Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Brief History of Peru, by Christine Hunefeldt.

Peru is a country with a rich, ancient and diverse history. Whether one is exploring Peruvian history to prepare for travel there, or to become more acquainted with one’s world, A Brief History of Peru is worth considering as a reading option. Examining a foreign culture will expand a reader’s understanding and empathy, as well as illuminating one’s own culture by revealing similarities and differences.

Within the space of 300 pages, Christine Hunefeldt takes her reader from the period of Inca Civilization’s predominance, through Spain’s conquest and colonization, into the post-imperialist present with all the conflict and turmoil associated with independence. A “brief history” indeed. This exploration is punctuated by the nation’s history of racial injustice against native Quechua- and Aimara-speaking indigenous populations. Like most places in the world, economic injustice accompanies racism. In Peru, this combined injustice is fostered by the nation’s oligarchy, which composes 1% of the population. Most of the wealthy are of Spanish descent. The composition of this racial/economic group stands in contrast to Peru’s majority, 50% of whom lived below poverty level as of 2005. The author, who has a well-developed sense of injustice, is certainly up to the task of displaying these characteristics of regional history. She is of a liberal-progressive bent. The last section of the last chapter in the book is a two-page political screed on new indigenous movements which include new agendas like “the redefinition of territory; the defense of indigenous languages…defense of cultural values, collective rights and ways of living” (Hunefeldt, p. 288). These truly legitimate issues appear alongside some questionable issues like “the defense of biodiversity and nature” (Hunefeldt, p. 288). Environmental defense is usually imposed by privileged white westerners on indigenous populations. It is true that some individuals within native cultures are concerned with industrial misuse of the land on which they live. However, the majority of indigenous peoples want the material goods and prosperity that westerners have and are even less inhibited than we around destroying the environment to get it.

Christine Hunefeldt is an able historian. She marshals the facts into an understandable chronology and writes comprehensibly. She is not a theorist with the sophistication of Jurgen Habermas. She does not discern patterns with the analytical originality of Eric Hobsbawm. She does not write a compelling narrative with the skill of Dena Goodman. In fact, there are periods in the book that drag like those middle school social studies classes which made many hate history. Her accounts of colonial bureaucracy, or early Twentieth Century import/export differentials, are civics hell. Skim such areas to avoid drudgery. But in less than 300 pages, one will obtain a plethora of information and a basic grasp of Peruvian history. If this is your goal, A Brief History of Peru will not disappoint.

Hunefeldt, Christine. A Brief History of Peru. New York: Lexington Associates, 2010.

Classical Liberalism. From Levin.

Classical Liberalism, (the set of ideas promoting liberty, equality and free markets), was developed in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. This political philosophy was a response to feudal European monarchy and aristocracy. Its goal was to support the aims of a rising middle class by extending voting rights, political representation, economic latitude and freedom of speech to that class. Political agitation favoring Classical Liberalism produced the intended result of eventually creating representative governments in Europe, and the unintended result of inspiring working class peoples to advocate for their inclusion in the political process.

When this political philosophy crossed the Atlantic to the British Colonies, the results were different in form. Classical Liberalism inspired the American Revolution’s opposition to monarchy. Its outcome was the United States. This is where European and US paths diverge. Europe continued to have an adversary to Classical Liberalism, in the form of its dwindling aristocracy and entrenched monarchy, both of whom surrendered their grip on government only by having their tenacious, resistant fingers slowly pried from the wheel. Conversely, the United States after the Revolution had no such opposition. In the words of Murray Levin, “the absence of a genuine aristocracy and a reactionary medieval Catholic church advocating traditional European conservative ideology of the brand of Burke or of De Maistre is a fundamental fact of American history. The absence of a conservative tradition hastened the triumph of liberalism and contributed to the totality of its victory. The absence of Conservatism denied to Americans an alternative model to liberalism…The speed and the sweep of that triumph fixed the liberal mold so that the unfolding of American history is the unfolding of liberalism” (Levin, p.  242).

During the examination of history, one must be careful in defining the terms “Liberal” and “Conservative” to a contemporary audience: it should be stressed that in western history, “Conservative” only meant upholding the hegemony of monarchy and aristocracy; “Liberal” meant the political ideals that oppose such a Conservatism as elucidated in the opening paragraph. That said, however, there was an evolution that took place. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Liberalism did evolve into today’s Social Liberalism, based upon the principles of liberty and equality. One could hardly, using the Enlightenment tool of reason, support liberty and equality only for the middle class. A system which claims to support freedom and equality, but does so only for the group that developed the notion, is inconsistent and hypocritical. In a country where women and so many minorities, all recognize that the principle of equality applies to them as well, it is inevitable that notions of Liberalism would evolve to include their demands. Freedom of speech and representation became stepping stones for a variety of social and political perspectives to be heard. Our homegrown Conservatism which arose in reaction to these wholly American developments, was never (at least in word) opposed to the constitutional principles created as a safeguard against monarchy or totalitarianism. When US Conservatives acted to suppress and censor groups seeking freedoms, they never stated an opposition to the Bill of Rights; they just acted in ignorance of its principles based on emotion-based prejudices against the listed groups. The most ironic political occurrence is that American Conservatives have been the most vociferous and repressive forces in favor of the established Liberal doctrines during our two Red Scares in the 1920s and the 1950s. American Conservatives have supported free markets and the Constitution, during Red Scare periods, using the same enthusiasm with which they opposed the aforementioned groups agitating for their rights through constitutional means. Classical Liberalism is such an ingrained part of American Democracy that even those who claim to oppose today’s Social Liberals, support the roots from which Social Liberalism developed. In today’s United States, both Liberals and Conservatives are Classical Liberals.

Levin, Murray B. Political Hysteria in America. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1971.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. An American Slave, by Frederick Douglass.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the author’s own account of that period of his life between birth in slavery and escape from slavery. Its’ 1845 publication catapulted a recently free dock laborer, from anonymity to national importance. “The Narrative’s initial edition of 5000 copies was sold in four months. Within a year four more editions of 2000 copies each were brought out.” (Douglass, p. xiii). Douglass’s books, his tireless speaking engagements in the US and overseas, and his newspaper (The North Star) which he founded and edited, were among the most eloquent instruments of abolitionism.

The success of the Narrative lay in the author’s prose. They are dignified and highly readable. There is little self-criticism in this autobiography. We readers of the 21st Century have become accustomed to accounts in which the author honestly reveals personal flaws. But this was not a fashion of the more reserved Nineteenth Century. Besides, this book, like many other slave chronicles, was meant to serve as abolitionist propaganda, by elucidating the horrors of slavery. Showing a noble individual, contending with brutally repressive circumstances, made more sense for the purpose of this writing. Several books written (or ghost written) by slaves had been published prior to Douglass’s effort. But none met with the success enjoyed by this New Bedford dock worker. His style is at its’ best when it is lean; at its’ most awkward when he hangs a literary reference on his lines. Fortunately, there are few such references. He reveals the horrible abuses of slavery and its’ attempts to the crush human spirit, with a largely unembellished, straightforward method.

During his lifetime, Douglas withstood numerous charges that a recent slave could not have produced such a maturely composed book.  Masters routinely attempted to keep slaves from learning any reading, let alone writing. They fully understood that education would lead to a desire for freedom; while ignorance made one more malleable. The Narrative presents a consistent theme that will interest readers of non-fiction, who seek learning of their own accord: it depicts both the slave owner’s attempts to prevent and punish learning, and Douglass’s unquenchable desire to learn. The author employed numerous clandestine, persistent and clever tactics, to educate himself. Readers today, who find themselves with limited time and energy for personal edification, will gain inspiration in these pages, from one who faced greater obstacles.

But the most valuable element in reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, is that one is holding in one’s hands a piece of history. The book is a precious artifact of our country’s past, through which one of our ancestors speaks to us directly about freedom and dignity, while revealing a period of our history. The story itself contains the chronicle of an individual who lived though a terrifying, unjust time, and survived to escape with his self respect intact. So many hands have touched this book, and so many minds have shared in its discovery, that it is one of the chief documents which expresses our national character and our aspirations. Given that we continue to strive as a society to overcome racism, these aspirations are both of our past and of our present.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. An American Slave. Cambridge:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1988.