Dr. Wilson’s War

I am no fan of Woodrow Wilson.

He pushed for and then signed the Espionage Act and it’s extension known as the Sedition Act. Through these laws, countless individuals have been harassed, convicted, and sentenced to prison for political (primarily anti-war) speech.

Wilson also successfully campaigned for the presidency on a policy of neutrality in what became World War I. After attaining office, however, embarked on policy that was so unneutral that his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, resigned. He then pushed for the United States to join the otherwise deadlocked European war on the flimsy pretext that some Americans died when the Germans sunk the Lusitania, a ship carrying munitions for the British military. (To say nothing of the fact that the German government gave ample warning that they considered the Lusitania a warship and that Americans should not take passage on it.) It has been argued that had Wilson not joined the war, the United States would not have become the military-industrial nation that it is today, and the First World War would not have ended in the conditions that made Germany ripe for the rise of Adolph Hitler.

Sigmund Freud, in his psychological analysis of Wilson, concluded that the President was a dangerous fanatic whose belief in his own pre-ordained glory made him act with reckless abandon. Freud ultimately decided that the disastrous evil which inevitably resulted from Wilson’s actions made him impossible to sympathize with.

In the interest of keeping this blog post short, I will only mention further that Wilson is currently in the public eye due to calls from Princeton students to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs because of his well-known racism.

For all of the above reasons, it may seem reasonable to attempt to wipe Wilson’s legacy from the school and the country. But I side with Diodorus Siculus on the subject of erasing legacies. Rather than eliminating the memory of evil men, it is better to “publish [the] truth to the stain of their memory.” Let the school continue by the name of Wilson, so that for generations to come people will reflect on how his actions resulted in the death and oppression of countless souls.

Kalnapilis Bock

Beer of the week: Kalnapils Bock – One of the many unintended consequences of the First World War was the declaration of Lithuania as a sovereign nation. This is the first Lithuanian beer that I have had and, unfortunately, it is not very good. Initially, I was surprised to see how pale this beer is for a “bock”. It pours with a fluffy head that fades quickly. The aroma is reminiscent of cheap malt liquor: cheap grain, some alcohol. The aftertaste is decidedly metallic. Step up your game, Lithuania.

Reading for the week: Bibliotheca Historica, by Diodorus Siculus – In the preface to Book XIV of his “universal history”, Diodorus points out that men of high standing are subject to greater censure for their faults. “Let this therefore startle wicked men to consider, that they leave behind them an ugly representation of themselves, to the view of posterity for ever.”

Question for the week: Is it better to totally annihilate the memory of a bad man or to preserve his infamy as a warning to future generations?

*This post was accidentally published prematurely last week. So if you saw it then and couldn’t find it later, that’s why.

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Look on my works, ye mighty…

In 2003, a large statue of Saddam Hussain was toppled in Firdos Square, Bagdad. Video of the destruction was something of a media sensation. (Whether the event was staged or spontaneous is still unclear, but it sure seems like a brilliant photo-op.) For the most part, the destruction was met with approbation.

In 2015, members of ISIS destroyed priceless statues and reliefs at the 2,900 year old palace of King Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria. Video of militants destroying similar relics throughout the region resulted in international outrage.

So what is the difference?

The obvious answer is time. The fall of Saddam’s regime was not yet complete when an armored vehicle pulled down his statue, but Ashurnasirpal had been gone nearly three millennia when a bulldozer crashed through his palace. But isn’t the time difference superficial? Had the Saddam statue been allowed to stand, it too could have become an ancient and priceless relic. And, had the statue stood for 3,000 years, wouldn’t it’s destruction have elicited the same sort of outrage as the destruction of Ashurnasirpal’s palace?

Another insufficient answer is the brutality and general badness of the late Dictator of Iraq. Saddam invaded neighboring countries and maintained a repressive regime. One might argue that allowing a statue of such a man stand is an insult to all of the Iraqis, Kurds, and Kuwaitis who were killed, tortured, or otherwise hard done-by. But Ashurnasirpal (like most kings) was no tower of virtue himself. Not only did he invade numerous neighboring lands, he was unthinkably brutal. His own account of an insurrection that he put down brags that “Of some [prisoners] I cut off their feet and hands; of others I cut off the ears noses and lips; of the young men’s ears I made a heap; of the old men’s heads I made a minaret. I exposed their heads as a trophy in front of their city. The male children and the female children I burned in flames; the city I destroyed, and consumed with fire”. Surely this man was every bit as bad as Saddam. So why is the destruction of his monuments so appalling while the destruction of Saddam’s is so lauded?

Neither is the comparative “art value” of the two a good explanation. To compare the artistic merits of the separate monuments is beyond my ability and training, but I would argue that neither Saddam’s nor Ashurnasirpal’s likeness derived much of their scorn or value respectively from the technical ability of the artists who sculpted them. I strongly suspect that even if the Saddam statue were a masterwork, the response would have been the same.

What appears to make the difference is the symbolism of the two acts. The toppling of the Saddam statue was partially a warning to other Middle East leaders. Further, since Saddam himself was not captured until several months later, the statue destruction also served as a psychological strike against him and whatever loyal forces he still had. And, like the destruction of all Hitler era monuments in Germany, the toppling of the statue may have had an element of eliminating a potential future rallying point. The destruction of Ashurnasirpal’s palace, however, sends a different message. ISIS has made clear that they intend to destroy everything that is not part of their version of Islam. Whether priceless art, ancient artifacts, or fellow human beings, ISIS is dedicated to the annihilation of anything and everything that does not fit into their worldview. A very disconcerting position for those of us who are part of that “anything and everything”.

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Beer of the week: Magic Hat Snow Roller – After spending Christmas in a t-shirt and the first week of the year in the rain, the last couple weeks have finally provided cold weather sufficient to justify drinking some winter seasonals. This pretty brown ale smells of toasted grain and a bit of hops. Hints of burnt toast also lead the flavor. It is really in the aftertaste that this beer comes together. There is some lingering sweetness, but that is offset by tingling hops and alcoholic sharpness (6.2%). This is a good beer, but a bit more bitter and alcoholic-tasting than I would prefer.

Readings for the week: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ozymandias by Horace Smith – The poets (and close personal friends) Shelley and Smith each wrote a sonnet on the same subject: the shattered remains of an ancient statue of the Pharaoh Ozymandias, which had been meant to preserve the glory of its subject for all time.

Question for the week: Is the video footage of Saddam’s statue being pulled down now a sort of “digital monument” to George Bush II?


Bitter Cold

When the weather turned cold on my last visit to the Czech Republic, I had many a glass of hot blackcurrant wine. But whether my winter warmer is mulled wine, hot rum, or high alcohol beer, I have a habit of thanking my drink with a line from Hamlet:

For this relief much thanks: ’tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.

To be sure, I am rarely actually sick at heart, but I often feel more morose in the winter. Cold is more oppressive than heat, in my opinion. According to Dante’s Inferno, hell is icy cold at its core. The reason for this is simple: humans are creatures of heat. We would much rather live in a world of fire than in a world without fire.

Our bodies function best at temperatures in excess of 98 degrees although most of us live in ambient temperatures that are far lower. To some extent, we must bundle ourselves against the cold even on temperate days. Our evolutionary roots are embedded in equatorial Africa. We are drawn to the fire and turn our backs to the cold and the dark.

And to the extent that we are attracted to cold things, the attraction is usually with reference to heat. Downhill skiing is best when there is a roaring fire and a cocktail waiting for us après ski. An ice-cold beer is best on a hot summer day.

We are children of warmth. Bundle up and drink something with a little fire in it!

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Beer of the week: Novopacké Třeskuté – Last week I admitted my ignorance of the Polish language. This week I admit my ignorance of Czech. I think that the name of this beer might be a pun. I looked up “třeskuté” and found that it means “bitter”. As in English, (I think,) this could refer to the taste of the beer or the severity of the winter cold. Another hint that the name is a pun is the fact that this dark winter lager is not actually very bitter tasting. It really tastes more like toasted crackers: somewhat sweet and somewhat burnt. At 6.3% alcohol, this is definitely a winter warmer, and I have only seen it in 1.5 liter bottles. If that much beer can’t warm you, no amount can.

Reading for the week: Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Act 1, Scene 1 – The tragedy of the melancholy Dane begins in the middle of a cold, dark night. This scene sets a tone for the entire drama.

Question for the week: What warms you?


New Year, New Adventure

The New Year represents opportunity for new adventure. Every single day consists of a series of decisions which may lead to daring exploits, wild escapades, or… comfortable nights at home. (Which may be every bit as fulfilling as any carousal.) Of course, there are also decisions which may lead to ruin. But no matter where one’s decisions lead, the key to enjoying the adventures of life as they come is not to not dwell on what could have been but for missteps, circumstance, or reluctance to take a leap.

In the second novel in George MacDonald Fraser’s series The Flashman Papers, Royal Flash, the aged narrator (and great veteran of outlandish adventure) reflects on as much: “I’ve seen too much of life to fret over if’s and but’s. There’s nothing you can do about them, and if you find yourself at the end of the day an octogenarian with money in the bank and drink in the house — well, you’d be a fool to wish that things had fallen out differently.”

Flashman’s point of view may seem unfair; not everybody will survive to an advanced age, let alone with his mind, health, and bank account intact. But the sentiment is appropriate for all people. Regardless of station, nobody can turn back time and make better decisions. Likewise, wishing that things had worked out differently is always foolish since wishing will not make it so. The best that one can do is enjoy the current conditions and learn from past mistakes. Adventure still lies ahead, one need only take a step…
Tatra Mocne

 

Beer of the week: Tatra Mocne – The label of this beer is adorned with the visage of an Indiana Jones-type character, so it seems appropriate for a meditation on adventure. On one of my adventures, I spent some time in Poland. While there, I enjoyed quite a few pints of local dark lager. On a recent trip to my neighborhood liquor store, I spotted two varieties beer from the Polish brand Tatra: “Original” and “Mocne”. Since the Mocne can is black and I am not literate in Polish, I grabbed it in the hopes that it was the dark lager that I remember so fondly. Unfortunately, the Polish word for dark is “czarne”; “mocne” means strong. Rather than a smooth dark lager, I purchased a high alcohol (7%) lager, basically a malt liquor. The aroma and flavor are quite standard for a cheap malt liquor. Disappointing, really. Not all adventures pan out.

Reading of the week: The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope – The Prisoner of Zenda is one of the most successful adventure novels of all time. I am familiar with the story more through parody than from reading the book itself. This frantic and exciting excerpt gives a taste of what can result from a deliberate scheme for adventure, or from the mere circumstance of mistaken identity.

Question of the week: What adventure do you anticipate in 2016?