HistoryJournal.org

Art and moral courage

Posted in Art, Continental, Museums, Storytelling by Alex L. on February 12, 2012

Louvre Museum at dusk (image courtesy of Gloumouth1 via Wikipedia)Does being an atheist mean you have to be non-religious, asks popular philosophy writer Alain de Botton? In a new book and in an interview on the podcast Philosophy Bites, he answers that atheists should give certain religious practices a second look.

Himself an atheist, de Botton argues these points in the interview: (1) it’s easy for people of all beliefs to forget moral lessons they’ve learned in the past and continue repeating their mistakes, (2) religions do a good job of creating a “moral atmosphere” that inspires people to think about goodness, evil, suffering, and kindness; (3) art museums should organize at least some of their galleries not chronologically but thematically, taking inspiration from church services that through the senses invite the viewer to consider moral and ethical questions; and (4) atheists should adopt for themselves ideas that they like from any religion just like one may both like and dislike certain parts of the same work of literature.

Can going to a museum make one morally courageous? I agree with de Botton’s first proposition, and I also think that art can remind us of our values. For me, narrative-centered art forms like film, literature, and biography have the strongest impact on reinforcing my beliefs (or challenging them, for that matter). Static forms of art (like painting) or highly stylized ones (like opera) are more difficult for me to apply to my life. Even though I still enjoy them, I lack a mental paradigm to delve into their truths. Music, poetry, and philosophy writing break down for me in the middle: the more their arguments and observations are delivered in a narrative form, the more I am capable of thinking seriously about them. (more…)

Advertisements
Tagged with:

A generation passed away

Posted in European, War by Alex L. on February 9, 2012
Photos of the last veterans of World War I

From left to right: Florence Green (d. 2012; UK), Claude Choules (d. 2011; UK), Frank Buckles (d. 2011; US), and Erich Kästner (d. 2008; Germany)

The last surviving veteran of World War I, Florence Green, died last Saturday. The last American to have served in the war, Frank Buckles, as well as the last veteran to have actually seen combat, Claude Choules, died last year. Their generation saw the accumulation of European culture and technology–the hope of the world–burn for four years on the pyre of war. Theirs was also the first generation to sweep away the ashes and sculpt new strains of Western culture. But almost everything that they (and others after them) wrote, painted, said, and filmed bore the mark of the trauma of World War I.

With the death of these last veterans, we have lost the eyewitnesses to these events. All data now about that time will be secondhand. And collective memory fades quicker when individual memories are stored on hard drives, manuscripts, and film than in human heads.

But there are important lessons to be learned from the experiences this generation recorded. These lessons are best not forgotten, as the men and women would once have told us, who witnessed the radiant procession of humanity in the brilliant summer of 1914 unwittingly march to their oblivion.

That constitution is best which…

Posted in American, Politics, Press by Alex L. on February 7, 2012

Detail of the U.S. ConstitutionAn upcoming study in the New York University Law Review finds that the U.S. Constitution is losing favor as a model for new constitutions around the world, reports the New York Times. Since the 1960s and 1970s, when the American document witnessed its height of popularity, foreign governments have turned to more progressive constitutions such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for inspiration.

The N.Y. Times article suggests three reasons for the decline in popularity worldwide of our Constitution: (1) America’s decreasing influence and reputation, (2) conservative judges’  insistence that the original intent of the Founding Fathers be considered in rulings, and (3) the absence of rights that are featured in other nations’ constitutions (e.g. rights to travel, food, education, and healthcare).

Should these be causes for concern for Americans?

Addressing the first reason, I think the greatest blows to American reputation happen when the U.S. initiates wars of questionable cause. American involvement in Vietnam and Iraq (2003-2011) soured America’s image around the world during a time when we needed support for broader conflicts (Cold War and the War on Terror, respectively). We should become more wary of beginning a war. (more…)

What have we learned from the Iraq War?

Posted in Foreign Affairs, War by Alex L. on February 4, 2012

The news stories are sounding awfully familiar. Nuclear weapons inspectors return home from the Middle East frustrated by their uncooperative hosts. The U.S. threatens military action. Television and radio channels across the world beat the battle drums. Public opinion rises in favor of war.

It seems like the prelude to the Iraq War is now repeating itself with Iran. The bulk of American armies quartered in Iraq flew back home in December. They were met in the United States quietly and with respect for their hard-fought victories. But the nation also remained silent about what the Iraq War has meant for the future of American foreign and domestic policy. There has been no real dialogue about this, and that is worrisome.

Chart of public opinion in the U.S. toward taking military action against Iran

Source: NBC News/WSJ Polls via PollingReport.com

America buried thousands of its soldiers in the Middle East, and Iraq lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians because of the conflict. The Iraq War cost the American taxpayer nearly 2 trillion dollars. This money could have been used to help solve the healthcare problems in America or even just eliminate our chronic budget deficits.

But the public seems willing to sacrifice more blood and treasure in Iran without even discussing the cost. Saddled by a monstrous amount of debt, can our nation even afford another such war?

The president, who may have to take a hard line against Iran as a diplomatic tactic, can’t initiate a national dialogue about the feasibility of war in Iran. That’s the job of Congress, the media, and the public–before the decision is made for us. And the war in Iraq is an excellent reference point for such a debate.

New history books (January 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Politics, War by Alex L. on February 2, 2012

History Off the Book

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).

War of 1812

Knights-of-the-SeaThis year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Many overlook this conflict, but it inaugurated important changes for America. During the war, America tried unsuccessfully to invade Canada, Washington D.C. was invaded and burned by the British, American Indian unification efforts (which were supported by the British) against the colonists were dealt a punishing blow, and the lyrics of the “Star Spangled Banner” were composed. After the war, British and American relations began to improve until eventually the two nations became each other’s closest ally in the 20th Century.

Several new books are being published in commemoration of the anniversary. Three that were released last year—two popular ones by George C. Daughan and Stephen Budiansky and a more scholarly one by Kevin D. McCranie—focus on the naval conflict. But the best new overview of the War of 1812 is by J.C.A. Stagg and is due to come out on March 31 of this year.

The book I’m most excited to read, though, is David Hanna’s Knights of the Sea: The True Story of the Boxer and the Enterprise and the War of 1812. The ships HMS Boxer and USS Enterprise dueled off the coast of Maine on a brisk autumn day. The captains of the opposing vessels were later buried together in a dual funeral on the American shore, inspiring the poem “My Lost Youth” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (more…)

Tagged with: , ,