Islam and the West


It’s part of American conservative orthodoxy right now to consider Muslims as irredeemably evil. They’re trying to destroy our country as well as Europe. Even if they aren’t directly attacking Europeans (and they have mounted some horrifying attacks) they’re trying to take over by out-reproducing whites, at least in Great Britain. When they’ve attained a majority they’ll be able to impose Sharia law on Britain, which they plan to do in the USA too.

Is this view true? It’s true that some Muslims are extremists who carry out terror attacks, but not that they’re the only group that does so. According to Wikipedia, the first Muslim immigrants to this country began coming in the 1840s (other than slaves, many of whom were Muslim, but were prevented from practicing their religion by their owners, and were often forcibly converted to Christianity), and that 292 Muslims fought in our Civil War. Large numbers of Muslims immigrated to this country between the 1870s and 1920s, As far as I can tell, Muslims committed no terrorist acts in this country until the 1990s.

Why did they do so then? Many Muslims resented European colonial powers who, in their view, mistreated Muslim countries in seeking oil, which had revolutionized power generation in the West. European countries began seeking concessions to drill for oil in the Middle East about the beginning of the 20th century, and the Middle Eastern oil fields quickly became so important that Great Britain occupied portions of the Ottoman Empire to safeguard their supply of oil. European influence had a great deal to do with the breakup of that Empire into artificial countries: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Iraq in particular was home to a variety of peoples who had little loyalty to each other: Sunni Muslims (the majority of Muslims worldwide), Shia Muslims (the majority in Iraq), and Kurds, who wanted their own territory, but have yet to secure a recognized nation. The American invasion of Iraq destabilized the country, along with much of the rest of the Middle East. Saddam Hussein had certainly not been a nice leader, but I suspect few Iraqis would have opted to go through the violence and chaos they’ve experienced in the past fifteen years.

In Iran after the First World War British diplomats supported the takeover of the country by an army officer named Reza Pahlavi, who became the Shah. After World War II he was forced out of power and his son became Shah. In the early 1950s the Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh nationalized the oil companies in the country, greatly displeasing the Western powers. The CIA funded a military coup that displaced Mossadegh, and brought back the Shah (who had fled the country). The Shah wanted to modernize and secularize the country (the latter was disliked by the religious authorities), and used a notorious secret police force to force people to comply.

Perhaps the main issue that made Muslims unhappy, especially those in the Middle East, was Western support for making Palestine the homeland of the Jews. Zionists had been urging Jews to immigrate to Palestine since the mid-19th century, and many had. The trickle began to become a flood with the rise of Hitler, and Palestinian Arabs became alarmed and fought against the Jewish immigrants. Terrorism was committed by both sides. I think it’s possible to support Israel as homeland for Jews without agreeing with all its policies or excusing its expropriation of the property of the Palestinians or killing them. The existence of Israel enraged the Arabs of the region, and they tried to defeat it and allow Palestinians to get their property back. But the Israelis had a stronger economy and higher military technology, and successfully resisted attempts at invasion. They also had the support of many Western countries, including the United States. That was another thing Muslims of the region resented.

In the late 1970s Iran began rebelling against the Shah at about the same time he became ill and traveled to the USA for treatment. The Ayatollah Khomeini became the political leader of the country at about the same time that Iranians took a lot of Americans hostage. Not all approved of the Ayatollah’s version of an Islamic government, but many approved of Iran going its own way whether the United States liked it or not.

In 1980 the USSR invaded Afghanistan, and Arabs in various countries organized Mujahideen to help resist them. One of these was Osama bin Laden, who fought in Afghanistan and, after the Russians were driven out, returned to Saudi Arabia a hero. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, he offered (fearing Iraq would invade Saudi Arabia next) Mujahideen to repel the Iraqis. Some believe he was outraged by Saudi acceptance of American help to defeat the Iraqis and especially their allowing the United States to build a military base in the country. Other accounts say he believed the US was harming Muslims in the Middle East (Wikipedia quotes Michael Scheuer, who led the hunt for bin Laden as saying, “They hate us for what we do, not who we are.”) under the influence of the Israelis, and called upon them to cease fornication, homosexuality, gambling, and usury. He belonged to a particular school of theology that believed violent acts against innocent civilians were justified by jihad. 

Not everyone agreed with this interpretation. According to Wikipedia, “Jihad is classified into inner (‘greater’) Jihad, which involves a struggle against one’s own base impulses, and external (‘lesser’) jihad, which is further divided into jihad of the pen/tongue (debate or persuasion) and jihad of the sword. Most Western writers consider external jihad to have primacy over internal jihad in the Islamic tradition, while much of contemporary Muslim opinion favors the opposite point of view.” Wikipedia adds that in classical Islam there were elaborate rules against harming innocent noncombatants in jihad, and that modern Islamic scholars emphasize armed jihad as primarily defensive, a stance bin Laden obviously disagreed with.

Extremists of all kinds are liable to be violent. To condemn all Muslims for the actions of a relative few is to be unjust to more than a billion people. One guess is that we have between four and seven million Muslims in this country. If all of them were extremists, we would be in bad trouble. Despite our intelligence organizations, it would be nearly impossible to keep that many people from committing terrorist actions if they really wanted to. Did they come to this country to do that, or did they come for similar reasons to our own ancestors: because they wanted to make better lives for themselves? It’s interesting that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson both advocated tolerance of Islam as well as any other religions, though of course they had little if any contact with any Muslims.

I suggest that Muslim terrorism is part of a larger problem: alienation. Alienation isn’t a necessary part of Islam, any more than of Christianity or any other belief. But so-called Christians have committed terrorist acts too, such as bombing abortion facilities, synagogues, and churches. I believe alienation makes people more vulnerable to drug and other addictions as well. Are Muslims in Great Britain trying to take the country over? Why would they want to? Have the British been mistreating them? If they’re accepted as citizens like any other, won’t they behave like most citizens?

At the same time, while Americans were justifiably enraged at the atrocity of 9/11, a lot of sympathy was lost for America after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq killed at least hundreds of thousands. Was that not also terrorism?

The reason many Muslims are trying to leave their countries of origin is because they’ve become almost impossible to live in. Sometimes the reasons are drought or famine. Other times they’re political, like civil war. The French famously dislike the Algerians. Could it be because Algeria was once a French colony and the Algerians forced the French out? Could it be the English don’t like the “Pakis” because India (of which Pakistan used to be a part) was once part of the British empire? Europeans subjugated much of the rest of the world during the colonial period. Is it the turn of the Western powers to be subjugated by people from their former colonies? Or is it possible we’ll learn our lesson and treat those people decently, so they won’t WANT to subjugate us? Or are we assuming that Muslims (as well as other refugees) will behave the way some of our ancestors did, doing anything they could think of to take the land from its indigenous peoples?

What is written above is a very over-simplified history of Middle Eastern interactions with Europe and America. It says nothing about the early history of Islam when its civilization was much higher than Europe of the same time. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem they massacred everyone inside, Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. When the Muslims retook Jerusalem they managed to arrange an orderly departure for the Crusaders without any massacres.

Muslim poets and philosophers also influenced Christian thinkers during the Middle Ages, often from Spain, where Muslims, Christians, and Jews managed to get along harmoniously for several hundred years until a new wave of more fundamentalist Muslim invaders came in, followed by a Christian terror of the Jews which led to the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

How different that is from the way the way the Sultan of Egypt reacted to a European invasion in the early 13th century by feeding the soldiers after having defeated them. Will it be possible for our civilization to respond as generously as did the medieval Egyptians, or are we too frightened to behave in a Christian way?


Choral Singing


This year is Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, and the choir I sing with did a selection of his songs for a recent concert. We’re doing other songs for Christmas, and it’s remarkable how much easier the songs are to pick up.

We begin with the Vivaldi Magnificat, which I’d never heard before, but which feels familiar in its intervals, besides having lovely harmonies. That the piece is about 300 years old means that its structure is a lot more familiar and, to my mind, logical than many of Bernstein’s songs.

His songs are all 20th century-influenced, and the 20th century is notable for experiments in dissonance and harmonies outside those 18th and 19th century composers used. But maybe the most difficult part in several pieces is the words. In his Gloria half the words are Latin, and since the tempo is fast, it’s hard to spit them out. In Chichester Psalms the words are Hebrew, quite unfamiliar to me and many other Americans. Even the English of Wrong Note Rag is difficult because there are a lot of them too.

The songs were worth working on for me, though, because although I’d been somewhat aware of Bernstein, I’d never really paid a lot of attention to him. I was kind of amazed to find that I knew a lot of the songs from West Side Story, but couldn’t remember where I’d heard them. I never saw the play or movie, and we never had the album when I was growing up. Maybe I heard them on the radio, but I can’t remember.

I was also surprised at how moving some of the familiar songs were, at least at first hearing. Maria, for instance, even though I still remembered the version one of my friends used to sing in which he substituted Dario for Maria (we had a high school classmate by that name) impressed me as an evocation of young love. One Hand, One Heart was similarly moving, though not one of the songs I remembered.

Boy, Boy didn’t impress me as positively, since it seemed more like a cartoon than anything heartfelt, but Somewhere did. It sounds like the heart’s desire of all couples, and the baritone harmony part seemed simple but perfect.

I had thought of Bernstein mostly as a conductor (not that I was sophisticated enough to compare his conducting with anyone else’s). Now I realize something of how wide a range of music he was able to address. Many musicians are content to be a virtuoso, part of an orchestra, a composer, or a conductor. Bernstein was able to work to some extent in each of these capacities, and in more than one genre. He wrote classical music as well as musicals. Jewish music inspired him, but he didn’t confine himself to it, and he loved jazz.

I was surprised to discover that Chichester Psalms set the same Psalm 2 text that that Handel set in the Messiah, Why Do the Nations, though that was in English and sounded much different. The portion of the Psalms we performed begins with a slow soprano solo that’s eerily beautiful, joined first by the women in the choir and then in the middle, by the men, who introduce an entirely new theme, which sounds like rock & roll by comparison. After the middle is finished, the women end the piece. A lot of the music we’re doing for the Christmas concert is from the secular Christmas genre, which I sometimes find intriguing, but not always. We Need a Little Christmas is from the Broadway show Mame, and sounds like the kind of piano-based tune you might find from the 1940s or 50s, which is competently put together, but not exactly to my taste. Zat You, Santa Claus is a kind of cutesy jazz-influenced 50s kind of thing–again, not exactly my taste. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is a little better, but not as interesting to me as It is Christmas or I’ll be Home for Christmas. On the whole, I guess I prefer the overtly religious songs.

Especially from the Messiah. I have been lucky enough to sing in all the choruses, but it’s been a long time since I had the opportunity, so I was glad to find our director had chosen The Glory of the Lord for one of our pieces. The rest of the choir seems to be just as glad and just as familiar. We’ve sung it three times, and twice we’ve gotten it almost perfect.

I was introduced to the Messiah in family singalongs in which my grandmother, who had attended the Peabody Conservatory many years before, played piano and we sang. I followed my uncle on the bass part, which may have been my introduction to part singing. I had sung in elementary school, but I don’t remember singing harmony then. I sang in a choir one summer in a neighboring town, but I think we’d been singing the Messiah before that.

As I grew up I was generally more interested in listening than performing. The Beatles came to America at the beginning of 1964, and that was the beginning of a decade-long love affair with rock & roll for me. I sang in a high school production of The Mikado, but didn’t perform again until about ten years later when I sang in a church choir for a little while. But that didn’t last long.

Much longer was when I lived at a meditation school for some years where my cousin’s wife led us all in choral singing. The teacher there believed that everyone could sing, even if untalented, and that singing was something that could and should be done together, as with playing basketball. Competition is okay in its place, but there can be something almost mystical about teamwork. Music is one place where that can be particularly obvious.

I left the meditation school to go to nursing school, and was away from choral singing for about 15 years. I got back into it after my first wife died, singing in the choir at the church where we were married. I’d done it a short while at the beginning of the marriage, but when I started working the evening shift it was impossible. After my wife died I was working the midnight shift instead, which made choir rehearsals and Sunday morning singing possible. I found myself able to do that only about two years before I got too tired (the service began at 11 am, and I was working every weekend), but had a great experience while it lasted.

That was when we were doing a Christmas cantata (that choir did one every Christmas). I somehow managed to recruit several friends of a different ethnicity to perform in the cantata with me. I particularly liked the music of it, and having friends in it with me made it especially memorable.

I started singing in choir again two years ago after I semi-retired. I wanted activities, and that was an obvious one for the cold season of the year. I tried basketball, but reluctantly concluded that I was finished with that part of my life. Ping-pong turned out to be more doable, as did cycling.

So far, the group I’m in has worked out pretty well. I don’t like everything we do, but the director does pick out some very nice pieces for us. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I need to copy the pieces I particularly like, because I forget them otherwise. I vaguely remember some writing by a 17th century English poet set by a contemporary composer that I particularly liked, but not well enough to remember the tune, let alone the words or the poet. I’ve also managed to make a friend within the group.

Maybe it’s that music is one of the few comfortable ways for me to be emotional. It’s based on emotion, for all its technical aspects, and though I rarely make new musical discoveries anymore, there are still moments where something shines out of what I sing or listen to.

World Series 2018


Watching the World Series reminded me what a difficult game baseball is. Hitting a round ball with a rounded bat isn’t easy: the vast majority of major league players hit safely less than 30% of the time. That may make it seem as if pitchers have an overwhelming advantage, but that’s offset by the ability of most players to hit home runs at any time, which is why pitchers no longer pitch as many innings as they once did–a trend deplored by baseball purists.

That’s why watching the best baseball teams can be exhilarating. The two in the World Series this year were both deep in all areas and very competitive, though the results didn’t seem that way. The Red Sox beat the Dodgers in five games, but they weren’t blowouts. The Dodgers were in each of them, but the Red Sox were just too good.

One thing the TV announcers emphasized was the Red Sox ability to concentrate on hitting and putting the ball in play no matter the situation. Most of their runs were scored with two out, which is unusual. I guess it’s tempting to kind of give up when the momentum seems to be going against you, but the Red Sox didn’t. The announcers emphasized that the Dodgers had more power than the Sox, but it didn’t seem that way.

One reason for that was the Red Sox pitching. Someone commented, years ago, that the Curse of the Bambino (the Red Sox didn’t win any World Series for 86 years after letting Babe Ruth go) had nothing to do with Ruth, but a lot to do with never having quite enough pitching. Since they broke the so-called curse they’ve won the World Series three more times, and pitching has always been a big part of that.

This year a key figure was David Price, who came into the post-season having never won a game in eleven starts. That streak got broken this year when he beat the Houston Astros in the League Championship Series and then beat the Dodgers twice, once on short rest.

He provided an example of how a pitcher can get in trouble by giving up two hits to begin an inning against the Dodgers, walking another, giving up the hit that scored two runs, then recovering to retire the side. He didn’t give up another run as long as he was in the game. In his second game against the Dodgers he gave up a home run in the first inning, then nothing else. He was impressive.

Also impressive was the third game. The Red Sox had beaten the Dodgers twice at home (announcers noted this was only the second time they had met in a World Series, the first being in 1915, when the Dodgers were in their first Series, and lost), and the Dodgers desperately needed to win the next game. The pitching was great on both sides, and the game went into extra innings at 1-1. Each side scored another run, and then continued. Nathan Eovaldi, who had started a game against the Astros and had relieved in the second game, came in and pitched for between six and seven innings before giving up the home run that won it in the 18th. That was impressive too.

Perhaps more impressive was the next game. Rick Porcello started for Boston and pitched well, but when he was relieved the Dodgers struck for three runs, leading 4-0 in the fifth or sixth inning. The Sox had been meekly making outs until then, and one wondered if they were ever going to hit again after having been able to score only two runs in 18 innings, but they began hitting, and scored nine runs in the last few innings. A reliever gave up a home run at the end to make it 9-6, but that wasn’t enough to make a difference.

The last game was the Dodgers ace, Clayton Kershaw, against David Price. Kershaw didn’t come out well, having given up three home runs and being behind 4-1 by the time he left. By that time the Dodgers must have been ready to accept the inevitable. They had come close several times, but had been unable to get runs when they needed them, nor to stop the Red Sox when necessary.

One wonders if it had anything to do with the desire to hit home runs. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it wasn’t unusual for battters to hit over .400, and that may have been because at least some had skills few if any players any longer do. The Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s are credited with having brought an emphasis on the hit and run, the Baltimore chop (pitches deliberately chopped at so the ball bounced high enough that the batter could get to first base before the ball could be fielded), bunting both for sacrifices and base hits, and “hitting them where they ain’t”. The Orioles were a superb offensive team in an offensive era, but that era began to be forgotten when Babe Ruth began hitting more home runs than anyone had imagined possible.

The home run may have required less skill, but it was much more dramatic, and a lot of players preferred it. But unlike Ruth, who was also very good at hitting singles, many players sacrificed batting average for home runs, and swinging for the fences also made them more vulnerable to striking out, which had previously been considered shameful. I’m told that 2012 was the first season in which strikeouts had out-numbered base hits, another trend which baseball purists deplore.

Both teams had good fielding and strong lineups. Both had good to great starting pitchers and deep bullpens. One Dodger reliever picked a bad time to pitch poorly, but the rest did generally well.

The result, however, was rarely in doubt. Almost every time thd Dodgers scored the Red Sox answered. The Dodgers had to make a supreme effort to win one game, and then were unable to build on that.  Not because they were a bad team, but they weren’t a superb team, and Boston was. They were criticized for not playing some of their left-handed hitters against left-handed pitchers, but when those hitters did play they weren’t that effective. Boston’s pitching was mostly overpowering. And when it wasn’t their hitting made up for it.

Of course I also like it when the team I root for wins. There are three other American League teams who are good to excellent: the Houston Astros, New York Yankees, and Cleveland Indians. The Indians came close to winning the Series two years ago, and I had hoped they would be able to do so the past two years, but they weren’t. The Astros shut the Indians hitters down, while the Red Sox were taking care of the Yankees. The Yankees have been adding powerful hitters the past two years, and as a Yankee-hater I didn’t want them to make the World Series. I guess they don’t have quite enough pitching yet.

But overall, it was a very satisfying season for me. I’ll be rooting for the Red Sox, Indians, and Astros next year, and against the Yankees. We’ll see what happens.

World War II: The Eastern Front


I recently read a novel which claimed that the Russians took 250,000 prisoners at Stalingrad in World War II. When I tried to corroborate that I found it was an exaggeration, but it wasn’t clear if it was a huge one. At one point in the Wikipedia account it said 105,000 prisoners had been taken. At another, 91,000. I thought these might have been two different times, which would mean nearly 200,000 prisoners taken.

But earlier in the war, Germans (according to a video about the German invasion of Russia) the Germans took 600,000 prisoners on capturing Kiev, and another 800,000 with the capture of Kharkov. The eastern war was immense. I had marveled at the ability of the English to withstand the horrors of the Battle of Britain. The invasion of Russia dwarfed that.

Russia hadn’t been ready. Not because they didn’t suspect (or even EXpect) it would happen. One reason was the great purge engineered by Stalin in the middle of the 1930s, which lasted almost until the war began. It solidified his power in the country but, among other things, also decimated the Soviet military, so it wasn’t really ready for a war.

The other mistake was that Josef Stalin wasn’t expecting the invasion, at least not when it happened. Whether he thought it was because he and Hitler were friends (possible but unlikely), thought Hitler would invade and subdue Great Britain first (somewhat more plausible), or because he expected Hitler to buy cold weather gear and equipment for his soldiers (Hitler didn’t). One historian thinks Stalin didn’t expect Hitler to open a second front in the war, since Germany had lost World War I by fighting a two front war, The historian points out that Hitler believed the United States would enter the war allied to Britain, making it very difficult to conquer Britain if an invasion was mounted. But Hitler, and most of his military advisers thought they could beat Russia quickly, considering Stalin’s purge of the military. They almost did.

In the first few days of the invasion large amounts of military supplies were lost, with huge casualties. Minsk fell; so did Kiev and Kharkov. Leningrad and Moscow were put under siege, Moscow being saved at the last minute by troops brought from the Far East. Some have suggested that if the so-called Axis powers had coordinated the Japanese could have attacked the USSR in the east and prevented them from being withdrawn. That in itself could have changed the war.

That had been in 1941. In early 1942 Stalin had insisted on a general counter-offensive, which was unsuccessful. The Germans were still strong, and had the advantage in technology if not manpower. With the threat to Moscow not only did civilians leave the city, but factories were disassembled and moved east of the Ural mountains so they wouldn’t fall into German hands. A colossal effort difficult to imagine. In early 1942 Hitler aimed his forces south to capture the oil fields of the Caucasus. In the 20th century success in war had become dependent on oil.

Here were two other decisions which, if they’d been different, could potentially have won the war for Hitler. One was his treatment of the Russians and other ethnic groups his soldiers encountered. It wasn’t just Jews his ideology considered subhuman, but Slavs as well. At least some Ukranians were willing to collaborate with the Germans: they had suffered horribly in the civil war and the forced collectivization which followed about ten years later. There was famine in both periods, largely artificial, in which millions died, and cannibalism took place. But other Slavs, seeing how Germans treated them (and the brutal response of the Russian authorities) were determined not to give in, though one would think the chaos and cruelty of both sides would have been intensely discouraging.

The other decision that might have won the war for Germany was if they had bypassed Stalingrad and driven deep into the Caucasus, which might have been possible, since Stalin and his military hadn’t expected their thrust south. Had they managed to take control of the oil fields of the south they would have had oil to power their war machine, and been able to deny it to the Russians. But their supply lines became too long, and lack of quick success at Stalingrad prevented them from concentrating more troops there.

Also, Hitler wanted to take the city named after Stalin, and Stalin was just as determined to defend it. He refused to evacuate civilians from it, and reportedly executed soldiers for cowardice or treason. One estimate cited by Wikipedia said as many as 13,000. An estimate from a different site said fewer than 300. But both sites agreed that executing soldiers was not a good way to raise the morale of the troops. In Russia the war is known as the Great Patriotic War, and I think that’s a much better explanation. Asking Russians to fight for Communism so soon after the Great Terror would have been a hard sell.

As it was, women fought the Germans as well as men. They fired anti-aircraft guns and artillery aimed at soldiers on the ground. The Germans were quite surprised, especially since the women’s contribution had been quite effective. They also flew combat missions.

Hitler, meanwhile, had insisted that Stalingrad be captured street by street, if necessary. There had been a population of some 400,000 in Stalingrad before the attack. A great many lives must have been lost just in the initial bombing, greater than the bombing of Great Britain, according to Wikipedia. Some 40,000 were sent to Germany as slave labor, while many soldiers lives were lost taking, losing, and retaking sites like the train station, a grain elevator, and several factories. Germans called this Rattenkrieg (rat war), and joked that they were taking over the kitchen while still trying to take the living room. Whenever the Russians lost ground they tried to retake it as quickly as possible with fresh troops. One group of Soviet soldiers fortified a four story building overlooking the Volga river and held it for 2 months without being relieved or significantly reinforced, Wikipedia says.

The Germans were eventually able to take most of the city with their Sixth Army, but in so doing set themselves up for defeat: Russian troops concentrated to the north and south of the city began Operation Uranus on November 19th, which succeeded in surrounding the German troops in the city on November 23rd. There were some 265,000 Germans, Italians, Romanians, Croatians, and troops recruited from occupied areas of the Soviet Union. Wikipedia comments that these were often reliable, since the penalty for having joined the Germans was summary execution. A pretty powerful motivation.

Field Marshal Erich von Manstein told Hitler that he could break through Russian lines to release the trapped army, and advised that the Sixth Army not attempt to break out. Wikipedia quotes American historians Williamson Murray and Alan Millet as saying this was what made the German defeat inevitable: they tried to supply their army by air, but could only transport a small percentage of the food and military supplies needed for lack of sufficient airports and Soviet destruction of fields from which the planes took off. Eventually the Germans decided they couldn’t rescue the Sixth Army, nor supply it well enough for it to break out of its encirclement. It continued to fight, which tied down Russian troops, preventing them from attacking the army trying to invade the Caucasus.

General Paulus, commander of the Sixth Army implored Hitler to let him surrender, but Hitler expected the soldiers to die in the line of duty. Shortly after this, on January 31st, 1943, Soviet units surprised Paulus at his command headquarters, and a surrender was negotiated (though Paulus stated later that it was someone else who had surrendered, and not him). Two days later the last group of Germans surrendered. When the German troops had been encircled about 105,000 had surrendered. When the Russians recaptured the city another 91,000 did. Fewer than 250,000 (at least according to Wikipedia), but not that many fewer. Resistance continued sporadically into March, with more than 2,400 German troops killed and almost 8,500 taken prisoner. According to Wikipedia, only about 5,000 of the 91,000 taken prisoner returned.

German forces, including Hungarians, Italians, Romanians, and volunteers from occupied parts of Russia lost almost 870,000 troops killed, wounded, or captured. The Russians lost over a million, but had changed the momentum of the war. The battle of Kursk reinforced that.

It took place between July 5th 1943, and August 23rd. Hitler hoped to regain the advantage in the war with an offensive in the Kursk Oblast, a region east of Kiev and north of Kharkov. The Russians had anticipated this, and had “built a defense in depth designed to wear down the German armoured spearhead…The defensive preparations included minefields, fortifications, artillery fire zones, and anti-tank strongpoints which extended about 190 miles in depth…The Battle of Kursk was the first time in the Second World War that a German strategic offensive was halted before it could break through enemy defenses and penetrate to its strategic depths.” (Wikipedia) It was also the first success Soviet troops had had in the summer. From that point on the Russians had the initiative.

Casualties for the Germans were about 165,000 men, compared to about 685,000 for the Russians. But the Russians had a higher population and more industrial potential, and the Allies had opened a front in Italy which the Germans had to defend. The invasion of Normandy wouldn’t take place until the following year, and despite the fierce German defense, that pretty much signaled the end of the war.

The Russians had managed to do the most to defeat the Nazis without help in fighting. Great Britain’s army had come close to being destroyed at Dunkirk, and the American army had to be built up and trained. Churchill was reluctant to invade France until he was more confident in his army, and he also had the Suez canal to protect.  If the Nazis controlled it, they could use it to invade India and prevent the British from being in contact with their empire. That’s why he decided to invade North Africa, and persuaded the Americans to join the British there.

The Allies DID supply the Russians not only with war materiel (almost 700 tanks and thousands of airplanes), but with also with many trucks, much phone wire, chemicals, and other supplies that helped keep the Russian economy going until they could produce what they needed themselves. The Russians wanted the Allies to open a front in continental Europe earlier than they did, but once they did it had an effect on the war. Germany was unable to send as many troops as desired to Russia once Britain and the USA opened the front in Italy. The Normandy invasion was the beginning of the end.

There were lots of ironies. One was that Germany had enabled the Bolshevik regime to come to power by sending Vladimir Lenin from Switzerland back to Russia. Lenin obliged them by taking power in November of 1917 (considered to be October by the calendar in use in Russia at the time) and immediately initiating peace talks. The Russian army stopped fighting, which was advantageous to the Germans, but an advantage that didn’t win them the war. More than twenty years later Russia did a great deal (certainly the most fighting on the largest front of the European war) to defeat Germany.

The other, and more tragic irony from my point of view, is that Stalin managed to modernize his army through forced collectivization of the country’s peasants, a move that was otherwise disastrous: some 10 million killed, much of the country’s livestock slaughtered, and another famine like the one during the civil war. But without that modernization (plus a lot of later supplies from the allies) Russia couldn’t have won the war. That in particular seems unfair.

Earlier this year after I watched the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam war, a friend sent me a link to an article criticizing inaccuracies in the series. Interesting as it was, what interested me more were the comments on the page at the end of the article. Several were by veterans, and one talked about how General Patton’s idea of invading Russia to wipe out Communism would never have worked, even if he could have found people to go with him–the Allies were ready for mopping up, not renewing warfare, no matter how much they disagreed ideologically with the Communists.

But the other reason was that Russia had learned how to win on a much more extensive front than the other Allies had fought on. Any attempt at invasion would have gone nowhere.

Some Americans and Europeans would have preferred to either be allied to the Germans or to allow Germany and Russia to fight it out without intervention. Communism was certainly not preferable to Nazism in its attitude toward human rights: Stalin was responsible for a lot more deaths than Hitler. I personally find Hitler’s racist ideology slightly more toxic than the Communist version, but that’s just my personal feeling.

Probably one thing that prevented an alliance with Germany and promoted one with Stalin was Roosevelt’s view that business could be done with Stalin. While Stalin was arguably just as fanatical as Hitler in some respects, he was certainly more practical. He had done business with the Nazis when other western powers wouldn’t ally with him before the war, and he was willing to do business with the Allies to protect his position (and incidentally his country), and he had learned to trust his generals instead of issuing unrealistic orders as Hitler increasingly did as the war progressed.

Why did Hitler want his army to fight street by street to capture Stalingrad? They would have incurred a lot fewer casualties by simply encircling the city, not allowing the Russian soldiers out, and preventing reinforcements from getting in. He might have been able to send reinforcements to the Caucasus to take over the oil wells there, which would probably have won the war for him. Insisting the city be captured street by street allowed the Russians to encircle it and trap the army there. Perhaps the Germans could have broken out, if they’d tried immediately, but the longer they put the decision off the less capable they were of doing it.

World War II is the largest war in history. The scale of it was immense, and so was the struggle on every side to prevail. Many people agreed with Hitler’s estimate that he could quickly win a war against Russia, and were surprised that Russia was able not only to hold out, but to take the initiative away from the Germans, drive them out of Russia and back to Germany, and occupy Germany and most of eastern Europe too. The Allies didn’t have an easy war to fight in western Europe, but the Russians had it harder, and achieved more in the east. We hear a lot less about them.

What underlines that for me is that the Russians had been enduring catastrophe for decades. They were unable to stop the Germans in World War I so that much of the last part of that war was fought on Russian soil. The Russian civil war followed the end of Russia’s participation in the World War, and was a calamity: millions of people dead. Compare that with America’s civil war (quite catastrophic enough) with about 620,000 deaths of soldiers, and an overall loss of over a million. Russia, already a poorer country than the USA, endured tremendous damage in those two wars.

And afterwards came forced collectivization and the Great Purge. How did they manage not only to avoid defeat in the early stages of the German invasion, but to stop it entirely? There were giants in the earth in those days.

James M. Buchanan, Revolutionary Stealth Strategist


James M. Buchanan was an economist whose name isn’t well known, but whose influence is being widely felt throughout the country because of political initiatives that allegedly suppress voting rights for various people, and attack working conditions, public services, and consumer rights.

Though he, according to Wikipedia, identified as a socialist in his youth, he eventually attended the University of Chicago (after World War II, in which he had served) and became influenced by his economics professor there. By the 1950s, when teaching at the University of Virginia, he had become an extreme advocate of capitalism. Historian Nancy MacLean characterizes his view as “stark”, and has written a book,  Democracy in Chains, about it, and how he managed to spread his influence.

She compares him to Milton Friedman, whose views may have been somewhat similar (they both belonged to the Mont Pelerin society, a group for economists), but who had a much more attractive personality, and made an optimistic case for free market capitalism. MacLean is quoted as saying (, “Buchanan was the dark side of this: he thought, ok, fine, they can make a case for free markets, but everybody knows free markets have externalities and other problems. So he wanted to keep people from believing that government could be the alternative to these problems.” (externalities are the costs or benefits that affect people who didn’t choose to incur the costs or benefits–pollution is one such cost).

That view fits very well with modern conservative beliefs: “Government is the problem, not the solution.” And that fits together with Buchanan’s view (which many wealthy people were quite willing to endorse) that “The people who needed protection were property owners, and their rights could only be secured through constitutional limits to prevent the majority of voters from encroaching on them….”(https://www,–behind–the-one-percent’s-stealth-takeover-of-america ). This is because of Buchanan’s bleak view that nobody worked for anything that wasn’t of direct benefit to themselves, including legislators, government employees, teachers, doctors, and civil rights advocates. The article about him says, “They wanted to control others, and wrest away their resources,” and quotes him as saying, “‘Each person seeks mastery over a world of slaves.'” The “makers and takers” narrative popular in conservative circles.

That’s not entirely untrue, since many of us at least have self-centered and self-seeking aspects, but restraining democracy to protect property owners ONLY seems an extreme solution. MacLean believes that “Buchanan wanted a private governing elite of corporate power that was wholly released from public accountability.” Charles and David Koch thought this a goal worth striving for, and spent a lot of money spreading this view, funding institutions and politicians that would promulgate it, and begin crafting and passing legislation to implement it. Other groups and individuals funded the process too, including companies like: Shell Oil, Exxon, Chase Manhattan Bank, Ford, IBM, and General Motors. That kind of support bought a lot of almost subliminal publicity and almost unnoticed activism. “The economist saw that his vision would never come to fruition by focusing on who rules. It was much better to focus on the rules themselves, and that required a “constitutional revolution.”

“Suppressing voting, changing legislative processes so a normal majority could no longer prevail, sowing public distrust of government institutions–all these were tactics toward the goal. But the Holy Grail was the Constitution: alter it, and you could increase and secure the power of the wealthy in a way that no politician could ever challenge.” (

At an event of the like-minded, “MacLean recounts that Buchanan…focused on such affronts to capitalism as environmentalism and public health and welfare, expressing eagerness to dismantle Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare as well as kill public education because it tended to foster community values. Feminism had to go too: the scholars considered it a socialist project.” (

The article sees his work as paralleling that of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, a senator and seventh vice president of the United States, who sought to protect the institution of slavery, saw the southern planters as “victims of the majority”, and “sought to create ‘constitutional gadgets’ to constrict the operations of government.” In other words, slave owners were claiming to be victims–practicing “identity politics”–long before Progressives were.

Where did Buchanan’s ideas come from? He grew up in Tennessee during the Depression. His grandfather had been an unpopular governor in the 1890s, and according to the Atlantic he “grew up in an atmosphere of half-remembered glory and bitterness, without either money or useful connections.” MacLean says Buchanan was involved in the pushback against the Brown vs Board of Education decision which attempted to force desegregation of schools. Conservatives had been opposing extension of government power since the 1930s, but ordinary people liked Social Security, and weren’t too attracted–until the possibility of desegregation. According to Wikipedia, both libertarian and nonlibertarian writers question MacLean’s contention of Buchanan’s racism, saying that he played a role in inviting an anti-apartheid activist to the University of Virginia in 1965, and condemned Jim Crow laws at that time. She says he was careful to couch his objections in economic rather than racist terms.

But the extremity of his views suggests that he shared the resentment of many ordinary Southerners, whether his was about race, or not. Such resentment is common in a number of circles now, and has historically caused acts of violence. Segregation was an issue that focused Southern bitterness about their defeat in the Civil War, just as the loss of the First World War paved the way for Hitler’s ascendancy. His views are popular now in some circles, and are remarkably dualistic. The idea that wealthy property owners are good, and everyone else bad–only parasites and thieves–speaks of a great fear and simplistic mindset.

The trauma of the Civil War, still remembered by many Southerners, justifies their conservatism to themselves. They felt attacked before the war, and WERE attacked during it, with catastrophic effect. What many prefer not to remember is that they had, for nearly two hundred years, been attacking and kidnapping black Africans whom they then forced to work for them. Maybe the idea of karma wasn’t current before the war, but Southerners felt even then that they had to justify their treatment of blacks. That’s where the racism became attached to slavery. Race had never particularly been an issue with regard to slavery in the Old World, where ANYBODY could be a slave.

Was race the issue, or one of them, that drove Buchanan’s work and point of view? MacLean thinks it at least played a part, and says he trained students how to disagree with the Brown decision the implementation of which, in Virginia (where he was then employed by the University of Virginia) was delayed five years during which white families were able to send children to private schools (and were reimbursed by tax deductions), while black children simply weren’t able to go to school, something those who objected to desegregation may have been quite happy about. Teaching blacks to read had been a crime during the time of slavery. If they were able to read they would be able to find ways to resist the ways in which they were mistreated–as they did about the time schools began to be desegregated in Virginia, and (according to Doug Stafford, chief strategist for Rand Paul, as quoted in Time Magazine), when the public schools reopened, few white students returned to them.

MacLean remarks in an interview with Slate magazine that Buchanan’s view wasn’t primarily racist, but more driven by the knowledge that black voters have a different experience from whites, and will never vote for the kinds of laws he wanted to establish. Nor would most women, or other groups. “We make a mistake when we think these are just reactionary prejudices, and we need to see them as shrewd calculations to keep people who would oppose this vision away from the polls.”

But Buchanan’s viewpoint seems to have been more about class divides (racism can be considered closely akin to class, since blacks and other minorities have been more often poor in this country than not). Why did he believe property owners had to be especially protected, when their wealth enabled them to better protect themselves than could the poor and vulnerable? Just because the United States is called a democracy (inaccurately–it’s really a republic) doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people who really don’t want ordinary people to be politically represented.

One might think giving ordinary workers more of an economic stake in the country would make the states more united; conservatives don’t seem to see it that way. Does this sort of paranoia suggest a guilty conscience? Conservatives are always interested in discrediting Marxism, and of course the manifestation of Communism has been horrible in most cases. But that doesn’t mean Marx didn’t have any valid insights. On some level the ultra-rich may be aware of how badly they’ve mistreated their fellow citizens, and that when they accuse the poor of practicing, or wanting to practice class warfare, it’s the wealthy that have been conducting it all along, and usually much more successfully than the poor.

Consider that Democrats are accused of wanting people (especially immigrants) to vote illegally, while Republicans are accused of suppressing the votes of people who have a perfect right to vote. Whether either of these accusations is true isn’t the point: that each is seen the way they are means that Democrats are more inclusive, with Republicans more exclusive.

Of course there are always problems with democracy, as with any other governing system. But if Buchanan is to demand “fairness” for property owners (the wealthy) shouldn’t he demand it for others too? The wealthy can defend themselves in comprehensive ways others can’t. Demonizing anyone who isn’t wealthy brings civil war closer. No one can deny the existence of crime, but there’s no question that it’s not the exclusive property of one class. White collar crime is crime indulged in by people in high positions, and is often difficult to detect, much less punish. Because people with high positions can behave criminally, they can also cause far more damage than street criminals. There are at least two tracks in the justice system, and if you’re on the lower track you’re probably out of luck. On the upper track you’ll probably get away with bad behavior.

Why exactly did Buchanan want so badly to protect the wealthy? He didn’t start out wealthy himself, but since his grandfather had been a governor of Tennessee (and unpopular) his family probably had been wealthy. How did they lose their wealth? Was it bad choices on their part, or was it taken in some questionable fashion? That might explain the depth of his bitterness, and willingness to advocate really radical measures to protect wealthy people. Or was it just abstract belief not reinforced by personal experience? I can’t find enough detail about his family to say.

In any case, his views on democracy were different from those of many, as Michael Chwe explained in the Washington Post. He says that Buchanan’s ideal society was noncoercive. That, to him, meant that it should be almost impossible to pass laws, unless they were unanimously approved, because penalties for breaking laws are coercive. Thus, employers should be allowed to refuse to hire or serve people on any basis whatsoever, which provided a rationale for people to send their children to private schools so they wouldn’t have to associate with minorities.

He also disapproved of public demonstrations against perceived injustices (something many people consider firmly in the realm of democracy). “,..Buchanan…embraced ‘order’ and insisted something must be done about students who have not done anything illegal but merely disregard ‘ordinary rules of conduct’ and ‘obstruct others’, which are of course part of peaceful civil disobedience. He also called them ‘child-men’, ‘animals’, and ‘parasites’. Why was he so afraid of protesters he had to call them dehumanizing names? Does a person who truly believes in democracy call his opponents names, or does that indicate a belief in something else? To me it signifies a rigid personality. Though he must have been able to tolerate disagreement, since many of his colleagues saw things differently, he seems not to have felt it was legitimate to disagree with him.

Chwe goes on to say that he believes in the field of economics, public choice, which Buchanan was instrumental in founding and defending. He gave talks at George Mason University, where many of Buchanan’s supporters work, and that they treated him well. He adds that it’s possible to find intellectual inspiration in Buchanan’s work without agreeing on all his ideas.

The ideal of noncoercion certainly isn’t entirely wrong, but isn’t entirely practical either. Quakers believe in noncoercion, and take a lot of time in consideration and discussion before making unanimous decisions. I doubt this would be possible on a national level.

And the refusal to make new laws, especially laws to correct faults with the status quo would perpetuate injustice. Of course it could also create some, but it seems clear (at least to me) that such profound conservatism wants almost NOTHING to change, including unjust social practices. The majority can certainly tyrannize; more often it has been the minority, in human history.

Buchanan had the chance to put his ideas to the test with the military coup in Chile in 1973, when Salvador Allende (who had won the election) was deposed and Augusto Pinochet installed as leader. Pinochet liked Buchanan’s ideas, used a number of them, took advice from Buchanan–and Chile’s economy went down the tubes. MacLean says Buchanan didn’t seem to be too upset about the human rights violations Pinochet’s regime committed, though the regime was far from being a democracy. He also took the precaution of not advertising his involvement there. MacLean says he’s unlike Milton Friedman in this way, since Friedman liked being center of attention, and had a “sunny” personality (more pleasant?).

She adds that his first major work in his field of public choice economics, The Calculus of Consent, “…he seemed to believe that people of good will could come close to something like unanimity on the basic rules for how to govern our society on things like taxation and government spending and so forth. And by the mid-1970s he concluded that that was impossible…that there was no way people who were not wealthy, were not large property owners, would agree to the kind of rules he was proposing.” In his book, Limits of Liberty, “He actually said in that book the only hope might be despotism.”

And we’re seeing the beginnings of despotism. Suppressing voting is despotism. So is exporting jobs, and then blaming workers for not being able to earn a living. Withholding medical care from anyone who can’t afford insurance or to pay for it outright is too. And then blaming people who protest against policies that injure them.

The details are different, but anyone who disagreed with the Communists in Russia, China, and other countries had no right to protest. The repression in this country isn’t enforced by military power–yet. But proponents of limited government think a strong military is one of the few legitimate functions of a federal government, and having one means it can be used repressively, if anyone wants to. It has been in the past, and rarely for the benefit of poor people. If Buchanan’s vision is implemented, it would probably have to be. That vision would essentially constitute a one-party government in which only a minority would be represented.

That’s what Communism was and is. It hardly matters that the economic vision is different; like Communism, the world designed by Buchanan and the Koch brothers would be one in which anyone who disagreed would be punished. No debate. No representation. The owners of the country, as John Jay put it, would be the ones running it. All the laws would be on their side. There would be no checks or balances. Just a foot forever kicking anyone in the face who didn’t love Big Brother.


Poisoning for Profit


I  don’t really care what other people think about human responsibility for climate change. That issue is settled in my mind. I think many people are unaware that we face a lot of other environmental problems because of pollution. It’s something we’ve been working on for at least 200 years, probably longer, because we find it hard to foresee that our choices can easily turn out wrong. And when we realize what we’ve done, we’re reluctant to apologize, and try to make things right. I think that’s part of the human condition, but it’s a bit hard to accept that the corporations (and sometimes other organizations) supposedly serving us are actually poisoning us.

One instance of this is coal mining companies dumping mining debris in streams. This has happened especially in the Appalachians, but may begin happening further west, as there’s little Appalachian coal left. According to Vox magazine (, there has been a law since 1977 about the issue, but the wording was vague. The Obama administration tried to tighten the law with clearer definitions, but when the new administration entered, the addition was rescinded.

The new rule would have mandated coal companies to carefully avoid upsetting the “hydrologic balance” when dumping debris that deposits heavy metals into streams, in particular. I think few would want their children to drink downstream from this polluted water. People living in the area certainly don’t. The practice affects local people most immediately, but can also impact areas further downstream, according to Emily S. Bernhardt, associate professor of biogeochemistry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment ( “The relationship is clear and direct: the more mining you have upstream, the more biological loss and salinity levels will be downstream, and the further they will extend.”

Environmental groups hadn’t been entirely happy with the new rules, since they didn’t believe they addressed other important issues, but generally agreed they were a step in the right direction. Mining companies didn’t agree. Obviously, it would be inconvenient for them to follow the rules, but it would be even less convenient for anyone drinking the polluted water.

Coal isn’t the only kind of mining that pollutes. Cyanide is often used to separate gold from the rock it occurs in. It’s a dangerous process for workers, which is probably why the companies often prefer to do it outside, as well as cheaper, according to “Many old mines, and some current mines, simply place cyanide waste into the mine tailings ponds with other mining waste. Failing of a tailings dam containing cyanide can be a massive environmental problem, resulting in the sterilization of large areas downstream. In 2000 a tailings dam failure in Romania dumped an estimated 100 tons of cyanide into a river system, contaminating river water, and killing fish up to 250 miles downstream, with effects purportedly lasting for years…In comparison to acid mine drainage, cyanide has a higher toxicity, but is shorter lived. Acid mine drainage can last for thousands of years, whereas cyanide will break down within a few years at most. However its higher toxicity means even a small spill can have major consequences.” There are other methods for separating gold, but these are also bad for health and environment, as well as being more expensive.

Nor is mining the only industry that pollutes. Power companies can do so too, since electricity is still often generated by coal plants. New technology has been put in place within the last decade or so to keep pollutants from going up smokestacks, but this makes them solid, and toxic if they enter waterways. Coal ash is often stored in ponds in which can be found lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, selenium, aluminum, barium, boron, and chlorine. An article from the Sierra Club ( says “…these toxins can cause cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, impaired bone growth in children, and behavioral problems. In short, they have the potential to harm all the major organ systems in adults (including pregnant women), and children.” As usual, children tend to be most vulnerable, and the EPA says 1.54 million children live near coal ash storage sites. The article adds that in 2008 a dike failed, flooding an area in Tennessee with a billion tons of coal ash, which could flood 3, 000 acres a foot deep. Some ash is now being used in concrete and in gypsum wallboard, with the approval of the EPA, but as long as any is being stored without safeguards to keep it from entering the water supply it remains dangerous.

Pollution is a concept that applies to the wider world, but also to the human body. Many substances have a negative effect on the body, and deliberately introducing them to it could be called poisoning. White sugar and white flour are two very popular ingredients to many foods, and why not? They certainly taste good.

But that doesn’t mean they’re good for us. White flour is white because the germ and bran have been removed, leaving only the endosperm, which is just starch. Starch is easily converted into sugar, and glucose is the fuel for our brains, but our bodies can get too much of it. Besides emitting substances to break food down, the pancreas also produces insulin and glucagon to regulate blood sugar. There is sugar in blood because glucose  is what our brains in particular run on. Insulin enables glucose to enter cells, to give them the nutrition they need.

But if the pancreas gets overworked it can stop producing enough insulin. That’s the cause of Type 2 diabetes, most common in this country. While not everything is known about how it occurs, it tends to come from being overweight and not exercising enough. And we know that sugar and starches contribute to obesity, especially if not enough healthy foods like fresh vegetables are eaten. We eat more sugar and substances like starch that turn to sugar than any other generation in history.

Advertising contributes to unhealthy eating through commercials for things like sodas, beer, bread and pastries made of white flour, as well as candy. They’re more immediately attractive than healthier foods, though they primarily contain empty calories that aren’t nutritious, and which are actually harmful in causing diabetes, hypertension, and sometimes cancer. But many poorer Americans may have less access to these food sources, or lack information about it.

The good news in this area is that many grocery stores now carry healthier food that is often organically grown, as do local farmer’s markets. More people are trying to grow healthy food within cities now too, an appropriate response to popularization of dangerous foods. Foods can be dangerous because of bad farming practices like overuse of fertilizers, antibiotics, or insecticides, as well as ignorance about what’s healthy and what isn’t.

The problem with insecticides and chemical fertilizers (rather than organic ones) is that we’re putting so many chemicals into our environment that we don’t know what may be healthy or unhealthy in isolation, let alone in combination. This parallels the problems with pharmaceuticals which can have unexpected effects if not prescribed with thought about the patient’s medical regime. Recently it’s been learned that overuse of antibiotics, for instance (also common in raising cattle and pigs) doesn’t only cause antibiotic resistance (making resistant infections almost impossible to treat), but yeast infections that can adversely affect the whole body without the person being aware of it, causing chronic health problems.

The Epoch Times ( points out that politics has shaped diet in this country. In the 19th century when the North won the Civil War some abolitionists thought it incumbent on them to force purity of diet on the South, which meant meat and milk in particular. Some associated what they thought to be purity of diet with purity and superiority of race, as well as eugenics. Actually, the Southern diet was often more healthy than the Northern because African-Americans grew vegetables for food, and whites began incorporating them into their meals.

It isn’t healthy to eat only meat nor only vegetables, but to have a balance of protein, fats, and carbohydrates in one’s diet. Processed food producers continue to use excess salt and sugar to sell foods, though it’s not news that these can cause or exacerbate hypertension and diabetes. But regulating salt and sugar excessively, or banning them, probably wouldn’t work, as the example of Prohibition tells us. Education might gradually do so.

Much of the modern world was born in the 19th century with the invention of new technologies and increasing use of coal and oil for power. These volatile substances gave us lots of energy, and that energy provided a basis for many new industries. Products our ancestors never could have dreamed of became available, which was often very convenient and profitable. But there were unexpected consequences of these products and technologies. The question is, do the many products the continuing industrial and technological revolution brings us make people happier? And are there many products we might be better of without, especially since many aren’t biodegradable?

I think the answer to the second question is, yes. Does anyone need a new car or new phone every year? Does anyone need video games? That many of these are composed largely of plastic, a very convenient, but nonbiodegradable substance, seems to me to suggest we don’t. Especially since construction of them uses up valuable natural resources, and wasting these would be self-defeating.

The question of whether these products make us happier isn’t clear-cut (lack of products we really need DOES make us unhappy). Addiction has been a problem for a long time, whether we mean alcohol, tobacco, food, or illegal drugs. But banning dangerous substances of this sort doesn’t seem to work. That a formulation of OxyContin and MSContin by a prominent pharmaceutical corporation who then aggressively marketed their product without warning of its ability to cause addiction led to a business opportunity for heroin dealers seems to indicate an important driver of narcotics addiction isn’t just chronic physical pain, but chronic emotional pain as well. There are things wrong with our society that cause great unhappiness, whether because many find buying products that promise happiness implicitly or explicitly seems meaningless, or because many people suffer abuse of one sort or another is uncertain. Probably both contribute, and the business model of addictive drugs can be a repetitive pattern. Drug addicts really NEED their drug, though that need in itself destroys their lives, and may also destroy the lives of others around them. Convincing people they NEED a product is the job of advertising, and of course the art of it is to sell things they DON’T need, and possibly don’t even want. Unhealthy foods are another example of this pattern.

Pollution has been part of the price paid for these new and attractive products, which means that not only did many people get more chronic diseases (at the very time that new sanitation practices were wiping out many acute viral and bacterial diseases), but that many plants and animals making up our environment were being driven into extinction through air, water, and soil pollution. If plants and animals can’t live with that, eventually humans won’t be able to either, and that becomes obvious when studying those most exposed to such toxins.

Nuclear power is a contentious subject. Proponents say it’s cleaner than fossil fuels, which is true to the extent that they don’t produce CO2 or other greenhouse gases, but that’s not the whole story. It’s dangerous to mine when miners have to go underground for it (very sophisticated ventilation systems have to be employed), and waste from the mines (as with other kinds of mines) is dangerous, especially if it enters the water system.

The process of enrichment is also dangerous because it employs very toxic chemicals. Some of the longer lasting radioactive isotopes produced by reactors have low enough radioactivity to be minimally dangerous, but not all of them. Plutonium is an example of one that remains dangerous a long time, partly because its chemistry makes it more easy to absorb by the human organism than some. On the other hand, many of the more immediately dangerous isotopes have high radiation, but relatively short half-lives (a half-life is the time it takes for the amount of radiation in a particular isotope to diminish by half).

Radioactive waste continues to be a problem, but enclosing the waste in glass (vitrification) seems to be the best solution at present, if not ideal. Of course it’s important to understand that most if not all forms of energy generation can produce toxic waste of one sort or another. I may be too fearful, or too ignorant, but nuclear power scares me more than other forms of more or less clean energy.

And one of the reasons is expense. says, “….investors aren’t going to invest in new reactors because                                                                                                                       .of the billions in liability after a meltdown or accident                   .there may only be enough uranium left to power existing   plants (other sites disagree)                                                               .the cost per plant ties up capital too long (it can take 10 billion   dollars over 10 years to build a nuclear power plant)                      . properly dealing with waste is expensive                                       .there is no place to put waste”

Not all sites agree that there is no place to put waste. There are nuclear industry sites that sound optimistic about the use of reactors to generate energy, but I’m skeptical. It sounds very expensive both financially and (and least potentially) environmentally.

The nuclear industry, like the others described above, is dangerous without proper handling of the radioactive ores, the fuels, and the wastes. It’s potentially profitable, but whether it’s worth the effort is debatable. It’s an industry that’s not solidly established in this country or the rest of the world. Should it be? Some would say, absolutely yes. I remain skeptical.

The other industries described ARE solidly established. It’s known pretty widely that they’re dangerous to human health, but they remain profitable. What motivation is there for those who make their living in these ways to find a different way? Do industries have an ethical standard like doctors, who have the Hippocratic Oath, which begins, First do no harm? Industries constantly lobby the government to allow them to pollute more. It’s one of the reasons they have been offshoring jobs to Third World countries where they can pay workers less and don’t have to abide by what they see as too stringent regulation here. If pollution weren’t just as harmful overseas it would be easier to see their point. It’s not safe just because it’s not in our back yard.

Modern technology is virtually everywhere in the world. Not all of it is inherently poisonous. Carbon dioxide in the air isn’t poisonous; it’s a problem only because it’s out of balance with the other atmospheric gases. Plastics are extremely useful and convenient, but it don’t biodegrade. A lot of plastic ends in the ocean, flakes apart, fish mistake it for food, and die. If enough do, predators that would have eaten those fish also die. That by itself could destroy the food chain from the bottom up. We’re at the top of the chain. We can use almost godlike powers to destroy the natural world, which means destroying ourselves and our children too. All we have to do is continue our present way of life.


The Praise Singer


I have read Mary Renault’s last novel, The Praise Singer, three times, and have just been reminded why I couldn’t remember much about it: although I always enjoy her prose, and learn something from each of her historical novels, in this one most of the interesting things take place off-stage.

The novel purports to be the memoir of Simonides of Keos, one of the great poets of ancient Greece; more recent than Homer, but before the golden age of Pericles, and even before the glories of Marathon and Salamis. It’s a period we casual history buffs aren’t so familiar with.

Keos (now Kea) is an island not far from the Greek mainland, and Athens. Apparently it was an austere place where, even if one were wealthy, one was not allowed to flaunt it. Not much is known about the life of Simonides, so Renault had to interpret it. Because he rarely visited the island in later life, she speculated that he and his parents didn’t get along. It was already known that he was ugly, which would have been especially hard to bear in an openly bisexual culture in which love between males was as celebrated as love between man and woman, if not more so.

Renault has him meet his teacher by chance on Keos and travel with him to Ephesos (mentioned in the New Testament), which shortly surrenders to the Persians, who are expanding their empire in what is now Turkey, but was then the region of Greek cities of Ionia. From Ephesos she has them travel to Samos, the large island just off what is now the Turkish coast which was safe from the Persians until its ruler was lured into Persian territory and murdered.

Simonides lives in the era in which words and music had not yet been separated. To be a poet meant that one “wrote” music as well as words, performed one’s songs solo with the kithara (a relative of lute, harp, and guitar), or trained and led a chorus. This was the top of the performing ladder, and singers like Simonides performed for the nobility, and even for heads of state.

When they reach Samos, Renault has the teacher be unable  to attract the attention of the tyrant (tyrant was a more neutral word then than now), and losing heart. He doesn’t have enough money to last long without performing for the nobility, nor enough to travel. Simonides saves the situation by finding a tavern to perform in, which the teacher finds shameful: they are supposed to be above performing in such places. Simonides is more practical, and finds the practice of performing useful. He returns to Keos to sing in a festival, and when back in Samos finds his teacher has died. He leaves Samos to live on family property in Euboia, the long island parallel with the coast of Attica, then visits Athens often enough to come to the attention of Peisistratos.

Peisistratos was the tyrant of Athens for most of the period between 561-527 BC. He had been young when Solon instituted reforms in Athens and Attica that changed the bias towards oligarchy in the direction of democracy. Before, anyone unable to pay their rents was liable to be enslaved, and rarely was anyone but the wealthy able to own land.

Renault has Simonides invited to a dinner by Peisistratos, then engage in nostalgic conversation with him about his relationship with Solon. Solon had opposed his becoming first Archon (magistrate) of Athens because he feared his corruption by power. Renault has him say he and Solon still loved each other, and that he frequently asked Solon for advice. According to Wikipedia, Solon died about three years after Peisistratos’s accession to power, so I’m unsure how accurate that is, but it does seem that Peisistratos enforced Solon’s laws and was therefore popular with most citizens, though not so much by the nobility, who resented having lost any power, though they remained far more powerful than the poor.

Peisistratos is also known for having had Homer’s verse (primarily the Iliad) written down to preserve it. Simonides (probably like most poets of the time) doesn’t believe this is necessary, but when the lines are read to him he contributes a line that hadn’t been included, and hears two lines he’s never heard before, and is somewhat reconciled to the idea.

Peisistratos is succeeded by his two sons who together seem to be a reasonable facsimile of him. Hippias is solemn and responsible; Hipparchos loves the arts and pleasure. He is the more social of the two, inviting friends to parties frequently, and using his great wealth to promote both arts and friends. Simonides likes him, not only as a friend, but as a patron.

There are descriptions of the Olympics and various other festivals, and Simonides comments on some of the pieces he wrote at various times, but we’re handicapped by being unable to hear them (we could read those that have survived). It’s interesting that he met Pythagoras, Aeschylus, Heraclitus, and one or two others, these being names still remembered today. And it’s nice that he depicts his relationship with Bacchylides, whom Renault makes his nephew. Bacchylides was another poet of the time, known to have associated with Simonides. Renault believes Theasides, another historical character, to have been Simonides brother, since they both have a father from the same place with quite an unusual name. Simonides becomes Bacchylides teacher, and Bacchylides stays with him until death, which comes at an advanced age far from Athens.

The reason is civil war. Hipparchos is shown to frequently change male lovers, but after some time he begins pursuing Harmodios, a very handsome son of a noble family, and refuses to take no for an answer. Harmodios has Aristogeiton, from another noble family, as a lover, and greatly resents the behavior of Hipparchos, especially when Hipparchos excludes the younger sister of Harmodios from a chorus at a festival to which she has every right to belong. Harmodios then kills Hipparchos, setting off civil disorder.

While Simonides is sad that his friend Hipparchos so forgot himself as to behave with such impropriety, and for the death he suffered as a result, the tone of the book is mostly elegiac. Simonides is a man happy because he has excelled at his chosen vocation, has had the opportunity to travel, and to make many friends, some of whom are still remembered today. This was Renault’s last novel, so it’s not hard to see it as expressing her satisfaction with her own life, her own ability to excel at the particular art she chose, and having been able to live up to her own standards. This novel is less memorable and dramatic than her earlier ones, but still enjoyable, not least for the happiness and satisfaction it expresses.

It also continues her interest and concern about how government ought to behave. Governments that work for the good of the majority are usually popular. Those who put the good of the wealthy minority ahead of the majority are those which cause dissatisfaction, and especially when the powerful behave inappropriately. Renault comments in an afterword that she followed one of the famous historians, who corrected the propaganda that Harmodios and Aristogeiton killed Hipparchos because of their democratic principles. They came from noble families, and if they wished to start a revolution, they were disappointed. She adds that this is possibly the first verifiable instance of propaganda. As we know, little has changed in that respect during the past two and a half thousand years. Social paradigms and religious beliefs change, but human behavior is a great deal more recalcitrant.

Renault’s Greece isn’t heaven. There is as much corruption and other forms of bad behavior there and at that time as now. But her novels, though reflecting the dark side of human nature, reflect its positive side too. I wish there were more of her novels I could discover.