This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

An encounter between the Mexican army and student protesters in the summer of 1968 in Mexico City's Zócalo (Wikimedia Commons)
An encounter between the Mexican army and student protesters in the summer of 1968 in Mexico City’s Zócalo (Wikimedia Commons)

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From Mexico’s Cold War on drugs to the imperial, racist origins of Nixon’s war on drugs, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

From One Disaster to Another? Mexico’s Cold War and the War on Drugs

Renata Keller

Last week, former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former Colombian president Cesar Gavira, co-published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times declaring the War on Drugs an “unmitigated disaster.” Zedillo and his co-authors, who are themselves hardly progressives, pointed to the spiraling violence and corruption in the region and the weakening of judicial systems and democratic institutions as evidence that prohibitionist, militarized approaches to drug control have failed.

They make a compelling argument, one that could be even stronger given a little more historical context. In Mexico, as in much of the rest of Latin America, the disastrous War on Drugs both resembles and grew out of an earlier conflict: the Cold War. [continue reading]

Hamilton: Old Wine Served Up in a New Star-Spangled Bottle

Christer Petley
Slavery & Revolution

Last semester, I played that video to a group of second year students studying the history of the British Atlantic world. The narrative that Miranda gives runs counter to a lot of the work that we did on that module. He sets up the Caribbean as ‘a forgotten spot’ of the Atlantic World, in counterpoint to ‘the mainland’. Alexander Hamilton’s tale, in Miranda’s rhyme, is one of migration and renewal.

But it runs a familiar detour around the beating economic heart of the eighteenth century British Atlantic in the Caribbean. The sons of wealthy slaveholding West Indian planters were more likely to go to Eton, Oxford or Cambridge for their education than to be dropped in the peripheral spot of a New Jersey grammar school, and the planters of the British Caribbean were so rich, content and powerful that they did not feel the need to join the likes of American slaveholders like Washington, Jefferson and Madison in revolution against the mother country. But that’s a pedantic point. It is silly to expect Hamilton the musical to have reflected recent scholarly turns towards Caribbean perspectives on British Atlantic history … and for Alexander Hamilton, New York and, more importantly, the American Revolution, did give him his shot at becoming ‘a new man’, a shot that—as we all now know—he did not throw away. [continue reading]

‘I am Ashamed to be Sad’: The Remarkable Story of a Jewish Student in 1920s Romania

Paul Bailey

The constantly inquiring narrative voice that informs every page of Mihail Sebastian’s resonant novel For Two Thousand Years, bears a close resemblance to the one that can be heard in the journal he kept from 1935 to 1944, the year before he was run over and killed by an army truck in Bucharest while on his way to give a lecture on Balzac at the university. Sebastian, who was born Iosif Mendel Hechter in Brăila, a port on the Danube, in 1907, was a rising star in Romanian culture when For Two Thousand Years (De două mii de ani) was published in 1934.

He was a respected lawyer, a successful dramatist and a literary critic and commentator on the arts. He had friends who would be famous in middle age: Mircea Eliade, the expert on the subtle differences between the world’s religions; EM Cioran, the maverick philosopher who moved to Paris and became one of the great prose stylists in the French language, and Eugen Ionescu, the future absurdist playwright who Gallicised his first name to Eugène and changed the “u” at the end of his second to an “o” once he, too, had established himself as a Parisian. [continue reading]

Heritage Of Radical Philosophy Under Threat

Morning Star

WORLDWIDE anger has been sparked by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ announcement that it intends to close down the Georg Lukacs Archive in Budapest. Lukacs (1885-1971) was one of the 20th century’s most eminent Marxist philosophers. He first gained recognition as a writer in the tradition of classical German philosophy — the very tradition in which Marx and Engels reached intellectual maturity. Probably his best-known early work is The Theory of the Novel, written “in a mood of permanent despair over the state of the world” during WWI. It was Marxism and the Russian revolution that showed Lukacs a way out of his despair. In 1919, when Hungary was briefly ruled by a revolutionary Soviet Republic or Republic of Councils, the philosopher served as a people’s commissar with responsibility for culture.

He was to remain actively involved in socialist and communist politics throughout his life. His most famous book, History and Class Consciousness, appeared in 1923. With unparalleled precision and clarity, Lukacs distinguishes between class consciousness itself — the way society must appear when viewed from a particular position within it — and the beliefs held by members of any given class at any given time. For students of consciousness, reification and other central questions of Marxist philosophy, Lukacs’s work remains fundamental. [continue reading]

Nixon Policy Advisor Admits He Invented War On Drugs to Suppress ‘Anti-War Left and Black People’

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

Dan Baum, writing in support of drug legalization at Harper’s, has unleashed a frank 1994 quote from former Nixon policy advisor John Ehrlichman, and as inadvertently salient an argument for legalizing drugs as any I’ve ever seen:

At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

I must have looked shocked. Ehrlichman just shrugged. Then he looked at his watch, handed me a signed copy of his steamy spy novel, The Company,and led me to the door. [continue reading]