Posts filed under “History”


Annual Christmas Number.

Christmas crackers.—In the early 1600s, Puritan terrorists blew up houses with gunpowder if they displayed holly wreaths for Christmas. The Christmas cracker of today is a memory of that colorful tradition.

Christmas stockings.—In olden days, Christmas was a time when feudal nobles traditionally gathered in raiding parties to attack their neighbors and bring back their stockings to nail up as trophies above the fireplace of the great hall.

“Jingle Bells.”—The song “Jingle Bells” was originally meant to be sung as a round by horses. The coming of the internal combustion engine has made that tradition all but extinct.

Nativity.—Most Nativity scenes displayed at Christmas are risibly inaccurate, because they leave out the obstetrician.

Wise Men.—There were four wise men who came from the East, but the fourth’s gift of a wall-mounted singing bass has for some reason not been remembered in tradition.

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From the BBC coverage of the Canadian elections:

“Mr Trudeau, the 43-year-old son of late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, said Canadians had voted for real change.”

Now, you or I might think that real change might involve a prime minister whose father had not been one of the most famous and longest-serving prime ministers in Canadian history, but we would be wrong. And in fact most people who read that sentence probably thought either, “Yes! Real change! Out with the Conservatives, in with the Liberals!” or “Blast it, now that the wicked Liberals are in power things are really going to change around here.” Few probably stopped to think that real change would not look so much like its father.

Meanwhile, the United States election may well match Bride of Clinton against Son and Brother of Bush.

When did North American politics become dynastic? Perhaps it always was, and we had not noticed. And that thought caused Dr. Boli to remember something G. K. Chesterton had said, in which—as usual—he hit on something that ought to be obvious, but is not, and expressed it in terms that could hardly be improved. And even if you are a fanatical admirer of G. K. C., you may never have read this, because it was from an introduction to a collection of stories by Maxim Gorky, and you probably did not know that Chesterton wrote an introduction to a collection of stories by Maxim Gorky.

Russia has far more inherent capacity for producing revolution in revolutionists than any country of the type of England or America. Communities highly civilized and largely urban tend to a thing which is now called evolution, the most cautious and the most conservative of all social influences. The loyal Russian obeys the Czar because he remembers the Czar and the Czar’s importance. The disloyal Russian frets against the Czar because he also remembers the Czar, and makes a note of the necessity of knifing him. But the loyal Englishman obeys the upper classes because he has forgotten that they are there. Their operation has become to him like daylight, or gravitation, or any of the forces of nature. And there are no disloyal Englishmen; there are no English revolutionists, because the oligarchic management of England is so complete as to be invisible. The thing which can once get itself forgotten can make itself omnipotent.

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Sometimes one brings the entire Internet down on one’s head, and then one can only pick through the rubble. Dr. Boli has just done that twice in one week, so there is quite a lot of rubble to sort through.

First, there was the article about slavery. After thousands of words in the article and comments, Dr. Boli has only succeeded in obscuring his thoughts rather than elucidating them. He has seen traffic coming in to that article from what seem to be Southern-apologist sites, which irks him to no end, because he meant it to show why radical abolitionism—a demand that slavery be ended everywhere at once and not simply mitigated here and there—was the only sound intellectual position in the time of Robert E. Lee. When it becomes impossible for even a reasonably good man to act on his better instincts, then it is time to turn the world over and give it a good shake.

Here is what Dr. Boli meant to say: If you think that, in the same situation, you would have been a better person than the average Southern slaveowner, you are deluding yourself. You would have fallen down into the same slough of evil. That’s it. Don’t judge the past from a lofty peak of self-righteousness, and you’ll understand both history and yourself a lot better. You will also understand that the fight against evil did not end with a resounding victory in 1865.

Then there was the question of the cranky Web site that proves, beyond all possibility of doubt, or even of reading to the end of the argument, that the Catholic Church apostatized fifty years ago. This brought up an acrimonious debate on the subject of Church history, which Dr. Boli now feels obliged to sort out. It is worth noting, by the way, that the author of the Web site that started it all responded to being called a “crank” with more charity and civility than the rest of us could muster, which made Dr. Boli a little ashamed of himself.

Here is the history of the Christian Church to Constantine’s time, as Dr. Boli sees it, in one paragraph.

The Christian movement began with Jesus and his small rabble of mostly low-class followers, but already by the Acts of the Apostles we see it grown so large that it needs layers of authority. There were heresies from the beginning, but it was always clear from the numbers alone that they were heresies, and that there was a main stream of Christian thought. In fact, many or even most of the heresies gloried in their exclusivity—they were the chosen few, unlike the rabble who didn’t get it. This was, of course, what led to their ultimate extinction in the Darwinian world of Roman religions: you need the rabble if your religion is going to make it to the big time. So by the time of Constantine, the Christian hierarchy was recognizably similar to what we see in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and similar branches of Christianity today. Constantine made no serious change to the structure of the Church; it had the same leaders before and after his conversion. But he made it a lot richer.

What Constantine did invent was politically weaponized Christianity. The Eastern Church regards him as a saint. The West…well, not necessarily.

Incidentally, the sincerity of Constantine’s conversion is much debated, but Dr. Boli thinks Constantine was absolutely sincere, for the simple reason that he delayed his baptism until he was near death. It would have been trivially easy to have himself very publicly baptized if he thought it was a lot of superstitious nonsense that was demographically useful. But he took the washing away of sins seriously, and he had a lot of sins planned for the future.


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Since we were talking about the evils of slavery, it seems to Dr. Boli that no amount of argument can demonstrate the pervasiveness of the evil as well as this simple illustration from Mark Twain, which comes from Following the Equator. He has stopped at a hotel in Bombay, and a long troop of Indian hotel employees has followed him to his room, led by a German supervisor.

There was a vast glazed door which opened upon the balcony. It needed closing, or cleaning, or something, and a native got down on his knees and went to work at it. He seemed to be doing it well enough, but perhaps he wasn’t, for the burly German put on a look that betrayed dissatisfaction, then without explaining what was wrong, gave the native a brisk cuff on the jaw and then told him where the defect was. It seemed such a shame to do that before us all. The native took it with meekness, saying nothing, and not showing in his face or manner any resentment. I had not seen the like of this for fifty years. It carried me back to my boyhood, and flashed upon me the forgotten fact that this was the usual way of explaining one’s desires to a slave. I was able to remember that the method seemed right and natural to me in those days, I being born to it and unaware that elsewhere there were other methods; but I was also able to remember that those unresented cuffings made me sorry for the victim and ashamed for the punisher. My father was a refined and kindly gentleman, very grave, rather austere, of rigid probity, a sternly just and upright man, albeit he attended no church and never spoke of religious matters, and had no part nor lot in the pious joys of his Presbyterian family, nor ever seemed to suffer from this deprivation. He laid his hand upon me in punishment only twice in his life, and then not heavily; once for telling him a lie—which surprised me, and showed me how unsuspicious he was, for that was not my maiden effort. He punished me those two times only, and never any other member of the family at all; yet every now and then he cuffed our harmless slave boy, Lewis, for trifling little blunders and awkwardnesses. My father had passed his life among the slaves from his cradle up, and his cuffings proceeded from the custom of the time, not from his nature. When I was ten years old I saw a man fling a lump of iron-ore at a slaveman in anger, for merely doing something awkwardly—as if that were a crime. It bounded from the man’s skull, and the man fell and never spoke again. He was dead in an hour. I knew the man had a right to kill his slave if he wanted to, and yet it seemed a pitiful thing and somehow wrong, though why wrong I was not deep enough to explain if I had been asked to do it. Nobody in the village approved of that murder, but of course no one said much about it.

It is curious—the space-annihilating power of thought. For just one second, all that goes to make the me in me was in a Missourian village, on the other side of the globe, vividly seeing again these forgotten pictures of fifty years ago, and wholly unconscious of all things but just those; and in the next second I was back in Bombay, and that kneeling native’s smitten cheek was not done tingling yet! Back to boyhood—fifty years; back to age again, another fifty; and a flight equal to the circumference of the globe—all in two seconds by the watch!

“My father was a refined and kindly gentleman”—and yet his usual method of addressing a slave was to get his attention with a smack. This is what owning slaves does to the moral sense of refined and kindly gentlemen. There are still—incredible as it is to say—Confederate apologists who argue that slavery was a largely benevolent institution, because it was in the economic interest of the slaveowner to treat his property well. When you hear their arguments, you will remember Mark Twain’s story of his refined and kindly father.

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