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A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future
Unusual takes on history, ranging from ancient history to the Civil War to recent events.
Curated by C.A.Brigham
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150 years after Lincoln at Gettysburg… Can we maintain our resolve? Our Union?

150 years after Lincoln at Gettysburg… Can we maintain our resolve? Our Union? | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it
America's sense of resolution is currently at stake, as we confront the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address -- widely considered to be the most impactful speech -- (certainly on a per-word basis) -- in the last several centuries. Greatly noted and long remembered, it has been compared by some (including myself) to the inspiring "funeral oration" of the great Athenian leader, Pericles. (As conveyed to us by Thucydides.)
Only with this vital difference.  Both men died before completing their tasks.  But, unlike those who followed Pericles, we appear to have been ready, after Lincoln, to forge ahead in victory and determination. His words, burning in our hearts, continued making a difference at crucial moments for six succeeding generations, so that the Great Experiment thrived and survived every intervening crisis.
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300 (and more) flat-out evil lies

300 (and more) flat-out evil lies | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

Frank Miller’s 300 and its sequel: 300: Rise of Empire feature a veritable tsunami of outright and deliberate historical lies.. There are so many flaws, so why must I flog a flop and dismal failure? Because we need to lift our heads — as consumers — and demand better One can have vivid action without lobotomization. We can have movies that are true to their subject matter (e.g. history) without being dry or boring.

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The Next Imperium

The Next Imperium | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

No wonder most branches of American idealism share a common distaste for history's primary lesson -- that human nature is inherently a tough and resisting nut to crack. Obdurate tendencies toward dogmatism, cheating, and rationalization-of-force are not only features of Western Civilization, but of every people and era. 

Persistent and relentless patterns of imperial, feudal or tribal abuse has worked against individual freedom everywhere, in a trend that spanned all continents and centuries. This inconvenient historical fact frustrates and confuses the central liberal -- and libertarian -- notion, that society can be quickly reformed, by following a simple road map. (If it were that simple, would not somebody have done it, by now?)

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War in the 21st Century

War in the 21st Century | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

Panic vs Maturity: Several times in this article I will use the metaphor of emergency vs. elective surgery. For example, our rapid intervention in Afghanistan was a clear case when urgent action had to be taken, with little time allowed for careful planning or weighing of alternatives. (Fortunately, that had been done already under Clinton.) Certainly justification for crying "emergency" was evident. No lies were needed, so Pres. Bush offered few.

 

But "emergency" is a word foolish leaders all too readily overuse, to quell discussion and hurry rash actions. A wise person knows frequent or ongoing emergencies are evidence of failure. If we hope to successfully cross the mine-fields of the 21st Century, shouldn't most problems be handled with care, calm, consensus and foresight, minimizing costs, divisiveness and damage to society? The metaphor that contrasts to an emergency room is Elective Surgery. Undertaken with care and planning, elective procedures can often get the same job done more safely and simply, without panic.

 

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How Democrats and Republicans Wage War

How Democrats and Republicans Wage War | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it
How do the two U.S. political parties differ in how they wage war? Democrats and Republicans each divert attention from this matter. Despite their bellicose rhetoric and flag-waving gusto, Republicans won't speak of Iraq and Afghanistan (the "land where empires go to die")  nor of their promises  a decade ago -- that it would all cost much less, end sooner, accomplish far more and - above all - leave twin oases of perpetual friendship and enlightened democracy in the Middle East. Instead of what we now see those two nations fast-becoming -- satrapies of Iran, of Pakistan and the Pashtun Taliban.  Not the outcome we were promised, for several trillion dollars... but exactly what any realist would have foreseen.  
In contrast, Democrats tend to feel squeamish talking about war -- even though it's now clear that - ever since Vietnam - Democrats are much better at it than Republicans are.
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"Class War" and the Lessons of History

"Class War" and the Lessons of History | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

"Class war" has always been with us. If you ever actually sit down to read what people wrote in times past - for example Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations, or even theBible - then you know struggle and resentment between social castes was the normal state of human affairs for 6000 years, or much longer.  Seriously, randomly choose (or "roll-up") a decade and locale from across the last few millenia! 

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Can We Perform Another 'Miracle of 1947'?

Can We Perform Another 'Miracle of 1947'? | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

Can We Perform Another 'Miracle of 1947'? The latest buzz is about a looming "re-alignment" in American politics. Will the new wave of politically active young voters stay energetic and vote Democratic by similar margins, in the future? If urbanization and rising education levels continue to make a difference, as they did in Virginia and North Carolina, does that bode ill for a Republican Party that paints itself increasingly as rural and anti-intellectual? Questions spin about, like tornado debris, in the election aftermath. But few are more interesting than this: can we expect a showdown between the many branches of conservatism? 

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Bringing back feudalism -- is libertarianism an unwitting tool?

Bringing back feudalism -- is libertarianism an unwitting tool? | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

The richest Americans haven't claimed this large of a slice of total wealth since 1927, when the group claimed 18.7%. Just before the Great Crash and Great Depression... so much for the notion that Oligarchy assures prosperity and good management.  In contrast, the flattest American society -- just after FDR -- featured the longest boom, the most vigorous startup entrepreneurship, the fastest-rising middle class... and all of it with labor unions and high marginal tax rates.

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The coming civil war...

The coming civil war... | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

Does The New Right Even Have an Agenda Anymore?

Alas, today's Republican Establishment seems not only incapable but uninterested in negotiation or deliberation. It isn't just the dogmatism, or lockstep partisanship, or Koolaid fantasies spun -up by the Murdoch-Limbaugh hate machine.  Heck, even though "culture war" is verifiably the worst direct treason against the United States of America since Fort Sumter, that isn't what boggles most.

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The "Tytler" Calumny -- Is Democracy Hopeless?

The "Tytler" Calumny -- Is Democracy Hopeless? | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

This widely-circulated nostrum is called the "Tytler Calumny" and it is the great example of what has gone wrong with the mental processes of our friends on the right, who used to be represented in sage debate by great minds like Barry Goldwater and Friedrich Hayek and William F. Buckley...  but who are now reduced to slinging around aphorisms and fact-free fox-assertions.

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J.R.R. Tolkien vs the Modern Age

J.R.R. Tolkien vs the Modern Age | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

Lord of the Rings clearly reflected this era. Only, in contrast to the real world, Tolkien's portrayal of "good" resisting a darkly threatening "evil" offered something sadly lacking in the real struggles against Nazi or Communist tyrannies -- a role for individual champions. His elves and hobbits and uber-human warriors performed the same role that Lancelot and Merlin and Odysseus did in older fables, and that superheroes still do in comic books. Through doughty Frodo, noble Aragorn and the ethereal Galadriel, he proclaimed the paramount importance -- above nations and civilizations -- of the indomitable romantic hero. 

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Are we "evolving" toward becoming "marching morons"?

Are we "evolving" toward becoming "marching morons"? | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel recently spun a fable for The Edge about selection and drift in the human attribute of innovative creativity.  His assertion in Infinite Stupidity is that the very same civilization we built through innovation becomes a driving selective force, one that winds up sapping innovative genius from the gene pool.

Now at one level, Professor Pagel's argument is just a reiteration of the old "marching morons" notion - once popular in 1950s science fiction, as well as the earlier Eugenics Movement - that the long term effect of complex civilization must be to reward mediocrity and propel a decline in net human intelligence.

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The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy?

The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy? | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

What is the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy? I think it is very basic, revolving around the notion of human improvability:  "Do you believe it is possible for children to learn from the mistakes of their parents?" For all the courage and heroism shown by fantasy characters across 4000 years of great, compelling dramas -- NOTHING EVER CHANGES!


Fantasy has its attractions. Something about feudalism resonates, deep inside us. We fantacize about being the king or wizard. It's in our genes. We are all descended from the harems of the guys who succeeded at that goal. The core thing about fantasy tales is that, after the adventure is done and the bad guys are defeated... the social order stays the same.

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Phases of the American Civil War

Phases of the American Civil War | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

I frequently refer to our current era of American politics as the latest phase of the U.S. Civil War… in part because the political maps so blatantly copy a pattern that goes back almost 200 years. 

 

Cyclically, we find ourselves mired in dogma, instead of pragmatism, intransigent hatred instead of negotiation, nostalgia and romanticism, instead of belief that we can craft a better tomorrow.

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The True Origins of the American Revolution

The True Origins of the American Revolution | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

The American Revolution serves as a Rorschach test that reflects the obsessions of each succeeding generation. In the 1920s, Marxist notions of class struggle dominated and thus even anti-communist historians viewed the rebellion as a phase shift from monarchal domination to empowerment of the bourgeoisie. In the forties, literalist scholars started instead taking the Founders at their word — that the Revolution was an idealistic exercise in limiting the scope of government. During the cynical 1960s, fashions changed again, to viewing the rebellion as a manipulative putsch that allowed local gentry — the caste of Washington and Jefferson — to displace others at the top of the heap. A lateral coup, with just enough populism to keep the middle class placid.
What these generations of scholars all seemed to agree upon was that the colonists weren’t rebelling over the raw magnitude of taxes. Indeed, many expressed puzzlement that there were any grievances worth fighting and dying over! Certainly it all seemed rather far-fetched, given how comfortable life had been for most American colonists, especially compared to the mountain of crimes committed against the people of France, by the Bourbon ancien regime.

 In fact, despite the hairsplitting obsessions of academic scholars — and the puerile tendency of textbooks and politicians to mention only tea and stamp taxes — it is pretty clear in historical records that the colonists revolted for a host of genuine grievances:

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What If the 21st Century Begins in 2014?

What If the 21st Century Begins in 2014? | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

Each century effectively began in its 14th year.

Think about it. The first decade of the 20th century was filled with hope and a kind of can-do optimism that was never seen again -- not after the horrific events of 1914 shattered any vision that a new and better age would arrive without pain. Yet until almost the start of World War I, 19th-century progress seemed unstoppable and ever-accelerating.

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REBUILDING EVERYTHING! A proposed reality show.

REBUILDING EVERYTHING! A proposed reality show. | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

Imagine a "reality" TV show with a more elevated aim and loads of attractive content for the mind... but also heaps of tension and drama. Picture "Survivor" meets "The 1900 House" meets "Junkyard Wars"... then throw in lots of fascinating Discovery Channel riffs... along with a dash of "The Flintstones". Then add a sensation that viewers are actually learning something of value, becoming a little more capable and knowing about their own culture.

In the ultimate challenge, competitive teams race each other, starting from scratch to rebuild civilization!

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Was 1957 America Better Than Today? (An Outright Rant!)

Was 1957 America Better Than Today? (An Outright Rant!) | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

This is a rant -- directed at one of those email circulars -- claiming that 1957 America was so much better than today's America. Read on only if  you're in the mood for pyrotechnics. 

 

Nostalgia is for cretins.  America was built by men and women who dreamed and built. Who believed - and believe - in progress. Who forgo the sick drug of hate and negotiate solutions.

By people who respect skill and knowledge and the folks who have them.

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Rewriting History: Roll over, Frank Miller: or Stop Lying about Prancing, Futile Spartans!

Rewriting History: Roll over, Frank Miller: or Stop Lying about Prancing, Futile Spartans! | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

The book (and movie) "300" gave all credit for victory to the Spartans, extolling them as role models and peerless examples of manhood. Adorably macho defenders of freedom.

Uh, right.  Freedom. Sorry, but the word bears a heavy burden of irony when shouted by Spartans, who maintained one of the worst slave-states ever, treating the vast majority of their people as cattle, routinely quenching their swords in the bodies of poor, brutalized helots... who are never mentioned, even glimpsed, in the romanticized book or movie. To have Leonidas rant… while ignoring what was in plain view from his cliff-edge… an Athenian-led navy holding the vast Persian fleet at bay, guarding his flank… that omission in "300" slandered Leonidas and betrayed the audience.

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The Urgency of Lockean Revolution

The Urgency of Lockean Revolution | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

After fifty years of anomolously egalitarian civilization, there are signs that the United States may be returning to more classic social patterns. Patterns that did not work well in other cultures, but that nevertheless may draw us back in.

Take one example. The notion of inherent conflict between social classes. 

Ideological polarization used to be secondary in American political life, pushed aside by a singular attitude of modernist pragmatism. This pragmatic attitude - essentially rooted in the Enlightenment - recognized several facts about history that are inconvenient to ideologues.

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A Quiet Man: My Candidate for Man of the Century

A Quiet Man: My Candidate for Man of the Century | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

By appointing and encouraging skilled people, demanding the best from them, and then stepping aside when his pupils won acclaim, George Marshall showed us how to guide a modern, confident civilization, not a fervid rabble. This style explains his effectiveness... and the reason why so few of his countrymen now know his name.


As the Twentieth Century wanes, the notion of arranging society according to some contrived dogma has at long last begun to seem tiresome. Many of us now see that all of the radical and zealous prescriptions were part of the same feverish disease, that only time and patience could cure. Even modern saints like Ghandi — though properly admired for their principles and moral courage — are seen to have been limited or foolish in their specific political agendas, from pastoral-socialism to libertarian solipsism. Humanity proved more complex than ideologues ever imagined.

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The Ultimate Refutation of Karl Marx

The Ultimate Refutation of Karl Marx | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

The failure of the Soviet empire and all other Leninist experiments should seem to have been sufficient. But not in the eyes of many quasi-Marxist intellectuals and campus postmodernists, who claim (with some justification) that countless Marxian variants were never tested in real life. But…as capitalization proceeds, we realize that rates of obsolescence accelerate, requiring increased, not decreased entrepreneurship. 


Alas, this fierce and absolute disproof of one of the great quasi-religious dogmas of all time goes without notice. The significance of the recapitalization curve would not have escaped an earlier generation, steeped in the old debates over Marxist theory. But today, amid a steady decline in the intelligencia, it seems not even to have been raised, allowing campus romantic-leftists - profoundly ignorant and unread - to keep dwelling on scenarios that are now, decisively, disproved.

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Past keeping faith with future... and day with night

Past keeping faith with future... and day with night | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

I have long held that the Civil War did not start with the firing on Fort Sumter.  It began in 1852 with the passage - and brutal enforcement - of the Fugitive Slave Act, which led to invasion and outright raids of northern states by squadrons of irregular southern cavalry, committing outrages and depredations from Illinois to Pennsylvania, supported first by southern-appointed U.S. Marshals and later - when locals began resisting - by federal troops.  These slave-catcher raids, smashing into homes, terrorizing neighbors and dragging off friends you knew since childhood, were the prime provocation that radicalized northerners into re-starting their dormant militias. It is what drove many of them to support Lincoln. Nothing like it happened in the south until Sherman.

 

But slavery is gone.  So why are we still blatantly fighting the same Civil War, 150 years later? Across pretty much the same geographical and cultural divide? Can it be something deeper and psychological?  A current that flows through impenetrable veins, that made slavery a poisonous side effect and not a primary cause?

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Whose Rapture?

Whose Rapture? | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

Proclamations of doom are perennial flowers which have sprouted in the garden of human imagination since earliest times. Oracles appeared whenever turmoil caused nations and peoples to feel uncertain about the future. From ancient Sumer, to India, to Iceland, astrological portents used to set off recurring waves of public hysteria.

Ambiguity is the prophet's major stock in trade. King Croesus bribed the Delphic Oracle for good news, so the priests told him what he wanted to hear. If he marched on Persia he would destroy a great empire. He marched, and the empire he destroyed was his own.  Some doom-prophecies proved devastatingly self-fulfilling. When Cortez marched on Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs were paralyzed by similarities between his arrival and the prophesied return of their god, Quetzalcoatl. That paralysis led to the Aztecs' fall. At Troy, Cassandra and Lacöon warned unavailingly against accepting gift horses, showing that all Jeremiads aren't heeded.

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The Quagmire War -- the Vietnam of our Era

The Quagmire War -- the Vietnam of our Era | A Contrary Look at History: Past vs Future | Scoop.it

The principal goal that Osama bin Laden had in mind, in perpetrating the crimes of 9/11, was to lure America into an extended, interminable quagmire of attrition in the "land where empires go to die."  While this may seem a bold statement that cannot be proved, it is consistent with three major facts:

1) American had to react.  It was predictable where we would have to strike.

2) Osama's salad days were spent humbling one superpower in the same mountains.

3) If you were a foe of the United States, you would study which past errors almost destroyed America.  Those two were Civil War and a land war of attrition in Asia.  (In fact, since 9/11, it appears we've been rapidly plunged into both.)

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