Tag Archives: Barbara Tuchman

What Year?

Dave Barry’s end of year review is part of our annual ritual for changing over the calendars. For those unfamiliar with Barry’s work, he was a columnist with the Miami Herald and is the author of numerous humor books. Known for his light touch, as well as his friendship with Stephen King, Barry has a way of finding the fun in what are often trying times. It should be no news that Barry’s work was quite easy this past year. 2017 was so bizarre that few humorous garnishes were required to make it look ridiculous. Even as Barry embellished the facts just a little bit, 45 was starting off 2018 in an even more unbelievably surreal mode. Congressional Republicans, of course, noses permanently stained brown, lock step with him.

I have to wonder when world leaders became so unaware. Perhaps because of the ad hoc declaration of fake news people like Trump think they can rewrite history. History, however, takes a long view. There’s no doubt whatsoever that the Trump administration will be remembered (if there are any of us left here to do so) as one of the strangest and most foolish periods of American history. Even Rome, of course, had its Caligulas. The thing was the evangelical would’ve despised the antics of such an emperor. If Trump had an ass he’d make it a senator. And the GOP would quickly confirm it. Rumor has it that he’s already attempted this.

Those who ignore history, to paraphrase George Santayana, are condemned to live through it again. And Trump, it is clear, doesn’t know history. As the Roman emperors grew more and more decadent, the Visigoths quietly awaited the implosion. When we see the beast and the false prophet squabbling we know that the end of time is near. A cold snap hits the east coast and the pretender-in-chief says we could use some global warming. Global warming, of course, is what triggers such erratic weather. The problem is you have to read to find out such things. And you have to read what you, as emperor, have decreed to be fake news. Historian Barbara Tuchman once stated that you need about fifty years to pass before writing history about an event. Right now we have a White House trying to rewrite history of last January, as if anyone alive then is incapable of remembering what happened a paltry year ago. And what a paltry year it was. Read Dave Barry’s take and find out for yourself.

American Bible

BibleInAmericaAny book that sets itself the task of addressing American culture has, it seems, a built-in obsolescence.  Culture shifts are radical and swift, and it would seem that distance is necessary for any serious analysis.  I am reminded of historian Barbara Tuchman’s opinion that history cannot be written without the passage of at least a half-century. We’re simply too close to the subject matter otherwise.  The Bible in America, edited by Nathan G. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, does not claim to be an analysis of the current situation, but it stands as a representative of how much has changed since the 1980’s.  The era in which the book was written is stamped all over it like the Preppy look or Doc Martens.  American culture was very different then.  Some of the contributors noted that the Bible, as we’ve often been told, is on its way out.  Elections of the new millennium would give the lie to that observation, and we might now argue the same, but I wonder if our view is long enough.
 
The source of my wonder is a basic observation.  The Bible was foundational for the idea of the United States.  Those who have joined the “melting pot” (willingly or unwillingly) have been brought into a soup whose stock is Bible flavored.  I’m not naive enough to think that it is undiluted or even anywhere near its original form, but as a former biblical scholar I’m sensitive to the motifs and themes of the Bible and I see them daily in undiminished numbers.  Transmutation is not the same as exodus.  I make no judgment whether this is a good or bad thing.  It simply is.  Those who think it is an exaggeration to put such prominence on the Bible in American culture should read the first couple of essays in this book.  It may have been that without the Bible the will to cross the dangerous water to an uncertain (and to many, catastrophic) future would not have been so pressing.
 
Like most collections of essays, this little volume has a grab bag of wisdom.  Reading it is like taking a stroll through the ’80’s again.  We seemed to know things with a certainty then that has all but vanished these three decades hence.  The Fundamentalist movement provided a Tea Party appropriate to Mad Hatters and White Rabbits alike.  Presidents declared that we were on Crusades again.  Megachurches have the budgets of small developing nations.  I’m not about to make any predictions for the future of the Bible here.  An observation, simple, but fairly obvious, will have to suffice.  Since colonial times, Americans have always had their Bible.  It hasn’t always been the same book, and it hasn’t always been interpreted in the same way, but it hasn’t ever gone away.  I can’t say about the future, but right now I’m about ready to put on my Ray-Bans listen to some Madonna.
 

Oil’s Well that Ends

Greed has been on my mind quite a bit lately. I like to think it isn’t petty personal greed, but the insatiable corporate variety of greed. Friends send me links to sad commentaries on the Gulf Oil Spill, an event that severely amplifies the cruelty already inherent in nature, but an event that would have been preventable were it not for greed. My friend James from Idle Musings sent me a compelling story from the UK Guardian that poignantly demonstrates how a shift of worldviews has bestowed divine approval on the rape of our planet. The very religion that began as animism, the belief in the ubiquitous divine in nature, has evolved into a Neo-con Christianity that supports free markets as surely as it believes in resurrection. If a few million animals have to die, well, their invisible, loving God sees far more than our limited sight.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the video link my wife pointed out to me last night. Here an advocate for biblical “prophecy” points out that it can not be coincidence that the day after the United States withdrew unilateral support for Israel in the United Nations Security Council was the very day that Deepwater Horizon exploded. No, the pundit declares, do not be fooled. God is punishing the United States for withdrawing support from Israel. This idea, unfortunately, draws on a morass of sloppy theology that can be historically traced to an evangelical death-wish for the planet. Barbara Tuchman, one of the most respected historians of the last century, objectively traces the story in her classic Bible and Sword. Political support for Israel was perceived as a means of forcing God’s hand into releasing the second coming. So much for human sympathy.

Coincidences continually occur. April 19 is the day that Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope just five years ago. It is the day Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco. It is the Feast of Saint Aelfheah of Canterbury. It is Patriot’s Day in New England. It is the day The Simpsons premiered. Whether to see God’s hand in any or all of this is a matter of perspective. As is the motivation behind supporting Israel, big oil, or the second coming. If there is any name other than greed for offering political support for a nation of sacrificial lambs and spilling oil in order to hasten the apocalypse, I simply do not know what it might be.

And this was only April

Sonoco

sonoco2

What do God and great pools of gooey, flammable, decomposed ancient biomass have in common? Quite a lot apparently. A picture in this morning’s paper of a Caribbean Petroleum Corp. storage facility explosion took me back to my childhood. I was born in the same place as the oil industry, although I think it was in different hospitals. Northwestern Pennsylvania is where the industrial use of oil was discovered (ancients had learned that the stuff was extremely flammable and used it for cruel weapons, but never figured how to grease an axle with it). One day my brothers and I were playing outside and noticed flames jetting up from an adjacent hillside. We saw giant ashes, some nearly the size of dinner plates, floating down on a summer day and it seemed like a strange gray snow was falling. A funny smell was in the air. That night on the news we learned that a local oil refinery had exploded and when we went to the site to gawk, it was amazing to see colossal storage tanks melted like so many ten-ton candles. It is an image I’ll never forget.

Lord Balfour envisions chariots of fire

Lord Balfour envisions chariots of fire

My wife’s favorite historian is Barbara Tuchman. We’ve read most of her books. Bible and Sword, however, was especially eye-opening for me. This book describes, step-by-step, how the British Empire forged its alliance with Israel. Tuchman is a meticulous historian, noting minute details that add understanding to the overall picture. One of the key motivating factors that led Lord Arthur James Balfour in his support of a homeland for the Jewish Diaspora was his belief that a physical Israel was required before the Second Coming of Christ could take place. This is a sentiment that has been shared by some recent, very highly ranking American politicians.

Enter Col. Edwin Drake. Drake was the first person to have the idea of drilling for oil. Several local prospectors scampered through the hills of Pennsylvania looking for oil streams where petroleum could be skimmed off the water and refined into kerosene. As an alternative to whale oil, petroleum was much easier to collect and didn’t involve peg-legs spearing great white whales — oh wait, wrong story. As an alternative to whale oil, petroleum made a market impact and soon other uses were descried. There was an oil boom near Titusville, Pennsylvania when Drake hit oil, and soon the industry that give birth to Quaker State, Pennzoil, and Enron was up and running. As uses for petroleum multiplied demand shot through the roof. Drake died in poverty and the industry he helped found rolled ever forward.

Col. Edwin Drake envisioning a drink

Col. Edwin Drake envisioning a drink

After the Second World War, vast oil beds were discovered in the Middle East. Israel was declared a nation, and world-wide demand for petroleum was astronomical. Not all nations of the former Ottoman Empire welcomed the sudden interest in their natural resources or the presence of an allied nation in their midst. Although the roots go deeper and are much more complex, the scenario was set for a crisis that has lasted for my entire life and shows no signs of slowing down.

So what does God have to do with a complex mix of hydrocarbons and other organic compounds? The unbelievable wealth generated by petroleum products has been under-girded with a religious gullibility and deeply held faith that Jesus needs some help in returning. As long as we’re waiting, we might as well get filthy rich. Politicians with connections to Big Oil and the Big Guy have it all figured out. Take all that you can and wait for the God who has blessed you so richly to come home. I still remember that refinery explosion, and some childhood memories have become paradigms and parables that have as many applications as petroleum itself. When the oil beds run dry, what will grease the axles of Kingdom Come?

Mechanical worshiper bowing down to a subterranean god

Mechanical worshiper bowing down to a subterranean god