American History

It has been a long time since the last post. Life is busy and routine-oriented. If you’re in you’re in, and if you’re out you’re out. College graduation and a big move have brought me back to a point where I want to be in. That and recent events.

On Wednesday night, nine of our fellow Americans were massacred in a church. A man walked into the church and sat in on a Bible study for about an hour, and then opened fire. He left one woman alive to testify to what he had done. There was also a five-year-old who survived by playing dead. The words he spoke to the woman have been ringing in my eyes ever since I first read them. I will not repeat them here.

There are almost an infinite number of reactions to this horror. Many of them have been acted and spoken and written through a variety of mediums and platforms – vigils to protests to quiet prayer and tears – in the past few days from politician and citizen alike. One thing that is often said in times like these (and there have been far too many times like these, unfortunately there will be more) is that there are no words. On its face, this is in some ways a true and reasonable response. Words can do incredibly many things, but they do not have the power to contain the awfulness of such a thing as this. They only contain what the mind can hold. Unfortunately, this is not enough. It is not enough to be speechless in such times. Especially when there are so many words that must be said to rebut the words of the murderer and the murderer himself: racist, appalling, disgusting, repellent, criminal, abominable, killer, murderer, evil, liar, pathetic, narcissist, paranoid, cynical,…, American. The last one may be the most important of all. This was a crime committed against Americans, by an American. The crime took place in the state where the American grew up, a state with the Confederate flag flying over its capital building.

More words: Charles P, Pierce; Ta-Nehisi Coates; and a Vox collection. Last, but not least, Jon Stewart’s brilliant response here.

Our Prison State

Here’s an arresting statistic, courtesy of Vox.com: from 1811 and 1979, state and federal governments built 711 prisons in the U.S. Between 1980 and 2004, they built 936. Granted, the U.S. population grew quite a bit during that time so it’s natural to assume we may have needed to increase the rate of prison construction. Furthermore, increased population density generally correlates with a disproportionate increase in crime rate. But goodness.

The 1980s were a huge turning point in U.S. crime-fighting strategy. We adopted many different “tough-on-crime” policies at the state and federal level in an effort to solve what was a significant public problem. While they were publicly credited with the dramatic decreases in crime we’ve seen since the mid-90s, sociologists disagree on the actual cause(s). Theories range from the Donohue-Levitt abortion hypothesis to Kevin Drum’s report that lead exposure corrupted so many brains. Whatever the causal mechanisms, one of the consequences of many 80s crime laws is a gigantic prison population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (B.J.S.) in 2011, almost one percent of the nation is behind bars, a total of nearly 2.3 million people. Including those on probation and parole, nearly seven million Americans are caught up in the penal system. This is a massive number that dwarfs those of our international peers. Incarceration has become a one-size-fits-all solution to a very complex problem, despite studies that show it has very little ability to rehabilitate offenders.

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World War I

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Last weekend saw the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo by Serbian nationalists. In response to this act of aggression Austria-Hungary declared war. Russia had long considered Serbia under its protection and was also concerned with the potential for increased Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkans. It mobilized and declared war on Austria-Hungary soon after. Concerned with Russia’s mobilization and required to come to the defense of its ally, Germany declared war on Russia. Germany, believing it impossible to sustain a two-front war and assuming that France would soon join in favor of its ally, Russia, attacked France first, conquering neutral Belgium along the way. This prompted Great Britain to declare war on Germany in an effort to preserve Belgium’s neutrality and contest German aggression.

The end result was a “Great War” between the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire – and the Triple Entente – Great Britain, France, and Russia (the United States later joined on their side). It lasted from 1914 to 1918 and is now known as World War I. Before the assassination all countries in Europe were involved in various alliances and understandings. Many observers felt that this made war inevitable, but they foolishly believed that such a war would be quick and decisive and even necessary to realign power.

The war was worse than anyone could have imagined. A combination of terrible military tactics (think U.S. Civil War maneuvers with 20th century weapons), deadly new technology, and civilian targeting shattered the illusions many held of a prosperous, conflict-free, near-utopian future for Europe.

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