From the “global order” myth to how a glowing sea creature helped spark the Vietnam War, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Andrew J. Bacevich
During the Age of Trump, Year One, a single word has emerged to capture the essence of the prevailing cultural mood: resistance. Words matter, and the prominence of this particular term illuminates the moment in which we find ourselves. All presidents, regardless of party or program, face criticism and opposition. Citizens disinclined to support that program protest. Marching, chanting, waving placards, and generally raising a ruckus in front of any available camera, they express dissent. In normal times, such activism testifies to the health of democracy. Yet these are not normal times. In the eyes of Trump’s opponents, his elevation to the pinnacle of American politics constitutes a frontal assault on values that until quite recently appeared fixed and unassailable. In such circumstances, mere criticism, opposition, protest, and dissent will not suffice.
Simply put, Trump’s most ardent opponents see him as an existential threat. As such, the stakes could hardly be higher. Richard Parker, who lectures at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and several Harvard graduate students, created what they call Resistance School, which in three months signed up some 33,000 anti-Trump resistors from 49 states and 33 countries. “It is our attempt to begin the long slow process of recovering and rebuilding our democracy,” says Parker. Another group styling itself the DJT Resistance declares that Trump represents “Hatred, Bigotry, Xenophobia, Sexism, Racism, and Greed.” [continue reading]
County Cork is full of twisting little lanes, lined at this season with steep banks of wild roses, foxgloves and fuchsia; and last week I got lost in them. First the road narrowed, then it grew a strip of grass down the middle, and eventually turned into a rough gravel track that climbed steeply and turned sharply into what looked like the remains of a farmyard, where it stopped. As I started on a three-point turn, a dog began to bark and a figure appeared, a man in late middle age, who by the state of him looked to have spent an entire life among cattle, manure and straw. He was smiling.
“You’ll have taken the wrong road?” A long conversation began. He said the same thing several times – if I wanted the Kilcrohane road, I should turn around and take the left fork at the third house on the right – but each time he added a fresh question, so that he seemed to combine two personalities. On the one hand, it was like meeting a garrulous Irish farmer as portrayed by those old, condescending cartoons in Victorian copies of Punch magazine; and on the other, someone far more sophisticated, who had possibly learned the subtlest interrogation techniques during a career with MI6. Where had we come from? Where we staying? Did we often come to Ireland? Why were we in County Cork? [continue reading]
Critical Legal Thinking
Mr Macron has been nostalgic lately. First, he was nostalgic for the 18thcentury and hereditary rule asserting that the French people did not want to execute the king and that the revolution has left a (king-shaped) void at the heart of the Republic that only other paternal figures can fill. Then, Mr Macron was nostalgic for the 19th century. Responding to a question about the possibility of a Marshall Plan for Africa, the French President dismissed the idea purporting that, unlike Europe after 1945, Africa’s problem is ‘civilisational’ and, therefore, an intervention along the lines of the Marshall Plan would be a waste of billions that would not stabilise anything. Macron’s response is striking, and telling not only of a certain inherited colonial mentality towards Africa, but about European ruling classes’ contemporary imperial tendencies and the links between these tendencies and attempts at restructuring capitalism at home and abroad.
Some of Macron’s assertions are so far from the truth that it is tempting to dismiss them without much discussion. However, I suggest that some turns of phrase of the French President need to be taken seriously but not literally. [continue reading]
Toynbee Prize Foundation
Human rights are facing perhaps their greatest challenge yet. After a failed military coup in July last year, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has led a purge of the country’s central institutions. A much-contested referendum in April only expanded Erdoğan’s stranglehold on the government. Over a similar timeframe, Erdoğan’s Filipino counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte, has spearheaded a devastatingly brutal antidrug campaign, sanctioning the extra-judicial killing of thousands of suspected drug users and sellers. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has imprisoned members of the political opposition, arrested human rights activists, and outlawed many aid organizations. Meanwhile, the United States—traditionally considered human right’s earliest and greatest champion—has seen the election of President Donald Trump. According to a tally compiled by Amnesty International, in just one hundred days in office, Trump threatened human rights in at least as many ways.
Viewed from today’s perspective, it might seem like it’s only recently that the US has ceded global leadership on human rights. But, as Dr. Steven L. B. Jensen shows in his book The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values (2016), the history of human rights was never simply a story of American or Western hegemony. Moving the locus of study to Jamaica, Ghana, the Philippines, Liberia and beyond, Jensen argues that human rights were as shaped from within the Global South as they were from without. In Jensen’s words, actors from the Global South “gave a master class in international human rights diplomacy to both the Eastern and the Western actors.” [continue reading]
On a gray summer day in 1966, Todd Newberry was watching seabirds squabble above the kelp forests of California’s Monterey Bay, when a sailor struck up a conversation that changed his understanding of the Vietnam War. The stranger turned out to be a Navy sonar engineer assigned to the destroyer USS Turner Joy. Just two years prior, Turner Joy, along with USS Maddox, had reportedly been attacked by Vietnamese boats in a mysterious battle known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. This encounter was pivotal in plunging the United States into the decade-long war that killed 58,000 Americans along with 2.5 million Vietnamese and Southeast Asians. But even today, it’s still not clear whether the Turner Joy and Maddox had actually been under fire.
“He was not supposed to be talking about this stuff, I’m sure,” says Newberry, a professor emeritus of marine biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz who recently recounted this conversation to me. As Newberry tells it, the sonar engineer spoke of strange shapes picked up on the Turner Joy’s sonar displays during the supposed attack. The objects were the size of torpedoes, but they didn’t move like any torpedo the engineer had ever seen before. They seemed to have a will of their own—to come at the ship, then drift right under. [continue reading]