Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Imperfect Value of History. Reflections From Miller.

There are no certain ways to predict outcomes of policies or trends in human society. No scientific tests. But one element we have to instruct us is experience of the past. Undeniably, this is a flawed resource. Interpretations differ, some information cannot be recovered and future human behavior is unpredictable. But, if we witness incidents recurring, political acts producing similar results, we at least have some minimal guidance.

In 1794, the major parties were the Federalists and the Republicans.  That year, the US signed Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain. This treaty upset Britain’s chief enemy of the time, revolutionary France, who “retaliated by withdrawing its minister from Philadelphia…and seizing [US] shipping on the high seas.” When the Federalist President, John Adams, sent a delegation to Paris, they were “approached by agents (designated in the American minister’s dispatches as X, Y and Z) of Talleyrand, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who demanded a bribe for the Directory and a loan to France as prerequisites to negotiations…it was a fatal miscalculation: the XYZ Correspondence was published by the United States government; the country was swept by an unexampled wave of patriotic feeling.” (Miller, p. 4).

Since Republicans had favored an alliance with France over Great Britain, they found themselves in an unpopular position. Reading the national sentiment, the Federalists decided to capitalize. They claimed that there was a “French faction” in the US, and that the “political allegiance of the Republican party and this French faction were identical.” All things French became suspect. “Jacobins were everywhere…Even children’s books must be scanned…Jacobins were seeking to corrupt the younger generation.” Republicans were accused of taking “orders directly from the [French] Directory.” (Miller, pp. 11-13).

Feeling their advantage, the Federalists proposed the Alien and Sedition Acts. In brief, these acts permitted US officials to both eject foreigners considered to be undermining the US, and suppress free speech by citizens and newspapers thought to be critical of the federal government. These acts were signed into law by President Adams in 1798.

This campaign to tar Republicans with the brush of Jacobinism, along with a paranoiac fear of foreigners felt by the populace and encouraged by the Federalists, will remind careful readers of other events in US history. During the first Red Scare in 1919 (aka the Palmer Raids), union and leftist offices were ransacked by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s agents, as punishment for exercising their rights of free speech and assembly. At that time, over 5,000 foreign-born citizens were deported from the US. During the second Red Scare (aka the McCarthy Era), purges of US citizens from institutions as broadly different as Hollywood and the US Army occurred. In each of the two Red Scares, the label “Bolshevism” was applied to our country’s alleged, foreign-allied enemies, in the same way that “Jacobinism” was applied to Republicans in 1798. In each of the two Red Scares, the charge that traitorous Americans were taking orders from Moscow, mirrored the 1798 accusation that Republicans were taking orders from Paris.

While repetition of occurrences in  history does not  guarantee identical recurrences in the future, it does indicate behavior of which we  should observe with concern. It  is helpful to have a grasp of historical events. In this way, when a demagogic individual or group arises again and asserts that we should persecute foreign-born citizens, repress freedom of speech or otherwise make decisions based upon fear, we will  have the information to resist infringements on Constitutional Rights. History is  not  a science; it is only memory. Memory is an imperfect quality and predictor. But if it is one of  the faculties we possess to examine societies, we should use it.

Miller, John C. Crisis in Freedom. The Alien and Sedition Acts. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Secular vs Religious University Education in the Eighteenth Century German States. From Watson.

In the German states, prior to 1734, university teaching was dominated by Catholic and Protestant proponents of Christian education. Since the purpose of religious education is to preserve a particular sect’s understanding of the world, little was done to encourage new learning. “Teaching methods were backward. The norm was the teaching of static truths, not new ideas; professors were not expected to produce new knowledge.” (Watson, p. 50).

The year 1734 is significant because that is the year that the University of Gottingen was founded with Gerlach Adolph von Munchhausen as its Kurator. “Munchhausen ensured that theology played a relatively quiet role. Gottingen became the  first university to  restrict the  theological faculty’s traditional right of censorship…By this enlightened measure, Gottingen’s freedom to think, write and publish, became unparalleled in Germany.” (Watson, p. 51). In addition, Munchhausen encouraged the teaching of non-theological courses. The subjects of physics, politics, natural history, mathematics, history, geography, art and modern languages, flourished.

With a broader definition of education, which included topics that required research and the expansion of knowledge rather than the repeating of old dogma, Gottingen found it necessary to introduce a new structured environment to convey learning. In addition to the lecture, the traditional way a professor imparts established wisdom, Gottingen initiated the seminar. Revolutionary for its time, the seminar allowed a group of interested students, with a professor, to discuss their ideas and research. Seminars were conducted in smaller rooms to invite exchange, rather than in lecture halls. That the student was perceived to have individual thoughts and ideas for exploration, which might contribute to a general pool of knowledge, was itself an innovative idea.

An emphasis on original research began to evolve for both students and faculty. Students’ research evolved into the PhD dissertation. Likewise, faculty were not just freed, but expected, to perform and publish original research. The first German professional academic journals were developed at Gottingen for communicating the research of professors. Previously, the main way that a professor could contribute to the literature of knowledge was by adding glosses in the margins of traditionally accepted works.

Though Gottingen was the first German university to employ these techniques, their superiority over pre-existing static forms became apparent over time. The methods employed by Gottingen expanded to other universities. These universities created “a new stratum in German society” which “achieved a prominent position in Germany by means of its domination of the state bureaucracy, the church, the military, the professoriate, and the professions. The self-understanding of this new stratum, which more than any other group helped account for the revival of German culture, set it apart from the traditional, more commercial middle class…a German intelligentsia.” (Watson, p. 54).

What followed was a reading revolution and the notion that learning was a lifelong pursuit. This thirst for learning created a golden age of German science, technology, thought and arts, which persisted for almost two centuries. None of this would have been possible without the initial vision to restrict the religious domination of learning and emphasis on dogma. It is a lesson for all of us that when we remove the bonds of religious education, we make room for knowledge, innovation and the expansiveness of secular education.

Watson, Peter. The German Genius. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Baader-Meinhof. The Inside Story of the RAF by Stefan Aust.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the majority of college students in West Germany opposed their government’s complicity with the US war in Vietnam and support of totalitarian regimes in developing nations. This resulted in protests against German foreign policy, which were accompanied by police violence against protesters. On June 2, 1967, during a particularly brutal police riot, Detective Karl-Heinz Kurras shot a pacifist protester named Benno Ohnesorg who had been beaten into unconsciousness. This was a lynchpin event for the formation of the Baader-Meinhof Complex, later known as the Red Army Faction (RAF). While most students subsequently chose to continue non-violent activism against West German/NATO international activity, a small cadre of activists began organizing an urban terrorist campaign.

Stefan Aust’s Baader-Meinhof. The Inside Story of the RAF is a thoroughly engrossing read. It is difficult to remain impassive when faced with terrorist and state violence, stories of life underground, and the zeitgeist of a tumultuous era.  In addition to the dramatic history it portrays, this book elucidates the ideas and values that produced this organization, as told by a professional reporter. Reporters who write histories tend to employ some of the traits they would use in their news-writing: attempting to grab the reader right away with action and verbs. While Aust occasionally falls victim to this habit at the outset, he does settle-down to write a more sober chronology as the book progresses.

Baader-Meinhof follows the evolution of this organization from its 1967 inception to the announcement of its disbanding in 1998. It presents both events of that time and biographies of individuals within and without the RAF. The prodigious number of individuals presented can be confusing. There is an extensive, useful index, to which the reader may refer when a previously introduced but forgotten person reappears in the record. A quick reference glossary of individuals involved, would have been helpful.

Throughout the book, Aust struggles to remain intellectually balanced about the time and the RAF. But he was a student activist and writer on college newspapers during this period. He had met many of the members of the Baader-Meinhof group prior to their going underground. Additionally, two RAF members planned to shoot Aust after he helped liberate Ulrike Meinhoff’s twin daughters from a Palestinian camp and return them to their father (Aust, pp 75-78). The reader will promptly see how his perspective is colored by events and politics about which he still has strong opinions. Aust favored the goals of non-violent protesters of his generation. He abhors the activities of the Baader-Meinhof group, whom he characterizes as “terrorists” and compares to Islamist terrorists in our generation (Aust, p. xii). As a result, it is up to the reader to play the part of dispassionate, quasi-scientific historian, where the writer cannot.

As a written work, Baader-Meinhoff resides in a nether region between primary and secondary historical source. Some of the information is the product of research about the past. Enmeshed among the details is the attempt of an informed participant to come to terms with his own development. One may obtain knowledge concerning the era discussed if one is capable of parsing these elements. It is valuable to examine both the flow of events and how a writer of a given time sees those events. Stefan Aust provides one with this challenge and opportunity.

Aust, Stefan. Baader-Meinhof. The Inside Story of the RAF. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009.