Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Importance of Latin

I took two years of Latin in high school. I frankly didn't do very well, barely scrapping by with passing grades each year. Part of this, I will freely admit, was due to my natural laziness as a student, but some of it can also be attributed to the fact that my Latin teacher and I did not like each other at all. While many of my friends went on to more advanced classes after they had fulfilled their minimum foreign language requirements, I was happy to say goodbye to Latin after my sophomore year. I now look back on this decision as one of the worst I have ever made. If I could go back in time and give advice to my younger self, one of the first things I would tell myself would be to embrace the learning of Latin and make it a deep part of my life.

David McCullough, perhaps America's most popular historian, once had this to say:

One of the regrets of my life is that I did not study Latin. I'm absolutely convinced, the more I understand these eighteenth century people, that it was that grounding in Greek and Latin that gave them their sense of classical virtues: the classic ideals of honor, virtue, the good society, and their historic examples of what they could try to live up to.

McCullough knows what he's talking about, for he is the author of one of the most respected biographies of John Adams, a remarkable man largely shaped by his classical education, as well as an outstanding book about the American Revolution during the months before and after the issuance of the Declaration of Independence. Many of the great Founding Fathers could read Latin as easily as they read English. Education in those days was largely based around the reading of Livy, Tacitus, Sallust, and the rest of the great Roman historians.

When confronted with the attempts of the British government to establish arbitrary rule over the colonies, the American political leaders could look back to the stories of King Tarquin being driven out by Lucius Junius Brutus, the political conflicts between the patricians and the plebians, the Grachii brothers espousing radical populism only to be cut down by the aristocratic reactionaries, the long struggle between Sulla and Marius for control of the Republic, and the civil war between Julius Caesar and his enemies. The history of Ancient Rome provides more insight into politics and human nature than all of the government textbooks ever written and, thanks to their ability to read Latin, the Founding Fathers could access this history in its original language.

And it wasn't just history. A fluent Latin reader could dip himself into the oratory of Cicero, the Stoic philosophy of Seneca, the epic poetry of Virgil, the lyric poetry of Horace, and so many other deep and soul-nourishing forms of Latin literature. This made them into fully formed human beings with cultivated and well-rounded minds. The contrast between their time and ours, when we have swapped the joy of reading the classics for the mind-numbing entertainment of video games and reality television, cannot be starker.

I am a firm believer that Latin education should be mandatory beginning in middle school. My fellow public school teachers generally look at me like I'm insane whenever I say this. Many simply laugh, assuming that I am telling a joke. But I'm not. To me, education is not a job training program, but the path for children to develop into adults with well-rounded minds and a strong sense of civic virtue. As the example of the Founding Fathers shows us, there is no better way to do this than by teaching children Latin. If a student is pursuing a career path that requires them to have advanced knowledge of technology or higher mathematics, let them acquire that in college. Not everyone needs such information, but the republic as a whole would be greatly improved, as with a great breath of fresh air, if all citizens had a working knowledge of Latin.

It goes far beyond simply being able to read the Latin classics in their original language. Latin is valuable to students for any number of more practical reasons. First, since the vocabulary of our language is based largely on Latin, having a grounding in that language gives one a deeper insight into English and a much greater ability to read and write it. It is no surprise that a large proportion of the greatest orators in the English language had a solid grounding in Latin. It helps one master the often complicated jargon of law, theology, medicine, and other fields. If one wants to learn Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese, having a Latin background makes the task much easier. Studies have shown that students who study Latin have higher SAT scores and, upon entering college, higher GPAs than students with no background in Latin.

Tracy Lee Simmons, the author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin (a book everyone should read), had this to say:

Composing in the language of Cicero and Seneca, once again, can transform the way we use our own language. Writing in Latin especially spurs us to speak and write in complete sentences containing complete thoughts; a complete sentence is a complete thought. Here is a gain none too small these days when we're beset with verbal clutter and half-baked notions parading as serious thinking. Latin composition encourages us to structure the things that we have to say before we say them. It teaches us to communicate efficiently and well with finely tuned clauses and well-considered words. The practice of Latin composition helps to eradicate loose thinking and feeling. We learn to be responsible both for the words we use and the thoughts we broadcast to the world. 

Living as we do in an age of vacuous and sophistic language, filled with irony and deception rather than clarity and dignity, a firm grounding in Latin among our young people would work wonders. Just as importantly, even a passing knowledge of Latin allows a person to dip their mind into the thick layer of Ancient Rome that underlies almost everything about our civilization. Our legal system, our political ideas, our art and architecture, our notions of the rights and responsibilities of members of a society, have been carried down to us through the centuries from the Romans. The deluded modernist and postmodernist "philosophers" can argue the point, but whatever we are in the present is merely the summation of the past. The foundation of Western civilization is Rome, and Latin was the language of Rome. By learning Latin, we are reaching out towards our own past.

Beyond all this, though, is the basic fact that learning Latin is the best way to train the mind, allowing a person to develop the mental framework necessary to acquire any other skill or form of knowledge. It takes years of discipline to master anything worth mastering, whether it is martial arts or French cookery or chess. Working with middle school students, I would say the thing which alarms me most about them is their assumption that their future life is going to be easy and things will come to them with a minimum effort. If students were forced to learn something that was unusually difficult, it would instill in them an understanding that they are going to have to struggle for what they want in life.

The men of the Founding generation were schooled in translating Latin works into English and then back into Latin, over and over again. It was an exercise that trained the mind precisely as a fit person trains his or her body with countless hours of cardiovascular or aerobic work at the gym. Little wonder that they possessed a mental toughness infinitely superior to that of our own generation.

One does not need to be a cynic to realize that America is in decline in our time. There are many reasons for this, but it's no surprise to me that this decline has moved in lockstep with the general disappearance of Latin education in our public schools. As already stated, most of the Founding Fathers received classical educations largely based on Latin. A century ago, half of American high school students still received Latin instruction. Today, it's uncommon for high schools to even have Latin as an elective option and only a few thousand students nationwide take the AP Latin Literature exam. I believe that the decline of Latin in American education has been a contributing cause to the overall national decline we are seeing in our age.

There remains a devoted movement supporting classical education, both in terms of home schooling and private schools and in terms of reintroducing it as a major component to public education. I support this movement wholeheartedly, for I believe that a renaissance of classical education in our school systems is one of the prerequisites to a revitalization of America. Ideally, every American student should get serious exposure to Latin beginning as early as possible in their education.

And once all the children of America have Latin pretty well figured out, then we can get started on Greek.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

An Appeal To Heaven

When George Washington took command of the Continental Army outside of Boston in the summer of 1775, he had to deal with a multitude of problems. He had to instill discipline in a rowdy group of soldiers, appoint officers, implement standards for camp hygiene, find supplies of gunpowder, and ensure a supply of food and other supplies. As he nearly drowned in a sea of details, actually fighting the British army seemed to be very far down the list of priorities.

Among the issues requiring Washington attention was the matter of flags. In particular, flags for warships. In October of 1775, Washington had commissioned six small ships and set them loose to prey on British shipping, hoping to interdict the supplies and reinforcements coming in to the British in Boston. Under maritime law, a commerce raider had to represent a legitimate authority, else the men sailing in it could be hanged as pirates. The ships would be sailing under the authority of the Continental Congress, but required a flag with which to identify themselves. Washington gave the assignment to Joseph Reed, a Pennsylvania politician who was serving as one of Washington's aides-de-camp.

Reed came up with what became known as the Pine Tree Flag, with a white background, a pine tree in the center (pine trees being a symbol of liberty, especially in New England), with the words "An Appeal To Heaven" emblazoned across the top.

The Pine Tree Flag became one of the most famous banners carried by the Patriot forces during the Revolutionary War.

The phrase "Appeal to Heaven" comes from John Locke's Two Treatises of Government, published in 1689. The fact that the phrase was reproduced on a flag intended for widespread use demonstrates how much more intellectually sophisticated the politics of the late 18th Century were when compared to the politics of our own time. In Locke's formulation, government existed only for the purpose of protecting the rights of the people to life, liberty, and property, which cannot be sufficiently protected by individuals living in a state of nature. Government is, at best, a necessary evil. There exists a social contract between the people and their government, whether it was a republic, a monarchy, or whatever else, by which the government is obligated to protect the rights of the people. If the government turns against the people and attempts to use its power to destroy their liberties, the people have the right - indeed, the obligation - to revolt against the government. In other words, to "appeal to heaven."

The Patriots in the Revolutionary War certainly saw themselves as "appealing to heaven" in rebelling against British rule. One can read the Declaration of Independence, as well as the countless other proclamations and pamphlets published during those amazing years, and see how deeply the ideas of Locke suffused the political thought of the time. Because the British government had taxed them without their consent, sent standing armies to enforce unconstitutional laws, refused to consider their petitions for redress, and committed a whole host of other acts of oppression, the revolutionaries believed they had every right under natural law to revolt against Britain.

The important thing to bear in mind with the idea of the Appeal to Heaven is that, under natural law, it can be resorted to only when the people have no other possible choice. After all, the social contract works both ways. The people are obligated to recognize the legitimacy and authority of the government unless it is attempting to establish genuinely despotic rule. The Patriots repeatedly petitioned the British government to change its course, only to be ignored. They spent ten years trying to protect their rights through legal and nonviolent means, only to see such efforts fail. They resorted to outright rebellion only when they had no other choice.

I am thinking about this today because of some troubling and dangerous rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail here in the United States. The 2016 election has already been the biggest political train wreck I have seen in my life, with the image of American democracy being severely tarnished. But amid all the mudslinging, lying, and outright sleaze fed to us by the two most unpopular candidates in history, one thing has stood out to me as particularly disturbing: Donald Trump's assertion that the election was going to be "rigged" against him and that he might not accept the results of the voters. In other words, if he loses the election (which, as I type this blog entry, seems all but certain) it will only be because the election was unfairly stolen from him.

Now, I believe that the American electoral system is deeply flawed and in need of fundamental reforms. In the lead-up to this election, I've written about the need for ranked choice voting, the abolition of gerrymandering, and a national popular vote for President. But that kind of stuff is not what Trump is talking about. He complains about the media spreading stories about him, as if they have never done such a thing to a presidential candidate before. He also makes vague and unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud in minority communities, though he strangely doesn't bother reporting any concerns to the state or municipal authorities in charge of elections. Trump has publicly said that he will only accept the election result as legitimate if he wins. I would expect words like that to come out of the mouth of men like Hugo Chavez or Robert Mugabe, but I would never have expected them to come out of the mouth of an American politician.

Trump's base of millions of loyal supporters, or at least a large chunk of it, is apparently eating up what he's saying. At Trump campaign rallies, many supporters have vocalized their desire to see a "rebellion" or "revolution" in the event that Hillary Clinton is declared the winner. Some have even said outright that there will be violence and bloodshed. On October 11, a Trump supporter at a rally told the vice presidential nominee Mike Pence that she was "ready for a revolution" if Clinton wins, with the rest of the crowd applauding warmly (Pence, to his credit, told her that such comments were unacceptable). Since then, such comments have become par for the course at Trump events all over the country.

This is no laughing matter, nor can it be dismissed as the ravings of a few unstable individuals. The American people are more politically polarized today than at any time since the Civil War. With Mr. Trump saying and tweeting almost hourly his contention that the election will be "rigged" the legitimacy of the entire American political system is being cast in question. More than two centuries of established political tradition require the loser in an election to concede that he lost and not contest the assumption of office by the victor. This tradition is one of the bulwarks of our democracy, not unlike the British's monarch's refusal to intervene in political matters is a bulwark of British democracy.

In 1800, President John Adams, a Federalist, lost his bid for reelection to Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, it marked the first time that one political party was required to hand over power to another political party. It was a fateful moment in American history and represented a test that far too many nations have since failed to pass. How many nations in Latin America or Africa have secured independence from the European empires, only to become authoritarian one-party states when the defeated parties in early elections refused to recognize their validity? The fact that John Adams accepted the will of the people and handed over power was one of the man's man gifts to America. The grouchy old crank did refuse to attend Jefferson's inauguration, but the idea that he would refuse to accept the result of the election never seems to have entered his mind.

There is an enormous distinction between living under a tyranny that might require an "Appeal to Heaven" and simply losing an election, which many Americans today do not seem to recognize. I am not myself a supporter of Hillary Clinton, but if she wins the election, she will be the next President of the United States. It's as simple as that and Donald Trump and his supporters will need to accept it, just as Democrats would need to accept the inauguration of Trump in the (now unlikely) event that he wins the election. If one of the two major political factions starts refusing to recognize the validity of election outcomes, our entire political structure will buckle and eventually collapse.

There are occasions in history where circumstances are so desperate that an Appeal to Heaven is necessary, but only as an absolute last resort. Simply losing an election to a candidate that you don't like is not one of those occasions. Talking as though it might be is not only irresponsible, but downright dangerous.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

What If Czarevitch Alexei Had Not Had Hemophilia?

Like many other people who have been fascinated by the tragic story of Czar Nicolas II of Russia and his family, I first encountered it by reading the beautifully written book Nicolas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie (one of the best popular history writers in the business). The tale of the decline and fall of the Russian Empire infuses the pages of the book. It is a deep, rich, and fascinating story, one of those historical tales that seems more like a work of epic fiction than a telling of truth. I strongly recommend the book to everyone.

The tragedy of Czar Nicolas II lay not only in his own character flaws - his indecisiveness, his lack of confidence, his dependence on others - but also on the sad tale of his son, Alexei, who was supposed to have been his heir. Czarevitch Alexei suffered from hemophilia, the genetic disorder that prevents the normal clotting of blood and hence can cause a sufferer to bleed to death from injuries that might be trivial to most people. Alexei's hemophilia was the cause of a series of events that contributed to the fall of the Russian Empire, the outcome of the First World War, the rise of the Soviet Union, and much of the history of the world for the remainder of the 20th Century.

Let me briefly recount the sad story from the beginning. Czar Nicolas II took the Russian throne in 1896 upon the death of his father, Czar Alexander III. He was the head of the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled the vast Russian Empire since the enthronement of Czar Michael I in 1613. Among the Romanov rulers were Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, both of whom had massively expanded Russian territory and power, making it one of the great powers of the world. When Nicolas II became Czar, the Russian Empire was the largest nation on the planet and one of the most powerful. Of the great powers, it was the only one which essentially remained an absolute monarchy.

The reign of Czar Nicholas II did not begin well. At celebrations marking the coronation at Khodynka Field in Moscow, a stampede took place and, in the resulting panic, more than a thousand people were trampled to death. This was not an auspicious beginning and unfortunately things only got worse. In 1904-05 a disastrous war was fought against Japan in the east, culminating in the destruction of the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima Strait. Revolution broke out in 1905, with a general strike paralyzing the country and elements of the military mutinying. The Czar was forced to make concessions, resulting in the creation of a legislative assembly called the Duma, the issuance of the October Manifesto, and the appointment of Sergei Witte as Prime Minister. All of this ostensibly put Russia on the path towards being a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy.

Through all this turmoil, Nicolas II took comfort in his family. He was deeply in love with his wife Alexandra and was a devoted father to his four daughters and his one son, Czarevitch Alexei. All the hopes of the Romanov dynasty were placed in Alexei, who had been born in 1904. It soon became clear, however, that something was seriously wrong with the child and within a short time the Czar's doctors had diagnosed hemophilia. Alexei had inherited the genetic disorder from his mother, who had inherited it from her mother Princess Alice of the United Kingdom, who had in turn inherited it from her mother, Queen Victoria. Nicolas and Alexandra were horrified and put an extensive series of procedures in place to prevent Alexei from hurting himself, since even a minor injury might prove life-threatening. The hopes for the future of the Romanov dynasty and the Russian Empire now seemed to rest on the slender thread of a single boy who might be killed by something as minor as a bruise.

In the fall of 1912, Alexei bumped himself badly while jumping into a rowboat and the hemophilia flared up badly. The situation appeared so grave that the little young was given the last sacraments and his parents prepared themselves for his death. It was at this point that the cryptic, sinister, and thoroughly corrosive influence of Rasputin entered the royal family's life in a major way,

Rasputin is one of those historical figures who seems to step out of a work of fiction into reality. In his case, the fictional work would surely be a Gothic horror novel. Near as can be pieced together, he was born in the 1860s in a small Siberian town. He was known in his youth as a thief and a troublemaker, so much so that the local priests would pay him money to keep him from disturbing Sunday church services. Later on, he claimed to receive visions from God and made a name for himself as a wandering holy man and religious teacher, though he was never recognized as a monk of cleric by any legitimate religious authority. He spent years moving back and forth between various Russian villages, using his mastery of charlatanism to deceive the gullible and live off what he could swindle from them.

Strange holy men of this type were strangely popular in Russia during this period. Word of Rasputin's alleged powers eventually reached Anna Vyrubova, a personal friend of Czarina Alexandra, who in turn introduced her to the Czarina herself. A strange chain of events had brought the peasant charlatan into the company of the autocratic ruling family of Russia.

Rasputin settled in St. Petersburg, where he soon became a favorite among fashionable members of the noble elite, who trotted him out at parties as if he was some sort of mascot. He soon became far more than a joke, however, as his reputation as a mystic spread rapidly through the influential circles of high Russian society. Women, in particular, found Rasputin fascinating and he was said to have bedded numerous aristocratic ladies, despite his own repulsive physical appearance. Rasputin practiced a strange form of personal theology, which required him to sin intensively before he could be properly purged of sin. In particular, his sinful sexual nature required him to have sex with as many beautiful women as possible. An interesting theology, to say the least.

Rasputin soon developed a powerful influence over the Czar and Czarina, for it seemed that he was the only one who could calm Alexei during the Czarevitch's frequent painful battles with his condition and Czarina Alexandra in particular quickly became absolutely devoted to Rapustin, willing to defend him from all critics. When the 1912 accident happened and it seemed all but certain that Alexei was about to die, Rasputin sent the Imperial family a telegram simply saying that Alexei would not die and that the doctors should not bother him. The Czarevitch then began what seemed to be a miraculous recovery. It seems that this coincidence helped persuade both Nicholas and Alexandra that Rasputin was indeed a miracle worker and, moreover, the only person who could help Alexei.

Rasputin, an uneducated and illiterate man who was obviously half-crazed, now wielded enormous influence over the Imperial family that ruled Russia. At the same time, aristocratic society in St. Petersburg began to turn against Rasputin, tired of his antics and jealous of the power he now held. He continued to have some supporters, however, consisting mostly among people wishing to flatter him as a means of gaining the ear of the Czar. Rasputin began lobbying with Nicholas and Alexandra on behalf of his friends and against the interests of his enemies, to the detriment of the nation. The Russian people, from whom the Imperial family had been largely isolated since the 1905 Revolution, were mystified as to why the Czar and Czarina took counsel from a man like Rasputin while the country seemed to be careening from one crisis to the next. Critically, Alexandra was prompted by Rasputin to pressure her husband into resisting any and all moves in the direction of constitutional reform, for the mystic perhaps sensed that anything less than an absolute autocracy in Russia would mean the end of his own influence.

In the midst of all this, the diplomatic crisis over the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in the summer of 1914 exploded into the catastrophe of the First World War. The Russian Empire soon found itself at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, a conflict for which it was distinctly unprepared. Its armies, while enormous, were poorly armed and poorly equipped. A few generals demonstrated significant talent, such as Aleksei Brusilov and Nikolai Yudenich, but most Russian commanders were distinctly mediocre. The Russian soldiers fought with their traditional stubbornness and tenacity, but suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the Central Powers.

In this unprecedented crisis, Russia needed a leader the caliber of Peter the Great. Instead, it had Nicholas II, who might be properly known as Nicholas the Easily Manipulated. Rasputin began making suggestions about war policy and personnel, advice which Nicholas often heeded. It seems clear that Rasputin had a much stronger hold on the mind of Alexandra than he did on the mind of the Czar himself, but since Nicholas could never bear to go against the wishes of his wife, it amounted to the same thing.

The most critical, and disastrous, bit of advice that Rasputin gave the Imperial family was that Czar Nicholas himself should take direct command of the Russian armies. This he did in September of 1915. As far as military matters were concerned, this mattered scarcely as all, since Nicholas left actual operations to his chief-of-staff, General Michael Alexeiev, and limited his activities to the ceremonial activities expected of a monarch, such as grand inspections. But the Czar made his home at the front, away from St. Petersburg, placing the Czarina in effective control of the government. Since the Czarina was utterly under the spell of Rasputin, the illiterate charlatan was now, for all practical purposes, in control of the Russian government.

It was soon common knowledge that Rasputin was in charge, with predictable results. If a mother wanted a military exemption for her son, she went to Rasputin. If a contractor wanted a deal to sell the Russian army substandard artillery shells at twice the going rate, he went to Rasputin. If a civil servant wanted a promotion, he went to Rasputin. Because Rasputin's whispers into the ear of the Czarina helped advance the careers of whomever was willing to pay him the most, money from bribes flowed into Rasputin's pockets and financed his increasingly bizarre and wild lifestyle, which apparently included frequent sexual orgies and other associated debaucheries. He also began pestering the Czarina with military advice for her husband, which she dutifully sent on in letter after letter.

The Russian Orthodox Church and most members of the nobility were horrified by Rasputin's activities and repeatedly told the Czar that the man was dangerous and not to be trusted. Nicholas simply ignored their warnings, unwilling to go against the wishes of his wife and perhaps falling more under Rasputin's spell himself. The man seemed untouchable. During an excursion to a restaurant in 1915, Rasputin became extremely drunk and began to loudly brag about his sexual exploits, hinting that he was the lover of the Czarina herself. He then exposed himself and waved his genitals around at the other patrons of the restaurant, causing a massive panic and a dash for the exits. The police finally arrived and arrested Rasputin, whose insulting words about the Romanov family would have gotten anyone else packed off to prison, if not worse. But shortly after his arrest, a message from the Czar arrived, ordering his release.

Government ministers and military officers who cared about the future of the Russian nation were, unsurprisingly, appalled at the extent of Rasputin's influence and its disastrous consequences. They soon found themselves being removed from their positions and replaced with inept sycophants who got their posts through flattering the charlatan. The Russian government fell into chaos, as unqualified men with no interest in actually doing the job were placed in charge of a tottering empire just as it was fighting the most terrible war the world had ever known.

As 1916 wore on, things went from bad to worse for Russia. The success of the Brusilov Offensive in the summer proved only temporary. The competent Minister of War, Alexei Polivanov, under whose leadership the logistics and staff work of the Russian Army had begun to improve, was removed from his position at the insistence of Rasputin and replaced with one of the charlatan's flunkies. Government began to collapse within the country even as the army became increasingly unable to function. Morale among the troops fell sharply and people in the cities and on the farms began openly denouncing the Romanov family. It was even suggested the Czarina Alexandra was a German agent, bent on destroying the country from within.

In December of 1916, Rasputin was assassinated by a conspiracy of noblemen led by Felix Yusupov. It wasn't easy, for the man had to be poisoned, shot, stabbed, beaten, and then simultaneously frozen and drowned in the Neva River before he died. By then, sadly, it was too late. The Russian government had been inefficient and corrupt before the war; Rasputin's activities had damaged it beyond all possibility of repair. Nicholas II, confused and demoralized himself, utterly lacked the ability or confidence to restore the situation. He continued to refuse to appoint competent ministers to critical government positions. Throughout the country, food shortages increased. At the front, the soldiers were being asked to go into battle with pathetically little in terms of weapons or equipment.

In February, revolution broke out in the streets of St. Petersburg, the Russian people having finally become unwilling to endure further leadership by the Romanovs. True to form, the Czar showed no backbone and quickly abdicated the throne. Russia fell into complete and utter chaos and different factions vied with one another to fill the power vacuum. The Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky took control and attempted to continue the war against the Germans, but was itself overthrown a few months later by the Bolsheviks, who made a humiliating peace with them. The Imperial family was taken into custody by the Bolsheviks and later executed. The long-suffering Russian people had to endure a long and bloody civil war, which ended with the Bolsheviks in full control of the country. Ahead of Russia was the nightmarish experience of Stalinism.

It is worth asking whether anything like this would have happened had not little Alexei simply not inherited the gene that caused hemophilia. The son of a female carrying the gene causing hemophilia in the X-chromosome has a fifty percent chance of inheriting the gene in question, so when Alexei was conceived he was just as likely to avoid the condition as not. Had the boy not suffered from hemophilia, Rasputin would never have come to the attention of the Romanov family, since it was his apparent ability to relieve the Czarivitch's pain (which might have been entirely due to chance) that allowed the Siberian charlatan to enter the family's good graces in the first place. Take away the hemophilia of Alexei, which was due entirely to an unfortunate case of genetic chance, and Rasputin is essentially removed from the scene of history.

Russia entered the First World War with a number of problems that prevented it from fully developing its war economy or organizing a truly efficient military force. These problems would still have existed had Rasputin never entered the scene. But his corrosive influence exacerbated those problems enormously and played a crucial role in Russia's collapse in 1917. Had Rasputin never become more than a wandering mystic, the Russian government might have gone through the war with ministers who actually knew their jobs and wanted to perform them to the best of their ability, and an army whose commanders were confident in the civilian leadership and whose soldiers were properly armed and equipped.

It should be pointed out that, even facing the severe limitations and disadvantages caused largely by Rasputin's meddling, the Russian armies fought against the Central Powers for three long years. They did not fare well against the Germans, but they did well enough against the Austro-Hungarians and the Turks. Indeed, before the revolution of 1917 caused the Russian army to disintegrate, the Russians had all but knocked Austria-Hungary out of the war and had soundly trounced the Turks in on the Caucasus Front. Had they been properly led and equipped, confident that the country was behind them, they would have done considerably better. This does not necessarily mean that they would have defeated the Germans, which they probably lacked the ability to do even under the best circumstances, but had not done better than they actually did, the Germans would not have been able to deploy their forces so freely on the Western Front and the subsidiary fronts to the south.

If Russia had performed better in the war between 1915 and 1917, it's entirely possible that Germany and the rest of the Central Powers would have been defeated and forced to the peace table a year or more earlier than was the case historically. Aside from the millions of lives this would have saved, it would also have had enormous geopolitical ramifications, especially if it resulted in an Allied victory that did not involve intervene by the United States. There would have been no breaking of the American isolationist tradition and no League of Nations, with its false promise of a peaceful, internationalist world. The long-term impact on Trans-Atlantic relations can hardly be underestimated.

Germany actually won the First World War on the Eastern Front, then went on to loss it on the Western Front. This fact played into the sinister "stab in the back" conspiracy theory in postwar Germany, which blamed the German defeat on Jews and communists. Had Russia remained a full partner with the rest of the Allies and played a significant role in Germany's defeat, it would mean that the loss of war would have been crystal clear to every German and the "stab in the back" notion would have had much less traction. It is at least possible that the rise of fascism within Germany could have been prevented in such a scenario.

Within Russia itself, without Rasputin, the Romanov monarchy might have survived. Indeed, victory in the war against the Germans might have increased its prestige among the people. Throughout the reign of Nicholas II, political and social changes in the country were quickly accelerating, especially after the 1905 Revolution. Might the Duma have slowly increased its power over the course of the 20th Century, becoming to Russia what Parliament had slowly become in England, with Russia evolving into a genuine constitutional monarchy? Or would the Romanovs have insisted on staying true to the autocratic ways of their ancestors? It's impossible to know, but considering the frenetic nightmare of the Russian Civil War, the bloodstained rule of Stalin, the long shadow of Communism, and the present autocratic regime of Vladimir Putin, I think I'm on safe ground in saying that things would have been better than they actually turned out to be.

Whatever would have happened, without the hemophilia of Alexei, Rasputin would never have been able to inadvertently pave the way for the rise of the Soviet Union. This, in turn, means that communism would never have been a credible political and economic force in the 20th Century world but would have remained a fringe belief held only by extremists. Communism earned its place alongside fascism as one of the most sinister political ideologies to have ever plagued the world. When thinking of the terrible human cost exacted by communism in Russia, China and the rest of Asia, Africa, and Latin America during the course of the 20th Century, one cannot help but sigh at what might have been had that single gene in the embryo of Alexis Romanov been different.

To conclude, though, perhaps it's fitting to consider the little boy himself. Alexei Romanov was, by all accounts, a friendly and affectionate little fellow, who liked to play pranks on dinner guests and was very sensitive to the feelings of others. One wonders what he might have been like had he been able to grow to adulthood. In the end, it was the heartless Bolsheviks who killed Alexei, though the hemophilia would likely have done the poor boy in well before his time.

For just a moment, allow yourself to imagine a Russian Empire in the mid-20th Century, with Czar Alexander IV on the throne in St. Petersburg, the Duma debating new legislation and an independent court system passing judgement on the actions of the monarch and the legislature. Europe is at peace. No one in this world has ever heard of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, who died in obscurity. The words "fascism" and "communism" are greeted with uncomprehending frowns.

And it might have been, but for a single genetic trait in one very unfortunate boy.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Reflections On a Bowl of Black Eyed Peas

Recently, I sat down with my wife and two daughters to a nice dinner around the kitchen table. Amelia, all of four months old, can't eat the food the rest of us are eating but we bring her to the table anyway. Evelyn, a precocious girl of three-and-a-half years, would prefer to simply stuff her face and then run back to her room to continue playing with her princess dolls, but her mother and I put our feet down and make her stay in her chair so that we can eat together as a family. We plan on continuing to eat dinner together as a family until the day the youngest daughter leaves the house.

This dinner was special, though. The black eyed peas we were eating had not come from a can, nor had they come from the bulk food section. Indeed, they had not come from a grocery store at all. Instead, they had come from a garden that we had planted in our own backyard. All told, the entire "harvest" of peas might have been able to fill up three-quarters of a cup. They tasted fine, though not spectacular. None of that mattered, though. What was exhilarating for us was that, for the first time in our lives, we were eating food that we had grown ourselves.

Being Jeffrey Evan Brooks, I looked to history for an explanation as to why I found this experience so fulfilling. Two epochs of history that I have always found especially attractive are the age of the Roman Republic and the colonial and revolutionary era of American history. Both have deep lessons for us in the 21st Century, when we are watching our individual freedom and our vibrancy as a civilization slowly fade away. In both the Roman Republic and Early America, ordinary people perhaps had a higher level of individual freedom and civic virtue than has ever been the case at other points in history. The fundamental reason for this was that the vast majority of the people were self-sufficient farmers who owned their own land.

In our time, average American citizens depend on a complex network of agribusiness mega-farms, transportation networks, and grocery stores or restaurants to provide them with food. If anything were to happen to disrupt this system, whether intentionally or through an accident, we would suddenly find ourselves without food. We depend on this complex system for our very lives. Self-sufficient farmers in the Roman Republic or Early America didn't have this problem. Owning and cultivating their own land, they could provide themselves with food through their own efforts.

In a 1785 letter to John Jay, Thomas Jefferson had this to say.

Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to the country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands. As long therefore as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, the only book he ever wrote, Jefferson expounded on this idea.

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which might otherwise escape from the face of the earth.

In the Jeffersonian vision, America was going to a nation of independent yeoman farmers, who owned and cultivated their own land. Necessities such as furniture and cooking implements would be manufactured on the farms themselves. Luxuries such as the books, musical instruments, and fine wines Jefferson loved so much could be purchased using the profits from the sale of surplus crops. There would be an efficient and locally-run system of public education, and a well-organized militia system would provide for defense. The foundation of it all was the self-sufficiency and civic virtue that Jefferson naturally believed was instilled by the experience of being tied to the land.

The view that Jefferson and many other Founding Fathers held about the virtuous family farmer had been inherited from the Roman Republic. To the Romans before the 1st Century BC, the freeholder who owned and farmed his own land was the ideal citizen. It was the freeholders who filled the ranks of the Roman legions that held off Rome's enemies in the days when the Republic was young and vulnerable, then went on to conquer the whole of Italy. Cato the Elder, a historical figure of whom I have always been quite fond, said that the best compliment a Roman could give another Roman was that he was a good farmer. The poor man who scratched out a living in the slums of the city itself could not be trusted to have the commonweal's interests at heart, for he would not have identified himself with it.

This ideal was personified most clearly in the person of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. A well-respected freeholder, he worked his own farm with his family, served the state as a soldier and senator, and tried to cultivate a life of virtue. In 458 BC, when Rome was threatened by a coalition of its Aequi and Sabine enemies, Cincinnatus was called upon to serve the Republic as dictator, given absolute power for a period of six months. He took command of the army, defeated Rome's enemies, and then quietly went back to his farm and resumed his work. About twenty years later, Cincinnatus was made dictator again to put down a domestic conspiracy that threatened to overthrow the Republic. As before, the moment he had achieved what he had been asked to do, he laid down the mantle of dictator and went back to his plow.

The system of freeholder farms in the Roman Republic gradually dissipated over the centuries. Wars of conquest throughout the Mediterranean, especially those against its great enemy Carthage, brought enormous numbers of slaves into Italy. The wars pulled freeholders away from their farms and into the ranks of the legions for years at a time. Wealthy nobles were able to purchase more and more land, creating enormous agricultural estates called latifundia, worked by slave labor, which easily outproduced the decreasing number of smaller farms. Rome's population swelled as displaced farmers moved into the city in search of work. Much of the political disorder that caused the collapse of the Republic in the 1st Century BC can be attributed to the demise of the small farm and the rise of the latifundia, for it was the discontent of the masses and the decline of civic virtue that swept away what had once been the Republic's foundation.

Was this process all that different than what we have seen in America over the last hundred years, with small family farms vanishing and being replaced with agribusinesses run by large companies and corporations?

The simple civic virtue of the freeholders of the Roman Republic was what the Jeffersonians hoped to see take root in the United States. Although we must acknowledge that the Jeffersonian vision probably never had a chance of being fully realized, we certainly could have done vastly better than we have ended up doing. The seemingly irrevocable decline of the family farm is one of the saddest stories of the last century of our history and only about two percent of Americans are farmers today. Small family farms now account for only about a quarter of American agricultural output. The vast majority of people in our country never set eyes upon the land which produced their food and scarcely give it any thought. The decline of the American farmer is matched by the decline of the food itself. There's more of it than ever, but it's generally processed junk, suffused with chemicals, more created than grown. Today, we are stuffing our faces with fast food, potato chips, frozen pizza, and other stuff that could only marginally be described as food. This has not only contributed an out-of-control obesity epidemic, but has removed the wholesome relationship the American people once had with their food, as if by brain surgery.

I'm as guilty as any American when it comes to lacking a real connection with the land and with the food it produces. What, after all, is a single bowl of home-grown black eyed peas when set against the amount of fast food and frozen pizza I have consumed over the last year? Yet as a symbol, these black eyed peas mean a lot to me. They were sort of a test run for the family and, now that they have been a success, we are cultivating a much more extensive garden. Ideally, we will be slowly increasing the amount of food we produce ourselves, season after season. I'm under no illusions that we can fully free ourselves from the prevalent American system of food production and consumption, but every bite of food that we produce ourselves is a step closer to our personal realization of the Jeffersonian dream.

Many people have figured this out long before I did. Farmers whose land has been in their families for generations continue to tenaciously hold onto it against the odds, while city folk with no previous agricultural experience abandon their urban environments to try their luck on a tractor. Old school farmers' markets are increasingly popular throughout the country. Stores and restaurants proudly declare that they "buy local" in appeals to their customers, creating a genuine communal relationship between the people and they food they consume they consume.

My family may be a little late getting on this bandwagon, but now that we are on we don't intend to get off.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

President Should Be Chosen By Direct National Vote

It being a presidential election year, pretty much all that the news media is talking about is the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It's long been a tradition for the news coverage of the campaign to completely ignore any of the genuinely important issues facing the nation and instead focus on nasty personal insults and scandals each side tries to pin on the other. In this regard, the current campaign differs from those of the past only in unprecedented scale of the slime and the unprecedentedly unorthodox campaign style of one of the Republican candidate.

There is one way, however, in which the 2016 election will be no different from those of the past. The winner will be decided by the anachronistic monstrosity that is the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is the 18th Century system worked out by the members of the Constitutional Convention to select the President. As readers of my blog well know, I stand in awe of the men who wrote the Constitution, which I consider perhaps the greatest intellectual achievement in the history of the human race. But that doesn't mean that they were infallible, for they made a number of mistakes while crafting the document. Of all their errors, however, I think the most egregious one which remains uncorrected is the Electoral College, whose undemocratic structure is a blight upon American democracy that must be erased.

Under the Electoral College system, each state receives a number of electoral votes equal to the number of representatives they have in both houses of Congress (since every state has two members of the Senate, this always comes out to the number of representatives they have in the House, plus two). However, because all but two states cast their votes on a winner-take-all basis, the candidate who actually gets the most votes in the nation as a whole does not necessarily win the election, for he or she might win several states by large margins and narrowly lose certain critical states, all of whose electoral votes will go to the other candidate.

We saw this clearly in the 2000 election. Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote handily, getting half a million more votes than Republican George W. Bush. But because of an infinitesimal Bush victory in the state of Florida (itself the dubious result of an intervention by the Supreme Court), Bush received that state's electoral votes, which was just enough to allow him to win the Electoral College and thus to become the President. Whether Al Gore would have been a better President than George W. Bush turned out to be is, of course, open to question, but the fact remains that the candidate who was the clear choice of the American people was not the one who actually ascended to the office.

On four occasions in American history (1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000), the candidate who received the largest number of popular votes lost the Electoral College. In other words, in about one out of every fourteen elections, the candidate who receives fewer votes actually becomes President. On five other occasions (1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, and 2004) a shift of a relatively tiny number of voters would have handed the victory to the candidate who would still have lost the popular vote. Those who say that the Electoral College is not a problem because it usually reflects the popular will have not read their history books.

Another major problem with the Electoral College is that it gives an individual voter in a smaller state a disproportionately larger influence on the outcome of the election than an individual voter in a large state. This violates the fundamental one-person-one-vote principle that should be at the heart of any representative republic. For example, Wyoming has about 570,000 and three electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 190,000 people. California, by contrast, has 37,500,000 people and 55 electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 680,000 people or thereabouts. Doing the basic math, we can see that a voter in Wyoming has nearly four times the influence on the outcome of the presidential election as does a voter in California. This goes against the principle of "one-man-one-vote", which is one of the foundations of our republic. It's not fair, it's not democratic, and it shouldn't be tolerated.

These two problems would be sufficient by themselves to justify eliminating the Electoral College. But there are many other problems with it as well. One is that it causes presidential candidates to focus all their attention on a small number of "swing states", which are go conceivably go either way in the election, at the expense of those states which are considered reliably Republican or Democratic. As a result, the powers-that-be pay attention to the things that matter to voters in states like Ohio or Florida, while voters in Texas and New York are out of luck.

Consider this. There are roughly the same number of Cuban-Americans in the United States as Vietnamese-Americans. However, the issues important to the Cuban-American community get huge amounts of political attention, while the issues important to Vietnamese-Americans are largely ignored. Why is this? Well, Cuban-Americans tend to live in Florida, a key swing state, whereas Vietnamese-Americans tend to live in California and Texas, which are not swing states. Neither community is inherently more important than the other, but the Electoral College creates an artificial importance for one over the other.

Even in swing states, attention is disproportionately focused on the larger ones, as they have more electoral votes. A farmer in Iowa (which has six electoral votes) or a convenience store owner in New Hampshire (which has four electoral votes) are not seen as important as a mechanic in Florida (which has twenty-nine electoral votes) or a contractor in Virginia (which has thirteen electoral votes).

The Electoral College also effectively disenfranchises millions of voters in every presidential election. Because nearly all the states use a winner-take-all system to allocate their electoral votes, it means the losing side in any given state may as well have not cast a ballot for president. A Republican in New York or a Democrat in Texas effectively has no say in who is elected President, and this goes against the ideals of a representative republic.

The Electoral College is an outmoded and obsolete piece of constitutional machinery. Whatever justifications the Founders might have had when they wrote the system into the Constitution in 1787 have long since faded away and the system should today be done away with. This could be achieved by a constitutional amendment, which would be very difficult. But because the Constitution allows the individual states to decide for themselves how to allocate electoral votes, it can also be achieved more quickly and with greater ease by individual action by the various state legislatures.

The National Popular Vote movement provides a surprisingly easy way out of this morass. Legislation is being enacted by individual states, whereby their electoral votes shall go to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of the outcome in the individual state, with the legislation taking effect as soon as the number of states equivalent to the winning number of electoral votes have enacted identical legislation. Several states have already passed the necessary legislation, and bills are advancing through the legislative process in most of the other states. But progress is painfully slow and needs to accelerate. There's nothing keeping you from picking up your phone right now and calling your state representative's local office to advocate for it, by the way.

The President of the United States should be chosen directly by the people. Every individual citizen should have an equal say in who becomes the chief executive. It doesn't matter whether it is by constitutional amendment or through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, but it needs to happen if America is to live up to its ideals of democracy.