Writing about history, politics, and climate

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How French Mexico Got an Austrian Emperor

The improbable, disastrous reign of a young archduke — and how it ended in madness and death

Maximilian in 1853, before he became emperor, in his Austrian uniform (Wikimedia Commons)

The nineteenth century was full of ridiculous European imperial schemes, but there may not be any quite as weird as the three years when a 30-year-old Austrian archduke ruled as the emperor of French Mexico between 1864 and 1867.

Like much of Latin America, Mexico had achieved independence from Spain in the 1820s. Also like many of its neighbors, after independence, it had not become quite as, well, independent as many Mexicans had hoped. The country found itself the target of various forms of imperialism. Some were direct — the United States seized California, Arizona, Texas, and other southwestern states in the 1840s — and others were more subtle, as foreigners gained control over many of the country’s economic assets.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Mexico found itself riven by political conflict, diminished in size, and deeply in debt to European creditors. A civil war, the War of Reform of 1857–1860 (largely over the role of the Catholic Church in Mexican society), exposed the political fault lines in the country and weakened it against outside intervention.

The scheme

European countries, who in those years were constantly on the lookout for vulnerable parts of the globe that they could exploit, quickly pounced on Mexico’s vulnerability. Their pretext was that Mexico’s liberal government had failed (or simply refused) to pay back its debts to European creditors.

So, in 1861, France, Britain, and Spain landed troops in Veracruz to punish the Mexican government and demand repayment. It soon became clear that there was a more complex and harebrained scheme afoot. Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon and the current emperor of France, was not just planning to launch a little expedition to punish Mexico. He meant to conquer it — he envisioned this as part of a resurgence of French power around the globe. When they figured this out, the British and Spanish abandoned the war, but Napoleon pressed on. The French allied themselves with conservative Mexican aristocrats, waged a three-year war of conquest — killing 50,000 people — and, in the end, defeated the liberal government of Benito Juarez, which fled to the state of Chihuahua.

Now that France had conquered most of Mexico, the question was: who should rule it? It seems that Napoleon didn’t have much faith in his own family members, so he looked for the next best thing — a super-Catholic, conservative European politician. Somebody from an important family who didn’t have a path to power in his own country. A person who had a sense of adventure, who might roll the dice on this Mexican adventure.

Napoleon found his man in a young Austrian archduke. He was the 31-year-old younger brother of Holy Roman Emperor Franz Joseph I. As the sixth-oldest sibling in his family, he had no real chance of ascending to the throne at home. His new, young (23 years old), ambitious wife Charlotte, a Belgian princess, didn’t get along with their Habsburg relatives. She talked Maximilian into accepting Napoleon’s offer and becoming emperor of Mexico.

In April of 1864, Maximilian signed the paperwork that officially made him the Mexican emperor. Napoleon presented him with the results of a “plebiscite” that the French had supposedly taken in Mexico. The results, which had likely been rigged, showed that the Mexican people eagerly supported their new Austro-French rulers. Most European observers seem to have thought that Maximilian’s enterprise was doomed. They were right.

When Maximilian and Charlotte (who insisted that her new subjects call her Carlota) arrived in Mexico at the port of Veracruz, they were not met with the grand tribute they had imagined. Veracruz was a liberal city whose resistance had been crushed by French forces; in fact, the civil war was still in progress as the liberal armies had never surrendered. The tepid response to the new emperor’s arrival set the tone for his short time in power.

The downfall of Maximilian and Carlota

The new emperor and empress never even managed to hold a proper coronation amidst all the chaos. Instead, they proceeded to disappoint pretty much everyone. It turned out that Maximilian understood very little about Mexican politics. In an apparent attempt to win over the liberals — who were likely never going to accept him — Maximilian kept many of the Juarez administration’s policies. While keeping the liberal policies in place, Maximilian carried out a brutal purge of his liberal opponents. The “Black Decree” condemned anyone who had belonged to an illegal “armed band” to death. More than 10,000 rebels were shot after only a cursory trial. The cruelty of these executions finished off any chance that Maximilian had of winning broad support.

Meanwhile, Maximilian also alienated his conservative supporters. Most significantly, he refused to return the Catholic Church to its favored status as the only permitted religion in Mexico or give back lands that had been confiscated from the church. This infuriated the conservative French and Mexican aristocrats who had put him in power in the first place; they began to rethink their support of this unpredictable Austrian.

Then Mexico’s neighbors next door noticed what was going
on. After the American Civil War ended, about a year after Maximilian had taken power, the American government finally registered its discomfort with a French takeover of its closest neighbor. This was, after all, a violation of the decades-old Monroe Doctrine, in which the U.S. had forbidden European powers from imperial meddling in the Western Hemisphere.

The other problem was that Maximilian had invited many Confederates, fleeing at the end of the Civil War, to enter Mexico and set up the “New Virginia Colony.” Ulysses S. Grant, the top American general, began to provide secret support to Juarez’ forces in northern Mexico — after all, the United States had a lot of spare military supplies on its hands.

Napoleon caved to American pressure pretty much immediately. It was, after all, pretty hard to justify what France had done as anything other than self-interested imperialism. France was unwilling to risk war with America over Napoleon’s Mexican adventure. When the Americans demanded that the French withdraw their troops, Napoleon complied. Maximilian was left without the army he would need to have any chance at actually ruling Mexico. He tried to persuade his brother to send him some Austrian troops, but the Americans threatened war against Austria.

Napoleon urged Maximilian to abdicate and save himself, but the emperor refused. He stayed and fought a losing war against the resurgent rebels. After a weeks-long siege of his final stronghold, one of Maximilian’s officers let the rebel forces through the walls of the fortress. Maximilian tried to escape, but he was easily captured. Juarez’ forces put Maximilian on trial; the former emperor was sentenced to death.

It seems that Maximilian didn’t have to die. Many European liberals beseeched Juarez to spare him. Some of Maximilian’s supporters tried to arrange an opportunity for him to escape, but Maximilian refused to disguise himself. He was shot by a firing squad on June 19, 1867. Juarez took power and continued to push Mexico in a more liberal, secular direction.

And Charlotte, the young empress who had pressed Maximilian into accepting the job? She had fled to Europe the year before in a failed attempt to rally support for her husband among the royal families of Europe. After her entreaties for help were rejected out of hand by Napoleon, the Pope, and her brother, she lost her mind. Charlotte became convinced that assassins were trying to kill her. After her behavior became unpredictable, the Austrian royal family basically imprisoned her. They refused to tell her that her husband had died.

Charlotte’s own family, after months of negotiation, persuaded the Austrians to hand her over. To convince her to leave, she was presented with a forged note from the now-dead Maximilian telling her to go to Brussels. When she arrived in Belgium, Charlotte was once again secluded from public view. She descended into madness for the next six decades. Charlotte wrote hundreds of long, unhinged letters, destroyed her possessions, and had long conversations with people who weren’t there.

The foolish French invasion of Mexico turned out to be as bad an idea as it had seemed at the time. Maximilian never had a real chance of successfully ruling over Mexico. Worse, the French invasion and his disastrous time in power killed tens of thousands of Mexicans and made the country less stable. In a century full of bad imperialist ideas that gained European powers little and hurt the people they tried to conquer, this was one of the worst.

I’m Joe Manchin and I Keep Trying to Tell You: I’m the Worst

Joe Manchin, presumably being awful (via Flickr)

Hi everybody, Joe Manchin here.

You may have realized that the fate of the American republic often comes down to me. Whether it’s the filibuster, voting rights, child care, or even climate change, I am the deciding vote. I literally hold the future of democracy and the environment in my meaty hands!

And ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you, in the folksiest possible way: I will always let you down, because I am the absolute worst.

Now, to be fair, I’ve been trying to communicate this for a long time. It’s really your own fault you didn’t pick up on the very clear signals I’ve been sending.

First, let’s start with this: I’m a 74-year-old man who has been very successful in West Virginia politics for decades! Do you know which kind of people are successful in West Virginia politics? I’ll give you a hint: not the good ones! Our whole supreme court got impeached a few years ago! Our governor is a coal-mining billionaire who is most famous for not paying his taxes and violating environmental regulations! So, sure, go ahead and believe that I’m the one long-standing West Virginia politician who has his constituents’ best interests at heart. But that’s not on me.

Oh, and have you seen me preening on TV? I can’t get enough of it! I have made it extremely clear that I’m going to soak up all the attention I can and then shit all over America’s future. I go on all the shows that your dad falls asleep in front of after church — Meet the Press, Fox News Sunday, whatever. I love the attention of being the deciding vote. It makes me feel so alive, very much unlike the endangered species that will perish after I kill America’s last chance at climate legislation. And I’m good at it, too. When the hosts ask me a question and I talk about the deficit and bipartisanship and other stuff from the ’80s I pretend to believe in, I almost never crack up. Sometimes I even convince myself!

And even if you thought I was the lone West Virginia politician with a soul, I’ve been flying red flag after red flag. First: I’m a boat guy, which should be enough of a signal right there. But I’m not just a boat guy — I’m the kind of guy who buys a boat worth more than your house, has “Charleston, WV” stenciled on the back of it, and then docks it in a luxury marina in Washington, DC, which is famously difficult to reach by water from West Virginia.

And when I need non-water-based transportation, I drive a car that signals to you exactly how awful I am. Now, I took shopping for my car very seriously. I wanted something that showed that I make bad decisions — that I am willing to throw away money on something that is too expensive, unreliable, environmentally harmful, and, most importantly, signals that I’m an asshole. It took a long time, but I finally found the perfect car: a Maserati SUV. All the cost of a Mercedes, but with none of the style or quality or reliability. And it somehow signals that I’m sleazier than a BMW driver. I’m telling you, it couldn’t be clearer that I am terrible!

Oh, and did I tell you how I pay for the car and the boat? Not my Senate salary, silly! I own a coal company! I make way more money from that than I do from this Senate gig. That’s right, I owe my livelihood to the industry with America’s worst environmental and labor record. Here’s our industry’s literal business plan: destroy beautiful mountains, extract fuel that, when burned, will ruin the living world, and then declare bankruptcy and fire all of our workers! That’s my whole thing! There’s nothing I believe in more!

So, America, thanks for the last year. It’s been really fun for me. I got to be the center of attention in Washington. I got so many phone calls from Joe Biden! I was on TV so much!

But now it’s time for me to be true to who I am, and what I am is a terrible person. It’s really your fault for not seeing it; I couldn’t have been clearer.

Rejecting Students Doesn’t Make a College Better

Why do we look up to colleges that close their doors to so many qualified kids?

The library at Harvard University (Wikimedia Commons)

What’s the best college in the country?

You’d probably answer this question with the name of a fancy college in the Ivy League, or an Ivy-equivalent like Stanford. Now — what makes these colleges good?

According to the narrative we have built around education in this country, the fact that Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford reject 95% of their applicants makes them “better” than other colleges that let in more students. America’s most prestigious colleges want nothing more than to appear selective — in fact, they often “recruit to deny” (soliciting more applications so they can reject more kids and move higher in the U.S. News rankings). Competitive students and their parents decide that the best thing is the thing that’s hardest to get — admission into a very selective college.

Because of the brutally competitive nature of these college admissions, the 18-year-olds who end up studying at these most prestigious universities are truly remarkable. I should know: I teach at a private high school that sends a lot of kids to the Ivy League. These students are more accomplished than anybody I knew when I was in high school. They’ve taken won national music competitions, had their writing published, and won state athletic championships.

These kids are going to do amazing things in the Ivy League. But, given who are, they’d probably do amazing things no matter what college they attend. Heck, they’d probably become impressive adults after spending four years in their parents’ basements with a library card and a wifi connection.

Sure, these students will learn from amazing professors and go on to have excellent careers. Some of that will come because of the excellent education they will no doubt receive at these prestigious schools. They’ll receive significant benefits from the signaling and networking effects of having a prestigious diploma with an elite name on it. But most of these kids’ future success will come from who they were before they got to college — driven, curious, and disciplined.

So which college is better? A Harvard or Yale that takes already-shiny students and polishes them a little more, or a college that educates students who aren’t already masters of the universe? A college that rejects everybody who isn’t guaranteed to succeed, or a college that takes students who need education, and educates them?

The connection between prestige and extreme selectivity is relatively new. A lot of people think that the most prestigious colleges have always been brutally selective, but that’s not really the case. In 1976, Yale accepted more than a quarter of its applicants. In 1995, that number was still 20%. By the early 2000s, the number had plummeted into single digits. Today, Yale accepts about 4.5% of applicants. Even this low number includes people who didn’t have to go through normal admission channels — admitted athletes, legacies, children of foreign potentates, etc. The admission rate for “regular” applicants is even lower.

Some of this is due to skyrocketing applications — over 46,000 this year at Yale — but it’s mostly because institutions like Yale have stopped growing with the country that they are supposed to serve. Take a look at the numbers from Yale since 1900:

  • In 1900–1901 school year, Yale College and Sheffield Scientific School (where Yale’s science and engineering undergraduates studied) , had a combined enrollment of 1,700 students. The population of the United States was 76 million.
  • By 1925–26, the college had almost doubled in size to 3,048 students. Yale was growing faster than the country, as the US population rose to 116 million that year.
  • In 1950–51, after Sheffield had merged into Yale College proper, there were 4236 Yale undergraduates in a country of 150 million people.
  • Twenty-five years later, in 1975–76, there were 5,144 undergrads at Yale as the population of the country rose to 216 million.

Today, there are almost 330 million Americans — 50% more than there were in 1975. Had Yale kept growing at the same rate, we would expect 7,859 undergraduates there. How many undergraduates does this college, with all of its resources (an endowment of $31 billion!), teach today? 4,664! Five hundred fewer students than in 1975! And, since colleges like Yale make a lot of their money charging foreign students a pretty penny, the percentage of foreign students is growing.

Even accounting for a small decrease in attendance due to COVID, this is scandalous.

It’s not just Yale — most of the most “best” schools in the country have stopped growing. We don’t seem to be creating many new colleges, so that means that we’ve created an incredible educational bottleneck.

The amazing resources of these institutions are closed to those who could benefit from them the most. While a reasonably successful student (I’m thinking of a kid with an A average and good SAT scores, who was maybe a starter on the baseball team and wrote for the school paper) might have had a fair shot at going to an Ivy League college in the 1990s, now those spots are reserved for unbelievably accomplished students. Harvard rejects 25% of its applicants that have a perfect SAT score; Duke rejects MOST of the valedictorians who apply. Unless a kid has opened his own shelter for abused animals at age 16 while curing a disease, writing a novel, and getting straight A’s and perfect SATs, forget it.

The numbers above tell a shameful truth: prestigious American colleges have become more interested in protecting their own images as “elite” institutions than they are in performing a public service. If Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford were interested in making the country better (and, last time I checked, America has a few problems), they’d throw open their doors to far more students.

There’s an amazing opportunity here, both for these colleges and the country. These colleges could easily double or triple their student bodies without having to seriously relax their admissions standards. They could use the new tuition money (or maybe take a couple billion out of those swollen endowments that they never touch) to hire some more professors (there are plenty of well-qualified candidates out there) and build some more dorms. Think how many remarkable adults these colleges could turn out!

Perhaps this would take some of the gilding off of the image of these institutions; they wouldn’t seem as “elite” or “prestigious” anymore. But to me, that’s a good thing. America isn’t supposed to be a country that celebrates barriers to achievement and opportunity. Our elite colleges shouldn’t base their brands on how many people they reject. And we shouldn’t encourage our children to aspire to these institutions that don’t seem to be interested in actually accepting as many qualified applicants as possible.

We need to redefine what we mean when we talk about the “best” educational institutions — the best institutions are the ones that do the most good, not the ones that reject the most kids.

The Depressing Paradox at the Heart of Climate Policy

If we are going to stop climate change, why are we trying to find new oil?

Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

Earlier this year, leaders from around the world met at COP26, the global summit on the climate crisis. While there, leaders made pledges to limit their countries’ emissions, making it clear that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity today. And then everybody went home and essentially acted as if none of it ever happened.

A couple of days after Joe Biden returned home from Scotland, the United States auctioned off 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas exploration. To be clear, this was not necessarily something Biden wanted to do; the administration argued that it had no choice. Spokespeople said the auction was required by law, that Biden had already delayed it once, and that any further action would simply result in lawsuits that the government would likely lose. Environmentalists, however, grumbled that the administration should have done more.

The sale of these drilling rights, whether or not Biden’s administration could have done anything to prevent it, is a perfect example of how leaders in government and business say all the right things about climate change but haven’t really faced up to what it will take to accomplish their goals.

As David Waltham, a University of London professor, calculates, we have already discovered more coal, oil, and gas than we can burn if we’re going to keep the global temperature increase under 2 degrees (never mind 1.5). We’ve already increased global temperatures by over one degree, and, as Waltham writes:

“BP’s annual energy review for 2021 estimates that the world has discovered 1.7 trillion barrels of oil, 188 trillion cubic metres of gas and nearly three trillion tonnes of coal that are commercially extractable — but that has not yet been actually extracted.

My calculations, based on the typical carbon contents of these fuels and the expected effects of emissions on temperatures, suggest that emissions from using those barrels of oil alone would raise global temperatures by almost 0.6°C. Using the natural gas would add another 0.2°C. And as for the coal, burning it all would raise temperatures by a further 2°C.”

So what in the holy hell are energy companies doing trying to discover MORE oil and gas, and why are governments letting them?

First, the companies. They talk a good game. They all have web pages set up about the “energy transition.” Shell, for example, promotes the 1.5 degree target for global warming, and promises to become a “net-zero” business, contributing to a “net-zero world” by 2050. What they seem to mean by this is that they will emit no carbon while extracting billions of barrels of oil for others to burn.

Shell is sitting on almost 4 billion barrels of proven liquid oil and natural gas reserves. Each of these barrels of oil will, when burned, put .43 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And Shell, like all of its rivals, isn’t standing pat. They’ve proudly announced new oil exploration projects that they hope will add hundreds of millions of barrels to their reserves.

This isn’t surprising — in fact, it’s the opposite. The main job of oil company CEOs is to make their stock prices go up. Oil companies’ stock prices go up when they acquire new sources of oil. This is because investors assume that the newly d
iscovered oil will be sold and burned. Oil companies are not winding down their fossil fuel exploration — quite the opposite. They’re gleefully adding to the quantity of fossil fuels that humanity expects to burn.

I suppose it’s not all that surprising that oil companies are behaving like oil companies. We probably can’t expect their CEOs and major shareholders to just sell off their yachts and accept losing large quantities of money in order to save the planet.

This is why other forces have to stop them. But nobody is.

Governments around the world — many of whom just made solemn promises at COP26 to move the world away from fossil fuels — are selling off oil rights like nothing has changed. It’s not just the U.S. There are a number of huge projects at work in the Middle East right now that will produce massive quantities of oil and gas. Billions of barrels of oil were discovered in several African countries this year. Argentina and Brazil are banking on the development of massive new oil fields in their countries, too. It seems that everywhere you look, governments are allowing, even encouraging, exploration for new sources of fossil fuels.

Every new oil project that is begun this year will require billions of dollars of investment and years of work. Do we really think that, after investing so much in these oil and gas fields, that the companies will just walk away from them? Each of these projects will produce oil and natural gas for a decade or more.

Governments that are allowing new oil and gas exploration are playing a dangerous double game. They’re promising their citizens that they will tackle climate change, but they’re allowing companies and investors to put billions of dollars on the line in new fossil fuel exploration.

All of this means that governments, investors, and business leaders implicitly expect humanity to burn a catastrophic quantity of fossil fuels, more than enough to send us racing past 2 degrees of global warming — the threshold that climate scientists identify as a real tipping point into disaster. No one in a position of power seems to be doing much to stop it.

We’re not phasing out fossil fuels; we’re virtually guaranteeing that we will keep burning them long after we should have stopped.

World leaders can say all of the lovely things they want about stopping climate change. But the bare minimum action is to stop looking for new fossil fuels to burn! If we’re not willing to do that, we don’t stand much of a chance against climate change.

The Books That Stuck With Me This Year

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

I read fewer books this year than I normally do; I spent some of my “reading time” writing instead, but I still was able to engage with dozens of books. Some of them, I skimmed, looking for interesting information that could go into my classes or my writing. I forgot about a lot of these soon after I finished them. Others, I engaged with more deeply.

I’m nerdy about keeping track of what I’ve read — I log each book in a spreadsheet and rate it. It’s interesting to look back at the end of the year, because I usually find that I have no recollection of a couple of the books to which I gave great ratings, but I think about a few of the books that I rated lower all the time. Here are the books I couldn’t get out of my head this year.

The first book that stuck with me is a self-help book. I read a lot of these this year, which I guess makes sense, given how challenging life has felt. Sometimes, with the tragedy and chaos unfolding around me — a pandemic, climate change, and threats to our democracy, just for starters — I felt like I needed some help with anxiety.

I found Sarah Wilson’s book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful to be the most memorable of these. Wilson, a journalist and writer, tells the story of her struggle with severe mental illness. A lot of what’s in here can be found in other anxiety self-help books (and I’ve read a lot of them!) — she recommends gratitude, meditation, spending time in nature, etc… But what I liked about this book was Wilson’s central conceit, which comes from a Chinese proverb. The proverb teaches that you can’t defeat a monster without first learning to see how it’s beautiful.

Over the course of this memoir, Wilson realizes that her mind is built in a certain way. Struggling against this reality is relatively pointless — it will end in anger and frustration. In the end, she advocates management and acceptance. Wilson seems to have learned methods to blunt the extremes of her anxiety, but she also realizes that she’ll never get rid of it. There’s no point in fighting a war against your anxiety; you’ll never win. Instead, she strives to see what is beautiful about having an anxious mind and learn to live with it. I was struck by her vulnerability and bravery, and the wisdom she showed in learning to live with an anxious mind.

The two history (or history-adjacent) books that stuck with me were about drugs. I don’t know what that says about me, but it is what it is.

The first was The Immortality Key by Brian Mukarescu. It’s great for a couple of reasons. First, the book makes a truly extraordinary claim. Mukarescu argues that many ancient religious ceremonies — including, perhaps, the early Christian Eucharist — centered around drugs, probably psychedelics. In his telling, the profound religious experiences that people had in the ancient world were likely aided by rituals that incorporated psychedelic fungi.

A book like this could have easily tipped into Da Vinci Code territory, but this one doesn’t. Mukarescu is pretty careful with his scholarship, acknowledging what he can prove and what he can’t. At the end of the book, he has set up a tantalizing mystery more than he’s made an open-and-shut case. The best part about the book is that it is written more like a hybrid between a monograph and a thriller. You get to go with Mukarescu as he travels around the world in search of proof for his revolutionary claims. This book opened up a totally new perspective on the ancient world and the religious rituals that I grew up with but never really understood.

The other history-of-drugs book that I enjoyed this year was Michael Pollan’s This is Your Mind on Plants. In the book, Pollan looks at three drugs that have affected human societies — opium, caffeine, and mescaline. He tells interesting stories about each of these drugs and the role that they have played in his life. What I found most interesting was the section about caffeine. Pollan makes a persuasive case that the real difference between caffeine and other drugs is that the effects of caffeine make people more useful to the capitalist system, not less. Because bosses liked the ways in which caffeine made their workers more productive, caffeine became an integral part of modern society, while other drugs were generally labeled as dangerous and undesirable.

This year, as we literally risked people’s lives to keep the economy humming, Pollan’s argument opened my eyes to the ways in which the imperatives of capitalism shape our assumptions about all sorts of things — even a morning cup of coffee.

The final book that has stuck with me is Bewilderment by Richard Powers. It’s a novel about a father and son who have recently lost their wife and mother. The son is likely on the spectrum; both of them are struggling with grief. The son, because he pays attention to the world in different ways than most people do, can’t let go of the mass extinction taking place all around him. It does not make any sense to him that everyone else can see what’s happening to the earth, compartmentalize it, and just go on with their day. He’s right, factually and morally, but his wholly appropriate reaction to he truth makes him a misfit. His father has to decide whether to force his son to conform to a way of life that’s ravaging the living world or help him to fight the injustices he feels in such a raw way.

This is a very specific story, but it really spoke to something that I’ve experienced a lot lately, something that I think a lot of us deal with. We see terrible things happening — your mileage may vary, but I’ll mention again the triad of doom that I referenced above: climate change, COVID, and threats to democracy — and they alarm us.

It really feels like things are falling apart a lot of the time. But few of the people in our society seem to be really grasping what’s going on. We might read an article about the latest way in which the world is falling apart, but we don’t really know what to do about it. The problem seems too big, and too long-term; meanwhile, we have to go to work or make dinner or pay the bills. So we just kind of go on with life while an alarm is going off somewhere deep inside us. I often feel bad for not really responding to the alarm; I also feel like a misfit for not just going along with the flow of society.

Maybe everybody else around me is doing the same thing — holding it together for the moment while quietly panicking about the runaway train we’re all on. Maybe not. But I saw something of myself in the young boy at the center of Bewilderment who just couldn’t understand why everybody was so calm all the time while the world seemed to be falling apart around them.

By the way, I’m currently really enjoying Wildland by Evan Osnos, which is one of the best “what’s wrong with America” books I’ve read in recent years. Maybe that one will make it onto next year’s list.

What have you read this year that’s stuck with you?

The Queen Who Popularized the Christmas Tree

How did cutting down a tree and putting it in your house become a universal tradition?

Photo by Sandra Seitamaa on Unsplash

Christmas trees are, when you think about it, kind of bizarre. You cut down a living tree that is just sitting there, minding its own business in a forest. Then you bring it inside your house and hang a bunch of stuff off of it, while it slowly dies. Before electricity, people would fill the branches with candles, a terrible fire risk. When Christmas is over, you take everything down and throw the poor tree away. How did this become a global tradition?

The story of the Christmas tree starts in ancient times. Christians modeled Christmas after the Roman winter festival of Saturnalia, during which people did decorate with evergreen trees. The symbolism is pretty straightforward — during the short, dark, cold days around the winter solstice, people used evergreens as a symbol of the life and growth that were to come.

Despite the parallels with Roman practice, we don’t really have records of Christians using trees for Christmas until the medieval period in Germany. The modern Christmas tree may not come from ancient Rome but the Christian practice of putting up a “tree of paradise” around the Christmas holiday. Medieval Germans put on morality plays about the story of Adam and Eve with these trees as the central prop. The trees would be decorated with fruit, or sometimes just colored ornaments that represented Eve’s fateful snack. This practice, possibly combined with some pagan beliefs about tree worship and/or Martin Luther being enamored by a starry sky seen through the branches of a tree, led people in some parts of Germany to decorate their homes with Christmas trees by the 1600s.

While some German immigrants brought the tradition to the United States and other places, the Christmas tree remained a niche practice until the middle of the nineteenth century; they weren’t even all that widespread in Germany. In order to become a global phenomenon, the Christmas tree needed some help from influencers. And it got just that from the English royal family — the world’s most powerful family at the time — whose lives had become a model for people around the world.

Many English royals were often not really English — they were German, as the royal family forged marriage ties with the various principalities in central Europe. The first Anglo-German royal to bring the Christmas tree tradition to England was Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, who had been raised in Mecklenburg, an area where evergreens and their branches were common Christmas decorations. She set up the first royal Christmas tree in 1800 in a prominent site in the palace. The tree was festooned with candles and decorations, and Charlotte encouraged her courtiers to join her in singing Christmas carols around the tree.

Nobles, of course, jumped at the chance to emulate their queen. Within a few years, it became fashionable for noble Britons to deck out a tree with candles, treats, and other decorations and make it the centerpiece of their Christmas celebrations. These wealthy families could demonstrate their bounty of gifts on the floor under the tree.

By the 1840s, the Christmas tree had established itself in England, but only for the upper class. After all, who had the time and money to kill a tree and decorate it for only a few weeks? It would take a more influential royal to make the Christmas tree a practice for the masses.

By 1848, Queen Victoria ruled over the most powerful empire in the world; her influence spread from Australia to India to Canada. She was also legitimately popular. People around the world were intensely curious about her life and followed its twists and turns in the increasingly popular newspapers of the time. Her coronation at age 18, her marriage at a young age, and the birth of her nine children got the kind of attention we give to the love life of Brad Pitt today.

Victoria’s mother was German, so she had grown up with Christmas trees in the house. Her husband, Albert, came from the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg in Saxony — another north-German royal from the land of Christmas trees. The couple, partially through their star power and partially through intentional effort, made the Christmas tree a tradition for middle-class people in England and around the world.

Albert, a real evergreen enthusiast, made a point of setting up trees around the country in places like schools and military barracks. But the Christmas tree’s real breakthrough was an image. In 1848, the Illustrated London News published an engraving of the royal couple and their small children decorating a tree. The tree was full of cute ornaments, and a plethora of children’s toys lay below. Something in this image appealed to people around the world — maybe it was the soft light of the tree, the bounty of gifts and ornaments, or the charming domesticity of the royal couple and their brood of young children.

Over the next few decades, the Christmas tree took off. By 1860, pretty much every English family with the means to purchase one had set up a tree in their home. Charities also made trees the centerpiece of their holiday celebrations for less-fortunate people. People in other parts of the world also adopted the Christmas tree. Middle class people in the United States, desperate to show that they could keep up with the European trends, mimicked Victoria and Albert. Even in places like the Bahamas, far from any evergreen forests, Christmas trees were common by the 1860s.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Christmas trees could be found pretty much anywhere the holiday was celebrated, and they have persisted to this day. So if you gather around your tree this Christmas, you can thank some German-English royals who made the practice trendy a century and a half ago.

The GOP Figured Out the Cheat Code for the Media

And they’re using it to dismantle democracy

Donald and Melania Trump speak to the press, 2019 (Picryl)

If you’re my age, you may remember the golden age of Nintendo cheat codes. All you’d have to do was push a sequence of buttons on your controller — up, down, up, down, left, right, A, B — and you would be rewarded with extra lives or a super-weapon. This was great, especially if you weren’t good enough to win the game any other way. Much like 12-year-old me, the Republican Party has given up on trying to fair and square; instead, they’ve figured out how to bypass the parts of our media system that used to keep parties (relatively) honest.

Unfortunately, the GOP’s cheat codes unlock a lot more than a meaningless advantage in a video game — they threaten democracy itself.

Donald Trump and the rest of the GOP have demonstrated that they view democracy as a disposable inconvenience. They’re preparing to steal the next election on several fronts — by limiting voting in democratic constituencies, ousting officials who correctly certified the Biden victory in 2020, and preparing cockamamie, undemocratic legal theories to subvert the popular vote in 2024. They may get away with all of this because they have figured out how to exploit the weaknesses in our media ecosystem.

Of course, Republicans aren’t saying directly that they want to weaken democracy. Instead, they tell lies about massive voter fraud in the last election (an exhaustive analysis just found a grand total of… 475 attempts at voter fraud nationwide, most of which were caught by authorities before a fraudulent vote was cast). As a result, 66% of Republicans tell pollsters that they believe Trump’s lies about the election. Now that they’ve injected the poison of the Big Lie into the media, Republicans can claim that they’re actually saving democracy by dismantling it.

How did the GOP get their lies into the mainstream of our political discourse? They’ve identified three weaknesses in our media and systematically exploited each one.

Cheat code 1: Unbalance the media ecosystem

This is key to the Republican strategy. They do a lot complaining about the “left-wing bias” in the mainstream media. And, sure, it’s probably true that the New York Times and CNN are mostly run by urban, educated people. Given that our country is polarizing along educational and urban-rural lines, it stands to reason that most of these people are on the Left or Center-left. But whatever biases they have, these mainstream networks still adhere to a set of journalistic standards that require them to tell the truth to their readers and viewers. There is no such requirement for right-wing media, which brazenly parrots the party line and gives oxygen to Trump’s authoritarian lies.

The upshot of this unbalanced media landscape means that Republican claims are always treated with more overall credulity than Democratic ones. If a Democratic politician screws up, they will be criticized by both Fox News and the New York Times. If a Republican commits misdeeds, they will be covered critically by the mainstream media but ignored or framed as heroic by the Right. The mainstream media will usually, out of its “both-sidesist” idea of fairness, give a hearing to right-wing lies, while Fox and its ilk will treat everything that comes out of a Democrat’s mouth as treason.

Cheat code 2: Exploit our short attention spans

Second, Republicans have figured out how to use our short, frazzled attention spans against us. Most Americans seem weirdly complacent about the Republicans’ attempts to take us back to the days of the early 1800s, when state legislatures, not the popular vote, determined presidential elections. This has happened for two reasons, which are somewhat contradictory — Republicans are operating in the shadows and out in the open at the same time.

First, the shadows. The GOP’s changes to our electoral system are technical and boring, so they’re taking place out of the spotlight of major media attention. Few of us really understand what a county board of canvassers does or what it means for a secretary of state to certify election results. A story about the changes to Georgia’s state election board is the very definition of eat-your-vegetables journalism. It’s unlikely to go viral. I’m sure CNN executives watch their viewer numbers plummet when they do a segment on something like the new election bills being floated in the Arizona statehouse that would reconfigure the way the state apportions electors. I’m surprised you’re even still reading this after seeing phrases like “reconfigure the way the state apportions electors!” Not many people are going to pay attention to or understand the implications of these technical changes until it’s too late. Our attention spans are too short, and our focus is too fragmented. Republicans are counting on this.

Cheat code 3: Do it out in the open

But, and this is key, Republicans aren’t sneaking around either. They repeatedly and openly announce that they intend to ignore the votes cast by Americans in the next election. Republicans are claiming that, because of “fraud,” maybe they shouldn’t count Americans’ votes — instead, we should just let state legislatures decide on electors for us like it’s 1804.

This is ridiculous, and it flies in the face of the democratic practices in this country for two centuries now. But if Republicans have learned anything from the Trump years, it’s that the media doesn’t really know how to cover a scandal where the perpetrators just admit out loud what they’re up to.

If Trump understood anything, he knew that if you repeat a lie enough times, it will become normalized. Because most people aren’t paying close attention, any idea repeated enough times in a forceful enough way will enter the mainstream, at least as something that, as Trump likes to phrase it, “many people are saying.”

The GOP has also learned that if you admit the crime as you’re committing it, it doesn’t look like a crime. Trump, whether because he was too stupid to lie or because of some innate genius, constantly told everybody what he was up to. He was quite open about the fact that he viewed the presidency as a personal ego trip, not public service. He brazenly shilled for his businesses while in office, and treated America’s foreign alliances as a way to extract favors for himself. And the media really didn’t know what to do with it.

When Hillary Clinton hemmed and hawed and obfuscated about her email server in 2016, the press knew what to do — there was hidden information, whatever Clinton was hiding must be damaging, and the press was on the case. But when Republicans say, out loud, “yeah, we want to undermine elections, in fact, we think it will be great when we do it,” it doesn’t fit into the media’s story templates.

There’s no hidden smoking gun, there’s no dribble of information every day. It’s boring for the press to say, day after day, “yes, Republicans are still planning to steal the next election, and they’re doing it right out in the open.” We only hear about the issue when there are new “revelations.” But the revelations don’t tell us anything the Republicans didn’t already say out loud, so the media mostly ignores them. The GOP is counting on this.

The Republicans have essentially uncovered a cheat code for dismantling democracy. They’ve figured out how to pump misinformation into the media. They’ve realized that no one will pay much attention as they subvert the boring infrastructure of our democracy. And they understand that, if they just admit what they’re doing, the media won’t know what to do with them.

I suppose it’s no surprise that a lifelong publicity-chasing huckster like Donald Trump could unlock the media like this. I hope the media figures out how to cover threats to democracy before it’s too late.

Which Extreme Laws Will Red States Pass Next?

A look into our dystopian future

Photo by Natilyn Hicks (Aubrey Hicks Photography) on Unsplash

Much of what the Republican Party is doing these days seems more like trolling than legislating; they’re passing the most extreme bills they can think of in an attempt to keep their base engaged and enraged about wedge issues.

Part of the problem is that now, in many states, the GOP dog has caught the car. Republicans control most state legislatures now; they’re actually passing these extreme laws. Soon, GOP politicians will have to find more extreme policies to pursue so that they can push the envelope further. Here’s the likely trajectory of the GOP on some of our country’s hot-button issues:

GUNS:

2021: States respond to the latest wave of school shootings by arming teachers.

2025: States respond to students’ using the teachers’ guns to kill each other by issuing guns to all high school students on the honor roll (an A in chemistry makes you a “good guy with a gun”). Honor roll is renamed the “AR Roll.”

2030: The Second Amendment is reinterpreted to say that guns are a fundamental human right; red-state babies are issued a free assault rifle at birth. The $100,000 cost of the birth and delivery is, however, still the parents’ responsibility.

RACE:

2021: States ban teaching about divisive concepts like America’s history of racial discrimination in new “Teacher Loyalty” laws.

2025: States require teachers to assign the book “Actually, Racism is Fine” by Tucker Carlson to balance out “one-sided” teaching on race.

2030: States require the new “USA #1” curriculum that teaches “how this country became the best place ever with no flaws whatsoever at any time.”

2035: States ban the teaching of history altogether. “Education should be about learning to code. We don’t want students to think too hard about whether or not they should have rights,” says the Republican presidential candidate.

CLIMATE CHANGE:

2021: Red states pass laws punishing “woke financial institutions” that have divested from fossil fuels.

2025: Red states pass extra taxes on home solar panels in a campaign to promote “Coal: America’s Fuel!”

2030: In a campaign entitled “Waste: It’s the American Way!” red states take away citizens’ ability to set their own thermostats. Homes are set to 65 degrees in the summer, 80 in the winter.

2035: Red states, worried that consumers don’t want to buy oil and gas, institute a new tax that takes money from citizens to purchase and burn fossil fuels in giant pits on their behalf.

VOTING RIGHTS:

2021: States pass a number of laws that make it hard for citizens to vote in an effort to combat “voter fraud.”

2024: State legislatures attempt to rig the presidential election by overriding their voters’ choices for president.

2028: States hold elections with one voting booth per urban area. A GOP spokesman reminds Americans that voting is a privilege, and if Americans really want to vote, they should stand in line for three weeks to do so, as our founding fathers intended.

2032: Red states allow voting, “but just for fun.” The GOP chair says, “it’s exciting for people to express their opinion, like when they vote for the winner in a reality show, but let’s not base any important decisions on it.”

PUBLIC HEALTH:

2021: Red states pass laws designed to make it hard to get everyone vaccinated against COVID-19.

2025: Conservatives start having “measles parties” to spread the disease among their young children in order to own the libs.

2030: Declaring that “natural immunity is better than vaccines” and promoting a “return to tradition,” state legislatures require students to contract polio before entering the educational system.

PROTEST:

2021: Red states enact laws that define nonviolent protest as “rioting,” and specifically prohibit protest near fossil fuel pipelines and infrastructure.

2025: New “stand your ground” laws allow any citizen to shoot a protestor if they find them “irritating.”

2030: Red states ban all protest, unless, of course, you’re outside of abortion clinics or abetting an authoritarian coup. The Supreme Court upholds the laws, saying that the right to freedom of assembly was “more of a suggestion” by the founders. Chief Justice Kavanaugh says that the founders “only wanted people to protest for good stuff.”

In Search of a Less Stupid Calendar

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

The calendar we use is, well, dumb. The months are all different lengths, and these lengths don’t follow any pattern. There’s a leap year. Important events like Thanksgiving, Election Day, and Easter all bounce around on the calendar. Is this the best we can do?

Part of the problem is that our calendar is very old. In its essentials, it dates back to Julius Caesar, who implemented it before the invention of Christianity, firearms, or computers. Caesar (or whoever he had doing his calendar work) understood that a year was about 365.25 days. Therefore, he modified the existing Roman calendar to have 12 months of 30 or 31 days (with the exception of that pesky Februarius, which had 28). By adding an extra day to Februarius every fourth years, he solved the problem of the extra quarter-day.

Or so he thought. Unfortunately, the Romans were a little bit off on their calculations. A year isn’t 365.25 days; it’s actually more like 365.2422 days. This didn’t matter much at first, but over time it caused trouble. The Julian calendar added an unnecessary day every 128 years. By the Renaissance, those extra days had added up, and Easter was happening farther and farther from its traditional time of year.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII jumped the date ahead by ten days — October 5–14, 1582 never happened! — and eliminated leap days in years divisible by 100 but not 400 (for example, 1600 was a leap year, but 1700, 1800, and 1900 weren’t). This made the calendar closer to the actual length of a year on earth (but not perfect — the Gregorian calendar will still be thrown off of the earth’ actual cycles by a day for every seven millennia we use it).

Pope Gregory made the calendar line up with the actual behavior of the planet, but he didn’t fix all of its other problems. Our calendar remains fundamentally irrational.

This means that people, over the centuries, have tried — and generally failed — to improve our calendar. Probably the most famous attempt happened during the French Revolution, during which revolutionaries tried to impose their cherished Enlightenment values of reason on all aspects of life. The French tried to rationalize the calendar and to purge it of all of its connections to both religion and the monarchy.

A member of the National Assembly named Charles Gilbert Romme took charge of the effort. He consulted with a committee of scientists, mathematicians, and even a poet, whose job it was to come up with pleasing names for the months. The calendar no longer used the old way of keeping track of years, based on the (supposed) year of Jesus’ birth — 1789, the year the revolution began, was now Year 1 of the Era of Liberty.

The new calendar still had 12 months, but it took names from the natural events that happened during that part of the year — the summer months were named “harvest,” “heat,” and “fruit.” Each month had three weeks of ten days each, as the revolutionaries tried to “decimalize” everything in their society to make it all more rational. The days got new names, too, simply becoming “first day,” second day,” and so on. Later, a “rural calendar” was created that gave a unique name to each day of the year — days in summer were called rye, oat, and onion, for example, while autumn days were called apple, celery, and pear.

Twelve months of thirty days each only totaled 360 days, so Romme added five days at the end of the year (with a sixth every fourth year to account for leap years) as a period of national celebration. Each of these days had a theme — there was the Celebration of Virtue, Celebration of Talent, and so on. The Celebration of the Revolution only happened in leap years.

The Revolutionary calendar may have briefly “rationalized” the year in France, but it didn’t catch on. Napoleon ditched it for the old calendar in 1805, although the revolutionaries of the Paris Commune brought it back for a couple of weeks in 1871.

The failure of the French Revolutionary calendar didn’t deter others from trying to perfect the way we measure a year. The French philosopher Auguste Comte tried to create a humanistic calendar in the middle of the 1800s. He, like the French revolutionaries, ditched the old names of months — his calendar had months named after philosophers and leaders like Moses, Homer, Gutenberg, and the dog-murdering anatomist Bichat.

This one had 13 months, with each month made up of four seven-day weeks. An extra holiday was added at the end of the year to make the year total 365 days. This calendar had the advantage of predictability — the same date would always fall on the same day of the week, so if you were born on a Wednesday, your birthday would always be on a Wednesday. The same went for holidays. Though it made a lot of sense, Comte’s calendar went nowhere, and it died with him.

In the twentieth century, there were a number of other attempts to perfect the calendar. Moses Cotsworth, a British businessman, tried to promote a scheme very similar to Comte’s (it’s unclear if he knew about Comte’s calendar or just came up with the same idea on his own). He called it the International Fixed Calendar. Cotsworth emphasized the benefits of his calendar for businesses — scheduling and record-keeping would be much easier under his scheme. Cotsworth never got a government interested in his system, but he did convince George Eastman of Eastman-Kodak, who used it at the company between 1928 and 1989.

Elisabeth Achelis, a New Yorker, tried to get her calendar adopted in the 1930s and 1940s. She divided the year into four quarters, each with three months. The first month of the quarter would have 31 days; the other two would have 30.
The last day of the year, Worldsday, would be a global holiday, occuring between the last day of December and the first of January.

The League of Nations held a contest in the 1930s to see if they could make the world’s calendar better. Both Achelis’ and Cotsworth’s calendars were serious contenders, but, alas, the League of Nations soon had bigger fish to fry. When the League fell apart after it failed to prevent World War II, so did Achelis’ and Cotsworth’s dreams of rationalizing the world’s calendar system.

Since none of these schemes were able to gain much traction, we’re stuck with an ancient calendar. Even those of us who have been around the sun dozens of times have to sing an old nursery rhyme (thirty days hath September…) to remember how long each month is. We have to google “what date is election day” every year. I suppose there’s a certain charm to our imperfect system, but I’m sure the old calendar reformers are rolling in their graves to think that we would still put up with such a flawed system.

Dog-Murderer or Great Man of Science?

In the 1700s, there was a fine line between science and butchery

A hanged criminal is dissected in William Hogarth’s “The Reward of Cruelty” (Wikimedia Commons)

We take for granted that we know all about the workings of the different parts of the human body. We understand how the lungs provide oxygen for the blood, how the heart pumps that blood to every extremity of the body, and how the brain controls the whole process. We can see how the interruption of these systems can be dangerous, even deadly.

I’m glad we live in a world where we know these things, but I was shocked to find out that one of the pioneers of anatomy discovered these facts in a series of grisly and cruel experiments.

It was the height of the Enlightenment, and Marie Francois Xavier Bichat was among the scientists who made France in the late 1700s a hub of discovery. He was one of the most important anatomists of his time, making a number of discoveries about the makeup of the organs and the relationships between the heart, lungs, and brain.

Bichat was important in his own time — when he died, Napoleon was notified. The physician who told the emperor of Bichat’s death said that “no one has done in the same time so much and so well.” In the decades after he died, Bichat’s star grew brighter; his name was put on the Eiffel Tower as one of France’s 72 greatest scientists. Now, Bichat is remembered with marble busts and august statues. But the work that made him important was far messier than these memorials imply.

The height of Bichat’s career coincided with the French Revolution. This meant that there were plenty of cadavers around for his experiments — as long as he didn’t need the heads to be attached. Bichat made agreements with his friends in the military so that he could get bodies just after they had died. He used these unfortunate counterrevolutionaries to explore whether organs could function without a brain attached; he found that he could make hearts beat by stimulating them directly.

Though Bichat’s experiments on guillotine victims were macabre, at least he was experimenting on people whose death would have happened with or without him. This wasn’t the case with the animals he worked with. In order to pursue his theories about the relationships between organs and death, he killed countless animals. His basic strategy was to injure one part of an animal’s body to see what happened in the rest of the poor creature.

In order to investigate the nervous system, he cut open animals’ skulls and spinal columns and “irritated” or “compressed” their brains and nerves to see what would happen. He also exposed animals’ brains and caused hemorrhages in order to see how the brain would respond to the injury. This taught him that such injuries can paralyze or activate voluntary muscles, but tend not to stop the function of the heart and lungs.

Bichat didn’t stop there. He wanted to see which substances would kill animals if they were injected into their veins. So he killed countless animals with injections of “ink, oil, wine, coloured water, urine, bile, and mucous fluids.” He noted that the force with which he injected substances into dogs’ carotid arteries could cause immediate brain damage or facial tics. Bichat also asphyxiated animals, sometimes throwing them into flames and water to see what happened. Some of the animals he strangled quickly, others slowly. Some were asphyxiated in a vacuum; others had their chests cut open so that he could squeeze their lungs. These experiments, according to one of Bichat’s biographers, had “virtually no coherent point.” He was just doing terrible things to animals to see what happened.

Perhaps most cruel were Bichat’s experiments on dogs’ respiratory systems. He cut open living dogs’ chests and inserted stoppers into their tracheas and major arteries. He then systematically tightened and loosened the stoppers, carefully noting exactly how close each change took the dog to death. Bichat watched as the dogs’ blood turned black and their hearts stopped. This helped him understand the relationship between the respiratory and circulatory systems. It also resulted in an awful end for a lot of dogs.

Bichat wasn’t alone in his awful treatment of animals. Many of the pioneers of modern science inflicted terrible suffering on an unbelievable number of animals. Almost none of them — even the ones who seemed delightful and kind in every other aspect of life — seemed to be troubled by it.

Though eighteenth century thinkers were beginning to accept the idea that all humans were worthy of respect and rights, they were far from believing the same about animals. The sad truth is that much of our
knowledge about anatomy is based on horrific experiments like Bichat’s. Your modern medical care is, in some ways, a result of the slow and systematic strangling of dozens of dogs by a Frenchman in the late 1700s.

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