August 20 is President Benjamin Harrison’s birthday

August 19, 2017

President Benjamin Harrison and his granddaughter. Image found on Pinterest

President Benjamin Harrison and his granddaughter. Image found on Pinterest

Benjamin Harrison was born August 20, 1833. Happy birthday to the ghost of Benjamin Harrison.

President Benjamin Harrison visiting Salt Lake City, Utah, during his western tour as president. Can you find Harrison in the photo?

President Benjamin Harrison in Salt Lake City, Utah during his Western tour of the United States, 1891, April 14 through May 16 / George Elbert Burr, photographer. George Elbert Burr papers, 1885-1972. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Can you find Harrison in the photo?

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Happy birthday, President Bill Clinton!

August 19, 2017

In an undated photo from CNN, Hillary and Bill Clinton enjoy smiles with their granddaughter Charlotte.

In an undated photo from CNN, Hillary and Bill Clinton enjoy smiles with their granddaughter Charlotte.

Bill Clinton was born August 19, 1946. He’s 71 years old today.

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August 2017: When should you fly your U.S. flag?

August 11, 2017

U.S. and Wyoming flags fly at the Buffalo Bill Dam, near Cody, Wyoming. That corner of Wyoming will experience a total eclipse of the sun on August 21, 2017. (Not necessarily at the dam site, of course) Trip Savvy image.

U.S. and Wyoming flags fly at the Buffalo Bill Dam, near Cody, Wyoming. That corner of Wyoming will experience a total eclipse of the sun on August 21, 2017. (Not necessarily at the dam site, of course) Trip Savvy image

August in the U.S. is a lazy, often hot, summer month.  It’s a month for vacation, picnicking, local baseball games, camping, cookouts and beach vacations.  It’s not a big month for events to fly the U.S. flag.

Except, perhaps, in Olympics years, when the U.S. flag is often flown a lot, in distant locations. About 50 percent of photographs of the U.S. flag flying in August features an American Olympic athlete.

Only one event calls for nation-wide flag-flying in August, National Aviation Day on August 19.  This event is not specified in the Flag Code, but in a separate provision in the same chapter U.S. Code.  Three states celebrate statehood, Colorado, Hawaii and Missouri.

Put these dates on your calendar to fly the flag in August:

  • August 1, Colorado statehood (1876, 38th state)
  • August 10, Missouri statehood (1821, 24th state)
  • August 19, National Aviation Day, 36 USC 1 § 118
  • August 21, Hawaii statehood (1959, 50th state)

If you want to fly your flag for the eclipse of the Sun on August 21, 2017, you may do so.

You may fly your U.S. flag any day. These are just the suggested days in law.

The American Flag, as it is known today, flies over Fort Stanwix National Monument. It is flown following the U.S. flag code regulations. At all times of the year it is a quite a site to see. National Park Service VIP Mike Hucko

US flag at site of a bitter siege in August, 1777; National Parks Service Caption: The American Flag, as it is known today, flies over [Fort Stanwix] National Monument. It is flown following the U.S. flag code regulations. At all times of the year it is a quite a site to see. National Park Service VIP Mike Hucko

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Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

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300 Spartans, led by Leonidas died August 11, 480 B.C.

August 11, 2017

It’s a different Leonidas, but Michael Phelps last year tied a record for winning 12 solo events in Olympics previously held by a man called Leonidas of Rhodes. The record had stood, as best historians can tell, for 2,168 years.

That was August 10, 2016. On August 11, we remember Leonidas of Sparta, for events in war, not peace.

300 popped up on some movie channel back in 2008 as I was preparing to teach world history again.  I did not major in history, and my high school history instruction featured no AP courses (Pleasant Grove High, in Utah, didn’t offer such things then; I assume they do now, but I don’t know).

What I knew about Sparta and the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae came from my reading encyclopedias as a child, and culture.  Never had an occasion to write a speech about the events, though had I known the history better, I might have found some opportunity.  Sen. Orrin Hatch would have loved a compare and contrast speech between the stand of the Spartans and his work against the labor law reform bill in 1977 and 1978; more likely, we could have used the simple historical facts that the stand of the 300 at the same place today would be impossible due to poor soil conservation practices of the local farmers, which has created a plain broad enough for a Persian Army to march through with impunity, never fearing drowning in the sea that no longer exists there.  Thermopylae is a grand historical metaphor for a good orator.  The simple facts of history are important, too — Churchill knew Herodotus’s stories well, and considered them when planning military actions in the area in two world wars.

The movie came up from students in the previous year; it offered, perhaps, a hook for an introduction to world history, explaining why we bother to study it at all.

I got a time delay recording to watch it, which I did, mostly.  Interesting stylization.  Cartoonish characterizations, which one should expect from a movie intended as homage to the graphic novel that directly spawned it, more than an instruction about history.  We might doubt that the Persians had trained and armored rhinoceroses in their armament.  Dialogue — well, this is Hollywood.  It would have been in some dialect of Greek, and no Hollywood scriptwriter would have been able to reproduce it.

What about the battle itself.  World history courses in U.S. high schools should pay attention to this battle, I think.

A monument to Leonidas I - Inscription, Molon Lave, which roughly translates to Come and get it!

A monument to Leonidas I – Inscription, “Molon Lave,” which roughly translates to “Come and get it!”

Several sources dated the climax of the battle as August 11, 480 B.C. — 2,497 years ago. (The battle is said to have occurred during the Olympics that year, too.)

World history classes dig through that period of history in the first semester.  Teachers, it’s time to think about how we’re going to facilitate this history this year.  As always, some bright student will wave a hand in the air and ask, “Mr. Darrell!  How do they know what happened if no one survived, and nobody had their Sony videocorder?”

At least one other student in the course of the day will be surprised to discover the movie wasn’t a filmed-on-the-spot documentary.  But apart from that, how do we know the events well enough to pin it down to one day?  And, since the Greeks surely didn’t use the Gregorian calendar, since it wasn’t invented until the 18th century — how do we know the date?

The short answer is “Herodotus.”  The longer answer may resonate better:  This is one dramatic battle in a year-long fight for the history of the world.  The Greeks were understandably and justifiably proud that they had turned back Xerxes’s armies and navy (The Battle of Salamis, a bit after Thermopylae).  So, these events were preserved in poetry, in the chronicles, in song, in sculpture, and in every other medium available to the Greeks.  Your AP English students will probably tell you the movie reminds them of The IliadThere’s an entré for discussion.

Turning points in history:  Had Xerxes succeeded in avenging his father’s, Darius’s, defeats, and subjugated the Greeks, history would be much different.  The culture the Romans built on, the trading patterns from east to west and around the Mediterranean, the technologies, the myths, and the stories of the battles, would be different. (Remember, one of Darius’s defeats was at the Battle of Marathon, from which we get the modern marathon racing event, the traditional close of the modern Olympics.)

How do we know?  How do we know?

How do you handle that question?  (Tell us in comments, please.)

I like this battle for the way it ties together many of the loose threads that vex high school sophomores.  Is history exciting?  It can be, as the Frank Miller graphic novel and and the Zack Snyder movie demonstrate.  How important is accuracy in making the story exciting?  (Do the rhinoceroses improve the story of the courage of the Spartans, or merely offer a good graphical metaphor for the overwhelming forces of the Persians?)  What happens when one nation invades another — who has the advantage?  Is knowledge of geography important — in battle, for example?  The philosopher Santayana notes that those who do not remember history are “condemned” to repeat it.  Xerxes tried to apply the lessons of the history of his father’s failed invasion; was he successful?  Remember this point:  Napoleon failed in his invasion of Russia in 1812; Adolf Hitler assigned his generals to study Napoleon’s failure, for Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941; so convinced were the Germans that they knew the lessons, they invade Russia on the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion.  Did it go any better?  George Washington consciously patterned his life on the great Roman warrior and leader, Cincinnatus — especially in turning over rule once the task was done, as Washington did twice.  What if Washington had, instead, patterned his life after Leonidas?  How might the American Revolution have turned out, and how might the United States have developed, had Washington sacrificed himself as Leonidas did?

The story of the Battle of Thermopylea, the bravery and cunning tactics of Leonidas and the 300, the wars between Persia and the Greek City States, form a good foundation for a study of history at any point after.  It is the stuff of great history, and the stuff of great rhetoric.  It could be the stuff of great AP essays and good writing exercises in general.   Damn the Common Core State Standards*, and damn the misguided Texas critics of CSCOPE, this is a topic I wish more world history teachers would spend some good, profitable time on

Resources and commentary on Thermopylae, Leonidas, and the 300:

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Livius.org map of the area where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought

Livius.org map of the area where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought. Note that, in purple, the map shows where a plain now exists, which was an ocean the Spartans could use to squeeze the Persian Army, about 25 centuries ago. What a difference 25 centuries can make.

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*  Common Core State Standards in social studies actually would support what I’m asking here, if only they weren’t filtered through state school boards who do not value scholarship, but instead wish history to be a checklist of faux-patriotic bullet points to regurgitate.  Here in Texas, we are not affected by Common Core — but we are affected by meddling in history standards by people whose agenda does not include making history exciting and good.  Common Core standards — technically — do not mention Thermopylae.  However, this is the sort of material, including the original texts of Herodotus, whose study the Common Core standards encourage, especially for analysis of the sort I think Thermopylae invites.  Texas TEKS allow mention of the battle, though the Battle of Thermopylae has been purged from the actual standards; Texas lesson plans frequently suggest “watching a film on the Battle of Thermopylae,” and “Answer questions on the battle; trade and grade.”  Teachers infuse those dull words with life — we hope.  Teachers’ actual practice in the classroom is the saving grace for this important history, in Texas; Texas world history teachers face their own Xerxes.  The Texas Lege recently removed the requirement that students study world history, instead giving them a choice of either world history or world geography.  And so the dumbing down of history by (probably well-meaning, but not well-thinking) legislators continues.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

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Carl Sagan’s “foreboding” of a dumb America; too late to stop it?

August 9, 2017

NASA photo of Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Mars Viking Lander, in Death Valley, California. Or was it taken on Mars? How could we tell, if we lacked sharpened and practiced critical thinking practices?

NASA photo of Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Mars Viking Lander, in Death Valley, California. Or was it taken on Mars? How could we tell, if we lacked sharpened and practiced critical thinking practices?

Are we already too late?

In The Demon-Haunted World in 1995, astronomer and thinker Carl Sagan worried about the directions America was heading, intellectually, and what it could mean for the future. He wrote:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

Sagan had hope. His book’s full title is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark.

Should we hold that hope today? Elections in 2016 demonstrated that false news does sway the electorate, superstition can overcome knowledge. Worse, too many Americans cannot tell the difference. In a time when millions of Americans profess to work to find “the way,” we confront those same people wandering aimlessly through American culture, apparently with little clue as to how far off the path of reality they are, or any real understanding of what “the way” would even look like. Their compasses operate on faith, not magnetism; their compass needles point whichever way they want them to point, with no fixed power to guide them.

Sagan didn’t write that long ago. A child born in 1995 just voted in her first national election — we hope. Perhaps she didn’t bother to register, and did not vote. What causes our national lack of motivation to even vote, to push our government in the directions we think it should go?

How do we remove the barriers to that motivation? is a more important question.

Was Sagan right? Are we doomed?

We have cause to worry, I think.

  • 58% of Americans eligible to vote, voted in 2016. While that’s near a recent high-water mark, it’s a paltry percentage compared to other democracies in the world. Apathy was highest in key states Donald Trump carried; Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but trailed President Barack Obama’s 2012 totals by 2 million votes, in those key states. 2016’s election was decided by people who did not vote.
  • While tensions run high in the Korean Peninsula, only about 36% of Americans can find Korea on a map. Most of those who can find Korea favor diplomacy to resolve tensions, not war. Who was the wag who said God gives us wars so Americans learn geography? (It was Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly in 1879, rephrased and repeated dozens of times by others.)
  • Flat Earthers? Oy.
  • Anti-vaccine movement. Chem-trails fearfuls. Climate change dissenters. Creationists. Moon-landing deniers. Racists. So-called non-racists who oppose immigration completely. Republican senators who imagined a tax cut for the wealthy would help working and poor Americans have better health. DDT advocates. “Libertarians” and so-called conservatives who fear “socialism” of the economics of John Maynard Keynes, one of the foremost capitalism defenders in economics.
  • Cuts to education. As a barometer, consider Texas, where 25 years ago the state provided 67% of funding for public schools. After decades of cuts, the state provides only 38% of public school funding in the 2017-2019 budget. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick touts the total as an increase.
  • Cuts to science. Trump administration proposals slash all science research dramatically, as if we already have cures for cancer and the common cold, and Alzheimer’s disease.

To be sure, we can find pockets of hope. Girl Scouts demonstrate great success with new programs to attract girls to careers in science, with special camps for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Boy Scouts have their own initiative. But the Texas legislature cut back on math, science and geography requirements for graduation. For every hopeful sign, there’s another sinister sign.

How can we tell civilization, and humanity, gain ground?

 

Pollsters for the New York Times asked 1,746 Americans to locate North Korea on a map. 36% could do it; many of the guesses are troubling, if not downright shocking. In the map above, from the New York Times, correct answers are marked in red, incorrect in blue.

Pollsters for the New York Times asked 1,746 Americans to locate North Korea on a map. 36% could do it; many of the guesses are troubling, if not downright shocking. In the map above, from the New York Times, correct answers are marked in red, incorrect in blue.

“Science as a candle in the dark” is a good image.

How can we provide light in the darkness, if we don’t have a candle, and we can’t find matches?

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The Tweet that piqued my interest tonight:

 

 

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53 years ago: August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

August 7, 2017

August 7 is the 53rd anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the resolution which authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to move troops into South Vietnam to defend U.S. interests.

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed by Congress on August 7, 1964, as presented to President Lyndon Johnson, and signed by him on August 10. This is the document that authorized U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Image from the National Archives, Our Documents display.

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed by Congress on August 7, 1964, as presented to President Lyndon Johnson, and signed by him on August 10. This is the document that authorized U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Image from the National Archives, Our Documents display.

The resolution passed Congress after what appeared to be attacks on two U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.  At the time, and now, evidence is weak that such attacks took place.

Most historians today think the evidence for the attacks is inconclusive; many argue it is unlikely North Vietnamese gunboats would have opened fire on a vastly superior U.S. Navy warship. Debate is complicated because the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution effectively substituted for a declaration of war, in a war the U.S. arguably lost, which divided Americans as rarely before, and which cost more than 58,000 soldiers and civilians their lives.

How will we view the Tonkin Gulf resolution in 50 years, with the history of two much longer wars in the Middle East factored in? What do you think?

Quick summary from the National Archives:

On August 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced that two days earlier, U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin had been attacked by the North Vietnamese. Johnson dispatched U.S. planes against the attackers and asked Congress to pass a resolution to support his actions. The joint resolution “to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia” passed on August 7, with only two Senators (Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening) dissenting, and became the subject of great political controversy in the course of the undeclared war that followed.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution stated that “Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repeal any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.” As a result, President Johnson, and later President Nixon, relied on the resolution as the legal basis for their military policies in Vietnam.

As public resistance to the war heightened, the resolution was repealed by Congress in January 1971.

Santayana’s ghost looks on in wonder.

Map of divided Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. History Place map via Mr. Roache's Place

Map of divided Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. History Place map via Mr. Roache’s Place

Considering its powerful effect on American history, the document is very, very brief.  Here’s the text [links added]:

Eighty-eighth Congress of the United States of America
AT THE SECOND SESSION

Begun and held at the City of Washington on Tuesday, the seventh day of January, one thousand nine hundred and sixty-four

Joint Resolution
To promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.

Whereas naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam, in violation of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law, have deliberately and repeatedly attacked United Stated naval vessels lawfully present in international waters, and have thereby created a serious threat to international peace; and

Whereas these attackers are part of deliberate and systematic campaign of aggression that the Communist regime in North Vietnam has been waging against its neighbors and the nations joined with them in the collective defense of their freedom; and

Whereas the United States is assisting the peoples of southeast Asia to protest their freedom and has no territorial, military or political ambitions in that area, but desires only that these people should be left in peace to work out their destinies in their own way: Now, therefore be it

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.

Map showing ship movements reported during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, on August 4, 1964; reports that North Vietnamese gunboats attacked and engaged two patrolling U.S. Navy ships pushed Congress to authorize President Johnson to take extensive defensive actions.

Map showing ship movements reported during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, on August 4, 1964; reports that North Vietnamese gunboats attacked and engaged two patrolling U.S. Navy ships pushed Congress to authorize President Johnson to take extensive defensive actions. (image from Wikipedia map 8/2017)

Section 2. The United States regards as vital to its national interest and to world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.

Section 3. This resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions created by action of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be terminated earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress.

[endorsements]

And on that authority, “Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression,” the U.S. spent the next 11 years in all-out warfare in Vietnam, with up to 500,000 military troops in the conflict, and losing the lives of more than 58,000 men and women. Can we ever know what really happened, or what motivated President Johnson to ask for the resolution, or what motivated Congress to pass it?

U.S. engagement in Vietnam continued well after the repeal of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1971.  In 1973 a peace treaty was signed between the U.S., North Vietnam and South Vietnam.  The provisions of the treaty did not hold; a final North Vietnamese military push in April 1975 crumpled the South Vietnamese government and army.  The few remaining U.S. forces made an emergency withdrawal as Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon.  Vietnam was reunited by force, under a communist government.

Attacks on the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy — if they occurred — took place early on August 4.  President Johnson might be excused for having done nothing on the issue at the time.  That was the same day that the bodies of three civil rights workers were discovered by the FBI, murdered by a pro-segregation mob with clear ties to the local Ku Klux Klan.  Either event, the Gulf of Tonkin, or the Mississippi civil rights murders, could be a major event in any presidency, testing to the utmost the leadership and peace-making abilities of a president.  Johnson dealt with both events at the same time.

Three American civil rights’ workers, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, were lynched on the night of June 21–22, 1964 by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County‘s Sheriff Office and the Philadelphia Police Department located in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The three had been working on the “Freedom Summer” campaign, attempting to register African Americans to vote.

On a commission from the Dallas Symphony, composer Stephen Stucky composed a piece during the Lyndon Johnson Centennial in 2008; Kathryn and I heard the world premiere of August 4, 1964, on September 18, 2008.  Stucky’s piece (with libretto by Gene Scheer) is the only place I know where anyone has seriously considered the nexus between these two, opposite-side-of-the-world tragedies, and how they set the stage for the rest of the 1960s decade.   The piece has been recorded by the Dallas Symphony.  I highly recommend it.

Here’s a video from the Dallas Symphony on the piece:

What have we learned from this bit of history? What should we have learned from it?

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Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

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August 4, 1944: Germans capture Anne Frank and her family

August 4, 2017

Image and Caption from CNN: A handwritten page of Anne Frank's diary includes photos of herself on the beach during a holiday with her sister, Margot. The two sisters would live hidden in the annex with their mother, Edith; father, Otto; and another family.

Image and Caption from CNN: A handwritten page of Anne Frank’s diary includes photos of herself on the beach during a holiday with her sister, Margot. The two sisters would live hidden in the annex with their mother, Edith; father, Otto; and another family.

When I look at the time line, I feel frustrated and angry.

On August 4, 1944, the German Army in the Netherlands raided the warehouse where Anne Frank’s family hid from the Nazis since 1942.  As you know, Anne died in a concentration camp shortly after — only her father survived from her immediate family.

History students will recognize that this was nearly two months after D-Day, the Invasion of Normandy that set off the events leading to liberation of Europe from Nazi rule and the collapse of Hitler’s grand visions of conquest.  How could Nazi minions not know their time was limited, and oppression ultimately futile?

Germany surrendered in May 1945.  In nine months, the Frank family would not need to hide.  Anne died in March 1945, less than eight weeks before the surrender of Germany.

1980s postage stamp from the Netherlands, honoring Ann Frank's memory.

1980s postage stamp from the Netherlands, honoring Ann Frank’s memory.

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Photos from the liberation of Amsterdam, which occurred on May 6, 1945:

This is an encore post.

This is an encore post.

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