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So, Delmer Berg is dead.

I didn't actually know about Delmer Berg until this week, until he died, but he was the last survivor of the Abraham Lincoln brigade, and his death means that a strange but relevant portion of American history has slipped from living memory.

It's strange to look back at the 1930s and think that, at that time, both fascism and communism were seen as possibly viable successors to democracy. It is strange to remember that Americans of that time, in the throes of the great depression, amid the labor struggles and the struggles for survival that characterized the United States during the mid-30s, were so alarmed by the spread of fascism that some of them chose to volunteer to fight against the fascists in Spain.

The Spanish Civil War was an odd time. In our age of cynicism it is odd to think that people saw these new ideas in statecraft as representative of a golden future yet to come. But the Spanish Civil War became the flashpoint for conflict, attracting people of all ideological stripes to all sides. It draw not only on eAmerican laborers and activists, but also on foreign fascists, news reporters, and foreign authors like Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. It saw the final death of European anarchism, and the collapse of the League of Nations. It was an accurate prelude to World War II, a clash between German and Italian troops on one side, and Soviets on the other, through the crush of Spanish auxiliaries.

The Abraham Lincoln brigade fought for the Spanish Republic, despite the lack of support from anywhere else in the world for the survival of what began as a liberal democratic republic. They were not only committed ideologues, but also wanderers, vagabonds, troublemakers, and adventurers. Equipped by the Soviet Union (and only barely), and facing an increasingly well-equipped Nationalist force, they fought in the heart in the war. They were exposed to the fire of their enemies, and to the pettiness, capriciousness, and vindictiveness of their erstwhile Communist leaders. Some grew disillusioned, some reaffirmed their dedication to international worker solidarity, while perhaps growing apart from Stalinism.

The journey of adventurism and ideology, followed by hopeless battle and eventual disillusionment has uncomfortable parallels to the journey many volunteers for IS now undertake. It is also an uncomfortable reminder to the American Left that once the dedication to workers was so strong that people were willing to journey across the ocean and fight for worker's solidarity. And it's a reminder that people of all stripes are so caught up in the way they view the world that they are willing to cross it and risk death in order to protect their worldview. Sometimes they may even be right.

I can't say what good or ill came out of the Abraham Lincoln brigade, but they overcame terrible burdens and fought for an ideal of solidarity that many of us would choose to applaud against an enemy all of us would choose to loathe. For that they deserve to be remembered.
danalwyn: (Default)
Questions that most Americans should know the answers to, but probably don't (those of you who don't live in the area can safely plead ignorance):
  • So, today's Cinco de Mayo which, to be honest, isn't that big a deal in Mexico. You should know, of course, that this is not Mexican Independence Day, which happens later in the year. It is, however, the commemoration of a famous battle. What battle is that?

  • It's pretty obvious that one side of the battle consisted of the Mexicans. Who were they fighting against?

  • What conflict was this part of, and what was the eventual outcome?

To be honest, it's probably not that important to know. I wouldn't know the answers to most of them if it didn't have something to do with the dissolution of the Hapsburgs (note - if this helps you answer the above questions, then you already know far too much) and I still got the battle's name wrong by making it masculine.

But seeing as how a great many Americans (United States Americans at least) will be taking this as an excuse to go out and drink beer and tequila until they have to be mopped off the floors, you think they would at least know something about the excuse they were using. Maybe they should require a quiz at the door to get you into the bar.

(As usual, Wikipedia has the answers to everything)
danalwyn: (Default)
One of the most widely discussed, and completely misunderstood, topic in history is the struggle between civilization and barbarianism. Really we're speaking about the historical battle between between older civilizations with large, robust economies and strong cultural heritage coming into conflict with younger civilizations with a militaristic bent. The younger civilization does not consist of barbarians as we think of them in popular culture; rather they tend to be would-be empires of their own. In a battle of cultural influence, in economic power, in trade or diplomacy, they cannot hope to match their older cousins. But they exploit one advantage; their toughness and experience, born of constant strife, makes them excellent warriors, and they use this to conquer their elders.

This has created a powerful political narrative, one that has been twisted from historical fact. It is convenient to indulge in the idea that the self-sufficient, hardship-enduring frontier warrior, far removed from book learning and education, and all those other fruits of self-indulgence that an adequate food supply brings, is superior on the battlefield. That the weak man of civilization, with his philosophy and abstract knowledge, is unable to stand up to the tide of the simple, uncomplicated barbarian warrior. This has become a philosophy of anti-progress; the idea that all these fruits of civilization, all these ancient and mighty cultures, are no match for a straight-forward frontier warrior fresh out of the wilds.

In the west, this is a philosophy dominated by Rome. To certain commentators, Rome was a glittering civilization toppled by unlettered barbarians from beyond the pale. Barbarians who, by their closeness to ancient ways, by their warrior culture and society, their martial bent versus the cultural and economic bent of Rome, were somehow more morally pure, and perhaps favored by the divine hand of history. The barbarians who overwhelmed the weakness of civilization.

I propose another example. A large, growing, vigorous young empire, deeply militaristic, filled with thousands of men who had known nothing but war all their days, and an unending stream of conquests, turned its eyes to the border regions, where farmers grew fat off land farmed by indentured workers who were essentially slaves, under the aegis of a far-off kingdom that was a stranger to war. Eventually the conflict between the two sparked into open warfare, armies marched across ill-defined borders, provinces larger then some countries were called to muster, and in the end, Ulundi was burned, the Zulus Empire was shattered, and the British Empire, barely having expended even a fraction of its strength, went right back to ignoring them.

Somewhere between Rome and the Zulu Wars, the world changed. Suddenly it was not enough to simply be familiar with war; you had to be able to afford to build the weapons, be able to build them, and be able to understand them. Suddenly all that book learning had direct application in the form of applied physical violence. And now, in an age where robotic warriors take the human element away from the battlefield, and the barbarian advantage is neutered by death via remote control, the barbarians are doomed; their sole advantage, the ability to conquer their neighbors, removed.

Boko Haram desperately wants to persuade us that they are not going to walk the path of the barbarians. Perhaps they have realized that time of the luddites, or going backward, of embracing ignorance, is over. But I think it's too late for them. Like some of the advocates of warrior culture in the US, their eagerness to rid themselves of the corrupted fruit of civilization is likely to squash the flow of information, independent thought, and creativity among their own population. They want to be more like the Zulus then the British.

Well, maybe spending more time in the dustbin of history will teach them something, but I don't intend to join them. Maybe some day the rest of the world will look in on how the barbarians are doing, but I doubt anybody will care.
danalwyn: (Default)
I've been neglecting this LJ for a while, ever since my schedule became hectic. This Indian thing is a bit crazy.

So, I thought, just because [livejournal.com profile] lookingforwater reminded me, and because I've been thinking about it, I would give here a tribute to a man whom many of those on the internet who claim to be "Flame warriors", capable of sending a n00b or an asshat fleeing for their internet lives, should look up to.

The Pen is still Mightier than the Sword )


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