Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Merry Christmas from Maximilien Robespierre (with a side-note on that Newton business)

From the vaults via last year's Tumblr post:

Understandably enough, we tend to think of December 25 primarily as Christmas, thereby ignoring or forgetting other events that occurred on that date. Among the latter is the birthday of Isaac Newton (1642).

Neil deGrasse Tyson caused a stink this year when he made what he thought was a witty tweet about this coincidence and aroused the ire of some who thought he was anti-Christian. In fact, he was doing nothing new or particularly clever: advocates of science have for some years promoted celebration of the 25th as Newton’s birthday as a light-hearted way of increasing awareness of scientific knowledge.

I always honor the birthday of the scientific revolutionary Newton, but also the occasion of a major address by the political revolutionary Robespierre.

read the rest

Friday, December 25, 2015

Traditions of Christmas Past: from boisterous to banned to bourgeois

From the vaults, via last year's Tumblr post:

“‘At Home’ in the Nursery, or The Masters and Misses Twoshoes Christmas Party,” by George Cruikshank (1792-1878)
Etching with hand coloring.
Image dimensions: c. 214 x 267 mm (approx.  8.4 x 10.5 inches)
Signed in the plate, “G Cruishank fect” (left) and “Pubd. Augt 1st 1835, by Thos McLean, 26, Haymarket.” (right)

This is the second issue. The print first appeared in the 1826 collection, Holiday Scenes, published by Samuel Knight (active 1805-41). Thomas McLean (1788-1875) reissued it 9 years later in Cruikshankiana, an assemblage of the most celebrated works of George Cruikshank. He largely effaced the original Knight signature, but it survives as a ghost imprint above his own, at lower right:

“London Pubd Jany 3d 1826 by S Knight, 3 Sweetings Alley [{Roy[a] X'Change’}]
Not yet "Victorian” in the strict (or any other) sense, the etching nonetheless lacks the ribaldry or bite of Cruikshank’s other early (especially political) work: it manages to be satirical and sentimental at once. We can already recognize in it our received image of Christmas as domestic idyll, familiar from Dickens to “The Nutcracker” (though the evolution of the latter is a tale in itself).

The fourteen (count 'em!) children–this, at a time when the average British family size peaked at around 6 children (1, 2)–play with a mixture of sedate enjoyment and abandon as a stout serving-woman brings in a tray of treats. The image is rich in period detail, from the toys and the copy of the Eaton [sic] Latin Grammar abandoned on the floor, to the delicate jelly-glasses (whatever possessed the parents of that day to put them in the hands of youngsters?) and the faux-bamboo “fancy chairs” on which the children sit or climb.

The etching also also suggests why the Calvinists and their American descendants held no truck with Christmas. Theologically, it was a problem for them because its celebration was not biblically mandated, and the date of Jesus’ birth was in any case unknown. The holiday was moreover associated with revelry–whether heavy drinking by adults or just boisterous behavior, as shown in our print–that seemed incommensurate with the spirit of a holy festival.

Such was certainly the attitude here in Massachusetts, where Christmas celebrations were banned in 1659, as the legislature put it: “For preventing disorders … by reason of some still observing such ffestivalls as were superstitiously kept in other countrys, to the great dishonnor of God & offence of others.” The state lifted the ban in 1681, but it took more than a century and a half before things really began to change. Under the influence of shifting national tastes, Christmas began to assume its familiar lineaments of wholesome domesticity and consumption. (In Massachusetts, Irish immigration also contributed to the shift.) The 1855 Christmas celebration at the Worcester Free Church under minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a symbolic turning point. The following year, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed, “We are in a transition state about Christmas here in New England. The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so,” and the legislature officially recognized the holiday.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Happy Hanukkah To My Readers (and a reminder of the legacy of the Jews from Arab countries)

Wishing a happy Hanukkah to all my readers who celebrate the holiday!

Israel Hanukkah coin, 1973

Nominal value: 5 Lirot [pounds], Silver proof (34 mm., 20 g)
Catalogue C/177; quantity: 45,000

The coin, the eighth in the annual series, depicts a menorah from eighteenth-century "Babylon[ia]" (Iraq) from the Israel Museum.

The choice might at first seem surprising to Americans, accustomed as we are (because of immigration patterns and cultural assumptions) to associate Judaism almost exclusively with eastern Europe. In fact, as late as the fifteenth century, the majority of Jews lived in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

That situation changed as a result of improvements in social and political conditions in Europe. By 1880, fully 75 percent of world Jewry lived in eastern Europe alone, and only 8 percent in the Near East. Those 8 percent comprised some 620,000 Jews.

A century later, the picture had radically changed again. By 1992, MENA accounted for over a third of the world total. The Holocaust had murdered some 72 percent of European Jews, and immigration to Mandatory Palestine and then the new State of Israel had shifted the balance. Although we instinctively think of Holocaust survivors, that group and immigrants from MENA in fact each accounted for roughly 48 percent of the total in the first three years of statehood.

Whereas the plight of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees from the War of Independence is deservedly familiar to any educated person or reader of the news, it is less well known that some 850,000 Jews--almost the entirety of the populations from Arab lands of the Near East--were forced to emigrate since 1948. This unacknowledged, involuntary exodus has gradually been gaining attention, for example, through the work of organizations such as Justice for Jews from Arab Countries and the blog, Point of No Return: Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries. Whether it will become a factor in regional peace talks remains to be seen. Justice for Jews from Arab Countries stresses that its effort "is not a campaign against Palestinian refugees" and, rather, simply seeks to "ensure that the rights of hundreds of thousands of Jews displaced from Arab countries be similarly recognized and addressed."

The middle of the twentieth century thus witnessed the destruction of both traditional cores of the world Jewish population, and all that they had contributed to the nations in which they had lived. The depiction of the menorah on the coin was, in the words of the Israel Coins and Medals Corporation, intended as a tribute to the legacy of one of those lost cultures and its descendants:
It has been chosen as being symbolic of the spiritual strength and belief of Jews, in Arab countries, in their return to Zion and in our days of their leaving "the rivers of Babylon", from dark to light, from oppression to prosperity and from bondage to redemption in the Land of Israel.

* * *

A footnote about food:

Fun facts about food: Not just populations, but also Hanukkah culinary traditions vary from region to region. Although Americans think of latkes (potato pancakes) when they think of Hanukkah food: well, . . . think about it.

1) The origin of the festival derives from the supposed miracle of the oil. Therefore, the essence of the festival foods is not their basic substance, and rather, the fact that they are fried in: oil.

2) In any case, the potato could not have been part of that tradition because it is indigenous to the Americas, reached Europe only after the Spanish and Portuguese voyages of discovery as part of what Alfred Crosby famously called "The Columbian Exchange," and did not become popularized until much later. It is therefore a nineteenth-century addition to the menu (however welcome).

In the Near East and premodern Europe, the festival food was thus fried dough (in some cases: cheese), typically, a kind of proto-doughnut known as sufganiyot. In the Sephardic tradition: fried batter with syrup (bimuelos in Spanish: [recipe]); in modern Israel: jelly doughnuts (recipe).

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Trump and Perverse Pearl Harbor Analogies

Normally, I would reserve the time around the anniversary of Pearl Harbor for posting about the attack itself, rather than the dismaying consequences for US domestic history (there is plenty of time for that at other times of year, especially the Japanese American Day of Remembrance).

However, I'll bend that rule this year.

In the wake of Donald Trump's demand that the government "shut down" entry to the US by Muslims (see previous post), some of his enthusiastic supporters helpfully sought to justify the proposal by likening it to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Pressed on the matter, Trump, who usually doubles down on every claim, only half-owned this position, citing FDR's anti-naturalization proclamations against German and Italian as well as Japanese aliens. Pressed still further, Trump waffled. When asked whether he was praising the World War II internment camps for Japanese Americans, he told both Joe Scarborough and George Stephanopoulos that he was not, but he was less definitive in replying to the question from Time:  "I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer."

In point of fact, of course, the issue turns less on the treatment of enemy aliens than of American citizens whose ethnicity was their only link to the Axis powers. And here, our citizens were treated very differently. Although the large German and Italian American populations had significant elements sympathetic to fascism, whereas--in the words of the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives--"No Japanese American or Japanese national was ever found guilty of sabotage or espionage," it was the latter who were singled out for collective internment.

That didn't turn out very well.

Whether you are familiar with the story or need a refresher, here's a little piece from the vaults, discussing the climate of fear that led to the internment order and caused many Americans to applaud or at least acquiesce in it.

* * *

Other posts on the Japanese American internment camps and related topics.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Donald Trump vs. George Washington on Muslim Immigrants

"Religious Freedom in America" canceled?
stamp commemorating the
Flushing Remonstrance, 1957

The bizarre political candidacy of billionaire developer Donald Trump continues to generate amazement: After each outrageous statement, pundits declare him politically dead, only to see his popularity continue to grow. If his mocking of Vietnam War hero John McCain did not do him in, what could?

A gaffe too far?

It was bad enough when Trump assented to a reporter's goading suggestion to establish a database to register Muslims. And his comment about Syrian migrants as potential "great Trojan horses" was among the flood of nationwide anti-refugee sentiment that prompted the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to make a rare entry into the political sphere and issue a sharp warning. This week, commentators are wondering whether he has finally gone too far.

Yesterday's call for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" provoked outrage across the political and cultural spectrum. Fellow Republican candidates Christie, Graham, Rubio, Kasich, and Bush castigated the remarks as "ridiculous," "dangerous," "offensive and outlandish," "outrageous," and "unhinged." Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley for the second time branded Trump's ideas as "fascist." (1, 2Jewish groups joined in the condemnation. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, not known for being squishy on issues of national security, said, "this whole notion . . . goes against everything we stand for and believe in. I mean, religious freedom has been a very important part of our history and where we came from." This morning, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan made an unusual intervention, saying Trump's plan "is not conservatism . . . is not what the party stands for and more importantly is not what the country stands for."

"to bigotry no sanction"

What else need one add? Perhaps it will suffice to contrast Mr. Trump's views with those of the first man to hold the office he seeks.

George Washington, though a slaveholder, to be sure, was celebrated for his commitment to both Enlightenment values and democracy. In 1790, as the states were debating the amendments that would constitute the Bill of Rights, he received a letter of greeting from the Jewish congregation of Newport. The new President responded:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. . . .

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
The letter is today an iconic document of pluralism: oft-cited, and ceremoniously read from the pulpit of Newport's Touro Synagogue each year.

"They may be Mahometans, Jews or Christian of an Sect, or they may be Athiests"

By contrast, Washington's attitudes toward Islam and Muslims are less familiar. There were no large formal Muslim American congregations akin to the Touro synagogue, but there were Muslims aplenty among the captive African workers of the South, a fact now coming to be recognized in the interpretation of historic sites such as Mount Vernon, but only gradually making its way into popular consciousness. Diversified agricultural enterprises such as Mount Vernon depended upon a large labor force, free as well as slave, and Washington, for whom this property was his life's work, was ever on the lookout for skilled artisans. Upon learning that German immigrants ("Palatines") were arriving, he wrote to Tench Tilghman in 1784:
I am informed that a Ship with Palatines is gone up to Baltimore, among whom are a number of Trademen. I am a good deal in want of a House Joiner and Bricklayer, (who really understand their profession) and you would do me a favor by purchasing [=hire on contract; JW] one of each, for me. I would not confine you to Palatines. If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews or Christian of any Sect, or they may be Athiests. I would however prefer middle aged, to young men.
Washington may have been exaggerating in order to make the point that he judged a man only by his skills, but it was clear that the principle of toleration would extend to free Muslims including voluntary immigrants. When Washington wrote his letter to the Newport congregation, the United States was unique in guaranteeing full civil and political rights to citizens of all faiths (even the French revolutionaries were still grappling with the issue). Traditional New Englanders had worried that religious "toleration" "opened a door for Jews Turks & infidels" as citizens, but that was exactly the point. Richard Henry Lee, though an advocate of tax-supported religion, wrote to James Madison in 1784: "True freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo (Hindu) as well as the Christian religion." And, addressing Irish immigrants the previous year, Washington declared, "The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions."

Now, which attitude seems more presidential, more American?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Is Your Restaurant Breeding Bolsheviks?

When we visited Boston earlier this fall for a little family gathering, we stayed, for sentimental as well as practical reasons, at the classic Parker House (now, technically, Omni Parker House).

As I had my breakfast and glanced across the room at a couple of the friendly and accomplished restaurant staff, I could not help but wonder what brought them here and where they might end up in 20 or 30 years.

Home of . . .?

The Parker House, founded in 1855 and now celebrating its 160th anniversary, is famous for many things, from the foods that it introduced to the American table (Parker House rolls, Boston Creme Pie, Boston sc[h]rod) to its distinguished clientele: from the "Saturday Club" of Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, Agassiz, Dana, et al., to occasional visitors such as Charles Dickens.

However, I could not help but think of the famous figures who worked there long before they attained world renown: namely, two of the most influential radicals of the twentieth century. Future Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh worked there as a baker from 1911 to 1913, and in the early 1940s, Roxbury resident Malcolm Little worked there as a busboy. It was only after going to prison in 1946 that he converted to Islam and became Malcolm X.

A kind of long but indeterminate period of time which will live in infamy?

Because it's December 7 today: Admittedly, the Omni Parker House website screws things up, saying, "Malcolm X was a busboy in the early 1940's during the Pearl Harbor invasion." Sorry: there was a Pearl Harbor attack on one Sunday morning, but the Japanese invasion--as I thought everyone knew--failed to materialize. There is after all a reason that we still use FDR's phrase, "a date which will live in infamy." Not a week or a couple of months or several years. A date.

"So Ho Chi Minh conceivably could've baked a Boston Cream Pie?"

Just before Thanksgiving, even CBS News alluded to the political connection:
"Malcolm X was a busboy," he said. "Ho Chi Minh worked in the bake shop."

"So Ho Chi Minh conceivably could've baked a Boston Cream Pie?"

"Yes, he could." And Malcolm X presumably could've cleaned up after somebody that had just eaten one.
Who's biding his or her time in the restaurant that you patronize, while dreaming of greater things? Treat them respectfully and tip generously. It's the right thing to do. And besides: who knows?