dreaded the games Spahn was scheduled to pitch against the beloved “Bums.”
BTW Show-biz savvy, Durocher would later host the Colgate Comedy Hour on national TV (he was terrible IMHO). And his glamorous wife Laraine Day hosted a TV show which was a lead up to Giants home games, Day With the Giants ! She also wrote a book in 1952 with that same title that is available even now on Amazon ! And she is a favorite of film noir fans for such movies as The Locket (1946) where she plays an especially dangerous femme fatale.
Major League baseball was not the only area where there was progress for Black Americans. Likely emboldened by baseball’s success, President Harry Truman decreed the integration of the US Armed Forces by Executive Order on July 26, 1948 – another big step forward for Civil Rights in the country. However, things were not so simple; in this period, returning Black GIs were routinely denied the benefits of the GI Bill such as access to higher education, advanced job training and government backed mortgages – benefits which contributed mightily to the growth of the White Middle Class in prosperous post-War America. Sadly and infuriatingly today all this is reflected in the gap in family wealth between Whites and Blacks.
Burt Shotton was still at the helm for the 1949 season as another key player joined the team: pitcher Don Newcombe, who had also played, albeit briefly, in the Negro Leagues. This proved to be Robinson’s most stellar year: he was elected by the fans to the National League All-Star team, batted .342, drove in 124 runs, stole 37 bases, scored 122 runs and was named National League MVP, leading the Dodgers to the Pennant. Alas, again the Dodgers lost to the hated Yankees in the World Series and in only five games this time. Don Newcombe lost the first game 1-0 to Tommy Henrich’s 9th inning home-run; Preacher Roe pitched a come-back shut-out (1-0) in the second game with Robinson scoring that single run. But then the Yankees swept the final three games.
In 1950, Robinson had another outstanding season but the Dodgers lost the pennant to the Philadelphia Phillies’ “whiz kids” on Dick Sisler’s opposite field home run in the 10th inning of the last game of the season, at Ebbets Field no less – had they won they would have forced another three game playoff.
In that 1950 season, Robinson’s salary that year was the highest any Brooklyn Dodger in history had been paid to that point: $35,000. In today’s terms, that would be $435,000 – which is far less than the median big league salary of $1.5M. (Today’s players have the courageous Curt Flood to thank for that; for more on Curt Flood and also Carl Furillo and the vindictive Walter O’Malley, click HERE .)
Robinson was indeed a man of parts and that year 1950 also saw the release of The Jackie Robinson Story, a Hollywood bio-pic in which he played himself (Ruby Dee played his wife Rachel)! The movie was well received and Bosley Crowther, the demanding film critic for the New York Times, wrote
     “And Mr. Robinson, doing that rare thing of playing himself in the picture’s leading role, displays a calm assurance and composure that might be envied by many a Hollywood star.”
Robinson had another good year in 1951 a year when, once again as in 1946 and 1950, Brooklyn lost the Pennant on the last day of the season, this time in the third game of a three game playoff against Leo Durocher’s New York Giants – Bobby Thomson’s 9th inning home run off pitcher Ralph Branca, “the shot heard ’round the world” and all that. Baseball aficionados continue to comment on the way Jackie Robinson, a competitor and professional to the core, was checking that Thompson touched every base as he ran triumphantly around them. (This part of the post is just hard to type for this writer who was watching that game on TV with grammar school classmate Bernie Farrell as we expected to be the ones to bring the good news to our friends playing touch football down at the park.) Some years later it was revealed that the Giants were stealing the opposing catcher’s signs with a telescope installed in the score board out in center field at the Polo Grounds whence they relayed the signs by phone to the dugout. Thomson later admitted to all this but claimed he didn’t get the sign on that infamous pitch – if you believe this last bit, let me sell you some shares in the Brooklyn Bridge! This sign-stealing helps to explain what happened that season: the Dodgers were 13 games ahead of the 2nd place Giants in mid-August before their “September collapse”; but the Dodgers didn’t “collapse” (far from it, they played okay); but by stealing signs, Durocher’s Giants went on a madcap victory streak 50-12 over the last 62 games that forced that playoff. For the nitty-gritty on all this, there are entire books on the subject such as The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World (2006) by Joshua Prager.
BTW The Giants lost the World Series that year to the Yankees, who were at the midpoint of a 5-year Series winning streak, a record likely never to be broken.
More to come. Affaire à suivre.

Brooklyn and Jackie Robinson

 

Brooklyn NY was the epicenter of the US war effort of the 1940s: the battleship Missouri was built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; the great bulk of the troops who sailed to Europe passed through the Brooklyn Army Terminal in order to board ships waiting at the Brooklyn docks, the best deep water piers on the East Coast; the stevedores were working around the clock unloading and loading ships; masses of young Brooklyn men went to war in the armed services and the Merchant Marine while women joined the WACS (Army), WAVES (Navy), SPARS (Coast Guard) and the WAFS (Air Force), …

This writer remembers VE Day (May 8, 1945) and VJ Day (August 15, 1945): jubilant celebrations as the war wound down and finally ended. Men hung from running-boards gangster-style as cars went round and round in circles with horns blaring. Banners welcoming heroes home were soon everywhere stretching across from a rooftop on one side of the street to one on the other side. Hitler and Tojo were hanged in effigy from lampposts all over the borough. Rationing was ended. Mothers and aunts were delighted that nylon stockings could be found again; the black market went out of business. The professional baseball players too came home from the war for the 1946 season; and the 1946 National League pennant race would end with the Brooklyn Dodgers tied with the St Louis Cardinals. But “dem Bums” lost in the first ever Major League playoff series (0-2) – no surprise, it was that gift for being on the wrong side of baseball history that earned them the sobriquet “Bums” in the first place.

And something else was happening in the après-guerre that would transform the Dodgers from a very good team into a championship team and would have a dramatic impact on race-relations in the USA. On Oct 23, 1945 former Negro League star Jack Roosevelt Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and during the 1946 season, Robinson was soon leading Brooklyn’s top farm team, the Montreal Royals, to the championship of the AAA International League; his year there was simply phenomenal – he batted .349 and was named the league’s MVP. Robinson was thus the first African-American to play in so-called Organized Baseball since Moses Fleetwood Walker played catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association and the Syracuse Stars of the International League in the 1880s. Bringing Robinson on board was spearheaded by Dodger president and general manager Branch Rickey – a deep thinker of the baseball business. As minority shareholder in the franchise, for a project of this magnitude Rickey needed and obtained support from fellow owners Walter O’Malley and Jean McKeever. Robinson would prove an excellent choice: good-looking, a Californian, an exceptional athlete, mature, intelligent, well spoken, college educated (UCLA) with long experience playing on mostly White sports teams, an officer in the Army during the War. The heroic role of Black men and women in the armed forces and the civilian war effort demanded recognition and it was time for social change; other teams too were showing interest in bringing a Black ballplayer into the Major Leagues but baseball’s “noble experiment” took place in feisty ethnically diverse Brooklyn.

Fall 1946 saw the integration of the National Football League with the Los Angeles Rams’ signing running back Kenny Washington. The New York Football Giants followed the next year bringing defensive back Emlen Tunnell onto the squad, but the other teams waited until the 1950s to hire Black players – ironic, isn’t it, that now the majority of NFL players are Black. And the National Basketball Association was not integrated until the 1950-51 seasons when Earl Lloyd, Harold Hunter and Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton joined the league – even more ironic given the star Black players who have made the NBA the phenomenally profitable enterprise it is today.

Robinson grew up in Pasadena, California, in a relatively poor single parent household that included his older brother Matt who himself was a star athlete. In fact, Matt won a Silver Medal in the 1936 Olympics, coming in 0.4 seconds behind Jesse Owens in the final of the 200 meter dash – he and Owens were two of the American athletes dismissed as “black auxiliaries” in the Berlin press. Growing up in a White world, Jackie Robinson did encounter some racial hostility but also he went to integrated schools and played sports on integrated teams through to UCLA where he lettered in football, basketball, baseball and track. And he encountered racism in the US Army at Fort Riley, Kansas where the brass were dragging their feet on letting Black soldiers into Officers Candidate School (OCS); however, Boxing Great Joe Louis, who had volunteered for military service after Pearl Harbor, was also stationed at Fort Riley: Louis intervened, forcing the Army to follow its own rules and let Robinson and others into OCS. It didn’t stop there: Second Lieutenant Robinson was court-martialed at Fort Hood TX when he refused to go to the back of the bus he was riding on the base – the driver’s action was completely against military regulations and Robinson was eventually acquitted. So Robinson was both someone who was cosmopolitan and someone who had suffered the stings of racial prejudice. But, importantly, Robinson was able to rise to Branch Rickey’s challenge not to react to racial taunts and mistreatment but to turn the other cheek; toward the end of his baseball career he did become more outspoken, however, and all along he was a firm proponent of civil rights. The importance of Jackie Robinson to American history was captured by Martin Luther King: during a TV interview with Larry King, MLK protested that he himself could not be called the founder of the Civil Rights movement because that honor belonged to Jackie Robinson.

For the fan in the trolley car in Brooklyn, Rickey (who was known to be very tight with money – his theory was that an underpaid ballplayer would play harder to prove he was worth more) was bringing a Black player on board simply to bring more of Brooklyn’s sizable population of Black citizens to Ebbets Field as paying customers. If that was his plan, it did work. What is more, White Brooklyn fans quickly warmed to Robinson and cheered him on; at some other cities, he would be jeered but his stoic attitude and support from his teammates helped get him through it.

When Robinson reported to Dodger training camp in spring 1947, the manager was the flamboyant and brilliant baseball man Leo “the Lip” Durocher, a charter member of the boisterous St Louis Cardinals’ “gashouse gang” of the 1930s, one notorious for his blistering English language invective (ironically his family were from Québec and little Léo only spoke French until he went to grade school in West Springfield, Massachusetts). An intense competitor known for his slogan “nice guys finish last,” Durocher supported Robinson to the hilt, stating the obvious – that Robinson would help the team win games – and threatening to trade any player who balked: star pitcher Kirby Higbe did and was sent to Pittsburgh along with some other players; star right-fielder Dixie Walker would be traded at the end of the season. But the team rallied around Robinson; the role of “the Little Colonel,” shortstop PeeWee Reese, a Southerner from Kentucky is one singled out in the 2013 Robinson bio-pic 42.

Durocher himself had enemies in Organized Baseball and was suspended for the 1947 season ostensibly for his association with gamblers, actors and other unsavory types – he did admit to knowing Bugsy Siegel, he was involved in gambling schemes with actor George Raft and he was having an affair with still-married Hollywood actress Laraine Day (the two eventually tied the knot in 1948). It was time for someone completely different and Rickey brought in an old colleague – calm, dignified baseball man Burt Shotton who took over as manager for the rest of the season; Shotton did have his own peculiarity though – he did not suit up for games but sat in street clothes in the dugout, sending sartorially correct coach Clyde Sukeforth out to the mound to talk to pitchers and all that.

“Us” Dodger fans from the neighborhoods of Brooklyn (and Queens and Staten Island too) loved the way Robinson played the game as we watched him on a blurry TV with a magnifying glass, listened to away games on the radio or, day of days, got to see him play at Ebbets Field. Robinson brought an especial excitement to the stodgy game of baseball: he played with a cerebral competiveness; he had both power and speed; he could hit the long ball and pile up RBIs; he could lay a bunt down the 3rd base line and beat it out; he could steal bases; he had quickness around 2nd base that made him and the shortstop PeeWee Reese a formidable double play combination. His base-running was daring; he wouldn’t just lead off first base – he danced up the line, taunting opposition pitchers to pick him off which would lead to errant throws to 1st Base that would put him on 2nd. His sliding into base was scientific – the hook slide, the pop-up slide, the head first slide, even the take-out slide. When at bat if the fourth ball got past the catcher, Robinson would race to first base, make the turn and dash on to second if the catcher was too slow in getting the ball back into the field of play; likewise he would go from 1st to 3rd on a sacrifice bunt if the defense wasn’t executed smoothly. Stealing home was his specialty – the most exciting play in baseball! Indeed Yankee catcher Yogi Berra never got over Robinson’s stealing home on him in the first game of the 1955 World Series to the point where there are multiple videos about this on the internet. For two, click HERE and HERE .

In that era, Baseball was the “national pastime” and something of a full-time summer job for a kid growing up in Brooklyn. We cherished our fielder’s mitts which we massaged dutifully with linseed oil and then left overnight with a baseball jammed in to form a proper pocket. There was no Little League then and, since boys in Brooklyn in that era were considered by society to be a subclass of the criminal class, baseball was organized for us by the Police Athletic League (PAL) – in the Bay Ridge section, Patrolman Flanagan and Sgt Panzarini would umpire the games. Occasionally free bleacher seat tickets to Ebbets Field were distributed at the Police Station, tickets which were quickly snapped up as word started to spread – these were charmingly called “knothole tickets” and during the game on TV and radio an announcer would always brag how many kids were in the bleachers with those tickets thanks to the largesse of the team.

In addition to PAL ball, we played hardball in empty lots, on the practice field of the golf course in neighboring Dyker Heights, on the infield of the half-mile track at Fort Hamilton High School, … . Softball was not much of an alternative – what with that oversized ball; but we couldn’t get enough of stickball – played in the street with a sawed off broomstick for a bat and a pink rubber ball, called a Spaldene in Brooklynese as it was made by Spalding, the sporting goods giant. To make it more interesting, stickball was banned for pedestrian safety reasons or whatever; the police would drive down the street looking to seize the precious bats: someone would yell “cheez it” as “the cops” approached, we would hide the bats under some cars or behind some hedges (this was Bay Ridge) and act as nonchalant as the Dead End Kids – all of which reinforced our sense of being future juvenile delinquents (JDs in police parlance – there actually was a thing called the “JD Card”).

And then in addition to stickball, there were punch ball, slap ball, box ball, stoop ball, wall ball – all versions of baseball that we would also play with a Spaldene. Then too we could play a game of baseball with a deck of cards or with any one of a number of proper board games. The penny arcades at Coney Island had ancient magical mechanical games where you could imagine yourself an All-Star. We spent the money we had from returning deposit bottles to delis and candy stores on baseball cards and we all developed a serious gambling problem as we pitched cards (“leaners” and all that) – it was much like pitching pennies, a vice we already had acquired; flipping cards was also popular, especially in other neighborhoods. Back then the World Series games were all in the afternoon and when the Brooklyn Dodgers were playing, the game was treated as a religious event at parochial schools: the nuns would let us bring portable radios to class and we would all, boys and girls alike, listen to the broadcast of the game rather than do long divisions or diagram sentences. Speaking of parochial school, Sgt Panzarini himself once came and lectured us on what a danger to the community stickball presented – line drives striking “little old ladies” and so on.

Officially Robinson was a rookie during that 1947 season – actually a somewhat old rookie at 28 years of age and one who had already been playing against top competition in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs and in the International League with Montreal. But in fact, this was a pattern for several years as Black “rookies” like Satchel Paige, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Hank Thompson and Monty Irvin came up: all were outstanding players in the Negro Leagues before making it to Organized Baseball – Campanella and Irwin had even played in the Mexican League. Apropos, in 1952 this writer asked one of the big kids on the block, Edmund Takla, why Dodger outfielder Sandy Amoros was being sent back to the minor leagues and Edmund responded simply and objectively that a Black player had to be an All-Star to stay with the team. In fact, Amoros was not on the team for the 1953 season but did return in 1954 in time to make baseball history in the 1955 World Series (video link in next post).

For the 1947 season, the flexible Robinson was assigned to 1st Base which solidified the Dodger lineup: reliable catcher Bruce Edwards, pesky 2nd baseman Eddie “the Brat” Stanky, future Hall of Fame shortstop PeeWee Reese, fellow rookie and fellow Montreal teammate Spider Jorgensen at 3rd, formidable outfielders Gene Hermanski and Pete Reiser in left and center fields and, in right field, “the people’s cherce” Dixie Walker – “cherce” being the phonetic spelling of the Brooklynese for “choice.” The star starting pitcher that year was twenty-one year old 21 game winner Ralph Branca (yes, that history-making Ralph Branca) while veteran Hugh Casey headed up the bullpen (yes, that history-making Hugh Casey who threw that infamous dropped third strike in that 1941 World Series game). In the end, the 1947 team won the pennant 5 games ahead of their perennial rivals, the St Louis Cardinals – a team with future Hall of Fame players like Stan Musial (who refused to join in a planned boycott against Robinson) and Enos Slaughter (who strove to make life hard for Robinson).

BTW, being a “rookie” worked for Robinson as he won the inaugural Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year honors for 1947 – until the 1949 season there was only one award for the two leagues.

Winning the pennant meant that the Dodgers would go on to play cross town rivals, the New York Yankees in the 1947 World Series; Robinson would then be the first Black player ever to play in the Fall Classic; baseball history would be made in other ways too.

More to come. Affaire à suivre.

 

 

A Look Ahead

Back in April 2020, this writer gave the last talk at the Harvard Club, Cape Cod chapter, before the shut-down for Covid. The title was Symbiosis of Mankind and Technology and the tagline was “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”
The talk had a gloomy side to it; one of the very last slides was entitled Dystopian Future and the bullets were
• End of the value and importance of the individual
• End of economic freedom and individual liberty
• Surveillance and self-surveillance
• AI guidance will replace free will
• AI based human enhancements will lead to a caste system
• Births controlled by the “Eugenics Board”
• Malthusian conflict between generations over resources as people live longer
The talk itself began optimistically enough with a quote from Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
    “Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms.”
Indeed, technological acceleration and evolutionary acceleration are still intertwined processes and technology continues to interact with human biological evolution, a process that itself is very much alive. For example, the mutation in Northern Europe for lactose tolerance in adults only goes back 4300 years. A similar mutation for lactose tolerance in East Africa only goes back 3000 years! The technology associated with these recent evolutionary events is cattle husbandry.
Going back in time, mastery of fire was a technological breakthrough that transformed humans from folivores and prey animals into omnivores and fearsome predators. Per Harvard Professor Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, control of fire was responsible for the extraordinary development of the human brain: apes spend their whole day eating raw food which requires enormous caloric energy to digest; cooked food is quickly eaten, easily digested and cooked meat especially is a marvelous source of protein; as a result, energy was liberated from the task of digestion and reallocated to power larger brains (which themselves require enormous caloric energy) and time was reallocated to a wider range of activities such as tool making which in turn drove technology further along.
But progress is not completely linear. Progress in technology can accompany jumps in less desirable directions for humankind. Indeed, some 12,000 years ago agriculture transformed democratic hunter-gatherer societies into tribes with chiefs and then kingdoms with kings and then empires with emperors. This connection between leaps in technology and leaps in domination and inequality has continued.
As for the advances in animal husbandry that galvanized the Indo-European world, the fact that the Latin word pecus for “cow” was the root of the Latin word pecunia for “money” tells its own story. (Yes, a Roman pauper was impecunious.)
Closer yet to our times, an important technological leap forward occurred in Portugal in the 1400s – the introduction of the caravel: a revolutionary vessel, a vessel that could venture out into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, that could zigzag into the wind with its triangular sail, that was fast and light, that was able to sail in shallow waters without foundering, that required only a small crew. This was the war horse of the early voyages of exploration. (Columbus’ ships the Niňa and the Pinta were caravels; the Santa Maria was much larger but then it foundered on a shoal in the Caribbean Sea and did not make the triumphant trip back.) For a picture of a caravel, click HERE
The caravel was technologically an important leap forward but it was a technological advance that fostered inequality and hierarchy on a colossal scale. To start it led to domination and even extermination of indigenous peoples of the Americas. Then this opening of the Americas by the European voyages of discovery launched the Atlantic slave trade. Up to this point in time, African slavery had been a Muslim enterprise but, spurred on by Pope Nicolas V’s bull Romanus Pontifex (1452) establishing the Discovery Doctrine, the Portuguese and then the Spanish followed the Pope’s instructions to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property.” The key thing was that the people targeted should simply not be Christians. Not to be left behind, a century or so later, when England and Holland undertook their own voyages of discovery and colonization, they adopted the Discovery Doctrine for themselves despite the Protestant Reformation; France did as well. A twisted example of “honor among thieves.”
N.B. The Discovery Doctrine is the basis in US law for relations with Native Americans and was even invoked recently by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a decision against the Oneida Iroquois tribe in New York State. For more, click HERE .
The symbiosis of technology and human history struck again in the 18th Century with the Industrial Revolution. Here new inventions like the Spinning Jenny created a huge demand for cotton in England and Scotland which greatly increased the importance of slave labor in the 13 British colonies magnifying inequality on a colossal scale. So important did King Cotton and Slavery become that the push to maintain and expand slavery ultimately drove the US into Civil War.
And then Steam Power led to the massive migration of people from the English country side to the mills of Manchester and other centers of exploitation of labor creating a proletariat and a formidable class structure headed up by the emerging Bourgeoisie (consult Marx and Engels for details). Again we have new technology leading to massive inequality and hierarchy. Not to be outdone, in the US, “conspicuous consumption” became the trademark of the robber barons of the Gilded Age as the government and the Supreme Court did all they could to thwart the nascent Labor Movement.
Inequality and hierarchy are on the rise again in the US and Western Europe. The twentieth century saw the growth of the “middle class” and opening of economic opportunity. However, since the Thatcher era in the UK and the Reagan era in the US, things have been heading in the opposite direction: in the US, in real terms, working class income has not gone up since 1980 while for the top 10% and even more the top 1% life has become very comfortable indeed: tellingly the word millionaire has ceded its place to billionaire as the measure of true wealth. Technology has certainly contributed to this as computers and computer chips have inserted themselves in all nooks and crannies of the economy: it is an axiom of capitalism that it pays to replace people you pay with machines you own – ownership of the means of production and all that.
But today the technological “gorilla in the room” is Artificial Intelligence (AI). Indeed, today, most dramatically, we are seeing a physical merge of mankind and machinekind taking place what with nanobots, brain implants, genetic engineering, etc. For example, Elon Musk has a company Neuralink which is working on chip implants for the brain that would allow humans to control devices through their thoughts. The concern is that new medical technologies will not serve to improve the health of humankind generally but rather to provide enhancements (intelligence, longevity, … ) for an elite subset of the population – an elite that will be the top of a new caste system. Activist thinker Bill McKibben warns that a “genetic divide” will be created as the rich alone will have access to these enhancements. Accelerationist philosopher Nick Land adds that race and eugenics will be thrown into the mix.
This is all consistent with Moravec’s Paradox, a principle formulated in the 1980s by AI luminaries Hans Moravec, Rodney Brooks, Marvin Minsky, … : AI systems outperform humans in applying skills that emerged the latest in our evolutionary history. Thus motor control is difficult for a machine to emulate but computations and other “advanced” tasks are easy for machines – and with AI more and more of these advanced functions will fall victim to such mechanization while skill sets developed earlier in our history will protect many from planned obsolescence. To quote the generally optimistic Stephen Pinker (The Language Instinct, 1994)
    “As the new generation of intelligent devices appears, it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, receptionists, and cooks are secure in their jobs for decades to come.”
The upshot is the low level jobs are not threatened by these developments but high level work is. The result will be greater inequality where the economic elite becomes smaller and biologically enhanced while the professional class all but disappears.
Then there is the HAL Problem where the machines go rogue. There is the Control Problem where the machines simply take over and reduce humanity to blissful servitude. Looking back, Alan Turing predicted as much already in 1951 considering that machine intelligence would reach a threshold where the machines would start to develop their own future generations. In 2014 Steven Hawking warned that the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Part III of the awesome book Homo Deus by Yuval Harari is simply entitled “Homo Sapiens Loses Control.” Philosophers tend to be pessimistic and, true to form, Accelerationist Nick Land is even nihilistic: “The demise of humanity is probably in the cosmic interest.”
So the smart money is betting that once again a jump forward in technology will lead to hierarchy and domination and maybe worse – which is very consistent with the pattern that goes back to the development of agriculture some 12.000 years ago.
But not to worry – this might all be to the good. Futurists with tags like transhumanists, cybertotalists and prometheists argue that the role of the human race in galactic history is to serve as a pass-through for the introduction of intelligence in the universe. So we will have given life to intelligent machines who will then take over and export precious intelligence around the galaxies.
Full Disclosure: Following Hollywood’s lead, that speaker on Cape Cod added an alternative happy ending titled Utopian Future to lift people’s spirits:
• Technology will save Spaceship Earth
• End to famine, war. Long, happy life for all.
• Individual liberty. Creative work. Arts and Sciences thrive.
• Love persists, families are strong.
• Robots will explore other worlds for us
• Humans and machine comrades will export intelligence to other parts of the universe
• A new religious revelation will unite humankind
Plus an uplifting quote from the Bard (Miranda, The Tempest, Act V)
• “How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world,
That has such people in it!.”

Dollar Diplomacy

In the post WWII period, the power of the US Dollar was put to good use with the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe and the Dollar underwrote an amazing world wide economic integration that has brought material prosperity to many. Analysts like Harvard professor Stephen Pinker argue that there has been a Pax Americana and that war and violence have been declining (The Better Angels of our Nature, 2011).
But Pax Americana or not, the US has been almost constantly involved in some kind of military operation or other since WWII. Indeed, to deal with the financial train wreck that was the War in Vietnam, President Richard Nixon completely detached the US Dollar from gold in 1971, making the dollar itself a fiat currency. The Nixon diktat had a significant impact on international politics as it made the liberated US Dollar an even more flexible instrument of imperial reach. The Dollar is used globally for commercial exchange and so the Department of the Treasury (USDT), the Cerberus of the Dollar, has amazing powers, much like a super-hero. And the Treasury Department and its satellites (International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, …) know how to wield those powers – the Treasury Department even has a division dedicated to controlling the capital of other countries, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a division that can dramatically impact the economic life of foreign individuals and nations. Today, as the wars in the Middle East linger on and as that in Ukraine heats up, the sanctions game is in full swing against Venezuela and Cuba in one Hemisphere and China, North Korea, Iran, Belarus, Russia and Afghanistan in the other. The power of the US Treasury is used to interfere with the commerce of these nations most effectively. In Afghanistan’s case, money of theirs is actually frozen in New York by OFAC decree – a similar sanction was applied for a time to Iran but was lifted by the Obama Administration at the time of the promising Nuclear Deal between Iran and the West, an agreement petulantly revoked by Trump. And the sanctions can be fine tuned – for Russia the sanctions game is played out even at the level of individual oligarchs.
But this sort of thing in not new. Dollar Diplomacy has long been a trademark of US policy; the term itself goes back to the pre-WWI presidency of William Howard Taft and the government’s commitment to defend American corporate interests in the Caribbean (with military occupations if necessary – Haiti, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic). Even earlier, in order to further US economic interests, a revolution was fomented in Panama in 1903 establishing a new country independent from Columbia and one ready to sign a deal creating the Panama Canal Zone as an unincorporated US territory, over which Washington would have sovereignty for three-quarters of a century.
Overthrowing governments to benefit the economic interests of corporations continued to be SOP and was expanded outside the Caribbean and beyond even the range of the Monroe Doctrine. In 1953, the US and the UK combined efforts to overthrow the duly elected government of Mohammed Mosaddegh in Iran after the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was nationalized – that government’s other sins included higher taxes on the wealthy, land reform and the beginnings of a social safety net. In its place, the autocratic Shah Reza Pahlevi was installed in power. Alas, we all know how this turned out, what with US Embassy workers held hostage as a theocracy replaced a police state.
In 1954, the Cold War merged with the classic defense of United Fruit and US corporate interests in Guatemala where an army of mercenaries overthrew the democratically elected government who were discussing land reform and were thus castigated as Communists by the US media; all this is the subject of Nobelist Mario Vargas-Llosa’s most recent book Tiempos Recios (Harsh Times, 2021). On the other hand, defense of the interests of United Fruit (and likely of organized crime in this case) fell short in Cuba with the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961).
In 1960, a trade embargo was applied to Cuba – and still remains in effect, despite repeated calls by the UN and others for it to end on humanitarian grounds if not others; but few would claim it has “proved effective” other than by making things all the harder for ordinary Cubans. To his credit, Barack Obama eased some of these restrictions but Trump sadistically re-instated them as soon as he could and they remain in place. Note too that travel to Cuba by American tourists is actually still prohibited by OFAC.
The next stop for Dollar Diplomacy was Chile. In 1970, the citizens of Chile – long the model for democracy in South America – elected the Socialist Party candidate Salvatore Allende to the presidency. As the Allende government began a series of nationalizations which included several US corporations, Nixon and Kissinger were paranoid that Chile would become the next Cuba; a US financed military coup followed and the country was thrown into the hell-hole of the Pinochet regime. In a capitalist black-mass, the US sent “the Chicago Boys,” teams of economists associated with money-supply guru and University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman, to “reorganize” the economy.
In the 1980s the raw power of money was unleashed on the US itself as the Reagan regime oversaw the move from Industrial Capitalism to Financial Capitalism (where the dollars in the deal become more important than the products, where financial derivatives yield more profit than assets), tax cuts for the wealthy, the offshoring of manufacturing, the weakening of labor unions, and the extraordinary growth of income inequality.
Of course, the great triumph for the US Dollar came with the fall of the Soviet Union (1991). With liberal capitalism dominant, the world entered a new historical age; Francis Fukuyama, a history professor at Johns Hopkins, published his famous essay “The End of History,” declaring this to be the final victory of democracy and capitalism on the planet Earth. Here again, American academic economists were sent forth, this time to guide the re-structuring of the Russian economy which only hastened the emergence of the oligarchs as the true victors. As for History, the failure of the West to take advantage of the peace dividend to build relations of trust (military and economic) with the Russian Federation might well go down as Europe’s last great mistake.
An important role of money in this period was the funding of political organizations and think tanks by big donors such as the Koch Brothers. The Heritage Foundation provided Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich with game-plans and the Federalist Society provided the right wing a road map for the take over of the Supreme Court – hot off the presses The Scheme: How the Right Wing Used Dark Money to Capture the Supreme Court by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse!
Dollar driven diplomacy continues to be used in the 21st Century to advance the cause of US corporations with interests abroad. A miserable example is the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq, waged for Halliburton and the oil giants – extra-foolishly, it turned out, as US oil and gas production soon rose to the point that Middle East oil was no longer needed at home – but US forces remain in the region to this day.
In 2010, dark money’s investment in the Federalist Society paid off with the Supreme Court’s indefensible 5-4 ruling in the Citizens United case. To use Mitt Romney’s formulation, the 5 majority justices decreed “Corporations are people, my friend”: thus giving such organizations faux “First Amendment rights” to spend unlimited money on lobbying and politics – whence the current composition of the Supreme Court and the fragile state of US Democracy today.
The Almighty Dollar will protect itself if an attempt is made to get out from under its yoke. A recent example is the fate of Muammar Gadaffi, late long-time dictator of oil-rich Libya. To liberate oil from the tyranny of Western banks, in 2009 Gadaffi proposed the African Dinar as a new standard for trading in oil on the African continent – a gold based counterweight to the US Dollar and also to the French post-colonial “franc CFA” (le Franc de la Communauté Financière Africaine). As Hillary Clinton’s emails and other sources have revealed, this set off a storm of opposition in New York and other Western financial centers; as some domestic opposition to Gaddafi formed, NATO simply anointed itself the White Knight and invaded the country. Gaddafi was summarily eliminated in 2011 by NATO allied forces after the Battle of Sirte.
But too much war has proved lethal to currencies and warlike nations in the past. Look at Spain in the 16th Century! The Spanish crown controlled the Holy Roman Empire in Europe, the greater part of the New World, and possessions in Asia and Africa. The Spanish Dollar (aka the “piece of 8”) had become the first global currency. But in addition to continuing conquests in the New World, Spain was fighting the Muslim Ottoman Turks and the Protestant upstarts of England and Holland – and they were also at war with France and its Protestants. At the death of Phillip II at the very end of the Century (1598), the Spanish treasury was empty and a long decline set in. The lesson of Phillip II’s reign was apparently not learned by his fellow royals; indeed, as he lay dying in 1715 with the French treasury depleted, The Sun King, Louis XIV lamented “I loved war too much.” (J’ai trop aimé la guerre.)
Rather more recently, in order to bring Ukraine and its resources firmly into the Western economic orbit, the US and the European Union (EU) supported an uprising in 2014 (the Maidan Revolution) which ejected a duly elected president who preferred an economic deal with Russia and Belarus to “partnership” with the EU – all followed by a paranoid Russian reaction and the takeover of Crimea and the Donbas region. (For the long historical view, click here https://www.whatsinaname.xyz/1052-and-all-that/) But matters continue to escalate and there is no end in sight. As noted, war is bad for currencies and the war in Ukraine today is already causing dangerous inflation in Europe and the US, especially weakening the Euro and the British Pound.
However, from PACs and campaign contributions to international intrigue and wars hot and cold, the Almighty Dollar continues to make its weight felt. But too much of that power flows into the military: today military spending is 15% of the US budget, rising year after year, president after president, dangerously to maintain a world wide military presence and some 750 foreign bases – and it was precisely the presence of infidel forces on the sacred Arabian peninsula that motivated Osama Ben Laden and his Saudi fanatics to attack the USS Cole and the World Trade Towers. As other imperial currencies have been humbled by endless warfare, the US Dollar itself is under strain. All this has come about despite George Washington’s admonition about foreign entanglements and Dwight Eisenhower’s warnings about the Industrial-Military Complex.
As the US has spent considerable blood and treasure for the last 20 some odd years – the Middle East, Afghanistan and now Ukraine (though only treasure so far) and elsewhere – the Chinese Empire has grown into a full-fledged international, military, industrial, commercial and financial rival. Chinese military spending is only one third that of the US – instead China is busy establishing a global network with its Silk Road initiative across Central Asia and on into Europe; its economic imperialism in Africa has made it the continent’s leading trading partner; etc. Ominously, China is waiting in the wings as America risks decline. Things are really heating up what with the military tension building around Taiwan, Chinese support for Iran in dodging US sanctions, quiet Chinese support for Russia in its Ukrainian misadventure and most awesome the increasing power of the Chinese currency, the yuan: as the Wall Street Journal reported on March 15 of this year:
      Saudi Arabia Considers Accepting Yuan Instead of Dollars for Chinese Oil Sales
Don’t expect anything good to come of this. One can hear echoes of the guns of August 1914. This time China plays the role of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Taiwan plays the role of Serbia and the US that of Tsarist Russia. But that can’t happen – people always learn from History, don’t they?

Money Talks

One of the marvels of human reason is the ability to abstract, to see immaterial properties of things, properties that really only exist in our imaginations, and then to use these abstractions to help us navigate our world. An example is the notion of number: if it is a question of 5 cars or of 5 trees, it is still the same 5 but 5 is not a rock or a plant or an insect or anything else in the physical universe. Mathematicians and philosophers debate whether the number 5 actually exists and, if so, where, how, in what form, … ? Many follow Plato’s lead and assign mathematical objects to the world of Platonic forms and ideas – shadows on the cave wall and all that.
A related example of abstraction in action is money: a small car is worth $25,000 and a large car is worth $50,000; the concept of money is thus used to represent the exchange value of each of the cars. Currencies are no longer backed by gold or silver and coin plays a negligible role in commerce – in today’s world money itself can “exist” in almost any form: a piece of paper, a number associated with a bank account or with a credit card or whatever: abstraction at its simplest. The Mighty Euro and the Almighty Dollar have no intrinsic value of their own, but a value assigned in the abstract enables a concrete actual exchange; technically each of these is a fiat currency whose face value is determined by a mix of government decree and what the markets say. Another important thing about money is that it can be stored and only used when needed; in the days of coin and bullion, this could be tricky even dangerous – as attested to by many a film noir and many a western.
Indeed, money wasn’t always quite so ethereal. Modern Western currency can trace its roots back to a modest kingdom in what is now Eastern Turkey called Lydia – Lydian soldiers figure in The Iliad and in the Hebrew Bible; indeed Jeremiah 46,9 in the King James Version reads: “Come up, ye horses; and rage, ye chariots; and let the mighty men come forth; the Ethiopians and the Libyans, that handle the shield; and the Lydians, that handle and bend the bow.”
Successors to the Hittite Empire, the Lydians were the first to produce and circulate gold coins, minted from the ore that could be found in the area (circa 700 BC); the key was that all of these coins had the same amount of gold in them and were of a conveniently manageable size – standardization and portability. To economists, the system they created is known as a commodity currency, one where a valuable item such as gold, silver or copper is minted in a standardized format.
This innovation gave rise to the mythic King Midas and to the historical King Croesus, the richest man in the world. The Midas myth captures a key property of money – it reduces everything to itself: just everything has a price; this reduction of every single thing or activity to a monetary value is essential to trade and commerce and has directly led to the globalized world we live in today.
Click HERE for a map of historical Lydia with entries for the legendary city of Troy and Homer’s legendary birthplace Smyrna.
The Lydian innovation of standardized, portable coinage spread and that spread tracks the history of Western Europe: the drachma of the Greek city states, the denarius of ancient Rome, the écu d’or of France, the Pound Sterling of England, the ducats of Venice, the guilder of Holland, the thaler of the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire. The acme of European coinage was the Spanish peso coin, which is better known as the “piece of 8” as it was in turn worth 8 reales (called “bits” in English). In the 17th Century this coin, known around the world as the Spanish Dollar, was the currency of global commerce and empire (and “two bits” was a “quarter dollar”); by the 1570s it even circulated in China; it has given its name to the currencies of the US, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Fiji and elsewhere.
Paper money that is redeemable in a fixed quantity of a commodity like silver or gold is called a representative currency. Now paper money had been introduced in China in the 12th Century (but abandoned after a financial crisis in the 15th Century) and word of it was brought back famously by Marco Polo in the 13th Century. But in the West it was the Bank of England that first successfully introduced representative currency in 1694 – prodded by the need to deal with war debts naturally: this time it was the Nine Years War (known in North America as King William’s War.) With the rise of the British Empire, the British Pound eventually replaced the Spanish Dollar as the global exchange currency. The Pound reigned supreme until the two disastrous world wars of the 20th Century.
Shortly after the Normandy Invasion, in July 1944, a Soviet observer and delegates from 44 nations gathered in a town in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Bretton Woods; they were there to participate in a conference to formulate a monetary system that would enable their economies to re-build after the war. John Maynard Keynes was the most eminent economist there but the US representatives dominated the proceedings and a system was created where other currencies were henceforth to be pegged against the US Dollar; the Dollar itself was linked to gold at the fixed rate of $35 per once. This made those other currencies fiat currencies meaning, in effect, that the currency’s value is then goes up and down according to the supply of the currency and the demand for the currency. Furthermore, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank were founded at Bretton Woods, US dominated institutions which still play a determining role in the fates of nations.
So by war’s end, the US Dollar had replaced the British Pound Sterling much as the Pound Sterling had replaced the Spanish Dollar.
At this point in time, for international exchange, the US dollar was still redeemable in gold; so world commerce was still run in terms of a representative currency. Drolly, most of the European nations’ gold stores of gold bullion were kept in Treasury Department vaults in New York and gold would be moved around physically as accounts were brought up to date.
But once again, the gods of war interfered. To deal with the financial train wreck that was the War in Vietnam, President Richard Nixon completely detached the US Dollar from gold in 1971, making the dollar itself a fiat currency. This was done by presidential directive and effectively gutted the Bretton Woods accord – but it was important to Nixon’s re-election campaign; surely it helped pay the Watergate burglars – justification enough!
Nixon’s presidential diktat ushered in a revolution. Now the world currency is a fiat currency worth only what the markets say it is worth – abstraction gone mad. (BitCoin only makes this worse.)
But this move had a huge side-effect in that it made the dollar a much more flexible and usable medium and, importantly, it increased the supply of money available for trade, commerce etc. It created a monster by making the Almighty Dollar a yet greater force impacting the lives of people all over the planet in ways more and more creative, more and more powerful and potentially more and more insidious.
The impact in the US itself was felt quickly. America pivoted from Industrial Capitalism to Financial Capitalism in Ronald Reagan’s time: there were tax breaks for the wealthy as income taxes and capital gains taxes came way down; unions were broken; manufacturing was outsourced overseas; bankers and finance people replaced industrialists as the “art of the deal” replaced actually making anything. Wall Street became ever more a true casino – trading in derivatives bedazzled the market makers: more money to be made gambling than banking. And new forms of capital investment emerged – the hedge fund, private equity, venture capital. With all this, income inequality now dwarfs that of the Gilded Age and continues to grow; rockets ships have replaced yachts as the symbol of conspicuous consumption.
Money has always played a role in American politics. But things accelerated in the post-WWII era as activist billionaires such as the Koch brothers funded right-wing projects in support of candidates and in support of influential think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation. And already by 2007, it was estimated that some 15,000 registered lobbyists were busy prowling the halls of Congress (per Washington Representatives, an annual report on the lobbying industry and other things governmental).
And if that weren’t bad enough, the Roberts Court came down with Citizens United (2008), one of the worst Supreme Court decisions ever (and that list is horrific) when it declared that corporations and unions had a person’s right to free speech and could spend freely on political campaigns. In short, to quote private equity magnate Mitt Romney, “corporations are people, my friend.” This lamentable decision has simply inundated American politics with corporate money as it arbitrarily overturned the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, a law governing campaign finance voted for by Congress and signed by the President.
Just recently, President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act was compromised by manipulations concerning “carried interest,” a financial dodge that profits an infinitesimally small number of people – but people who control almost infinitely large sums of money. This is another example of how the abstractness of money makes it chameleon-like and evasive. Here’s the story: investors put money into an investment fund (hedge fund, venture capital fund, private equity fund) which is then handled by a fund manager; the value of the investment goes up and the manager is paid a commission, a small percentage of the gain but in practice a large amount of money; however, while a used-car salesman’s commission is taxed as income by the IRS, the fund manager’s commission is treated as a capital gain and is taxed at 20% rather than being taxed at a rate like 39.6% as income. A marvelous tax loophole; in fact, a loophole too marvelous to lose – it virtually doubles the fund manager’s income. We just witnessed Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s sabotaging the provision in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act that would have ended this loophole in kinky obedience to her lobbyist handlers.
And in the international arena, the US Treasury wields its power with force and precision. Affaire à suivre. More to come.

Obstare Decisis

In the US, hostility towards Roman Catholics goes back to the Nativist “Know Nothing” movement of the 19th Century, to “No Irish Need Apply” signs and to Democrat Al Smith’s humiliating defeat in the 1928 presidential election; this hostility even continued into the post WWII period with, for example, warnings of a Catholic plot to take over America from widely read author Paul Blanshard, American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949).  (By today’s standard for vitriol, Blanshard’s book reads like a gentlemanly agreement to disagree.)

So, the current 6-3 strongly conservative Supreme Court majority composed of 5 Roman Catholics and 1 Catholic become Episcopalian is an extraordinary phenomenon in a land with such a long history of anti-Catholic fervor; counting Gorsuch and the liberal Sotomayor, 7 of the 16 Catholics ever to serve on the Court are on the Court today – where are the WASPs of yesteryear?

However, Catholics are not new to the Supreme Court – the first Catholic on the Court was Chief Justice Roger Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision that drove the country to Civil War. But not all Catholics on the Court have been reactionaries; Justice William Brennan provided intellectual leadership for the progressive Warren Court; sitting Justice Sotomayor is also a Catholic in the progressive tradition. And Catholicism itself has a long tradition of social consciousness rooted in the Sermon on the Mount and the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy – hospitals, orphanages, schools, … .

However, the Court has been dominated by right-wing Catholics since 2006 with Justice Alito’s joining Justices Roberts, Thomas, Scalia and Kennedy. Today Roberts, Thomas and Alito are still on the Court and they have been joined by Barret, Kavanaugh and Gorsuch – these last two even overlapped for two years at Georgetown Prep, the elite Jesuit high school in Washington D.C.

Traditionally, though, Catholics were working-class: well represented in the Democratic Party and in the labor movement. But things were changing by the mid 20th Century. And War II highlighted how important a population the Catholics in America had become – one critical to the war effort; and this was reflected in Hollywood movies: imagine Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers playing Irish Americans Pat O’Toole and Katie O’Hara in Once Upon a Honeymoon, the 1942 comedy/drama about the lead-up to the War in Europe. In the après-guerre, the economic situation of American Catholics was improving. Returning soldiers took advantage of the GI Bill in the 1940s and again in the 1950s after the Korean War; the level of education of Catholics was becoming superior to that of Protestant America. Families moved from the inner cities to the booming suburbs – the Catholicism of immigrants gave way to that of a new economically prosperous confident optimistic mainstream congregation.

And then there was the threat of Atheistic Communism that dominated both foreign policy and domestic politics. Catholics became enthusiastic Cold War warriors – for example, there was the Knights of Columbus’ successful campaign to insert the phrase “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance (1953). Catholics weren’t alone, though, in deconstructing the gap between Church and State: not to be left behind, the US Congress passed a bill changing the traditional US national motto from E Pluribus Unum to In God We Trust, a bill that was signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1956. Catholics played a role in zealous witchhunts giving rise to the sorry phrase “McCarthyism”; they were the driving force behind Red Channels, an organization that specialized in blacklisting radio and television people.

As social issues such as birth-control and abortion came to the forefront, American Catholicism was driven further to the right. And Catholics took over the intellectual leadership of the conservative movement in the US. William Buckley and Russel Kirk wrote influential books – God and Man at Yale (1951) and The Conservative Mind (1953), respectively. Buckley launched the National Review (1955) and brought Kirk on board.  Buckley’s libertarian, militaristic brand of conservatism replaced the isolationist, communal outlook of traditional WASP conservatives like the Tafts, the Cabots and the Lodges – Adieu Edmund Burke, Bonjour Ayn Rand.

The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 made the integration of Catholics in America official.

The next chapter in the move towards a Catholic dominated reactionary court was the creation of the Federalist Society in 1982. The founding group was composed of conservative law students from Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago.  The Society functions as a pressure group and debating society dedicated to placing right wing ideologues in key positions throughout the justice system. Richard Nixon had tried to place some conservative Southerners on the Supreme Court after the Dixiecrats had turned Republican in reaction to the successes of the Civil Rights Movement; not surprisingly candidates like Haynsworth and Carswell were considered “good-old-boys” and  just not impressive enough for confirmation. But Catholics screened by the Federalist Society would fill this void. The kind of Court we have today begins with the nomination of University of Chicago Law Professor and Federalist Society icon, Antonin Scalia, to be an Associate Justice by Ronald Reagan in 1986; Scalia was approved by the Senate in an impressive 98-0 vote and he joined the conservative Rehnquist Court.

Fast forward to 2005-6 when things pick up steam with the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Court; now there was a Catholic “conservative” majority – the others being Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy.

With a Catholic majority, the persuasive Scalia was able to push an already conservative Court even further to the right and to play a critical role in some earth-shaking decisions. His announced methodology was based on originalism and textualism, a casuistic approach to the law promulgated by the Federalist Society: to wit, the Constitution is not a living document and it should be interpreted using the sense the text would have had when it was written.

But in actuality originalism turned out to be license to turn legal analysis into a form of Medieval Scholastic theology – worse, one where in the end the meaning of a text would be what the jurist decided for him or herself. The Middle Ages saw the rise of a sophisticated and brilliant Catholic school of rationalist thought, known as Scholasticism. It covered areas of philosophy, theology and logic with important contributors from all over Western Europe – such as Duns Scotus Erigena from Ireland, Duns Scotus from Scotland, William of Occam from England, Albertus Magnus from Germany, Ramon Lull from Spain, Abelard and Buridan from France, and the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas from Italy. In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell admires the thoroughness and force of Thomas Aquinas’ arguments but cautions that Aquinas relies too much on the power of words themselves at the expense of observation and facts.

Indeed, this use of the magic of words is seen in Scalia’s mind-bending majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). He, abetted by the four other “conservatives,” put gun manufacturers before people by replacing the standard interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that went back to Madison’s time with a dangerous one, cynically appealing to originalism by claiming the authority to speak for Madison and his contemporaries.

The Second Amendment reads

    A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The phrase “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” is a grammatical construction known a nominative absolute, a free-standing phrase that establishes context for what follows. (A common example is “All things being equal.”) But Scalia cavalierly dismissed this phrase as meaningless – imagine a so called originalist disrespecting James Madison’s carefully crafted prose. Moreover, there was no compelling legal reason to play games with the accepted meaning of the 2nd Amendment – if the over 200 years of interpretation of the wording of the amendment isn’t enough, if the term “militia” isn’t enough, and if the term “bear arms” isn’t enough to link the amendment to matters military in the minds of the framers, one can consult James Madison’s original text:

    “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.” [Italics added].

The italicized clause was written to reassure Quakers and other pacifist religious groups that the amendment was not forcing them to serve in the military, but it was ultimately excluded from the final version for reasons of separation of church and state. This clause certainly indicates that the entirety of the amendment, in Madison’s view, was for the purpose of maintaining militias. Note too that Madison implies in this text and in the shorter final text as well that “the right to bear arms” is a collective “right of the people” rather than an individual right to own firearms. You don’t “bear arms” to go duck hunting.

The radical ruling in Heller by the five “conservative” justices has scuttled all attempts at gun control, enriched gun manufacturers, elevated the National Rifle Association to the status of a power-broker and made the Supreme Court complicit in the wanton slaughters of so many. The current spate of school shootings, random murders, racist and anti-Semitic killing events is just out of control – and nobody will do anything about it. It has also created the watchword “Second Amendment rights” and legitimized militia movements. Tragically, Scalia’s originalism has created a license to kill, kill, kill. Hopefully, someday Heller will be declared “wrongly decided.” But, in the meantime, the current Court will soon come down with a decision on a NY State law that requires a permit to carry a concealed weapon which will likely only make matters worse (New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen).

Scalia/Scholastic style wordcraft is entrenched in the Roberts Court and its solid “conservative” Catholic majority.  This Court has overturned campaign finance laws passed by Congress and signed by the President by summoning up an astonishing, ontologically challenged version of the legal fiction that corporations are “persons” and imbuing them with new First Amendment rights (Citizens United v. FEC 2008). Some context: corporations are treated as legal “persons” in some court matters, basically so that they can pay taxes and so that the officers of the corporation are not personally liable for a corporation’s debts. But, there was no compelling legal reason to play Dr Frankenstein in Citizens United and create a new race of corporate “persons” by endowing corporations with a human-like right to free speech that allows them to spend their unlimited money on U.S. political campaigns. Citizens United already appears on several lists of “worst Supreme Court decisions” such as the one compiled by TIME magazine. The immediate impact of this decision has been a further gap between representatives and the people they are supposed to represent; the political class was at least somewhat responsive to the voters, now they are only responsive to the donor class.

These five justices didn’t stop there.  Along the way, they made a mockery of stare decisis in several cases such as Gonzales v. Carhart (2007), Hem v. Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. (2007) and others; and even just now in Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez.

In Shelby Counter v. Holder (2013) they ignored the separation of powers as they gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 –  ignoring the obvious and declaring that there was no longer a need for federal monitoring of voting laws in states with a history of voter suppression: a claim dramatically disproven by incessant machinations since by governors and state legislatures. Adding insult to injury, five years later they steamrolled over the work of a lower court in the Texas Redistricting Case (Abbot v. Perez, 2018) – arrogating decision power to themselves, eliminating any vestige of the Voting Rights Act.

They breached the separation of Church and State in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores (2014) by elevating the personhood of corporations yet further and ascribing to them “religious interests.” Here the magic words were “closely held” business, a phrase which restricted the scope of the ruling to privately owned companies in a dance around the establishment clause of the First Amendment. In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Education (2020) and in Carson v. Makin (2022), they continued to gnaw away at the separation of Church and State by ruling that states cannot exclude religious schools from scholarship and tuition programs.

Simply put, these decisions constitute a real threat to Democracy in America. And today things look even worse, what with the new line-up of six “conservative” justices, the five right-wing Catholics (Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Kavanaugh, Barret) plus the right-wing Catholic turned Episcopalian (Gorsuch). And they are not wasting time. Already they are in the process of inflicting division and chaos on the country with the expected ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health that will likely overturn Roe v. Wade in yet another repudiation of stare decisis. The new stage direction is “Exit stare decisis” and the new legal expression for this sabotage of the legal system is then obstare decisis, replacing stand by decisionswithoverturn decisions.”

For the record: In Latin, for the verbs stare and obstare the complement is in the dative case – instead of the usual accusative case of a direct object. Decisis is the dative plural of the past participle of the verb decido and means “the things decided.” So stare decisis literally means “to stand with the things already decided” and obstare decisis literally means “to oppose the things already decided.” As usual the Latin is much more concise, one of its distinguishing features.

The leaked draft of Alito’s write-up of the impending decision in Dobbs brings us right back to the 13th Century; therein he shows his Scholastic chops and appeals to Henry de Bracton’s Latin treatise on the Law; in fact, it was de Bracton, a contemporary of Thomas Aquinas, who introduced the Scholastic theory of Natural Law into English law which now in the American legal system allows for an appeal to a higher authority: in principle, so long as it does not contradict the Constitution. Ominously, Natural Law is a concept especially dear to Justice Thomas. With these right wing Supreme Court judges we should rightly be afraid: already Catholic dogma on birth control (Hobby Lobby) and soon abortion (Dobbs) will have made its way into American legal reasoning. Moreover, De Bracton was a priest in the Catholic Church – an archdeacon, the rank just below a bishop – and he thought of the legal profession as a priesthood: “Ius dicitur ars boni et aequi, cuius merito quis nos sacerdotes appellat” (Law is called the art of the good and the just, an art whose priests we merit to be called). Armed with the Natural Law and the principle of obstare decisis, this 6-3 majority of relatively young judges in their priestly sacerdotal robes will in all likelihood continue to distort American values for some time to come.

A Logician’s Tale

The Association for Symbolic Logic (ASL) is a professional organization of researchers in Mathematical Logic, a field that also includes people from Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy as well as Mathematics itself. When it is not a plague year, the ASL holds an annual meeting in North America and another one in Europe.  This April (2022), the North American meeting was held at Cornell University in Ithaca NY and this writer was invited to give a talk – not on his latest theorems this time but on certain historical aspects of an area in Mathematical Logic he last worked on forty years ago. But it was wonderful to take a break from Covid induced solitude, to re-find old friends and to meet new people in the field.
A gathering like this is basically a religious event for a priesthood of scholars who believe in the magic and majesty of their subject. It is a pilgrimage drawing people from all over – English is the official language but one would hear Hebrew, Polish, Spanish etc. in conversations and black-board sessions throughout the meeting. The comparison can be made to the School of Pythagoras, where Philosophy and Mathematics were blended with a religious theory based on the harmony of the spheres.
The field has its mythic figures – ancients like Aristotle, medieval scholars like William of Ockham and more recent ones like George Boole, Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, Ludwig Wittgenstein, … . It has a hierarchy based on talent – and some grand old men and women. Apropos, the group at Cornell was about 25% women, 75% men; the current president of the ASL is Julia Knight, a professor at Notre-Dame.
As the meeting unfolds, a first impression one forms is just how far removed from ordinary earthly considerations this subject can be. Like mathematics in general, the subject is driven above all by its own internal momentum – which does make its practitioners seem to inhabit an Ivory Tower constructed by their own imaginations. Many there were talking about monstrously large infinite cardinal numbers – a mystical pursuit justified in part by the knowledge that more one knows about the infinite, the more one can know about the ordinary integers. There was a series of talks on the frontier field of Quantum Computing, calibrating it with classical mathematical models of computability such as Turing machines. Among other topics, there were talks on Model Theory, a subject which extracts rich mathematical information from the simple fact that a subject’s axioms, theorems and open problems can be expressed in a particular formal language.
But these researchers are on the faculties of elite colleges and universities; their work is funded by grants from government agencies like the National Science Foundation and the European Science Foundation. (Some young people from Europe even said that they were especially glad of the opportunity to come to a live meeting at Cornell because the travel money in their grants had to be spent this academic year!) But why all this financial support for such a seemingly marginal enterprise?
The simple answer is that research in pure mathematics has again and again proved vital to progress in the physical sciences. Historically, much mathematics developed in tandem with physics – Archimedes, Newton – but even so their work was based in turn on the geometries of Euclid and Descartes.
In a more modern context, work on the Riemannian Geometry of dimensions higher than 3 provided Einstein the tools he needed for the 4-dimensional geometry of the Theory of Relativity. Drolly put, mathematicians were traveling in space-time even before Einstein!
Yet more recently, it was work in pure math by Yves Meyer and others on Harmonic Analysis (the mathematics of sound) that had a new tool ready for engineers for the development of high-definition digital television –  the wavelet. The wavelet plays the role the classical Fourier transform does for analog radio and TV.
Apropos, Meyer was a colleague of this writer at the University of Paris (Jussieu campus) back in the 1970s – very much the Parisian intellectual: good looking, brilliant, witty and, what’s more, a very nice guy.
And this kind of anticipation of the needs of science and engineering is also true of Mathematical Logic. To start, Boolean Algebra is key to the design of computer chips. And there was Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the extraordinary discovery that the axiomatizations of strong mathematical systems like Set Theory and Number Theory would necessarily fall short as oracles for discovering the truth – human intuition can not be done away with; to accomplish this, Gödel applied mathematical methods to mathematics itself (aka meta-mathematics), to analyze algorithms and proofs, an analysis that led to computer programming as we know it today. Indeed, at a high enough level of abstraction, proofs and programs are pretty much the same thing.
Gödel’s work was in response to Hilbert’s Program, a project which was launched by German mega-mathematician David Hilbert in the late 1920s to apply Proof Theory and its meta-mathematics to establish that the axioms of standard mathematical systems could not yield inconsistent results. Gödel, practically speaking, put an end to Hilbert’s Program although its spirit continued to motivate outstanding work in Proof Theory.
Apropos, at an ASL meeting many years ago, this writer was walking with Stephen Cole Kleene, a giant in the field and one who contributed important work on mathematical models of computability in the 1930s; when asked what motivated them back then, Kleene, an American, responded “Well, the Germans had this Proof Theory and we were just trying to catch up.”
In 1933, John Von Neumann came to the recently created Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton; Von Neumann, a true polymath, worked in many areas of mathematics including Logic: Set Theory and Proof Theory, in particular. It was he who arranged for Kurt Gödel to visit the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton on three occasions in the 1930s and then arranged a permanent position for Gödel there after the latter’s dramatic escape from Vienna in 1940 – train from Vienna to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, boat to Japan, ship to the US – in 1940 before the German invasion of Russia and before Pearl Harbor. Gödel himself wasn’t Jewish but he was being accused of doing “Jewish mathematics” and his life was being threatened.
In 1936, the young British mathematician Alan Turing published a paper “On Computable Numbers with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” Here Turing presented a new mathematical model for computation – the “automatic machine” in the paper, the “Turing Machine” today. Turing proved that this much simpler model is equivalent to the other schemes of Gödel, Herbrand, Church and Kleene; the Turing Machine is couched in terms of a very primitive device manipulating 0s and 1s; furthermore, Turing demonstrated the existence of a Universal Turing Machine which can emulate the operation of any Turing machine M given the description of M in 0s and 1s along with the intended input; this will turn out to prove very important barely 10 years later. Turing presented his paper at Princeton and then stayed on to do a PhD under Alonzo Church, author of another important model of computation, the λ-calculus – a model far less intuitive than Turing’s but one important today in work on automated proof checking and other areas of Computer Science. Von Neumann tried to get Turing to stay at Princeton as a post-Doc after the latter’s PhD dissertation there in 1938 but Turing went back to England where he was soon working on breaking the codes of the German Enigma machine.
BTW Applying the Universal Turing Machine to itself opens the door to a treasure trove of paradoxical insights and results. In a similar way, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem relies on self-reference. Very roughly speaking Gödel’s proof employs a stratagem reminiscent of the Liar’s Paradox of Antiquity: Gödel constructed a self-referential formula asserting “This statement is not provable” – if provable, it’s false; if not provable, it’s true. So if the axioms do not yield false results, Gödel’s statement is true but unprovable. (For an example of an incompleteness in mathematics that does not employ mathematical self-reference, see the Kanamori-McAloon Theorem.)
Scientists have long been involved in the design of new weapons systems: Archimedes used parabolic mirrors to create a laser like beam of light that set the sails of Roman ships on fire in Syracuse harbor; Leonardo supplemented his income by sketching visionary weapons for Ludovico II, the Duke of Milan. But WW II was a watershed when the military and governments realized that for new modern weapons systems, scientists and mathematicians were needed in addition to military engineers.
The most spectacular wartime weapons effort was the Manhattan Project for constructing atomic weapons. John von Neumann worked on the Manhattan Project as did Logician Stanislas Ulam. Ulam started his academic career in Lviv working in Set Theory on very large infinite cardinal numbers – yes, at that same city in western Ukraine today that is subject to constant bombardment and yes those same monstrous infinities that were the subject of several exciting talks at Cornell.
Apropos, Ulam wrote a breezy autobiography Adventures of a Mathematician (1976). At one point he came to Paris and joined a couple of us logicians for dinner at a Basque restaurant near the Panthéon. We tried to get him to tell us whether the Monte Carlo algorithms he had invented were done in connection with his work on the hydrogen bomb – he was charming but evasive. However, he did write down our names most carefully; presumably, were we to become famous, we would get a mention in his next book!
BTW The Soviet Union followed suit in its post-War support for Mathematics and the Soviet School (already strong before the War) became second to none. Mathematics and Theoretical Physics were very attractive areas for young researchers in the USSR since these were the only areas where spying government apparatchiks would never be able to understand what you were actually doing and therefore would have to leave you alone.
In the early days of modern computing machinery one had to rewire the machine, replace external tapes, swap plugboards or reset switches for the next application. This would change. After the War, Von Neumann joined the team at the University of Pennsylvania under John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, the team that built the pioneering ENIAC (1945). For this next government funded project, Von Neumann wrote up a report on the design of the next digital computer, “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC”; inspired by the Universal Turing Machine, in this report, von Neumann introduced “stored programming” where you just input the algorithm along with the data into the memory of the machine – the algorithm and the data live in the same universe after all. This was a crucial step forward. Today, the role of the Universal Turing Machine is played by the operating system of the computer or phone; MS-DOS, Windows, macOS, Unix, Linux, Android, iOS.
BTW In the post-War period, US courts were revealed to have a Platonistic philosophy of mathematics – who knew ? It was ruled that an algorithm could not be patented because the mathematical theorems underlying the algorithm were already true before their proofs came to light – mathematicians were thus discoverers and not inventors. Later the courts patched things up with industry by declaring that one could patent the implementation of an algorithm!
After the war, US government and military financing of university research continued to pay off in spectacular fashion: e.g. the Internet and Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI itself had its roots in Mathematical Logic and the first to warn the world that machine intelligence was destined to outstrip human intelligence was Alan Turing. In his 1951 talk at the University of Manchester entitled Intelligent Machinery: A Heretical Theory, Turing spoke of machines that will eventually surpass human intelligence: “once the machine thinking method has started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers. At some stage therefore we should have to expect the machines to take control.” This eerie event is now called the Singularity and “experts” predict it will come soon after 2030.
Set Theory, Model Theory, Proof Theory and other areas of Logic also prospered in the post-War era; interest in the field spread and new centers of Logic emerged in the US and as far abroad as Novosibirsk in Siberia. In 1966, Paul Cohen received the Fields Medal (the mathematicians’ “Nobel Prize”) for his elegant work on the Continuum Hypothesis  – this was the subject of the very first in a list of 23 important open problems drawn up by that same David Hilbert in 1900, problems whose solutions would determine the directions Mathematics would take.
Apropos, this writer used Cohen’s techniques to settle a form of the Continuum Hypothesis problem that had been raised by work of Gödel. This earned him an audience with Gödel where they discussed set-theoretic axioms to extend the power of mathematics; when one of this writer’s suggestions was proving too convoluted, Gödel simply said “That won’t work; it has to be beautiful to be true.”
Today, AI and other fields that originated in Mathematical Logic have merged with Computer Science and new fields have been created – such as Complexity Theory which analyzes the run-time of algorithms; and this links in turn to modern cryptography such as that behind the omnipresent  https://  . Also in this intersection of Logic and Computer Science there is ongoing work on automated proof checking: this involves new logics and new constraints on the structure of proofs and the conversion of proofs into programs – right back where this all started in Proof Theory.
But can one say that the kind of work presented at the Cornell ASL meeting will have such pervasive consequences as that from years past? We do not know, of course, but mathematics is the best tool humans have for understanding the physical universe both in the large and in the small. Indeed, people always marvel at how the Mathematics fits the Physics so perfectly. Some skeptics claim that human intelligence is limited to the point that mathematical models used for Physics are simply the only ones that we ourselves can understand. Others, more traditional in their philosophy, hold that Mathematics is just the best way for us to touch the mind of God.

1052 And All That

It was in the Lord’s Year MLII that the Great Schism took place that separated Western Christianity from Orthodox Christianity and created a fault line in Europe that is dangerous to this day, particularly for the Slavic peoples of Europe.
There had been conflicts both theological and political before between the Pope in Rome and the Archbishop of Constantinople but the rift had always been smoothed over. The Great Schism was caused by a number of basic disagreements: there was the Western practice of using unleavened bread for the Eucharist for example, but the main theological disagreement was over the relative positions of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in the Trinity – known as the filioque controversy that resulted from the Latin Church’s tinkering with the Nicene Creed. For some details, click HERE .
The actual events on the ground that immediately triggered this dramatic split are the stuff of silent comedy with the Papal Legate and the Archbishop of Constantinople hurling excommunications around like Jovian thunderbolts. But, this time there would be no turning back. The result has been a painful fissure in the structure of European society that continues to this day and that even underlies the current crisis in Ukraine.
For the most part, Slavic peoples are in the Orthodox zone with some exceptions at the very Western end of the Slavic lands. Thus the Westernmost Slavs – Slovenians, Croats, Czechs, many Slovaks – were absorbed into Western Christianity. Western Christianity reached Poland by means of the dynastic marriage of Doubravka of Bohemia, a Catholic, with Mieszko I of Poland, a pagan; the result was that Mieszko himself converted and ordered his subjects to do the same – all circa 966. (The legend is that Doubravka used her charm to engineer the conversion, but scholars today think it was built into the pre-nuptial agreement with Bohemia.)  The Baltic states – Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia – close politically to Poland for a long time adopted Western Christianity too.
Serbia was part of the Byzantine world and Orthodox Christianity was established there by the middle of the 9th Century. Further East the Christianization of Slavic peoples also began in the 9th Century with the Byzantine missionaries, the sainted  brothers Cyrille and Methodius (“Apostles to the Slavs”) who brought a new Faith and alphabetism to (roughly) what is now Bulgaria.
But the big prize was the Kievan Rus, the great land of the Eastern Slavs; from its capital at Kiev, it spread from the Black Sea in the South to the White Sea in the North encompassing important cities like Rostov-on-Don and historic Novgorod  – the city defended from the Teutonic Knights in 1242 by Prince Alexander Nevsky, the eponymous hero of Sergei Eisenstein’s film .
For a map of historical Kievan Rus, click HERE .
Indeed, the modern nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine all claim Kievan Rus as their cultural ancestor and Belarus and Russia even derive their names from it. The conversion of Kievan Rus to Orthodox Christianity was not the work of missionaries or of foreign conquest. Rather, it followed the Polish model: the Duke of Kiev, Vladimir the Great (980–1015), entered into an alliance with the Byzantine Emperor Basil II aiding him in suppressing a revolt with the help of Kievan troops. The alliance included marriage with the Emperor’s sister and a conversion to Orthodox Christianity. With the non-chalance worthy of a great autocrat, Vladimir ordered the townspeople of Kiev to make their way down to the Dnieper River for a mass baptism, an event which has become iconic in the lore of the Christianization of the Eastern Slavs. In Kievan Rus and in Poland, however, there was resistance to this forced break with traditional Slavic paganism and its Indo-European gods, cousins to the Greco-Roman Olympians.
Nothing involving religion ever being simple, there are also the Ruthenians (aka Greek Catholics) who range from Slovakia deep into Ukraine – their rite is in Church Slavonic (a language which preceded the emergence of modern Slavic languages) but they recognize the authority of the Pope in Rome. Perhaps the best known American Ruthenian is Andy Warhol whose work shows the influence of Eastern rite mosaics and icons on his artistic imagination. BTW the village of his parents in Slovakia is now a tourist attraction – something he would doubtlessly find amusing.
Romania is a special case: the region became part of the Roman Empire with the Emperor Trajan’s conquest of historical Dacia in the 2nd Century A.D.  The time-honored legend is that Christianity itself was introduced in Dacia by the apostle St. Andrew in the 1st Century. Because of the conquest, Romanian is a Romance language; nevertheless, the people turned to Orthodox Christianity with rituals celebrated in Church Slavonic, a practice that lasted into the 17th Century.
From the time of the Great Schism till today, the boundary lines separating duchies, countries, socialist republics, kingdoms and principalities in Orthodox Europe have been drawn, erased and drawn again over and over; the map of Slavic Europe is so confusing, always shifting and changing. By way of example, in 1914 the city of Lviv (which is much in the news today) was part of the Hapsburg edition of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) with the German language name of Lemberg; then between the wars, it was in the newly created country of Poland with the name Lwow; then following WW II, it was assigned to the Ukrainian SSR with the name Lviv – so polyonymous is this town that it even has two different names in Yiddish.
For a remarkable evolving map illustrating boundary changes in Europe over time, click HERE .
On the map, one can see the city Mykolaiv built by Count Potemkin (but not a Potemkin Village this time) during the reign of Catherine the Great along the Black Sea coast of modern Ukraine. Mykolaiv and other cities which date from that era – Odessa, Dnipro, Kherson, Sebastopol – are also very much in the news today. On this map, Ukraine only appears as a demarcated political entity for a brief spell in the early 20th Century before it is swallowed up by the USSR following the October Revolution of 1917 and the peace treaties ending WW I. And the map does not show that Crimea only became part of the Ukranian SSR in 1954 (when Ukranian Nikita Kruschev was Premier of the Soviet Union).
Present day Moldova (aka Bessarabia) is part of the Romanian story from the point of view of organized religion; but in 1940, as part of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the area was ceded by the Kingdom of Romania to the Soviet Union to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic forming a buffer between the Ukrainian SSR and Romania.
At the end of WW II in 1945, all of the Orthodox Slavic lands were in the Communist sphere of influence – either as part of the USSR, part of the Warsaw Pact or part of Yugoslavia. All this would come crashing down with the partition of Yugoslavia and the fall of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the 20th Century. The partition of the Kingdom of the Slavs saw Western Europe at its worst as Germany and others raced to disassemble the country and then failed miserably at containing the violence and slaughter that followed – violence and slaughter only accelerated by ancient unforgotten enmities which ineluctably resurfaced.
Historically, the Russians have had reason to fear Western Europe – the Teutonic Knights of the 13th century, Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the Franks and Anglo-Saxons that humiliated Mother Russia in the Crimean War in the 19th Century (alas giving rise to that poem about that brigade), the Hapsburg Empire’s ultimatums against Orthodox Serbia which led Tsarist Russia to start WW I as “Big Brother to the Slavs,” the murderous German armies (with their “Eastern front mentality”) of WWII. The European Union (EU) is often called the new Holy Roman Empire (HRE) – a revival of the historic imperial structure of Western Christianity. Today the EU and NATO can look to Russians like an expanded Western Christian force of Franks and Germans augmented with Anglo-Saxon auxiliaries.  Since the 1990s, this new Holy Roman Empire has been pushing relentlessly East both militarily with NATO expansion (despite assurances to the contrary once given) and culturally with the EU. Russian geo-political paranoia is not totally unfounded.
Orthodox Christianity is part of the Russian soul, even today despite 70 plus years of Communist rule. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that Orthodox Christianity provided Russia and the Slavic world a buffer against the individual liberalism of the West, something that earned him the reputation of being a “reactionary” in the West.
For someone like Putin who presumably takes the long view, the penetration of Western mores into Orthodox Eastern Europe is a threat to civilization itself. Organized religion provides a framework for social organization and for an individual’s path in life. Orthodox Christianity is entrenched in Russia, a symbol of Russian nationalism and a useful help in legitimating the regime.  On the contrary, in Western Europe, Christianity is in disarray. Not incidentally, Italy, Spain and Malta– bastions of traditonal Roman Catholicism – have the lowest birth-rates in the EU, well below the level required to maintain the population, despite Church prohibitions of birth-control. It is not so funny that Anglicans quip that they go to Church only for “hatch, match, and dispatch”. (N.B. Anglicans both use the Oxford comma and put the quotation sign outside the period – one must respect that when writing about them.) For a deep look into the religious crisis in Western Europe, there is Chantal Delsol’s mordant analysis La Fin de la Chrétienté, 2021. (For a NYTimes piece on the book, click HERE .)
Not to say that Putin is especially religious (though he does attend church regularly and maintains excellent relations with the Russian Church) but he would not be alone in thinking that the godless, neo-liberal capitalist model of Western Europe is much more threat than benefaction for the Eastern Slavs; indeed, the social and human price of “progress” is admittedly very high.
From the Russian point of view, the situation in Ukraine deteriorated greatly with the Maidan protests of 2014-15: the pro-Russian president Yanukovych who had stepped back from an accord with the EU and favored economic integration with Russia and Belarus was deposed and the new regime quickly signed an association agreement with the EU. The takeover of Crimea, the incursion into Donbas soon followed. The refusal/failure of current Ukrainian president Zelensky’s government to declare publicly that Ukraine would not join NATO made it easy for Putin to ignite the slow fuse that set off the present conflict. One European nation that did not immediately join in the condemnation of the insane Russian invasion was Serbia, the Orthodox state that Russia had gone to war to defend in 1914; however, Serbia is in the process of applying for membership in the EU and so, under pressure from that new HRE, their delegation recently voted to condemn the invasion in the General Assembly of the UN – one can hear Putin cry “Et tu, Illyricum.”
A special sort of madness, called até by Homer and Aeschylus, seems to take over the minds of leaders and makes them blind to reality and the consequences of their acts. Recent cases include Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Boris Johnson. Putin is but the latest in this list of victims of até , a list that goes back to Agamemnon. Nothing in any long-term view of Russian paranoia justifies the horrors of this invasion of Ukraine. But it does speak to the blindness of world leaders and the rest of us to deep structures that embody conflicts which linger on beneath the surface, so hard to see.

Legitimate Political Discourse

The mob who stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 was composed of a menagerie of anti-government groups with names like QAnon, The Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, spurred on by a Donald Trump pep talk. Reaction by law enforcement has been slow. TIME Magazine reported on the situation as of Jan 6, 2022: “Only around one-tenth of those arrested—71 individuals—have received criminal sentences, while the rest are waiting for their trials or haven’t yet reached plea agreements. … So far, the median prison sentence for the Jan. 6 rioters is 45 days. An additional 18 rioters have been sentenced to periods of home detention, while most sentences have included fines, community service and probation for low-level offenses like illegally parading or demonstrating in the Capitol, which is a misdemeanor.”
But seven people died as a result of this assault! And these are the sentences! Mishandling of white supremacist and militia groups has been the rule, alas, in the Federal Government’s history for a long time now starting with Confederate officials and generals.
At the end of the Civil War, Confederacy President Jefferson Davis was confined for two years and then released on bail awaiting trial. However, on Christmas Day 1868, President Andrew Johnson pardoned just about everyone involved in the insurrection – an example that Trump has announced he plans to follow once he becomes President again. For his part, Robert E. Lee was never arrested or charged; he did lose the land which now is the site of Arlington National Cemetery – but his family was compensated later.
However, neither Davis nor Lee could accede to political office because of Section 3 of the 14th amendment which excludes former officials who have abetted or participated in an insurrection from serving again. This clause is of obvious interest today in so far as it can be applied to Donald Trump; for the text, click HERE .
The post-Civil War period gave rise to the longest lived white supremacist movement in the country, namely, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) – a group that has functioned with near impunity into the current era. Indeed, in Nov 1979, there was the Greensboro Massacre where Klan members killed five Communist Worker Party members who were participating in a pro-labor demonstration; there was a state criminal trial and a federal civil rights trial – in both all the assailants were acquitted. Similar result for the attempted murders of black women in 1980 in Chattanooga Tennessee. On the other hand, a most effective force against the KKK has been the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) which has succeeded in impoverishing clan groups by means of successful civil suits.
Among the first of the new violent white supremacist groups to form was the Aryan Nations in the 1970s. Inconsistency being a kind of virtue for these cult-like groups, the Aryan Nations both were virulently anti-Semitic and staked the claim that people from the British Isles are the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel – a position known as British Israelism ! Under tight surveillance by the FBI, the group declined – also due to its own infighting and mismanagement. But it was not the FBI that brought the organization down in the end; rather it was that same Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that won a $6.3M lawsuit against the Aryan Nations for their sadistic mistreatment of a Native American woman and her son.
A more violent white supremacist offshoot known as The Order emerged in the 1980s and this group descended into bank robbery and more – such as the despicable murder of Jewish radio host Alan Berg; in this case at least, the government was able to bring the murderers to justice thanks to informants etc. As The Order connected up with other violent groups (among them the KKK), the Federal Government did bring seditious conspiracy charges against 14 conspirators formally indicting them in 1988 at Fort Smith Arkansas; however, 13 of them were acquitted and the charges against the 14th were dropped.
The 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho has become deeply symbolic for anti- government movements. People died but the two protagonists Randy Weaver (a Vietnam vet) and Kevin Harris were acquitted of all charges associated with the siege.
In 2006, a new militia group formed in Michigan with the name Hutaree, which was claimed to mean “Christian Warriors.” In 2010 in response to their activities, the government brought charges of seditious conspiracy against 9 members of the group: in 2012 the judge in the case dismissed all these charges.
And these malignant para-military groups have continued to multiply: in 2008, the Three Percenters, in 2009 the Oath Keepers, in 2016 The Proud Boys, and on and on.
In 2014, Cliven Bundy, white-supemacist and anti-government hardliner, had an armed standoff with federal government agents when he insisted that the government should not control federal lands. In support of Bundy, the Oath Keepers showed up. However, Bundy was not arrested and continued to graze his cattle on federal land without obtaining permits or paying fees.
In 2016, members of the Three Percenters joined the insurgents under Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven, at the Malheur Refuge Center in Oregon. This seizure of federal property lasted for months and one of the protesters was killed while resisting arrest. There were some convictions but even more acquittals. Cliven Bundy himself was arrested on his way to Malheur in 2016 but then all charges against him were dismissed in 2017 because of government bungling.
The rise of the right-wing conspiracy group QAnon is a new kind of phenomenon – born of the internet and social media like Reddit. Since 2017, people from all over have been galvanized by QAnon to contest the government based on crazy stuff like the Hilary Clinton led pedophilia ring in that pizza parlor in Philadelphia. Nutty as it is, when a lie passes its tell-by date, they simply come up with a new one.
The Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville VA in 2017 involved a congeries of anti-government, white-supremacist and anti-Semitic organizations among them neo-Nazis and the KKK. A counter-protestor Heather Heyer, was killed by a car driven into a crowd by a white supremacist demonstrator; this time the murderer was sentenced to life imprisonment. But all this criminal behavior was played down by then President Donald Trump who spoke about “very fine people on both sides.”
The state of Michigan has been a breeding ground for these anti-government cabals. In 2020, a movement calling themselves the Wolverine Militia plotted to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The group was infiltrated and the plot forestalled, leading to charges of conspiracy to commit kidnapping against 13 defendants – all of this is still working its way through the courts. The scheme was hatched following a series of protests (including an incursion by armed men into the State Capitol) in reaction to Whitmer’s strict COVID mitigation measures – measures which were derided by Donald Trump who called Whitmer “that woman from Michigan” and who tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” an all caps fascist dog-whistle.
These groups, Oath Keepers et al., are eerily like the Blackshirts and Brownshirts of the fascist movements of Europe in the 1920s. They were an integral part of the Jan 6 Insurrection where an organized, equipped and violent mob stormed the US Capitol terrorizing members of Congress and others. The goal of this action was to interfere with the count of the Electoral College votes; and then either (1) to have the vote for president assigned to the House of Representatives or (2) to have Vice-President Mike Pence accept the bogus alternate slates the Republicans had prepared for Arizona, Michigan etc; but Pence let them down. In the first case, in an election for president  in the House of Representatives, each state has one vote and the Republicans have a majority in more states than the Democrats do (even though the Democrats have more seats in the House over all) – result: victory for Trump as it was for John Quincy Adams in 1824 over Andrew Jackson who actually had won more of the popular vote and of the electoral vote. In the second case, numerous swing state electors would have been switched – result: victory for Trump as it was for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 when alternate pro-Hayes electors from Southern states were seated in return for the end of Reconstruction, thus defeating the Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden who had won the popular vote.
The Jan 6, 2021 attack is not an isolated event; it has its place in the history of white-supemacist violence; and the reaction to Jan 6 is so far eerily ineffective and reminiscent of the handling of past militia violence. And now in an “in your face” moment, the Trumpist Republicans have declared that this murderous insurrection was just an example of “legitimate political discourse.” This trick of blatantly rewriting history is a classic fascist tactic.
The material damage to the Capitol has been estimated at $30M and will rise further, much further. Four attackers died during the stampede (one, an Air Force veteran, from police fire as rioters tried to breach the House chamber, the others for medical reasons), a police officer was killed during the attack and two other officers committed suicide in the following days. Up till now, the punishments meted out have been almost all “slaps on the wrist.”
Only recently has the Department of Justice begun to move up the insurrectionist chain of command and arrest ring-leaders who were not necessarily physically present in the Capitol Building that day; the government has brought seditious conspiracy charges against 11 such defendants, among them the leader of the Oath Keepers, army veteran Stewart Rhodes. This charge of seditious conspiracy was used successfully against the Puerto Rican nationalists of the 1954 assault on the Capitol and on various Marxist groups, but it has failed when used against white supremacists and militias as in the 1988 Fort Smith sedition case and as in the 2010 case against the Hutaree militia in Michigan.
One must remember that the Nazi movement in Germany first tried its notorious Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923; the Putsch failed but the lame reaction to it only emboldened the Nazi party and its para-military apparatus, which placed that country on the fast lane to fascism. The Jan 6 Commission, the Department of Justice, the courts and public opinion had better all move quickly: with a lame response to Jan 6, we will be reduced to telling ourselves “It Can’t Happen Here.”
Post Scriptum For more on the disputed elections of 1824 and 1876 and their implications for our time, click HERE .
Post Post Scriptum For more on the fascist threat underlying Trumpism, click HERE .

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Femmes Fatales of Yesteryear, Part II

For his classic poem The Ballad of Women of Times Gone By, François Villon rhapsodizes over the snows of yesteryear and the femmes fatales of yesteryear; naturally, he selects his heroines most carefully.
In the first stanza, he singles out two renowned courtesans of the ancient world.
There is Thais who followed her lover, one of Alexander’s generals, on the Macedonian march of conquest; after Alexander’s death, her paramour became Ptolemy I of Egypt – launching the dynasty of the Ptolemies that only ended with Cleopatra.
And there is Flora the Roman beauty – so prosperous in her chosen profession and so magnanimous of spirit that, according to legend, she financed the first Floralia ceremonies in Rome: springtime flower festivals and lusty happenings, annual six day events that lasted long into the Christian era. With the growth of Roman power, these exuberant ceremonies quickly spread throughout the empire – quite understandably since the Floralia “were much appreciated by conquered peoples for their licentious nature,” to translate from a prudish French source.
Things get a bit comic though in this first stanza when Villon references Alcibiades (Archipiades in the text) who was, in fact, a man. Alcibiades was known in his day as the most beautiful youth in Periclean Athens – apparently Villon and his contemporaries took him to be a woman so universal were the paeans to his beauty in classical writings. The less easily befuddled among us today hold Alcibiades more to account for his role in the disastrous siege of Syracuse in the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens.
But then Villon leaps forward to the late Middle Ages invoking Héloïse and Marguerite de Bourgogne – both most worthy of the poet’s attention. The actual story of Marguerite and the scandal of The Tower of Nesle involves other dazzling women – among them are the two other daughters-in-law of King Philippe Le Bel, Jeanne de Bourgogne and Blanche d’Artois both of whom figured in the actual historical events but who were mostly left at peace by the legends and literature that followed. However, the story of The Tower of Nesle also involves Isabelle de France, King Philippe’s daughter who was the one who aroused the suspicions of her father about the future queen Marguerite’s extra-regal activities. And this is the Isabelle known to history as the She-Wolf of France (la Louve de France)! Should she not be there among the femmes fatales of Villon’s poem?
Well here is her story: daughter that she was of the King of France, at the tender age of 12, she was married off to Edward II, the King of England; this was a dynastic marriage arranged to keep the peace between England and France – as the Duke of Aquitaine and Gascogne, the Plantagenet Edward II controlled a large part of France but was in feudal terms a vassal of the King of France. It is also interesting that although the English Court at the time of these scandals was very much French, the French Salic Law never became part of English law: this law was inspired by Marguerite’s story and prevented a queen from being the reigning monarch; on the contrary, in England there were the impressive reigns of Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Anne and Queen Victoria. But the plot thickens: the same Isabelle, who had denounced Marguerite, herself led a successful rebellion against her own husband Edward II aided by her lover Roger Mortimer, baron of Wigmore and descendant of Normans who came with William the Conqueror. Edward II was thus forced to abdicate in favor of the 14 year old Edward III, his son with Isabelle; the deposed king died imprisoned at Berkeley Castle not long after, either by natural causes or on the orders of Mortimer – historians differ. Edward III only being 14 years of age when made king, Isabelle served as Queen Regent and ruled the country – she did well, making peace with Robert the Bruce and the unruly Scots, for one thing. When Edward III did take control at age 18, he promptly saw to it that Mortimer was executed – but Isabelle, though kept away from Court, lived out her days playing the model grandmother in a style befitting the daughter, wife and mother of a king.
As with Marguerite de Bourgogne and The Tower of Nesle, the story of Isabelle de France is too good to have been passed up by the world of letters, Villon notwithstanding. And this time it was Christopher Marlowe himself who seized the occasion.
    BTW, Marlowe’s star continues to rise; the New Oxford Shakespeare now lists him as co-author of all three of the Henry VI  plays – this attribution was made using a sophisticated Artificial Intelligence program which determines authorship by matching phrasings against other works by the writer in question etc – thus pretty well settling at least one question involving Marlowe’s contributions to Shakespeare’s work.
Marlowe, it seems, had a predilection for plots involving close ties between men and, true to form, in his 1592 play Edward II, he develops the story around the close and controversial relationship Edward had with his favorite Piers Gaveston. Like Dumas’ play The Tower of Nesle, Marlowe’s play too has been made into films – most recently there is the 1991 film Edward II by British filmmaker Derek Jarman: here it is Edward’s relationship with Gaveston that triggers Isabelle’s alienation – although historians tend to think that it was Edward’s dalliance with his next favorite Hugh Dispenser the Younger that drove Isabelle to open rebellion – and, indeed, in the end Isabelle did have Hugh Dispenser dispatched in a most ghastly way.
Books too continue to be written on this dramatic chapter of British history; already in this century we have Paul Doherty’s Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II (2003).
And the world of art has been there since the beginning. For a medieval image of Isabelle de France, taken from the original Froissart’s Chronicles, the late 14th Century history of the 100 Years War, click HERE . Admittedly, Isabelle would have been better served by a master painter of the Renaissance but that would only have been possible some 100 or more years later. For a print from Froissart’s Chronicles of the first steps in the execution of Hugh Dispenser, click HERE .
Given all this, Isabelle de France clearly deserves her place in the pantheon of femmes fatales of yesteryear. Did François Villon only overlook her because she was Queen of England and not Queen of France? We will never know, hélas. But a simple way to give her her due is to recreate the lines that are manifestly missing from Villon’s poem, inserting them into the middle of the stanza devoted to Heloise and Marguerite; after all the poem is dedicated to dangerous women of the past, she certainly qualifies and fits in so well with the other two.
There must be a circle in Hell reserved for those who tamper with great poetry (the crime of lèse-poésie or is it lèse-poète), but for Isabelle’s sake a poetic sacrilege is justified here and so we propose that lines be added both to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Victorian translation and to Villon’s original poem.
We note with pride that the quatrains below follow Rossetti’s and Villon’s rhyme. Also like these poets, we have recourse to the language of yesteryear: in this case the arcane word mariticide which denotes the murder of a husband.
Following Rossetti:
And where is the Isabelle so intelligent
That she drove her lover to regicide
Thus becoming the Queen Regent
Thanks to her little mariticide
Following Villon:
Où est cette Isabelle si brilliante
Qui poussa son amant au régicide
Ce qui fit d’elle la reine régente
Grace a son petit mariticide
For the full Rossetti text, click HERE ; for that of Villon, click HERE .
One more treat: for Villon’s ballad sung with classical syllabication by the great French chanteur Georges Brassens, click HERE .