Contemporaneous Living

A recent social media exchange reminded me of one of my favorite anthropological facts: human beings have been in Australia for some 50,000 years, but humans have been in New Zealand for less than 800 years. Just about a thousand miles of sea separate the two nations, but in dozens of millennia, it seems that nobody made the voyage across the Tasman Sea. In fact, when humans finally did arrive in New Zealand, they were Polynesians rather than Australians.

This fact does not tell us much about the cultures of the Maori people or the Aboriginal Australians, but it does help create a larger context for the settlement of New Zealand. A persistent problem in the study of history is the failure to appreciate “the big picture.” Maori settlement of New Zealand happened about the same time as the founding of the Ottoman Empire by Osman I. And although neither event had any effect on the other, knowledge of their coincidence can be interesting and helpful.

This sort of perspective is equally important (and striking) when thinking about historical figures. Many historical figures had famous relationships, such as Thomas More and Erasmus; Aristotle and Alexander the Great; Cicero and Julius Caesar; or Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. But other sets of contemporaries are less obvious. I remember very distinctly my surprise when I realized that Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States at the same time Napoleon was Emperor of France. (I had always thought of the Napoleonic Wars as pre-dating the American Revolution.) Likewise, had never thought of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as contemporaries, but they exchanged letters on the subject of war.

But one of the oddest examples, in my opinion, is Mohandas K. Gandhi. He exchanged letters with Count Leo Tolstoy (whom I would have guessed was dead before Gandhi was even born.) But Gandhi also actually wrote letters to Adolph Hitler (who was only 20 years his junior, and whom Gandhi out-lived by less than three years.)  What makes it so easy to be surprised by these connections is the fact that the Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Hitler are all associated with very different countries and periods. But, evidently, their places and times were not as disparate as they may seem at a glance. In fact, the world is much more interconnected than we often appreciate.

Beer of the week: Breakfast Beast – This imperial stout from Clown Shoes is aged in bourbon barrels with cold brewed coffee. It is very strong, and oily dark. It is also extremely thick and smooth. It is practically a complete breakfast. Delicious.

Reading of the week: Correspondence between Mohandas K. Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy – For additional historical perspective, consider the following: Gandi was murdered 7 years ago next Tuesday. These letters exchanged between him and Tolstoy are pretty special. In his letters Gandhi, a professed admirer of Tolstoy’s writings on pacifism, seeks support for political movements in South Africa (at that time, the Transvaal) and India (then, British India.) Tolstoy replies that “Your work in the Transvaal, which to us seems to be at the end of the earth, is yet in the centre of our interest.”

Question for the week: What is your favorite surprising historical coincidence? Or, if you prefer, what is your favorite historical gap? (For example, the Great Pyramid of Giza was older to Cleopatra than Cleopatra is to us.)

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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.