History after the Cold War (final installment in my history series)

Karl Marx insisted that history is shaped by economics and by conflict between classes. He predicted a revolution led by working classes, beginning in those countries where the Industrial Revolution had begun and spreading through the entire world, first creating a socialist economy managed by the government, then followed by a communist economy in which social classes had been abolished and the government had withered and disappeared.

Marx’ predictions did not come true. Highly industrialized countries preserved capitalism by placing some regulations on industry and production, by allowing workers to be represented through labor unions, and by raising the standard of living of all people—working class as well as ruling class—so the desire for revolutionary change was diminished. Marxism was attempted in less industrialized nations, beginning with Russia, spreading to China and other east Asian countries, and also appearing in Cuba, Ethiopia, and other so-called “third world” countries. In the 1980s, China abandoned its socialist economy and returned to capitalism, and in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. As a historian and an economist, Marx was revealed to be a failure.

Ironically, many historians continue to view the world with Marxist ideas and Marxist terms. Great emphasis is still placed upon the distinction between classes. Marxist terms—such as capitalism, socialism, and communism—are still widely used. The end of the Cold War revealed the failure of Marxist thought, yet historians often view the years following the Cold War through the lens of economic struggle and the disparity of wealth.

One key term used to discuss the world since the end of the Cold War is “globalization.” The economies of various countries and civilizations are so intertwined that a change in one part of the world affects the rest of the world as well. The spread of industrialization has linked the nations of the world in such a way that military and political power seem less relevant than they were before and economic success seems to be the most important way of measuring a country’s power and influence in the world. The importance of globalization was illustrated by an adage that was true until 2008: “There has never been a war between two countries that both had McDonald’s restaurants.” (Vladimir Putin’s Russia ended that interesting truth when it invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.)

People worried about globalization point to the homogenization of culture around the world. McDonald’s and Walmart and Disney reach into the lives of people everywhere in the world, and they are the same wherever they are found. Remnants of indigenous cultures sometimes are swallowed up by the spread of this overwhelming culture. Critics of globalization worry about pollution, especially in countries trying to catch up to Europe and North America’s industrial successes. They worry about the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few successful inventors and marketers. They worry about government being replaced by a hidden conspiracy of wealthy plutocrats who decide what will happen in the world without being held accountable for the results of their decisions.

Globalization also brings many benefits to people around the world. Awareness of events elsewhere in the world is higher than ever before. People experience other cultures without leaving their hometowns: they watch movies set in other lands, they hear music representing other cultures, and they eat food from many different cultures. Many jobs rely on the fact that items produced in one place are transported and sold in many other places. Political leaders hesitate to begin wars because they measure the cost of warfare, not only to their own governments, but to the economic exchanges that benefit their systems and provide tax revenue to their governments.

In Europe, the Benelux trade cooperation expanded into the Common Market, which then became the European Economic Community. Similar trade agreements were made in other parts of the world including the North American Free Trade Agreement, which linked the economy of the United States with those of Canada and Mexico. Trade agreements had several benefits: they increased jobs, they provided more products for consumers, they lessened the likelihood of wars, and they offered opportunities for some governments to shape the values of their neighbors regarding environmental concerns, education, working conditions, and other issues.

If the Era of Globalization began around 1990 with the end of the Cold War, then it perhaps came to an end around 2015 when powerful countries began to back away from full-scale globalization. First the voters of the United Kingdom chose to end their country’s participation in the European Economic Community. The next year, voters of the United States elected Donald Trump, a President who vowed to “make America great again” by cutting back on trade agreements and focusing on government policies that favored American workers and investors. Putin’s Russia also seems to have backed away from globalization, as his government has used military force to threaten its neighbors, trying to reestablish Russian hegemony in that part of the world. The attempts of President Biden and other leaders to stifle Russian expansion through economic sanctions strikes many observers as weak and ineffective. Military power and deterrence (having enough military strength to prevent aggressive behavior on the part of other nations) are still important in 2022; history still is not shaped by economic factors alone.

What new Era will follow the Era of Globalization? Answers are not yet available. Older objectives—including nationalism and the drive for freedom—continue to be important to many, perhaps most, of the world’s citizens. Religion also has not disappeared, as historians have been predicting ever since the so-called Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. This final truth allows Christians to say with confidence that the world still belongs to God and that His plans still outweigh all the schemes and efforts of mere mortals, even the most powerful among us. J.

The Cold War, part two

The tensions of the Cold War caused governments in the USA and the USSR—and, often but now always, in their respective allies—to view events in the world entirely through the filters of communism vs. capitalism and totalitarian control vs. freedom. Even internally, the two governments responded to their citizens based upon the rhetoric of Cold War opposition.

Since their governments were totalitarian, the USSR and its allies could be expected to shut down opposition. Citizens were watched, jailed, put on trial, imprisoned, and even executed for speaking against the government and its actions. The Soviet Union sent soldiers and military equipment into Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) to quell opposition and stifle revolutions. The USA warned that it would not tolerate similar interference with the people of Poland when they resisted their government in 1980; still, the Polish armed forces grew suddenly with soldiers who spoke no Polish and wore hastily-made uniforms, using military equipment recently repainted to obscure the identification marks of the USSR.

Communist leanings had been socially acceptable in the United States in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Those same leanings, or a history of such, were no longer tolerated in the 1950s. Government workers, entertainment figures, and other citizens were questioned by Congress about their sympathies toward Communism. Some lives and careers were unfairly maligned by these hearings, but a few traitors were also detected. Government officials (notably, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI) continued to suspect Communist influence in mass movements of the 1960s, including Civil Rights demonstrations and anti-war protests. For the most part, though, freedom prevailed in the United States. Progress was made in the area of human rights, and government officials continued to respond to the feelings and opinions of American citizens. An air of mutual suspicion continued, however, and its effects are felt down to the present.

In Europe, the allies of the USA reduced their military capacities, having endured the horrors of two World Wars in the twentieth century. Sheltered under the umbrella of NATO, they trusted the Americans to stand up to the Soviets and prevent a military take-over of western Europe. Reduction in military spending allowed western European governments to experiment with non-Marxist forms of socialism, with varying results. These governments also sought greater economic power in the world by combining their resources. Beginning with the economic alliance of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (which was named “Benelux”), the alliance gained more members and became the European Common Market. Assets of the Common Market were greatly strengthened when the United Kingdom joined in 1972. These countries were prepared for an even stronger economic union when the Cold War ended and several nations leaving the Warsaw Pact sought a place in the Common Market. This delayed the implementation of Union for a few years.

A major turning point occurred when the government of Egypt seized the Suez Canal in 1956. Britain and France wanted to intervene militarily to keep European control of the Canal, but the United States demurred, seeing an opportunity to gain friends in the so-called “Third World.” As a result, Britain and France became less involved in other events outside of Europe, which is why the Korean War saw an international alliance battle communism in eastern Asia, but the United States was left on its own to battle communism a decade later in Vietnam.

The label “Third World” was coined in the nineteenth century after the colonies of the western hemisphere—the “New World”—became independent. Colonialism continued in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, and those colonies were called the Third World. During the Cold War, Latin America was added to the perceived Third World, as it became a description of those places where agents of the USA and the USSR openly competed for political control. In Latin America, hostility toward the United States had been growing ever since Napoleon III attempted to establish an empire in Mexico. Occasional military intervention by the United States and major economic control of the region prompted resistance. Communist movements existed in nearly every country of Latin America, where most governments still belonged to caudillos, the wealthy (and generally white-skinned) elite. Fidel Castro led one of the few successful overthrows of an American ally in Latin America during the Cold War, and Cold War tensions involving Cuba brought great trauma to the United States. American foreign policy in the Third World assumed that “the enemy of my friend is my enemy.” Therefore, if a dictator professed allegiance to the United States and its values, the United States supported that dictator against any danger of rebellion.

This same principle was followed in Africa. Following the Second World War, European governments granted independence to their African colonies. The same borders drawn by European governments to establish their colonies were used to designate the borders of the new countries, meaning that many tribes were split among more than one country, and many countries contained portions of tribes who had battled one another for generations. Violence in Africa continued beyond the Cold War and still exists today. But during the Cold War, the United States always responded to violence in Africa in light of professed Cold War loyalties. Even in South Africa, the United States supported a government opposed to civil rights while it spoke about civil rights in Communist countries and even offered increased civil rights to minorities in the USA.

Since the end of the Cold War, democratic governments have been given greater opportunity to arise and thrive in Africa. Tribal rivalries remain a problem, and dictators still tend to seize power over African nations. The biggest tension in Africa today, though, is between Christian and Muslim populations. This difference, fueled by tribal differences, remains a source of conflict among Africans in the twenty-first century.

Still to come: the Cold War in Asia. J.

The Cold War

The Cold War was an inevitable confrontation, not merely between two powerful governments, but between two contrasting ways of life. The Russian Revolution, beginning in 1917 during the Great War, produced the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union. Founded upon theories from Karl Marx regarding history and economics, the Soviet movement adopted the label “Communist” to describe its aspirations of a world without government, politics, or religion, a world where people shared their labor and their wealth, “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.” Contrasted to that view was an ideology that developed out of the Enlightenment principles of human rights, equality, and freedom. Epitomized by the United States of America (USA), this ideology advocated economic freedom, democracy, limited government, and human progress as guided by science and education. In contrast to the Marxist view of Communism, the older ideology described itself as “the free world,” but was derided by the oppositions as “Capitalism.”

When Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt met at Yalta in February 1945, they knew that the totalitarian governments in Germany, Italy, and Japan would be overthrown by their alliance. These three leaders agreed that new governments would be set up in conquered and liberated lands by whichever power first arrived in those lands in the course of the war. Because of that agreement, Soviet-style governments were put in place in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Albania, and North Korea. Enlightenment-style governments were established or maintained in West Germany, France, Italy, South Korea, and Japan, as well as Scandinavia, north Africa, west Asia, and the south Pacific. Churchill aptly spoke of an Iron Curtain that divided Europe during the Cold War. The United States helped form a military alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for mutual support among its allies; the Soviet Union responded with the Warsaw Pact for its allies. The United States also provided an economic program, the Marshall Plan, to offer short-term aid to the populations of war-stricken areas combined with long-term help to rebuild their economies, industries, and cities. Warsaw Pact nations refused help from the Marshall Plan, but West Germany and Japan became economic powers through the investment and support of the USA.

Ironically, Berlin became a symbol of the Cold War and of the opposing views of economics, politics, and governmental systems. The city was surrounded by Soviet-sponsored East Germany, but it was divided among the conquering allies (USA, USSR, United Kingdom, and France). The Communists blockaded West Berlin in 1948, hoping to take control of the entire city. Instead, the USA and the United Kingdom risked military confrontation with an airlift of supplies to West Berlin. Eventually, the Communists backed down and again allowed travel by land from West Germany to West Berlin. As Germans continued to escape from the Communist bloc to the free world by means of West Berlin, the Communists decided in 1961 to erect a wall, dividing free Berlin from Communist Berlin. This wall became a symbol, addressed by Presidents of the USA from Kennedy to Reagan. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. It signaled the failure of Communism to win the hearts and minds of people under its control.

Berlin was not the only place where people “voted with their feet” between the two economic/political systems. When Vietnam was divided into a Communist North and non-Communist South in 1954, about 90,000 Vietnamese people chose to move to the North, but more than ten times as many people—at least one million—chose to move to the South. People fled Communist Cuba, both when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and again twenty years later when he gave permission for the discontent to leave Cuba and about 135,000 Cubans left for the United States. By 1991, when the Soviet Union disbanded, clear historical evidence was available to anyone who could see that the totalitarian and socialist policies of the USSR and its allies were both ineffective and unpopular, while the capitalist free world retained the support of its citizens and was also the dream and hope of people locked outside its borders.

The strongest image of the difference was visible in east Asia. Free economies boomed in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. By comparison, Communist economies lagged and struggled in North Korea, Vietnam, and the Peoples’ Republic of China. In the 1980s, even before the Cold War ended, China turned its back upon socialism and reintroduced a capital economy more like that of the free world (although it has maintained a totalitarian government until the present time). Other countries that experimented with socialism in the late twentieth century, whether Marxist socialism or that of other models, also found that the cost of a socialist economy vastly outweighed its expected benefits within a few years of implementation.

Life was not carefree and rosy in the free world during the Cold War. The USA and its allies often supported dictators in other nations merely because they were not Communists. They helped dictators against political opponents with the assumption that the enemy of our friends must be an enemy—and therefore Communist. Trying to contain Communism involved the United States in wars in Korea and Vietnam. Cold War perspectives blinded leaders in the USA to complex historical and political realities in other places—especially western Asia, given the growth of Muslim political self-awareness and opposition to the state of Israel. Even inside the United States freedoms were curtailed because of fear that some citizens might be Communist sympathizers. A more detailed look at the nuances of that time shows mistakes that were made. In spite of those mistakes, the free world prevailed against the Communist world in the Cold War, not because it was richer or stronger, but because its ideas were better. J.

The Victorian Age, part two

The Victorian Age was, in some ways, an idyllic time in human history. Science and technology were providing many benefits, including improving nutrition and health. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was finally being preached in all nations. Courtesy and good manners were routine.  Fine arts were available to more people than ever before, from museums and public libraries to pianos in the average home. The average standard of living was improving. Hope was widespread that, in a few more generations, war and poverty and disease would be abolished around the world.

But the Victorian Age had a dark side. Part of that dark side was racism. Many educated Europeans interpreted Darwin’s theory of evolution, survival of the fittest, to mean that some humans are fitter than others and should rule over others. Even as slavery was abolished, a new wave of colonialism put much of the world under European control. Otto von Bismarck hosted a meeting in Berlin in which representatives of European nations divided Africa among themselves, leaving independence only to the Kingdom of Ethiopia and to Liberia—a country created by the United States to contain former slaves. India, Indochina, and Indonesia were similarly claimed by European powers, while native governments in Siam and China were tolerated so long as they did not interfere with European interests. Indeed, before Victoria became queen, the British had already fought a war in China to maintain their right to sell opium to Chinese people. (Imagine Mexico fighting and winning a war with the United States to guarantee the right of Mexican citizens to sell illegal drugs in the USA!)

The British spoke of the “white man’s burden” to provide “civilization” to the darker-skinned people of the world. While the British were willing to grant self-government to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (all populated and controlled by people of European ancestry), they delayed indefinitely the same sort of freedom to India and to other colonies in the British Empire. In 1857, the British interpreted a series of local protests in various parts of India as wide-scale rebellion, and the British used military might to increase their control of southern Asia. In the United States, jobs were provided for freed slaves and for immigrants from Asia and Europe, but every new wave of workers was viewed with suspicion and dread. American cities were divided into neighborhoods of various cultures—Irish, German, Italian, Swedish, Polish, eastern European, Chinese, black, Jewish—and members of each culture stuck to their own kind.

Industrialization created problems of pollution and of an impoverished working class. In theory, capitalism provided relief by promising that the best workers would receive the highest wages and best working conditions, forcing employers to treat their workers well. Government regulations also helped to prevent abuse in the workplace. Among the most important regulations was recognition of labor unions—groups of workers united to negotiate wages and working conditions with their employers. Meanwhile, voting rights were granted to a larger segment of society, giving common workers power to elect government officials who would protect their rights and provide relief to their grievances.

During the Victorian Age, many intellectuals anticipated further changes in society that would eliminate the problems of industrialization. These changes were all called “socialism,” although they were not all the same. Some socialists created small communities where people who worked together also profited together, sharing the benefits of their labor and supporting their neighbors in the community. In some cases, these communities became the property of the business owners, who also ran the company store, the schools, the municipal government, and even the churches. Other socialists envisioned new communities in which families would each have a private apartment for sleeping but would eat together in cafeterias and share public transportation between their dwellings and their workplaces or schools. One group, called the Fabian Society, predicted and encouraged small and gradual changes aimed at a new socialist world. Others, including Karl Marx, predicted and encouraged sudden violent changes in which workers rebelled against business owners and their partners, the government leaders and church workers. The workers would take control of society, have the government run businesses for a while (socialism), and then allow the government to wither and die while people shared the benefits of their work—“from each according to his ability, and to each according to his need.”

Japan began the Victorian Age as a nation closed to the world, carefully limiting the number of people who could enter Japan from other countries or who could leave Japan to visit other countries. This practice ended when an American gunship threatened violence unless Japan would sign a “Treaty of Friendship.” This embarrassment overturned the Japanese government, and the new leaders toured Europe and North America to see what was working in the rest of the world. They brought modern ideas back to Japan—modern schools, modern military training and equipment, modern government with elected officials but also a centralized executive leader, and the best modern economic system (which was capitalism). The government built factories but quickly sold them to Japanese corporations. They improved the status of Japan so quickly that, by the beginning of the twentieth century, Japan was able to overcome China and even Russia in military confrontations.

Japan joined the party late, but the nation still benefited from the good things the Victorian Age offered. In the coming century, Japan would also experience some struggles from the dark side of the Victorian Age, a dark side that would first be felt in Europe. J.

The Industrial Revolution, part two

The Industrial Revolution did not happen overnight. Everywhere it occurred, it was a gradual process. Ways were developed to manufacture more and more items that people needed or wanted. High-quality steel and steam power were applied to more and more uses. Transportation radically changed with the introduction of railroads and steam-powered boats. Later would come the horseless carriage, or automobile, first powered by an electric battery, but soon improved with gasoline engines. By the twentieth century, air travel also appeared.

Technology led to more technology, and also to scientific discoveries, and then new scientific discoveries offered new technology. Electricity was understood and harnessed for technology. Glass lenses, already invented in the late Middle Ages, were combined into telescopes—Galileo was one of the first to aim a telescope at the sky rather than at distant features on earth—and then into microscopes. Chemical research and development multiplied the rate of innovation. Cheaper production of paper—made from wood pulp rather than from cotton rags—opened a new world of books, magazines, and newspapers. Before long, technology offered instant communication and the preservation of sounds and images, all of which would have seemed magical to people who lived only a short time earlier.

Every historic change brings both gains and losses. Access to new forms of material wealth and comfort enticed many people away from the timeless promises of religion and of the Church. Meanwhile, urban poverty also multiplied as more families left agriculture and crowded into the cities. Factory owners hired women and children; their smaller hands and bodies suited the new machinery, and they were less likely than men to demand better working conditions and higher pay. Unemployed men sometimes turned to crime or to alcoholism. Prisons were filled with petty criminals and with men whose only crime was debts they could not repay. Frequently their wives and children joined them in the prisons because they had nowhere else to live. Meanwhile, the crowded conditions of the cities and the output of the factories caused pollution of the air, the water, and the land.

In theory, the capitalist laws of supply and demand would fix these problems. Factory owners, seeking to maximize their profits, would compete with each other for the better workers, offering higher wages. Competition for more customers would result, not only in lower prices, but in higher-quality products. In theory, governments would remain uninvolved in the economy—“laissez-faire,” meaning “leave it alone,” was the capitalist message to governments. But even Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations acknowledged a need for some government regulation. Governments exist to protect citizens from dangers abroad and dangers at home. Governments do more than arrest and punish thieves and murderers. They inspect factories and their products, ensuring safety for workers and for customers. They respond to pollution, treating sewage and gathering garbage and requiring respect for the environment. Governments even created child labor laws, sending the children to school instead of the factories. An image was created of the Victorian family—the father earning wages to support the family, the women staying home to care for the house and the children, and the children having time to play and lessons to learn. Many families were unable to achieve this dream, but the ideal existed all the same.

Christians in Europe resisted the problems of industrialization. Christians denounced the emptiness of life with more wealth and comforts but no spiritual meaning or significance. They also reached out to their neighbors most in need. Often the romantic arm of the Church—the Pietists and Methodists and others of that ilk—were most active in resisting the darkness. Members were urged to turn from petty crime and from addictions to alcohol, tobacco, opium, and other dangers. Doing so, they were also equipped to reach out to the poor, the hopeless, and the victims of addiction. Sunday Schools met the needs of children still employed six days a week in the factories. Food and shelter and medical care was offered to families in need. Even though more lives reflected the novels of Charles Dickens than those of Jane Austen, Christianity offered spiritual hope and practical help to many who otherwise were victims of the dark side of industrialization.

The same Christianity also defended the Enlightenment principle that all people are created equal, with human rights to be respected and protected. Abolition of slavery followed industrialization as it moved from the United Kingdom to other European nations and to parts of the world colonized by European nations. At times, the freed slaves and their descendants were as badly oppressed in a wage-earning economy as they had been under slavery. Still, the message of equal rights and equal opportunity sent educators and social rights activists to the people with the greatest needs—and those who sent them were generally leaders of the Church.

For a while, the proposals of Enlightenment thinkers remained interesting theories. European governments grew increasingly powerful, centered around royal leaders such as Louis XIV of France and Peter the Great of Russia. Warfare over national policy was just as destructive as warfare over Christian doctrine had been. Indeed, exploration and colonization meant that European wars had now become World Wars, even without Roman numerals to identify them. The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748), and the Seven Years War (1756-1763) all involved many European governments, their armies, their navies, and their possessions overseas. King Charles of Sweden set a pattern later to be followed by Napoleon and Hitler when, in 1708 he invaded Russia, eventually destroying an empire (his own). But Enlightenment theories and industrialization would soon lead to a new kind of conflict, revolutions which would not be industrial or scientific, but which would be political, economic, and world-changing. J.

The Industrial Revolution, part one

One thousand years ago, China led the world in research and technology. The wheelbarrow was invented in China. So was the water wheel. The magnetic compass was a Chinese invention. The printing press also came from China. Gradually, this technology traveled along the Silk Roads, adding to the resources of other nations and cultures. The printing press was adapted in Europe just in time to help spread Martin Luther’s contributions to the Reformation of the Church.

Chinese chemists discovered gunpowder. They recognized the military potential of this discovery, but they did not develop it as thoroughly as other cultures. The Mongol Empire used cannons and bombs based on Chinese inventions. The Ottomans effectively used the same weapons against the Byzantine Empire. Firearms began to be used by Europeans during the Hundred Years War between England and France. Eventually, European refinements of this technology would be effectively used in their exploration and conquest of much of the world, even including China.

Another chemical innovation in China may be more important to history than gunpowder. Around a thousand years ago, Chinese chemists developed a new recipe for steel. Iron technology began among the Hittites (living in what is now called Turkey) about three thousand years ago. Knowledge of iron working gradually spread, or was independently discovered, throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. Pure iron is a powder, useless for any kind of tool or craft. But pure iron does not occur naturally; it is contained in ores, which are reduced by heat. When the oxygen is released from iron ore and a little carbon is added, the resulting alloy makes a strong metal substance called cast iron. Because cast iron cannot be melted by a wood-burning fire, skillets and kettles are made from cast iron. A hotter fire, produced by blowing air into the blaze, melts iron to make it shapable into tools such as skillets and kettles, plows, knives and swords, horseshoes, and many other items. Because iron was always smelted in wood-burning fires, carbon was accidently added to the iron from its first discovery. Better refinement of iron only happened after the metal was being used for many generations.

The new Chinese recipe for steel controlled the amount of carbon added to the iron. Such control was managed more easily by using coal instead of wood as a carbon source. This knowledge, like other Chinese technology, gradually spread along the Silk Roads until it reached the British Isles, where—as was the case with the printing press—history was ready for a new direction made possible by this new knowledge.

In China, iron ore deposits were not near coal deposits, and neither was near major rivers (which were useful for both transportation and for generating power). In the United Kingdom, iron and coal were found near each other and near rivers. Moreover, the new steel recipe arrived in western Europe at a time that the population was recovering from its losses due to the Black Death. Population growth was assisted by new food sources coming from the western hemisphere, such as maize (corn) and potatoes. On top of that, many landowners were shifting agriculture from food crops to wool production, which required grazing land for sheep. The Enclosure movement, as landowners fenced their land for grazing, sent peasants out of the country and into the city. This urban migration meant that workers would be available to operate the new technology that defined the Industrial Revolution.

The other innovation (besides better steel) was turning wheels with steam power rather than river power. Steam was produced by heating water—wood was useful fuel for that process, but coal was even more efficient. Even today, burning fossil fuels provides far greater energy at a lower cost than wind power, water power, or solar power. Even electrical devices, from light bulbs to cars, draw their power from generators that burn fossil fuels. (In the United States, in the year 2020, sixty percent of the electricity generated came from burning fossil fuels; twenty percent from nuclear reactors, and twenty percent from wind and water and other resources.) Burning coal, natural gas, and petroleum was as important to the Industrial Revolution as was steel, as important as the growing population of available workers, who also were available customers for the products being made and sold.

The United Kingdom was also prime for creating an Industrial Revolution because of the European understanding of human rights and of capitalism. A capitalistic economy had started to be developed by the guilds and leagues of the Middle Ages. This development was hastened by banking practices in Italy, then in other European lands, during the Renaissance. Also the principles of capitalism would not be enunciated until Adam Smith published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776, his ideas were popular because they were already firmly entrenched in the practices of England, Scotland, and the Netherlands.

When Spain and Portugal sent explorers, colonists, and trade missions across the ocean, their governments financed these missions and profited directly from their results. Spain, for example, claimed twenty percent of the silver mined in their western hemisphere colonies. But England and other countries chose only to task profits made from exploration and trade. The governments did not invest in these activities, not profiting directly from them and not risking loss of money in them. Instead, wealthy individuals sponsored colonies and trade missions. Often several investors would combine resources to share the risk and the profit, thus creating the corporation. This same business model was used when raw materials arrived at the European ports, ready to be converted into products that customers wanted to buy.

Cotton was planted, grown, and harvested overseas, then shipped to the Old World. This cotton had to be spun into thread, woven into cloth, chemically treated to make the cloth fuller, and then cut into pieces that were sewn into garments. At first, the capitalist investors and corporations employed the oddly-named “putting-out system.” The cotton was given to one person or family to spin into thread; the thread was given to another person or family to weave; the cloth was given to a third person or family to be treated; the treated cloth was given to a fourth person or family to be tailored. Spinners and Weavers and Fullers and Tailors were all paid by the job for their work (and many families carry on these names, even as later generations have moved on to other kinds of work).

Steel production, steam power, and some clever inventors combined to produce machines that could do more work more rapidly than individuals and families working in their homes. The putting-out system was replaced by factories. Such factories and their machinery were expensive to build, but the investment produced a large profit. Therefore, only wealthy capitalists and corporations could build factories. Once they did so, they put the smaller producers out of business. Now workers reported to the factories and were paid an hourly rate for running the machines. Cotton garments were rapidly produced, providing affordable clothing for Europeans and even for the colonists serving the system overseas.

The United Kingdom tried to maintain a monopoly on the technology of the Industrial Revolution, but ideas were bought or stolen, and soon other European nations were also participating in the Revolution. This major economic change made it possible for societies to experiment with some of the other ideas that had sprung from the Enlightenment. These ideas, accompanied by the success of industry under capitalism, would eventually change the world. J.

Entering the modern world

Repugnance over the violent wars of the Reformation helped to usher in the modern era. But modern thought and activity would not have been possible without a rich inheritance bestowed by the high and late Middle Ages, the age of European exploration, the Renaissance, and the Reformation.

Chinese technology had traveled west along the Silk Roads until it sparked revolutionary change in Europe. The wheelbarrow, the water wheel, and the magnetic compass all came from China. So did gunpowder. So did printing. Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing press in Europe, but he merely adapted technology already in use. Even so, the development of printing arguably allowed Martin Luther’s ideas to be transmitted more easily than those of Waldo, Wycliffe, and Huss, making Luther the hero of the Reformation.

Knowledge and wealth flowed into Europe from new trade routes along the coast of Africa and then to Asia, as well as into the Western Hemisphere. Capitalism had already developed from the medieval guilds and leagues and from Renaissance bankers, but trade and colonization opened new avenues of capital investment and profit. Scientific thought began with medieval philosophers. Galileo and Newton could not have been heroes of the early Modern Era without Nicholas of Cusa, Roger Bacon, and Nicholas Copernicus. These ingredients simmered together during the crisis years of the Reformation, yielding a stew of new thoughts and ideas that can only be described as modern.

Modern thought is characterized by confidence in the superiority of reason, belief in the objective assessment of data, expectation of a comprehensive explanation of whatever is being examined, and certainty of inevitable progress. All four of these have been challenged by post-modern thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; post-modern thinkers question reason, doubt that any delivery of information is untainted by subjective opinions, treat most explanations as only partial views of reality, and assess both gains and losses with every change. Modern thinkers credit science and education with the ability to improve the world and solve its problems; post-modern thinkers readily challenge science and education without assuming that they are undoubtedly right and their results will be completely beneficial.

Early modern thinkers called their time the Enlightenment. Historians reluctant to bestow such a value-laden label on those years are shifting to the term Baroque. Already used to describe music from that time (Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and so on) and painting from that time (Rembrandt and Rubens, among others), the term Baroque provides a value-free description of the time period that begins with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and continues to the American Revolution and French Revolution of the late eighteenth century.

The first important Baroque philosopher was Rene Descartes (1596-1650). To encounter truth, Descartes began by doubting everything. He asked if he could be certain of anything, and proved to be certain of one thing—that someone, by doubting, was thinking. “I think, therefore I exist,” he concluded. But information was reaching his thinking mind; something else must exist outside of his mind. That something must have a source, a First Cause, a God who made its existence possible. Descartes insisted that any God who made the flow of information from an outside world possible must be good; he said it was unthinkable that an evil God would be playing tricks on his perception. (The Matrix movies had not yet been filmed.) Therefore, he could rely on his senses and learn about the world around him. Starting from himself and moving on to God, Descartes found himself living in a reasonable world.

Baroque philosophers generally conceded the existence of God, but they were careful not to define God. In fact, they insisted upon each individual’s right to encounter God and understand God in his or her own way. Reformation warfare soured them upon government-supported religion. As Luther had already been willing to separate Church and State, so the Baroque philosophers wanted the Church and the State to leave each other alone.

Their undefined God is often called the Deist God. Deists believe in a God who created the world and set all its rules; they do not acknowledge a God who interferes with the world and breaks his own rules. Scientists like Newton can study the world and learn the rules of its Creator. Nature always follows the rules of the Creator. His ethical or moral rules are just as important, and people should follow those rules. Among those rules, as listed by John Locke, are human rights: the right to life, to liberty, and to property. Governments exist to protect those rights. Governments cannot bestow them, and governments cannot remove them without good cause. Other Baroque philosophers wrote about a Social Contract in which some rights are surrendered to the government for the sake of society as a whole. But Baroque philosophers, for the most part, emphasized the need to limit governments, to allow them as little power as is necessary. The human individual matters more; governments should not be allowed to stifle the freedom of individual people.

Of course Baroque governments did not fall into line behind Baroque philosophers. The kings and queens of Europe were becoming more powerful than ever before. New wealth from the rest of the world and new technology made it possible to control more people and to battle more enemies. War did not cease with the Peace of Westphalia and the halt to religious wars. Nations now went to war against nations for purely political, economic, and nationalistic reasons. Although they did not receive Roman numerals, the first world wars were fought in this era. Britain and France and Spain and Prussia and Austria and Russia wrestled for dominance on the land and on the sea. English pirates sank Spanish ships and were rewarded by the crown. Louis XIV spent half the national treasury of France on luxury for himself (such as the palace of Versailles) and spent the other half at war with his neighbors. Enlightenment ideas were merely ideas at first; only later would they be tested in new forms of government, first in North America, and then, finally, in Europe.

Even among philosophers and scientists and artists, modern thought and modern methods were not universal across the culture. But the two sides of modern thought will require a separate post. J.

The Feudal (not futile) Era

Charlemagne’s empire crystalized an economic, social, and political system called feudalism. This system flowed from the mixture of Roman and Germanic ways of life as channeled by Christian beliefs and practices. Roman society favored a landed estate, owned by the aristocracy and worked by slaves. Christian teachings did not prohibit slavery—both Old and New Testament regulated slavery rather than forbidding it, but the New Testament also stresses the brotherhood and equality of all Christians under the Lord Christ and in His Church. Under Germanic leaders, the working class shifted from slaves to serfs. Serfs, unlike slaves, were not property to be bought and sold. They belonged to the land and could not be removed from the land; when the land changed hands, owners moved but serfs remained. The genius of feudalism was that mutual obligations and services existed at every level of society. Like a lease between renter and landlord today, the agreement between serfs and lords placed each party under obligation to the other. Serfs tended the land, produced a crop for the lords, and had other duties on the estate. Lords protected their serfs, acknowledged their rights, and saw that their basic needs were met. Abuses happened in feudalism, as was the case with slaves and masters and is the case with employers and workers today. But feudalism was right for Europe’s Middle Ages (and similar systems existed in India, China, and especially Japan around the same time).

Lords owned land and directed the serfs who lived on the land. But lords answered to higher officials—to counts and dukes and earls and other nobility. Those counts and dukes and earls answered to kings. The kings answered to an emperor. The emperor answered to God—sometimes directly and sometimes through Church officials (and that balance could be contentious at times). Each of these relationships involved promises of loyalty and protection, and the feudal bonds could be broken if promises were not kept. Many of the landowners—lords, counts, dukes, and earls—were warriors, or knights, who served their kings and their emperor. They needed wealth to be knights—to have armor and weapons and a horse, as well as means to maintain them and training to use them properly. They might train some of their serfs as infantry, but warfare relied upon the cavalry of knights, and those knights were expected to follow the rules of warfare and of society according to the code of chivalry.

Feudalism helped to maintain a stable society, but it also opened the door to a passage toward our modern economy. Not all peasants were serfs who worked the land on the lords’ estates. Some serfs on the estates, and some peasants not tied to the land, excelled in crafts that were not agricultural. Some were builders in stone or in wood. Some were smiths, working with metals. Some made clothing. Sheep were raised for their wool, so the fabric industry needed shepherds, shearers, spinners, weavers, fullers, dyers, and tailors. Likewise, cattle were raised for milk, for farm labor, for meat, and for leather. Tanners and shoemakers came from the peasantry. (Consider how many of these crafts became last names that still are used today.) Some serfs were released from their manorial duties and became free peasants. Some ran away from the estate. Some already lived in free cities. Together, they formed a class of workers who were able to unite into guilds that oversaw their crafts and protected their rights as workers.

A city might have three shoemaking shops, each owned and operated by a craftsman and his family. The three shops did not compete for customers; instead, the master shoemakers met frequently as a guild to set prices for shoes and to discuss their work. If a fourth shoemaker moved to town, he could not open a shop without joining the guild and receiving its permission to work in the city. Likewise, each master shoemaker had assistants who were learning to make shoes—perhaps his own sons, perhaps apprentices from other families. These assistants might hope to open their own shop one day, or they might hope to take the place of their master when he died; but they could do neither without permission from the guild. Every craft had its own guild. The lords, the counts and dukes and earls, the kings, even the emperor and the Church leaders could not interfere with the guilds. They made their own rules and governed their own affairs. The seeds of capitalism were already sprouting during the Middle Ages within the guilds.

Merchants had their guilds as well. They bought items in one city and sold them in another; they also purchased and sold items that had traveled the silk roads from far-away lands. Medieval merchants were also proto-capitalists as they combined forces to protect their trade and to resist interference from governments and the Church. One of the most powerful merchant guilds, the Hanseatic League, operated in northern Europe at the height of the Middle Ages. Travel between cities was both protected and financed by merchants in the various cities of the League. Even the emperor and the archbishops of the Church had no power to tell the members of the Hanseatic League what to do with their money, their purchases, and their sales.

Rudimentary banking existed in ancient empires, including Rome, but most people preferred barter and personal trade to government currency. Money from the government was used mostly to pay taxes, not as exchange between citizens. Lending institutions were problematic, because the Bible prohibits usury—lending money or items of value for repayment with interest assessed on the loan. Instead of usury, Christians were expected to care for one another, to lend to the needy without expecting (or demanding) repayment, to pay a worker timely wages and to prefer heavenly treasure over earthly wealth. One loophole used during the Middle Ages was for Christians to lend to Jews and for Jews to lend to Christians. They could charge interest on their loans, since they were not family under the same religion. Since Jews were barred from owning land in most European countries, banking was one of the few businesses open to them. (Jews have no natural gifts for banking or desire to handle money; Christian rulers essentially forced them into the banking business.) By the High Middle Ages, usury was redefined from “lending at interest” to “lending at excessive interest.” By that definition, Christians were able to finance one another’s ventures. Some families, such as the Fuggers, became very wealthy under this system. Historians who claim that modern banking was invented in Italy during the Renaissance overlook the development of capitalistic financial practices in Europe long before the Italian banks were established in the 1400s.

These times were not Dark Ages in Europe. They were times of development and improvement, times which were leading Europeans toward the modern era. Science, education, and theology were also taking strides at this same time, as I will show in a future post. J.

The history of Islam: part three

My first college roommate once asked me, “Do you know why we Arabs hate you Americans?”

I responded, “No, Mohamed, please tell me why you Arabs hate us Americans.”

“After World War II,” he informed me, “you helped rebuild your friends, Britain and France, and that made sense. You also helped rebuild your enemies, Germany and Japan, and that was strange. You helped everyone else in the world—you even helped the Jews get their own country—but you did nothing for us. That’s why we hate you today.”

It seems strange that a young man, born several years after the war ended and the rebuilding was accomplished, should carry a national grudge to the point of hatred. It also seems strange that, in spite of that hatred, he would travel to the United States to take classes in our schools. But Mohamed’s view of the United States reflects a reality found across the Muslim world over the past seventy years. (Bear in mind that, while most Arabs are Muslims, most Muslims are not Arabs. Yet from Indonesia to Nigeria, the feelings expressed by my roommate are common.) For a time, the United States had become a world power, matched only by the Soviet Union. But Muslims had exercised political power in the world in the past, and they expect to rise to that level again.

Five hundred years ago, many Muslims lived in powerful Old World empires ruled by Muslims. The Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Moguls each were stronger and more advanced than any European government. Muslims could take credit for scientific and medical advances, for philosophical inquiries, for outstanding artistic accomplishments, and for revolutionary mathematics (such as algebra). But new things were happening in Europe: exploration of the world’s oceans bringing discovery of previously unknown lands, reformation of the Christian Church, a Scientific Revolution, an Industrial Revolution, and a philosophy that called itself the Enlightenment. On the political front, Enlightenment philosophy declared that all human beings are equal and that we all have rights; that government should be limited in power and should protect those rights; that people should have freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly; and that education provides a way to develop those freedoms and to establish that equality. Coupled with an economic movement called Capitalism, this philosophy was developed in western Europe, was tried in the thirteen United States of North America, and was eventually established in Europe and was transported around the world.

 As the Muslim empires lost political power, some leaders tried to imitate European ways, hoping to catch up to Europe’s scientific and industrial advances and to maintain their place on the world stage. Other Muslims said that Enlightenment philosophy was opposed to Shariah and the Qur’an; they would accept western science and technology, but not western ideas about freedom and equality. By the end of the first World War, the Muslim empires had collapsed. European governments—especially Britain and France—held political power over north Africa and west Asia. But, following the second World War, Britain and France began to divest themselves of their colonies. They recognized national governments in Africa and Asia, withdrawing their armed forces and seeking trade with their former colonies. Where Old World empires once had prevailed, now Third World nations were on the board, eyed by the powers of the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States offered freedom, democracy, and the benefits of capitalism. The Soviet Union offered stability, socialism, and a dream of world-wide Communism. Both sides in the Cold War looked at the Third World as a battleground for their ideas. Both sides assumed that “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” and that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If a government favored one side in the Cold War, opponents of that government were assumed to be fighting for the other side. The possibility of a third side that hated both Americans and Soviets seems to have escaped both Americans and Soviets during their conduct of the Cold War.

Eventually, the United States and its allies won the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed. China remained under the control of the Communist Party, but it turned away from socialism and embraced capitalism. Those few countries that cling to soviet-style socialism (North Korea and Cuba) are trapped in economic doldrums; those that embraced freedom and capitalism most fervently (such as Germany and Japan) became economic powerhouses.

Meanwhile, the Muslim world remains skeptical about the value of freedom and democracy. Most are governed by a small elite. While they learned to play the economic game of capitalism, teasing industry’s thirst for oil to their enrichment, Muslim governments continued to try to balance Shariah against Enlightenment values of freedom, equality, and education for all people. Well-to-do Muslim families in Asia and Africa have satellite dishes; they watch American television. They do not tune in to religious broadcasting or to documentaries on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. No, they watch our entertainment shows. They have learned about life in the United States from Seinfeld and Friends, from Jersey Shore and the Kardashians. Given those examples, one can easily see why Muslims might question the benefits of freedom, democracy, and education for all people.

All Muslims are not the same. Many appreciate the United States and value what we are when we are at our best. Most do not wish harm upon us, so long as we leave them alone. But twenty years ago, a group of Muslim terrorists attacked the United States. They did not target churches; they worked to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They showed us what they reject about us: our obsession with worldly wealth and power, our display of human beings at their worst rather than at their best.

Before we hope to be a light to the world, a shining city on a hill, the United States must clean up its own act. We must learn to use freedom responsibly, to use education in a way that shapes better people, to devote our resources for meaningful purposes. We can do better than we have done. When we live up to our own standards of truth and justice and the American way, then we will be recognized as people who have something worth sharing. J.

A historian looks at Critical Race Theory

President Bill Clinton said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

Critical Race Theory (CRT) focuses on things wrong with America, both real and imagined, but seeks no cure in things right with America. Instead of a cure, CRT aims to tear down America and to replace it with a new and different America.

Rejecting CRT does not include ignoring all that has been wrong in the history of the United States. The nations that lived here more than five hundred years ago were harmed and cheated by European settlers and by the U.S. government. The slave trade brought millions of Africans, against their will, into the western hemisphere, treating them as property rather than as human beings. Immigrants have frequently been viewed with suspicion and forced to struggle to earn a place in the United States—including Irish and Italian and Polish and Russian immigrants as well as Jewish and Chinese and Hispanic immigrants. Civil rights were reluctantly granted to American citizens in the second half of the twentieth century, often against the will and the efforts of politicians and others in power, whether Republicans or Democrats or third-party citizens. All these facts cannot be ignored; they are part of our history. But these ills can be cured with what is right with America. What is right with America needs to be taught as clearly as all that is wrong with America.

CRT ignores the efforts of mainstream Americans to work decently with tribal peoples and to treat them properly. CRT ignores the efforts of mainstream Americans to end slavery and to provide equal opportunity to former slaves and to their children and grandchildren. CRT ignores the work of mainstream Americans to welcome immigrants, to embrace them into our common culture, and also to preserve and celebrate the contributions of every culture to the greatness of the United States of America. CRT pretends that mainstream America has always resisted civil rights for its minority citizens, that mainstream America did not outvote the leaders who opposed civil rights, replacing them democratically with leaders willing to support and enforce civil rights.

CRT suggests that racism and discrimination is systemic in the United States. Inasmuch as all people fall short of the glory of God and sin, selfish pride and hatred can be called systemic. But the United States has done more than most countries in the world to overcome selfish pride and hatred and to protect and defend the rights of all people. CRT suggests that some people are born into privilege and others are born into poverty and weakness, as if nothing can be done or is done to share privilege with the unfortunate. But the United States has done more than most countries in the world to relieve poverty, to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, to provide healing for the sick, to educate all citizens, and to open job opportunities and leadership opportunities to those who were born among minority groups or who came legally to this country from other parts of the world.

CRT acts as though wealth and power are limited, as if the only way to help the poor is to take more money from the rich, as if they only way for minorities to gain power is for them to take power away from the majority. America has never functioned that way. Capitalists know that labor adds value to the world. A raw diamond is shaped by a jeweler. The finished product is smaller, but it is more valuable because of the knowledge and effort of the jeweler. In the same way, value increases through businesses and corporations that hire and train workers, providing goods and services to citizens and abroad, improving the world for all people—not merely for the few rich business leaders and investors. Punishing the leaders and investors for their success does not help the poor; punishing those with wealth for their success encourages them not to succeed, not to provide jobs and training and goods and services that enrich the lives of many. So also, American government provides opportunity for all citizens. The very fact that some members of Congress are permitted to speak about their scorn for America, for capitalism, and for our current system of government reveals that America flourishes with freedom and that America provides opportunity for all people.

CRT has existed for years in academic circles, where it belongs. College students and history professors need to be acquainted with CRT as they need to be acquainted with the ideas of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other twentieth-century leaders whose bankrupt theories about history and economics have already been discredited by history. CRT can be a useful tool in the toolbox of any historian, but it must not be the only tool in the toolbox, nor the most-used tool or the first tool used. Some awareness of CRT might be helpful to junior and senior high history teachers as they prepare their lessons. But CRT is not an effective or useful tool for elementary students or high school students. Its procedures are faulty, and its findings are inadequate. Banning CRT from all institutes of learning would be inappropriate, unnecessary, and unAmerican. But asking school boards to ban CRT from elementary and high school classrooms is appropriate and American. Students need to know what is right with America so that, as they are also shown what is wrong with America, they can learn about the cure along with the ailment.

On this, reasonable people should be able to agree. J.