So…About That Flag (Part Two)

So, in part one we went over the origins of the Confederate Battle Flag and its use during the American Civil War. Now we’re going to talk about the post-Civil War history of the flag and what to say about it today.

Anyway, the flag ended up being incorporated and nodded to in numerous Southern state flags after Reconstruction ended, and the homages were seen as part of the process of the South controlling itself instead of being controlled by carpetbaggers. That this involved disenfranchising black people en masse would have been a little awkward for people capable of seeing past the end of their noses, but the people in charge of all this nonsense, as usual, really couldn’t.

And now we’re going to skip ahead to the 1950s and 1960s, because that’s the part living people remember and where things get really, really awkward for people who want to think of the flag as a symbol of resistance against tyranny. Here’s why.

The only Confederate flags that weren’t somehow related to the Civil War Centennial (and even some of those) were being waved by racists and segregationists demanding the right to treat black people like they weren’t real people. This was propagated by the Ku Klux Klan, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, numerous state governors, and various other notables. And the state of Georgia threw it into their state flag for the same reasons. To boot, a lot of people still use it now for those reasons. The Southern Identity movement, the League of the South, the Klan…there’s a lot of that going around. And all of this more recent history, which is what most people who despise the flag remember, renders non-racist interpretations of the flag exceedingly difficult to present to an audience from outside the South–or a lot of audiences within the South.

Now, remember the first part of this post. A lot of the ordinary people who fly the thing choose to remember guys like Cleburne and Lee, who were basically honorable men who served an exceedingly dishonorable cause because they didn’t quite get what cause they were serving. They legitimately don’t see it as a declaration of white supremacy.

“How could they not?” is the cry I hear. Well, if you don’t make a detailed study of Reconstruction, the Klan, the Civil Rights Movement, and hate group symbology, it’s really not that hard. By comparison, it’s kind of like the people who wear Che Guevara t-shirts unironically, without knowing that he was a psychotic failure.

This, however, is countered by the fact that, in the minds of tens of millions of Americans, the Confederate Battle Flag is associated, not unjustifiably, with being a racist jerk.

Let me put it another way. If you didn’t actually bother to read Cleburne’s proposal that I linked to in the previous post, I’m going to give you the opportunity to read it again, because you really should. It’s a masterpiece of writing by one of the most honorable men on the Confederate side of the war as he desperately tries to get the Confederate government to figure out that as long as they continue to support slavery, they will not have independence, and that it would be better to have to deal with four million free blacks rather than to be ruled by the North. The money quote is towards the end of the thing, when he and his co-signers write “It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny…” and, given the rest of the statement, probably actually mean it.

Not in the letter is the part when Cleburne got whacked with the clue-bat of the fact that most of the civilian leadership of the Confederacy really thought that winning the war without slavery wasn’t really better than losing, much like the Battle Flag has come to be a symbol of racism.

If you fly the Confederate flag without racist intent, you are in the role of Patrick Cleburne. You have your own motivations, honorable ones–to honor your kin, or the valiant dead, but in the broader picture you are fighting for a cause unworthy of you.  We should keep it on the battlefields where it flew, and on the memorials for the Confederate dead, and in the living history museums, for under that flag many did not fight to keep the black man in his place, and to eradicate it from those places would be to deny the reality of history.

But keep it out of your yard, unless it is a Confederate cemetery. Keep it off your truck, just in general. There are so many better ways to express defiance of overweening government than to fly the flag of a government that instituted conscription before its opponent did and was based on being tyrannical to a large portion of its populace.

But despite the hypocrisy and opportunism of those denouncing it, despite the hysteria of comparisons to the swastika, despite the fact that many of the people demanding its removal would demand mine if they thought they could get away with it, we should remove the Confederate Battle Flag, in its present form, from anything that is not dedicated to the preservation of history and its memory, for the sake of the public discourse, if nothing else.

As for myself, if I’m going to fly a flag other than the American one, I’d rather it be this one:

We can have the discussion about Constantine later.







To my brethren in this sign: let this be our banner in all things. Let us never fight for causes that we are better than, but only for causes that we are worse than. For those are the only ones worth fighting for.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

So…About That Flag (Part One)

It’s time for a history post, because there is far too much heat coming into this debate from people whose only exposure to the American Civil War, and its causes and effects is what they got in school or from what they heard on the news or strange websites on the Internet. So, a brief history of the Confederate Battle Flag is in order.

Let’s begin by stating what should be patently obvious: the proximate cause of the American Civil War was slavery. Full stop. Everything else, from tariffs to states’ rights to farm vs. factory, is secondary, and oftentimes caused by the slavery issue.

How do we know this? Well, of the original seven ordinances of secession, two of them, Texas and Alabama, specifically mention issues involving slavery, while Virginia’s alone of the last four states to actually secede did. That is only three of the eleven, but look you further. There were also several Declarations of Causes made as well–those of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas all list slavery as the primary issue involved. So, of the original seven seceding states, five all mention slavery as the primary cause of secession. Florida also had one, but never published it, and while there is economic talk, there’s a lot of slavery talk there. Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina might be able to receive the benefit of the doubt, although support for secession tended to correlate to slaveholding. Louisiana–they didn’t publish anything, but it was one of the epicenters of American chattel slavery. What do you think?

As a side note, by the way, it would be excellent if anyone who is from or whose ancestors were from New England would kindly be silent on the topic of secession. Two words: Hartford Convention.

Anyway, the Confederate Constitution is essentially a copy/paste of the original American one, except with one Presidential term of six years and the direct inclusion of slavery instead of euphemizing it in the hopes that the thing would go away, and explicitly protecting slavery, “negro slavery” in particular. Awkward, that. In fairness to the last four seceding states, they didn’t draft it. They did, however, agree to join it.

Now, here’s the part where things get messy. A lot of Southerners fought for reasons other than slavery, and there’s actually some evidence for this. See Robert E. Lee’s refusal to join until Virginia joined the Confederacy after Lincoln’s post-Fort Sumter call for 75,000 volunteers, after having previously rejected the notion, much as Tennessee did. Which kind of pokes a few holes in the “All for slavery” thing. (Although, again, Upper South vs. Lower South. It’s…complicated. (And some of those holes get patched if you look at the correlation between slavery and secession sentiment.))

Further emphasizing the messiness of this whole thing is the saga of Patrick Cleburne, an Irish immigrant and veteran of the British army, who settled in Arkansas, joined the Confederate army in 1861, and became a major general and division commander by the time of his death in the Battle of Franklin in 1864. He had a good reputation, was an excellent battlefield leader–being the only Confederate general to not have his men go into rout at Chattanooga–and could have become a corps commander…had it not been for a proposal he made in January of 1864 to enlist slaves in the Confederate army with the promise of freedom afterward, seeing as the Confederacy was scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel. This was scotched by Confederate President Jefferson Davis the moment he heard of it on the grounds that it would cause dissension–that Davis was one of the largest slaveowners in Mississippi was a coincidence. That Cleburne did not become a corps commander in the Army of Tennessee, a force close to bereft of gifted leadership at that level, was also purely coincidence.

There’s also the issue that most of the men actually toting rifles and muskets weren’t fighting for any particular reason other than that they believed strange men from far-off places were coming down to their homes to coerce them into compliance with unfair laws–or because they believed that the well-being–by which I mean, the “not starving or trapped under mountains of debt”–of their families was at risk. If that first seems unfair to Northerners, please note that to an Alabama or Mississippi backcountry farmer, Tennessee was a ways off–Massachusetts was barely dreamt of. If the second seems like I’m ignoring the fact that the system they were relying on was an oppressive system of human bondage, you might want to look up a lot of the arguments used in the north against the expansion of slavery–one of the biggest ones was that it messed up opportunities for white people. The vast mass of the people, as per usual, were primarily self-interested, even if it was at others’ expense.

Anyway, in 1865, the Confederacy, after a whole lot of angsting and some very telling remarks by several leading politicians about what they thought the war was about–that is, slavery–finally got around to recruiting some black troops, less than a regiment’s worth, in Richmond months after Cleburne’s death, and months too late to do any good to them. The soldiers never saw action, and were disbanded as the Confederacy crumbled that April. Way to not be racist, guys. Only bring in the black people when it’s literally too late to actually get them onto a battlefield.

Anyway, all of that being provided here basically for context, the flag itself was never the official flag of the Confederacy, although two of the three official flags incorporated it. Instead, it is referred to as the Confederate battle flag because it was the basic design carried by the Army of Northern Virginia, which was the most successful of the Southern armies and the one led by Robert E. Lee (see above) for most of the war. By which I mean it didn’t start losing battles until mid-1863, instead of early 1862. It was developed in order to deal with battlefield confusion caused by the similarity of the first official flag of the Confederacy, the Stars and Bars, to the Stars and Stripes. Given that, on a battlefield, this could have potentially deadly consequences, it was decided that a flag for the battleground would be in order. So one was created, and the blue St. Andrews Cross with white stars on a red field that we all know and love/despise was born. As a side note, the St. Andrews’ cross, interestingly enough, was supposedly chosen in order to mollify Southern Jews and certain Protestants concerned about the religious iconography of a St. George’s cross. Yeah, just because you’re a jerk in one area of your life doesn’t mean you’re a jerk in all of them.

Well, this is running longer than I anticipated, so there will be a part two tomorrow, wherein I discuss the post-Civil War history of the Confederate Battle Flag

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

Law Enforcement, Feudalism, and Anarchy

You might have noticed that police use of force, police handling of suspects, and police in general have been in the news lately. As usual when dealing with such issues, the population is polarized, and the valid points on either side are being lost in the flurry of recrimination, grievance-mongering, defensiveness, and sociopolitical posturing.

To put it another way, claiming that Eric Garner was “complicit” in what happened to him is as nuts as claiming that Darren Wilson is a latter-day night rider, but people are doing both anyway.

The problem here is thus: the two main poles here are both coalescing around concepts that are both valid and necessary for the running of society. Whether or not they actually believe in those concepts is, quite honestly, immaterial except for figuring out who should implement any changes. Those two concepts can be summed up as “justice” and “law and order,” and, as usual, there are some problems with both groups.

To begin with the one I lean towards, the “law and order” group tends to overlook actual instances of abuse of authority, downplays the ones that occur, and appears to refuse to admit that the governments within the borders of the US of A oftentimes use the justice system as a revenue stream. The reason they do so is that they see law enforcement and the courts as what is holding society together in the face of overwhelming criminality by would-be barbarian hordes, who are only held in check by the force of the Law. Said hordes, by the way, are generally perceived as such due to behavior. Witness the similar reactions to the breakup of OWS protests and the response to the Ferguson protests and riots by members of this group.

The “justice” crowd, however, tends to overlook actual instances of criminal behavior, upplays instances of abuse of authority, and appears to refuse to believe that not all cops are determined to brutalize and abuse the citizens of the land. The reason they do so is that they see law enforcement and the courts as agents of an oppressive system determined to keep the rich rich and the poor poor, and, as result, see those who attract police attention as victims. For proof of this, witness the reactions of this group to the breakup of OWS and the response to the Ferguson protests and riots.

Both groups are right.

Both groups are wrong.

This is the part where I talk about feudalism and anarchy.

One of those things everyone knows is that feudalism was an oppressive system designed to keep landowners and the Church in power while suppressing the rights of the people and such.

As usual with things everyone knows, this is, at best, only half-true. The reason is that the conditions prevailing before feudalism, after the fall of the Roman Empire, were, to say the least, anarchic. Bands of marauders roamed the land, pillaging wherever they could. Life was poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Commerce died. Cities depopulated themselves due to lack of ability to sell their goods or buy food. This, by the way, is the period that might actually be called the “Dark Ages.” When villages tried to resist, they ran into the fact that they were untrained and, often, outnumbered, by their ravagers.

Feudalism changed that. Probably initially set up by a combination of foresighted marauders who realized they could get a lot more over the long run if they milked the cows rather than slaughtered them, idealistic ex-soldiers, and priests desperate to protect their flocks and position, it was essentially a method of protection payments. The lords and knights would protect their people in return for food and labor. Professional soldiers had a much better chance of resisting bandit raids and clearing the forests than quarter-trained at best farmers, and, while the landowners had a pretty good deal going for the time, their lives were not exactly cushy. Training for war is hard work, especially in pre-gunpowder days, and the risks run in fighting were high. Serious wounds were a death sentence that might be reprieved, and sickness ran rampant when the armies marched to war. Meantime, the people were at least slightly relieved of the threat of banditry and raiders, and could devote more efforts to things that would make their lives better as opposed to just staying alive.

Of course, as time went on, the lords and knights would tend to forget their responsibilities and remember only their privileges, especially as the lawlessness ceased to be civilization-ending and shifted towards the nuisance level. Which resulted in new lawlessness, this time by the ones who were supposedly there to keep law and order.

What does all this have to do with anything?

Simple. The fact is, there are people who would cheerfully wreck society in order to get what they wanted, which sometimes is stuff, sometimes power, and sometimes just a civilization-sized bonfire to roast marshmallows. And then there are the people who wouldn’t go that far, but still have the same mindset. The purpose of law enforcement is to prevent the domestic versions of these people from doing so, and the purpose of the courts to deal out proper punishment.

The problem, of course, is that doing so requires giving people power, and power goes to people’s heads, and attracts those who would watch the world burn. Which leads to official banditry, which leads to mistrust by the people, and the inevitable response if things go too far–see the Jacquerie and the Peasants’ Revolt.

Short version: You will not have justice without law and order. You will not have law and order without justice.

Bear this in mind when you talk of these matters.

By the way, I’ll be talking about law enforcement in America for at least a few more posts. This is kind of a big deal.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

To Support the Ancien Regime?

So, Seth and I were having a conversation earlier today, as we sometimes do, and he said something that got me thinking about revolutions. Thing is, every revolution has something or someone it wishes to overthrow.

So, question. Who should you back?

Consider, if you will, the following. The year is 1919. The Russian Civil War is raging, and you are a Russian professor. You find yourself in a situation where you must choose which side to support. Do you support the Whites, an ideologically incoherent movement led by callous aristocrats, psychopathic soldiers, and the occasional decent man, who seek to either restore the Tsar, whose actions brought Russia to its knees, or Kerensky, whose actions laid Russia prostrate? Do you support the Reds, an ideologically coherent movement led by a man imported by the Kaiser to foment revolution and drive Russia out of the war, whose program will require the slaughter of many? Or the Greens, Ukrainian peasants who attack both? Or the Blacks, who are anarchists?

Or, if one wished to view it from another perspective, consider the following. Do you support the Whites, who back the legitimate government of Russia? Do you support the Reds, who want to make everyone equal? Do you support the Greens, Ukrainian peasants who want to be free of Russian rule? Or the Blacks, who want to live free from corruption and tyranny?

The problem between deciding between the status quo–that is, the ancien regime–and change is that the vices and virtues of the status quo are known, or can at least be reasonably extrapolated. The vices and virtues of proposed change, however, are not known, and can at best be reasonably extrapolated. Further, no one knows what jokers are hidden in change’s deck, while everyone knows where the status quo’s jokers are. Even more so, the status quo’s motives are generally known–you know how they will act in various situations. Change’s motives are more uncertain–are you for us, or for yourselves?

In other words, you have no idea what the people who want change will do once they are the ones with the power until they become the ones holding the power–and by then, it’s usually too late to do anything, because no one wants another revolution. The only clues you have to what they will do when they become the powerful are what they do  with the power they already have, and even then, oftentimes the idealistic ones who acted as restraint on the powermongers and the rabid idealists are thrown aside or slain once the work is done.

I’m really beginning to understand the Loyalists better as I write this. (Note: They’re still wrong.)

So what do you do? Watch carefully, think carefully, and put no faith in a man’s motives for doing or saying anything. Judge him by his actions and their effects, and the whether or not you back most of the people who back him.

Apply this rule to quite literally all sides, even the tiny ones. Better to tilt at windmills than gather food for giants.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

No, They’re Not Just Factoids

My apologies for not posting Wednesday–the day was longer than the time allotted.

Anyway, so a study was recently done on how many American colleges required history, government, or economic courses in their curricula. The numbers were far smaller than they need to be–less than 1/5 required history courses, and the numbers only got smaller from there.

If you look at the linked article, there’s also a chart detailing how many American adults could answer two questions–which President enacted the New Deal and when D-Day occurred–correctly. The answer was, less than 50% for the latter and 50% for the former.

This has elicited another round of criticism of American higher education for failing to teach students such information, and calls for a re-emphasis both on core curricula and American, as opposed to world, history, or, worse, diversity courses. This has resulted in the usual pushback by the people who enacted such ideas, as well as the usual suspects who come out of the woodwork whenever a survey comes out revealing the risible amount of knowledge most Americans have about their government claiming that “It doesn’t matter! This is trivia! What’s more important is that people understand concepts and trends!”


Here’s what I mean. I will grant that knowing that Franklin D. Roosevelt oversaw the New Deal and that D-Day occurred on June 6, 1944 are not necessary to lead a fulfilled life. However, I would say that, if you don’t know these things, you probably don’t know a whole lot else about those eras, because of the way history is remembered. People remember significant people and important dates much more than “concepts” and “trends,” mostly because the former two are concrete, while the latter two are much more nebulous.

So, in other words, if you don’t know who enacted the New Deal, you probably don’t get why the New Deal was such a big deal. If you don’t know when D-Day was, you probably don’t know why it was important to world history. Hint: the New Deal probably kept the USA from sliding into political revolution, and D-Day initiated the liberation of the northern sections of continental Europe from the Nazis, and kept the Soviets from being the ones who did it–and yes, that was important.

Furthermore, I would go so far as to say that if you don’t know dates you don’t understand the chronology of things, and are unprepared to explain how events lead to each other–specifically, how long or short a time it takes for important things to occur.

For instance, take the Civil Rights Movement. The way most people think of it runs something like this: Brown v. Board of Education, Birmingham protests, 1964 Civil Rights Act, MLK assassinated. And if you didn’t know the dates, you’d think all of these happened one after the other in quick succession. Reality: Brown v. Board happened in 1955, the Birmingham protests happened in 1962, the 1964 Civil Rights act in–1964, and Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

Just looking at the dates should cause some interesting questions. What happened in the 7 years between Brown v. Board and Birmingham? Why was MLK assassinated four years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act? And while it might not bring up those questions, let me be blunt here: if you didn’t know the dates, you’d never think to ask.

To put it simply, if you want to actually be able to understand “trends” and “concepts” and how they worked and work, you need to understand when the important events occurred. For instance, it matters that Christianity spent the first 280 years of its existence in, at best, a state of legal limbo. It matters that the Republican party formed immediately after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and not before or after. It matters that Dred Scott happened before the Civil War and before Lincoln was elected President–and it matters that the Civil War occurred while Lincoln was President instead of, say, Franklin Pierce. It matters that women got the right to vote after World War I, and that second-wave feminism got cranked up after World War II and Korea. It matters that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact occurred shortly before the invasion of Poland, and that Hitler became Chancellor of Germany after 1929.

To be slightly more recent, it matters that Obama, during negotiations on the 2009 stimulus package, replied to Republican concerns by saying, “I won.” It matters that the ruckus of the Arab Spring occurred after our invasion of Iraq, but not for some time afterwards.

Why is this important? Two things.

First, switching chronology tends to result in people thinking that x is the result of y, instead of the other way around, which can cause problems. See the belief in Germany that the 1918 disturbances caused Germany to begin its slide to losing World War I, rather than Germany’s slide to losing the war causing the disturbances. The results of that particular historiographical error are rather well known.

Second, if one understands chronology, one understands that important things can take a very long time to do. Failing to do so tends to lead to impatience and premature cries of failure/malfeasance, both of which tend to lead to problems, like pushing things too far too fast and causing backlash. See any guerrilla war America fought in the past fifty years, Roe v. Wade, Obamacare, and anything involving the words inequality, racism, or sexism.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

Dances with Samurai (Re-post)

Re-posted from a previous blog because I am tired.

Recently I had the opportunity to watch the Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai.
So, the good. Tom Cruise, dabblings in cults developed on a bet notwithstanding, isn’t a bad actor, and his portrayal of an alcoholic war veteran turned samurai warrior is excellent–more on that in a moment. The first battle goes much like such battles usually do–inexperienced infantry break and run when cavalry charge them, and then they die. During the final battle, the portrayal of how to defeat men armed with breechloading rifles when one’s troops are using swords and bows is quite good as well, although the plan went rather better than it likely would have in real life. Also, the swordfighting was good–none of the usual Hollywood prancing about, just straight-up getting the job done and killing people. That the movie was set in the Meiji Restoration period was an added plus–while it’s not like the story could have been told at any other time, the transition of Japan from feudal aristocracy at a 1400s level of technology to the late 1800s in less than thirty years is a fascinating process, and deserves far more attention than it gets.

Now for the bad. The problem is that Hollywood has this compulsion to A. Americanize history and B. whitewash it, in multiple senses of the term. First, the Japanese never went to the United States for military training or arms. They went to Europe for those things. Then there’s the whitewashing. Essentially, the samurai are represented as the representatives of all that is good about Japan, while the modernizers are presented as your typical Hollywood rapacious greedy capitalists, as are the Americans–well, except for Tom Cruise’s character, who essentially performs an about-face similar to that of Kevin Costner’s character in Dances with Wolves. (In point of fact, this movie is Dances with Wolves, except set in Japan rather than the Great Plains.) In truth, many samurai sided with the modernizers, giving up their privileged , as they saw that rapid modernization was the only way to avoid Western dominance of Japan. Also, both sides in the civil war used modern weapons whenever they could get their mitts on them. There is also a scene wherein a group of soldiers saw off the braid of one of the samurai after taking his swords. Left off is the fact that these soldiers were probably former peasants who had family stories about dealing with arrogant samurai who treated them like dirt, and who probably had been treated like that themselves. Y’know, the kind of stories Hollywood likes to tell, unless the folks getting some of their own back are supported by Westerners.
Then there’s the other thing. Spoiler alert: The samurai leaders, along with Tom Cruise, lead a final, doomed cavalry charge onto a line of cannon and Gatling guns. Every single one of them dies except for Tom Cruise.
What. On. Earth. Seriously? Every single other one of the samurai die except for Tom Cruise? Really? The only American and white guy in the film? I wouldn’t have nearly as much of a problem with Tom Cruise surviving if at least one other guy had made it through.
Of course, this totally leaves out the fact that the guy Cruise’s character is based off of was French.

Anyway, the point of all this is to point a basic problem with Hollywood, and American historiography. There is a belief that there are purely good and purely bad sides in history, and that America is the center of everything, for good or ill–witness the fact that American textbooks on World War II have a tendency to elide over the fact almost all of the German and Japanese armies during World War II were fighting opponents other than America–Russia and China, respectively. The fact of the matter is, finding the right side of history almost always consists of finding a lighter shade of grey, and America is not the center of the world. The consequences of these beliefs have made themselves felt in anything from the near-mindless jingoism of the American right to the near-automatic America-bashing found among certain elements of the American left, both of which have led to some truly awe-inspiringly boneheaded decisions.

Sand Between the Toes Again (Part II)

So, as we all know, we’ve gone back into Iraq, and the President is making noises that indicate we might be going in deeper. We’re probably going to actually go in deeper this time, unlike in Syria, which means that it’s now time for a quick rundown on how we got to the point where a bunch of terrorist whackjobs got into a position to decapitate American citizens and overrun large portions of Iraq.

Let’s start in 1979. Saddam Hussein, who was instrumental in the Ba’ath party taking over Iraq around a decade before, formally becomes head of the country. Shortly thereafter, he declares war on Iran due to Ayatollah Khomeini’s attempts to stir up Iraqi Shi’as against his regime, as well as just a general power grab. Long story short, the war comes to a draw after initial Iraqi successes, the oppression of the Kurds ramps up heavily, and the Iraqi and Iranian economies are ruined. Also, the West and Arab states back Iraq heavily, because no one liked the Iranians.

Saddam then turns his gaze to Kuwait, looking for a way to get his country’s economy back on track. He invades. The United States pulls together an international coalition and absolutely shreds the Iraqi army in a matter of weeks, with ground combat lasting for less than five days. The Kurds and Shi’ites revolt. The coalition does not move on Baghdad, nor, after the war ends, does anything about Sadam’s rather savage reprisals, besides giving the Kurds some degree of protection.

Part of the treaty that ended the war involved Iraq agreeing to inspections for WMD programs, since it was acknowledged by everyone that Iraq was pursuing such a capability–and possessed it, particularly in the chemical weapon range. Iraq was, in fact, lousy at letting these actually happen, especially unimpeded.

Meanwhile, in Syria, Hafez al-Assad, instrumental in the Ba’ath party taking control of the country in the early 1960s, takes over in the 1970s. He is an Alawite, which makes him a minority in the land, and he is determined to see his people succeed. So he oppresses the Sunni majority at the same time that Saddam Hussein is oppressing the Kurd and Shi’ite majority in his country. The two of them are not friendly with each other until around the turn of the millennium.

George Bush is elected POTUS. Less than a year later, 9/11 happens. Bush, for various reasons still under dispute (and that is ALL I am saying about this), after invading Afghanistan, decides to invade Iraq in 2003, the justification for which was the twin notions that Saddam was A. a tyrant and B. working on WMD. The first: indisputable. The second: much more disputable. The conventional war goes swimmingly. The after-war planning, however, was lousy. For one thing, US forces were structured for a quick blitzkrieg, a nice victory party and handover of power to Iraqi exiles, then a quick flight home. This, as we all know, did not happen.

What did happen was that Paul Bremer, effectively the Governor-General of Ira, did several very stupid things–chief among them being disbanding the Iraqi Army, which had mostly decided to stay in their barracks, especially after what had happened the last time. While it wasn’t like the Iraqi Army was especially good, Bremer’s actions A. released tens of thousands of armed, trained men onto the streets with no means of support for them and their families and reason to resent the new regime and B. violated the terms of several deals we’d cut with Iraqi generals who were promised a place in the new order if they’d stay out of the fighting.

Syria, in the meantime, now led by Bashar al-Assad, serves as host for Iraqi refugees, as well as some Iraqi chemical weapons (probably). It also, along with Iran, serves as a support base for the Shi’ite portions of the Iraqi insurgency, sending fighters and weapons. Despite this, the US-led coalition succeeds in establishing a (relatively) stable government by the end of 2008, and all US forces are evacuated in 2010 by Barack Obama. Later that year, the Arab Spring begins in Tunisia,  spreads to Syria by January of 2011, and the country goes into all-out civil war by the middle of the year.

As mentioned above, the al-Assad family is Alawite, which means they are Shi’ite Muslims, and Syria is largely Sunni. The resultant civil war is one of an Iran-backed al-Assad regime vs. Arab-backed Sunni Arabs vs. various other groups (sort of). Other polities get involved–Russia backs Assad, Turkey and the West back the rebels. The war is still going on, as neither side is receiving enough help to actually win–probably by design. In the meantime, Iraq is rolling back towards failed-state status due to Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki being an idiot. Both countries are sliding into lawlessness.

Cue the development of a group called the Islamic State in Syria, soon to become the Islamic State in the Levant, made up of Sunni Arab fighters blooded in the Syrian war who decide to establish a new base in Western Iraq, where they find willing allies in the Sunni minority who have been marginalized by al-Maliki. The Iraqi army, undisciplined and riven by infighting, folded like bad origami, and ISIL overran them and caused a massive refugee crisis. Then the US started launching airstrikes, and ISIL decided to retaliate.

And that’s how we got here–via the Law of Unintended Consequences, which has not been repealed, and will not be.

Remember this.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

No Change in Man

Well, as we all know, back in 2008 the winning US Presidential candidate promised hope and change if he were elected to the office.

Hope is arguable. Change isn’t–it’s been either lacking or problematic at best.

The fact is, the way 2008 went, the promise was of a bright new era. The jackboot of Bush would be replaced with Birkenstocks, and the world, once it got over the economic crisis, would be bright and shiny as Obama led the way towards a new era of cooperation, peace, and happiness.

As we all know, this has not happened.

Libya changed from an oppressive dictatorship to a snakepit of warring factions. Syria’s reenacting the Thirty Years’ War. Iraq is currently falling apart. Afghanistan is teetering. The Ukraine is a horrific mess. China and Japan are rattling sabers off and on at each other. Burma has transitioned from a military dictatorship that oppresses everyone, including ethnic minorities, to a quasi-democratic state that ethnically cleanses minorities.

Egypt went through revolution and Thermidor. Hamas and Israel have just concluded another brawl. Argentina is holding an economic meltdown.  Russia is tilting towards Czarism.

How much the President is blame for all of this is debatable, and I’m inclined to say he doesn’t bear the blame for a lot of it. What he is to blame for, however, is either A. misleading the American people as to the likelihood of everything being just fine or B. having absolutely no idea about how the world actually works.

With all due respect, Mr. President, anyone with a shred of historical knowledge could have told you that things were not going to work how you hoped they would. Now, I’m not sure that anyone could have predicted just how much things were not going to go according to how you implied or claimed they would (I know I didn’t), but a new era of understanding and reconciliation?

If Bush was really as bad as your side claimed he was, then our name was mud. If everyone else was as bad as our side claimed they were, then even saintly behavior wouldn’t work. Whichever way you sliced it, this was not happening.


Because people don’t change, not at their core. Since the Fall we have been, in the main, messed-up, selfish jerks who don’t really care for anyone outside our immediate circles, and are only otherwise due to grace and vigorous training (but I repeat myself). This has not changed. How this manifests has changed, but the core issue remains the same. Now, persons may have this core changed, but this requires, essentially, divine intervention.

In other words, you want to know what you should probably expect? Go to your local library. Get yourself to the 900s in the nonfiction section–that’s history, for those of you who aren’t freaks like me about this stuff. Start reading. See what people tend to do when placed in given situations, then look around and see what the situation is. You may not like your answer–I know there are times I haven’t. But you’ll have a good idea.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

Narrative at the Expense of Reality

First, my apologies for not posting Saturday. I was out of Internet content until well past suppertime. But, there is a post tonight.

Anyway, this past January, just after the New Year, I went to an academic conference in New Mexico, where papers were primarily presented by undergraduate and graduate students–these papers were short, I should add, no more than ten pages in length. At any rate, I was one of what turned out to be a three-person panel, and all of us were discussing the American Civil War and Reconstruction. My paper was on Civil War recruitment in Tennessee, the second was on a colony of contrabands on Roanoke Island, and the third was on US policy towards Indians during the Grant administration. I’d like to say that all of these were fascinating and well-presented papers, but as I am biased in the matter I will say nothing as to that.

However, I will say that I did notice a couple of oddities in the other two papers. The second, about the contrabands, was a fascinating study of an attempt to give freed slaves a new start in life. However, when discussing the colony’s failure, the paper claimed that it proved “the limitations of the free-labor ideology” held by the Republican Party at the time, which claimed that all a man needed to get ahead was his own land to farm. However, just a few paragraphs earlier, the paper mentioned that a large part of the reason the colony failed was the fact that the slaves were on land that belonged to a plantation owner, which was handed back over to him after the war by the Johnson administration. In other words, the colony failed because said ideology was not applied–the ex-slaves did not own the land.

The third, about Indian policy, claimed that Ulysses S. Grant’s administration essentially sought cultural genocide in the matter of the Indians by forcing them to adopt white ways of living and religion and abandoning their native traditions, and was rather sarcastic concerning whether or not those who enacted the policy were concerned for their charges’ well-being. While I could understand the paper’s concern–it does seem a rather raw deal, to give up the way one’s ancestors have lived for a goodly amount of time–it seemed to me that the paper was overlooking the prevailing way of thinking in America at the time, which essentially said: we must have the land between the Rockies and the Mississippi, that we may farm there. In other words, the Indians had two choices: die or undergo assimilation, because the powerful were going to take what they wanted–such is the nature of man. I mentioned this when I most likely broke protocol by asking her questions, the second of which centered on that idea–the first is another story for another day. Her answer included the fact that a policy that did not just present those two options had been tried under Grant’s Civil War and Indian chief of staff, Ely Parker, but that it had been a political nonstarter. This, essentially, proved my point, but I did not pursue the matter.

I was reminded of this incident when I heard from a friend of mine that a former friend of his, after hearing allegations of mishandling of multiple sexual assault cases by a private Christian university, essentially declared that she would destroy evangelical Christianity, on the grounds that it was one of the utmost forces for evil in this world. My friend, being a stout fellow, proceeded to engage her, then had to deal with all matter of nonsense from her and her friends about the various postmodern boogey-isms evangelicalism apparently backs: imperialism, patriarchalism, heteronormativism (and a few thoughts on that notion will be a blog post eventually), etc., etc. Never mind evangelicalism’s association with actual societal progress–abolition of slavery, etc. Never mind the existence of such things as one-child policies, drug cartels, suicide bombings, and female genital mutilation.

Nope. The problem is evangelical Christianity, and she will stop at nothing to be rid of it. The fact of the matter is, she is so invested in her narrative about the oppressive nature of the faith that she will ignore all history and reason and facts to carry the notion forward–and let’s face it, folks. Some of ours have a problem with this–see David Barton’s comments on soldiers with PTSD just needing to read the Bible, or Thomas Jefferson’s faith in supernatural religion–yes, Jefferson, the one whose edition of the Bible cut out all the miracle. I’d bet my life savings (paltry though they are) that I’ve done it a time or two.

The problem is that this is dangerous, because narratives that ignore facts are falsehoods. And if there’s one thing the postmodernists got right, it’s that stories tend to drive people. When those stories are false, or told wrong, or are misused, bad things happen. Ask any victim of persecution–or those descendants of the persecutors who’ve had a chance to think. They’ll tell you straight.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

Westernized Christ? Or Christianized West?

In my three and a half years of wandering about in Christian academia and my resultant exposure to the broad Christian blogosphere, as well as doing some reading that I’ve been tipped off to, especially by Seth, I’ve come across a few interconnected trends.

To begin with, I was awakened to the massive upswelling of Christianity, Protestant and Catholic, in what is often referred to as the Global South–in other words, all the non-Western countries. Consider Africa, for a moment. In 1900, there were 9 million Christians in Africa out of a population of 120 million, and most of these were in either Ethiopia, South Africa, or were dispersed European colonists. As of the year 2000, there were 380 million Christians in Africa out of a population of 808 million, and both populations have only gotten larger. Protestantism has surged in South America, while China has more Christians than any of the European nations, except maybe Russia. Said Christianity is hot-blooded, occasionally violent, especially when faced with violence (a way of thinking that is theologically problematic, at best), oftentimes short on doctrine and long on passion, and very heavily supernaturalistic, occasionally to the point of making Benny Hinn look normal. It is also extremely heavy on the Prosperity Gospel, and can be mildly theocratic in its leanings.

Along with this, I’ve noticed that there is slowly growing cottage industry of people trying to explain what this means for the Church in the West, and, at least among the academics, the story goes something like this: Well, they’ll be a shock to the social liberals, but they’ll be a shock to the economic conservatives too; also, we just need to accept their seeming oddities and heresies, up to a point, as just being a differing interpretation of the Bible based on cultural differences. It’s still Christianity, just not Western Christianity. This goes along with another trend I’ve noticed, particularly among friends of my friends doing ministry for kids in the ghetto, of not wanting to impose “white, middle-class” standards of conduct upon their charges. It’s the same kind of attitude, one very in keeping with the spirit of the age.

I can appreciate the desire to not want to impose extrabiblical standards that are no more than cultural artifacts upon folks with vastly different histories and cultural memory. What I fear, however, is that we will, in our zeal to avoid such, end up not declaring heresy heresy. The reason why I say this is that Christianity and the West, despite all attempts to separate the two, are inextricably linked, because the West would not be what it is without Christianity.

Pull Christianity out of the West? The West dies: Europe ate itself like Ouroboros after the modernists did their work, and is currently in the process of starving itself to death as the postmodernists do theirs. Take out Christianity and Rome still falls, the barbarians forget everything, and Europe never crawls out of the muck and the mire, aided by the monks who kept learning alive in those dark decades–or, if it does, it takes centuries longer. Take out Christianity, and there is probably no Byzantium. Take out Christianity, and there is probably no scientific method–and if anyone thinks to discuss the Muslim thinkers and scholars who preserved much of the thinking for the West, take out Christianity and there is no Mohammed.

What you have is the Angles and Saxons and Danes and Franks and Prussians and Slavs and Arabs and Bedouin and Vandals and Goths–at least until the Mongols come out of the east and kill everyone, unopposed by castle or Mameluke, for it was the castles built by the Christians that caused the Mongols to decide that Europe just wasn’t worth the trouble, and the former slave soldiers of the Muslim Fatimids who broke the Mongol advance at Ain Jalut.

But there has been Christianity in the West, and Christianity has molded the West, albeit imperfectly, as all the works of men have been. Given these facts, it would not be an unjust question to ask if Christianization inevitably, eventually, brings Westernization, even if you are not trying to Westernize the people. And if you try to stop the Westernizing, how much are you stopping the Christianizing?

That having been said, humility demands to ask how much of Western Christianity has been Westernized. The peoples of the north, who forged out the West from the material given them by Rome and Greece, were a fiercely independent breed, determined to see to their own destinies, brooking no interference from god or man. How much of that has bled into our vision of Christianity, for it is the blood of the north that runs in the veins of most of Protestant America, and the thoughts of the north that shape our view of the world–and, doubtless, our view of the Scripture, for we are imperfect men. How much of the West has its roots in Odin and Thor and Epona and the Druids? And much of our law and philosophy comes from those who sacrificed to that mad pack of rapists, murderers and philanderers called the Greek and Roman pantheons. Great things those two peoples did, and great thoughts they gave us–but how much of it is common grace, and how much of it is a lie from the pit of Hell? And can we separate the two?

I do not have time or space to answer these questions, nor am I truly qualified to do so, beyond the fact that I know these questions must be asked. If we are to be salt and light to all the world, if our salt is to retain our saltiness and our light not to burn out retinas, we must answer these questions properly, veering neither to cultural chauvinism nor postmodern self-flagellation.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness